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Showing posts from February, 2008

The Over-Polished Manuscript

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There's been a trend toward smile-whitening that's gotten completely out of hand in the past few years. We've all seen celebs whose teeth are so bright, our retinas start to blister if we stare at them too long. After a certain point, bleached teeth no longer look attractive; they simply appear fake.

The same goes for manuscripts that are overly polished. Mostly, it's the opening chapter that's in danger because that's the one most likely to have run the critique group/workshop/contest gauntlet with the writer eagerly (and sometimes indiscriminately) incorporating every single suggestion anybody gives. When overdone, the result is a blandly-homogenized piece of writing-by-committee with every bit of author's voice bleached out of existence.

Has your opening chapter been over-polished? To find out, honestly answer the following:

1. Have I been unable to get past the opening for tinkering with it?
2. Has the opening strayed from my original vision for the book?
3.…

Three kinds of satisfied (Go with God, William F. Buckley)

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William F. Buckley and I disagreed on everything from politics to religion to the Beatles (he called them "the crowned heads of antimusic), but we did share a passion for words, and that made him ok by me. I loved The Lexicon: A Cornucopia of Wonderful Words for the Inquisitive Word Lover and I will miss his clever columns.

This from Julia Keller's Chicago Trib obit:
So dapper with that noblesse oblige, so jaunty with that certain je ne sais quoi, he was that rare thing: an intellectual who morphed into a celebrity, so much so that he was the subject of good-natured parodies on TV shows such as "Sesame Street" and "The Smothers Brothers" and the movie "Aladdin."

Yet William F. Buckley Jr., 82, who died Wednesday, was the guiding spirit of a conservative movement that stuck a stick in the spokes of post-New Deal liberalism and pushed Ronald Reagan into the White House.

"Conservatism in the 1950s was in disarray. He cleaned it up," said his s…

Six Sure-Fire (Almost) Steps to Getting Published

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Everybody wants to know the secret of getting published, preferably some secret that involves no risk or hard work. Dream on! But if you don't mind the risk and hard work part, here's my take on what you have to do to get started in this business.

1. Read widely. When you think you know what type of book you want to write, especially focus on new books published in that area. Tons of them. Pay attention to who's publishing these books. Check the acknowledgments or Publisher's Marketplace to see who's represented them. Never quit reading, and don't stick exclusively to one genre.


2. Write fearlessly. Chasing the market is a fool's errand, since what you see in stores is what was bought a year or two ago and what you see in libraries... let's not even go there. Better to define the market with your own unique slant on a perennial favorite. If it's not unique and in some way better than what's out there, why should any publisher take a chance on you…

James Sallis on losing it, using it, and laying it to rest

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Wending my way through the jutting cypress knees and humidly beautiful prose in the Turner novels by James Sallis. Literary detective fiction with a lush Southern voice and a seasoned but surprisingly unjaded view of humanity. The first in the (so far?) Turner trilogy is Cypress Grove, a book I will be quick to mention next time someone asks me about books that make one a better writer. Having tracked down the killer, Turner mulls:
Losing it's the key, the secret no one tells you. From the first day of your life, things start piling up around you: needs, desires, fears, dependencies, regrets, lost connections. They're always there. But you decide what to do with them. Polish them and put them up on the shelf. Stack them out behind the house by the weeping willow. Haul them out to the front porch and sit on them.
Reflecting on writing and life, Sallis says:
As a child I began telling stories daily to classmates and, at home, filled page after page with plots, conversations, beginn…

Emily Bryan, on Staying Published

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A "release mate" of mine from Dorchester Publishing (our books often come out during the same month), Diana Groe, has a brand new historical romance, Distracting the Duchess, coming out this week under the pen name Emily Bryan. I spent some time recently talking to her about the reasons for the name change.

Diana Groe's inventive, intelligent historical romances, MAIDENSONG, ERINSONG & SILK DREAMS (all published by Dorchester)were almost universally well received by reviewers. ERINSONG even earned one of those exceedingly rare Desert Isle Keeper designations from All About Romance. The translation rights have sold to Germany, The Netherlands, and Italy. SILK DREAMS even hit a best seller list for Siren Books in Australia.

Unfortunately, in the US market, for some reason, these "out of the box" viking stories did not sell as well as hoped. Diana/Emily explains: "My agent says it's because the historical market is so skewed to Regency England. My mothe…

My new hero: Timothy Egan on "Book Lust"

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Are you as sick as I am of hearing about the death of reading, how writers of novels are on a fool's errand, and how print publishing's going the way of the Dodo? How whatever *you* personally best love to read and write is about as welcome in New York as an incontinent Bull Mastiff in an Oriental rug shop?

Take heart, new superhero Timothy Egan, wrote a New York Times Outpost piece on "Book Lust" that paints a far cheerier picture, in which he takes Steve Jobs to task for saying “...the fact is that people don’t read anymore" and backs up his censure with facts sure to warm the cockles of a lot of book-loving hearts.

It's a short piece that's already garnered 360 comments and a lot of attention. I suggest you read it and start your week with some good news for a change.

Saturday morning cartoon: Mel Blanc on the art of voice

During a previous incarnation in which I made my living as a voiceover artist, I studied (to the point of hero worship) Mel Blanc, the undisputed master of character voices. That learned view of voice was one of the assets I brought with me to my writing career. While a character's voice is captured in a different way on the page, the fundamentals and challenges remain the same. What's the subtext that makes a character "sound" the way s/he does? And how does the artist make her/his own voice transparent, allowing the character's voice to rule, while still remaining true to her/his own style?

A few words from the amazing invisible man himself:



And just for fun...

Blanc did show his face every once in a while. Here he is mixing it up with a mariachi band on the Jack Benny Show.

Dictionary \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē\ noun: loveliest thing in the world

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Okay, I know this goes a long way toward explaining why I never got asked out in high school, but I can't help myself -- there is nothing more rompingly entertaining or entirely engrossing or deliciously sexy to me than the dictionary. I still remember the bulky leather bound Webster I grew up with, the smell of the onion paper pages, the lovely little divots that guided the index finger to each letter, the small, studious typeface and little etched illustrations for the best and luckiest words. These days, I get a ridiculous amount of pleasure from the Word of the Day from Merriam-Webster.

A recent favorite:
contumely \kahn-TOO-muh-lee\ noun: harsh language or treatment arising from haughtiness and contempt; also : an instance of such language or treatment

Example sentence: "Early in his career, the pioneering scientist's colleagues heaped contumely on him for his unconventional ideas."

But a more fun example is in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy…

The Grand Passion

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Throughout a person's lifetime, enthusiasms have their seasons, but the grand passion is the one that defines the individual. My husband's is golf; mine of course is reading/writing (two sides of the same coin), but there are many, from breeding and showing purebred dogs to flying airplanes to making music to gardening to... I could go on forever.

What does it take to inspire a lifelong passion? I think the activity has to involve skill of some sort. Perfection should be unattainable but excellence in reach through a combination of talent, skill, and very hard work. The grand passion often frustrates, but every hard-won achievement confers great satisfaction. The pursuit is more the point than reaching the impossible ideal, and it is this journey -- far more than external success -- that gives life its savor.

I love meeting people with grand passions, whether they share mine or open my eyes to whatever lights up their souls. When these folks speak of their enthusiasms, they'…

See you at the movies?

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I'm jazzed about the upcoming Oscars. I thought 2007 was a great movie year, but I didn't click to the reason why until I read David Ulin's interesting article in the LA Times on Sunday. Ulin points out that a lot of noms are tied to great books, which makes it pretty ironic that writers continue to suffer from Rodney Dangerfield syndrome in Hollywood.
In a Jan. 28 post on the National Book Critics Circle blog Critical Mass, former San Francisco Chronicle Style Editor Paul Wilner lamented that at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, "almost no actual writers were acknowledged for their contributions" to the winning films. "I waited in vain to hear . . . Cormac McCarthy mentioned in conjunction with the multiple honors for 'No Country for Old Men,' " Wilner wrote, "or a nod to . . . Alice Munro for the short story upon which 'Away From Her' was based. . . . Daniel Day-Lewis' tribute to Heath Ledger was moving, but somehow Upton Sinclai…

Old Dogs

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I've been at this writing thing for quite a while, and I've developed a repertoire of tricks I use for plotting out a new book. From webbing and sociograms to collages to sketching, I've used any number of techniques begged, borrowed, or stolen from others. And every once in a while, I get to thinking I've got this process licked.

Then a new story idea comes along that puts me in my place. I'm working on just such an idea now, the bare bones of a book proposal I'm pretty sure is going to rock. Only problem is that my first three chapters raised way more questions than answers. I had no idea how to pull together the mass -- I mean mess -- of disparate elements impaled in tiny slivers throughout my brain into the coherent synopsis I'll need as both a road map and a sales tool.

Nothing was working. The usual suspects left me more confused than ever. In desperation, I convened a EPS (Emergency Plotting Session) with Joni at Starbucks yesterday, and she said, some…

Deadly Sins: Writer's Block & Workaholism

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There are two extremes among writers: those who are completely shut down by stress and those who put themselves on the turbo-treadmill and desperately start running. Most of us fall somewhere between the two on the continuum, but gravitate more to one end or the other.

How do you know where you fall?

1. When you hear negative feedback or face a career-related setback, are you more likely to
A. feel "blocked" for days, weeks, or more or
B. dig in and double your output, thinking I'll show those sorry *#@ety $%^&!?

2. Do you more often
A. avoid writing by doing chores (cleaning, financing, auto maintenance) or
B. avoid chores by writing... and writing and writing?

3. Do you
A. accept every diversion that comes your way when you should be writing, or
B. do you habitually deny yourself exercise, friend/family social time, or reading for pleasure in order to write more than ten hours per day? (Deadline crunches don't count! Everybody pushes themselves then, but doing this…

Triple Exposure's Cover Unveiled

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I couldn't wait to show off the brand new cover for my upcoming romantic suspense, Triple Exposure, which is due out on July 29, 2008.
It has all its feathers & toes, and I'm delighted!

"A writer is what I am.": Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney

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I know I'm not the only one around here who went through a Phyllis A. Whitney phase. Mine was the summer between seventh and eighth grade. Part of my education as a writer, though I didn't know it at the time.

From the Associated Press obit:
Whitney wrote more than 75 books, including three textbooks, and had about a hundred short stories published since the 1940s. "I've slowed down in that I only write one book a year," she said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press, when she was 85. "A writer is what I am."

Whitney's last novel, "Amethyst Dreams," was published in 1997. She began working on her autobiography at 102. In 1961, Whitney's sixth juvenile mystery "Mystery of the Haunted Pool" received the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best children's mystery story of the year. She won the award again three years later for her book "Mystery of the Hidden Hand."

But …

Pet Peeve of the Week: Hysterical Networking

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Though I wrote in isolation for a lot of years, about a dozen years back, I came out about my secret passion for fiction and began attending a writer's group, then conferences. I've gained from it immeasurably, not only in terms of shared knowledge and opportunity, but in the friendships made along the way. I'm no extrovert, but chatting with others with similar interests -- even at dreaded cocktail parties -- turned out to be easy and pleasant enough... except when I've met people I'll call Hysterical Networkers.

We've all met Hysterical Networkers. They feign real interest, but all the while you can hear the gears spinning in their heads as they try to calculate the potential advantage gained by making your acquaintance. Even as they speak to you, they're keeping an eye trained to the door in case someone "better" appears, which immediately causes them to mutter some excuse and disappear. These are the folks who mow down others to clamber all ov…

Four Naked Chests and a Pickup: That Oughta Cover It

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The other day I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the cover of my romantic suspense, Head On took grand prize in its category of the Houston Bay Area Romance Writers' 3rd Annual Judge a Book by Its Cover competition. (The Salt Maiden's cover came in second on the same category.)

I was delighted since I think Dorchester Publisher did a fabulous job with both covers. I have to admit pride figured into it as well since both pieces of art were based on my suggestions (something that doesn't happen all that often in publishing, so it's much appreciated), and both are far removed for the type of cover art normally found on the romance aisle. My books, however, are meant to be cross-marketed to both romance readers and those who enjoy mystery/suspense, most of whom would be horrified to find a bare-naked chest on their book covers. It's not that I have anything against half-nekkid guys (except for the pale, flabby, shirtless suburbanites I occasionally encounter mowi…

The healing art of housekeeping

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It always baffles me when people say they admire the self-discipline it takes to force oneself to sit down and write a book. I wake up virtually every morning before my alarm and can't wait to get into my office chair. There's nothing I'd rather be doing than sitting here writing a book. For me, the Herculean act of self-discipline is going downstairs to cook dinner. Domestics seriously slide around here when I'm on a work binge, but between projects, I force myself to pay attention. A lesson I learned a few years ago: physical clutter stifles creative energy.

My office would still be a mess if my husband hadn’t detailed my car. Gary and I had just had a major marital meltdown, so he was trying to get on my good side, a dynamic I tend to ride like a pony. Detailing the car is man-language for “Don’t give up on me, baby.” Gary escorted me to the driveway and opened the door of this golden chariot, which just a few hours earlier had been a garbage scow of discarded sneake…

GCC Presents: Jenny Gardiner's Sleeping with Ward Cleaver

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Okay, so that title's a little misleading. To the best of my knowledge, June can relax because Jenny Gardiner's not exactly sleeping with Ward Cleaver, but she's written a debut novel by that title.

And here's the cool part. She *won* a book contract through the American Title competition (modeled after you-know-what reality show) with Dorchester Publishing, which sponsors the annual contest along with Romantic Times BookClub Magazine. Voters winnow down the finalists through successive rounds until finally the winner's humongous-sized cover is unveiled and the winner introduced at the RT Convention.

The odd thing is, Sleeping with Ward Cleaver is in no way a traditional romance. About a woman struggling with a marriage that has lost its luster, the book is more a story of second chances told with wit and no small measure of reality. Definitely not the kind of story you'd expect to win.

Yet last year, in a truly exciting moment (and I didn't even know her then…

And speaking of stunning comebacks...meet Dr. Wendy Harpham

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Last week, Colleen got us thinking about stunning reversals and equally stunning comebacks. One blazing example of both is my dear friend, bestselling author, and quintesential Jewish Mamala, Wendy S. Harpham, M.D., whose thriving private practice was derailed by a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1990. "Within weeks of my diagnosis, I realized I was learning so much that would help my patients," says Wendy. "I had the knowledge and the background of a physician, but now I was having the experiences and the insights of a patient facing a life-threatening illness, and just instinctively, I started to write what I was learning. Over the weeks and months of my chemotherapy, this little manuscript turned into a full-fledged book, Diagnosis Cancer."

Normally, you have to kinda hate someone whose first book is instantly picked up by a major New York house and greeted with great acclaim, but Wendy's such a sweetie, it's okay. Wendy finished treatment and …

The Friends You Make Along the Way

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Writing is often described as a lonely business, and authors are forever characterized as miserable, addictive misanthropes. People imagine ugly rivalries and nasty cat fights, a cut-throat world of author versus author.

What a crock that myth is. Through writing, I've met people who see the world as I do. Who love words and books and stories of all kinds. Who speak the languages of craft and publishing and understand all my neuroses. Who get -- and share -- my lifelong obsession.

Through writing, I have met the best and most enduring friends I have had in all my life. I've met people in critique groups, at local, regional, and national meetings. I've made online pals who live in other countries. We may meet in person (with hugs or hearty handshakes) only every few years -- or never -- but we keep up with each other's news, cheer each other on, and root for comebacks during those times when things aren't going so well. We do each other favors, bolster each other'…

Scrabble on, Word Nerds!

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Friday! And though that doesn't mean much to me in terms of the weekend because I pretty much work seven days a week, I do look forward to the Friday night thing Gary and I have settled into. Sometime around six or seven, he'll nudge me out of my office and take me over to Wunsche Brothers Cafe in Old Town Spring for Shiner Bock and Scrabble. The banter is pleasant, the beer is cold, and there's always a local folkie onstage to serenade us as we engage in a battle of wills and words.

Gary bought our first Scrabble game at a second hand store about a week after we met, which was twenty-five years ago this Groundhog's Day, and we used that same dilapidated brown box set until our teenage kids gave us a snazzy Deluxe version a couple of Christmases ago. (The board spins. The letters reside in a black velvet bag. Very upscale.)

During the mid-80s, we spent several months living on this fire lookout tower between Mt. Shasta and the Trinity Alps in northern California. (Look …

Here's to a Phoenix - or Is that a Bat?

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A few days ago I blogged about the many, many authors who have survived tough breaks in publishing and gone on to great success. I'd like to salute one of them, the brilliantly-hilarious Kerrelyn Sparks who has just today hit the New York Times bestseller list (at #14 in mass market!) with her new release The Undead Next Door.

Kerry broke into publishing with a fun and funny historical (For Love or Country.) Her fresh, witty voice made the book a delight, but the market shifted and she had to adapt. She did so by recognizing her humor as her strength and capitalizing on it in a brand new venue. The result, How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire was a big success - and a fabulous book, too.

So congratulations, Kerrelyn. You're an inspiration to every writer in the trenches, and we here at BtO wish you all the best.

When the Sun Blinds

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When the tough breaks rain down, an author expects to have difficulty writing. (Real) friends offer up support, whether it's a shoulder to cry on or an offering of a voodoo doll in the guise of a tough-to-please editor, a fiercely-scary agent, or the odd PW reviewer. But where does a writer go for sympathy when the sun gets in her eyes? I'm talking about those times when the most recent release is garnering rave reviews, award nominations, or blockbuster sales and the writer freezes, absolutely terrified she'll never duplicate whatever she (accidentally) did right.

Here's the script for this conversation:

Anxious Type-A Author (ATA): And I'm getting so much fan mail and so many great reviews and the book's going into its sixteenth printing, and my publisher's tripling my next advance. But what if it's a fluke? I mean - I have no idea why, after all this time, this book is *the* one, and what I'm writing now can't live up to -- it looks like a piec…

Fat Nude Writing or “The Lord never gives us more than we can bare.”

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I did not go to the nude beach. For one thing, I was in LA for a business meeting, and even I am not creative enough to spin “admission to nude beach” as a deductible expense. Also, it was quite chilly, even on the beach where I stood fully dressed, waiting to watch the sunset, when a pleasingly plump elderly couple chatted me up and in the course of conversation invited me to visit the clothing optional spot. It’s quite common for me to chat it up with people, but the nude beach proposition was a first. There was nothing kinky about it, they assured me, all good clean fun (if a tad sandy). And there’s nothing to be self-conscious about because this particular nude beach caters to overweight people.

Which leads me to my craft parable du jour:

How to Write Like a Fat Nude

The first step to fat nude writing is the acceptance and celebration of imperfection. I stood in awe of these two people on the pier; they were not thin, they were not young, and by plastic LA standards, not beautiful. …

When the Rain Comes Down

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A friend whose first book is forthcoming has been unnerved, as I was once unnerved, to learn of other authors whose contracts have been canceled before their debuts ever hit the bookstores. Along with that terrifying possibility are myriad examples of authors being orphaned (this is what it's called when one's editor leaves the publishing house) and then dropped or ignored-into-giving-up by the new administration. Other authors lose their slots because of poor sales numbers or quite inexplicably (to them, because publishers often won't come out and explain why) they can't sell new proposals or even full manuscripts. Everywhere you look, you see bodies by the wayside, and for the new writer, who has focused all of her energies on breaking in with that first sale, this post-apocalyptic reality is freaking scary.

And it should be because it's an incredibly hurtful experience, a scarring experience (and I've been there, so I know) to have your hard-won new world com…

Nothing to fall back on

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I’ve been reflecting on the question Colleen posed yesterday. “So what keeps you struggling uphill? Do you have any special motivational techniques, especially ones that help when there's as yet no deadline looming?” My answer is pretty ignoble: I have nothing to fall back on.

Jimmy Carter had great hopes for me. I got a personally signed letter from the then-president when I scored in the top one percent of students nationwide on my SATs. It was all about how confident he was that I and my fellow smarty-britches would change the world with our smart, smart smartness and big, bold ambition. He didn’t mention that the world would roll on quite comfortably without me as I partied away my scholarships and spent the next year hopping freights and playing guitar on the street, my sole ambition being the acquisition of enough loose change to buy a packet of Ramen noodles and a bottle of Boons Farm apple wine.

Once I’d grown up and settled down, I had a burning desire to return to college …

What the Working Writer Knows: It's *All* Uphill

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The Greeks used to tell of a smart aleck named Sisyphus, a trickster king who committed various naughty deeds and even managed to outwit Death himself. Unfortunately for our boy Sisyphus, he lived long enough to seriously hack off the gods, who devised the famously-fiendish punishment of requiring him to roll a giant boulder up a mountain, which invariably tumbled back down each time he had nearly reached the top.

A lot of people entertain various fantasies about what it is to be a published novelist. They're convinced that at some point, you'll have "made it" and can lean back to bask elegantly in the warm glow of success. But the truth is that each manuscript necessarily falls a little short of that perfect, shining ideal with which you started (since we're all imperfect people). And worse yet, when you're finished and contemplate work on a new one, you find yourself down at the bottom of the hill wondering how you'll ever make it to the top again. In my…