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Showing posts from August, 2008

Sunday Quote: Faulkner on Dreaming

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Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

-- William Faulkner

Faulkner had it right. Writers often begin as they should, by admiring and emulating those that they admire. But until they push past the conventional limits and into their own territory, they never really stake their own claim in their field.

This week, try pushing at least one boundary. You can always step back if you have to, but in most cases you'll find something in the experiment worth keeping.

Saturday morning cartoon: Barack OBollywood

Nothing about writing. I won't even try for a cute tie-in. It's just so great, I wanted everybody to see it.

The all important work place

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Spending the weekend trying to put my office back together after months of mayhem and neglect. That all important room of her own work space is essential to the physical and mental health of a career writer, but it doesn't have to be anything snazzy.

Willa Cather: "A work-room should be like an old shoe; no matter how shabby, it’s better than a new one."

(Ah, enjoy with me a moment Vermeer's diligent "Lacemaker".)

The Book That Never Ends...

I thought I'd be finished by now, really. I have plenty of pages and have put in plenty of hours, after all. And, hark! Isn't that my deadline, peeking just around the corner?

And yet, well, sing along if you like...only substitute the word "book" for "song."

I really do miss Lamb Chop.

Incoming!

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I'm working my tail off this week in an attempt to complete the draft of a book due all too soon. So what do I get? Distractions.

Not the family kind so much. With my son off to college, husband off to work, and the mutts behaving themselves (mostly), there shouldn't be much in the way of obstacles.

So my subconscious, ever resistant to the idea of finishing a project, is manufacturing the little suckers and lobbing them in my direction. Some are fears: what if I finish and it stinks? how can I possibly get the manuscript edited in such a short time? Others are wildly-improbable plot wrinkles: what if I went back to page 100 and completely rewrote all the hero's scenes from his dog's POV? Wouldn't that make my publisher more excited about the book and fit onto the current fantasy bandwagon? Others, most seductive, are ideas for completely-different novels, often in genres unrelated to the multi-book contract I'm completing.

I'm reminding myself these "b…

Laurie Harper's Author Biz guides emerging writers through the publishing industry maze

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Ten years ago, one of the many (and I mean many) New York literary agents who rejected me passed my query letter along to Laurie Harper of Sebastian Literary in San Francisco. She was impressed that I'd managed to place my first two novels unagented with small but reputable presses. I was shopping my third book, a memoir about my experience in chemo, and Laurie candidly told me right up front the same thing all those other agents told me: cancer books don't sell. The difference was, she was willing to look at the ms.

Long story short, Laurie loved the book, talked me through a few revisions, then worked her shapely young backside off to place it with a terrific editor at Harper Collins. I finally felt like an author "for real"; this was the first year of my writing life that I made more money than I would have made as a checkout girl at Kroger. A giant leap in self-esteem, income, and opportunities.

These days, Laurie's living in the Midwest and expanding on the e…

The Bangles on the bottom line of a writing career

For a lot of years, the only goal I had for my writing career was "make a living." I explored a lot of different avenues -- book length fiction, magazine service articles, a syndicated newspaper column, an advice column in national magazine, ad copy, PR materials, an awards show script, and on and on. I made a little money, but I spent a lot of time flailing. Then about six years ago, I connected with my second literary agent, David Hale Smith, and at our first meeting, he asked me the magic question: "What do you want?"

I hemmed and hawed and blathered, mostly about money, but he shook his head and said, "Obviously, you need money. Everybody does. But there are much easier ways for both of us to get it. I'm asking -- What do you want?"

Hmm. When I let myself think about it, I realized that the answer has been in my heart since I was a little kid.

"I want to tell stories."

While that single overarching desire doesn't eliminate any particular…

Sunday Morning Quote: Plath on Self-Doubt

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Recently, I've rediscovered Sylvia Plath, reacquainting myself with this incredibly talented writer (whose genius goes so far beyond The Bell Jar).

This morning she spoke to me about the trouble that always plagues me as I complete a manuscript:

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
~Sylvia Plath

So today, I'm donning the ancient armor of Wonder Woman (photo is of a supercool custom action figure by Glorbes; thanks for showning feminine armor that doesn't reveal more flesh than it protects!) and girding my loins for the final push on this draft. Now I feel ready to slay the self-doubt dragon.

Saturday Morning Cartoon (your audio-visual guide to the publishing industry)

I wasn't at all surprised last week when my agent told me that Marjorie Braman, who edited my last two books at Harper Collins before she went to Morrow, was moving over to Holt as ed-in chief. She's a brilliant editor and a terrific human being. (Something the publishing industry definitely needs right now: more Marjorie Braman.) Meanwhile, Sarah Durand is taking her thriller instinct to Atria, and earlier this summer, it was announced that Jane Friedman was out, Brian Murray in as CEO of Harper Collins.

It's good to learn early in the publishing biz is that people at all levels of the industry do this huge round of musical chairs every summer. Your editor's assistant turns up as a publicist at another house. That publicist is now editing someplace else. A new boss comes in, bringing in people she enjoyed working with here and there, and knowing there's going to be a shift in editorial direction, editors fold their tents and migrate. It's impossible for writers…

The Anti-Hero's Journey

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I make no secret of the fact that I'm a huge fan of stories that unabashedly embrace the Hero's Journey. Give me a fresh-faced, idealistic hero, an evil villain, unlikely, colorful allies, insurmountable odds, and an exploding Death Star at the climax and we're good. Growing up, my favorite movies were Star Wars, True Grit, and The Cowboys, my favorite novels books such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Richard Adams' Watership Down, and, yes, Walter Farley's The Black Stallion (although I would have much preferred versions of each with strong female leads).

Although I love a good villain, (from Vader to Hannibal Lecture to the vile Baron Harkonnen of the Dune series), I prefer the villain to stay in his/her place and be soundly defeated. I never really got into the anti-hero's story, maybe because I was such a rule-following, Sunday-school attending good girl and it made me too uncomfortable to root for a bad person, or maybe it's a lack of sophistication…

Where are you going, little one?

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In the midst of deadline madness this week, Colleen and I are doing something a whole lot harder than handing off a manuscript: we're both sending our kiddos off to college. Having done this for three years now, I wish I could tell first-time empty-nester Colleen that it gets easier, but it doesn't.

I'm thrilled to have my kids go out into the world and live their own lives. And the nest isn't empty; Gary and I are in it, and we take up a LOT of room. We like having the place to ourselves, but still...when I see my baby girl drive away, it feels like a kick in the head.

Up left is five year old Jerusha dancing (she was born dancing!) at the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston's Museum of Natural Science. And here's the nineteen-year-old evil genius fashionista brainiac, who's about to get a BA in English. I'm still in mommy mode, but so far so good. So, so good.

So please forgive this moment of unabashed sentimentality. Somebody's perfectly lovely da…

Oh, hell, why even pretend I'm not jealous?

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Brunonia Barry makes me sick. She had a great idea for a novel, self-pubbed it with the gung-ho help of her husband, forked out money for an amazingly proficient PR firm, and ended up with a 2.4 million dollar book deal with Harper Collins.

In what friggin' universe does this occur? 2.4 million for one freaking novel? Come. On. In what freaking forty-four-double-D universe does that freaking happen?

I suppose these apocryphal tales of publishing industry glory-strikes are encouraging to some of my fellows in the foxholes on the frontlines of the industry, but it just makes me want to swallow a broken beer bottle. I hear something like that, and jealousy stabs me through the heart like a railroad spike. I'm sure that Brunonia is a wonderful person and a wonderful writer, who worked very hard and created a wonderful book. I have no reason to dislike her. From what I see in her blog, she seems like a heck of a nice gal, and frankly, the book sounds terrific.

Here's a bit about

Weaving the Strands

As I approach the ending of my current novel, I feel a lot like this little creature, rushing from one scene to the next, back and forth to weave the story's strands into what I hope will end up as a cohesive tapestry. At this point, I'm all over the place each day, as I shore up some clues, downplay others... even add or overhaul a character completely to make him/her better fit the whole.

I'm well aware that not everyone works this way, but it seems to be the only way for me to tell a story. And most of my angst at this point is caused not by the book's romantic or suspense elements, but the mystery, which must be preserved until the perfect moment.

It's enough to make a weaver dizzy, and truth be told, I don't consciously always know what I am doing. But sometimes instinct's all we have to go on.

And when we're very lucky, it's enough

Can you spot the ghostwriter? (Hopefully not)

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I went to a party for my current memoir client in LA a few weeks ago, and it was like somebody shook the famous people tree. I wanted to be there because my client has become my friend, but I felt terribly out of my element. People were asked to leave cameras in the car at this party, and every time one of the official photographer types told me to "c'mon, get in there" I purposely stepped away. I feel like a parade float next to those skinny little LA chicks, and I'm not a photogenic person in any case, so I generally avoid having my picture taken. (Gary persists in snapping shots of me unawares, so I invariably have this "fwah?" look on my face in all our family pictures.) Anyway, I'm not paparazzi fodder like most of the folks who were there that night, so I was pretty surprised to see myself lurking in the background of a photo in last week's People magazine.

I'm not in the habit of reading People, I must admit (and I'm not at all ashamed…

The Magic of Word of Mouth

Along with authors Sophie Jordan (Surrender to Me) and Christie Craig (Weddings Can Be Murder), I took part in a book signing yesterday where I watched a wonderful phenomena in action. I like to call it “Book Glow,” that moment when you meet another booklover and gush about a book you’ve recently enjoyed, then blurt those magic words that warm the heart of every author, “You have to read this. It’s great.”

Right there at the table, those who had read one or more of our books were recommending them to strangers, taking the burden of “selling” off our hands (and freeing us to be friendly, cut up, and have a good time, duties at which we collectively excel. Especially the cutting up part.)

Recently, I’ve felt let down by a few of my old standby authors or manipulated by the hype over some huge bestseller. When I try a new author because of a recommendation, I have to admit, I’m predisposed to like the book. I won’t always, since I’m a picky ready, but I’m always glad to check out another w…

Downtime be damned! (How to keep momentum going with the Three Rs)

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I don't believe in "writer's block". I think it's a case of "to everything there is a season". Sometimes it's not writing time, and efforts to force words onto the paper are futile. The tricky thing is continuing to be a writer when you're not writing.

I seriously hit the wall Monday evening. Left spin class early feeling a bit cloudy. Came home and stared at the proposal I was supposed to turn in at the end of this week. Went to bed early. Dreamed weird fever dreams about a hacksaw, an Ingres painting, Nicole Kidman, this blog. Woke up sick, sick sick. I dragged my laptop into bed and tried to work for a while, but between the flu and Theraflu, my creative brain had turned to peat moss. This was not going to be a writing week. But I have no talent for downtime. This is where the Three Rs kick in.

Reading. There's never enough time to read. That stack of books on my nightstand grows weekly. Knock one off, add three on. I used to say I was taki…

Agent Pet Peeves: While Your Mileage May Vary

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Over at the Guide to Literary Agents, a blogger identifying himself as Chuck shares a list of agent pet peeves regarding manuscript submissions. Some of these are a real hoot, such as Stephany Evans' (FinePrint Literary Management) contempt for Isabelles who call themselves Izzy. (Maybe this agent had a mean older sister by that name? Or read three horrible submissions in a row where Izzys featured prominently.) But others are a lot more helpful, as well as indicative of problems I see all the time when critiquing or judging unpublished work.

Some of the biggies:
1. Static openings, where the character is sitting around (or brewing tea or doing some other mundane task) while thinking about how he/she came to be in this predicament. Yawn!
2. Long, dull prologues.
3. Attempts at "cuteness" that fall waaaay short. Or have been done so many times they give the reader a sick feeling.
4. Done-to-death openings such as description of weather, funerals, and dream sequences.
5. Books t…

Prime and then some (AARP's scholarship program for women over 40)

The AARP Foundation recently announced a call for entries to its second annual Women’s Scholarship Program.
The scholarships will provide funds to women 40+ who are seeking new job skills, training and educational opportunities to support themselves and their families.

Research shows that women are disproportionately at risk of having insufficient resources in the second half of their lives due to lower earning and different work patterns. The AARP Foundation first announced the Women’s Scholarship Program in August of 2007 to help women 40+ overcome financial and employment barriers by allowing them to participate in education and training opportunities they could otherwise not afford.

The AARP Foundation Women’s Scholarship Program is available to eligible individuals with moderate to lower incomes and limited financial resources.

To be eligible for the scholarships, applicants must:

Be female age 40 or over (as of August 31, 2008)

Be able to demonstrate financial need

Be enrolled in an a…

What's in an (Author) Image?

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Like a lot of people, I was struck by the Olympics story of Yang Peiyi, the little girl of the perfect voice but “imperfect” (as judged by Chinese officials) cuteness. In the Chinese “national interest,” another little girl, Lin Miaoke lip-synced “Ode to the Motherland” during the opening ceremonies…

Which in the weirdest, most convoluted way imaginable brings me to the question of the author’s image. I’ve just returned from the Romance Writers of America annual national conference in San Francisco (a city that needs no stand-in), a place with hundreds upon hundreds of authors in attendance. In honor of the gathering, we leave our normal working wear (threadbare pajamas, grubby sweats, and questionable t-shirts, in most cases) at home and dress in our version of grown-up, often with a natty new hairdo to go with it. But few of us would be mistaken for our ageless, airbrushed publicity photographs.

To read more, please stop by (and comment, if you please) at the PASIC 2B Read Blog, where…

"Love, death, cybersex, and stretched cricket metaphors" (Bad Idea's new Writing Lab)

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Sneezing, uninspired, and aching for my next cup of Theraflu, I'm having a reading-not-writing day, finally getting a chance to wade through some email I've been shuffling aside. A while back, I received this from Jack Roberts and Daniel Stacey, founding editors of Bad Idea:

Ahoy there!

I've perused your blog, and I like what you do. I think you might like what we do too!

BAD IDEA has just launched The Writer's Lab, the UK's first fully integrated online magazine submissions facility. Any aspiring writers amongst your readers can submit their short non-fiction stories to the Show and Tell section, where they will meet appraisal from other writers and the BAD IDEA editors. You can draw inspiration from other submissions, rate your favourites and leave comments and suggestions to help others along the way. The best Show and Tell stories will win a subscription to the magazine and earn themselves a chance to be published in BAD IDEA magazine.

And introducing our online ex…

Eureka Moment of the Week: Sandra K. Moore on The Dark Moment

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I attended an excellent workshop this past Saturday, where talented author Sandra K. Moore was speaking about constructing a manuscript.

I had a Eureka moment when she had this to say:

In a well-realized "Dark Moment" (CT note: that all-is-lost point that takes place not long before the climax of most stories), "The protagonist can choose to do the wrong thing and achieve her goal or do the right thing and lose her goal." This is often the point in a manuscript where the hero is faced with the loss of her internal goal.

I'm working on my fifteenth book and having some trouble (as always) pulling together the ending. This was exactly what I needed to hear now.

So what one piece of writing advice has most resonated for you?

Sherry Jones and The Jewel of Medina: "Dreams die in shards."

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Sherry Jones interviewed me for the Missoulian in 1996 when my first novel came out. Kindred spirits, we stayed in touch over the years as she labored toward the dream of publishing her own first book, A’isha, Beloved of Muhammad, an ambitious historical novel about the Prophet’s child bride. Last year, Sherry’s opus sold to a Random House imprint in a six-figure, two-book deal. Retitled The Jewel of Medina, it was scheduled for publication August 12, 2008.

But in late May, Random House abruptly canceled plans for Jewel and its sequel “for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”

According to Asra Nomani of the Wall Street Journal, a review copy was sent to Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, in hopes that she would offer a promotional quote. Instead of simply declining to blurb the book, Dr. Spellberg called an editor, who…

The Jewel of Medina controversy

Why did Random House suddenly cancel publication of The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones?

From "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad" by Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam (HarperOne, 2006):
In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg's book, "Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr."

But Ms. Spellberg wasn't a fan of Ms. Jones's book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims…

All About Villainy

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Today I'm guest-blogging about The Dark Side of a Mother's Love and all things villainous over at Fresh Fiction. I'd love it if any of you could stop by and share a comment on your favorite villains.

More About Money

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Yesterday, Joni brought up the nearly-taboo topic of filthy lucre. Writers often pretend not to care much about the subject, but it's hard to create good art without food in the belly and a roof overhead, so sure we care. There's just not a lot of information out there to help us understand the financial side of the business.

First of all, a primer. When a editor wishes to buy the rights to publish a book, she typically offers an advance, otherwise known as an advance against royalties. Royalties are usually (but not always) a percentage of the book's cover price. In the world of genre mass market paperback originals, it's usually between 4% (ouch) and 10%, with 6% and 8% being fairly typical. To come up with an advance, the editor fills out a profit and loss statement (P&L) to try to figure out, conservatively, since it's a crap shoot, how much the book will make. For a great description of the process, read this post by Agent Kristin Nelson or buy this one (we…

Show me the money. (Or not...)

It seems supremely ironic to me that the three topics that occupy the majority of human thought are the Three Evils we're told should be stricken from both polite conversation and marketable fiction: Politics. Sex. Money. Politics because we wouldn't want to piss anyone off. Sex because we don't want to offend anyone. Money because...well, what is that about? We want people to assume we're doing better than we are? Or we assume others are doing better than they are so we're embarrassed by our comparatively puny income -- never mind that we have no frame of reference with which we could actually define the word "puny". We've all read about the dismal sales figures on most books that make the National Book Award short list. It has to compute that those "famous" authors got "modest" advances. Depending on what you take either of those words to mean. The problem is arriving at any definition without a frame of reference.

A while back, I…

A Culture of Love

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Just back from San Francisco, where I attended the annual national conference of the Romance Writers of America, along with well over 2,000 authors, aspiring authors, and industry professionals. The change in weather, from 100 steamy degrees near Houston to the low sixties in San Francisco, was worth the trip, but as usual, it's RWA's "culture of love" that left me most impressed.

Oh, yeah. I know that sounds sappy, but the truth is that RWA members, more than any other writer's organization to which I've belonged, are quick to lend a helping hand and offer emotional support. Friends share up-to-the-minute, helpful industry info, even posting blog entries and loop e-mails for those unable to attend. I've seen New York Times bestsellers mentoring less experienced authors (raising hand on the latter), multipublished authors helping unpublished friends, including complete strangers, practice their editor/agent pitches, and just about everyone reaching out to…

Monday Monday

Revisiting this classic will make you feel young. Or old. And thin. Or fat. My favorite part is seeing Mama Cass dance. Enjoy. And have a good Monday.

Sunday Quote:Money in Writing

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“I have always believed that writing advertisements is the second most profitable form of writing. The first, of course, is ransom notes...”
-- Philip Dusenberry

I know there are people out there who choose what to write based on its profitability, but I've rarely seen that strategy work well for anyone. The best writers are motivated by passion. Not to say judicious marketing decisions aren't helpful, but readers absolutely seem to know when someone's faking it.

Saturday morning cartoon: "When the Day Breaks"

Pour your morning coffee and enjoy When the Day Breaks, an awesomely cool short from Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis.
"It's morning in the city and Ruby sings as she blithely fixes her breakfast. All is right with the world until she goes to buy milk and collides, head-on, with the aftermath of an accident: a stray lemon, a can of soup, a crumpled hat.

And more. Ruby sees both the physical and the intangible facets of a lifetime strewn out like the groceries scattered on the pavement. Thoughts and memories mingle with cells and bones and broken biscuits. Amid the sobering chaos of this stranger's death, Ruby is witness to all the pieces that composed his life...

When the Day Breaks illuminates life's most ordinary aspects -- a toaster, a lemon, a trip to the store -- and endows them with a visceral power. Co-directors Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis use pencil and paint on photocopies to achieve a textured look suggestive of a lithograph or a flickering newsreel. With deft h…

"Always be writing." (Wise advice from agent Jewerl Ross)

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Scipt Magazine recently ran an excellent interview with agent Jewerl Ross, founder of Silent R Management, great advice that translates directly or indirectly to the crafting (and selling) of a novel. Here's a bit:

What are some good ways for a pitching writer to make a good first impression?
I’m the kind of manager who’s less focused on ideas and more focused on writing. There are thousands of good ideas out there, but there are far, far fewer people who can execute great ideas, who can make an idea come alive on the page, who can write a comedy that’s laugh-out-loud funny, who can write a horror movie that scares you, who can write a thriller that has enough surprises that it will keep you guessing. I have relationships with a few people in town who spend a lot of time peddling ideas, and I feel like their ideas are worthless unless the person can write them. Although I want to hear good ideas, I’m really more of a writing person.

There are a lot of people who will only go out and…