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Showing posts from December, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: just another year in the writing life

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I have no rowdy plans for New Year’s Eve. I'll be home when the ball drops, snuggled in the arms of my One Sure Thing, drinking homemade cranberry wine, texting my kids, turning in early, taking a moment to reflect on the year gone by: what’s worth keeping, what’s not worth another slice of my stomach lining, what I gained, what I lost, what I learned.

The Good
On the publishing front, The Secret Sisters came out in trade paper this spring with Target boosting the healthy sell-in by 7K copies. Woo hoo! In Feb, I finished working my memoir guru mojo for the fabulous Rue McClanahan. My First Five Husbands…and the Ones Who Got Awaycame out in April, and I was thrilled to see it climb the NYT list. Rue is hilarious, a passionate artist with an astonishingly generous spirit. She richly deserved this success.

I signed with a new literary agent – an extremely bright and pleasant young woman, who gives fantastic editorial notes and has a fresh, unjaded outlook on the industry. I’m optimisti…

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Jabberwocky

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Home in Houston but still on holiday, enjoying my favorite things.


Jabberwocky
by Lewis Carroll

’T WAS brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

’T was brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Donne's Valediction

A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning
by John Donne


AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go;
While some of their sad friends do say,
Now his breath goes, and some say, No;

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
’Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidations of the spheres,
Though greater far, are innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love,
Whose soul is sense, cannot admit
Absence; for that it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so far refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Careless, eyes, lips and hands to miss,

—Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth if…

How Some Folks Would Do

"A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality. I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,” and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there - showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything."
-- Flannery O'Connor

Ms. O'Connor and her neighbor make a great point, don't they? A truly wonderful story isn't so much about cleverly-constructed subtext, allusion, or the "Emperor's New Prose." It's about characters so real and recognizable their every action rings true, characters that help us draw parallels from our own lives and recognize the buried truths there.

I thought of these words after watching No Country for Old Men late last night. Fabulous movie (based on Cormac McCarthy's much-lauded nov…

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Vacation is wearing on me. Not working. Not going to the gym. Can't go without a bra in front of the young folks. Only took five days off, but seems like...

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Wordsworth's beauteous evening

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"It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free"
by William Wordsworth


It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder--everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

Sucking It Up… And Un-Sucking It Up

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Didn't feel much like working today after getting up at five and spending four hours on the road. But after all the dawdling I could stand, it was time to finally suck it up and get started with the task of un-sucking up the now-completed (Hallelujah!) draft of my next release.

I've forgotten how much I enjoy this part. Cleaning up odds and ends that detract from the story, sharpening its focus, clarifying motivations, strengthening characters... every little nip and tuck is a step toward a more elegant, more streamlined, more successful story and drawing someone (a mysterious being I call IRA, short for the Imaginary Reader Anomaly) more deeply into my elaborate daydream. This is the part where storytelling really comes together for me; I can see the whole picture and work with it instead of micromanaging one component at a time.

I'll fiddle with the story until I can't see it any longer. At that point, I'll solicit opinions from two or three trusted, excellent rea…

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Mercutio on Queen Mab

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"It Girl" Clara Bow as evil fairy? Works for me.



Mercutio: O! then, I see, Queen Mab hath been with you.
Benvolio: Queen Mab! What’s she?
Mercutio: She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep:
Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs;
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
The traces, of the smallest spider’s web;
The collars, of the moonshine’s watery beams;
Her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;
Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coach-makers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on curtsies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;

Merry Christmas!

Linus and King James explain it all

Gare Bear and I are on our way to spend Christmas in Florida, stopping at Starbucks to load up with last minute stocking stuffers and power up with that essential latte. Using my last gasp of power (left my lap top cord at the hotel last night -- bah humbug) to post a few Favorite Things to run this week while Colleen and I kick back and pay a little attention to the home folk.

Merry Christmas to all. God bless us everyone. And if we ever forget that the simplest artistic choice is invariably the most powerful, click below.

If You Think My Nose Looks Bad, You Should See the Grindstone!

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It's rougher than an old cob, full of inconsistencies waiting to be ironed out, and probably reeks with typos, but my draft (AKA the neverending story) now has a beginning, a middle, and praise the muse, an end.

That's right, Santa came early and we have a draft, folks. The next few weeks will be dedicated to sanding the rough off of this baby and getting it as smooth as I (and my crack team of brilliant critique partners) can make it.

Merry Christmas (or insert your own holiday). I'm stepping away from the keyboard for a couple of days to chill.

Deadlines and the Law of Distraction

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I'm currently on a deadline that under the best of circumstances would prove a challenge. But the fact is, it's not the best of circumstances. I've been putting in the sweat equity all right, but the universe keeps lobbing hand grenades into my foxhole, each one more distracting than the next. Illness (bang!), son's birthday (boom!), Christmas (pow!)... then, most recently, a loved one's serious illness (cue mushroom cloud!)

But that's the way it is when you're a writer. Life doesn't stop, and disaster's no respecter of the deadline or art either. I meet so many wanna-be authors who tell me they're get serious as soon as _____ settles down in their lives. But I'm here to tell you, the ________'s just there to teach you how to develop the focus to write through anything. If it teaches you instead to make excuses, then you'll never make it in the trenches. Because the hand grenades will just keep raining down; they don't buy into th…

I feel a draft...and it's rough.

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Yesterday, after a blazin', bangin', bitchin' four months of work and rework, I sent my agent the finished first draft of my novel in progress. It tuly terrified me to drag this baby bird from the nest -- hairless, squirming, no more able to fly than a baby hamster -- and flop it out on the table.

Ten minutes later, I felt compelled to follow up with a reminder from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird:
Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third, drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll…

Cracking the Whip... on Myself

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Wrote a ton yesterday. Completed the book's climax, which was a blast to write. Then I got in a hurry and tried to whip out the final chapter.

It's bad. So rushed and genuinely crap-tacular that I'm deleting the thing completely and praying it will never be resurrected from its component electrons and brought back to the light.

I always do this. I get so eager to reach the most blessed words in the English language (The End) that I spew out complete dreck in an attempt to get there. The problem is, this book, its characters, and its readers deserve better.

So it's back to the salt mines until I get it right.

Wish me luck.

Ready, Aim... Climax!

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Evvvvverybody loves a great climax... Even the literary kind. It's the pinnacle, the culmination of all the tricky foreplay, rising tension, and every other factor that goes into drawing the book's bowstring.

When you finally let go, there's this amazing twang, and... if you're lucky... the arrow strikes it's target. A bull's eye for both the author and the reader.

More often, my book's climaxes miss their mark the first time. Lucky for me that I can turn back time through the time-lapsed magic of revision and correct the arrow's course. I'm also inclined to listen to a few trusted early readers, who serve to guide me to the mark.

But not even the knowledge that my first shot will be faulty can dampen my enthusiasm for this moment. Because this week, I'm writing my book's climax... which means "The End" is very much in sight.

See ya on the other side! (Leeeroooyy Jennnkinnnsss!!!!)

Francine Prose on reading like a writer

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From Reading Like a Writer: a Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose:
"Like most -- maybe all -- writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books. Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?"

Writing under the influence

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Tis the season for colds and flu, and I've fallen prey to the upper respiratory yark-lung that mowed down my daughter last month, my husband ten days later, and me ten days after that. They both went immediately for the antibiotics. Like sane people. I, however, have this -- well, it's not a phobia, it's more like a white hot hatred of the doctor's office and any other clinical setting. I have to be well over the threshold of misery before I'll go. So I've been dosing myself with Thera-flu and various OTC cough remedies. Last night, I invented a little homeopathic kicker-upper I called "Thera-wine", and when I removed the anvil from my head and sat down to work this morning, I had to laugh out loud at the effects on my typing skills, not to mention my concentration level and ability to stay awake at the keyboard. I felt so betrayed. Aren't alcohol, drugs, and writing supposed to be the creative menage a trois?

Truman Capote attempted "the cur…

The Zen of Book Signings

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First, a disclaimer. My tongue is firmly in cheek on that title. Book signings can make you feel like a million bucks or they can be two-three hours of ego-flagellating hell. But this morning I’m not writing about the ego-flagellating hell kind. Instead, I’m going to talk about some recent signings that have gone well.

But you should probably know, my definition of a “signing gone well” and any media-fueled fantasies you might have about arrival in a shiny limo, lines of fans snaking out the door, and Entertainment Weekly reporters covering the event have nothing in common. Here’s my real-world criteria for success:

1. My smiles are genuine, not the increasingly-desperate kind that make me want to Vaseline my teeth and (alternatively) stick my head in a gas oven.
2. The booksellers offer active support, and someone on duty has prepared for (and knows about!) your arrival. There are signs announcing the event, (if the press cooperates) newspaper or in-store flyers doing the same, staff me…

Happy Birthday to us!

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A couple of summers ago, I was working at my satellite office -- the upstairs cafe at Borders on Market Street -- and I got a call from my husband, who was downstairs poking around for a good airplane read. "There's an author down here doing the table thing," he told me. "She seems interesting. You should come down and talk to her." Table signings for me are the twelfth circle of Hell, so I never walk by, eyes averted, while a fellow crafts person sits there with her hopeful little Sharpie. I immediately packed up my laptop, went downstairs, and met one of my favorite people in the world: Colleen Thompson.

We are writing entirely different kinds of books, we're on entirely different career tracks, and we have totally opposite approaches to the craft, but we have a few important things in common: we are both honest-to-goodness-done-quit-the-day-job working writers, we are both passionate-bordering-on-rabid about research, we both prize artistic integrity ube…

To Dream, Perchance to @#$%! Sleep, Already

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Grinch alert! I'm working, for the fourth day running, on about four hours or so of restless, broken sleep. Why? Because this darn book won't let me.

I often have this problem near the book's end, when I'm mentally struggling to solve the 8,213 inconsistencies, blunders, and question marks of the story. And to do it while bearing down on a tough deadline. And, oh, yes, to write a book that at least measures up to the last, if not (I pray) exceeding it. I also want to finish early enough to get critique partner (Bless you, Saints Bobbi & Joni) feedback and edit before sending the book to my editor. (I'd like to keep up the illusion that I'm as brilliant as the two of them make me look.) I usually ask a "cold reader" (known here at St. Jo Anne), who knows knowing of the story, read it through after these edits as well, to make sure the mystery element holds, since it's hard to do that for anyone who's read the synopsis. (Though I'll say n…

Eudora Welty on the fine lines of life

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Eudora Welty wrote in her memoir One Writer’s Beginnings: "Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost."

Which reminds me of something I heard Joyce Carol Oates say once in a talk she gave...oh, somewhere or other. (Unlike Eudora's memory, mine does misplace an item now and then.) She compared the writing of a novel to the building of a bird's nest. You gather a bit of string here, a tuft of fluff there, a blade of dry grass from somewhere else, weaving it and working it until it becomes an entirely different construct from its million varied sources.

I'm pushing hard to finish the rough of my current novel in progress, so I've hardly seen the light of day lately, and Eudora just reminded me how unhealthy that is f…

Just a little something to get us through a rainy day

"Outside of a dog, a man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." ~ Groucho Marx

"It's like literary viagra.": a conversation with Eliza Graham

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Yesterday, we introduced Eliza Graham's Playing with the Moon, a World Book Day ‘Hidden Gem’ nominee. Today, we're coffee-talking with Eliza (Or do Brits tea-talk? I forgot to ask.) about process, publishing, and the writing life.

Eliza, start by telling us how you got from there to here. Did you always know you’d be a writer?
I wanted to write from childhood onwards. My parents and later my husband gave me masses of encouragement. I had written fiction for about four or five years, getting the odd story published and acquiring two agents over the period. I never seemed to have any luck with finding a publisher, though, and found myself unagented when I'd finished Playing With the Moon. Macmillan had just launched a new scheme (Macmillan New Writing) to find writers who hadn't been published and you didn't need an agent and you could submit the WHOLE MANUSCRIPT BY EMAIL. I thought I had nothing to lose.

I was working away on my laptop at home when I received an email…

GCC presents Playing With the Moon

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Eliza Graham is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit, laying groundwork for her February release Playing with the Moon, a World Book Day ‘Hidden Gem’ nominee. The World Book Day website calls Playing With the Moon "a penetrating reflection on the historical events that have forged our sense of British cultural identity. It is also skilfully constructed, deeply humane, and full of fascinating, flawed, characters."

This from the press kit:
Shattered by a recent bereavement, Minna and her husband Tom retreat to an isolated village on the Dorset coast, seeking the solitude that will allow them to cope with their loss and rebuild their foundering marriage. Walking on the beach one day, they unearth a human skeleton. It is a discovery which will plunge Minna into a mystery which will consume her for months to come.

The remains are soon identified as those of Private Lew Campbell, a black American GI who, it seems, drowned during a wartime exercise in the area half a century before.…

So here's the deal on the twice-ringing postman

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I mentioned yesterday that past and present reads of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice left me wondering: What postman? The first time I read the book, I was in 5th or 6th grade, so I went directly to my oracle: the librarian. I have some wonderful librarian stories to tell, but sadly, this is not one of them. She scolded me for reading filthy smut, which really just made me want to search out more filthy smut and read it. Anyway, flash forward to the Golden Age of Google.

Cain originally wanted to be an opera singer, and his novels are definitely cross-pollinated with music -- metaphors, melody, and rhythm. "Writing," he once said, "was distinctly a consolation prize." Cain says the genesis of the story was a random stop at a filling station somewhere in Southern California.
"This bosomy-looking thing comes out--commonplace, but sexy, the kind you have ideas about. We always talked while she filled up my tank. One day I read in the paper where …

James M. Cain on the perfect murder (and the perfect murder mystery)

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My recent hard-boiled fiction vision quest led me to a couple of classic James M. Cain novels this week: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. I'd read Postman before somewhere back in my personal Paleozoic Era, and during both reads, the biggest mystery involved was...well, where the hell is the postman? More on that tomorrow.

Double Indemnity is about a perfect murder. It doesn't come off perfectly because of the imperfect perps, but the strategy was sound. Walter Huff explains the high concept to his co-conspirator, Phyllis Nirdlinger (yeah, if my name was Phyllis Nirdlinger, I'd wanna kill somebody too), thusly:
"Get this, Phyllis. There's three essential elements to a successful murder. The first is, help. One person can't get away with it, that is unless they're going to admit it and plead the unwritten law or something. It takes more than one. The second is, the time, the place, the way, all known in advance -- to us, but not to him. Th…

Joke's on Me

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A writer arrives home to find his house a smoldering wreck, with the fire trucks just leaving. His sobbing, ash-covered wife is standing outside.

“What happened?” the man asks.

“Oh, John, it was terrible,” she weeps. “I was cooking, and the phone rang. It was your agent. Because I was on the phone, I didn’t notice the chicken I was frying caught on fire. It went up in second. We've lost everything. I nearly didn’t make it out of the house, the car burned in the garage. And poor Fluffy is--”

“Wait, wait. Back up a minute,” The man says. “My agent called?”

****

Now it's your turn. Who has a great joke about writers to share?

Nice work, if you can get it

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In honor of Ira Gershwin's birthday today, I was listening to some of his Broadway classics while I prepped for my domestic partner this morning. (Some people would call her the cleaning lady, but I have more respect for her, having been my family's cleaning lady for 20 years before I was lucky enough to find her. But I digress...)

"Nice Work If You Can Get It" was written by George and Ira Gershwin and performed by Fred Astaire in the movie A Damsel in Distress but was multi-purposed later for the Broadway show Crazy for You. You may also remember it as the theme song for the Cybill Shepherd sitcom

Click here to listen and contemplate this elegantly simple metaphor the writing life.

The man who only lives for making money
Lives a life that isn't necessarily sunny
Likewise the man who works for fame
There's no guarantee that time won't erase his name
The fact is, the only work that really brings enjoyment
Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant
Fall in love an…

On Trying too Hard

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Sometimes with all this study of writing craft, we get too darned self-conscious of it for our own good -- and the story's. Here's something brilliant C.S. Lewis had to say on the subject:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.


So here's to the not noticing. As you write today, try not to get too caught up in the "art" of it. Save that for the critics -- or at least the editing phase. Just get the dog-gone story on the page. Otherwise you're risking some serious verbal constipation.

To sleep, perchance to dream

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Sunday night at critique group, Colleen made a suggestion that I use a little magic trick to transform the plodding scene I'd just read to my fellow Midwives. I could physically feel the blank stare on my face. How would such a thing be accomplished? Would any reader be able to follow it? Would any writer? I politely dismissed the idea as unworkable and went home with a more pedestrian approach planned. But this morning, well before my alarm clock started playing "Stairway to Heaven", I jolted awake completely understanding what she'd said and remembering that I had in fact performed a similar sleight of hand in a previous manuscript. Not only could this be done -- it could be done by me!

I rocket out of bed most mornings with my brain on fire. I often dream a seamless version of a scene that had my waking mind completely pretzelated. Curiosity about that drove me to google during a quiet moment and I discovered an interesting report from the Center for Sleep and Cogn…

Close, But No... You Know

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If it's disheartening for a writer to be so far off the mark that she's only scoring form rejections (which have happened to the best of us), there's a particular heartbreak in coming oh-so-very-close that you can taste it and then falling just a smidge short of making the damned sale. It's the coitus interruptus
of the writing life: exciting but oh-so-unsatisfactory.

You'll know it when you get there. It's an enthusiastic call or e-mail from your agent that some editor's oh-so-excited about your book/proposal. She's either finishing it this week (which often drags on in the manner of a doctor's waiting room-minute) or "taking it to committee." There's a long delay, during which -- since you're a writer -- you begin imagining success in vivid detail: what you'll tell your Doubting-Thomasina/Snidely Smartass Sister-in-Law, where you're get your significant other to take you for a romantic celebration (click on the "coit…

My Interview at "Jennifer on Writing"

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In celebration of this week's release, I've been out guest blogging hither and yon. Here's the first bit of a writing advice interview with the very talented USA Today Bestselling Author Jennifer Ashley.

I had the great pleasure to pick up Colleen Thompson's new Romantic Suspense, The Salt Maiden a few days ago. I asked her to be my guest this week, and I was able to ask her about the Romantic Suspense market, agents, and writing in general.

J: Do you have an agent? Why or why not?

Colleen Thompson: I've always worked with an agent and feel it's well worth paying the commission to have someone to run interference. This helps me keep my relationship with my editor about the book and allow the agent to deal with any potentially-contentious matters.

J: Can you talk a little about your road to publication?

Colleen Thompson: I wrote on the side for years while teaching. Only after I decided to give writing a real priority in my life and make an effort to education myself…

Tool box: PM's book tracker

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Colleen talks about "reading the tea leaves" when a book hits the stores, and the tea leaves are looking soy-chai-licous for her newborn baby The Salt Maiden. Not only is the book getting glowing reviews, her sales ranks have been steadily ticking upward.

We were coffee-talking Friday morning about whether or not it's healthy for writers to pay attention to those numbers, and obviously, anything that turns into an obsession is unhealthy, but Colleen and I agreed that there's no such thing as "too much information". Information is useful even when you don't like it. And when it is what you want it to be -- well, hot dog, then you're really in biz. Besides, let's face it, we all do it. (When I hear an author claim that they never read reviews or check their numbers, I'm reminded of Paula Poundstone's comment that "polls have shown that 93% of people masturbate and 7% lie.")

But I digress...

Publisher's Marketplace has several h…