Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Midweek reminder: Make the garden grow.

Came home from NY last week to find my backyard full of irises. Today there are two plump red roses on a forgotten bush that haunts a corner by the back fence.

I do absolutely nothing to take care of any plant life back there; these blossoms are a gift that insists on giving. It inspires me every spring, and while I can't promise to become a "yardie" (as Gary and I call our fervently green-thumbed neighbors), I have to wonder -- if a rose (or an idea?) persists in blooming all on its own, imagine what would happen if I actually put my back into it, tended the flowerbeds, fed the soil, and devoted the time and energy it takes to nurture possibility.

My research this week led me to revisit Voltaire's Candide and the Leonard Bernstein music that blossomed from it. The theme is so simple and so true: The purpose of life is to "build our house, chop our wood, and make our garden grow."

Here's the astonishing Renee Fleming and co:

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Climbing the Walls (and Trees) for Story

As I was racking my brains for a blog topic this morning, my two shelter mutt/terrier mixes interrupted by barking with outrage at this fat and saucy squirrel on the back porch. It's a beautiful, coolish, low-humidity morning, so it was just the screen door between the mutts and the taunting floozy of a tail-shaker who was out there very purposely teasing them.

I had to let out the dogs before they tore through the screen. The squirrel, of course, knows this game well, and jumped off the porch and tore up the side of a huge pine with no lower branches. Little Zippy just yapped her head off, but Jewel decided she'd had enough of this crap, so with a running start, she bounded up the tree.

Young and athletic though Jewel is, she got about eight feet off the ground before gravity pulled her down. (She twisted neatly in the air and landed on her feet.) But she apparently liked the feeling, so she kept at it, running up the tree time and time again even though Madame Squirrel had long since branch-to-branched her way clear of the yard.

I doubt Jewel will ever get as good at tree-climbing as Holly the Collie from this YouTube video. (Our trees aren't right for it, for one thing.) But I also doubt that Jewel will quit. Because it's the activity that's hooked her, the challenge of putting all her muscle and athleticism up against an impossible ideal (catching that damned squirrel).

As a writer, I relate completely. The damned squirrel is the unattainable perfection of the story/character idea. Though I know I'll never really catch it, I love the trying so much, I don't know how to stop.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

My TBR pile is calling

I woke up at five this morning, snuggled up to the ol' Gare Bear, and looked longingly at the stack of books on my night stand. Nothing would make me happier than to spend the day right here with a good man, a good read, perhaps a cup of my newly discovered favorite passion fruit herbal tea. But a May 1 deadline loomed in a dark corner of the room; I have three days to blaze out a detailed chapter outline, and I'm still hip-deep in research. (I won't be ready to outline until I'm neck-deep.) But that To Be Read pile is so tempting...

Top of the heap the second I get past this deadline is The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber. (I'm not sure who sent me this book, but I'm grateful, whoever you are, and would have sent a proper thank you if I knew who you were!)
The Buzz:
(From the starred review in Publishers Weekly) "Bestseller Gruber (The Book of Air and Shadows) probes the boundaries between sanity and madness in his outstanding sixth novel. Talented Chaz Wilmot, who makes a modest living as a commercial artist in New York City, can't say no when Mark Slade, his former Columbia roommate who now owns a downtown gallery, offers him $150,000 to fix a ruined Tiepolo ceiling in a Venetian palazzo... Once abroad, Wilmot gets sucked into an increasingly bizarre world where his own identity is confused and the art he produces may be a forgery but is genuinely magnificent. ...Gruber writes passionately and knowledgeably about art and its history—and he writes brilliantly about the shadowy lines that blur reality and unreality. Fans of intelligent, literate thrillers will be well rewarded."
Why I want to read it:
I have a tattoo of William Shakespeare on my back; no way was I going to miss The Book of Air and Shadows, and I ended up sending it to four of my favorite book nerds for Christmas last year. Plus I know Gruber's editor, and she's brilliant. I know I won't be disappointed.

Top of the heap now and happening soon for research purposes is Voltaire's Candide.

The Buzz:
(Voltaire needs no buzz, pardonnez moi, but here's the flap copy.) "One of the finest satires ever written, Voltaire’s Candide savagely skewers this very “optimistic” approach to life as a shamefully inadequate response to human suffering. The swift and lively tale follows the absurdly melodramatic adventures of the youthful Candide, who is forced into the army, flogged, shipwrecked, betrayed, robbed, separated from his beloved CunĂ©gonde, and tortured by the Inquisition. ...After many trials, travails, and incredible reversals of fortune, Candide and his friends finally retire together to a small farm, where they discover that the secret of happiness is simply “to cultivate one’s garden”...
Why I want to read it:
Research, like I said, but I probably could have fudged that, having read it about 800 times in my youth. I became an absolute nut for this wonderful work when I was in 9th grade, and my father gave me the Broadway cast album from the adaptation with music by Leonard Bernstein and libretto by Lillian Hellman. I lay on the music room floor listening to it with a scrabby paperback in hand. Now I've got a nice hardcover version I bought on the cheap from the Buy-2-Get-1-Free bin at B&N. Also at the top for research purposes is The Impostures Of Scapin by Jean-Baptiste Moliere. Gotta tell ya, I am loving the research on this book. No complaints here.

Eagerly anticipated but not happening soon is The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory.
The Buzz:
(From the Library Journal review) "Before Henry VIII ever considered making Anne Boleyn his wife, her older sister, Mary, was his mistress. Historical novelist Gregory (Virgin Earth) uses the perspective of this "other Boleyn girl" to reveal the rivalries and intrigues swirling through England. The sisters and their brother George were raised with one goal: to advance the Howard family's interests, especially against the Seymours. So when Mary catches the king's fancy, her family orders her to abandon the husband they had chosen. She bears Henry two children, including a son, but Anne's desire to be queen drives her with ruthless intensity, alienating family and foes. As Henry grows more desperate for a legitimate son and Anne strives to replace Catherine as queen, the social fabric weakens. ...Gregory captures not only the dalliances of court but the panorama of political and religious clashes throughout Europe. She controls a complicated narrative and dozens of characters without faltering..."
Why I want to read it:
Because Colleen, one of the smartest, most astute readers I've ever known, told me to. "I was like this with this book," she said, miming an action that reminded me of Henry VIII with a turkey leg. I have a feeling this is one of those books that will teach me something about storytelling. Love it when that happens.

Waving at me from a distance is Hallam's War by Elisabeth Payne Rosen.
The Buzz:
(From the publisher's press kit) "Hugh and Serena Hallam have made the decision to leave everything they knew in Charleston behind, hoping to create a stable, productive home for themselves and their three children in the near-wilderness of West Tennessee. Though now war may loom on the horizon, life at Palmyra is good, for both themselves and -they believe-their slaves. Hugh is convinced that reasonable men with a tolerant respect for their countrymen might yet prevail against the increasingly tense atmosphere that is dividing the two American cultures....HALLAM'S WAR is the saga of one man's struggle to defend his family, his neighbors and his honor, and of the moral compromise forced upon an otherwise good man caught in a maelstrom that leaves him no acceptable choices...."
Why I want to read it:This book strikes me as having a very Cold Mountain vibe. Plus I almost always love books from Unbridled Books, a slightly less pretentious FSG Mini Me, which introduced (and reintroduced) me to some of the best books I've read in the last few years, including The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God by Timothy Schaffert (an author who really should be rich and famous, damn it), Hunger by Elise Blackwell, Golem Song and Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin (an author who should have a roller coaster named after him at Six Flags), and Hick by Andrea Portes. (Had to show you Hick, one of my all-time favorite book covers.) Unbridled co-founder Greg Michaelson was once described to me as "a towering oak of an editor"; I've read many books bearing his handprint and loved all but one.

This is only the first layer of my "A Stack". So many books, so little time! Care to share what's on your night stand?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The New Crown Princess of Snappy Comebacks

This country may have been founded on the principles of democracy, but Americans haven't lost their taste for snobbery. This holds true in every facet of society, and reading/writing tastes are no exception.

When someone makes a snotty comment to me about, say, writing trash, I'm always so flabbergasted (amazed, really, since without exception the perpetrator has never bothered to read one of my books), I have a tough time thinking of what to say. When accosted recently -- and publicly -- for her reading tastes, however, aspiring romance author Dana Belfry suffered no such loss for words.

Rudely upbraided by a stranger for reading a Silhouette Desire category romance in a checkout line, setting back the cause of women's rights fifty years, and generally contributing to the decline of Western civ, here's how she responded:

“You know,” I said, “you have an excellent point. Romance novels are horrific. I’m ashamed of myself. When I think of those kids in school who get hopped up reading romance novels and decide to go shoot people I could cry. And when I think of all those terrorists who read romance novels before going out and blowing themselves up on a crowded bus the shame almost paralyzes me.” By now MadameCrankyPants realizes she has picked the wrong person to publicly berate and her weasly eyes begin to dart around in search of backup. She had none.

“You know,” I continued, “It’s people like you that I feel sorry for. Either you’ve never read a romance novel because you’ve been told they’re trash. Or you don’t read at all. Or you read heavy, painful literature, that describes in intricate detail the pain and suffering of the human condition.” I gestured to my book.

“These books are fun. They make me smile because no matter what the plot, love always prevails. I think if more people remembered that love should prevail there would be a lot less pain and suffering to read about. Feel free to prove me wrong, though.”

All I can say is bravo, Ms. Belfry. And if your books are as quick-witted as your blog posts, you won't just be an aspiring novelist for long.

Read Dana Belfry's full post here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Name Is My Brand

Alerted by the Smart Bitches blog, I hopped over to the Palm Beach Daily News site to read this article where James Patterson is promoting his new "romance" novel. For reasons un-expressed, he insists it isn't a "real" romance.

But is it a real James Patterson?

Sundays at Tiffany's was written with North Carolina-based children's author Gabrielle Charbonnet in the collaborative style that Patterson developed about 10 years ago. It has been a key element in his increasingly prolific output.

"We're hung up in this country about individualism," said Patterson, who compares his collaborative process for writing novels to the traditionally accepted manner in which film and television writers develop their products. "Why can't a book be created this way?"

Patterson writes an outline, then selects a co-writer to write a first draft (which in my experience is the most time-consuming portion). Afterwards, he polishes, rewrites, or what have you the manuscript to his standards. He insists this is a great gig for the emerging writers he's discovered. They get to earn some bucks, gain experience by working with a bestseller, and see their output end up on the New York Times list. And this sort of thing is very common in screen-writing, where multiple scripts are often produced by different people and a more collaborative approach is the norm.

In the world of novel-writing, I've heard this kind of arrangement called a "master-slave" relationship, and I've heard plenty of rationalizations for it, but I've never been comfortable with the idea. Patterson may be open about both the fact and the identities of his co-writers, and at least in this case, he's giving Ms. Charbonnet credit on the cover. (I give him major points there.) He might pay his co-writers fairly as well (though Patterson makes the lion's share, as it's his name that makes the books bestsellers). I'm not privvy to the details.

However, in other cases I have seen, young writers are exploited for very low work-for-hire fees, with no royalties forthcoming and absolutely no acknowledgment on the cover or elsewhere. As a reader, this offends me, for an author's name on the cover of a novel isn't just a brand. It's the author's bond as well, a warranty that s/he has actually written the darned thing. The idea that one man or one woman wrote the book from start to finish is essential to the readers' unspoken pact with the author. This fact makes the novelist's name not only her brand but her word.

Or maybe the truth is, I am hung up about individualism. If I'd wanted a more collaborative art form, I would have chosen to write movie scripts or plays or annual corporate statements. I wouldn't have picked novels, where the readers -- by both tradition and experience -- have earned the right to expect both a singular vision and a singular voice.

So what about you? Do you think it's kosher for a writer to put his/her name on a book, especially without acknowledgment, that someone has partially or completely written?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reading, writing, and restaurant love (a conversation with Tara Yellen)

Yesterday, I shared a bit about the mother/daughter dialogue sparked by Tara Yellen's gritty and gorgeous debut novel, After Hours at the Almost Home. The story unfolds behind the scenes at a restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday, and the characters proved way too close for comfort at times. (Publishers Weekly calls the plot "as intricate as a Greek tragedy.") I asked Tara to visit with us about the backstory on the book, her process, and of course, what she's reading...

First of all, how are you? First novel. Big world. How’s that working out? What have you loved and hated about the process so far?
I'm great. Good god, I can't complain--I've wanted to write a book from the time I was five. Now I can hold it in my hands. (I'm so excited, I almost want to chew on it.) As for the process, it's been exciting and scary... a bit unreal... I had no idea that, once I'd written it, it would take so long to become a book. I wrote it in a weekend and it took about 8 years to revise and get it out there.

Probably the most difficult part of this for me was to revise with editors--I was with DoubleDay for a short time before Unbridled--to hear what needed to be changed, and yet still retain my own hold on the book. I had to find my own ways to answer their problems with the manuscript. I remember a story that John Casey told me about finishing one of his novels. His editor read the manuscript and said it was way too long, that John needed to cut it. So John went back and revised--and the new version turned out to be even longer. But he sent it to the editor, who read it and said, "Exactly. That's what I was talking about! Perfect."

So it's a tricky thing--to retain what you want and still get it out there, turn it into something that will be bought and sold.

I was fortunate to end up at Unbridled Books--Greg Michalson is an incredible editor and we are very much in sync. Still, I'm forever grateful for the struggles I went through in trying to revise for Doubleday. I learned a great deal. The book is so much better because of it.

My daughter and I shared a lot of interesting discourse about After Hours at the Almost Home; it kept coming up in conversation for weeks. I’m curious to know if you thought about the kitchen table, book club, driving down the road dialogue that would be sparked by the book. What are your hopes for the substance of those conversations?
So great to hear. No, I didn't think at all about what discourse might be sparked from what I was writing (didn't dare dream of it), not at all at the time--but if that's the end result, I couldn't be happier. I'm thrilled with any kind of discussion that might arise (I have a few friends who now are worried about the cleanliness of restaurant kitchens now... I remind them that I eat out and am still just fine). But there are certainly a number of issues that I'm left with, in the wake of writing this, after spending time with these characters--because really, when I write, it feels more like I'm discovering people and things that already exist, just chipping away to get at the truth, to see what really happened.

I think a lot about Lily, and how it is my hope that she will find her way "out." I think about how the adults around her have let her down. I love (thought not necessarily like) every one of these characters, but I'm not sure I can forgive them for that. I spent a year helping to run a mentoring program for middle-school girls, and I was amazed at the impact a caring, listening adult can have on a kid. Turning your back on a child also has impact. Someone should have stepped in for Lily. Maybe Keith. Colleen certainly isn't capable. But someone.

There's also the matter of being stuck--in a job, in a place, in a life--I wonder a lot what is it that makes us feel trapped and yet keeps us clinging.

Did that factor into the choices you made while writing/revising the manuscript? And if so, at what point?
The writing and revising, again, felt more like I was trying to chip away and get at what was really there to begin with. The novel I ended up with is amazingly, satisfyingly close to what I was trying for that first weekend I wrote it. The beginning and end of the book are almost exactly the same as they were back then--and the heart of it is the same. The revising was a battle to get it right, to figure out what was said, how it was said, the events, and the general rhythm of events.

I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but a certain plot bomb toward the end of the book is going to be a deal breaker for a lot of readers. You did something which you must know is going to make some people want to hurl the book against the wall. Was that a tough choice or did you know from the beginning that you were taking those two characters to that place and moment?
I wanted to hurl the manuscript myself. It wasn't a choice--I didn't know from the beginning it was going to happen, not exactly, though I certainly felt something coming. A teacher of mine once told me that experience of writing, when going well, should feel very much like the experience of reading--that same sense of discovery. I like that and find it true. I was surprised (and angry) too.

Best line in the book: “Don’t ever trust restaurant love.” I’m seeing it on the movie poster. Care to expand on that?
Thanks! (I'm laughing. And almost allowing myself to see that movie poster, also....) I think Keith explains it better than I could, when he says it's all about proximity and talks about rats in a cage. It's crass and simplified, but I do think there's something about the atmosphere of restaurant work that fosters a quick closeness. It's social, there's food, there's alcohol (and drugs), and you have a bunch of people (who might not have ever met otherwise), hungry, like we all are, for love, slammed together in close quarters, working as a team. There's a fast intimacy--which also leads to fast falling-outs.

So where do you go from here? What are you working on and how much thought have you given to the arc of your career?
In terms of thinking about a career: I'm still where I was at five: I'm amazed by books--these entire universes-- and want to write them. I also love to teach, and am currently teaching online classes for Gotham Writers Workshop. Eventually, I think I'll look for a full time faculty position, but for now I'm focusing on writing my next book. It's still too "in progress" to discuss, but I can say that this one is a first person narrative.

Long ago I decided to go the starving artist route, and I'm fine with it for now (though there are a handful of bill collectors out there who are probably significantly less fine with it). I'm happy doing piecemeal work that allows me time and energy to write--teaching, editing, babysitting. I'm grateful to be out in the world, (hopefully) collecting new stories, seeing new things. I'm amazed, for instance, by what I learn from seeing life through the lens of a 3-yr-old...

Last but all important question: Read any good books lately?
I'm actually reading Alice in Wonderland for the first time. Again, this whole first-novel-coming-out experience has been strange and wonderful.... It's a little disorienting to have it finally come true, actually real, and so, since I already feel a bit "down the rabbit hole," I figure I might as well settle in and stay for a while....

Author photo by Margaret Allen

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

After After Hours at the Almost Home (mother and daughter talk about a tough book)

The advance reader's copy of After Hours at the Almost Home, Tara Yellen's gritty and gorgeous debut novel, arrived as my daughter Jerusha was on her way out the door to the airport. She nicked it with a quickness after checking out the PR copy:
It’s Super Bowl Sunday at the Almost Home Bar and Grill with the hometown Broncos playing for their second championship in a row, and the already busy night is about to get busier. When the bartender walks off, she leaves the remaining staff to the chaos of the night—and with the real question. Not why did she leave but why do they stay? After closing time and on a school night, Colleen’s 14-year-old daughter is no stranger to the Almost Home. She’ll do almost anything to leave, to move her life forward or somehow return to earlier, better times, anywhere but here. But it doesn’t matter; there seems to be no way out.

For one night, we follow all of them as they make their cash, close up, and then linger into the after hours, as they always do, their lives colliding, past and present, in the dark back corner at table 14—drinking, talking, and, now, in the wake of Marna’s absence, facing questions: Where did she go? Will she return? Why do we stay? How dangerous is restaurant love?

Jerusha read the galley on the flight over to Amsterdam. When I met her in passenger pickup a week later, she handed it to me and said, "I hate this book. You should read it."

Jerusha is an amazingly astute reader, and I as her mother appreciate any insight I can gain into what's going on inside her head, so I shuffled After Hours at the Almost Home to the top of my TBR pile and loved it. The ensuing dialogue with Jerusha went on for weeks. The book kept coming up in conversation, evoking talk about writing and life, mothers and daughters, love, sex, and how it's possible for two women to take such totally different reading experiences from the same book.

"Explain to me what you hated about it," I said. "Because I gotta tell you, I loved it, and it seems like a book that young women will embrace."

"She's such a good writer," said Jerusha. "The book is full of these surprising details--not unimportant details--just stuff you'd never think of, but it makes you say yes, of course. And I love her adjectives. The nuanced way she creates every corner of the place. And the camaraderie--it's exactly like we are at work. She gets that so right."

"Still not getting the hating it part."

"You end up caring too much about the people, and they're insanely frustrating. At the end -- that was just janky. Screw that."

Ah. The end. I knew exactly what she was talking about. Yellen makes a choice that's brave and beautifully written, but it's going to be a deal breaker for a lot of people. And ironically enough, the more they love the book up to that point, the more they're going to want to hurl it against the wall when they get there.

"As the night goes on in this downward spiral," said Jerusha, "the backstory started to feel like an excuse, but the scenario and relationships all rang so true." She mentioned a good friend who'd lost a parent. "This book reminded me so much of that situation. The family devolved and didn't handle it well, and yes it changed them, but they're not bad people for it. People have bad moments and bad moments can become bad ruts."

"If the author had made a different choice at the end, would it have made you love the book?" I asked. "Or is it impossible to love a book that breaks your heart?"

"Hmm. Probably not, now that I think of it. Stupid Hollywood endings don't satisfy either. An ending doesn't have to be happy, and it's not even that the author owes the reader a satisfying ending, it's that the author needs to set out to say something and they need to say it, and I don't know what she's trying to say. That people have crappy lives? Good people devolve for reasons? Whatever it was, she didn't communicate that to me -- unless it's the longest joke ever and i just didn't get to the punchline. I mean, 30 pages from the end, you should know why you're reading this book, and then she dishes up [the deal breaker] which so threw me. The logistical and legal -- Mom, the hygiene."

"Hygiene?" I said. "We're talking about ink on paper...aren't we?"

She pondered that for a moment. "If the objective of art is to evoke emotion, I guess I'd have to say it's a good book. Because I still hate it. But I'll definitely read her next book."

Perhaps the best word to describe After Hours is evocative. Book clubs, mothers and daughters, poolside readers, corporate lunchers, and PTO moms -- smart women will be talking about this deeply textured book for a long time to come.

I love that.

(Tomorrow, we'll bring author Tara Yellen into the conversation. I can't wait to hear what she has to say about all this.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Book-Hoarders' Dilemma: How Do You Recycle?

In honor of Earth Day, I'd like to bring up a question that gets a bit sticky among writers. How do you -- or do you -- recycle your books?

I buy a goodly number of books each year, books I've read about or friends have recommended, authors I've learned to love, and from time to time, a book that catches my eye in the store for some reason. Along with these, I receive numerous free promotional books from writers' conferences and other sources. More than I could read, even if I chose (which I don't, since many aren't the type of book I'd enjoy) to only read freebie books in any given year.

As much as I love books and want to support their authors, the necessity of getting rid of some is clear. My space for storing both unread and already-read books is finite, so what's the best and most responsible way to keep my house from looking like one of those stacked-to-the-rafter hoarder homes?

Here's how I handle it:
1. I try to pass along new sample books I know I won't get to to readers I believe would appreciate them. Hopefully, the books will act as a "gateway drug" and hook the readers on a brand-new author.
2. Share books I've read and loved with friends/critique partners/my sister if I believe they'll love the book as well. If I know I won't reread the book (I'm not a big rereader, and I never reread books with a big mystery element, as knowing the solution would spoil the experience for me) I may "loan out" the book with the caveat that it must never be returned.
3. Older books may be donated to the library book sale to help support the purchase of new books. Occasionally, brand new, unread books (samples, again) may be donated to the library to place in circulation. Theoretically, this has the potential of interesting many readers in the authors' work.
4. If I've read a book and didn't love it or even if I liked it but can't think of anyone else I know who would (I read some pretty odd books), I might turn it in for credit at a local new/used bookstore. I have to admit, I'm ambivalent about the places. As a reader, I discovered many authors I grew to love (enough to subsequently buy all their new releases brand new) at UBS's and really appreciated them -- along with public libraries -- when I was too broke to afford new books). I've always found out-of-print backlist books that I've treasured in such stores. As a writer, however, I know there are a good number of UBS devotees who eagerly wait for my books to show up used, which deprives me of income. I hope that someday U.S. authors will receive some sort of royalty on subsequent sales (or even library check-outs), because unless you're one of the big names, you're usually surviving on a narrow margin.
5. Very, very rarely, I (gasp!) throw away a book, either because it's horribly yellowed or mildewy or falling apart (my rescue mutt, Jewel, enjoys devouring a good novel as much as anyone) or because the book was so seriously offensive that I can't imagine passing it on to anyone. (I've come across maybe two books in my life that elicited that reaction. Both of which included completely-gratuitous sexual violence for the purpose of titillation. I'm not a prude and don't mind reading explicit adult content, but there's a line.)

In spite of all these steps, my numerous bookshelves are still double-shelved, I have stacks of unread books around my bedroom, and there are always a few current reads lying around the house. Lately, I've been eying my large collection of autographed copies (most of which are personalized, with my name) and wondering if there's an acceptable way to cull them without resorting to a black Sharpie or Exacto knife. (I shudder at the thought of defacing the books!)

So what do you do with your excess books? And what's the right and "moral" way to handle the onslaught?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Julie Anne Long on Deadline Preparedness

"In the interest of preserving the sanity of authors everywhere, Julie has philanthropically decided to share a few of the things she keeps in her Deadline Preparedness kit. Watch and learn."

Julie is having a blog party this week over at RED ROOM, an online community of diverse authors incuding Amy Tan, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snickett), Jon Stewart, Susan Wiggs, Melissa Bank, and Jane Smiley.

(Not to mention Jack Daniels.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Out-of-Genre Experience

I meet a lot of writers who are landlocked in their reading. Focusing narrowly on their own genre or subgenre, they rarely pick up any other type of book. Explaining away this habit as market research, they sometimes get burnt out as readers and bored with what they're writing. But with no knowledge of any other type of book, they have a tough time adding outside elements or techniques to refresh their prose.

Sure, I'm a writer, but I was a reader first, and a great book still has the power to amaze and delight me (and switch off my internal editor). I'll read almost anything, as long as it transports me. Literary fiction, memoirs, historical novels, romance, mystery/suspense, fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction crowd my keeper shelf. Yes, I read a lot of romantic suspense and suspense, my chosen genres, but I'd quickly tire of it if I couldn't refresh my pallet with an escape to, say, the building of a 12th century cathedral (Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth) or a memoir of a truly remarkable American childhood (Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle) or even the faux history of the Zombies Wars (Max Brooks' amazing World War Z).

Too often, writers get so locked up in the "science" of building a bestseller that they forget that it's an art, at times dusted over with a flurry of real magic. Recapturing the wonder is what an out-of-genre reading experience should be all about.

So what was the last book you read outside of your usual genre that truly captured your imagination? I'm always looking for something wonderful.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Are You Facing a Season of Stagnation?

As my husband and I toured Caddo Lake, our guide explained to us that with the recent rains, the lake's level had risen, and the creek currents were circulating fresh water into the ecosystem. Bright, new vegetation was unfurling, and the fishing was fine.

By late this summer, however, thick growth (much of it of invasive, non-native species) will clog the water's surface, depriving large areas of oxygen and suffocating the life below.

I think the creative life has similar seasons. Fresh ideas bring us new growth. Risk-taking forces change. Without either, we enter a season of stagnation, marked by boredom, apathy, or exhaustion. Play drops out of the equation, and we start going through the motions.

Readers quickly sense when joy has drained from an author's work. They might hang with a favorite for a while, but eventually, they'll seek out fresher waters.

So today ask yourself what risks you've taken lately? What new techniques have you tried? Are you recycling the same characters or retelling the same story? What fresh currents can you allow to stir the waters?

As you experiment, you may find yourself reminded that this work needn't seem like work at all. At it's finest, it can feel like a spring day on the lake.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Have a Ball with Research, But...

While researching the probable setting for a future project on a tiny back road near Caddo Lake in deep East Texas, I came across this sign for a "calf fries" cookout sponsored by a mom & pop bar & grocery. Tragically (awww...), the date for it had passed, leaving only the words and that ball of I-don't-even-want-to-know-what tacked against the placard.

Research can be both fun and funny, as it's a place's differences that catch one's attention and excite the imagination. But writers sometimes forget that those differences don't tell the total story. Select only these, and you'll end up with a stereotyped gooberville, a cartoonish depiction that does a great disservice to the smart and savvy locals. This sort of lazy over-generalization is what makes Southerners groan at so many of Hollywood's renditions (Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?), just as it hacks off folks from working class, Northeastern urban neighborhoods and infuriates more mainstream residents of San Francisco. Written by an outsider, it comes across as mocking, so the moral of the story is to go ahead and have a ball while doing research, but remember that the oddities are oddities and most folks are merely doing their best to make their way and raise their families in this world, the same as you and I.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The New Rue (I love it when good art wins the day)

While we're on the subject of cover redesigns...

Year before last, I worked my memoir guru mojo with actress Rue McClanahan, who played Blanch (aka "the slutty one") on The Golden Girls. It's a fact that at any given moment of any given day, The Golden Girls is on television somewhere in the world. Even now -- twenty years or so after the last ep was shot -- the show has a huge international following. So it was no surprise that when the book came out in hardcover last spring, the design played straight to that audience with a very Blanchified photo of the present day Rue everyone recognizes laughing in front of a golden backdrop.

But the book tells the story of Rue's real career, in which The Golden Girls played an important but very small part. Rue is a classically trained actress who studied the craft under the legendary Uta Hagen and a classically trained ballerina who studied various dance disciplines at Jacob's Pillow, among other places. Most of her career has been in theatre, on and off Broadway. She is incredibly smart and one of the most generous, delightful people I've ever known. And of course, she is hilarious. Joie de vivre out the wazoo. I was over the moon when I saw how the redesigned paperback cover of the book reflects the story inside, which is about so much more than the TV show.

The photo is from "The Apple Tree", a play Rue did back in the 60s. She'd returned to New York after a stint in LA, where she'd done everything from film noir to tiki dancing dinner theater. Despite the struggling circumstances of her life at the time, she was happy, partly because she is an innately happy person, but largely because she was finally doing what she wanted to do and living where she wanted to live, geographically and creatively. The Marilyn wink, the symbolic apple, the spark of divine fire -- the very first time I saw this photo in a box of memorabilia Rue was sorting through in her office, I said, "Oh, Rue, it's so you!"

It may not be the Rue everyone recognizes, but it is the real Rue, and that's the Rue revealed in the book.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Delicious: Elise Blackwell's Hunger is back in print with a sumptuous new cover

A few years ago, I was poking through a bin marked "Fictions at English" outside a souvie shop in a small town in France and came upon Elise Blackwell's luminous novel Hunger. I'm particular about my traveling books; they have to be worth their weight, and when I'm in a place where I'm hearing little or no English spoken, I want a book that gives me the loveliest possible experience of the language. My traveling books rarely return home with me, but this one did. I knew I'd want to revisit this beautifully rendered and deeply emotional story about a botanist who struggles to reconcile with his own appetites while trying to preserve a collection of plants and seeds during Hitler's siege of Leningrad.

Flash forward about four years.

This week Unbridled Books is rereleasing two of Blackwell's critically acclaimed novels: Hunger, which had gone out of print, and The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, which came out in hardcover last year. I was flipping through the current Unbridled catalogue, and a lush cover featuring a very Georgia O'Keefy sort of image caught my eye. The description rang a bell, but it took a bit of Googling for me to clap on; this was the same book I'd read and loved in France.

Publisher Fred Ramey says, "When I was first contacted by Elise Blackwell about The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, I responded before I had read the entirety of her e-mail message because I knew her name. And I knew her name because I had read and adored Hunger when it first came out. It is a remarkably lyrical and sensuous novel hiding behind the voice of an apparently dispassionate, unnamed narrator. That's a feat. And it's what I wanted from the cover of our edition – some blending of the seed-sample gathering aspect of the novel's situation and the sensuousness of the story."

"Part of the fun of seeing Hunger in different editions and translations has been the variety of covers," says Blackwell. "It amazes me how much a cover can color a browser's sense of a book."

When I Googled the book, I was struck by the vast difference in the way the book was designed from one incarnation to the next and asked the author and publisher to comment on it. The version I had long since passed along to my sister (a master gardener and very smart reader) featured the bottomless black eye of a sunflower.

Blackwell says she was excited about the initial idea for that original hardcover. "The art director froze various fruits and flowers, with their seeds, in blocks of ice. I was told she had to take the project home and borrow a neighbor's large freezer. She then photographed the blocks of ice with different colored filters, including the eventual blue. I adored and still adore these photographs, and they seemed to perfectly capture some of the books themes of frozen potential and so forth. But I confess that I was disappointed by the final design (though the front more than the back, which is quite stunning), because the beautiful images are shrunk like cameos into the black background. Combined with the book's small size (which was my doing!) and the faint, scrolling script, the book looked to me like a small volume of sentimental poetry. Yet still I loved the images the art director had generated, and I loved the book's flypaper, and so much else about the design."

"As striking as it is," says Ramey, "I found the cover of the original Little/Brown edition to be painfully cold, as though not to acknowledge the hidden novel. And I felt that the cover of the Back Bay edition was a bit Scott and Zelda – it presented to my eye like a little biography, leaning too heavily, I thought, on the novel's arising from a real situation (Vavilov's experience at the Research Institute in Leningrad). All of the characters in this novel are fictional and the story is, I think, more fully about want than it is about that core historical moment of tragic deprivation."

Blackwell, who never saw the Back Bay cover until the book was finished, says, "My understanding is that the human faces were supposed to appeal to a different readership, particularly to bookclub members, and I guess that makes sense. But the man doesn't look at all how I picture the narrator, and the woman looks just enough like me (with a certain haircut) that people ask if it's me. It's a bit (soap) operatic, yet I wasn't disappointed because I was so happy to have the book out in paperback and to have blurbs and reviews (which had not arrived in time to make the hardcover) to smile at."

The UK edition of Hunger features a scene from the siege of Leningrad, which Blackwell says features "some lovely color" but notes that nothing in the book suggests the image of the woman with the little girls. "The Spanish edition was lovely--a botanical image with additional botanical illustrations spaced throughout the book itself. The French cover screamed Robbe-Grillet: a flowering plant with a man's face emerging from one of the flowers. Muted colors. Quite angst ridden. Very nifty." But Blackwell says her favorite cover is this new one. "I love the way that, even in its simplicity, it marries the opposites of ampleness and famine while suggesting the novel's other themes, including its linking of various appetites, including for variety in sex as well as food."

"Hunger is a title that refers to more than one kind of desire," Ramey says. "We needed an image that served such a subtly flowing confluence. And I suppose the apple is the obvious choice for that (even though the seeds Vavilov (and the protagonist) gathered were, perhaps, primarily of grains). Of the apple photos we reviewed, I have to admit to having picked the one I thought most sensuous."

Blackwell adds that she's partial to the Unbridled cover for the simple reason that she was so happy to see Hunger back in print. "There are few days sadder for a writer than the day her book goes out of print."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bon Voyeur take 2

On a tight schedule while I'm in NYC, but I wanted to check in. Since I don't have time to wallow in the pondering pool today, here's a tidbit from when I was here last year:

I've heard New York described as a city where "everyone performs and no one watches." But I, like most writers, am a vampire, so I do watch. I absorb. I wonder. I speculate. I spy.

I've been sitting here among the living, eavesdropping on conversations at a diner near 53rd and Lex, jotting down thoughts about the expression on the waiter's face as he is apparently told in emphatic Italian that he must wear a little hat that is being handed to him. I have a few favorite diners in Manhattan, and I always sit as close to the counter as I can, especially if there are elderly men there. Or hookers sometimes. Lots of actors in this neighborhood. Actors can always be counted on for a good corner booth vignette. (As my client's husband said about his artistic wife yesterday, "Drama is requisite. If no drama ensues, drama will be created.")

I was getting out of the shower in my pod this morning and through my open window, I saw a man on the other side of an identical window across the way, standing in his tiny pod shower, rapt in the act of self love. (The bathroom windows are thickly frosted for privacy, of course, but opening the window is the only way to keep the pod from steaming up like a Hopi sweat lodge. I love a good vision quest as much as the next person, but I'm here on business, darlings. I require dry air to dress appropriately. If I wanted to stand in a dense cloud of humidity, I would have stayed in Houston.)

My inner vampire was instantly intrigued. Not because he was beautiful. He was not. He was pot-bellied, hairy, and worn. But vampires are oblivious to that which is only skin deep. They want blood. There is transcendent beauty in the humanity of such a moment and its backstory; the yearning for a lost wife, the memory of a hooker at the corner diner, the endlessly transporting possibilities of pod world.

Our faces were shielded by the frosted glass. In the unlikely event I end up in the elevator with this person, neither of us would know it, and that anonymity keeps this from being a skeezy and uncomfortable experience.

This isn't the first time I've witnessed an unspeakably private moment through a window across the way in New York. Suburbanites are apparently much more conscientious about installing and lowering mini-blinds. We tend to have a heightened awareness of our neighbors. New Yorkers stacked in pods separated by narrow alleys are more interested in air flow. It's a different sense of self. "What lies beyond your window doesn't interest me, so why should my inner window life be of interest to anyone else?"

I know I'm not the only vampire in the city, but I know the vast majority of people are performers, not watchers, so I enjoy a sense of invisibility walking down the street in Manhattan. There is something liberating in the knowledge that everyone is fully engaged in his or her own business. Nobody passing by gives a flying you-know-what about me, where I'm going, what I'm doing, or if these pants make me look fat. For some people this dynamic makes the city a lonely place. But the upside of apathy is that it precludes passing judgment.

I enjoy Manhattan the same way I appreciate a brisk walk through Mercer Arboretum. The variety of life forms amazes me. The imperfect beauty transports me. The subtext feeds my vampire appetite.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A ghost in New York

In New York to work my memoir guru mojo for a client with a great story. A lot of writers don't understand how I can devote so much effort to a book for which someone else receives the credit as "author". My objective is to disappear into the voice of this true life but larger than life character, and the ghost gig is an exercise in what matters. Is it possible to cleave unto the joy of telling a story for storytelling's sake? Yes, of course, the money makes it easier. Get real. But there is an enormous joy in this job. And in truth, I get off on being invisible.

A huge perk of the work: I love sharing my life between Houston and New York. It's like being allowed to be a dog person one day and a cat person the next. My first night in Manhattan, I always think of Walt Whitman's "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun".

Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs,
with beating drums as now,
The endless and noisy chorus,
the rustle and clank of muskets,
(even the sight of the wounded,)
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Local Flavor

I know writers who do all their research on the Internet and still end end with very commercial, very successful books. My hat's off to them, but as for me, I can't seem to really get grip on a place I'm writing until I've breathed its air, walked and/or boated and/or flown the territory, and chatted up the locals. I like to gather local newspapers and read the letters to the editor, then pick the brains of long-time residents to get a taste of the decades-long rivalries, grudges, issues, and prejudices that make each community unique. An observant outsider sometimes sees things more clearly, but even the most studious will always get stuff wrong. When it's all said and done, the location I'm writing ends up at the intersection of Reality and Imagination. With Story being the car and Character the driver.

In other words, I do my best with research but have to live with the fact that my fictional world is not the real world, just my best approximation. And with a little skill and inspirations, sometimes these approximations ring truer than the truth.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writer Unplugged

Lately, I've been feeling fragmented, my attention all too splintered by way too many choices. I could watch one of the Netflix movies I've been sitting on forever, read one of the huge array of books in my massive to-be-read stack, catch a show on TV, or default back to the mind-numbing computer game or aimless Web trolling that have recently consumed far too many hours.

It's no wonder I can't focus on my current work-in-progress. Many years back, Robin Williams appeared in a movie called Moscow on the Hudson, which featured a Russian musician named Vladimir Ivanoff, who defects to America. I don't recall a lot about the movie except one scene where Ivanoff, used to long lines for basic commodities, freaks out in an American grocery store, overwhelmed by the myriad choices laid out before him. (Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!) Finally, he passes out, escaping the information overload in the only way he might.

My solution is simpler. To reclaim the single-minded focus I need to do my best work, I plan to go unplugged for a few days early next week. No ringing phones, no movies, no Internet or laptop. Just a few days reconnecting with the old man and scratching out notes on a legal pad. I might make an exception for some great old jazz or classical music, those wordless standards that flow around me rather than carry me away. But mostly, I need to spend time outdoors, to watch the play of moonlight on the water. I need to hear the birds and listen to the sky breathe through the treetops.

When you find your attention splintered and your own output diminished, you might attempt a similar solution. I can almost guarantee you that afterward, when you get back to your computer, your story will be waiting eagerly to meet you. Only now, you'll be able to hear its quiet voice above the din.

Friday, April 11, 2008

It's Not About the Gift Shop: Yet Another Parable on Publishing

In my previous professional life, I worked with upper elementary and middle school kids as a classroom teacher. Though teaching's no cakewalk, I loved the work, the certain knowledge that I was making a difference, and the kids.

Most days. But not so much on the days that we took field trips. In big, suburban schools, the powers that be are all hung up on fairness, so you couldn't take just one class; it had to be the whole grade level. Which meant we had to wrangle numerous buses, find a venue the would accommodate a hundred-sixty or more kids (or run them in shifts, which was nearly impossible to pull off, for reasons I won't get into), and go into strategic planning sessions to coordinate the volunteers, the eating arrangements, students' pharmaceutical needs, etc. By the time the big day arrived, the teachers were already exhausted, but the kids - whoa. Those kids showed up with snapping little firecrackers in their eyes, and the ones with behavioral problems or hyperactivity (those who thrive best on the everyday structure of ordinary days) were all shaken little cans of soda, ready to explode at the first snap of some unseen pop top.

It was a lot like herding cats, but with the help of volunteers to lead the small groups (considerate teachers took the majority of the "shaken soda" types), bribes of extra recess for the best class, and the liberal application of threats, we managed to get the kiddos to the Valuable Educational Experience in Question, which was sometimes a museum or in one memorable case an arboretum, where we did the nature talk and walk. But however cool and educational the place was, it didn't matter. Because all we heard from the moment we arrived was "When do we eat our lunches?" (Invariably, this would start up around 9:30 AM and become an unrelenting chorus by whatever time we had arranged.) And most of all, and especially after the mighty Feast of the Box Lunches, we were regaled with the inevitable, "When can we go to the gift shop?"

The gift shop was the Holy Grail, the kids' raison d'etre for the whole shebang. Nothing else mattered, from space shuttle simulators to Sam Houston's leopard-skin vest to one docent's demonstration of a flintlock rifle. (Once they found out they wouldn't be allowed to shoot the thing themselves, the "When's lunch?" and "Where's the gift shop" chorus started.) And, for the record, kids raised in a heavily wooded suburb (uh, The Woodlands. Hello?) couldn't give a rat's rump about the arboretum's wonders (with the exception of the copperheads. Snakes were fun to either dramatically shriek over or poke with sticks 'til a teacher dragged them off. Or both.)

By the time we got them loaded on the buses, the teachers were all mentally reevaluating their career choice, the hyperactive kids (now sleeping, having worn themselves and everyone around them to a frazzle) were bound for in-school suspension, the kids' allowances had morphed into cheap tchotchkes, and nobody remembered a darned thing about the Valuable Educational Experience.

As I watch newly-sold writers hustling or hurtling or struggling toward publication, I often get this same sense that they're mostly missing the whole point of the experience. They get on writers' loops or read bulletin board or blog posts about self-promotion. They let the "experts" (often people trying to sell them the plastic tchotchke of some service) convince them their maiden effort will be the last one if they don't pour lots of time, money, and attention into Getting the Word Out. They start hearing stories of catastrophe, start watching for harbingers of disaster even as they jealously eye the great successes. Panic-stricken, they rush from one great Educational Experience (first round of edits) to another (cover art/copy description), from one amazing wonder (receiving printed covers or Advanced Reading Copies) to what ought to be the climax (holding their debut book in their hands or seeing it for the first time on a store shelf "in the wild.") By the time they reach this pinnacle -- a pinnacle they've dreamed of for years -- they're too pooped to enjoy it, and they head home disappointed, certain that they've missed the gift shop of the Times bestseller list or appearances on Oprah, The Today Show, and the pages of People Magazine.

As you wander the pathways of publication, take time to marvel at its wonders. Shut off the distractions of too many e-mail loops (I've set mine all to "no-mail" for a while) and find that place of peace inside you, the place so still and quiet, you can enjoy the singing of one songbird in a bare, mid-winter tree.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Road to Morocco (Joni's publishing parable du jour)

Long story short, we were standing by the Pillars of Hercules on the Rock of Gibraltar when Gary pointed across the water to the northern coast of Morocco and said, “It’s Africa. You can’t just look at Africa and not go there.” (This, in a nutshell, is why Gary Rodgers is the love of my life.) We’d been backpacking around Europe for two weeks with Malachi and Jerusha, who were still young enough to be pressed into adventure. Accidentally ordered raw beef once, but otherwise enjoyed a spectacular run of Mr. McGoo’s blind luck. Emboldened, we hiked back over the bridge to Spain and blithely boarded a ferry.

This was a few months into that multi-phased goat-pluck known as Operation Desert Storm, and the Self-Terrorization level was at orange. (You know. Yellow = boy cries “wolf”, orange = boy cries “WOLF!”, red = boy shoots chihuahua, which could be construed as wolf-like. Mission accomplished!) We knew that additional FBI warnings had been issued for Northern Africa, but we didn’t know that this meant Americans were not allowed on certain boats and had to pass through Moroccan police checkpoints. Announcements were made in Spanish and German, so for all we knew they were just saying, “Americans, please get with it and be bilingual.” Not only did we have no money, we didn’t know what sort of money one is supposed to have in Morocco. Having spent the trip watching dolphins instead of belaboring the language barrier in the ship’s information booth, we’d failed to get our passports properly stamped. After getting lost in the bowels of the boat, stuffed in a freight elevator, and chased through the commercial vehicles deck, we stumbled out into the profoundly foreign metropolis of Tangier.

“Here come the Stupids!“ Malachi announced as we made our way along the crowded pier. “Feel free to kill us for our passports!”

I was reminded of a scene from The Road to Morocco.

“We must storm the place!” says Bing Crosby.

“You storm,” says Bob Hope. “I’ll stay here and drizzle.”

As teeming darkness fell, tens of thousands of people milled the streets, and none of them looked like us. I fervently prayed, “God, favor the foolish. Send someone to guide us.” Not twelve seconds later, an elderly man stepped over to me and said, “Mrs. Ma’am? I am Muhammad Sharif. I am here to guide you.” (That’s what I call service. Thanks again, God.)

"Mom," Malachi said sharply. "Do not make eye contact."

Mr. Sharif assured me he was “fully authorized” and proffered business cards on which were written gushing endorsements. More superlatives than the back of a Tom Clancy novel. Too good to be true? Of course. But between him and the Dark Continent, Mr. Sharif was the least terrifying option. We crammed into his cousin's tiny taxi with Jerusha sitting on my lap (and Malachi unhappily on Mr. Sharif's) and headed downtown. After dinner and a flame-throwing, horn-blowing, belly-dancing, Big Fat Berber Wedding sort of floorshow, during which Jerusha may have actually gotten married to a Korean man, we returned to our “inexpensive, but perfectly safe!” hotel, where I slept with our passports and a can of hairspray under my pillow.

The next morning Mr. Sharif led us down ancient streets overflowing with saffron, flowers, tall leather lamps with iron frames, goatskin shoes with pointed up toes. In a rug shop (“No, no! Art gallery! No pressure to buy!”) the owner served mint tea and pushed a photo album into my lap. “Look! Bruce Springstein! We don’t hate Americans here!” he protested too much. “See here? Sting and the whole Sting family!”

Gary told him politely but firmly that we were absolutely not buying a rug and really must be going. But Mr. Sharif, we were icily informed, had gone to the mosque to say his prayers, leaving us to “enjoy the educational presentation.” Our God-sent guide later helped us enjoy similar presentations on Berber spices, “pharmaceutical” herbs, and embroidered caftans. By the end of a long day traversing alley after alley of aggressive vendors, I felt a certain sorority with the plucked chickens strung up over a cart of ox hooves. But what a day. What a trip. What a life.

This is exactly how I feel about my publishing career so far. Had I known then what I know now, had I been able to decipher the warnings and see the obstacles across the water, I’m not sure I would have attempted it. Perhaps it was for the best that I just plowed on in with nothing but the clothes on my back, which left me no choice but to scuttle under the cargo doors and climb over the fences. You see this place you want to be. You feel compelled to go there. And the only way is with no reservations. Is a can of hairspray an effective weapon? Not really, but you could get some business done with it if you had to. Drizzling be damned. We must storm the place!

Perhaps God favors the foolish because we have in common with Him an illogical and unrelenting faith in the goodness of people, and we’re willing to step out into the world armed with only that. Yes, the people who present themselves to guide you have their own interests at heart. Why shouldn’t they? That’s what makes the world go ‘round, down in the casbah and up on 53rd Street. It’s all about commerce. You’ll be happier and more prosperous when you learn that haggling is a dance, not a slap-fight. There’s no evil agenda to oppress writers. The brusque editor, the sharky agent, even the snarky book reviewer – they’re just selling their rugs, peddling their chicken feet, pushing their ox cart.

If I’d seen the warning signs and done my homework on the markets and the industry and the odds up front, I would have seen that I my chances of making it in this business were virtually nil. The dire predictions about the future of books are as constant as the uncertain winds that blow between the skyscrapers of Houston and the Pillars of Hercules. Continuing in this career is about as sensible as wandering over to Africa like unsuspecting Gumps, unmindful of the world turning beneath our happy little ferryboat—but what else can I do? I need a leather lamp to go with that rug we bought.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Writer's Conference Confidential

Thinking that attending a writers' conference might be a great way to jump start your career? I couldn't agree more - providing that you choose the right conference for you. When examining conference listings, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Is the conference geared to what I write? If you're a poet or essayist or playwright, the realities discussed in a conference of mystery writers probably won't be worth the time and money you'll invest. But if you're a mystery writer, you may find that your genre and, for example, the romance genre (where newer writers are also published in mass market paperback and often share the same publishing houses) could have enough of a common denominator to be of help. And craft of fiction writing workshops focus on truths central to all novelists.

2. Does the conference include high-caliber speakers? If you're shooting for publication by the New York establishment, why bother with a conference where the majority of speakers are self-published or where the editors attending are folks (often nice, book-loving folks) who decided over coffee one day to start up their own micropress to publish their own and their buddies' oft-rejected manuscripts? (If your goal is self-publication or tiny/print on demand publication, look for a conference that specializes in that area and on the hand-selling you'll need to do.)

3. Which agents and/or editors are attending? There are some excellent workshops led by knowledgeable authors or other expert speakers, but conferences usually have at least a few agents and editors flown in like exotic orchids. Look them up by name online and find out if they're interested in the sort of work you are doing. Check out their track record and see if they're someone in whom you'd be interested. If you find the conference is bringing in people listed as scammers over at Preditors and Editors or Agent Query or if you find no information whatsoever, I'd skip it.

4. Are you comfortable with the size and cost of the conference? Each writer gets to play Goldilocks. Some conferences will be too small to fit, some too large, and others will feel just right. I love regional conferences, such as the DARA conference (Dallas Area Romance Writers) where I spoke last weekend. There were four respected agents, three editors from major publishing houses, and about one hundred-sixty or so attendees. The conference was large enough to offer tracks so you could choose from among three different offerings for each time slot and small enough that those interested could get an appointment to see an editor or agent. (You shouldn't sign up for a pitch session unless you have a project ready to sell that's appropriate to the person you want to see.) This particular conference was extremely friendly but not claustrophobic. My favorite kind.

When I was first attending conferences, however, I preferred them even smaller. A conference with between sixty and, say, eighty attendees allowed me to meet and get to know a variety of area writers and get over my tendency to hyperventilate in the presence of a (insert awe-struck gasp) New York Publishing Professional. It took a while before I finally realized that these folks are looking for an undiscovered gem to publish and not looking for reasons to reject. And they're just people, with the same variety of personalities as any other group. A lot of 'em you'll like; some of 'em, you won't, but give them the benefit of a doubt. At conferences, they usually find themselves spending their weekend (their only days "off") locked in a poorly-ventilated, windowless room, where they're besieged by a brain-numbing parade of supplicants. You'd get glazed eyes, too.

I attend a large conference about once a year for a number of professional reasons. I always enjoying seeing old friends, my agent, and the nice folks from my publishing house, but I find all the crowds and hubbub exhausting. For an introvert (and that's upwards of 90% of the writers I know), it can be a stressful experience.

But stress is only one cost of attending conferences. Take into account both the financial outlay (which ranges from modest to crazy-nuts-expensive) and the commitment of time, and don't get sucked into the thinking that you "have to" do every conference that comes down the pike. They can motivate you, give you great new ideas and contacts, and help you meet new, like-minded buddies, but they aren't the only road to Oz.

So what are your thoughts on writers' conferences? Love 'em? Hate 'em? Which kind do you prefer?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

It's not about the blog (Larry Dignan responds to NYT's "death by blogging" story)

I'm not a blogger who writes, I'm a writer who blogs, but someone who loves me still felt the need to call my attention to a story in the Sunday Times: "In a Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop", in which Matt Richtel holds up the fact that two tech writers recently died of heart attacks as proof that blogging is inherently unhealthy...or something.

Quoth our Matt:
To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style. The pressure even gets to those who work for themselves — and are being well-compensated for it.

Oh. It all makes sense now. Any time I see the words "writer" and "well-compensated" in the same paragraph, we know someone is working him/herself into the ground.

Writer Larry Dignan, who was interviewed by Richtel for the Times story but didn't make it to the page, posted this real life response:
We write for a living, yap all day and don’t have to wear suits. You could do worse than blogging...You could be getting shot at in Iraq. You could be a single mom working three jobs to stay afloat (Happy Birthday mom). You could work in a coal mine. You could be in a life and death battle with Leukemia. You could be doing any one of thousands of high-stress jobs. Sure, the Web has a lot of stress but let’s get real: If you’re stressed out over 5,000 RSS feeds chances are good you’d be stressed by any profession you chose.

The point I was trying to make was that nothing (certainly the deaths of Russell and Marc Orchant and Om’s heart attack) exist in a vacuum. You have to take care of yourself.

Matt’s money question was this: Give me the anatomy of your day? I told him it varies, but I said the first thing I do in the morning is work out. To do this gig you need stamina and that means you need to be in some sort of shape...

After a workout, I may get a blog in before feeding my daughter (assuming I’m working at home). Most days all of this occurs before 7 a.m. EDT. Then I blog and blog and work in management stuff in the middle.

Clearly, this answer wasn’t going to work for Matt’s story–there was a smidge of balance even if I have to get up at 4:30 a.m. for it.

Dignan did admit to checking for headlines when he gets up to use the bathroom at night, but overall presents a much more realistic portrait of any writer's life. In any media, if you're making a living arranging words in a row, there's no such thing as "enough" or "done" or "retired" or "vacation". The best we can do is strive for a daily balance that includes self-awareness and self-preservation.

Last night when I was at spin class, I realized I was giggling like a crack monkey. It felt so good to be there, moving my body after a long sedentary day. I always get off the bike sweaty and spent, but I can't wait to get back to the keyboard. The workout really does do something to the brain.

Dignan concludes:
Am I balanced? Not quite, but I do acknowledge the goal. Like any job there are plusses and minuses. I noted that I happened to like the pace and said it’s not the stress per se as much as how you handle it. Bottom line: You can’t pin two deaths and a heart attack solely on blogging. Of course all of those points would have exceeded the Times’ word count.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Pulitzers announced this afternoon

FICTION: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books)

DRAMA: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

HISTORY: What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford University Press)

BIOGRAPHY: Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson (W.W. Norton)

POETRY: Time and Materials by Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins)

POETRY: Failure by Philip Schultz (Harcourt)

GENERAL NONFICTION: The Years of Extermination by Saul Friedlander (HarperCollins)

Two winners for poetry, none for editorial writing, and Bob Dylan got a Special Citation, too.

Go here for the full list.

The Literal Truth about Workshops

I'm just back from the DARA conference (loved it!) near Dallas, where I gave a workshop Saturday called "How to Be Your Character's Worst Enemy," which basically consisted of a number of tips to ramp up tension and rev up a book's pacing by making your protagonists' lives tougher. It's the kind of workshop that asks participants to think about their works in progress and examine the possibility of adding an unexpected twist to toss their characters into an "impossible" situation just to see what surprising things they'll do. I like teaching the class because I can look into the participants' eyes and see them really thinking and because the techniques are as useful for veterans as they are for the rankest newbies.

Lots of nice folks came up to see me afterward, either to say thanks or ask questions, including one rather desperate-looking woman who seemed extremely concerned because she didn't know how she was going to fit all of my suggestions into her work in progress. All of my suggestions. Which made it clear to me that she'd taken what I meant as a brainstorming list to start everyone thinking as a literal prescription to make her manuscript salable.

The trouble is, there is no prescription, no fool-proof plan that always works (not even for the most successful authors) and the workshop attendee should never think of anyone's "how-I-dunnit" story as a road map, because it certainly won't be the one leading to your individual destination. Instead of taking each speaker as gospel, move through each conference as you would through a buffet line, picking at this truth or that and seeing if it tastes right for your work, your vision, your reality. Then choose the best and leave the rest behind.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

TJ Bennett's big SQUEEEEEE!

While Colleen and I both keep a generally positive outlook on the publishing process and life in general, we are both far enough into our careers that our hides have gotten pretty tough. One really has to be a bit of an armadillo to survive and stay sane in this biz, but it's equally important to stay connected to those fresh-faced first-time-author moments that felt like falling in love and climbing a mountain and falling down the rabbit hole all at once.

Our friend TJ Bennet is on that ride right now. Launching her first novel, The Legacy, has a lengthy, fraught process (including a bombastically ill-timed fire at the printing facility), during which TJ has kept her head on absolutely straight. And most importantly, she's continued to write during the labor and delivery of her firstborn.

TJ posted this in her blog yesterday:

A friend of mine from California coined the term "squeee" as the joyous sound a person makes when she is squealing for, well, joy. My "squee" moment has finally arrived. I received my author copies in the mail today from my publisher, which means my long-awaited (at least by me) book is about to hit the bookshelves of America everywhere!

'Scuse me while I--

Okay, I'm back again.

TJ is a talented author and an English prof, so she knows her stuff. There's the sqeeee, but there's also the back again. And that's what it takes. An appreciation for the ups, a pragmatic view of the downs. More about The Legacy later this week.

Go fight win, TJ!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Well heeled and into character

I'm working on a book with a terrific client -- an actress who made it huge on Broadway and transitioned to both silver and small screen -- and part of my research is going to entail a certain degree of fashionista research. I also decided that I needed to wear heels while I work this project. I hit my full height of six feet (I've stopped pretending I'm really only five-foot-twelve) when I was senior in high school, and I've had very little truck with high heels since then. This actress is a petite little dynamo, however, and she does love her Jimmy Choos. I decided I needed to walk the walk in order to talk the talk, so I purchased pair of inexpensive pumps and some four-inch espadrilles at Payless and started wearing them in my office.

I think I may have been visited by the spirit of Nancy Sinatra.

Walking around in heels is a totally different posture, physically and psychologically. There's an enforced sense of sex and carriage and awareness of everything from thrown back shoulders to arched instep. My neck feels longer when I'm wearing heels. My backbone feels swan-like. I breathe differently. Don't laugh, but I swear, my lips got pouty when I stepped into this pair of Naughty Monkeys. I started wearing the shoes hither and yon, and since the do-me pumps looked a little odd with my son's shlubby cast off cargo jeans I've been wearing, I started wearing skirts and -- dare I say it -- summer dresses. I practically had to mop Gary up off the floor.

Lord knows I love my Crocs, but I do believe I could get used to this.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Winging it (thoughts on that reinvention thing)

Yesterday Colleen posed a question about the way we reinvent ourselves as writers, something I definitely have some experience with. My career has taken me miles from my original (and extremely naive) vision, which was something about angsty quasi-literary women's fiction providing me and my progeny a life of Starbucks-fueled adventure. But I never made one sweeping change that rewrote my destiny; it happened in stepping stones. And it wasn't about abandoning one thing to embrace another; it was about being open to unexpected opportunities.

I wasn't making a kazzilion dollars, but I was happy writing angsty quasi-literary women's fiction, and when a big NY house picked up my memoir, I was living the comfy life of a respectably compensated mid-lister. After the memoir came out and was nicely received, I started getting a lot of speaking invitations, which paid well but kept me on the road a lot. Not very conducive to writing another book. My wonderful ed at Harper Collins suggested (to put it mildly) that I stay connected to my true calling by writing a weekly newspaper column. What the hey, I figured. It wasn't much money, but the syndicated "Earth to Joni" column did force me to assemble at least 750 publishable words per week.

During the two years I wrote the column, I learned a LOT about the economy and structure of essay writing and developed a knack for the suburban parable. (I like to think of it as three "Ha!"s and a "Hmm".) And by keeping the circulation of the column small (just under one million) I kept the rights unpolluted and was able to sell several of those pieces to national magazines for $2-4K each. Cha-ching. And I met a lot of terrifically nice magazine eds, one of whom called me up one day and asked if I'd like to replace Don't Sweat the Small Stuff author Richard Carlson as their monthly advice columnist. And I figured...what the hey? Good money, good fun, give it a college try, right? The monthly deadline gave me more elbow room to delve into writing another book.

So tra la la, I'm doing that. My ed at HC had a certain vision of what sort of fiction I should write, and we were batting ideas back and forth when my agent called and asked if I'd be interested in ghostwriting a memoir for Lance Armstrong's mom. I wasn't. Not at all. Frankly, I thought ghostwriting celebrity bought-o-biographies was beneath my angsty quasi-literary mid-list talents. The word "no" physically formed on my lips, but what came out was "Oh!" Because at that moment, I looked up and saw -- for the first and only time in the twelve years I've been staring out this office window -- a hummingbird.

The beauty of it took the breath right out of any negative I could have uttered. Everything in me from the crink between my eyebrows right down my backbone opened up and said ah. The unexpected, I suddenly realized. That's what has made my career work so far. The narrow vision I started with -- "I want to be the next Elizabeth Berg" -- didn't allow the sort of free flight that I find with my new goal: "I want to write good art." For some writers, that "laser-like focus" Colleen talks about is imperative, but I'm an explorer and a gatherer. And I'm willing to beat my little wings fast and hard enough that I can check out this crepe myrtle over here and that jasmine over there and still devote some hover time to the more lucrative honeysuckle. It's all flying, it's all feasting, it's all good.

So my agent took advantage of that dumbstruck moment to say I should at least have lunch with her before I turned the gig down. And so I lunched. And she was delightful. And she had a story to tell. And I am a person who is good at telling stories. Having done half a dozen of these projects, I still don't like the word "ghostwriter"; I prefer to think of myself as a "memoir guru", but I absolutely love this work. Working with wonderful eds at a variety of publishers, I've learned so much about our industry. Ghostwriting forced me to the next level in terms of discipline, research methodology, structural skills, and technical expertise --all of which nourishes my fiction writing. I learned that a book does not impart artistic integrity on its author; the author brings artistic integrity to the project, whatever it is.

Another plus: the money I make as a memoir guru makes it possible for me to write any damn kinda fiction I want, and right now, that means not angsty mid-list women's fiction. I struggled for a while to be what my wonderful ed at HC wanted me to be, but finally decided that right now, I really want to write campy, funny mysteries, which I'll be publishing under a different name because it is a huge departure from my first three novels. (I applaud authors who make their nom de plumes public, but I prefer to keep my evil twin's identity separate from mine.) It was terrifying to lose my publishing home at Harper Collins, but it would have been far scarier to face a future writing novels that someone else thought I should write. That's a whole different kind of ghostwriting. (The kind with no guarantee of payment. Cue the scream-track.)

So scary or not, here I come. Reinvented yet again, new 'n' improved, lemony fresh. What remains unchanged is my passion for words and my willingness to work hard. The only thing that stays the same in this biz is that nothing ever stays the same. Ten years of boxing the octopus has taught me how to wing it.


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