Monday, June 30, 2008

Wha-BAM! Colleen's baby gets a rave from PW!

Yes, Virginia! Colleen's forthcoming Triple Exposure scored a glowing review in Publisher's Weekly today. (Insert Texas Woooot! call here!)

The buzz in full:
Thompson (The Salt Maiden) packs this well-paced thriller full of twists and the local color of a small Texas town. Photographer Rachel Copeland has been formally acquitted of the murder of Kyle Underwood, a young man who stalked her, but she remains disgraced in her adopted Philadelphia community, where many still believe she seduced and killed him. Rumors and harassment follow Rachel as she flees to her hometown of Marfa, Texas, where she butts heads with her stepmother, Patsy, and other locals. One of the few people willing to support Rachel is Zeke Pike, a woodcarver with a secret of his own, and they soon wrestle with romantic feelings for each other as mysterious stalkers threaten and try to separate them. Thompson's supporting characters and their tensions are believable, especially Patsy with her multilayered jealousy and unhappiness. The red herrings are exquisitely placed, and the climax will surprise even the most jaded of suspense readers. (Aug.)

Yummy! I smell pull quotes...

Gofightwin, Colleen!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Morning Quote:The Royal Path

I get pretty peevish when I hear some pundit-writer holding forth on How to Do It (with the implication that if one is only smart enough to follow his/her recipe, one is certain to achieve dazzling successes). So the next time you read or listen to such a guru, remember this:

There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft.
~ Jessamyn West

Feel free to select tools from anybody's bag of tricks until you find the right machete to cut your own path through the wilds.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Summer Saturday cartoon: Mary Schmich on life, love, and sunscreen

Writer Mary Schmich said her essay "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young", which appeared in the Chicago Tribune in June of 1997, was the commencement address she would give if she were asked to give one. Australian director Baz Luhrmann set it to music -- "Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)" performed by Quindon Tarver of Plano, Texas -- and the collective effort became a classic.

"Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen."

Friday, June 27, 2008

The gestalt of ghostwriting

Kibitzing back and forth with a writer friend last night, I was trying to explain the mindset that makes it possible for me to write books for which other people receive credit. I've had many such conversations over the years, and responses vary from "How do I get a gig like that?" to "Whore! Whore of the Medicis!" but a common theme seems to be a disbelief that I could possibly be okay with it. And a bit of an eye-roll when I, a lowly ghostwriter, aspire to high artistic ideals.

For many (if not all) writers, a major part of the thrill of being published is seeing one's name on the cover of a book, the author photo in the newspaper, a big poster announcing the table signing at Barnes & Noble. For my first few books, I was totally on that bus. Loved getting out there and talking to people and meeting booksellers and doing interviews. It was trippy seeing my picture in the London Daily Mail, I won't deny it.

But that buzz wore off for me after my last novel. I took a beating from critics and personal insults and threats from readers. Thrill gone. I just felt exposed and vulnerable, and my response to that was to pull into the safe, solid turtle shell of my home office. There I discovered that I could really write a lot more when my focus was inward instead of outward. And I liked it.

Colleen has shared a lot of thoughts on self-promotion in this space over the last year, the ups and downs, the balance we all seek, but one thing that can be agreed on -- it takes a lot of time and energy. If you're building a career as a novelist, that is time and energy well spent. But what if you could draw a Get Out of PR Free! card? What if you could have the money without the fame? For me, that is a quick and easy trade. The people who matter (editors and agents who will hopefully bring me the next interesting project) know that I did this work. I'm building a solid rep in this biz as someone who has talent, meets deadlines, and gets along with folks who lead complicated lives and are not always super easy to get along with.

My friend told me last night -- and he was right -- that I am a crappy reporter. Because I believe the best willingly and the worst reluctantly. A memoir is a totally different art form that has only a skiff of a whiff in common with a biography or autobiography. It's about reflection and introspection, not a yada yada yada recitation of details. Does this make it less worthy as a piece of art? Maybe. Depends on who you're asking. But it's a form I love because it's so human and soft. And forgiving. I'd rather see a naked body painted by Matisse as opposed to a naked body depicted on, and I frankly don't think the Matisse is less factually accurate.

The key to being a successful ghostwriter is a complete suspension of vanity that enables one to genuinely love the project and the client for exactly what it is and who they are. If you go into it as a way to hobnob with the rich and famous, you're doomed, because they can smell that a mile off. If you go into it for the money, you're doomed, because it's unsteady, seldom worth the aggravation, and leads you into temptation; greed makes you to take projects you're not right for, which is the road to ruin. So enter into it for the sake of a book -- or stay home.

According to the dictionary:
Pronunciation: \gə-ˈstält, -ˈshtält, -ˈstȯlt, -ˈshtȯlt
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural ge·stalts also ge·stalt·en
Etymology: German, literally, shape, form
Date: 1922
: a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts

There are several things people hate/disrespect about what I do, and it's fruitless for me to try to defend one facet or another because I see the gestalt -- the integrated unit that is something different from the sum of its parts. Is it cool for one person to take credit for another person's work? No, generally speaking, it isn't. Do I love it that "authors" like Britney Spears rake in advances with twice as many zeros as most of the talented, hardworking wordsmiths I know? No, I hate that. Am I holding this story to the high journalistic standards I expect from a biography? Hell, no.

The reality of a ghosted memoir is not the sum of those parts; it's the integrated project that brings peace, healing, and closure to the client, prosperity to the writer, and a pleasant experience to the hungry reader.

(Above: two halves of Matisse's "The Red Room" painted in 1908.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Life's a Pitch... Or Is It?

This weekend, I'll be participating in pitching practice with aspiring authors from one of my writers' groups. I've pitched in person a number of projects over the years, and I well remember how absolutely terrifying it was the first few times. And how terrible -- absolutely incapable -- I was of boiling down my plot and characters into tasty nugget form.

I've gotten better, largely because of experience and the realization (finally) that any visiting agents and editors I met at writers' conferences were just regular book-lovers, only mentally and physically exhausted from both the travel and the stress of being "on" with so many people (many of them desperate, which can be exhausting in itself). The industry pros aren't there to stomp to death anybody's dreams in their stilletos (or Doc Maarten's or what have you), but they have to take a practical approach to finding profitable commercial work or lose their livelihoods.

Another reason I've learned to relax about the whole ordeal is that I've never sold a blessed thing off of a face-to-face meeting, nor have I hooked up with any of my agents that way. Instead, I've done things the old-fashioned way, through mailed queries, and lately, through the new-fashioned way, e-mail. The truth is, these pitch meetings never actually seal the deal on selling any novel. They can, however, save you time if the editor/agent says your story is or is not the type of tale they'd like to see as a submission. Maybe the appointment will net you a little faster of a read, but more than likely, the industry pro looking at your work will not be thinking of you personally and your stammering or stumbling or the cute skirt you bought just for the Momentous Meeting. And that it as it should be; you *want* him or her concentrating on the work.

Exceptions: The agent or editor will definitely remember you -- and not in a good way -- if you show up dressed in some severely-whacko costume (say, an S&M rig to illustrate that the heroine is your story is a dominatrix) or if you come off as exceptionally rude, confrontational, demanding, needy, or psychotic. Teary meltdowns are also not recommended. But other than that, they'll chalk up a lot most of your "blunders" as nerves and go on about their business. After all, the proof is in the pudding and not the face or figure or the witty repartee of the one who holds the spoon.

So relax. Use a pitch to practice summing up what's special about your story, which is a skill you'll need for every sort of query anything. Use it to get an idea of the industry pro's needs and how closely your story fits them. Listen respectfully, speak briefly, and try not to waste the person's time, but don't make the mistake of thinking of any one session as the make it/break it point of your career.

Have any pitch stories to share here? Embarrassing blunders, spectacular successes, or cautionary tales? If so, we'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Exposure vs. Overexposure: Thoughts on Self-Promotion

This morning, I read an essay -- an "open letter to Cormac McCarthy" by Don Graham of Texas Monthly magazine -- that made me roll my eyes. In it, Graham chastizes iconic author Cormac McCarthy (whose work I love, despite the copious bloodshed) for making the transition from invisible recluse to real-and-public person. Basically, Graham prefers his literary idols to remain mute and hidden, devoted purely to their art rather than the pursuit of celebrity (or even book sales.)

Since lately, I've been scheduling book signings and visiting book clubs that have read my most recent release and since I've cut my authorly teeth on the message "Promote! Promote! Promote!" (ad nauseum), Graham's preference for keeping his favorite author on a pedestal at first annoyed and then perplexed me. But after thinking about it for a while, I finally got it. And I understood as well that even for working-stiff authors of popular fiction, there's a fine line between exposure and over-exposure.

To my mind, exposure's a good thing when the author respects his/her audience. I like meeting with "real readers" because I enjoy getting to know the people and hearing about their reading tastes. When they're curious, as they often are, I chat with them about the writing process and the world of publishing. I happily share advice for their creative writer nephew or neighbor or spouse when asked (as I almost invariably am, since everyone on the planet apparently knows an aspiring novelist). I learn as much from these meetings as anyone, and I try to use that education to build better future books. I write about my writing to give interested readers background tidbits and because it helps me understand my own process more clearly. Sure, I want to sell more copies. That's what allows me to keep writing. But I never forget that readers can smell someone talking down to them a mile off.

While I don't feel Cormac McCarthy's guilty of this sin, I've seen over-exposure happen when an author loses sight of the needs of the reader. Hucksterism or the pursuit of fame takes root and writers become obnoxiously hyper-competitive. At times, authors can get so caught up in "moving product," they bludgeon potential "pigeons" with their message. They make repeated "drive-by" postings on bulletin boards or listserves or other people's blogs without bothering to try to get to know the other participants. Their every communication is a in-your-face sound byte of self-promotion. They ignore or put down the achievements of other authors in an attempt to elevate themselves, and they only show up for events within the writing community where they are personally being honored. They come off as self-absorbed and selfish. Because they often are.

So how do you like your authors? Friendly and approachable? Omnipresent? Reclusive? Does it matter to you? And to your taste, what types of self-promotional behavior cross the line?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Go with God, Mr. Conductor.

So sad to hear about the death of George Carlin yesterday. I've loved him since I was a teenager, and my kids loved him on Shining Time Station when they were tiny.

From the New York Times obit:
“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth,” read a message on Mr. Carlin’s Web site,, and he spent much of his life in a fervent effort to counteract the forces that would have it so. In his always irreverent, often furious social commentary, in his observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and in groundbreaking routines like the profane “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” he took aim at what he thought of as the palliating and obfuscating agents of American life — politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking of all stripes.

I'm personally loving the idea of George meeting up with our mutual buddy.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Shining City (the trailer)

Colleen cracked me up yesterday with this brilliant book trailer for Shining City by Seth Greenland.

From the Publishers Weekly review:
“Uproarious…Greenland's novel is entertaining and intelligent, and packed with enough hooks (and hookers) to keep readers sucked in to the last page.”

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Morning Quote:The Writer's Radar

Lest you begin to think that your Internal Editor is always bad, a big meanie whose only function is to make you feel inadequate, here's Hemingway's reminder as to its proper -- and critically important -- role:

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. ~Ernest Hemingway, interview in Paris Review, Spring 1958

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saturday morning cartoon: Frogs and frustration

I've always thought this cartoon was a profound metaphor for the frustrated artist. You know this manuscript is a crazy great thing. Why doesn't it sing for anyone else?

Think about it. Or just enjoy!

(My take on it...the guy discovers this amazing gift, but his desire to sell it prevents him from simply enjoying it. And so it becomes a curse.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Velocity: Writing at the Speed of You

I've given a lot of thought of late to speed, the kind that translates into the completion of manuscripts. Though I'm a fairly-productive writer -- by some standards quite prolific -- when I look around the genre world, I see example after example of authors who are three and four times faster. These authors have the option of writing for two or more publishing houses, sometimes under different names and in different genres or subgenres. They can afford to experiment while still writing their bread-and-butter stories, and they can hedge their bets against failure in one area.

It's tempting (both creatively and, to be honest, financially) but I haven't found a way to reliably speed up my process. When I use techniques that work for others, I get lost in my convoluted plots and my characters lack the depth I want. I end up rewriting more than writing because I haven't thought things through.

For me, writing a draft is an experience of fits and starts, one often interrupted to look up facts (which often prompt my best ideas), go back and double-check my synopsis, or reread prior chunks of the manuscript to slip into its flow. Because I do so much tweaking and researching as I go along, I don't spend a ton of time on revisions, but the first-draft stage progresses at a much slower pace.

Your results may (and probably do) vary. The trick is, find your own process and your own pace. Speed it up as much as you can without sacrificing quality, health, and/or family. (Remember, with any luck you're going to live a large portion of your life on deadline. If it's always a miserable, desperate, adrenalin-soaked belly-slide across the finish line, you'll tend to burn out quickly. Unless you're one of those who genuinely loves living on the edge.) And then quit worrying about what everyone else is doing. If your editor's happy, your agent's happy, your readers are happy, and you're happy, there's no need to roar around the track in a Ferrari.

A slightly-dented (insert-the-small-economy-car-of-your-choice) will get you to your destination just the same. As long as you plant your rear behind its wheel and keep on driving.

Lara Owen on love and paradox

I was well struck by a something my friend psychotherapist/ author Lara Owen (who patiently waded through and corrected my horrific French for my last novel) posted in her blog recently, starting with the words of Tibetan yogini Machig Labdron:
“You may think that Gods are the ones who give you benefits, and Demons cause damage; but it may be the other way round. Those who cause pain teach you to be patient, and those who give you presents may keep you from practicing the Dharma. So it depends on their effect on you if they are Gods or Demons.”

One of those writers who's able to bring thinky thoughts into practical use, Lara went on to examine the relationship between tolerating/accepting paradox and the achievement of inner peace, which sounds a lot less oovy-groovy when she defines it as "spiritual and psychological maturity".

Quoting Lara:
There are many paradoxes to encounter in life. For example, we think having plenty of money generates happiness, but then we realize this is true and also not true, because large amounts of money tend to complicate relationships and can present huge difficulties.

The core paradox of life is that while now we are alive, we know that one day we will die, as will those we love and rely upon. At a certain point we have to stop scrambling around this and accept it as best we can...Cognitively this is almost impossible to handle, but spiritually it is completely possible.

I guess this is how she's managing to survive the major media blitz for her new book, Love Begins at 40, (co-authored with Cherry Gilchrist) which was just released in the UK. (We Yanks can buy it on Amazon.)

"The best relationships often come after forty," says Lara, "when experience has taught us what kind of person suits us best, and we can love more wisely and kindly than we did at an earlier age. But when you are single in your 40s, 50s or 60s, how do you go about meeting a new partner?"

Offering both practical info and emotional support, Love Begins at 40 is a guidebook for those brave enough to put themselves out there and search actively for love.

This from a review in the London Daily Mail:
Gilchrist and Owen go far beyond the ‘pull yourself up and believe’ exhortations, which are the staple of self-help. They get down to the nitty-gritty of how to phrase your ad, what tone to adopt if you leave a message, how to deal with ‘baggage,’ the importance of being flexible and so on.

Perhaps most important of all, Love Begins At 40 will be a support to those who try but don’t achieve instant success. Its lessons about what you can learn from the actual journey are invaluable.

With a diverse background that includes Chines medicine and psychotherapy, Lara applies the teachings of Buddhism in her therapeutic work. She's the author of several books, including Her Blood Is Gold, a groundbreaking work on the psychological and physical effects of cultural attitudes surounding menstruation.

Lara was born in England, spent some time here in the US, and is now dividing her time between England, France, and the internet. She's one of the most interesting people in my far-flung circle of writer acquaintences.

Click here to read "The Sabbath of Women", an article I just sent to my daughter.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Revisiting an Old Friend

I've never been much of a re-reader. There are simply too many interesting new books out there clamoring for my attention. But there are a handful of writing books that I can't seem to get enough of. Some are motivational (Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Steven Pressfield's The War of Art), some are character-related (Victoria Schmidt's 45 Master Characters), others are career-related (Donald Maass's The Career Novelist), but one stands out as the bible on storytelling. That singular book, The Writer's Journey, by Chris Vogler, is one I either read, skim, or listen to on tape at least once a year.

For the uninitiated, Vogler's classic is based on his study of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with A Thousand Faces, which looks at the underlying structure of myths, stories, and characters told over and over again throughout all cultures. In Vogler's view, a well-told hero's journey plugs into the collective unconscious and strikes a deeply-satisfying chord. As a Hollywood story consultant, Vogler found it useful to speak of character archetypes such as the Hero, the Mentor (wise, old man or woman), Allies, Shadows, etc. and the stages of the "quest" (Ordinary world, Call to Adventure, etc.) in shaping appealing and commercially-successful plots. He's been accused sometimes of creating a cookie-cutter dynamic, but the hero's journey is so infinitely flexible and variable, I don't feel there's much danger of wearing out its usefulness.

If you have read The Writer's Journey, do yourself a favor and give it a try. I won't promise it's the magic bullet that will catapult you onto the bestseller's lists, but it's one more tool for your kit, and an exceptionally powerful one at that.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Carol Shields on invention over invasion

Something to go with your Sunday morning coffee...Carol Shields did a terrific essay "Opting for Invention Over the Injury of Invasion" for the NY Times Writers on Writing series.

Here's a bit:
One day I ran into an acquaintance at a shopping mall. She had just bought herself a beautiful new spruce-green nightgown, and she opened her bag an inch or two, so I might admire it.

"And now," she said, "I must rush off to buy some matching candles." I must have looked bewildered because she immediately explained, "Oh, I have candles to match all my nightgowns."

I was in the midst of a novel at the time, as I usually am, and I couldn't resist putting in this particular report from the Frontier of Real Life. I relish such curious glimpses into people's lives, flashes of uniqueness that reveal, in a blink of the eye, their extraordinary otherness.

But months later, when I came to read the proofs for the novel, I took the candles-and-nightgown reference out. My friend would be sure to read the book, and certainly she would recognize herself, since she must be the only person in the Western Hemisphere who carries color coordination to this extreme. The excision cost me a sigh of regret. But it preserved our acquaintance, and perhaps avoided a storm of self-consciousness on her part...

Is it worth it? Every novelist will reply differently.

Click here to read the entire article, and have a lovely Sunday.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Paying It Forward, Candy Havens Style

Today I attended author Candace Havens' highly-regarded workshops on "Fast Draft" and "Revision Hell," where she shared lots of helpful ideas to help speed up your writing and clean up the ensuing mess. ;) Two things about Candy impressed the heck out of me. First, she manages to hold down a full-time job as an entertainment reporter (which includes frequent Texas to Hollywood commutes), write columns, raise young men, teach online and in-person workshops, and oh, yeah, write three books a year. Clearly, she has come into possession of Hermione Granger's time-altering device. Secondly, the woman gives a ton of her time helping aspiring writers (and published writers as well) make their way toward the brass ring. Follow the link to check out her absolutely *free* online workshops, which include guest appearances from published authors, agents, and editors. Definitely, worth a look, since many published authors credit Havens with helping them get their start.

And because good karma deserves good press, here's a sneak peek at Havens' August mass market paperback release, Charmed and Ready.

Friday, June 13, 2008

LA state of mind

The Kinkos on Sunset Blvd. is littered with the broken and bloodied dreams of screenwriters, but the mood in the place is surprisingly upbeat.

Something I always notice in LA is the way people strike up conversations with anyone and everyone beginning with the assumption that you're in some way working in the entertainment industry. The wardrobe is creativity du soliel -- a big switch from the Amish community black you see in the New York publishing neighborhoods. Of course, BS is a byproduct of almost every exchange, and that gets annoying, but even the blowhards are sort of lovable because they're trying so dang hard.

I have to admit, I usually hate LA, but this was a good trip. I got a lot accomplished, finally got to see In Bruges, and ate at Mel's, the diner where they filmed parts of American Graffiti. Two things happened on this trip that really impressed me and made me think I've had LA all wrong:

Monday evening, I went to a reading of a one-act play by a not famous staff writer on a good but not huge television show and was blown away by the people who turned out to support her. There were a LOT of very recognizable faces in the small theater, but not one ego that was too big to fit in a chair. That kind of support from people who have that kind of clout is something book writers will never have, and that -- to be blunt -- is why we'll never make that kind of money.

Preparing for an important meeting on Tuesday, I was mortified to discover that the hotel business center didn't have a functional printer. I race up the street to Kinkos and found Hollywood writer purgatory jammed to the rafters with long lines of people as enervated as I was. After half an hour, I seized the hand of a passing employee and quietly said, "I have a meeting in 18 minutes with [producer whose name you'd recognize if I said it here, which is why I can't] and I am begging you for mercy."

He nodded knowingly and led me to his "private stash" area, printed four copies of the forty pages I needed for the meeting and sent me on my way with best wishes. Twenty minutes later, standing on the veranda of the producer's bozillion dollar home in the Hollywood hills, I looked out over LA.

It was sunny above the smog.

Here's the trailer for In Bruges. See it if you get a chance.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fringe Benefits of Creative Writing

According to a study by the University of Texas in Austin, creative writing -- or any type of creative work -- has an unexpected benefit. It's apparently terrific for your health and well-being. Sociology professor John Mirowsky, speaking to Bio-Medicine, says,
"The health advantage of being somewhat above average in creative work (in the 60th percentile) versus being somewhat below average (in the 40th percentile) is equal to being 6.7 years younger."

Better yet, he claims this advantage is as beneficial as having fifteen times the household income or two more years of education.

So the next time some helpful "friend" or concerned relative suggests you focus on getting yourself or working harder at a "real" job, I humbly suggest you tell them that you would, but you down want to end up feeling older, poorer, and more ignorant.

Take *that*, forces of muggledom!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Art Part

When writing commercial fiction or nonfiction, there's a lot of emphasis on the business side. We hesitate to use such a lofty word as "art" to describe our own work, particularly in the literary "ghettos" (in terms of respect, if not money) of genre fiction and ghostwriting.

But once in a while, something reminds me that art isn't limited to the lofty, that it wasn't simply something that happened during the Renaissance or is limited to lauded works printed in hardcover. Art is made from the most commonplace materials, such as British Sculptor Heather Jansch's brilliant driftwood horses. (Pictured are her works "Apollo" and "Nightmare and Daydream II". Amazing, aren't they? Check out her website to see more.)

For Jansch, it's all about the selection and arrangement of ordinary, commonplace materials and the artistry that goes into making them extraordinary. For writers, it's the same. We choose from among the everyday words, characters, and bits of story that form the flotsam of life's tides, and with time and care and... dare I say artistry... we craft them into something special.

So for today, I'm celebrating art as well as craft, and this excellent reminder that the ingredients are all around us.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

New Excerpt Posted: Triple Exposure

On July 29, 2008, I'll be celebrating the release of my eighth romantic thriller, Triple Exposure. If you enjoy free samples, please follow this link to read the opening chapter.

From the Back Cover:

A mother's love. A son's life snuffed out. A killer at large. Snapshots of reality, except sometimes layered images do not add up to a whole picture of the truth.
Better than anyone, photographer Rachel Copeland knows the camera can lie. That's how lurid altered pictures of her appeared on the Internet, starting a downward spiral that ended with her shooting a nineteen-year-old stalker in self-defense. Fleeing the press and the threats of an unidentified female caller, she retreats to her remote hometown in the Texas desert. In Marfa, where mysterious lights hover in the night sky, folks are used to the unexplainable, and a person's secrets are off limits. But recluse Zeke Pike takes that philosophy even further than Rachel herself. In her viewfinder Zeke's male sensuality is highlighted, his unexpressed longing for human contact revealed. Through a soft-focus lens, she sees a future for them beyond their red-hot affair, never guessing their relationship will expose the lovers to more danger than either can imagine.

To learn more about the mysterious Marfa Lights of West Texas, read all about them at the Handbook of Texas Online. It's fascinating stuff!

Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 09, 2008

LA agenda

Jerusha and I flew to Los Angeles yesterday to meet my current memoir guru client for an important phase in her project. The three of us will sit down for a few days, and Jerusha will read the entire manuscript out loud while my client and I follow along and take notes. We'll be finding out what pops and what flops and getting a sense of how this book will sound in a readers head.

Jerusha and I were driving to our hotel from LAX, following the directions of the GPS unit we've named A.J. Hep-G (long story), when we came to a roadblock. The first thing that grabbed my eye on the other side of the orange sawhorses was a huge black sign with white lettering: GOD ABHORS YOU. ("Geez," I said to Jerusha. "Welcome to LA.") We'd stumbled onto the LA Pride parade route, and things were just getting underway. As we tried to make our way around the massive gathering (we later heard estimates of 5-600,000 people -- we saw cheerleaders with beards, lots of leather, some seriously big hair, and a whole lot of celebration goin' on, as the song says.

The gay civil rights movement is something I've only just started learning about, and it's pretty interesting. The annual parade commemorates an event that happened in June, 1969 at the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street in New York.

From John Cloud's article in Time Magazine:
It was 1:20 a.m. when eight cops stomped into the Stonewall Inn, a dive in Manhattan's Greenwich Village district that had no liquor license but served watery drinks to a mix of drag queens, street kids, gay professionals and closeted and straight mafiosi (who ran the place). Within two hours, the Village was bleeding and burning as hundreds rioted...

Prior to the Stonewall riots, raids on gay bars were a regular (and brutal) thing. A variety of factors made it easy to extort from and victimize this particular clientele.

From the Stonewall Place web site:
Instead of quietly slipping away into the night, as we had done for years, hustlers, drag queens, students and other patrons held their ground and fought back. Someone uprooted a parking meter and used it to barricade the door. The agents and police were trapped inside, They wrecked the place and called in reinforcements. Their vehicles raced to the scene with lights glaring and sirens blaring. The crowd grew. Someone set a fire. More people came. For three days, people protested. And for the first time, after innumerable years of oppression, the chant, Gay Power, rang out.

Other than that small knot of protesters by the sawhorses, I saw no sign of hatred or strife and plenty of evidence of God's love. It took us 90 minutes to work our way two miles to the hotel. During all that time, the only thing I saw that disgusted me was that black sign with it's ugly white lie.

Visit the Los Angeles Pride web site to read more about the history of Christopher Street West and learn about the true gay agenda, which is really just the human agenda: love, equality, and pride.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Critique Groups: The Good, the Bad, and the Coyote Ugly

Back in 18th-century Paris, the literati and the culturati had their literary salons. I'm sure they were fascinating, if crammed full of pretension. In Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, the Dadaists formed tightly-knit groups of artistic weirdness or genius, depending on your viewpoint.

Many modern commercial writers gravitate toward critique groups, a working (or aspiring-to-be-working) stiffs' variation on the theme. Like-minded members gather to share pages of their drafts-in-progress, praise the good in them, and offer helpfully-meant criticisms of anything that might impede the authors' path to publication.

A good critique group is not only a great place to learn but also a real joy. The critique group forms an alliance, with every member helping every other member achieve his/her potential. Members respect the fact that good writing, characterization, and story transcend market slots such as genre, and snobbism, pettiness, and competitiveness are all checked at the door. Members are also mature enough to realize that a high tide floats all boats and one member's successes do nothing to diminish their own chances. In fact, these group successes help to add to the collective wisdom and experience of the hive. (Bzzzz, Bzzzz!)

I've been blessed with a terrific critique group called The Midwives for more than ten years now, and in it, I've formed some of the closest friendships of my adult life. We laugh (a lot), we share triumphs, and we cushion one another's disappointments. Plus, we can talk writing and publishing all we like with watching the other party's eyes glaze over (as often happens with our longsuffering family members.)

Unfortunately, not all critique groups are created equal. From the snarky and condescending to the hierarchical to the vicious, critique groups sometimes get a bad rap. Some of the worst of these, in my opinion, run like some college creative-writing workshops, where English majors and black-dressed Sylvia Plath wannabees try to impress the prof by slicing-and-dicing the other students' work and jockeying for position in More-Erudite-Than-Thou-Land. (I sincerely hope there are kinder, gentler college creative writing workshops than the ones that I remember from my own days in such classrooms, but I've heard from many writers who have also been there and will know of what I speak.) These types of groups drive undermine the confidence of some and drive others completely away from writing... or at least from attempting to find the Nirvana of a group that is a better fit.

Before I joined the Midwives, I participated in several unhealthy critique situations. Almost as bad as the Lord of the Flies, "gotcha" type (aha! I found a missing comma! And look, here! A -- insert gasp -- dangling participle. Indicating that, clearly, you suck and I rule!) were those in which members offered nothing except praise... to everyone for every effort. Either they were so inexperienced they couldn't see the problems or too nice to mention them, but no one in either type of group every progressed.

If you find you're in such a group, don't waste your time (or risk your ego) hanging with it. Just politely distance yourself and keep trying, because I guarantee a perfect fit is well worth the trouble it takes to find or form one.

For a great article on how to start your own critique group, read Life and Creativity Coach Lisa Gates' article here. (Warning: this link takes a while to load, but it's worth reading.)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Unbridgeable Gulf

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Pictured is a shot of Santa Elena canyon, a West Texas wonder I've visited (and hiked in 100-degree-plus heat, heaven help me) on a couple of occasions. With its split monolith looming above me, I recall thinking that it's the scariest chasm in the world.

Or second scariest, I should amend, because Singer's got it right in this quote. The most intimidating gulf is definitely the one that appears between my initial, shining concept of a novel and the all-too-flawed reality of the evolving draft. While working on the thing, I'm often overcome with the thought that I will never bridge it... even the fear that I'll die suddenly and leave the clear evidence of my mental decide unedited on my hard drive.

Happily, that hasn't happened so far, and with patience, good advice, and infinite revision, I've gotten each manuscript as close to my original vision as was possible for me at that juncture. The bridge never completely touches down upon that initial concept, but I try to get my readers close enough that they're willing to make that final leap in their own imaginations...

Which leaves me free for dreaming the next dream.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The R Word

From the greenest beginner, to the most-published novelists, nobody likes rejections. But if you're in the game, they're bound to happen. As you learn the market and develop your craft, you can reduce but never completely eliminate them.

Rejection can mean anything from "you're kidding, right?" (loads of form rejections with no personal notes may mean you're pretty far off the mark), to "you can write, but you clearly haven't done your homework on our needs" to "oh, this is cool, but I don't know how to make enough filthy lucre on it to buy" to "this project's right, but the timing's wrong." Or they can mean nothing but the editor or agent involved was in a huge hurry to clean off her desk before vacation. Only rarely will they contain nuggets that will help you figure out how to make the project saleable. Honest, experienced critique partners, contest judges, and book doctors (sometimes, on all three) are more likely to provide those answers, but more often than not, you'll have to develop that intuition on your own.

You have to get over the idea that your writing project is your baby or a sliver of your psyche. You have to get past feeling so fragile that you let strangers tell you how you feel about your work... and even worse, yourself. I know talented writers who've never gotten anyplace because they couldn't develop a thick enough skin. Instead, they felt the pain of the rejections and stopped dead, afraid to risk such hurt again.

The writers who make it feel the pain, too, and all of them I've ever known experience moments (hours!) of self-doubt. But on the surface, they get tough as an old gator and keep charging the same door, not always from the same angle, but they ram their heads against it until they hear it splinter.

And when they succeed, that thick hide serves them well, because if you think it's tough getting rejections via mail or e-mail, wait until you have to deal with reviewers posting their ever-so-snarky "rejections" on the Internet or splashing them across the pages of Kirkus or PW. So think of your early rejections as tough love, preparing you for a tough business. Because that's what writing books is, make no mistake on that count.

For an excellent take on rejection, check out this post from author Karen McCullough guest blogging at Marilu Mann's Escape into the Fantasy. It's well worth reading and chock full of advice I wish I'd had when I was getting started.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Musical interlude: "Birdhouse in Your Soul"

How much did we all love Colleen's moving post about Andrew's graduation yesterday? (C'mon, give it up for Colleen!) I'm up to my neck in deadline soup, but I wanted her to have a chance to recover from the festivities, so I'm posting a tasty little trifle today to nudge your thoughts about originality, creativity, and what works.

Every once in a while we get a great reminder that an idea that would sound too bizarrely unworkable for words if you tried to explain it to someone...well, it can fly. Above is a little snippet of a song featured last season on Pushing Daisies, the astonishingly...astonishing TV show created and directed by Bryan Fuller. Kristin Chenoweth and Ellen Green -- two Broadway icons who look great on TV -- deliver a different take on "Birdhouse in Your Soul", a song originally (emphasis on "original") done by They Might Be Giants. And below is the They Might Be Giants version. Pure poetry. And another reminder that anything and everything is allowed.

Let your thoughts wonder.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

End of an Era

Today, my only kiddo is graduating high school, an event guaranteed to launch a fleet of memories, including those related to motherhood and the career.

Early on, when I was just beginning and struggling to balance a more-than-full-time job and a new baby (grad school, too, while I was at it), I squeezed as much writing time as I could manage into naptimes. All too quickly, that was over.

Later, I wrote around those moments when he was happily occupied with his Little People or his Lincoln Logs or -- heaven forgive me -- those sing-along or movie videos I used to steal a little time. All too quickly, that was over, too, and he started off to school.

Since I was still teaching, I'd come home and spend time with the boy and the man, make their dinner and tuck the little one into his bed, then write between the hours of eight and ten-thirty every evening. On weekends and during the summer, I'd steal even more time as I was able. About this period, I began slipping away for occasional weekend writers' conferences, but as long as I came back with a Beanie Baby, he was all smiles.

All too quickly, that season ended, too.

When he was in the second grade, I made my first sale. As he wondered how this might affect his own life, I remember making the suggestion that he could help me at booksignings. With big tears in his eyes, he burst out, "But I don't even know how to write cursive!" As it turned out, having an author-mom quickly became yesterday's news, something he takes for granted just as he would if I were still working as a teacher. He did occasionally exhibit staccato bursts of pride, as in the time he boasted to his soccer coach this his mom was "semi-famous." And then, that time passed us by as well.

Enter the mean season, the teen season. You remember, the one where everything your parents do (breathing included) is mortifying? Somewhere in all this, he heard romance equated to trash and took it to heart, even though the teen movies he enjoyed had considerably more "adult" (though not in the emotional sense) content. At that point, he avoided telling people what I do, though after while, he got over it and worked out a "you do your thing, I'll do mine" peace.

About a week-and-a-half ago, I sold what will be my fifteenth and sixteenth novels and lamented that when I first started, I used to score roses and a nice dinner out. This time, I stopped by the Mc-Drive-thru to pick up a couple of sundaes. He told me I should take it as a compliment that my successes have become routine, something expected of me by the family. Publishing has become a regular gig and not a miracle. We had one of those cool, adult-like conversations where it dawns on you that your child is becoming not exactly the person you set out to raise, but this mysterious being you've been privileged to watch unfold.

And because he's going off to college in a couple of months, I know that this time, too, will pass too quickly, that I'll soon have all the time I wish to write... and it will leave me longing for a bit less.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Gofightwin, Colleen! (Rockin' the Daphne's)

Just had to exit the galley for a sec to congratulate Colleen, who just heard that Head On is a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence. Winners will be announced at the national RWA conference (at the Death By Chocolate Gala, no less) in San Francisco later this summer.

Go, girl, go!


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