Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Quote: Faulkner on Dreaming

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

-- William Faulkner

Faulkner had it right. Writers often begin as they should, by admiring and emulating those that they admire. But until they push past the conventional limits and into their own territory, they never really stake their own claim in their field.

This week, try pushing at least one boundary. You can always step back if you have to, but in most cases you'll find something in the experiment worth keeping.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Saturday morning cartoon: Barack OBollywood

Nothing about writing. I won't even try for a cute tie-in. It's just so great, I wanted everybody to see it.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The all important work place

Spending the weekend trying to put my office back together after months of mayhem and neglect. That all important room of her own work space is essential to the physical and mental health of a career writer, but it doesn't have to be anything snazzy.

Willa Cather: "A work-room should be like an old shoe; no matter how shabby, it’s better than a new one."

(Ah, enjoy with me a moment Vermeer's diligent "Lacemaker".)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Book That Never Ends...

I thought I'd be finished by now, really. I have plenty of pages and have put in plenty of hours, after all. And, hark! Isn't that my deadline, peeking just around the corner?

And yet, well, sing along if you like...only substitute the word "book" for "song."

I really do miss Lamb Chop.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I'm working my tail off this week in an attempt to complete the draft of a book due all too soon. So what do I get? Distractions.

Not the family kind so much. With my son off to college, husband off to work, and the mutts behaving themselves (mostly), there shouldn't be much in the way of obstacles.

So my subconscious, ever resistant to the idea of finishing a project, is manufacturing the little suckers and lobbing them in my direction. Some are fears: what if I finish and it stinks? how can I possibly get the manuscript edited in such a short time? Others are wildly-improbable plot wrinkles: what if I went back to page 100 and completely rewrote all the hero's scenes from his dog's POV? Wouldn't that make my publisher more excited about the book and fit onto the current fantasy bandwagon? Others, most seductive, are ideas for completely-different novels, often in genres unrelated to the multi-book contract I'm completing.

I'm reminding myself these "brilliant ideas" are mirages, which will evaporate the second I have the time to pursue them. Basically, they're grenades lobbed my way for a brain that's desperate to get out of the hard, hard work entailed in wrapping up a novel that amounts to a romance, suspense, and mystery all rolled into one.

So which part of the manuscript causes your brain to throw up roadblocks (or maybe just throw up)? Is it the beginning, middle, or the end? Or do you have more trouble sending out submissions?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Laurie Harper's Author Biz guides emerging writers through the publishing industry maze

Ten years ago, one of the many (and I mean many) New York literary agents who rejected me passed my query letter along to Laurie Harper of Sebastian Literary in San Francisco. She was impressed that I'd managed to place my first two novels unagented with small but reputable presses. I was shopping my third book, a memoir about my experience in chemo, and Laurie candidly told me right up front the same thing all those other agents told me: cancer books don't sell. The difference was, she was willing to look at the ms.

Long story short, Laurie loved the book, talked me through a few revisions, then worked her shapely young backside off to place it with a terrific editor at Harper Collins. I finally felt like an author "for real"; this was the first year of my writing life that I made more money than I would have made as a checkout girl at Kroger. A giant leap in self-esteem, income, and opportunities.

These days, Laurie's living in the Midwest and expanding on the experience and industry expertise gathered during 30+ years as a literary agent with Author Biz Consulting. She offers project evaluation, contract negotiation, career planning, and other services geared to help emerging authors take that next step forward. Unagented writers can get help with the query process. Agented writers can get contract advice and career coaching from a neutral party. Author Biz offers Quick Counsel services on a retainer basis, which is a great time and money effective way to get expert answers to questions about writers conferences, copyright law, agent evaluations, and other industry stuff.

It sounds like a terrific resource, especially for a writer who hasn't yet connected with a network of published friends and publishing colleagues. Check it out.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Bangles on the bottom line of a writing career

For a lot of years, the only goal I had for my writing career was "make a living." I explored a lot of different avenues -- book length fiction, magazine service articles, a syndicated newspaper column, an advice column in national magazine, ad copy, PR materials, an awards show script, and on and on. I made a little money, but I spent a lot of time flailing. Then about six years ago, I connected with my second literary agent, David Hale Smith, and at our first meeting, he asked me the magic question: "What do you want?"

I hemmed and hawed and blathered, mostly about money, but he shook his head and said, "Obviously, you need money. Everybody does. But there are much easier ways for both of us to get it. I'm asking -- What do you want?"

Hmm. When I let myself think about it, I realized that the answer has been in my heart since I was a little kid.

"I want to tell stories."

While that single overarching desire doesn't eliminate any particular genre or format, it does dramatically narrow how I budget my time and energy. I'm a believer in the Do What You Love; the Money Will Follow approach. One of the lines that stepped out of Marsha Sinetar's book and slapped me upside the head: "Any talent that we are born with eventually surfaces as a need."

So what do you want? If the answer is "money", go get a real job. If the answer is "I don't know", don't be surprised you're not getting it.

I'm offering the Bangles here to reinforce that message. (And the rockin' mullets are a parable for trendiness.) "If she knew what she wants, he'd be givin' it to her. If she knew what she needs, he'd give her that too..."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Morning Quote: Plath on Self-Doubt

Recently, I've rediscovered Sylvia Plath, reacquainting myself with this incredibly talented writer (whose genius goes so far beyond The Bell Jar).

This morning she spoke to me about the trouble that always plagues me as I complete a manuscript:

"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

So today, I'm donning the ancient armor of Wonder Woman (photo is of a supercool custom action figure by Glorbes; thanks for showning feminine armor that doesn't reveal more flesh than it protects!) and girding my loins for the final push on this draft. Now I feel ready to slay the self-doubt dragon.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday Morning Cartoon (your audio-visual guide to the publishing industry)

I wasn't at all surprised last week when my agent told me that Marjorie Braman, who edited my last two books at Harper Collins before she went to Morrow, was moving over to Holt as ed-in chief. She's a brilliant editor and a terrific human being. (Something the publishing industry definitely needs right now: more Marjorie Braman.) Meanwhile, Sarah Durand is taking her thriller instinct to Atria, and earlier this summer, it was announced that Jane Friedman was out, Brian Murray in as CEO of Harper Collins.

It's good to learn early in the publishing biz is that people at all levels of the industry do this huge round of musical chairs every summer. Your editor's assistant turns up as a publicist at another house. That publicist is now editing someplace else. A new boss comes in, bringing in people she enjoyed working with here and there, and knowing there's going to be a shift in editorial direction, editors fold their tents and migrate. It's impossible for writers to keep up with all this. That's why God created agents. What writers do need to take from this, however, is that publishing is a small town. Nobody's more than one or two degrees of separation from you at any given time, so you want to be cool to everyone from the CEO who stops by to meet you for five seconds to the underling who offers you coffee when you walk in the door. Act badly toward anyone, and it will come back to bite you in the ass, I promise.

And now, to help you understand the true essential interpersonal politics of the publishing industry, I offer this classic audio-visual aid:

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Anti-Hero's Journey

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a huge fan of stories that unabashedly embrace the Hero's Journey. Give me a fresh-faced, idealistic hero, an evil villain, unlikely, colorful allies, insurmountable odds, and an exploding Death Star at the climax and we're good. Growing up, my favorite movies were Star Wars, True Grit, and The Cowboys, my favorite novels books such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Richard Adams' Watership Down, and, yes, Walter Farley's The Black Stallion (although I would have much preferred versions of each with strong female leads).

Although I love a good villain, (from Vader to Hannibal Lecture to the vile Baron Harkonnen of the Dune series), I prefer the villain to stay in his/her place and be soundly defeated. I never really got into the anti-hero's story, maybe because I was such a rule-following, Sunday-school attending good girl and it made me too uncomfortable to root for a bad person, or maybe it's a lack of sophistication on my part. But I still strongly dislike unethical TV characters (Holly Hunter's brilliantly acted Grace Anadarko is a very tough sell for me.)

Except that last night, my husband and I watched the DVD Notes on a Scandal (based on the Zoe Heller story), and I can't stop thinking about that movie. In it, Dame Judi Dench plays a evilly-understated stalker, one so nastily-insightful and relatably-lonely that she's absolutely fascinating. When she accidentally discovers the illicit -- and rightfully illegal -- sexual affair the beautiful new teacher (Cate Blanchett is wonderful in this part) is having with a 15-year-old male student, Dench's character doesn't report it. Instead, she uses the knowledge to manipulate and emotionally blackmail the object of her obsession.

So who can a viewer root for in such a situation, where neither the stalker nor her victim stands on moral ground? Maybe that's why the movie, nominated for a slew of acting awards, didn't make a huge commercial splash. It's uncomfortable to watch, deeply-so at times. But I enjoyed it (as I also enjoy last years's No Country for Old Men, the story of an opportunistic thief and a cold-blooded killer). Though both movies were hard to swallow, they had an appealing depth.

So what are your favorite books or movies featuring the anti-hero's journey?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Where are you going, little one?

In the midst of deadline madness this week, Colleen and I are doing something a whole lot harder than handing off a manuscript: we're both sending our kiddos off to college. Having done this for three years now, I wish I could tell first-time empty-nester Colleen that it gets easier, but it doesn't.

I'm thrilled to have my kids go out into the world and live their own lives. And the nest isn't empty; Gary and I are in it, and we take up a LOT of room. We like having the place to ourselves, but still...when I see my baby girl drive away, it feels like a kick in the head.

Up left is five year old Jerusha dancing (she was born dancing!) at the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston's Museum of Natural Science. And here's the nineteen-year-old evil genius fashionista brainiac, who's about to get a BA in English. I'm still in mommy mode, but so far so good. So, so good.

So please forgive this moment of unabashed sentimentality. Somebody's perfectly lovely dad singing the truest song ever played in an elevator.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Oh, hell, why even pretend I'm not jealous?

Brunonia Barry makes me sick. She had a great idea for a novel, self-pubbed it with the gung-ho help of her husband, forked out money for an amazingly proficient PR firm, and ended up with a 2.4 million dollar book deal with Harper Collins.

In what friggin' universe does this occur? 2.4 million for one freaking novel? Come. On. In what freaking forty-four-double-D universe does that freaking happen?

I suppose these apocryphal tales of publishing industry glory-strikes are encouraging to some of my fellows in the foxholes on the frontlines of the industry, but it just makes me want to swallow a broken beer bottle. I hear something like that, and jealousy stabs me through the heart like a railroad spike. I'm sure that Brunonia is a wonderful person and a wonderful writer, who worked very hard and created a wonderful book. I have no reason to dislike her. From what I see in her blog, she seems like a heck of a nice gal, and frankly, the book sounds terrific.

Here's a bit about The Lace Reader from the starred review in PW(who's trashed me twice, may God be with them in their endeavors):
In Barry's captivating debut, Towner Whitney, a dazed young woman descended from a long line of mind readers and fortune tellers, has survived numerous traumas and returned to her hometown of Salem, Mass., to recover. Any tranquility in her life is short-lived when her beloved great-aunt Eva drowns under circumstances suggesting foul play.... Barry excels at capturing the feel of smalltown life, and balances action with close looks at the characters' inner worlds. Her pacing and use of different perspectives show tremendous skill and will keep readers captivated all the way through.

Well, la-dee-frickin'-da. Why don't we throw ten healthy book advances at that one, huh? Better yet, let's drown thirty beautifully written midlist novels in the slush pile so we can grab us some o'that! Feh!

I'm sad to say that my incinerating envy of this book deal will make it impossible for me to read this book that I would have probably enjoyed had I never heard the backstory on it. I do not enjoy seeing this side of myself. It's small and selfish. It shows a lack of gratitude for the great gifts and terrific luck I've enjoyed in my career. It's not about anything I don't have, it's purely about something someone else has. And it's one thing. Okay, two things. Okay 2.4 million things. The point is, do I want to trade lives with Brunonia Barry? Of course not. I love my life. My husband is the Rock of Gibraltar. My publishing luck has been stellar. My life is ridiculously well-blessed with love, books, good dogs, excellent friends. It's just that...dang.

There's no point trying to emulate the coup Brunonia and her husband accomplished. The universe pulled her name out of a hat today. Harper Collins will make that book a massive bestseller because they can't afford to have it be anything less. Does that mean the universe could pull my name out of a hat? Technically, sure it does. But in the blackened depths of my jealous heart, I know that's not going to happen.

So what do I do with this ugly little ogre of feeling living under a bridge in my soul? I suppose I could pretend to be happy for her, but I've gotten to a place in my life where I just don't budget energy for pretending. I could suppress the ulcerous emotion somewhere in my stomach and stew on it privately, but what fun would that be? Or I can allow myself to embrace the demon for a moment. If I hold onto it too long, it'll turn to acid, but just for a moment...

It's easy to let myself off the hook with "that never happens" or "that's not the way it's done" in this industry, but the truth is, any freaking thing can and does happen in the publishing game, and anything can be "done" if somebody does it. So maybe an occasional boot to the head is healthy. Hopefully, I'll draw a little energy from my jealousy today. Work harder. Dig deeper. Maybe I'll take a look at what I'm doing and undoing in my career -- not with the blind ambition of doing better than Brunonia, but with the eyes-wide-open reality check that is the first step to improving my game plan.

Or I could spend the evening with a carrot cake and a bottle of wine, then get up tomorrow, take some Advil, and get back to work.

(Photos above: Sophia Loren gives Jayne Mansfield the bitch-eye. Gotta love it.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Weaving the Strands

As I approach the ending of my current novel, I feel a lot like this little creature, rushing from one scene to the next, back and forth to weave the story's strands into what I hope will end up as a cohesive tapestry. At this point, I'm all over the place each day, as I shore up some clues, downplay others... even add or overhaul a character completely to make him/her better fit the whole.

I'm well aware that not everyone works this way, but it seems to be the only way for me to tell a story. And most of my angst at this point is caused not by the book's romantic or suspense elements, but the mystery, which must be preserved until the perfect moment.

It's enough to make a weaver dizzy, and truth be told, I don't consciously always know what I am doing. But sometimes instinct's all we have to go on.

And when we're very lucky, it's enough

Monday, August 18, 2008

Can you spot the ghostwriter? (Hopefully not)

I went to a party for my current memoir client in LA a few weeks ago, and it was like somebody shook the famous people tree. I wanted to be there because my client has become my friend, but I felt terribly out of my element. People were asked to leave cameras in the car at this party, and every time one of the official photographer types told me to "c'mon, get in there" I purposely stepped away. I feel like a parade float next to those skinny little LA chicks, and I'm not a photogenic person in any case, so I generally avoid having my picture taken. (Gary persists in snapping shots of me unawares, so I invariably have this "fwah?" look on my face in all our family pictures.) Anyway, I'm not paparazzi fodder like most of the folks who were there that night, so I was pretty surprised to see myself lurking in the background of a photo in last week's People magazine.

I'm not in the habit of reading People, I must admit (and I'm not at all ashamed of this); Gary actually brought the photo to my attention. He picked the magazine up from the seat of an airplane and noticed the picture of my client. He did a double-take. Though my face isn't really visible in the picture, I was wearing a chunky amber necklace Gary gave me about fifteen years ago, and the familiar shape caught his eye.

This is a good metaphor for my role as a ghostwriter, actually. The client must be very much in the foreground. My task is to capture her voice, give words to her ideas, and express her opinions. Only someone who knows me extremely well should be able to tell that it's me in the background, and even then it should require a double-take. I've found that the Stanislavsky method acting I studied in college comes in very handy. I'm essentially doing the same thing my client does when she plays a character on TV or in a movie. I just do it on paper.

I've broken the task of ghostwriting a memoir down to three essential elements:

Content: What does the client want to say in her book? What's her story and what does it mean? This emerges through hours (and hours and hours) of conversation. The most important thing I do as a ghostwriter is listen. I've learned the hard way that trying to impose my idea of what the client should want to say is a huge waste of time. It ultimately won't work. If it's not her message, it will never ring true.

Structure: As I learn about the message and story, I start to see a sort of bell curve -- the story arc -- and chapters sort of fall out onto the table. I'm required to provide a detailed outline to the publisher, so I'm looking for that skeleton from the very start.

Voice: This is where I have to completely recede into the wallpaper. I've been blessed with a few really fabulous Southern women whose unique, strong voices were easy to embrace on paper. I run into rough patches when my spiritual or political beliefs don't jibe with a client's, but walking miles in their shoes has been a good exercise in understanding.

The real magic trick of ghostwriting is achieving invisibility. If a ghost project reads like a Joni Rodgers book, I've failed my task. But hopefully the quality of the finished project will be enough to make editors and agents (the ones who could potentially bring me the next terrific project) do a double-take.

(Indidentally, when this photo was taken, I was chatting with the multi-talented Camryn Manheim, who told me she wrote her own hilarious memoir, Wake Up, I'm Fat!, without a ghost. What a fabulous, funny, scary smart dame. I wish you could see her instead of me!)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Magic of Word of Mouth

Along with authors Sophie Jordan (Surrender to Me) and Christie Craig (Weddings Can Be Murder), I took part in a book signing yesterday where I watched a wonderful phenomena in action. I like to call it “Book Glow,” that moment when you meet another booklover and gush about a book you’ve recently enjoyed, then blurt those magic words that warm the heart of every author, “You have to read this. It’s great.”

Right there at the table, those who had read one or more of our books were recommending them to strangers, taking the burden of “selling” off our hands (and freeing us to be friendly, cut up, and have a good time, duties at which we collectively excel. Especially the cutting up part.)

Recently, I’ve felt let down by a few of my old standby authors or manipulated by the hype over some huge bestseller. When I try a new author because of a recommendation, I have to admit, I’m predisposed to like the book. I won’t always, since I’m a picky ready, but I’m always glad to check out another writing style and try to see what might have excited the other person about the book.

So in the spirit of sharing, tell me, what was the last read you recommended or the last personally-recommended read you seriously enjoyed? Bonus points for those lesser-known gems that weren’t best sellers but ought to have been, those books we might not hear about anywhere else on the web.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Downtime be damned! (How to keep momentum going with the Three Rs)

I don't believe in "writer's block". I think it's a case of "to everything there is a season". Sometimes it's not writing time, and efforts to force words onto the paper are futile. The tricky thing is continuing to be a writer when you're not writing.

I seriously hit the wall Monday evening. Left spin class early feeling a bit cloudy. Came home and stared at the proposal I was supposed to turn in at the end of this week. Went to bed early. Dreamed weird fever dreams about a hacksaw, an Ingres painting, Nicole Kidman, this blog. Woke up sick, sick sick. I dragged my laptop into bed and tried to work for a while, but between the flu and Theraflu, my creative brain had turned to peat moss. This was not going to be a writing week. But I have no talent for downtime. This is where the Three Rs kick in.

Reading. There's never enough time to read. That stack of books on my nightstand grows weekly. Knock one off, add three on. I used to say I was taking the day off to read a book, but the truth is, reading is part of my work. It's no longer possible for me to read purely for entertainment. (And believe me, I wish it was!) The books I love best are the ones that make me a better writer, but even a book I don't enjoy is going to teach me something. No such thing as a guilty pleasure when it comes to books. At the very least, you're connecting with the mind of another author and exploring some segment of the industry.

Research. Because my eyes were gravellish this week, I spent time listening to interviews I've recorded over the last month. Then I half-watched some relevant television and movies with a cold compress over my eyes. And I cast that net pretty wide. Seriously, there's something to learn from television at any given moment if you're looking to learn. I took in several reruns of Law and Order this week, taking notes on the way plot and dialogue were structured. What I gained from that is substance for another post, but the point is -- anything is research if you open your brain to it. If you have only enough energy for TV, fine. Watch TV. But watch it like a writer.

Rest. I slept more hours this week than I've slept in the last three months combined. No lie. I've been hammering away 15, 18, even 20 hours a day almost every day. There's a point where the brain physically needs rest in order to function properly, and I was too tired to realize how far beyond that point I'd strayed. I posted a while back on a study that showed how the brain "self-organizes" while in the dream state. Beyond that is the simple nurturing that babies are wise enough to claim as their inalienable right but adults sometimes eschew as weakness. Colleen and I have said in this space many times: Rest is part of a writer's work. But sometimes it takes a croquet mallet to the head for us to take our own advice.

I'm sniffling but saddled up again today. Ideas woke me up, and that's always a good sign. I'm ready to rock this proposal, but determined to pace myself.

The moving, grooving graphic above is a detail from the painting Momentum by Jeanne Wright. Check it out.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Agent Pet Peeves: While Your Mileage May Vary

Over at the Guide to Literary Agents, a blogger identifying himself as Chuck shares a list of agent pet peeves regarding manuscript submissions. Some of these are a real hoot, such as Stephany Evans' (FinePrint Literary Management) contempt for Isabelles who call themselves Izzy. (Maybe this agent had a mean older sister by that name? Or read three horrible submissions in a row where Izzys featured prominently.) But others are a lot more helpful, as well as indicative of problems I see all the time when critiquing or judging unpublished work.

Some of the biggies:
1. Static openings, where the character is sitting around (or brewing tea or doing some other mundane task) while thinking about how he/she came to be in this predicament. Yawn!
2. Long, dull prologues.
3. Attempts at "cuteness" that fall waaaay short. Or have been done so many times they give the reader a sick feeling.
4. Done-to-death openings such as description of weather, funerals, and dream sequences.
5. Books that begin in the wrong place.
6. Clunky, ungrammatical, or error-pocked writing.
7. Homogenized voice. In other words, the story sounds as if it were constructed carefully, by committee, in accordance to some rulebook, instead of by an individual with something fresh and new to bring to the world of storytelling.

But here's the caveat. A truly gifted writer can make readers forget their pet peeves, or take a cliched set-up or image and turn it on its ear with a fresh, new twist. There are some writers who can quickly set the reader at ease, convincing her she's in the hands of a real master. Afterwards, she can go ahead and break all the rules and trample all the pet peeves that she likes.

So do you have any first chapter pet peeves to share? Or can you name an author who very quickly earned your trust with her opening? Feel free to share a terrific opening line if you identify title and author.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prime and then some (AARP's scholarship program for women over 40)

The AARP Foundation recently announced a call for entries to its second annual Women’s Scholarship Program.
The scholarships will provide funds to women 40+ who are seeking new job skills, training and educational opportunities to support themselves and their families.

Research shows that women are disproportionately at risk of having insufficient resources in the second half of their lives due to lower earning and different work patterns. The AARP Foundation first announced the Women’s Scholarship Program in August of 2007 to help women 40+ overcome financial and employment barriers by allowing them to participate in education and training opportunities they could otherwise not afford.

The AARP Foundation Women’s Scholarship Program is available to eligible individuals with moderate to lower incomes and limited financial resources.

To be eligible for the scholarships, applicants must:

Be female age 40 or over (as of August 31, 2008)

Be able to demonstrate financial need

Be enrolled in an accredited post-secondary school or training program within 6 months of the scholarship award date

Priority consideration is given to women in three categories:

Women raising children of another family member (such as grandparents raising grandchildren, or those raising siblings or nieces/nephews)

Women who have been out of the workforce for an extended period of time

Women in dead end jobs (those with no opportunity for advancement, low pay and lacking either health or retirement benefits).

Scholarships may be used for any course of study at a public or private secondary school, including community colleges, technical schools, and four-year universities. The program does not provide assistance for graduate degree programs. It seeks women who are entering two to three year technical or skills enhancement programs, or who are in the final stages of their college experience. Funds are payable to the institution and may be used to pay for tuition, fees, and books.

Go here to get more info and submit your application online. The application process closes on August 22, 2008 and scholarships will be awarded in early 2009.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What's in an (Author) Image?

Like a lot of people, I was struck by the Olympics story of Yang Peiyi, the little girl of the perfect voice but “imperfect” (as judged by Chinese officials) cuteness. In the Chinese “national interest,” another little girl, Lin Miaoke lip-synced “Ode to the Motherland” during the opening ceremonies…

Which in the weirdest, most convoluted way imaginable brings me to the question of the author’s image. I’ve just returned from the Romance Writers of America annual national conference in San Francisco (a city that needs no stand-in), a place with hundreds upon hundreds of authors in attendance. In honor of the gathering, we leave our normal working wear (threadbare pajamas, grubby sweats, and questionable t-shirts, in most cases) at home and dress in our version of grown-up, often with a natty new hairdo to go with it. But few of us would be mistaken for our ageless, airbrushed publicity photographs.

To read more, please stop by (and comment, if you please) at the PASIC 2B Read Blog, where this post continues...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"Love, death, cybersex, and stretched cricket metaphors" (Bad Idea's new Writing Lab)

Sneezing, uninspired, and aching for my next cup of Theraflu, I'm having a reading-not-writing day, finally getting a chance to wade through some email I've been shuffling aside. A while back, I received this from Jack Roberts and Daniel Stacey, founding editors of Bad Idea:

Ahoy there!

I've perused your blog, and I like what you do. I think you might like what we do too!

BAD IDEA has just launched The Writer's Lab, the UK's first fully integrated online magazine submissions facility. Any aspiring writers amongst your readers can submit their short non-fiction stories to the Show and Tell section, where they will meet appraisal from other writers and the BAD IDEA editors. You can draw inspiration from other submissions, rate your favourites and leave comments and suggestions to help others along the way. The best Show and Tell stories will win a subscription to the magazine and earn themselves a chance to be published in BAD IDEA magazine.

And introducing our online exclusive… At the Butcher's Shop you can view transparent and interactive edits of our favourite pieces of writing from Show and Tell; watch as we take a knife to the best submissions, allowing prospective contributors to pick up some essential tips to improve their writing; and then hover over changes to read comments and suggestions from our Editorial team.

On the site you can also read highlights from the best of young British journalism, find out about our upcoming events, and conjure some smart opinion of your own by commenting on the BAD IDEA blog.

I'm fearful of peer editing in general, so I haven't looked at the Butcher Shop yet, but on a quick visit to Bad Idea, I did enjoy the art and got sidetracked looking at the online portfolio of German illustrator Anke Weckman. (I love this exactly right portrait of Bjork.)

I also enjoyed "What We See, We See With Our Own Eyes" by Sarah Dohrmann, who's on a Fullbright fellowship in Morocco...
I was given a hand-drawn, badly photocopied map of the New City (’Ville Nouvelle’ so named by the French who built outside of Morocco’s ‘Old Medina’ walls – ‘Old City’ – during the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956), which was useless since there are virtually no street signs in Fez. I moved into Fez’s Old Medina, a medieval city never not described as ‘labyrinthine’, that dates back to the 8th Century, of which there is only one decent map, and even that fails.

In short, I was a tender little white furry red-eyeballed domesticated rabbit who didn’t realise how accustomed she was to her small New York City cage.

According to--well, themselves, BAD IDEA, the magazine is "the new stomping ground for ambitious young British writers, a braggadocious melting pot of tragedy, parties, love, death, cybersex and stretched cricket metaphors." The audacity of that description alone made me order BAD IDEA: The Anthology, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with their Lab.

Check it out.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Eureka Moment of the Week: Sandra K. Moore on The Dark Moment

I attended an excellent workshop this past Saturday, where talented author Sandra K. Moore was speaking about constructing a manuscript.

I had a Eureka moment when she had this to say:

In a well-realized "Dark Moment" (CT note: that all-is-lost point that takes place not long before the climax of most stories), "The protagonist can choose to do the wrong thing and achieve her goal or do the right thing and lose her goal." This is often the point in a manuscript where the hero is faced with the loss of her internal goal.

I'm working on my fifteenth book and having some trouble (as always) pulling together the ending. This was exactly what I needed to hear now.

So what one piece of writing advice has most resonated for you?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sherry Jones and The Jewel of Medina: "Dreams die in shards."

Sherry Jones interviewed me for the Missoulian in 1996 when my first novel came out. Kindred spirits, we stayed in touch over the years as she labored toward the dream of publishing her own first book, A’isha, Beloved of Muhammad, an ambitious historical novel about the Prophet’s child bride. Last year, Sherry’s opus sold to a Random House imprint in a six-figure, two-book deal. Retitled The Jewel of Medina, it was scheduled for publication August 12, 2008.

But in late May, Random House abruptly canceled plans for Jewel and its sequel “for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”

According to Asra Nomani of the Wall Street Journal, a review copy was sent to Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, in hopes that she would offer a promotional quote. Instead of simply declining to blurb the book, Dr. Spellberg called an editor, who circulated an email to other powers that be at the publisher: “Denise says it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' …Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP.”

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Dr. Spellberg’s cherry on top was a “frantic” phone call to Shahed Amanullah, the editor of a popular Muslim website, who fired off an email saying he knew nothing about the book but had been told it was “incredibly offensive”. The message was forwarded far and wide, and a recipient proposed a plan to flood Random House with emails demanding that “this new attempt to slander the Prophet” be taken off the market with the author’s apologies.

Spellberg has said the book is “a very ugly, stupid piece of work” that turns A’isha’s story into “soft core pornography” (an amazing accomplishment for a book with no sex scenes), comparing it to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which is (as much as I love my friend) patently ridiculous. This book could more accurately be compared to The Red Tent, Anita Diamant’s beautiful Torah-based bestseller, which offered modern readers a greater understanding of a woman’s life in an ancient and extremely foreign culture. With utmost respect for Islam, Sherry had envisioned building a bridge to A’isha’s world. Now she wrote to me, devastated: “Dreams die in shards.”

“I objected strenuously to the claim that ‘The Jewel of Medina’ was ‘extensively researched,’” Dr. Spellberg said. “As an expert on Aisha's life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation...”

Literary quality is a matter of personal taste, and I’ll resist speculating on Dr. Spellberg’s motives, but she’s wrong about the research. Sherry learned Arabic and spent two years immersed in scripture, scouring ancient and modern writings, weighing widely varying interpretations with a journalist’s impartiality. Then she did what many academics and religious fundamentalists don’t want anyone to do: she made up her own mind.

Dr. Spellberg told the WSJ, “If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to ‘move civilization forward,’ then they should read a novel that gets history right.”

Would that be the “right history” according to the Qur’an, in which fishermen were transformed into apes? (Sura 2: 65) Or the Pentateuch/Torah, in which angels had sex with girls and spawned a race of giants? (Genesis 6:1-4) Or the New Testament, in which decomposing corpses strolled about town? (Matthew 27:52) As a storyteller, I have my opinion about how those stories came to be told. When I write about that, I present it as opinion, which is what Sherry Jones did, presenting her interpretation of the story of A’isha as a novel, unlike Dr. Spellberg and others who present their interpretation of scripture as fact. I’m grateful for the firm scriptural foundation I gained from twelve years of fundamentalist Lutheran and Baptist school followed by Catholic college, but I believe God gifted His children with horse sense and free will so that His word would live and grow in our open minds.

We can’t debate the decision by Random House without knowing all the facts. (Full disclosure: I've done two books at RH imprints and had universally good experiences there.) It’s not clear if any “email blast” actually took place, and as of this writing, there’s been no report of actual physical threats. Only rumors of possible response. Though Dr. Spellberg and others trembled to the worst kneejerk conclusion about Muslim reaction (as if Muslims think and act with the homogeny of a synchronized swim team), the initial response to Amanullah’s email simply called for web community members to educate themselves and raise their voices.

Unfortunately, they and Dr. Spellberg extended that to include the stifling of someone else’s voice, zealously contending that we should all defer to that which they hold sacred. But to a novelist, what could be more sacred than freedom of thought and expression?

Update 10/28/09 Reflections on a firestorm (3 Questions for Sherry Jones, author of "The Sword of Medina")

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Jewel of Medina controversy

Why did Random House suddenly cancel publication of The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones?

From "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad" by Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam (HarperOne, 2006):
In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg's book, "Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr."

But Ms. Spellberg wasn't a fan of Ms. Jones's book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims...

On a May 21 conference call, Random House executive Elizabeth McGuire told the author and her agent that the publishing house had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for "fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims" and concern for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees."

Blogworld started buzzing with the story. Lots of sympathy for Sherry and scorn for Dr. Spellberg, who responded in a letter to the WSJ today:
As a historian invited to "comment" on the book by its Random House editor at the author's express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that "The Jewel of Medina" was "extensively researched," as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha's life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation of a very real woman's life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel's potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.

I'm still processing what I want to say about this. I'll post my thoughts tomorrow, and I hope others will join the dialogue on this event, which is disturbing on so many levels.

Friday, August 08, 2008

All About Villainy

Today I'm guest-blogging about The Dark Side of a Mother's Love and all things villainous over at Fresh Fiction. I'd love it if any of you could stop by and share a comment on your favorite villains.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

More About Money

Yesterday, Joni brought up the nearly-taboo topic of filthy lucre. Writers often pretend not to care much about the subject, but it's hard to create good art without food in the belly and a roof overhead, so sure we care. There's just not a lot of information out there to help us understand the financial side of the business.

First of all, a primer. When a editor wishes to buy the rights to publish a book, she typically offers an advance, otherwise known as an advance against royalties. Royalties are usually (but not always) a percentage of the book's cover price. In the world of genre mass market paperback originals, it's usually between 4% (ouch) and 10%, with 6% and 8% being fairly typical. To come up with an advance, the editor fills out a profit and loss statement (P&L) to try to figure out, conservatively, since it's a crap shoot, how much the book will make. For a great description of the process, read this post by Agent Kristin Nelson or buy this one (well worth the $3.50) on profits and loss by former TOR editor Anna Louise Genoese.

After figuring out the expected author's share based on the estimated number sold, book's price point, and the royalty percentage, the editor will shoot a low-ball (or conservative, depending on your point of view) offer to the author's agent. If the offer has no agent, it will be generally be quite a bit more conservative.) In the everyday world of the romance paperback, this can be anywhere from a low of about $1,500 to a high of around $20,000, depending on how excited the publisher is about the project, how deep are its pockets, and about a zillion other factors. For a completely unscientific but still helpful list of advances and percentages broken down by romance publisher and line, visit Brenda Hiatt's labor of love here. More beginning writers report than veterans, so these figures, IMO, are more indicative of what early-career writers can expect to make.

So what about those giant advances we see reported in Publisher's Lunch? They certainly happen, even in genre fiction, but they're pretty unusual, especially for beginning authors. And believe it or not, there may actually be advantages in a slow build rather than a blazing start, which sets up very high expectations in pretty tough financial times.

When/if the book earns back its advance with royalties (called "earning out"), the author begins getting the additional royalties twice annually. One can't count on this money, and it's slow in coming, but it can build to a significant level, especially when a book's become a surprise hit.

I want to add that in the ten years I've been doing this, I've noticed that advances and royalty percentages for beginning writers haven't budged a bit. In fact, they've dropped in some cases. As writers grow more popular, their earnings increase, but many struggle to stay in the game, much less make progress.

So the financial reality of writing is often a harsh one, but sure enough, there are still writers out there (albeit a minority) make a good to damned good to spectacular living. Who's to say that you or I won't be one of them?

I hope some of you have found this helpful. More info on the money questions can be found in the pages of Donald Maass's The Career Novelist (outstanding resource!) and Richard Curtis's How to be Your Own Literary Agent, which you should have on your shelf even if you already have an agent. Does anyone else have any good, up-to-date resources on money and the writer?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Show me the money. (Or not...)

It seems supremely ironic to me that the three topics that occupy the majority of human thought are the Three Evils we're told should be stricken from both polite conversation and marketable fiction: Politics. Sex. Money. Politics because we wouldn't want to piss anyone off. Sex because we don't want to offend anyone. Money because...well, what is that about? We want people to assume we're doing better than we are? Or we assume others are doing better than they are so we're embarrassed by our comparatively puny income -- never mind that we have no frame of reference with which we could actually define the word "puny". We've all read about the dismal sales figures on most books that make the National Book Award short list. It has to compute that those "famous" authors got "modest" advances. Depending on what you take either of those words to mean. The problem is arriving at any definition without a frame of reference.

A while back, I blogged about the non-dollar considerations that factor into a book deal and related the sad tale of how ineptly I negotiated my first advance...
I placed my first novel with a small literary press. (A book presciently titled Crazy for Trying .) I had no agent, so I fielded The Call on my own.

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

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

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

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

Back then, I had no clue where the average book advance fell on a scale of zero to eight million. Add to that the reality that I'd just come out of chemo, which left me and my husband bankrupt. My personal definition of "a lot of money" had shifted to the three figure range. I can honestly say, if he'd offered me $500, I'd have Snoopy-danced like it was eight million. In some nonsensical quadrant of my brain, I truly thought that "published" meant "rich and famous".

Obviously, I knew nothing about the publishing industry.

I'd done very little homework on marketing; I'd been utterly focused on the crafting of a book. (And that's a good thing. One should think about writing while writing and worry about the rest later, in my humble opinion.) When it came time for me to approach my next book deal, I scoured all available resources in an effort to find some frame of reference, but no one was willing to share that information. Same thing when I got into the ghostwriting gigs. No one was willing to answer the simple question "How much did you get?"

And with good reason.

First, there's the idea that it's just bad form. Rude. Invites comparison, which invites jealousy if you're lucky and schadenfreude if you're not. Money is the great American yardstick, so there's a terribly mistaken idea that the better writer you are the more money you're going to make, when in reality, it has more to do with how good your agent is, what the market will bear, how hard-working and/or prolific you are, how your last book performed sales-wise, and a certain amount of plain old Gump luck. Truth be told, the advance says nothing about the literary quality of a book and is no guarantee of its performance in the market.

Second is a fear of reprisal or punishment from publishers or agents who don't want their own performance judged by those numbers and don't want to deal with disgruntled authors who got less than so-and-so who's less educated, doesn't work as hard, or whatever. Information is power, and if there's one thing writers are not supposed to be, it's powerful. We're supposed to be demure, grateful little alcoholics who don't trouble our artsy heads about such tawdry concerns. And God knows I would LOVE to be that. (Well, not the alcoholic part. I'm just a talented dabbler in that area.) But darlings, in case you haven't noticed, things are not going well for writers in this economy. The value of our work is being degraded daily, and being bound and gagged by our own timidity is not helping.

I've been agonizing for an hour over this post. My original intention was to lay out the numbers: "I got XYZ dollars for this book." But for the very reasons stated above, I'm not sure that's the right thing to do, so I'll leave you with this: I'm not going to advertise what I've gotten/not gotten for my work, but if you want to know, ask me, and I will give you a straight answer.

Last year, Colleen posted this epic rant by author Harlan Ellison from the film "Dreams With Sharp Teeth", in which he expresses huge frustration about the way writers devalue their own work, which devalues the work of all writers in the market. The Harlan Ellison code of authorial self-value: "I don't take a piss without getting paid for it." It may sound harsh, but that's what separates the pros from the amateurs.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Culture of Love

Just back from San Francisco, where I attended the annual national conference of the Romance Writers of America, along with well over 2,000 authors, aspiring authors, and industry professionals. The change in weather, from 100 steamy degrees near Houston to the low sixties in San Francisco, was worth the trip, but as usual, it's RWA's "culture of love" that left me most impressed.

Oh, yeah. I know that sounds sappy, but the truth is that RWA members, more than any other writer's organization to which I've belonged, are quick to lend a helping hand and offer emotional support. Friends share up-to-the-minute, helpful industry info, even posting blog entries and loop e-mails for those unable to attend. I've seen New York Times bestsellers mentoring less experienced authors (raising hand on the latter), multipublished authors helping unpublished friends, including complete strangers, practice their editor/agent pitches, and just about everyone reaching out to attendees wearing "First Timer" or "First Sale" ribbons on their badges. It's not at all uncommon to see conference veterans sit down near anyone looking lost and ask where the other person's from and what she (or occasionally he) is writing. Many, many lifelong friendships have begun that way, and very few members seem to forget what it's like to feel overwhelmed and intimidated.

With so many attendees, the conference can be a whole lot to handle. I had fan-girl palpitations meeting writing idol Linda Howard, still stare like a fool every time I see Nora Roberts (both of these women are hilarious, by the way) and nearly keel over when anyone in the industry knows who I am or compliments my last book. But everywhere I went, I ran into old friends or met new ones, was impressed by the enthusiasm of the good folks from Dorchester Publishing (in the photo, I'm pictured with Erin Galloway, Left, Dorchester publicist and dynamite person), or pinching myself to be with an agent as smart and experienced as Karen Solem. But this year, I paced myself pretty well, got a decent amount of sleep, and took a late flight out so I could actually enjoy a bit of the beautiful host city this year.

Here's my scorecard for the year, based on ten years of conference attendance:

Flights with Continental: A+ (on time, served actual, edible food, good service)
Marriott Hotel: A (easy check in/out, clean, comfortable facility, short elevator waits, pretty good food with short waits, could've had a few more furniture groupings set up for conversation
Workshops: B+. Varied, as always, but I really enjoyed "Save the Cat" by screenwriter Blake Snyder and Linda Howard's Q&A in the PAN sessions. Nice variety of interesting topics available, appealing to a variety of experience level. One presenter didn't show, some workshops were overcrowded, and others were scheduled at tough times, but there was nearly always something of interest.

All in all, it was a great experience, and I'm really glad to have attended.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Monday Monday

Revisiting this classic will make you feel young. Or old. And thin. Or fat. My favorite part is seeing Mama Cass dance. Enjoy. And have a good Monday.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sunday Quote:Money in Writing

“I have always believed that writing advertisements is the second most profitable form of writing. The first, of course, is ransom notes...”
-- Philip Dusenberry

I know there are people out there who choose what to write based on its profitability, but I've rarely seen that strategy work well for anyone. The best writers are motivated by passion. Not to say judicious marketing decisions aren't helpful, but readers absolutely seem to know when someone's faking it.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Saturday morning cartoon: "When the Day Breaks"

Pour your morning coffee and enjoy When the Day Breaks, an awesomely cool short from Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis.
"It's morning in the city and Ruby sings as she blithely fixes her breakfast. All is right with the world until she goes to buy milk and collides, head-on, with the aftermath of an accident: a stray lemon, a can of soup, a crumpled hat.

And more. Ruby sees both the physical and the intangible facets of a lifetime strewn out like the groceries scattered on the pavement. Thoughts and memories mingle with cells and bones and broken biscuits. Amid the sobering chaos of this stranger's death, Ruby is witness to all the pieces that composed his life...

When the Day Breaks illuminates life's most ordinary aspects -- a toaster, a lemon, a trip to the store -- and endows them with a visceral power. Co-directors Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis use pencil and paint on photocopies to achieve a textured look suggestive of a lithograph or a flickering newsreel. With deft humor and finely rendered detail, When the Day Breaks evokes the promise and fragility of a new day, hinting that these moments are what will some day form our memories; that the everyday is what defines us and connects us."

Friday, August 01, 2008

"Always be writing." (Wise advice from agent Jewerl Ross)

Scipt Magazine recently ran an excellent interview with agent Jewerl Ross, founder of Silent R Management, great advice that translates directly or indirectly to the crafting (and selling) of a novel. Here's a bit:

What are some good ways for a pitching writer to make a good first impression?
I’m the kind of manager who’s less focused on ideas and more focused on writing. There are thousands of good ideas out there, but there are far, far fewer people who can execute great ideas, who can make an idea come alive on the page, who can write a comedy that’s laugh-out-loud funny, who can write a horror movie that scares you, who can write a thriller that has enough surprises that it will keep you guessing. I have relationships with a few people in town who spend a lot of time peddling ideas, and I feel like their ideas are worthless unless the person can write them. Although I want to hear good ideas, I’m really more of a writing person.

There are a lot of people who will only go out and try to sell scripts with big ideas; scripts that are high-concept, that are commercial, where people can wrap their heads around them in one sentence. I, on the other hand, will often try to sell scripts that are bad ideas, scripts that are low-concept, scripts that are uncommercial, but if the writing’s good, that’s more important to me. I can send a great piece of writing to a hundred people, set 50 meetings, and have people call me and tell me I have great taste, just because the writing’s good; they don’t care if the idea’s bad. There’s this underlying prejudice among high-minded development people in Hollywood that a great idea is not going to be well-executed. It’s a fine line between trying to have something that’s commercial but also trying to have a screenplay on the page that’s going to get people excited about you as a screenwriter.

How important is screenplay format?
A screenplay that is in a great format can often be written with incomplete sentences: things you would never find in a classically written novel, but it’s clean and crisp and clear. If I open a screenplay where it’s in a font or point-size that’s unfamiliar to me, and I feel the writer’s trying to cram too many or not enough words on a page, I don’t even read it, I’m onto the next thing.

Do you have any pet-peeves with regard to writing and to writers?
I’m a guy with a lot of pet peeves. (laughing) In terms of writing on the page: too much stage directions, writing like you’re a director, giving me too much information. If a person goes to read The Sixth Sense, one of the best screenplays ever written, [M. Night Shyamalan] does a great job of conveying every single emotion in that movie, every single beat, but you look at the page and it is almost white. That is what real screenwriting is all about.

Pet peeves in terms of screenwriter personalities: lack of trust…people who are lazy…and people who are overly aggressive. I have often not pursued a client because he or she was too aggressive with me; that’s regardless of the quality of the material. If a person’s going to be needy and he or she is not even a client yet, I’m not going to want to sign him or her as a client. My best clients, my most talented clients, my clients who make me the most money, are the ones who are not the neediest.

What do you expect from your clients?
Always be writing. If you’re not writing on assignment, I want you putting out at least two scripts a year - hopefully three. The biggest rule for me is to always be writing.


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