Saturday, May 31, 2008

Slaying the Self-Doubt Demon

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

Amen, Sylvia. Self-doubt's one heck of a demon, one so powerful, it can prevent us from even trying. It's the voice that whispers, "Who do you think you're kidding?," the one that hisses that your successes were all due to dumb luck, that your incompetence will be discovered any minute. It's the one that tells me, with each project I'm writing, that this book (the one I began with such enthusiam) will be the failure that will finally take me down.

Self-doubt is often full of crap, but like a lot of really accomplished abusers, it weaves in just enough strands of truth to make it impossible to ignore complete. If you can tease out the truth part, you can use it to effectively edit or make course corrections. But this only works if you can keep the b.s. part at bay.

How do I manage it? First of all, I've learned to recognize the nattering as my subconscious's last defense against hard work. (My subconscious is such a slacker!) I've also learned that if I push through in spite of the temporary pain, I end up with something worthwhile and rewarding. So the experience, the habit, of forcing myself to finish helps. It helps, too, to talk my way through the block with other creative types. And finally, I've found Steven Pressfield's amazing little book, The War of Art, to be one of the best allies a writer can have in this struggle. If you haven't yet bought it, it could save your creative life...

And help you slay a demon along the way.

Friday, May 30, 2008

"My Life As a Bald Soprono" (the fabulous Margaret Baker on stage)

If you're reading this in New York -- or if you have a way to get there -- you've got to see actress/opera diva/model Margaret Baker in My Life as a Bald Soprano (book and lyrics by Margaret H. Baker, music by Clint J Borzoni) at the Midtown International Theatre Festival this summer. (Click here for dates and show times.) You've seen Baker before; you just don't know it. She's appeared in everything from Sex and the City to Vanity Fair and just shot a pilot for CBS. Her unique quality goes far beyond the bald, but she's managed to turn the alopecia that devastated her as a child into an asset that gets her noticed. In a good way.

Margaret's fabulous noggin first came to my attention when book cover genius Chip Kidd used her in his design for Bald in the Land of Big Hair. When people ask me how I ended up with a Chip Kidd cover, I say, "God pulled my name out of a hat that day." When people ask if the bald woman is me, I say, "I wish!" (Those are obviously the sculpted shoulders of a dancer.) Margaret read the book when it came out and wrote (real wrote, not email, which you gotta love) to let me know how happy she was to be involved in the project, and after hearing her story, I tried like hell to get my agent and the time to help me hook up a memoir with her. It's been sort of thrilling to see her developing this show over the last few years. (I still harbor a secret hope that the planets will someday align and I’ll be able to help her translate it to memoir form.)

Here’s what Margaret has to say about the show:
My hope in writing My Life as a Bald Soprano is to take its viewers on a theatrical journey that is entertaining yet profound, inviting them to reflect upon their own experiences with self acceptance.

Even in its earliest workshops, the musical and its protagonist seemed to have a strong appeal to a wide range of ages (from young children on up). On many occasions, I was approached by audience members who said that they could relate to the main character. Somehow Margaret's journey in My Life as a Bald Soprano had caused them to reflect upon their own experiences of trying to fit in as a child; whether they were victimized by bullying or acting as the bullies themselves...

My main purpose in writing this show is to share my story through an entertaining medium that will inspire audiences of all ages by showing that life's greatest gifts come from within.

Go here for more about the show. (And see it this summer if humanly possible!)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Post a Comment, Win a Book

Today, I'm yakking about reading as the antidote for stress at 2bRead, the blog of the Published Authors Special Interest Chapter. Since I'm kind of a slacker over there (putting nearly all my blogging time into BtO), I've decided to do a drawing for a free, autographed copy of my most recent romantic suspense, The Salt Maiden - or any title from my backlist you might prefer.

All you have to do is leave a comment, which as simple as recommending a recent book that carried you away. So please stop by and join the fun! I'd love seeing you there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Clearing the Mental Clutter

I have a clutter problem lately. I'm not talking about the problem of physical clutter (though I've always struggled with that one as well) but the host of worrisome thoughs that crowd in when I try to rest or write. This clutter problem affects not only my writing, but my health, so I'm making a pact with myself to deal with it proactively.

Current Denizens of the Realm of Worry:
1. Son graduating next week. Gifts to be wrapped, house to be cleaned in anticipation of the visit of the relation who notices and comments upon each dust mote.
2. Bills due. Gotta pay 'em. (Boo!) Run to bank to deposit forgotten check. (Yea!)
3. Where the heck is that economic stimulus check already?
4. Brand new deadline with scary target date and careening plot.

Notice how the writing-related challenge comes at the end of the list? That's what worry does for me. It shuffles what I love (but still have to treat as a job) to the bottom of the deck. The other stuff still has to be dealt with, but I can't even give the story and characters mental real estate if I don't do something about the everyday penny-ante issues that are cluttering my mind.

The Action Plan
1. Start the day with a twenty-to-thirty-minute walk. While walking, plan, prioritize, and think about the next scene to be written.
2. Write a blog post, which for me functions as a morning journal. Today, I'm making mine work for me, since I'm writing down the clutter so I won't have to carry it around inside my skull. Making a list of reasons I can't possibly write trivializes them.
3. Eat sensibly. Cut down on caffeine and refined sugar. Watch the highly-processes carbs, too. And eat three meals a day instead of grabbing whatever and getting gunk on the keyboard.
4. Ask for and accept help where possible. Enlist husband and kiddo to run errands and help with household clean-up.
5. Check off some of the list items each day, but keep daily writing a high priority (except on graduation day!)
6. Work on the stuff I can control. Hand over to the universe the things I can't.
7. If overwhelmed at any point, take five minutes to play with dogs and dole out tummy rubs. It's hard to be stressed in the presence of wagging tails.

There now. I feel so much better.

Anyone else have tricks to share for clearing the mental clutter? I could use to add some to my arsenal.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Older really is wiser (or "I'd be at the MENSA meeting if I knew where my car keys are.")

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times last week in which Sara Reistad-Long delves into recent studies that indicate the forgetfulness plaguing me and many other writers of a certain age is actually an indication of higher brain function.

Here's a little bit fromOlder Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain:
When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.

The studies are analyzed in a new edition of a neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research.”

Some brains do deteriorate with age. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, strikes 13 percent of Americans 65 and older. But for most aging adults, the authors say, much of what occurs is a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or a telephone number. Although that can be frustrating, it is often useful.

“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”

For example, in studies where subjects are asked to read passages that are interrupted with unexpected words or phrases, adults 60 and older work much more slowly than college students. Although the students plow through the texts at a consistent speed regardless of what the out-of-place words mean, older people slow down even more when the words are related to the topic at hand. That indicates that they are not just stumbling over the extra information, but are taking it in and processing it.

When both groups were later asked questions for which the out-of-place words might be answers, the older adults responded much better than the students.

“For the young people, it’s as if the distraction never happened,” said an author of the review, Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute. “But for older adults, because they’ve retained all this extra data, they’re now suddenly the better problem solvers. They can transfer the information they’ve soaked up from one situation to another.”

So here's to soaking up information, storing it in the Narnian wardrobe of our brains, and somehow, somewhere, someday, leaking it back out onto paper.

And while we're on the topic, check out this hilarious list of Things Younger Than McCain.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Thought for Today

“Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow.”

-- Mary Anne Radmacher

Today, I'm taking time to reflect not only on the everyday courage that keeps us creating but on the profound courage of those who have given their lives in the service of their country. May their spirits be blessed and their families find comfort.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Keri Smith on how to be a miserable artist

My son sent me this right on guide to misery from author, illustrator, "guerilla artist" Keri Smith. Timely and true for writers.

Have a non-miserable day, everyone!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Hobbyist Turns Pro

As Joni and I were chattering over coffee the other day, my memory banks coughed up a nugget of advice given to me long ago by a pro writer friend, one that ended up as a turning point on my path to publication. For years, I'd been writing as a sideline/hobby (the dream job) while also professionally pursuing first a teaching career and then a masters degree in educational administration (the reality). I was starting to apply for positions as an assistant principal, yet still whining about wanting to write for a living someday. My friend (who'd heard this all before) stopped me cold and told me (with some exasperation) that I could be a published author. I had the talent, but what I lacked was the commitment.

I was pretty aggravated by that statement. What did she mean, I didn't have the commitment? In spite of the demands of marriage, child-rearing, a full-time teaching career, and grad school in my "spare" time, I was still cramming in hours of writing every day (except when I had a paper/project/test/grading/lesson plans due). I was submitting short stories to magazines (though I didn't have the time to actually read and research them) and duly filing an ever-increasing pile of rejection slips. I was really trying. Wasn't I?

Actually, I was, but not in the right way. Because a commitment to building a career in writing won't let you put it in second place. You have to want it so badly that you're investing more mental energy on it than the safety-net career. You have to stop thinking of it as a fantasy and put it in the realm of not some distant daydream but a very real career that you are working toward.

You can do all that and keep your day job. (A body's gotta eat...) But you have to treat the writing career as your next one and work at preparing for it as hard as -- no, even harder than -- you would at any trade school, college degree, or apprenticeship. You have to be willing to tell your loved ones this is what you intend to do and fence off a territory all your own (not necessarily an office but a territory consisting of time and space and family resources) in which to do it.

If you're apologetic or shy about your "little hobby," it's sure to remain one. If you allow "helpful" friends or relatives to diminish you over your career goals, you're contributing to your own failure. If you treat writing as an achievable goal, have at least some talent, and do it instead of yapping about it, you have a very, very real shot of making it reality.

Is that the same as a guarantee? Heck, no, but I couldn't guarantee that any given person would get through med school or succeed as a cabinetmaker or an electrician or a car salesperson, either. That doesn't mean that people don't make it or can't make it. It's an everyday occurrence.

Why shouldn't you make it in this business, too?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

So What Is It, Dear, That Makes YOURS So Special?

The world isn't out there screaming for another novel about the interior landscape of a frustrated housewife. It doesn't need just another adequate romance or another serviceable thriller or another average name-your-genre because, if truth be told, there are all too many out there crowding bookstores, Wal-Marts, and remainders bins in warehouses.

So why, I ask you -- as well editors and agents and individual readers -- does the world need yours? What is it that makes your vision unique and appealing, fresh and exciting? Why should anyone pick up your effort in preference to the known quantity of an established favorite author?

If you can succinctly put this difference into words, you've got yourself at least a few seconds of an agent or an editor's attention. If you can't get it across, you've got yourself a problem.

So today, practice quantifying why your work is special. (For an example, see my post from yesterday, Framing a Career.) If you're brave enough to share, I'll be happy to give feedback in the comments section.

By the way, I borrowed this great old photo from an old magazine ad from Jim Hudd's hilarious Do What Now? which is chock full of hilarious commentary on vintage hokey. I love this site - and this hair model's smolderingly knowing look!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Framing a Career

I'll admit it; I've been tempted to cheat lately. Whenever I read a great historical (such as T.J. Bennett's The Legacy), my mind gravitates toward the stories and characters I once wrote with such love and care and the Klondike Gold Rush proposal I've allowed to gather dust without submitting. After enjoying a friend's YA debut (the delightful Oh. My. Gods. by Tera Lynn Childs) I start thinking of the two (unpublished) young adult manuscripts I wrote while teaching and wondering how much fun it would be to whip them into shape and send them out again. [After reviewing these old manuscripts, I came to the conclusion: not much. I may enjoy a good YA, but my voice is all wrong for it.] And then last fall, after reading Alexis Glynn Latner's captivating Hurricane Moon, I heard the siren call of speculative fiction, where I first cut my teeth reading-and-writing-wise.

So what keeps me from flitting around from genre to subgenre? It's partly an act of self-discipline borne of the idea of framing a career. I want readers looking for a Colleen Thompson novel to come to it with the understanding that they can count on a well-defined reading experience. When I switched to writing romantic suspense, I decided to write what I thought was missing in the genre, well-balanced stories of fast-paced, highly-suspenseful mystery and romance featuring "real people" (as opposed to flatter, kickass, superhero/secret agent types who seem to exist in a vacuum) who've stumbled into the most dangerous trouble of their lives. I don't want to or need to paint by numbers -- rehashing the same story and characters time and time again -- but I have to paint consistently inside the frame to keep attracting and growing the same readership.

Fortunately, the frame's a large, complex one, incorporating elements from suspense, mystery, and romance, three of my favorite genres. Weaving all of these together in 100,000 words has been an incredibly-satisfying challenge. And since I read all over the board, I haven't been afraid to draw on techniques I've gleaned from literary or mainstream writers I admire. If I'd started out with very narrow parameters, I think this I would have bored quickly -- and I imagine readers, too, would do so.

I know there are quite successful writers who are all over the board, working in a number of different genres. If you're a super-fast, very energetic writer who's able to focus on multiple projects at once and promote two or more personas at once, more power to you. But I can only give my best thought and effort to one frame at a time.

So how about you? Do you have a framework constructed for the career you envision? Or are you dallying with several areas, to see which best suits you? Have you adapted your vision over time (as I have) to fit the necessities of the marketplace or your own expanding tastes?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

From the Warehouse: Gene Weingarten on the Peekaboo Paradox

Every once in a while I come across a group of words that make me a better writer. I store these poems, articles, links, and quotes in a file under the nebulous Area 51-ish name "The Warehouse".

I don't remember when I filed "The Peekaboo Paradox" by Gene Weingarten, but it originally appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, January 22, 2006.
The Great Zucchini arrived early, as he is apt to do, and began to make demands, as is his custom. He was too warm, so he wanted the thermostat adjusted. It was. He declared the basement family room adequate for his needs, but there was a problem with the room next door. Something had to be done about it.

The room next door was emblematic of the extraordinary life and times of the Great Zucchini, Washington's No. 1 preschool entertainer. The homeowners, Allison and Donald Cox Jr., are in their late thirties, with two young children -- Lauren, who is 5, and Donald III, who goes by Trey, and whose third birthday was being celebrated that day.

Key point: Do not stop reading after the first page. You will think that you know what this story is about. You don't. Trust me.

For more from Gene Weingarten: Below the Beltway. No matter how you feel about his politics, reading his writing is an education in putting words together.

And on the subject of good art...

You have to visit Alex Itin's extraordinary website at The Future of the Book. (And visit his blog "on which my brain is displayed.")

About Alex:
I am the son of an abstract painter and graphic designer from Basel, Switzerland and an actress/fiber artist teacher from Long Island. I have always felt that I have one foot in the old world and one in the new. In some very real way my work and life have been an attempt to make a synthesis of the dialectic that is my parents both as people and artists.

Illustration above is "Peekaboo" by Alex Itin.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Life and art on Lipari: a conversation with Janet Little

Yesterday I introduced you to my dear old friend, Hecate the Bandicoot, and my dear new friend, artist/poet Janet Little. Twenty years after “Hecate the feculent” came yawling and crawling into my children’s lives, my now 19-year-old daughter Jerusha came upon the book while I was cleaning the dark reaches of my office closet. I Googled the author up and found this self-portrait and bio on her website:
Janet Little grew up in Ogdensburg, New York. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and attended their European Honors Program in Rome. The following year her “droll, lavishly illustrated morality verse,” Hecate the Bandicoot, was published by Dodd, Mead. She also illustrated the book The Impossumble Summer, published by Walker and Co. She has done theater posters, sculpture, puppetry, and written a screenplay, and a great deal of poetry. She lives on the island of Lipari, where she is writing and illustrating a book based in the Aeolian Islands called The Mermaid’s Tales. She has a small gallery in her house on the corner of Venus and Mars streets called La Casa Immaginaria (The Imaginary House). There she sells prints of her drawings, and paintings on glass in the Sicilian ex-voto style.

More intrigued than ever, I emailed Janet, a spirited conversation ensued, and she’s kindly allowing me to share a bit of that exchange here.

So where did this extraordinary book come from?
I was about Jerusha's age when these poems started popping into my head, and I was always announcing "I just wrote another poem, wanna hear it?" which usually resulted in baleful glances, so that actually by the time I found an interested editor and pulled Hecate out of my sheaf, he was the first person to read it. Publishing it was like "flinging rose petals into a canyon and waiting to hear the sound of them landing," I'm not sure who said that about poetry, but anyway it's most gratifying to find that someone has indeed enjoyed reading it.

Dodd, Mead & Co did a lot of poetry (including launching the careers of Robert W. Service and Paul Laurence Dunbar) but they didn’t typically do children’s books. Wasn’t this quite a departure for them?
As I recall, Hecate the Bandicoot was published with an adult audience in mind, although I was always trying to convince editors that I thought children would like my poems. They usually said my work was too sophisticated, so it was very gratifying to hear that your children enjoyed it. Later on times changed and telling an editor I wrote poetry garnered the same expression as saying I had leprosy. So right now I'm trying to find ways to sneak it into the book I'm writing. As a day job I'm doing large paintings, which are fun.

You must know that you're living every artist's fantasy there in the Aeolian Islands (a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily). What's it like and how did you end up there?
Most Americans have never heard of them. They have a life of their own. Last night there was a loud earthquake with almost no movement of the earth, but the bang it made woke up almost everyone in town, so at 3:30 a.m. everyone was milling around in their pyjamas, acting rather blasè about the whole thing, I must say. I tend to go the writer's route on these things, so I was speculating about aliens or military experiments, and felt somewhat letdown to find out that it was just gas escaping from the earth's crust, a sort of giant fart I suppose one could term it.

Anyway, I had never heard of this place myself until the day I first came here almost 30 years ago. I was taking a trip through Sicily after my last year of art school, which was in Rome, and some Englishmen who had just been here came into my train compartment, saying what a beautiful place this was. So off I went on a ship towards these islands, and noticed as I neared them how much they resembled the drawings I was doing at the time. As the ship docked I saw a sailing boat backlit to the right of me, with young people moving gracefully about on it, and it was the first time that it occurred to me that one could live one's life with enjoying it as a primary goal. As I set foot on Lipari, I thought "I want this life."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bandicoots, Google, and finally connecting with a dear old friend

About twenty years ago, my sister Linda, who worked in the magical upstairs children’s area at Montana Book Company in Helena, rescued a wonderfully quirky little book from a pile of remainders and gave it to my newborn son. (Hey, it’s never too early to read to the kid.) Hecate the Bandicoot, written and illustrated by Janet Little, was a top favorite for both my kids. I read it so many times I could recite it word for word, and believe me, recite it I did – on the way to daycare, during fussy airplane rides, in the dark after bedtime when the sandman never showed, waiting for vaccinations in the pediatrician’s office, lying on our backs in the yard watching fireflies. When I was lying on the bathroom floor, nauseous from chemo, my 5-year-old daughter used to sit on the edge of the tub and recite it back to me.

Hecate the bandicoot
Slavered at the maw.
Hecate was hungry,
And she wanted something raw.

Thick and swarmy was the night,
Addled was the air.
Smelly was that bandicoot,
Matted was her hair.

Guavas thudded to the earth,
Lorises were yawling.
Somewhere in the eel grass
Hecate was crawling.

The language in this lush, irreverent poem is like “Jabberwocky” meets Emily Dickinson. The art is finely drawn, richly detailed, and wildly imaginative. (Click images to see them enlarged.) The story ain’t no Peter Cottontail. It’s about a little girl being stalked by a huge rat. Hecate meets her match in the flouncy form of Fanny Thimble, who drags the beast home, scrubs it up, and adopts it as her beloved pet.

Fanny made her bandicoot
A frock with poplin pockets.
She decked her out in diadems,
And moa plumes, and lockets.

And to this day, that bandicoot
Is smelling like a crocus,
While sitting on a windowseat,
And staring out of focus.

I always thought the book was a zen parable about empowerment, turning the table and taming the fears that seek to consume us, but my kids roll their eyes and say that takes all the fun out of it. And it is scrumptious good fun. It’s also gorgeous good art. When Malachi was little, he was fascinated with the extraordinary details in the illustrations, particularly this ship-gargoyle-tiara worn by Hecate after her extreme makeover.

Curious about the author of this unusual book, I tried to send a letter to Ms. Little many years ago, but the publisher of the book, Dodd, Mead, & Co (Agatha Christie’s original US publisher) had gone out of business. Flash forward ten years and enter the Internet. I came across Hecate when I was cleaning my office a few weeks ago, Googled the author up, and sent her a brief fan letter. To my delight, she emailed back. We’ve been nattering across the time zones ever since. Instant kindred spirits. (Moral of the story: Take a minute to email that author you love. She wants to hear from you.)

Tomorrow, Janet Little will be visiting Boxing the Octopus to discuss the history of Hecate and life on Lipari.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

So Funny It Hurts

Dennis Cass's video about the absurdity of book launch promotional efforts is hilarious... and painful. With technology quadrupling every time we blink, a lot of authors are driving themselves crazy trying to stay on the cutting edge of self-promotion, often at the cost of writing the next great book.

Do you think it's gotten out of hand? Where do you draw the line between artist and book-hawker? As you delve ever deeper into publishing, how will you maintain a balance?

Excuse me... I'm off to write a book. :)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Versions of a Vision

Recently, I came across the rainy, blue cover for Geliebter Mörder, an upcoming translation, from Blanvalet Paperbacks, a German imprint of Random House. I'm always intrigued by overseas artwork, the various depictions used to sell a work in foreign markets. I liked this one, but I couldn't say to which of my books this cover belonged. The title, which translates to "Beloved Murderer" didn't help me a whole lot either.

Still curious days later, I tried Google and came up with the answer. This cover is for The Deadliest Denial (the red covered U.S. version). Also posted are the white Estonian version and the deep blue, babydoll and handgun (hmmm...) Polish concept. All visions from the same story, each of them surprising in its own way.

In the same way, a dozen or a hundred or a thousand authors could each tackle the same plotline (in the case of The Deadliest Denial, it's the story of a police officer's wife awakened by a knock at the door, not the news the her beloved husband has been killed, as she fears and half-expects, but the shocking revelation that's he's been arrested for conspiring to kill her). No two versions would ever be the same.

So when you're working on a fabulous, original (or so you think!) idea and hear of another, similar book or movie, don't fret too much about it. Your version will be as different, or more different, than these cover visions are from one another. Your unique voice, your world view, can't be "stolen." It's as individual as the DNA encoded in your genes.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Joe Cottonwood blogs the heart of a carpenter

I've been meaning to do a post on podcasting ever since I read author Joe Cottonwood's insightful comments about it on The Well, but time and organizational skills are not on my side these days. I promise I'll get to it because it's something emerging writers should know about. Meanwhile, allow me to turn you on to the rich, earthy voice of Joe's Clear Heart Blog: The Heart of a Carpenter. This from "Changing Light Bulbs, Part One", in which he revisits St. Louis 1968 and reflects on "a pleasant job in a strange year":
First day, in the stifling St. Louis heat walking across campus to our assigned building, Franklin asked me how I'd spent my summer.

"Long story," I said.

"Go ahead," Franklin said, stopping under the shade of a tree. "We got all day."

Students were hustling around us, heading for class. Hair was longer this year, skirts shorter, attitudes ... goofier.

I gave Franklin a brief synopsis of my summer. It included being turned down for a summer job at Jack-In-The-Box - thank God! - hitchhiking to California and somehow winding up in a hippie commune in Big Sur, hitching back, a Hells Angel, a man who owned 7 brothels, a stolen truck, a night alone in the middle of the desert, a drunk cowboy, a day in the Winnemucca, Nevada jail, a Mormon missionary, hopping a freight train, joining my girlfriend in Colorado and driving her beat-up old VW bug to a ghost town in New Mexico and then to Vancouver, Canada and then across Montana to Madison where at a party we met Miss Wisconsin who was tripping on LSD, and then to Chicago just as the National Guard was pouring in for the Democratic National Convention, and then to Washington DC to see our parents, and back to St. Louis. And so here I was. "What about you, Franklin? How'd you spend your summer?"

Click here to read the fully fleshed post and here to subscribe to Joe's Clear Heart podcast.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Thrillerfest '08

Our friends at International Thrill Writers Inc have asked us to spread the word about Thrillerfest '08, which promises to be both thrilling and festive!

From the press kit:
"Not only does Thrillerfest present a unique opportunity to mingle with bestselling authors such as Sandra Brown, James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, and many more, they'll also be sharing inside stories of how they achieved their success and what inspires them. Additionally, this year more than 35 top literary agents have signed up to hear pitches as part of Agentfest, a truly unique opportunity for aspiring writers."

Check out the latest edition of The Big Thrill, the ITW webzine.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

So Little Time, So Many Choices!

In some ways, I envy my son, who is on the cusp of graduating high school. At this stage of the game, almost any choice remains a possibility, as long as he is willing to pour heart and soul and the Labors of Hercules into attaining it.

The older one gets and the more one invests in any specific goal, the dimmer grow the other possibilities. I'm not saying that we lose our ability to make different choices, only that it becomes harder and harder to change as we age. And by middle age, we hear doors close behind us as we realize that some choices, indeed, are now irrevocable. All those alternate career or lifestyle or even partner dreams we've harbored can no longer come true.

Except if you're a writer. Then you get to have it all.

Through my novels, I have explored alternate life choices. I've imagined careers as a jewelry artist, veterinarian, firefighter, physical therapist... I've lived in other regions, experienced other times and partners. I've imagined in detail, I've tried out activities that range from a simple riverside hike to a glider flight over the desert. I've toured historic homes and checked out a wealth of antiques and picked the brains of scores of fascinating people I never would have met without playing the research card. And the best part? I can go on doing this as long as my faculties allow it, as long as I have the imagination and intelligence to pursue the dream job I chose to pursue above all others, the one career that allows me to embrace all the rest --and then some-- and get paid for it to boot.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pithy, Seedy, Pulpy, Juicy

Deeply in need of a little refreshment, I picked up Pithy, Seedy, Pulpy, Juicy this weekend and refreshed my head with a bit of Hilary Price genius.

Hilary's "Rhymes With Orange" has been twice nominated for the best cartoon panel division of the National Cartoonist's Society and appears in more than 150 daily newspapers nationwide (including the Houston Chronicle) and is "adored by animal lovers, fans of literature, and anyone who can laugh about the quirky nature of life." (Including writers.)

Check it out.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day!

Along with a hearty amen! to Colleen's "Writer as Mother" post below, I wanted to give a shout out to my fabulous writer/editor mom, Lois Lonnquist.

If you're as disorganized as I am (totally oblivious to the fact that today was Mother's Day until Malachi and his girlfriend presented me with a rug they'd found on the side of the road) it's not too late! Hopefully, your mom slept in or is conveniently located in a tag-along time zone, and there's still a few hours to express your true feelings with one of the irreverent Mother's Day cards found on

(This heartfelt Mother's Day sentiment came to me from the Gare Bear. And I know he really means it.)

The Writer as Mother

Back in the early 20th century, Mother's Day was cooked up as an homage to the Victorian model of motherhood: you know, the self-sacrificing, family-worshipping icon who put her own needs dead last. Sure, there was a ton of "female hysteria" and a whole lot of passive-aggression going on, but the holiday honored -- and still honors -- the mythical Selfless Mother.

My own mother is wonderful, but selfless? Not so much. She goes after what it takes to make her happy and quietly-but-firmly insists that we respect this. She loves her children (and my dad, to whom she's been married since the age of 17) dearly, but none of us believe we're her entire reason for existing.

As a mom, I'd say I fit the same mold. I adore my family, but I think the best thing I can do for them is be a happy mom, a mom pursuing her own goals. A mom who teaches by example that dreams and aspirations have weight in this world, and that a woman's reason for existence has a larger scope than keeping the house (sort of reasonably) clean, the cupboards (more-or-less reasonably) well-stocked, and the child provided (unreasonably) with the latest must-have whatzit. Since my son was small, I've closed my office door for a slice of nearly every day. I've demanded (admittedly with more success some days than others) that he think twice before interrupting and respect my equipment. I've attended writers' workshops and forced him to endure dad's cooking -- and later learn to cook himself. And I've refused to feel guilty about what earlier generations (though maybe not my mother) would call my "selfishness."

Here's hoping that my example will give my only child the courage to go after what he wants from life -- and a respect for women that will bode well for his future. Here's hoping that this Mother's Day you put aside your mommy guilt and remember that a child needs a happy mother more than a "perfect" one.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Graves and baseball (two delicious bits of word play)

I just realized last night that these two scenes have something in common (something beyond "We must speak by the card, or equivocation overcomes us!"), and while I'm not going to gas on here about what I think it is, I will say that I am going to work toward incorporating it on some level into every bit of dialogue I write from here on out.

The gravedigger scene from Hamlet (act V, scene i):

And the timeless "Who's On First?"

Friday, May 09, 2008

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Print Runs... and Story Construction

Today on BtO, two great educational opportunities for writers, one free, one close to it, and both highly recommended.

One of the toughest things for newer authors to understand is print runs. What are they? Who determines how large mine is? And what can I do to determine and impact my place in my publishers' pecking order?

Author extraordinaire Jennifer Ashley has explained it beautifully here on her writing blog. Wish I'd read and understood this years ago, because it could have saved me a very bumpy learning curve.

And for those of you interested in taking an incredibly information online class on fiction presented by a master writer instructor and veteran novelist, check out Patricia Kay's The A-B-Cs of Story. Pat's classes get rave reviews, and for $30 you get the following:

* What is a story? The three-act structure

* Your opening: setting the stage, the inciting incident

* Creating characters we can root for

* Writing scenes: Scenes Equal Action

* Writing Sequels: Sequels Equal Aftermath

* Whose point of view?

* Writing the love scene

Hope you'll check it out!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Ego Trap

Call it karmic debt-load, superstition, or what have you, but most writers of my acquaintance feel an obligation to give back to newbies what those before have given them. Sometimes this comes in the form of close one-on-one mentorship, but it's way too easy to get burned that way, so many times, authors "pay back the universe" by giving free or crazily-close-to-free advice in the form of workshops/classes taught, articles written, or blogs posted.

I do as much of this as I can, within reason. But I strive to keep my focus on my commercial work because there's a real danger, in my opinion, in setting yourself up as an all-knowing Writing Guru. Such teachers often develop a following of writing disciples who hang on their every word. This sort of thing isn't good for the disciples, and it's often a career killer for the WG if she doesn't watch her step.

Why? I think this happens because the WG gets used to the role of all-knowing portal to the mysterious universe of writing. Having all the answers gets time-consuming as people come to you for help and guidance more and more frequently. And once you've started to buy into the idea that yeah, I do know a heck of a lot more than newbies about publishing, it's tougher on the ego to admit that this biz is more art than science, with a fair amount of luck mixed in. As the ego is massaged by one's students, it gets pretty embarrassing to encounter rejections or a nasty review or any of the pitfalls faced by mortal writers. To protect the more pleasant WG image and the ego, a lot of these folks become risk-adverse and simply stop submitting.

I think the lesson in this is that yes, it's good to help out up-and-coming writers, but not at the expense of trading away your own passion for producing the best art that you can. And not at the risk of forgetting that the publishing biz is at its heart unfathomable, that a huge part of the reason it attracts so many is that it continually tests each one of us, from the rankest of beginners to the oldest of warhorses.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

My once per decade visit to the windy city

I'm in Chicago to attend an event where my current memoir guru charge is performing. Staying in a very nice hotel. I was out late last night, sitting in a great restaurant, having interesting conversations with people who work in the film biz, on Broadway, and other far-flung but richly rewarding creative endeavors, and the weirdest thing about all that is that I kinda fit in.

So now I've had my Chicago for the first decade of the new century.

My 1990s visit to Chicago was on book tour. My first novel was a B&N Discover selection, so for a brief and shining moment, it had near FOS shelf space in every B&N in the US. I was determined to make the most of that moment, killing myself to visit every store I could get to during that six weeks, and I've been rewarded with great support from B&N ever since. The book was done by a small press, so I was on my own dime, and I stretched it as thin as a paper cut. Cheap hotel, el train and bus to get around, and a budget of $8/day for food. (Hey, it can be done with proper motivation.) I was here for one day, and I'll bet I walked 25 miles, hitting every bookstore I could map.

My 1980s visit to Chicago was on a whim. Rex Harrison was doing a tour of My Fair Lady. He was an old man, and I knew I'd never have another chance to see him. For weeks I did every odd job I could hustle so I could afford the ticket. I hitchhiked down from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where I'd just dropped out of college. I was hoping I'd meet some nice people in a bar and crash with them for the night, but I ended up hanging around the stage door, waiting to see Rex exit, and by that time it was late for a 19-year-old girl to be bar-hopping with no money, so I sang on a street corner to panhandle enough money for a short stack of pancakes in a little diner, sat there until they told me to leave, rode around on the train until I got too cold, then slept for a few hours in a Salvation Army homeless shelter before hitchhiking home.

It's windy here today. And rainy. Classic Chicago. Walking under the el tracks on my way to get coffee, I tried to feel myself pass by. The grubby backpacker huddled in a passing train. The wannabe author on a mission, never mind the Sunday shoes that have blistered her feet bloody. To either of them, the Me Circa Now would seem ridiculously lucky and wildly successful. And looking at it that way makes me feel ridiculously lucky and wildly successful.

Confucius say: "No matter where you go, there you are." But it's where you've been that puts it in perspective.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Recommended Read: The Legacy

As a writer, I sometimes dread picking up a book by an author I know and like on a personal level. I always want to love the person's work, but I feel really let down if it turns out the book is not for me. If that's the case, I simply don't bring it up, leaving my friend to think it's languishing or lost somewhere in my gargantuan To Be Read pile (which also happens).

I have to admit, I was already kind of worried when I picked up pal T.J. Bennett's debut, THE LEGACY, the other day. Although I used to write historical romances, I've been really burned out on them for a few years. Too many skimp on the history or seem too much alike to hold my attention. And then there was the sixteenth century Germanic setting, which made me think of sausages and saeurkraut and other foods that make my stomach ache.

But I thought I'd check out a few pages, just to be polite. Almost immediately, I was hooked. To quote the review I wrote for Amazon (I try to do this whenever I love a book, whether or not I know the author. When I hate a book, I keep it to myself for karmic reasons):

If you're looking for something different in a historical romance, THE LEGACY may be for you. With rich, relatable characters, a fascinating -- and very different -- early German setting, and an intelligent plot, this book quickly drew me in and held me fast until I finished.

After escaping a convent (a daring plan from a real-life plot involving Martin Luther and a nun he later married), Baronesse Sabina von Ziegler goes to her adoptive father's castle to claim her inheritance. But the baron has other plans for Sabina's legacy, so he marries her off to Wolfgang Behaim, a widowed printer who's coerced into the deal. Though both are initially unwilling, their marriage of necessity slowly and believably evolves into a real one, against a backdrop of religious upheaval and a deadly peasant revolt.

I never imagined I could enjoy learning about sixteenth-century Germany, but that's the gift of a good historical -- and exactly what will have me watching eagerly for T.J. Bennett's next book, THE PROMISE, in May 2009.

Very highly recommended.

To check out reviews and a sample of the book, please stop by T.J. Bennett's website.

Where is my head?

I was emailing back and forth with my current memoir client last night and mentioned something about our scheduled meeting on Thursday in Chicago. Her response was a little baffled, and I suddenly jolted to the fact that I was supposed to be in Chicago not Thursday but Tuesday. As in today. Nine hours later I was on the airplane, and now I'm here, but somewhere over Kansas, it occurred to me that I came very close to a major screw up that would have righteously pissed off my client, wasted a chunk of her money, and ruined the honeymoon rapport I've cultivated with her and the other players involved in this project. Not cool.

When my daughter was little, she coined the term "book head" to describe the state of mind that has me staring out the car window, saying "sure, honey" when someone asks me if we can buy a horse. No matter what Gary says to start a conversation with me when I'm in book head, my response is a variation of "Did you say something?" A while back we were reduced to using coffee filters as toilet paper for two days because I kept going to the store and forgetting why I was there. It's as if there's only just so much mental acreage and the imaginary campers pitch tents on all of it.

I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to do it (suggestions welcome!) but I need to find a way to reality check myself a few times a day to make sure I'm where I should be, mentally and geographically.

("The Great War" painted by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte in 1964)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Taking It Personally

One of the hardest things to learn in this business is not to take its assorted slings and arrows personally. What makes it almost impossible is the very personal nature of a novel. You're myopically focused on that baby for months and often years before it comes to fruition, and although there's generally a critique partner or partners, an agent, and an editor involved, the finished product has your name on the cover, your characters on its pages, and your central vision competing in the crassly-commercial marketplace.

Worse yet, your literary "off-spring" is competing for the hearts and minds of readers, most of whom come armed with strong opinions. Some of whom will not mind telling you in the form of "helpful" letters or (more often) e-mails. And more and more of whom will feel inclined to share their thoughts with the world in the form of blog posts, Amazon reviews, or drive-by postings on electronic bulletin boards. Some of these readers will be paid or volunteer reviewers, who will (in some cases) more professionally make their esteemed thoughts known.

This is all well and good when readers' opinions underscore your "genius." I totally cop to having warm-and-fuzzy feelings when that happens. But since no book has ever been written that will please every reader, you're bound to run into some of those who Just Don't Get It.

Maybe this person hates the kind of book you love and write. Maybe s/he has nasty preconceptions regarding the genre or subgenre or people with your first or last name. Maybe this "reviewer's" whole persona is wrapped so tightly around cynicism that her greatest joy is publicly eviscerating everything she sees or hears or reads. (For more on this, read Joni Rodger's post on the Rise of the Cleverati.)

Or maybe (and this is the scariest maybe of all) this person noticed some flaw that managed to slip past your (and your editor's and critique partners') notice. Because painful as the lessons are, you can occasionally learn some things about reader expectations from a disappointed consumer.

In the ten years I've been selling fiction, here are a few of the lessons I have learned.

1. Everyone has the right to choose his/her own reading material. Friends and family members don't have to read everything I write in order to prove their devotion. (They probably will with the first book or two, and then all bets are off.)
2. Keep copies of positive notes and reviews to remind yourself of their existence on the days when you get clobbered. Because you will tend to dismiss or forget the good and forever remember each syllable of badness heaped on your work. Even when good outnumbers bad a hundred to one.
3. Never confuse your work with your self. Remember that writing is one thing you do and not the sum total of who you are.
4. Politely thank people who write you a nice note or e-mail you a positive review.
5. Ignore nut jobs who send you mentally-unbalanced messages. Resist the temptation to write back and defend yourself or your work. You'll never convince them, you may incite much worse nastiness, and in some cases, make restraining orders a prominent feature of your life.
6. Ignore lousy reviews. Pretend you haven't seen them because few of your readers will have. By publicly griping or worse yet, launching into teary-wounded girl mode, you'll ensure that everybody reads the darned things... and forms negative opinions regarding your professionalism.
7. Don't read bulletin board, blog posts, or Amazon reviews of your work, if possible. If you read something unpleasant, pretend you haven't... and tell yourself this one person's opinion is beneath your notice (even when it isn't).

I'm not saying criticism doesn't hurt. It can leave you raw and bleeding and send you whining (privately, I hope) to your best buds for support. All I'm saying is you have to put on your big-girl panties and keep writing...

Because you're working to please the fans of your work, not the naysayers.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Vitamin E: in praise of good editors

Now that's what I call editing! But editing a book is another animal. In addition to tech prowess, the skill set has to include artistic instinct balanced by business savvy and steel-ball candor tempered with wet nurse gentleness.

I woke up at 4 AM on Wednesday, thinking, "I sure hope there's a hatchet sticking out of my back because if there isn't, I have another kidney infection." I've been plagued with the drat bastard things ever since chemo. Usually I can fight them down with cranberry juice, water, and naturopathic remedies, but on a breakneck toboggan track of a deadline, I'd been swilling Diet Coke and coffee instead. My doc hustled me in for a power course of antibiotics, but I had to turn down the prescription for painkillers. I knew I wouldn't be able to resist them if I had them, and on this deadline, I had to keep my head straight and keep working.

Thursday afternoon, I hit SEND and met my deadline for first chapter and detailed chapter by chapter synopsis, then fell asleep on the couch and didn't face the world much until Friday noon. Getting up the stairs was tough so I officed on the patio with my laptop until three when an automatic text message alerted me I'd missed a call from my editor. Crap. I figured she wouldn't be calling unless there was a problem.

"I just had to pick up the phone," the voicemail started...and went on to say I'd knocked it out of the park. But do they do that? Editors? Call just to tell you that you did something right? Isn't her job to tell me what I'm doing wrong?

I haven't had a chance to really get to know this editor -- the project is pretty fresh -- but I already love her. I discovered right away that I could count on her for straight shooting advice; she calls it as she sees it when I'm off track. But she feels equally compelled to tell me when I'm doing something right. At a moment when I was deeply exhausted, she offered me that needed shot of Vitamin E.

My career has been blessed with a parade of excellent editors. The guy who pulled me out of the slush pile and mentored me through my first novel literally saved my life. I was an emotional jellyfish, just coming out of chemo, knew nothing -- no thing -- about the publishing biz, and showed up on his figurative doorstep with a horse-choking 800 pg manuscript. He somehow made a tight 365 pg book out of that mess and made an author out of me.

The editor of my second novel was a relentlessly smart English teacher type who held my feet to the fire on the motivation behind every scene, the backstory on every character quirk, the subtext beneath every turn of phrase. The editor who did my third novel (and my memoir and an anthology I participated in) is the most surgically insightful editor I've worked with. She knows the industry like no one else I've ever met. She educated me on the business of writing, challenged me to think in terms of career, and tough loved the "orphan in the storm" tendencies out of me.

My first editor taught me the art of fiction, my second ed taught me the craft of writing, my third ed taught me the business of publishing. Every ed I've worked with has left me with a lovely parting gift of some kind -- a new way of thinking, a better way of processing. I consider myself ridiculously blessed and lucky to have had my ass kicked by the best.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Importance of Forward Motion

Lately, I've spent an inordinate amount of time massaging a proposal for a new novel. Now there's nothing wrong with editing, and I truly believe the revision is to writing as gem-cutting is to rough stone, but storytellers need to maintain forward motion to keep the tale alive in their minds.

This week, I've done just that, committing to this still unsold project rather that taking the more prudent course of working on a second, fall-back proposal. I've forged ahead, recapturing the raw enthusiasm that launched this story in the first place. (I love this story! These characters! This setting!) At this point, there's no real need for each stroke to be perfect. As my books' characters slowly reveal themselves to me, I'll have plenty of opportunities to pop back and refine what I am writing. All that matters is that I keep on paddling toward the finish, sustaining my own interest as I hope to sustain readers'.

Forget that, and I risk sinking like a swimmer who stops moving to analyze technique.

Have you ever gotten so bogged down in perfecting a story's opening that you've extinguished all desire to complete it? What's your answer to this problem?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Breaking the silence (and making it all worthwhile)

Got one of those letters this week that makes it all worth while, and at the risk of sounding like I'm back-patting, I want to share it with you...

Dear Joni,

My name is Chris Gillespie and I am writing for two reasons. One is to thank you for being able to make my sister laugh. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years ago and when she was at her lowest with the initial depression her diagnosis caused, your book was the one thing that just cracked her up. Her then husband even wrote you and I don't know if you would remember, but you actually called her and the smile that that brought was amazing. Her name was Julie Layne.

Unfortunately Julie lost her battle with ovarian cancer just over 2 years ago. I have since become involved with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) and I am on the committee to organize the Break the Silence 5K run/walk this year. This is the NOCC's signature event and it is held each September to raise funds for awareness, education and support surrounding ovarian cancer.

1 in 58 women will be diagnosed with this disease but unfortunately the vast majority will be diagnosed in the disease's latter stages when it is at its deadliest. I know first hand the truth of this statement. I miss my sister terribly but my mission has become to educate women about this disease and its early signs so that no one else loses a sister, mother, grandmother, aunt or friend.

Julie started writing about a year into her diagnosis and it was not only cathartic for her, the articles were published in our hometown paper and were a huge hit. They are still being used to help those fighting all forms of cancer at our local hospital. I think your book inspired her to share her thoughts as well so I hope you know how many people you have touched with your honesty and humor.

Thank you so much for your kindness and please keep writing - I love your sense of humor and I truly feel laughter is often the best medicine.

God Bless you,


Thanks for the kind words, Chris, and for the work you're doing to increase ovarian cancer awareness.

It's been seven years since Bald in the Land of Big Hair was published by Harper Collins, and I remain astonished -- well, first of all that it's still in print and continues a steady trickle of sales, but more importantly, that sharing the story of my chemo adventure opened the door for all this kindness and shalom that's come back to me. In the first two years, I received thousands of letters and emails, and even after all this time, not a week goes by that I don't hear from a chemo buddy. And I'm hugely grateful for every single one. That's a day-maker every time. Cast your bread upon the water, like the Good Book says. It will return to you a hundredfold.

Click here to donate to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and learn more about Break the Silence and Healing Through Art.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Night Shift to the Rescue

Last night, at precisely 3:30 AM, I woke up with lines of prose downloading into my head. Resonant prose, too good to lose, though my bed was warm and comfortable and I knew I needed more sleep.

I repeated the key words, willing myself to remember, for those lines were the solution to a snooze-fest of a scene I'd been fighting during the last two waking days. More words downloaded into my mind: another line provided by the night shift of subconscious.

Reaching for my glow-pen (I don't recall its real name, only that I can click it twice to make the tip glow), I remembered I'd left my usual nightstand pad of paper in the family room. Beside my laptop. Thoroughly awake now, I slipped out of bed without disturbing either my husband or the small terrier curled at my feet. I found a robe and pair of slippers, made myself some decaf chai tea, and woke up my computer. For the next two hours, I let the night shift have its way with me, reworking the scene with which I'd struggled.

Finally, my eyes drooped, and I went back to bed awhile. Now I'm off to check the night shift's work, which will doubtless reek with spelling errors (I'm a good speller by daylight, but after about eleven, all bets are off) but which, I hope, will have a raw power the subconscious brings to night maneuvers.

What about you? Are you ever lured out of your bed by great ideas? Or poor ones?


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