Monday, March 31, 2008

A Master's Voice

One of the most difficult and frustrating facets of the writing game may be voice. It's tough to explain, harder to grok, and impossible to boil down to a simple set of how-to instructions. Yet voice, the unique way in which an author strings words, sentences, and paragraphs to build a story, is the factor that separates the good writer from the great author -- and the single quality that most excites agents, editors, and readers.

I belong to a critique group that includes five talented women. If each of us brought one page of a brand-new product to a meeting, and they were all mixed up, with no names, I'm dead sure that every single group member could match each page with the correct writer, in the same way that readers could correctly identify something written by, say, Janet Evanovich or Michael Connelly or Diana Gabaldon or (insert your favorite author). Voice is as good as a fingerprint in that way.

You can't go to a workshop to develop your voice. You can't find a shortcut how-to article or book that will help all that much. What you can do is write. And write and write and write until your voice finds you (which, according to the famous adage, happens after you've gotten every writer's million words crap out of your system.) And then hope its appeal is broad enough that you will find success.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

More on that Gulfstream

Joni's mention of the gulf stream piqued my interest, since I'm currently reading (and enjoying) Karen Harper's romantic suspense novel Below the Surface. In the book, she makes several references to the Winslow Homer painting "Gulf Stream." I loved that she did this, and I have to think that this painting is especially meaningful to authors. Here in the dangerous waters of publishing, there be dragons, sharks, and, you know, the occasional boxing octopus.

Yet most of us are like those valiant, death-defying sailors of old: too stubborn or addicted to quit riding the waves. So come and join me today (now that I've completed my galleys!) The water's fine!

On the road again and in a Florida state of mind

Trippin' to Florida, which was my favorite of all the places I lived as a kid. Gary and I flew over to bottle wine at my sister's and fetch the car back from the guys' baja road trip. Driving along the coast has always been good for words. Gulf stream of consciousness as it were. And then there are places like Destin, where my sister and I met up about this time last year...
I need the sea. The sea doesn't need me. The same is true of the publishing industry. The same is true of parenting children who are no longer children. It's vaguely insulting but on a deeper level liberating to know that the world of books, the lives of my children, the muddy swamp that is politics these days, all this and more will go on with or without my help, as sure as the tide rolls in and out whether or not I sit there. This realization spawns a mellower, less control freaky approach to life. It casts me as an observer, which is what a good writer must be before anything else.

Friday, March 28, 2008

It's never too late to be a wannabe

My nephew has been visiting, and hanging out with this 23-year old aspiring sci-fi/fantasy novelist has reminded me of the best and worst of what it is to be a wannabe. After staying up until after 4 AM two nights in a row, drinking copious amounts of homemade wine, smoking clove cigarettes, and talking impassioned talk about writing and life, he took off on a road trip to Florida with my son. I threw up and spent the rest of the day in bed. Having gone 46 years without smoking a cigarette and then smoking the entire four decades worth in one night, I was in sad condition. My head was buzzing with idealism, and my throat was acid-raw from laughter and tobacco.

"I'm way too old for these shenanigans," I told Colleen.

"Clove cigarettes!" she said. "I haven't even thought of those since college, when all the Sylvia Plath wannabees smoked 'em. Sounds as if you've had a couple of artsy nights and relived your misspent youth. What could be more fun?"

And you know she's right. (As usual.) We forget as we grow and move forward what it felt like at the outset. The visceral yearning to be read had little to do with money and everything to do with self-expression. Publishing was not a paycheck; it was the Emerald City. A word of encouragement was water in the dry land, even if it didn't come with a book contract. Friends, love, words, sex -- every slide of a pool cue was greased with hyperbole.

It's a little exhausting to be around that now, but good to be reminded that writing is a passion, not just a profession. No matter what I get to be in this biz, I always and forever wannabe a wannabe.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Modern-Day Galley Slave

Life as an old-time galley slave seriously sucked. By comparison, the author's galleys, also known as page proofs or galley proofs are nothing more than a light bump on the road of the writing life. But that doesn't mean they aren't important.

For the uninitiated, galleys are the writer's last chance to catch boo boos. These pages show up on one's doorstep between three and six months of the book's publication date. (Depending on your publisher, your time frame may be different.) The author usually has about ten days (with luck) to proofread them and get the corrected pages (or the whole kit 'n caboodle, depending on your publisher) back to the production editor.

It's expensive to make changes at this point, so the author can't mess around with flow or word her passages more elegantly (though I guarantee you, you'll find stuff you'd dearly love to revise). That ship has sailed already, during the editing stage. Only corrections, such as spelling, punctuation, grammatical, or continuity errors should be noted at this time. If you absolutely can't restrain yourself from making other changes, your publisher will usually charge you for the cost. (Check your contract.) Plus, the production editor will be seriously annoyed.

Because it's a very short deadline, everything else stops until this task is finished. And for some ungodly reason, galleys seem to show up at severely inconvenient times. Going on vacation? The DHL truck will pull up just as you're leaving - or right after. Have major holiday plans or a wedding to attend (even your own)? You're seriously tempting fate here. Need to get a new proposal to your agent or make another deadline? The galleys fall into your path as if by magic.

Other than their almost-always untimely arrival, however, I enjoy my final visit with each novel. (I never, ever read them once they're in print since by this time, I've already read the darned thing about a dozen times.) I see the book as the reader sees it, with its rough edges smoothed out, thanks to my previous work with various critique partners, my agent, and my always-insightful editor. Since I generally haven't looked at it for several months (at least) by this point and I'm by now hard at work on something new, I've gained enough distance to read and enjoy it as if for the first time. And as I catch those last few (I hope) typos, I weave an author's prayer into the pages: that the published book will find its way into the hands of those who'll love it, that readers will feel it a worthy purchase and mention it to friends, that book buyers and reviewers and judges and all those who impact my future as a writer will see the love and pain and hours that went into its creation and be blinded to my all-too-human failings.

Amen to all that, and I'll see you all the next time. My galleys are daring me to dawdle, so I'd better get to work.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Time & Distance & Revision

Did you miss me? I've been away from the blog, away from the Internet (gasp!) for about nine days. Thanks to Joni for keeping up BtO in such grand style.

I spent the week visiting my family across the country. It was a quiet trip. No gliders or mountain vistas or long hikes to view wildlife, but one of those introspective journeys where you spend hours and hours chatting with the folks who knew you first and face up to the You you might have been if you'd stuck around the homestead.

In addition to getting my family fix, the trip brought me a writing gift as well. With my nose forcibly pried from the grindstone, I was able to get enough time away and distance from the project at which I'd been laboring to give me valuable perspective. Somehow, I'd forgotten the lesson that it's blinding to stare at any one point so closely and for so long. Coming back to it now, I see it as if for the first time, as cleanly and with as much detachment as if I were editing someone else's work.

It's a valuable gift, this perspective. I'm going to try my best to remember it the next time I spend week after week churning through the same pages.

Hope you all have had a grand week too!

By the way, the artwork is Perspective Box 1660-1680 by Pieter Janssens Elinga. Find out more here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Applied physics: the natural laws of story

Gary and I were having an admittedly nerdy coffee conversation this morning, and as he was expounding on the finer points of Newton’s laws, it occurred to me that these indisputable physical laws can be applied quite handily in the universe of fiction. There are certain truths about character and plot development that do not change, and breaking those natural laws removes the element of reality good fiction needs.

Newton's First Law of Motion: An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
In every sentence of every scene of every story, characters have to have a reason for doing what they’re doing. An arc of change has to be set in motion by some credible catalyst, and a course of self-destruction or self-actualization can only be stopped or slowed by a believable obstacle. Even if the entire story takes place in a bathtub, some force – from outside or in – has to come along and upset the balance.

Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Once the story is in motion, there’s play and counterplay, crossing and countercrossing. Sometimes it’s a quick step, sometimes it’s a tango, other times everybody’s kung foo fighting, but always there has to be action and reaction in equal measure.

Newton's Law of Gravity: Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of the masses of the particles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

“That essentially means opposites attract?” I asked Gary this morning.

“No,” he said, “that means everything attracts.”

Which is of course the story of the glory of love. And hate. And Sunday dinner at the in-laws and war and peace and crime and punishment. The way characters are drawn to each other or flung into one another, crashing at intersections or being sucked in by a charismatic criminal or quietly coming together for a cup of tea. But on a larger scale, I think there has to be a sort of gravitational pull from the story itself that keeps the characters and events in orbit. What is this universe about? That’s the mass that guides the arc of change and keeps plot points from flying off into outer space.

PS ~ The way cool portrait of Sir Isaac above was done by artist Spencer Tomberg. "I attempt to capture a fragment of the complexity of the natural world in my paintings," says Tomberg. "By mixing geometry with images that are common to our minds I strive to honor the mathematical majesty that is hidden in our lives...It is a weaving of the human condition, culture and mathematics that brings my paintings to life and shows how we are a beautiful part of the natural world."

How do you not love that?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fact, fiction, and fudgery

Bob Hoover, book editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an interesting piece in yesterday's paper. "Separating fact from fiction is the author's job" discusses some recent cases where facts were fudged -- sometimes through honest mistakes and sometimes not -- and asks some important questions about who is ultimately responsible for making sure that non-fiction means yeah, we really really mean it this time.

Quoth Hoover:
We've become blase about the issue. Perhaps it was the excessive coverage granted James Frey and his trumped-up autobiography, "A Million Little Pieces," that prepared us for the too-familiar story of Margaret Seltzer, a woman in her 30s who pretended to be the survivor of gang life in South Central Los Angeles and wrote a book about it.

Every word of "Love and Consequences," including the "the's" and the "and's," (thank you, Mary McCarthy) was a lie. Yet, for three years, her editor at Riverhead Books, Sarah McGrath, apparently never challenged Seltzer's work. It took the author's sister to blow the whistle on her fraud, and the book was pulled from sale.

Publishers are not in the business of verifying every fact. They concentrate mainly on checking for plagiarism and libel.

It's not part of their tradition to challenge the contents of their authors' work, but to judge whether the book will succeed in a very competitive market.

"The most important thing for an editor, in my opinion, is keep the job separate from the policing functions of publishing," said Daniel Menaker, who edited fiction and poetry at the New Yorker magazine and Random House for more than 35 years.

I totally agree with Menaker. Thank goodness we live in a world where people never lie, especially when there's a big bucket of money involved, so editors are able to do that.

Oh. Wait.

When I sign on as a ghostwriter for a memoir, an important part of my job is to thoroughly research the client's story to make sure s/he isn't going to be embarrassed by honest errors or hazy recollections. My clients want to be as accurate as possible about everything from the phase of the moon on the night a baby was born to the spelling of the Bulgarian village from which Great-Grampa Czievteksky emigrated. They want to honestly tell their life stories.


Working on a project for a major publishing house a few years ago, I uncovered an uncomfortable truth: the client's story was inconsistent with the research. I went to the editor with this discovery and was subsequently fired with stern reminders that divulging any information to which I'd become privy through the interview process would result in me and my children's children's children being pounded to glass by the client's legal team.

You better believe that I will take that information to my grave (as I will take ALL my clients' private communiques to my grave), so don't bother asking who it was. The project never made it to the bookstore. I later learned that I was the fourth writer who'd been brought in, and two more writers were hired and fired before the thing totally imploded. (I was lucky to be protected by a good collaboration agreement; they got screwed. Repeat after me, class: KILL FEE, KILL FEE, KILL FEE.) In my humble opinion, that editor (and her boss, who was all but sucking the client's toes at our initial project meeting) acted in monumentally bad faith, so I had a hard time feeling bad for them when they got burned. Frankly, swallowing the advance they'd paid out was a cake walk compared to what Sarah McGrath is going through.

So what may we extract from this hideous little tale of fact, fiction, and skulduggery? I think it's that editors and publishers can't pretend to live in a vacuum. Babies are not found under cabbage leaves, and if you are in the business of obstetrics, you'd better know that. Yes, fact checking is the author's job, but author checking is the publisher's job.

Other than that one bad experience, I've worked with wonderful editors who are skilled in the craft of editing and savvy to the biz of publishing, in addition to being delightful, decent, honest folks. New York is full of terrific book people, and every year there are dozens of carefully wrought, candidly told memoirs published. That's the way it can and should be, but it takes a Village, you know?

Hoover concludes:
The truth is that in order for a nonfiction book to be accurate, the author must be willing to recheck every fact. The publisher isn't.

So, in the future, I think it's fair to blame the writer -- for errors of fact.

As for the Margaret Seltzers of the business, the responsibility is on the company that publishes the lies.

True that.

PS ~
Mr. Hoover and I exchanged a few emails after I posted this. He killed a little chunk of my soul by telling me, "What's happening now with me and other book editors is that when we see a memoir arrive -- I received 3 last week alone -- we immediately toss it on the bottom of the pile. There's just too much doubt right now."

But then he cracked me up by adding, "I'm sure that when Dick Cheney's memoir is published, all will be well again in the business, right?"

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter for heathens: "Bunny"

Last year, I waxed sentimental on Easter Sunday. But it's been a crazy kinda Lent this year, and nothing says Happy Easter like Tom Waits and a bunny sticking his head in the oven.

Or for the very, very cynical amongst us...the Easter bunny hates you.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Building your book (a publisher's perspective)

An interesting post on "The Right Way to Build a Book" from Theodore Savas of small historical press Savas Beatie:
The fundamentals for selling any book are essentially the same. Here is the secret: talk about your book as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for as long as you can, wherever you can, even if you don't sell a single copy when you do. Oh, and there is a follow up: REPEAT--REPEAT--REPEAT.

...Do you have copies with you all the time? Have you sent a letter to everyone you know telling them about your book? Are you talking about your book as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for as long as you can, wherever you can, even if you don't sell a single copy when you do? Are you asking people who they know in the media that can help you?

The honest answer to that question will explain a lot the next time you open a royalty statement or read in the news about some author who has a bestseller that is no more interesting than the book you spent years working on. What does he know that you do not? What is he willing to do that you are not?

The post details a recent baja hay-making trek Savas shared with author Gary Moore to promote Playing With the Enemy. Check it out.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I've discovered who I am as a writer: a reader.

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write," Stephen King says in On Writing, and that was a boot to the head I needed at the time. As the mom of two young kids, a maniacally devoted church lady, PTO volunteer, and newly published author, I realized I'd been reading less and less, and the books I crammed into my sleepy head in the last grabby moments of my waking day were mostly research or writing/publishing how to books. Then Joan Drury, the wise woman who edited my second novel (she was "Joanie the Greater" and I "Joni the Lesser" a la Biblical distinctions) pointed out to me one day that a person who's never written a break-out bestseller is ill-equipped to tell others how it's done, and a writer is much better advised to read books that restore the love of language and refresh the joy of story, which is what drew us into the world of books to begin with. She gave me an "assigned if the spirit moves you" reading list that took me back to my reading roots, and sure enough, it totally re-energized me as a writer.

So here are a few books on my "assigned if the spirit moves you" (so as not to feel home-worky) list of books that might remind you why you write. The list ranges from classic Camus (The Stranger) to classic camp (Valley of the Dolls -- oh, yeah, that's right, I said it!) and includes favorites from way back when and right up to now. Read. Reconnect. Enjoy. And please hop in and share your list of Books That Made Me Want to Write.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pax vobiscum, Sir Arthur

The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was with my big brother Allen. He took me and my sister Diana to the Rivoli Theater in LaCrosse, Wisconsin for an afternoon matinee. The sun was getting low and it was bitter cold when we got home to find that we'd locked ourselves out of the house, and we huddled in the station wagon for hours, discussing the film's weighty themes and artistic nuances until Mom got home to let us in.

This from the BBC obituary yesterday:
Science fiction writer Sir Arthur C Clarke has died at the age of 90 in Sri Lanka. Once called "the first dweller in the electronic cottage", his vision of the future, and its technology - popularised in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey - captured the popular imagination. Arthur C Clarke's vivid - and detailed - descriptions of space shuttles, super-computers and rapid communications systems were enjoyed by millions of readers around the world. His writings gave science fiction - a genre often accused of veering towards the fantastical - a refreshingly human and practical face.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Seeing dead people

My novel in progress begins with the discovery of a dead body buried beneath the oleander in the protagonist's backyard, and the cascading wall of research that ensued led me to the web page of Houston's own Dr. Ed Uthman, pathologist, web worm, deep thinker, enthusiastic ranter, and apparently really, really cool guy. Hard research resources that I will definitely be visiting and revisiting include A Screenwriter's Guide to the Autopsy ("Remember the brain? We left it suspended in a big jar of formalin for a few weeks. After the brain is "fixed," it has the consistency and firmness of a ripe avocado. Before fixation, the consistency is not unlike that of three-day- old refrigerated, uncovered Jello."), an introduction to Forensic Pathology, and a delicious section on Exotic Infections ("For medical students, any treatment of infectious diseases at the survey level will of necessity leave out a huge amount of medical knowledge, so please consider this an apology in advance for when your Medicine attending drills you about "Lobo's disease," and you have no idea what it is. Well, at least now you know how to spell it.")

"If you enjoy watching someone deterioriate with age, I have a series of personal photos," says the good Doctor. Shown here is a man and his brain, circa 1977. The moment I saw that, Dr. Ed Uthman ratcheted directly to the top of my fantasy dinner party guest list. Now that's what I call dead sexy.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I wanted to take a moment to introduce BtO's readers to the new web resource,, that Joni has put together for us. The website contains some of the best of the blog, links to helpful writers' resources, and a bookstore that includes helpful books on writing, recommended reads, and (naturally!) our own books.

Thanks so much, Joni, for all the work you've put into the site and into BtO's sleek, new look! Readers, please let us know what you think or any suggestions you might have.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More on Collaging

Not so long ago, I posted about a number of methods used to brainstorm a new novel. For my most recently-released novel, The Salt Maiden, I mentioned the use of collaging, which is a technique I picked up from several authors, including Susan Wiggs, Barbara Samuel, Jenny Crusie, all of whom, I'm 100% sure, are more artistic than I am.

But I won't knock anything that works, so when I recently rediscovered my original collage, I snapped a photo before tossing it, mostly because I thought it would be interesting to see how closely this idea-catcher resembled the final novel. I've done this with other prewriting plans (usually webbing, which I described in the linked post, or occasionally in poorly-rendered sketches) and have been surprised to find that these may have formed a springboard to the ideas that formed the synopsis and, after much hair-pulling, a novel, but they've borne little if any resemblance to the final product.

Not so with the collage. I was surprised to find it a close match, not so much in the detail department (most if not all of the characters names were changed. I never know who they really are or what they should be called until after I've lived in their skins awhile.) But what I call my "guiding vision" for the book remained remarkably true, giving my imagination visuals on which to hang its many hats.

So does this mean I'll continue using collaging to plan every book? Nope. In fact, I've found it surprising unhelpful for planning the next manuscript I wrote. (Triple Exposure, coming in Aug. 2008, had a guiding vision informed by my real travels and experience.) But as I've mentioned before, it's one more trick for the act, and you can never tell which one you'll need to pull out of your pocket on any given day.

Adaptation is the lesson. Train your noggin to slurp up every technique you can, and don't be afraid to try it, reject it, bastardize it...

Whatever works to get you through the book.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The real deal isn't defined by numbers

According to the legend at the bottom of every deal report from Publisher's Marketplace, a "nice deal" is $1 - $49,000, a "very nice deal" is $50,000 - $99,000, a "good deal" is $100,000 - $250,000, a "significant deal" $251,000 - $499,000, a "major deal" is $500,000 and up. The legend is basically a waste of space, of course, because only a tiny fraction of authors make it past "good", and even those lucky ducks who do recognize the difference between the $100K and $250K per annum lifestyle. If PM actually wants to make this information useful, to give authors (and agents and editors) some actual frame of reference, they need to break those first two levels down to bite size and label anything over $150K "Neenur Neenur Neenur".

A far more accurate system for quantifying your latest advance: "The Real World Book Deal Descriptions" from John Scalzi's Whatever blog, which still cracks me up years later.
$0 to $3,000: A Shitty Deal. Because that's what it is, my friends. Possibly the only thing worse than a shitty deal is no deal at all. Possibly.

$3,000 to $5,000: A Contemptible Deal. The deal you get when your publisher has well and truly got your number, and it is low.

$5,000 to $10,000: A "Meh" Deal. It's not great, you know. But you can pay some bills. Get a few of these, and a tolerant spouse with a regular income, and you can tell your day job to piss off. This year, anyway.

$10,000 to $20,000: A Not Bad Deal. Note that "not bad" here should be said with a slight appreciative rise of the eyebrows and a small approving nod -- this is the level at which the money begins to look not embarrassing both to writers and non-writers. A couple of these, and you'll definitely be punting the day job (I did, anyway).

$20,000 to $100,000: A "Shut Up!" Deal. This needs to be said in the same enviously admiring vocal tone as a teenage girl might use to her girlfriend who is showing off the delicious new pumps she got at Robinsons-May for 30% off, or the vocal tone (same idea, lower register) Jim Kelly used when one of our number admitted to having at least a couple of deals in this range. With this kind of money, you don't even need a supportive spouse to avoid the Enforced Top Ramen Diet (although, you know. Having one doesn't hurt). But it's not so much that the other writers actively begin to hate you.

$100,000 and above: "I'm Getting the Next Round." Because if you're at this level, you can buy and sell all the other writers at the table. Get 'em a friggin' beer, for God's sake (ironically, this is the only level not thought up at the bar, but in the cold hard light of the next morning, by Shara Zoll).

Seriously. There's a lot of truth there. But we need to go one step beyond that and recognize that there are a lot of intangibles that have to be considered when striking a book deal, whether it's your first or forty-first.

I placed my first novel with a small literary press. (A book presciently titled Crazy for Trying .) I had no agent, so I fielded The Call on my own.

"What sort of advance were you hoping to receive?" asked the editor.

"Advance?" I gasped liked I'd been goosed. "Oh, I never expected you to offer me an advance."

He cleared his throat and quietly said, "Um...Joni? You're not supposed to tell me that."

"Ah. Right. I meant..." (Backpedal, girl, backpedal!) "I meant eight million. Yeah, eight million is what I usually get."

The fact is getting published by this prestigious little press was -- well, it was beyond stepping stone. It was elevator. It was oil rig. It was flying buttress. It was the vital difference between being a writer and being an author. In the course of that phone call, I went from being Joni Rodgers to being Joni (Crazy for Trying) Rodgers.

The editor offered me $4K, I gratefully accepted it, and took my kids to DisneyWorld. I've gotten bigger advances for subsequent books, but that was the biggest deal I ever signed.

The bottom line isn't always the bottom line in book deals. Getting that first book properly published is a huge, crucial step. Any advance is gravy on top of that critical career biscuit, and as you go forward, there are other concerns worth compromising for. Working with a particular editor. Building a relationship with a publishing home. Signing with a smaller press with a more motivated and personalized PR plan.

On the flip side, I was watching Suze Orman's spiel on PBS the other day, and she said two things that really resonated with me: "You are not on sale." And "Stop doing things that make you feel like a liar." It's really tough for me to be assertive about my own value, especially in the realm of ghostwriting, but homegirl here ain't no bargain basement. I'm good at what I do, and I work insanely hard at it. If I sign a deal that strips me of my self-respect, I am forcing every word and faking every smile. That doesn't serve anyone well.

It's been ten plus years since I struck that first book deal -- a nice deal, a sweet deal -- and I've learned a bit from every contract since. A good deal is not just in the dollars. It's in how I feel about my work, where it goes, and how it gets there.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Did Someone Say *Free Books*?

Publishers Weekly's "Beyond Her Book" blogger Barbara Vey is celebrating her first-year anniversary of filling us in on all things women's fiction. I love Barbara's friendly, positive take on the industry, so I'm one of more than 75 authors, publishers, and publicists donating goodies (in my case, an autographed copy of The Salt Maiden) to one lucky person who posts a comment on her anniversary post today, Friday, March 14th.

I hope you'll pop over and wish her a happy anniversary -- and let the powers that be at Publishers Weekly know we're glad to have a place to dish on romance and other chick-friendly fiction.

And on another note, thanks to Joni for all the hours she's put into freshening the look of Boxing the Octopus! We're trying to make the format leaner, cleaner, and easier to navigate. Any thoughts out there?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Workable shmerkable, it's all in the delivery

A telekinetic girl goes ape-crazy after getting her first period? What a crappy idea. No wonder the author threw it in the trash. An evil genius assembles a monster from human body bits? Yark! Hideous idea. And the author's husband was a literary lion. Certainly, he was right to throw the manuscript in the fire. And what's the market for a book with a fat, obnoxious protagonist? Worst idea ever. Who could blame the author for despairing? But Stephen King's wife rescued Carrie. Brave Mary Shelley resurrected Frankenstein. And sadly, John Kennedy Toole's heartbroken mom watched A Confederacy of Dunces win a Pulitzer after her son despaired and took his own life. I won't even bother mentioning the scores of agents and editors who told JK Rowling that her ten pound tome about a boy wizard was utterly unworkable.

So what grand moral may we extrapolate from these tales of tragedy and triumph? Perhaps it's that two things separate good ideas from bad: skilled execution and bald faith. Conversely, what damns a good idea to lameness? Hacking execution and lack of balls.

Think about that brilliant idea you just had as the iconic light bulb. Lacking energy, it dims and dies. And that's the easy way out, isn't it? Picking an idea apart, focusing on all the reasons why it won't work -- well, now you're off the hook aren't you? Why invest the effort? It never would have worked. And who cares? It was just an idea. We live in a cynical day and age. Nothing springs so quickly to mind as the negative. The why not. In an effort to bulletproof a manuscript or a proposal or a fragile beginning, we anticipate every snarky, snitty, undermining comment that could possibly be made. But if we cross over to the snark side, who's left to champion that idea?

I've decided that every idea is brilliant. There is no such thing as a stupid idea. Or an unworkable idea. Does that mean every idea warrants unflinching dedication and buckets of energy and time? Of course not. When I finish one project and I'm fishing the pondering pool for another, I like to say I'm dating several ideas but not in a committed relationship with any of them. You gotta kiss a lot of frogs, right?

Once I commit to an idea, I love it with my whole heart. I look for the why instead of the why not. That little light bulb needs all the electricity I can generate. A lot of ideas -- the vast majority -- return to the universe, but something always remains. A whip of dialogue, a character's name, the description of a tree. And when I look at all those not right now (or maybe just not right) ideas I dated, I don't see a pile of crap, I see fertilizer.

The image above comes from the wildly off the wall Toothpaste For Dinner.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Help Houston Fire Station 6 with Your Vote!

I owe my husband big time, not only in real life but in the writing department. He supports my career with gusto, has taken me seriously from Day One, and is my go-to guy for research involving emergency services. Recently, his Houston Fire Station entered Gallery Furniture's Create Your Own Commercial contest to win $25K worth of merchandise to replace their ancient, mangy furnishings.

I think their commercial came out great, but it needs votes to have a shot at winning (requires a quick & simple registration). If you can spare a few minutes to help out, please follow this link and cast your vote

Or you can simply visit Gallery Furniture and click on the video contest link, then find the entry for Station 6. Should be halfway down the "most recent" lists.

Most folks don't realize it, but the firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts in many places (Houston included), supply their own televisions, pots and pans, food items, bedding, newspapers, and telephones. And the guys would be very appreciative if
any of you could take a few minutes of your time to help.

Thanks bunches!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

When the Dogs Do Bark

Over the last few days, we've gotten into some wonderful off-blog discussions regarding Joni Rodgers' insightful post: "Consider the Source: Rise of the Cleverati," about those snarkier-than-thou amateur reviewers out to wow all of cyberspace with their evisceration of this book or that.

Since criticism and rejection come with the territory, authors do their best to shrug off the naysayers and those folks who seem to expend an inordinate percentage of their time on this planet posting rabid, one-star reviews on Amazon. From time to time, however, the harpies' talons punch straight through an author's protective armor. They can wound, and in some sad cases, kill an author's desire to continue writing.

Author Sue-Ellen Welfonder shared some valuable wisdom in the form of a Saracen proverb she uses whenever she needs to give herself a reality check. I thought it was so on-target, I asked for her permission to share it with BtO's readers. So here ya go:

"The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on..."

As you journey through the writers' life, keep telling yourself that you are the caravan. Keep your gaze set on your goal, which is delivering the stories only you can tell to those readers who will love them. Remind yourself that no book, indeed, nothing any human being can create, will appeal to every other person on the planet.

It's enough to please your readers and not the whole darned world.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Breaking Bad: the constant chemistry of change

It’s pretty rare to stumble on a TV show that actually makes it worthwhile to set aside your book for an hour, but I have recently become addicted to AMC’s original series Breaking Bad in which Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who goes into business with a former student cooking crystal meth.

In the first episode, we meet the remarkably unremarkable Mr. White, who works a second job at a car wash in order to support his pregnant wife and severely handicapped teenage son. When White is diagnosed with lung cancer and handed the darkest possible prognosis, his story shifts from sleepy to searing. What I love about this series is how the action – and there’s a whole lot of that – is all about the transformation of this character. It’s all about chemical reaction, about the subtle and explosive changes that occur when one basic element meets another.

The high concept is fantastically well-executed with brass-knuckle writing, inspired acting, and smartass-on production values. As often as we see cancer milked for sappy emotion and cheap sympathy on television and in the movies, this is the first time I’ve seen anyone capture the unpretty truth that cancer can be – and certainly was for me – an electrifying experience capable of galvanizing and focusing the survivor, utterly shifting both priorities and paradigms for whatever amount of time he/she survives.

Breaking Bad is a great lesson for writers, because it so graphically distills the one thing that makes a character true, a journey compelling, and a story impossible to tear away from: Change. The idea is beautifully summed up in the first ep. As Mr. White performs the usual chemistry teacher parlor tricks, struggling to pique the interest of his hypnagogic students, he tells them, “Chemistry is – well, technically, it’s the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change…Electrons change their energy levels, molecules change their bonds, elements – they combine and change into compounds. And that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle. Solution and dissolution over and over and over. It is growth. Then decay. Then transformation.”

Breaking Bad has been airing on Sunday nights at nine, but production was derailed by the writers strike, and I'm not sure what the future of the show is. (I've done my part, emailing AMC, producers, etc.) Watch this snippet below or click here to view Ep #1 online.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Dreamer vs. Writer vs. Author

I'll confess, it always bugs me when somebody comes up to me at a signing or a speaking venue and whips out that hoary line: "I've got this story in my head. I know it'd be a really great book, and if I get the time someday, I'm going to write it." The subtext is generally something to the effect of: "I'll be on Oprah with my first try, have People pounding at my door, and won't give a working hack like yourself the time of day."

These folks are the dreamers, of the same ilk as, well, me, when I fantasize about playing backup to Bruce Springsteen (I was born and raised a Jersey girl; this dream comes with the territory) in spite of the fact that I have no musical talent whatsoever. The dream is really vivid (including tanned and beefy lifeguard groupies eager to offer up a standing O!), but I haven't put the time in, don't intend to put the time in, and lack the genius for going beyond the printed note.

Much better than the dreamers are the writers, who not only have the dream but work their butts off to achieve it. They know what it is to lose themselves for hours in a story, for weeks or months or years on end. They read the craft books, subscribe to Writer's Digest, attend the classes when they can. Some of them will go on to become authors, but others, sadly, won't. Maybe they can't bring themselves to put the dream first. Maybe they can't bring themselves to risk rejection, or they let a few rejections or some creative writing teacher or contest judge's criticism crush them. Maybe they can't take the snidely "helpful" comments of their spouses or their friends or relatives. Not everybody has the strength and constitution to able to continually pick herself back up after smacking her head against the brick wall. And, sadly, some of those who work hard and accept the risk won't become authors because they simply lack the spark, or enough true spark, to coax into a flame.

And then there are the authors. These folks are the ones who work long and hard, who educate themselves the craft and the market and the business, who persevere in spite of all discouragement, and who have enough native talent to pull together the whole package. They gut out the long, tough process and hone their skills until they finally, finally (oh, blessed day!) find a publisher eager to pay them (sorry, but if you're paying the publisher, it is definitely not the same thing) for the privilege of turning the fruit of their dreams and hard work into a book.

So how do you know if you'll be a member of the last group? You don't - you can't = for sure, though there's a stubborn little corner of yourself that feels it, that believes it, that absolutely will not take no (even hell, no!) for an answer. If you've got that much on your side, at least you stand a chance.

And a chance is all the guarantee you're going to get.

Friday, March 07, 2008

So This Gets Easier... When???

Back before I published my first novel, I remember thinking that once I got the call, I'd have it all together. Be able to look in the mirror each morning and think, "Here I stand, a published author. I must know what I'm doing."

Instead, I celebrated for about two days and then worried about becoming a one-book wonder. But I was already working on a second book, another historical romance, and my agent prompted me to whip up a synopsis of the half-completed book and submit it with the first three chapters. Sure enough, my then-publisher bought the thing.

So then I started freaking about having to complete (with major alterations) an already-sold manuscript on a deadline. I somehow managed and for a while got caught up in building a website, promoting the first book, and yep, starting another proposal for a historical romance.

That was about the time I lost my first editor, so then I began freaking about pleasing the new one. And then another new one. And yes, friends, one more new one, as book after book became each new editor's red-headed stepchild.

Never a good thing. But seven books later, after a period of great angst, I ended up happily employed by another publisher and writing in a genre I adore. Things have gone pretty well there on the whole. Awards and nice reviews, an editor who's been a constant (thank God) and loves my work.

So this is the part where it gets easier, right? This is the place where I get to relax because after 14 sales, I surely must know what I'm doing.

Uh, no, darn it. Because each book has to be the very best that I can write, has to outshine all the others. Because the writing of most of them is damned hard, and it never gets one whit easier. Because even after all this time, I lose perspective on my own work and can't afford to get too cocky to accept and learn and grow from revisions.

Because no writer I've ever known, from the dewy-eyed first-timers to the New York Times bestseller, has been heard to lean back and sigh deeply and tell the world, "Now, I've really made it."

To do such a thing would surely be to tempt the writing gods to rain down havoc.

So if you're looking for that plush career you've imagined (I blame Barbara Cartland, pictured), the one where you get to work in your peignoir popping bonbons without a worry in your head, dream on. If you're looking to live with self-doubt, hard work, and no guarantees, you've come to exactly the right place.

A place a lot of us still think is worth it, nonetheless.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

I need to write a memoir about the good old days when "memoir" meant...well...memoir.

Yarg! Not again. Last week, it was Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca. (Not!) Just when we were beginning to forget about James Frey, who single-handedly smashed the credibility of memoirists into A Million Little Pieces. Now there's this from Motoko Rich's article in the NY Times yesterday:
In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.

Riverhead Books, the unit of Penguin Group USA that published “Love and Consequences,” is recalling all copies of the book and has canceled Ms. Seltzer’s book tour, which was scheduled to start on Monday in Eugene, Ore., where she currently lives.

In a sometimes tearful, often contrite telephone interview from her home on Monday, Ms. Seltzer, 33, who is known as Peggy, admitted that the personal story she told in the book was entirely fabricated.

Ironically, just last week, a Times review of Seltzer's book gushed:
Although some of the scenes she has recreated from her youth (which are told in colorful, streetwise argot) can feel self-consciously novelistic at times, Ms. Jones has done an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood...

Ms. Jones’s portraits of her family and friends are so sympathetic and unsentimental, so raw and tender and tough-minded that it’s clear to the reader that whatever detachment she learned as a child did not impair her capacity for caring. Instead it heightened her powers of observation, enabling her to write with a novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines.

Snarg. The next sound you hear: a memoirist's nostrils flaring. Come on. I saw that cheesey photo of her with the bandana and just wanted to smack somebody. When the news broke yesterday that the memoir was fake, I was not a jot surprised.

Since my own memoir was released in 2001, I've seen the legal reviews get tougher to the tenth power. I honestly can't fathom how something like this happens in the chicken-Freyed memoir market. Whose responsibility is it to see that the truth is told? How do we differentiate between lies and the adjustments to detail that have to be made in order to avoid lawsuits and condense the story into a readable form? Can the memoir market survive any more bad press? Or is the word "memoir" becoming synonymous with "bullshit"? I think it's time we in the industry start talking some serious talk about it. Please, baby Jesus, let me be invited to participate in a few panel discussions. I'm storing up the choice words.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Consider the source (rise of the cleverati)

Colleen just sent me a link to a snarky review of her latest book, and it put me in mind of a formative experience from my youth:

Charged at the tender age of 16 with the task of writing a huge term paper on the use of humor in Great Expectations, I procrastinated until the weekend before it was due, begged my big sister Diana to tell me about the book, then plied my precocious writing abilities, cranking out forty pages of double-spaced BS. When the papers were handed back a few weeks later, I'd gotten an A, which didn't surprise me because I always got an A in English. My teacher proceeded with class, something about sonnets, I think, but during his lecture, he paused and thought for a moment. He walked over to my desk, took my paper, etched over the A with an emphatic red F and wrote below it, "You are such a clever writer! You almost had me believing you read this book."

I happened upon that paper in my archives several years ago, and by cracky, it was clever. It was funny. (A whole lot funnier than Great friggin' Expectations, which I did eventually read.) It was well written. I have no idea what tipped him off. And I'm not convinced that I deserved that F. After all, I'd written forty clever pages. That's worth something...right?

The realm of book reviews has gotten agonizingly clever. (The term "snarky" basically means "shitty and meanspirited, but clever, by cracky!") You still have legit reviewers writing for the big venues, but low rent reviews are mostly written by a group I just this morning dubbed "the cleverati" who are primarily interested in showcasing their own talent for bitch-slapping authors who have no venue to talk back. There are a handful of infamous blogs dedicated to the express purpose of trashing books. Why would someone dedicate time and energy to reading and reviewing books they've decided in advance to hate? Your guess is as good as mine. The blogs aren't widely read. They basically exist to provide a format for members of the cleverati to revel in their oh-so-sassy glow stick wit.

From my pinnacle of 16-year-old wisdom, cleverness was enough. Nowadays, I'm shooting for actual insight.

Oddly enough, the snarky reviewer of Colleen's book sullenly concluded that Colleen was being shortlisted as a favorite author. In fact, the reviewer had read Colleen's last book and hated it enough to rush out and buy this one. We laughed about it. But Colleen is a seasoned pro. A first time author comes away from that sort of thing feeling utterly gut-shot. All we battle-scarred Amazons can offer by way of comfort is a shake of the head, a roll of the eyes, and a heapin' helpin' of "consider the source".

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

If Elected, I Promise Not to Bore You...

Here in mighty Tejas, it's election day. A primary this time, but an especially crucial one. We're not used to counting for much in the presidential primaries. Way too often, the nominee's a done deal by the time we roust our slacker butts to the polls. But this year we've been bombarded with messages telling us that we're important. That our opinions really count...

So I thought I'd take the moment to remind every reader out there, that your vote counts as well. When you love an author's work or take a friend's recommendation and buy a book brand new, you're voting (with your wallet) to let that author keep on writing more books for you to enjoy. When you haunt the used bookstore or skip over to Ebay to picked up a pre-owned copy, you're voting for that author to have increasingly weak sales, which will eventually put him/her out of business.

Now, like a lot of people, you may not think your vote counts. You may leave it up to other people (people with lots of money!) to do the paying and the choosing. But if enough of them choose to click those "Buy Used" buttons (yargh!), download a pirated scanned copy (boo, hiss!), or purchase bags of moldering paperbacks at yard sales (cough! hack!), you have only yourself to blame when bookstores go belly up, reading choices grow more limited, and you're set upon at street corners by packs of starving authors while the Philistines grow fat.

Now for the record, I have nothing against friends or family members sharing a book they've enjoyed, and I think libraries rock! (Note to library book buyers: The path to hell is not lined with mass market paperback genre novels. Not even those with "romance" printed on the spines.) I'm not even against trying out a new-to-you author you never would have tried otherwise at a library book sale or a used book store. But I'm all for supporting those authors I enjoy by purchasing their next books new. And if I really want to show the love, I try to do it in the book's first week of release, when my hard-earned bucks count the most.

So when it comes to authors you enjoy, don't forget: vote early and vote often! Really often, if you're voting for the authors of this blog.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sunday, March 02, 2008

It's the Story, Stupid

Back in the day, when Bill Clinton was first running for Prez, his campaign staffers kept their focus with the motto: "It's the economy, stupid." Writers would do well to do winnow down the locust-like swarm of important-stuff-to-keep-in-mind to a single mantra that keeps what's personally important in the forefront. Mine is "It's All About the Storytelling."

Craft is really important to me, as are (to a lesser extent) market-savvy, business sense, and intelligent networking. But every one of these can be trumped by story, and I can think of a number of gut-level, emotionally-engaging storytellers who have been hugely successful in spite of significant deficits in any or all of the other areas I've mentioned. Work by the story-rich but craft-poor tends to exasperate reviewers and confound fellow writers, but it connects with readers by the hundreds of thousands.

Rather than stick my nose up at these vastly-popular storytellers, I read their work when I can. I try to figure out what these authors have that really works. Often enough the answer is a story the excites the imagination. As much as I enjoy prettying up the story with rich landscaping and clever wordplay, if the story doesn't come first, this gets to be an exercise in self-gratification.

Because whether it's beautifully written or crudely told around the water cooler, it's story that connects the teller to the audience. And in the end, isn't that what this work is all about?

One man's trash: Stephen King on the real Carrie

I'm sitting here clearing my email as Gary mindlessly clicks. I love the man to pieces and want to be near him; sadly, the price for hanging out with him on Sunday morning is being willing to simultaneously watch 35 different TV programs in an endless parade of 4 second increments. But even Gary had to stop on the final scenes of Brian de Palma's hemoglobin-soaked rendition of Stephen King's Carrie.

I love the backstory on the book: King was unable to place his first three novels with a publisher, but had done some short stories. King says, "I got an idea for a story about this incident in a girls' shower room, and the girl would be telekinetic. The other girls would pelt her with sanitary napkins when she got her period. The period would release the right hormones and she would rain down destruction on them." But three pages into the story, King decided he hated it and threw it away. His wife Tabitha rescued the acorn of a manuscript and encouraged him to expand the idea to a novel. (The dedication reads "This is for Tabby, who got me into it - and then bailed me out of it.")

In a Twilight Zone Magazine interview, King told Charles L. Grant that the character was partly inspired by a girl he knew in school:
"She was a very peculiar girl who came from a very peculiar family. Her mother wasn't a religious nut like the mother in Carrie; she was a game nut, a sweepstakes nut who subscribed to magazines for people who entered contests . . . The girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she'd bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she'd changed the black skirt and white blouse--which was all anybody had every seen her in--for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold."

(A dynamic that persists in the publishing industry for sure.)

King was in such sad financial straights, making less than $7K per year as a teacher, the phone in his trailer house had been shut off, so he got the news about his first book deal via a telegram from his editor at Doubleday: CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. $2,500 ADVANCE AGAINST ROYALTIES. CONGRATS, KID - THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD, BILL. New American Library later bought the paperback rights for $400,000, which enabled King to quit his day job.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Saturday morning cartoon: Dada meets Disney

How much do we love Walt Disney for wanting to include the art of Salvador Dali in the massively ahead of its time box office turkey Fantasia? The lush but confusing piece hit the cutting room floor faster than you can say Cruella De Ville, but it found its way to the light of day a few years ago, and I saw it (fourteen or fifteen times in a row, but that's just me) at the Dali museum in Tampa. Danged if I know what it means, but it made me understand the dadaist methodology: Fling everything you have out into the universe -- thought, energy, light, love, sex, anger, disillusionment, Joe DiMaggio, pigs in boxes -- and sooner or later something will stick to the wall and be art.

More of Dali's freaky deaky presence in la cinema Americain:

Gadji berri bimba, baby.


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