Friday, February 29, 2008

The Over-Polished Manuscript

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. Does this chapter sound more like its been written in the voice/style of a critique partner/mentor/judge than my own unique slant?
4. Does the chapter seem like it was written by the same person as the rest of the book?
5. Have I accepted all advice that's been offered, even when it conflicts with my own preferences and instincts?
6. Am I using editing/revision to avoid finishing the manuscript?

If your yeses outnumber no's, you may be suffer from a lack of confidence. Sure, it's important to listen to advice that resonates, but as with any other good things, the polishing impulse can be detrimental when its overdone.

Any over-polishers out there? Anyone who's been guilty in the past?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

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

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 son, author Christopher Buckley. "He not only made it intellectually sound—but because of his personal style, he made it cool."

“I get satisfaction of three kinds," said Buckley. "One is creating something, one is being paid for it and one is the feeling that I haven't just been sitting on my ass all afternoon.”

True that. And peace out, Mr. B.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Six Sure-Fire (Almost) Steps to Getting Published

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?

3. Edit ruthlessly. Put the manuscript aside and then take a fresh look at it at least a month later. If this were a book you picked up at the store, would you feel compelled to finish? Compelled enough to plunk down hard-earned money?

4. Network intelligently. Listen to published authors speak whenever possible. Find writers' groups where published authors belong or give talks. Attend conferences and listen to editors and agents speak, along with other, more experienced writers (many unpublished writers are very knowledgeable). Try to find a few like-minded individuals (no blood relatives or close friends!) so you can exchange pages or manuscripts and critique each other's work. Listen to comments that resonate and ignore the rest (unless several people point out the same weakness). Then go back and revisit #3.

5. Research thoroughly. When you're ready to shop for an agent, find the right one. Start with agents who have represented the type of book you're trying to sell. When in doubt about the agent's honesty, check Writer Beware. Never pay a reading or marketing fee up front. If an agent offers representation, get and check client references. Same goes for publishers. Be especially careful with small, new ventures.

6. Have the talent, drive, persistence, luck, and the guts to cop to your ambition.

There you have it. The honest to goodness "secret" of publication. The rest is up to you!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

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

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, beginnings I could never continue, never go on with. More and more, with age, my life seems to exist to be turned into these quiet pages, into literature. People I have loved are put to rest in one or another novel or story; relationships are sorted out in poems, then abandoned, or the other way around; the deepest, most engaging and damaging moments of my life become notes, then pages and, finally, books. This is the purpose my life has taken. Maybe in the end it's only that I want to leave a mark, something to show that I've been here.

Turner reTurners in Cripple Creek and Salt River, and as much as I love Sallis' writing and these books, I have to add one small note of disgruntlement:

In a stunning bit of bad form, the flap copy for Salt River contains an agonizingly huge Cripple Creek spoiler. The story builds forward from the end of one book to the next, but the spoiler could have been avoided with a rice grain of ingenuity. C'mon, Walker & Co PR schlub, you just punished me for buying all three books at once. Pox and sores and a dead hooker in your bathtub.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Emily Bryan, on Staying Published

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 mother thinks it was because my covers were not 'clinches.' My husband says it's because my heroes were all Norwegian (like him!) I'm not sure why it happened, but I can only say how grateful I am for my editor, Leah Hultenschmidt, who stuck with me despite the numbers."

BtO: When did you decide it was time to make a change?
Diana/Emily: I had written 3 meaty, dramatic epics and was ready to try my hand at something lighter. I was already kicking around the ideas that became DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS even before Leah called me with the news that SILK DREAMS did not get the "buy in" from booksellers she'd hoped. I still had another title left on my 2 book contract, but I was afraid that in the light of the disappointing buy in, Dorchester might decide to let the 2nd one go. I pitched the DUCHESS to Leah and she agreed that it was time for something different. She gave me the green light to try to write DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS but since it was such a departure from my previous titles, it would have to come out under a different pen name.

BtO: How did you choose what to write next?
Diana/Emily: With fear and trembling and a sick feeling in my gut. I'd just been told my writing career was veering off course before it even got off the ground and I chose this moment in time to try to write something funny. Sheesh! Plus, I had no idea how difficult comedy is to pull off. I was working 40 hours a week at my day job, writing frantically nights and weekends. But I took a deep breath. I had terrific support from my husband (the man cleaned the house and did the laundry so I could write all day on Saturdays. Now that's my idea of a hero!) I decided whatever else happened, I was going to have fun writing.

So I did. I made my heroine outrageous for her time period. (A widowed duchess who paints nudes!) I made my hero over-the-top sexy. (An accidental nude model with nothing to hide, except the fact that he's Her Majesty's spy!) Whatever it took to turn my story into a thrill ride, that's the direction the plot took. I finished writing it in record time. The result was DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS, a story RT BookReviews calls "a sexy, fast-paced romp!"

I guess desperation works.

BtO: Or maybe it's "letting yourself go" and having fun with the writing!
Though all of your Diana Groe books have been wonderfully reviewed, Distracting the Duchess is off to a stellar start.

Yes, even though it won't be in stores till Feb 28th, the signs are good. DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS is the first of my titles to receive a Publishers Weekly review! (BtO note: And a good one!) Kind of the gold standard in the biz. The buy in has been strong and--here's the best part--the DUCHESS will be sold in Wal-Mart! Now you have to understand that most of my extended family lives in small midwestern towns for whom Wal-Mart IS the only bookstore. Since none of my Diana Groe books were sold in Wal-Mart, some of them still don't really believe I'm published. Of course, since DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS is going out under my new moniker, Emily Bryan, a few of them probably still won't believe it!

BtO: Welcome to the wonderful world of relatives! :) So, did starting anew make a difference in your writing process?
Diana/Emily: I do more pre-work than I used to. I plot more heavily ahead of time, but I'm freer to deviate if I discover something in the process of writing my characters. I've never had the luxury of waiting for the muse. I've always been a fierce devotee of writing whether I feel like it or not. Now that I'm writing light-hearted, fun and ('scuse me while I blush!) sexier stories, I almost always feel like writing.

Have there been any benefits that you've seen to getting a do-over?
Diana/Emily: I've really been blessed by my editor's willingness to take another chance on me. Even though we live or die by the numbers, Leah is a genuine person who's committed to my growth as a writer.

Any time we re-invent ourselves, growth is inevitable. I'm happy to report that I have two more Emily Bryan books on the way, PLEASURING THE PIRATE in August (in time to be your release mate again, Colleen! We can be beach reads together!) and VEXING THE VISCOUNT for spring of 09. Another incredible blessing is that the day job is gone. Now I'm a full-time writer.

BtO: That's fantastic! Congratulations!

Diana/Emily: Thanks. Of course, this means my husband no longer cleans the house or does the laundry, but it's a sacrifice Emily Bryan is willing to make.

But I have to confess that part of me is hoping that readers who like my Emily Bryan books will look for my Diana Groe stories, too. And for those of you who enjoyed my Vikings, please give my Victorians a try. They aren't the usual suspects. Light or dark, serious or silly, we need both to stay balanced. I hope Diana Groe and Emily Bryan will both find a home on lots of readers' keeper shelves.

BtO: Do you have any advice for writers facing adversity?
Diana/Emily: I first met NYTimes Bestseller Bobbi Smith in May 2006 when MAIDENSONG first hit the shelves. She gave me some advice that has stuck with me.

"Stay published."

BtO: Great advice. People underestimate how very, very important that is. And how difficult.

I was green enough at the time not to realize how profound this statement was. But if you're building a writing career, the goal is to always have another book coming. To do that, you need to keep writing. Everyday. Whether you feel like it or not. I've dashed a few paragraphs in the car before my workday began and I've written on an envelope at my grandmother's hospital bedside while she slept. As writers, we need to be able to slip into that vivid dream that is our fictional world. Especially when we're facing adversity.

Surround yourself with people who build you up. Find critique partners you trust. Have a plan. but don't be afraid to try something totally new. You never know when you're going to find the joy you started writing for in the first place. Please stop by my websites (yeah, I've got 2 of them!) and There's usually a contest going and check out my Writer's Corner!

Thanks, Colleen, for the opportunity to talk with your readers. You rock!

BtO: Thanks for joining us, Diana/Emily, and for having the courage to talk about what all too often is publishing's "dirty little secret." As we've discussed here on previous posts, there are many, many authors who have flourished in their second or third (or more) tries as publishing success. "Adapt or die" isn't just a Darwinism, it's a reality in any business.

I can't wait to read your new book!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My new hero: Timothy Egan on "Book Lust"

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, February 23, 2008

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.

Friday, February 22, 2008

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

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: "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely...."

Another fun feature is the Open Dictionary, where users can submit words they'd like to see introduced into the lexicon.

A few recent entries that made me smile:
swellow (noun) : a swell fellow
"This kind teacher of ours is a swellow."

ediot (noun) : Someone who thinks he or she can edit—but can't. (Can also be applied to video—a vidiot.)
"She thinks she's an editor, but, looking at that manuscript, I can see she's really an ediot."

belaborate (verb) : to make a point of explaining something using an excessive amount of details [belabor + elaborate]
"Don't ask him anything unless you can spare five minutes while he belaborates."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Grand Passion

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're animated, smiling, with eyes that glow with joy. If you watch their body language, they lean forward, motion with their hands, shake off outward signs of stress or illness. Even if I don't really "get" what they are into (i.e. golf, NASCAR, modern dance, llamas), I still gravitate toward this radiance, this shared language of love.

And I feel darned sorry when I meet those who haven't found their passion. What must it be like to go those life's motions without a flame to light the lantern of one's soul?

P.S.- Graphic is from and is excerpted from Karen Salmansohn's Quickie Stickies: 100 Pick-Me-Ups for When You're Feeling Unglued. Check it out!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

See you at the movies?

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 Sinclair's role as the progenitor of 'There Will Be Blood' was not noted. [The film was inspired by his 1927 novel 'Oil!']"

This is an old story; Ken Kesey, Wilner notes, went unacknowledged when "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" won the best picture Oscar in 1976, and 19 years later, Winston Groom was similarly slighted after "Forrest Gump" took the top prize.

Such a disconnect is particularly ironic this year because so many films, nominated and otherwise, have roots in literary work. Not only is there "No Country for Old Men" and "Away From Her" but "The Namesake" and "Atonement"; not only "There Will Be Blood" but "Persepolis." Literature figures even in "The Savages" and "Margot at the Wedding," which deal, in part, with the struggle to come to terms with writing, its odd and at times parasitic connection to the world.

What does this signify? I have a friend who believes people tend not to trust something that lacks an established lineage, that there is a cachet -- for producer and audience -- in a film that comes from an iconic book.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Old Dogs

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, something to the effect of, "Sister, you need notecards." She explained how something in the act of writing out cards and sliding them around on the table helped her immeasurably.

I'll confess. Inwardly, I was rolling my eyes. Notecards were not part of my process. Sure, sticky notes with key scenes come into play after I sell the proposal and want to keep the major plot points in front of me, but I've never used them during the initial plotting.

Still, I was desperate after a week of banging my head against the keyboard, so I gave notecards a whirl, adapting them to mesh with my process. I jotted everything I knew about each character (and there are a lot) on a card, then grouped the cards by relationships. It helped me straighten out everybody's history, love affairs, familial relationships, and what have you.

And as if by magic, something clicked. Now I have a much clearer idea of the story as a whole. At last, I'm ready to tackle the synopsis once again.

The moral of the story is not that any one methodology is necessarily better than another. What works for one book won't necessarily work for another. But as long as you're willing to keep trying new things, to keep learning and adapting, the Old Dog can continue building better books.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Deadly Sins: Writer's Block & Workaholism

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 longterm with no respite leads to a Very Bad Place -- and anti-anxiety prescriptions.)

4. Do you
A. have trouble staying at your computer or
B. feel guilty enjoying outings, movies, trips, or books that are unrelated to your writing career?

5. Do you
A. struggle to sit down at your desk each morning or
B. wake up in the middle of the night, bubbling with either anxiety or ideas and then get up to write?

The more A's you have, the more prone you are to writer's block. If this is a big problem for you, I highly recommend you read THE WAR OF ART by Stephen Pressfield, which is the best book I've ever read for helping writers (or anyone) overcome "resistance." THE ARTIST'S WAY by Julia Cameron is also recommended, particularly her recommendations on journaling and exercises to help you bash through blocks.

If you have mostly B's, you tend to be a workaholic. You need to focus on finding more balance in your life and set aside time (make a schedule if you have to; put it in your Day Planner!) for things such as (your choice) spiritual, social, family, or physical development. THE ARTIST'S WAY by Julia Cameron is also an excellent resource, especially her suggestions on taking walks out of doors and setting up an "artist's date" with yourself at least monthly to help "refill the well" of your creativity.

If you're out of balance in this area, you're not living fully. And in the end, that's a heck of a lot more important than this business's fleeting bee-stings to the ego or some kind of manic need to out-achieve every hyper-competitive author on the planet. You owe it to yourself to keep in mind that your success or failure as a writer in no way equates to your success or failure as a human being.

So get over yourself, get out of your own way, and try to have a little fun along the way.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Triple Exposure's Cover Unveiled

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!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

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

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 her fiction for grown-up readers brought her the greatest fame. In 1988 Whitney was named a Grand Master, the Mystery Writers of America's highest honor. In 1990, she received the Agatha award, for traditional mystery works typical of Agatha Christie, from Malice Domestic.

Time magazine in 1971 called Whitney one of "the best genre writers" and the only American woman in the romantic suspense field with a major reputation. Whitney's adult romantic mysteries always had a vulnerable female protagonist, because "that's the point of view I have," Whitney said in 1989. Among her best-sellers were "Feather on the Moon," "Silversword," "Flaming Tree," "Dream of Orchids," "Rainsong," "Emerald" and "Daughter of the Stars." She said her books were successful because "I tell a good story."

"I offer optimism," she said. "All my books have happy endings. I don't see any point in letting my readers down at the end. I'm an optimist — people feel that in my books."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Week: Hysterical Networking

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 over attending editors and agents at conferences, who monopolize conversations with lengthy, invariably-boring descriptions of their own manuscripts and who trumpet every perceived success as if it's the second coming. They hang all over those they perceive as winners and ignore or gossip over any who have fallen on hard times.

I've posted a well-known print of Anne Boleyn, an infamous social climber, to illustrate, but I imagine each person reading this is picturing someone whose interest, upon meeting them, seems purely self-serving, whose every conversation leads toward some requested favor. It's too bad this type of person never seems to learn that genuine friendships are the ones that prompt others to willingly offer assistance, that no one on the planet enjoys feeling played or used.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Four Naked Chests and a Pickup: That Oughta Cover It

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 mowing lawns in the neighborhood), but I have to admit, I'm not crazy about the steamy covers, either. I don't want to have to think about what book I can carry to the doctor's office or read in front of kids, nor do I wish to have to put a "plain brown wrapper" type disguise on my reading material.

But clearly, lots of women love that sort of thing. If you follow the link above, you'll see what I mean. Yep. Four gorgeously-naked chests and a pickup (with my favorite big, black spider crawling into second place.)

In other countries, tastes are different. Which is why, just for fun, I've also posted the eye-poppingly red Polish cover of Head On. Quite a different look, isn't it?

So what types of covers do you prefer on the books you purchase? Which covers entice you to pick up a book an a writer you don't know? If you're an author, what type do you like or envision for your own work?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The healing art of housekeeping

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 sneakers, MIA school books, and drive-through midden. Now every surface was fingerprint-free. Not a speck of dust slumbered on the dashboard. Not a single French fry strayed under the backseat.

“You deserve better,” Gary said. One of those little thunderbolts of truth hit me.

After several years in the deliciously undisciplined environment of a home office, my work life had become a perpetual Casual Friday. Jammy pants and an old T-shirt were my standard uniform. My trusty English Springer, Redbone, never seemed to mind the stacks of papers, books, magazines, and manuscripts, and on the rare occasion anyone else ventured into my lair, I would hastily clear a pile of debris from the corner easy chair, assuring them (and myself) there was a “method to the madness.” That same lame excuse and sloppy standard gradually spread like a virus through the rest of my house.

Order is a fundamental element of feng shui. You can’t be comfortable in a room that presents you with a list of chores the moment you enter. Applying that concept to life in general, and my home office in particular, I realized I could no longer blame the chaos on my “creative personality.” The more chaotic my work environment became, the less creative (and less productive) I was. The more I scrambled at work, the less mental and physical energy I had for domestics, relationships, and other areas of life that can only stand a certain amount of neglect, from filing the taxes to walking the dog. How could I have wandered so far into the swamps of Slobovia? It’s like the old frog-in-a-pot thing. If you toss him in when the water is scalding hot, he’ll immediately jump out, but if you put him in cold water and gradually turn up the heat…frog soup.

“I’m coming over,” said my friend Janine. “I’m sick of listening to you complain about it.”

“Oh, that—that would be great, but um, this week really isn’t good,” I stammered. “And next week I have that deal with the thing and, um, all that.”

“You just need a little help getting started,” she said firmly.

Clinging to my inertia like Linus to his security blanket, I manufactured every conceivable excuse, but she showed up the following Wednesday. Janine should be a UN weapons inspector.

“What’s this?” she asked, indicating two laundry baskets of stuff I’d cleared from my desk six months earlier in order to make room for six more months of stuff, which I would eventually shuffle into two more laundry baskets, pretending I was going to sort through it all someday. This was valuable stuff! Six-year-old rebate forms, a complete list of Pulitzer-winning novels, schematics for a Klingon Bird of Prey (or “B’rel” in their native tongue), and a bunch of other stuff, which was important enough to occupy a patch on my desk at some point and therefore could not be discarded without due process. Janine took one look and discerned my sorting through those baskets was about as likely as OJ finding the real killer. Sensing her evil intent, I mumbled, “I’m not ready to attack that area yet.”

“I am,” she calmly replied, pitching the top layer into the circular file. “Throwing away other people’s junk is easy.” I started to protest, but she held up her hand. “If you ever really did need anything in here, would you be able to find it?”

“Of course! Because, you know, there’s a—a method to the...”

She shriveled me with one of her don’t mess with me I’m a PhD looks and asked, “Which do you value more, the junk or the space?”

“Space?” I said uncertainly, then quickly realized I was certain. “Space.”

By midmorning, the deconstruction was well under way, and Janine had abandoned me, as if she had her own life or something. I despaired momentarily, but there’s a certain cauterizing logic to both spiritual and literal housecleaning; it has to get worse before it can get better. I bolstered myself with that thought all afternoon. Three days later, I was bolstering myself with the thought of fire bombing the house and fleeing to New Zealand with the insurance money. The mess migrated into the hall, blocking the stairway and bedroom doors. Ghosts spilled out of the storage closet; mummified remains of failed endeavors and foiled connections. Gary carried out bag after bag of trash, but internally, the process had become more about what I was keeping than what I was throwing away.

I dragged open a file drawer of rejection letters, and instead of seeing all the people I would someday flip off during my Academy Awards acceptance speech, I discovered a series of stepping stones that took me exactly where I needed to go. As I fed them through the shredder, the bitterness they once represented turned to confetti. Under my desk were three boxes of cards and letters; six years of fan mail and hate mail, newspaper clippings, post cards from hither and yon. The challenge here was separating those few scrapbook-worthy items from the wave of paper that constantly bombards the mailbox. As I drew each item from the box, I asked myself, Do I really need this? If so, where does it belong? If not, am I keeping it out of some sense of obligation to the sender or because it actually means something to me? I held onto a bundle of love letters from my first boyfriend. I tossed a stack of ancient (we’re talkin’ 5 ¼ inch) floppy disks whose contents shall forever remain a mystery.

The personal stuff I kept was all about remembering who I was. Basically, anything with archival value—artifacts that would someday tell the story of my life and make my grandchildren say, “Hmm. Maybe Grammy Joni wasn’t such a loony old bat after all!”—could stay. But that get well card from Aunt Myrtle could be thought of as a kiss, I decided. Precious and appreciated in the moment it was received, but never intended to last forever. The business stuff I kept was all about remembering who I want to be. Unfinished projects were sorted into two piles: “Work I Care About” or “Not Worth My Precious Time.” It was that simple, I realized. As a clear vision of my mission emerged, all that stuff other people thought I could or should be doing began to look more and more like garbage. The physical act of purging the file cabinets forced me to examine the order of my priorities, and ultimately, only the top-drawer stuff survived.

At midnight on the sixth day, I sank into my easy chair, breathing in the peaceful possibilities of my reclaimed space. The seventh day, I rested. And the following morning, I sat down to work, remembering one of my favorite Zen proverbs: “Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”

Over the next few months, my life underwent a subtle but profound change. The positive direction in my office spilled over into the rest of my house, my relationships, and the way I spent my time. Today, I’m better organized and more productive than I’ve ever been. And without the constant struggle to make excuses and tread water, I feel more relaxed than when I was shlubbing around in my jammy pants. By redefining my space, I redefined my purpose, and driven by that purpose, I find—even in the most tedious daily tasks—an undercurrent of joy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

GCC Presents: Jenny Gardiner's Sleeping with Ward Cleaver

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) I was there for Jenny Gardiner's unveiling, and the woman was glowing. I was sitting at a table with fellow Dorchester authors, along with Dorchester personnel. I heard editor Chris Keeslar say that he'd really hoped Sleeping with Ward Cleaver would win the competition because he really, really wanted to publish it. That kind of enthusiasm is tough to come by, especially when the voting public's essentially choosing which book the editor will work with. So kudos to Jenny, and congratulations on this month's publication.

Here's what the critics are saying:

“Gardiner’s fun, witty, romp keeps readers giggly from cover to cover. For a playful novel, that will inspire the reader to find ways to bring their own sexy back, read SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER.”—South New Jersey Mom Magazine

“With her sharp wit and hilarious descriptions, Ms. Gardiner has a delightful voice that left me wanting more.”—Night Owl Romance, Reviewer Top Pick

"Gardiner's potential comes through with a talent for description and a way with a sentence."
--Romantic Times Book Reviews

"SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER by Jenny Gardiner is a funny and frank debut novel that will 'speak' (witticisms and various pearls of wisdom) to many a woman."
--Heartstrings Reviews

“SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER was the perfect romantic comedy for a 30-something Mommy, who still wants to be a sexy sassy gal, despite the spit up encrusted on all of my clothing. I can only hope that Rob Reiner and his friends, will put this sassy book on the big screen.”—Mama Lit

“Jenny Gardiner achieves the difficult, if not impossible, task of creating sexual and romantic tension between characters who have been married more than a few years….Gardiner does a great job creating realistic and believable characters….SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER is a clever and engaging romance with humor and heart.”—Armchair Reviews

”The most refreshing book I have read in quite some time. Jenny Gardiner writes from a woman's point of view and doesn't veer away from it….The way Gardiner used satire and humor to express Claire's feelings and emotions was priceless. I would recommend SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER to anyone who enjoys some female insights, is frustrated with a man in her life, or who just likes a little humor.”—Roses & Thorns

"SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER examines the faltering footsteps of marriage through humor, reminiscences and through love....Jenny Gardiner had me laughing and empathizing with Claire's man troubles throughout SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER."
--Romance Junkies

"If you enjoy funny, laugh-out-loud books, stories of women going through mid-life crises, you will enjoy SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER. Although the situations are serious, the author looks at them with such a comedic bent that readers will laugh, even when the situation is somewhat grim....Well written and well paced, SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER is a romp and a lot of fun—it is a book readers are sure to enjoy."
--Romance Reviews Today

"For a fresh, funny, entertaining, read; SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER by award winning debut author Jenny Gardiner is sure to delight and amuse. ...SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER is a fun, quirky read that most women can absolutely relate to."
--Single Titles

"Highly relatable characters and situations bring this book straight into suburbia with the reader. Poignant and heartfelt, this book will make you laugh, cry and cheer."

"SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER is a fun, cheeky, often candid and thoroughly engaging story that hits on relationship issues to which many readers will relate."

"Oh. My. Goodness. I enjoyed this book so much! Love the title. Love the cover. Love the book!"

Monday, February 11, 2008

And speaking of stunning Dr. Wendy Harpham

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 returned to work, but when her remission didn't hold up, she reluctantly closed her practice, and set a new path for herself as a healer. She followed up with After Cancer, When a Parent Has Cancer, and most recently, the powerful Happiness in a Storm.

"A cancer diagnosis encourages us to know both the fragility and hopes of life, and with that knowledge to live most fully," Wendy says. "The intimate knowledge of what might have been lost (and might yet be) makes me feel today and everyday in a wonderfully intense way."

Wendy just started blogging -- a great link to pass along to anyone whose life is touched by cancer.

And click here to watch the video portrait that ushered Wendy into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. It just might change the way you live your life today.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Friends You Make Along the Way

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's courage, and share knowledge rather than hoarding it all to ourselves.

The good news is, you don't have to be a big bestseller to achieve these wonderful benefits. You don't even have to be published or successful on the contest circuit. All you have to do is share the dream, the love of words, and the need to put them down on paper (or its electronic equivalent). All you have to have is the courage to tell others, "I've loved writing all my life and want to learn more."

It took me many, many years to attend my first writers' group meeting and admit that. I still remember how I trembled, how hard it was for me to admit, even in a small way, how important my dreams were to me. Would the more accomplished and experienced writers laugh? Would the published authors sneer at the idea of a regular person thinking she could break into one of the toughest businesses around?
But the thing is, every writer, every published author remembers his/her first step. And nearly all of them are happy to gently guide the newcomer to the next step along the road, to get her started by offering up that helping hand.

So today, make a commitment to taking that first step – or to helping someone new who’s reaching out. You may find yourself the beneficiary of something more important than anything career-related. You may find a friend you’ll cherish for many years to come.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Scrabble on, Word Nerds!

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 closely, you'll see it there. It wasn't always that snowy.) We were up there to spot forest fires, but we somehow got assigned to live amongst the asbestos trees, so that didn't happen very often. Mostly, we played Scrabble. One of us got up and looked out the window every five or six words. (Your tax dollars at work!) So suffice it to say, the old man and I have played a LOT of Scrabble.

Gary is a guns-drawn, go-for-the-seven-letter-jugular kind of Scrabble player. He has his offensive strategy. He has his defensive strategy, which I find more offensive than the offensive strategy, because it's so dang dog-in-the-manger. He'd cut off his pinkie finger and lay it on the board before he'd open up a potential triple word score for someone else. If he sees my eyes drifting to a certain area, he slams it with some hideous hammer of Habakkuk that can't be worked off of. He agonizes over every word, especially if he's losing. I don't know if he's concentrating or just hoping that while he's sitting there pondering I'll drink several more beers and fall asleep.

Me, I'm very zen about it. I just lay down the first word that speaks to me. I will always make the word "love" if I have it, even if I could make more points with something else. Same for "peace". I just like the look of those words hanging out, intersecting with "ovulate" and "bobcat" and "evermore" or whatever. I think the tile gods look favorably upon this MO because the wins are pretty evenly split, and the losses are never too humiliating. Scrabble is one of the many ways in which the Gare Bear and I are well matched.

Over the years, we've developed some interesting variations on the game, and I will share those with you now, just in case your plans to actually have a life tonight fall through and you decide to join us in the joy of wordplay.

ScreeAAAAble! (Say it out loud. It's fun.)
This is a balls-out Scrab-tacular throw-down in which the rules can be changed at any time, but only by Mom. Because...well, because I said so! If Mom calls "All slates to the left!", players have to pass their letters around the table until Mom gets a slate she likes. If a younger player needs a little leg-up, Mom is free to say something like "STINK is now worth 75 points!" If an older player is getting cocky, Mom can call "No words containing the letters E, A, or O!" You get the picture.

Same play as usual, but the F-word is worth 100 points.

Words may not be recognizable from the accepted American English lexicon, but they have to make sense phonetically and have a root that makes sense with a definition supplied by the player. Example: tricampulation; noun, the arrangement of pop-up trailers in a three-sided configuration. Or how about embiblify; verb, to render bibbed, as a baby, for the consumption of messy foods.

Strip Scrabble
Self explanatory. (Two players only.)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

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

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.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

When the Sun Blinds

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 piece of crap to me, and --

Long-suffering Writer Friend (LWF): You've done it once. You can do it again.
(Thinking: *Die*, you neurotic twit! I'd kill to have that kind of trouble!)

ATA: You're such a good friend. I don't know what I'd do without you. But-but what if I can't --

LWF: I've gotta run. I'm really sorry, but someone's at my front door.
(Thinking: It's sure as hell not opportunity, but even if it's Freddy Kruger, I'd rather get chain-sawed into bloody bits that continue this conversation.)

ATA: Oh... all right. But can we get together later? I'm really in a crisis here.

(LWF fantasizes about ripping the chainsaw from Freddy's hands and going after ATA.)

The truth is that like anything else, success (even when it's of the much more modest variety) can prove enormously distracting and certainly puts pressure on the writer. But the other truth is the writer needs to stop and think before she cries on the shoulders of struggling friends (if you want them to remain friends) about it. Instead, try to find a mentor who's much more successful and/or experienced. Ask her honestly if she's ever found it difficult to work when things are going swimmingly and how she managed to overcome any feelings of insecurity. Because it's critically important to keep your head on straight at these times... and if nothing else, it helps to know that others have experienced and survived the blinding glare.

But don't go looking for a lot of sympathy. So quit calling me, Ms. Rowling!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

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

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. But they talked about utterly enjoying living in their bodies without a trace of apology or delusion about what their bodies are.

“Perfection is an illusion,” the old man told me. “Pursuing it is futile. And false.”

“Truth is beauty,” his wife nodded, “and beauty truth.”

Authenticity – not perfection – is the quality that makes fiction feel rich and resonant. A tree struck by lightning, an angry God, a stretch-marked mother, a gut-shot young man, two bountifully fed oldsters holding hands as the sun sets on their life together. Stories are made interesting and characters beautiful by trial, by scar, by imperfection.

But then comes that terrifying nudeness. You can tell, as a reader, when a writer is shielding herself emotionally. Or when she’s trying to disguise a flabby plot with an empire waistline of clever prose. But hiding and posing wastes so much energy. I’d rather spend those calories figuring out the best way to utilize my quirky creative impulses. Fat nude writing requires that we accept the essence of what we are at this moment. Yes, we are still committed to a lifelong learning process, an unceasing effort to become better, but at this moment right now, I am who I am, and I cannot write from any other self.

One of the few genuine regrets I have about my youth is that I turned down a role in the musical Hair, singing “My Body is Walking in Space”, one of my all-time favorite songs, in the nude. I didn’t turn it down out of modesty; I turned it down out of shame, which was stupid. I thought my body was just too, too mortifyingly awful. I was young, six feet tall, a size nine! I had an awesome body! The director tried to tell me that it was my vocal and physical uniqueness that made him want to cast me. But my tall, flat-chested body was not like other girls’ petite, busty little cheerleader bodies. And different equals wrong. Right? Different is bad. Ugly. He ended up casting a coloratura soprano who weighed about 250 lbs, and the song was one of the most stunningly beautiful moments of theatre I’ve ever witnessed. That fat nude chick blew the doors off the place. The song soared; her fearlessness was mesmerizing. I have mourned missing out on that moment of tastefully lit abandon onstage, and I try to avoid that chicken-livered mistake as a writer. Different art form. Same dynamic.

An older, wiser, more zaftig woman now, I doubt that I will ever have the courage to visit the nude beach, but I aspire to bare my soul through my work. For any artist, fear is a weakness. Uniqueness – abnormality, even – is a strength. And so is regret, I suppose, because at the core of good writing – plump, juicy, fat nude writing – is the torn and mended heart of the writer. Ungirdled, unbridled, unadorned.

(Above: "La Grande Odalisque" painted in 1814 by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.)

Monday, February 04, 2008

When the Rain Comes Down

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 come crashing down. But if you hang with this business long enough, you'll see example after example of disaster-struck authors rising from the ashes and coming back better and stronger and more successful than before. Some of the survivors change their names (as I did) to become born-again publishing virgins. Most change publishers and shift what they're writing by pulling a spark of strength out of their "failures" and blowing it into flame in an area more conducive to success. (I did all of this as well and ended up finding a subgenre I love writing more than ever.)

I know authors, terrific authors, whose careers have seemed dead and who have amassed an avalanche of post-debacle rejections come roaring back to great reviews, awards, and/or huge advances and/or bestseller lists. I have definitely learned to take the long view and not count anybody out as long as they're still writing, still submitting, and still (this is the biggie) trying to adapt. It's especially sweet to see these authors prosper because you know they've really earned success.

I've heard a veteran of the publishing game say if you're in this business long enough, everything will happen to you. Good reviews and bad, accolades and harangues, lines closing, publishers going under, great covers and terrible, sales success and failure. If you want and need stability, go work a nine-to-five gig with benefits, vacation time, sick days, and retirement. Because you aren't going find it here.

But if you simply have to box the octopus, nothing else will do.

Have any of you been through (or know an author who's been through) a dry spell, line closing, loss of agent/editor, or other publishing disaster? What are you doing to overcome it, or how did you manage?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Nothing to fall back on

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 and pursue one of the two greatest professions on the planet: English teacher or librarian. I didn’t dare voice the ridiculous idea that I wanted to write books for a living, but I pursued that as a passionate hobby between diaper changes. Gary and I agreed that I would return to school when our younger tadpole aged into kindergarten. Instead, I spent that year in cancer treatment. We were wiped out financially, and I was faced with a prognosis that reframed “lucky” to mean five more years of life. Three years of college was out of the question on several levels, but I’d learned through that experience that no matter how long or short my life turned out to be, I could not afford to spend one day of it being a terribly talented dabbler. If I was about to die, I decided, I was going to by-God die trying.

When I placed my first novel with a publisher, I felt like a total pretender, but my editor told me that a lifetime of voracious reading and unguarded living is the best possible education for some writers. He also (and mostly without laughing out loud) let me know how naïve I was to think that a contract on my debut novel meant I was going to make a living as an author. The following decade of financial Thunder Mountain Railroad proved him right, but sorting through my 1099s each year, I was happy to discover that I’d made more than I could have if I'd pursued any of the day jobs available to me, and there have been a few briefly shining times when I out-earned my massively over-educated husband.

What keeps me struggling uphill? Well, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells the war-weary Arjuna that it is better to die than to live a long existence that is not your own. A mother and a writer—that’s what I am. In my values system, driving a nicer car is not an acceptable substitute for doing what one is meant to do. But holding me to my noblest ideas of self and vocation is the pragmatic reality that I left myself no avenue of retreat. What keeps me struggling uphill is that the only thing I have at the bottom of the hill is cart-wrangling at Target. Armed with my high school diploma and glowing letter of recommendation from Jimmy Carter, I'd be forging a glamorous career in food service or hotel housekeeping.

What keeps me focused even when I have no deadline? Pure unadulterated pie-eyed optimism. A dogged belief that God’s hand is on me. I simply will never accept that God made me this way and brought me to this place as a cosmic joke.

“Who are we to question our purpose?” one of my critique partners said to me recently. Powerful words. I will remember them and know that God’s hand is still on me, even if I end up back on the street, playing guitar for Ramen.

(Photo above is a Philip Gendreau photo of model Beverly Stevenson doing a swan-dive, ca. 1940s.)

Friday, February 01, 2008

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

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 experience and that of the scores of authors I know, the backbreaking labor never gets easier, and certain books -- whether they're the novelist's fourth or fiftieth -- are particularly torturous.

But unlike Sisyphus, each writer makes a choice whether to push that boulder uphill with each day's work and every manuscript. And that choice makes all the difference in the world.

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?


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