Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dude, Where's My Intellectual Property?

The Internet's a wonderful thing, with the free and easy availability of information. Unfortunately, information created by artists, including writers, has increasingly been up for grabs by the unscrupulous.

Case in point: I've seen a pirated electronic copy of one of my books available on a "members only" site, which means that someone who is not me gets paid for the download. Every time the book gets out this way, an angel -- okay, not an angel but a writer -- loses her wings. Royalties are lost, and the sell-through percentage of shipped books declines, which more frequently than ever results in authors not being renewed to write more books. This is becoming a greater challenge to new authors' abilities to earn a living than either the sale of stripped books (boo! hiss!) or used booksellers and libraries (both of which I enjoy as much as the next reader).

I've also seen articles I've written for magazines, as well as one written for and posted on this blog, copied and re-posted elsewhere, without credit or permission. (Grrr) Since often, all the person would have had to do is ask or pay a small reprint fee if it's a for-profit venue, this seriously chaps my hide.

What makes me madder? Congress is considering an "Orphan Works Bill" that will make the theft of our creations more pervasive, more difficult to stop, and nearly impossible to punish. Many organizations of creative artists oppose this legislation, and there is now an online drive to collect petition signatures against the bill.

I hope you'll consider reading up at the Orphan Works Opposition Headquarters
and following the dictates of your conscience.

The artist's life you save may be your own.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Being the Book Lady (a bit of Christmas in the hurricane)

Overheard and appreciated: “Hurricane Ike was a lot like Christmas. Last minute shopping in crowded stores. Candles decorating the house. And when it’s over, you gotta drag that dang tree out of the house.”

We're still without power most of the time, but we have water. And hope.

The Tuesday after the storm, having put in a full morning lumberjacking the last of the fallen trees in our front yard, I went out in search of internet. No luck. But on the way home, I saw a young woman in the parking lot of a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, cooking on a grill, selling a limited cash-only menu from the open door of the dark storefront.

We’d seen the taco trucks functioning from Day 1 (I swear, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will be dining off those taco trucks), but this was the first business open anywhere near our house. I had to stop and reward that spirit, even though I was a little nervous about feeding my old man post-power-outage beef burritos.

While I waited for her to cook my order, I sipped a warm Diet Coke and chatted up a kid in a backwards cap. We talked about the weather, of course, as he swished his bike in small circles, making tight figure 8s on the littered parking lot.

KID: We’re off school the whole week.
ME: Awesome.
KID: It would be if there was something to do.
ME: Read a book. Read something apropos to being off school due to disaster like…Lord of the Flies.
KID: What?
ME: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. A bunch of guys about your age get stranded on an island. No TV, no grown ups. They end up perpetrating all kinds of murder and mayhem.
KID: Cool.
ME: It’s dead scary. You’ll whimper like a little girl.
KID: No, I won’t. I saw all the Saw movies.
ME: Ah. You’re one of those. What grade are you in?
KID: Seventh. My name’s Augusten.
ME: Augusten is the name of one of my favorite writers. Did you see the movie Running With Scissors?
KID: I saw commercials for it. Looked pretty stupid.
ME: It wasn’t as good as the book. Movies almost never are. Ride on back to the park. I live right across the street in the blue house with the red door. I’ll be there shortly with two books guaranteed to scare you witless.

In my driveway fifteen minutes later, I handed Augusten the hardcover copy of Lord of the Flies I’ve had on my various bookshelves in various homes since my own miserable stint in seventh grade. I also gave him a couple of paperbacks from the been-there-done-that pile on Gary's nightstand: Odd Thomas by Dean Kuntz and It by Stephen King.

“Do you have that Augusten guy’s book?” asked Augusten.

“I do. It has some mature subject matter. Sex. Drugs. Crazy poet mother. Can you handle it?”

He nodded gravely.

About an hour later there was a knock at my front door. Two teenage boys with oversized pants and undersized bicycles.

“Are you the book lady?”

I thought about it, liked how that sounded, and said, “Yup.”

They requested “the scariest books you got” and rode off with Stephen King’s The Shining and Helter Skelter, the seriously chilling story of the Manson murders co-authored by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.

An hour later, I pulled out of my driveway, the back of my yellow VW loaded with eight boxes of books from the shelves in my office, living room, bathrooms, and bedrooms. Chatting up the juvies on my way out of the subdivision, I distributed the entire Harry Potter series in hardcover, several more Kuntz and King paperbacks, a few Little House books, and a bunch of old R.L. Stine Goosebumps pilfered from a storage bin left behind by my son. Two ladies raking debris gratefully went for Isabelle Allende’s Zorro and bookclub darling Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I set up my guerilla bookmobile in a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot a few blocks down from one of the few open gas stations, put out signs: NEED A BOOK? I spent some time sorting the boxes into fiction, nonfiction, teen-friendly, middle kiddos, tiny kiddos, thriller, suspense, romance, literary, classics, poetry, art. People sitting in the gas line eyed me suspiciously.

“Need a book?” I called.

The nearest window cracked a little. “How much?”

“Free! I figured we should take advantage of this golden moment with no TV or computers. C’mon. Why just sit there when you could be improving your mind, making the world a better place, expanding your horizons?”

“What have you got?”

“A little of everything. What’s the last really good book you read?”

Da Vinci Code.”

“Then I bet you’ll like Michael Gruber’s Book of Air and Shadows.”

I took it from the mystery stack on top of the VW and handed it through the window. From another window, a woman called, “Do you have any Sandra Brown?”

“No, but if you’re into romantic suspense, you’ve gotta read Colleen Thompson. Here. Start with The Salt Maiden . You’ll be hooked.”

Thrillers and mysteries went fast. Children’s books went faster. Fortunately, I had a stack of wonderful coffee table books that functioned nicely as picture books: a keepsake volume from my first trip to the Louvre, a collection of Polish poster art I bought at a library fundraiser when I was about twelve, a couple of fabulous Blue Dog art books I’d picked up at a publishing event where George Rodrigue and I were on the program with James Gurney. When I handed over my first edition Dinotopia to a little boy in the back seat of an SUV, he pointed to the autograph inside the front cover and said, “Some kid scribbled in it.”

“Why that little stinker,” I said and turned to the boy’s sister, who looked elevenish and immensely bored.

“I read the Little House books a long time ago," she said. "I don’t like to read so much.”

“What do you like to watch on TV?”

“Hanna Montana.”

"Try this one." I handed her Anne of Green Gables, and her mother peered over her shoulder at the inscription. "To Joni, Christmas 1973. Anne was a good friend of mine. I think you’ll like her too. Love, Mom."

“Are you sure you want to get rid of these?” asked the girl’s mother.

“Get rid of them? No! Not at all. But I’m happy to share them.”

A few people traded in books they had rattling around in their cars, which fattened my paperback inventory a bit, but most of the 300+ books I gave away over the afternoon were books I truly cared about. Tragically (or magically) I’d purged my bookshelves about two months earlier, so there was not a book in the bunch that I wanted to get rid off. But here's the great thing about that: I could highly recommend every single one. Giving away books I didn’t love wouldn’t have been a fraction of the fun. And I think my obvious love for the books I offered may have nudged people to try books and authors they wouldn't have picked up otherwise. (Except The Brothers Karamazov. Try as I might, I could not get the Brothers K arrested.)

The gas station ran out of fuel just before sundown, and I went home sunburned but happy. For that moment at least, the hurricane actually did feel a lot like Christmas.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Those Furry Muses

Beginning yesterday and over the next few Saturdays, Barbara Vey of The Publisher's Weekly Blog Beyond Her Book is having a fun contest inviting readers to match authors with their pets. Look for me, along with one of my furry muses, in the coming weeks.

I'm lousy at matching people with their pets, but looking at cute pet pictures is one of my favorite ways to relax. And since I could only submit one animal pal to Barbara's site, I brought Zippy in for a guest appearance on BtO today. Otherwise, I'd never hear the end of it!

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Fresh Start

Even as I work to wrap up one contracted book, I'm in the very early stages of writing another. This is my favorite time of day in the life of the novel's creation. With the sun just teasing the horizon, anything and everything are possible.

At this point, I have a basic premise (which excites me), one intriguing character, and a couple of competing ideas for the opening pages. But I'm still very much at the play stage: testing out scenarios, watching for the first appearance of new characters, casting my lure upon the water to see what rises to the surface.

There's a stillness to this place I love, a spot where my imagination runs unfettered before I step into the harness of the deadline or market expectations. For right now, every possibility is open.

And I can't wait to begin.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jen Singer's You're a Good Mom (Best baby shower gift since valium!)

I'm making an effort to work through a list of books I've been wanting to blog about, and the selection of the Republican running mate pushed this one to the top of my list: You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either) by Jen Singer, creator of the popular parenting site MamaSaid.net, "where moms like you can get some laughs and validation while your kids find new places to leave crumbs." (She also writes the Good Grief! blog about parenting tweens for GoodHousekeeping.com.) I read this book on an airplane a couple months ago and absolutely loved this girl's chatty, you-gotta-laugh style. And I thought about it again when people started dredging up a bunch of tired old crap about "mommy wars", which stuffs women into boxes labeled "Working Moms" (condemned as uncaring Lady Macbeth types) and "Stay-at-Home Moms" (harshly judged as lazy slobs.) For a culture that so horrendously underpays our teachers, we certainly have a lot of people claiming that their political agenda is for the good of children.

So what is a good mom? Is it politically incorrect to say that one kind of parenting is better than another? And for the love of sweet baby Jesus, can't we all just get along? Jen Singer's take on all this is refreshing, lighthearted, loving, and immanently pragmatic.

From the press kit:
For 21st century mothers, there seem to be just two choices: live up to the Super Mom or give up to be the Slacker Mom. One's bad for you; one's bad for your kids. So what's a momma to do?

In You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either): The 14 Secrets to Finding Happiness Between Super Mom and Slacker Mom, the Internet's favorite momma, Jen Singer, tells all. Turns out you can raise perfectly good kids in that sweet spot between flash cards at breakfast and "donuts for dinner, kids!" You'll find great tips like these:

Don't answer the phone when the class mom calls.

Your kid's birthday party isn't your coming-out celebration.

Don't treat fine restaurants like a McDonald's PlayPlace.

You think you're a "cool mom," but they think you're a pushover.

Filled with "that happened to me, too!" stories, YOU'RE A GOOD MOM offers giggles and a pat on the back for today's moms, whether they're deep in diapers or petrified by puberty.

What comes out in Jen's book (along with the belly laughs) is the simple truth that a good mom is the mom who meets the needs of her kids as individuals instead of struggling to adhere to fads, peer pressure, the PTO posse, or tight-lipped mandates from her own mom/ grandmom/ mom-in-law. A good mom blesses opportunities to laugh but is not afraid to let her children see her cry.

I'm really glad a friend handed me You're a Good Mom. It's not something I would have picked up on my own because my kids are grown, but it's an entertaining, girlfriendy read that has a lot to say about life and relationships no matter where you're at in the journey. I also love this book cover design with the one wayward duckling who refuses to stay in line. Darlings, no matter how much time, creativity, devotion, and mental real estate we put into mothering, every kid is going to be that duckling once in a while. You gotta love the little rascal.

Jen and I are also cell sisters; she was diagnosed (on D-Day, no less) with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- just as she was mowing through the final draft of this book.

"By the time I turned in my manuscript in August," says Jen, "I'd finished half of my chemotherapy treatments. The tumor in my lung, which had been the size of a softball, had shrunk to the size of a walnut. I was tired, weak and bald, but my kids didn't care as long as I was home, which, by the way, was under construction. In fact, I edited parts of this book while sawdust fell on my head from upstairs and strange men hammered and sawed on the other side of the wall."

Truly one of life's intense refining fires raging there. Vampire that I am, I can't wait to see what this bright, funny, completely delicious young author does with the raw material.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I'd Like to Buy a Vow!

In the wake of Hurricane Ike, I'm swearing this sacred oath: As God is my witness, I'll never eat Spam again!" Seriously, folks, I haven't tasted this stuff in more than thirty years, and now I'm reminded of why. (Shudder...)

In our writing, as in life, we learn from our mistakes and make solemn vows to ourselves. Here are a few, often hard-won lessons, I've learned over the years:

As God is my witness, I'll never again...

1. Attempt a multiple-viewpoint, first-person novel.
2. Use more than a very few (say three or four) exclamation points per manuscript. (If either the words themselves or the narrative tag (i.e. Randolph shouted) get the point across, the exclamation point can be dispensed with. That gives those few one uses real impact and helps avoid the appearance of melodrama.)
3. Allow a villain to head-shoot a sweet little dog "on-screen" (oh, the hate mail...)
4. Go farther than fifty pages into the novel without at least roughing out a synopsis. This prevents me from writing up 150-page blind alleys while on deadline.
5. Take any research I've learned on the Internet as gospel, and then base my whole manuscript on an erroneous concept (before having to toss the whole premise and start from scratch a few months before deadline).
6. Take to heart the assumption that I'm a one-trick pony who can't write in other genres or get back on my feet after taking one on the chin.

So what are your hardest-won lessons regarding writing? What vows do you make to yourself as a writer?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dr. Wendy Harpham on Oxygen

This week on her Healthy Survivorship blog, Dr. Wendy Harpham posts about a novel I recently read and liked a lot: Oxygen by Dr. Carol Cassella, an anesthesiologist, whose debut novel is a medical thriller/mystery written with a very Jodi Picoult issues-oriented-faux-lit-fiction feel.

From the Oxygen press kit:
Dr. Marie Heaton is an anesthesiologist at the height of her profession. She has worked, lived and breathed her career since medical school, and she now practices at a top Seattle hospital. Marie has carefully constructed and constricted her life according to empirical truths, to the science and art of medicine. But when her tried-and-true formula suddenly deserts her during a routine surgery, she must explain the nightmarish operating room disaster and face the resulting malpractice suit. Marie's best friend, colleague and former lover, Dr. Joe Hillary, becomes her closest confidante as she twists through depositions, accusations and a remorseful preoccupation with the mother of the patient in question. As she struggles to salvage her career and reputation, Marie must face hard truths about the path she's chosen, the bridges she's burned and the colleagues and superiors she's mistaken for friends.

Says Wendy:
[Oxygen] took my breath away. And not just because the story was gripping and the writing superb. This story brought into relief a growing fear of mine: the role of litigation in widening the disconnect between doctors and patients...

Most media coverage of the current litigious medical environment focuses on the sympathetic side of patients who've been hurt by incompetent and/or uncaring physicians. Oxygen brings into relief how dedicated, excellent physicians are negatively affected by lawsuits. Many resort to defensive medicine, routinely ordering extra tests and/or avoiding risky cases. Others leave medicine prematurely, deciding the risk isn't worth it.

Wendy's done more than anyone I know to bridge that doctor/patient gap. Forced to close her private practice after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, she started writing and became a bestselling tour de force. Check out the rest of her Oxygen review here and visit Wendy's website for a wealth of resources.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Signs of Resilience:Why Texas Rocks

Creativity's a fine thing. And coupled with a sense of humor, it can form the backbone of survival. For your browsing pleasure, I've compiled some photos submitted by readers of the Houston Chronicle, whose coverage of all things Hurricane Ike has been first-rate.

A few notes: Centerpoint is the major power company. And I don't have a photo for my favorite sign, from the battered Galveston Bay community of San Leon, where we once owned property.

For a town with such severe devastation, it maintains a sense of humor.

One couple used red spray paint to write FEMA YARD OF THE MONTH on the side of their damaged wooden cottage. Some had more stern warnings: Loot on this street, die on this street.

"We are the outlaws of Galveston County," said Scott Lyons, the assistant chief for the town's volunteer fire department, driving past a home with a fake coffin in the front yard and a sign that said: Looter Vacancy.

Gotta love that Texas attitude!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Meanwhile, back in the real world...

In the New York Times Op Ed section today, columnist Maureen Dowd invites screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to envision a conversation between Barack Obama and President Jed Bartlett, the iconic character Sorkin created and invested with kickass dialogue in The West Wing...
OBAMA Mr. President.

BARTLET You seem startled.

OBAMA I didn’t expect you to answer the door yourself.

BARTLET I didn’t expect you to be getting beat by John McCain and a LancĂ´me rep who thinks “The Flintstones” was based on a true story, so let’s call it even.

OBAMA Yes, sir.

BARTLET Come on in.

Check it out. (And for mo' betta Bartlett, turn to Bravo for you-never-get-enough reruns of The West Wing.

Theme song for the week: Bare Necessities

Just a thought in the wake of the great breaking wind...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Saturday Morning Cartoon: Gimme the power already!

Still without electricity at our house. Day 8. The latest estimate for our zip code is Thursday. I've decided to bring a toothbrush and sleeping bag over to the ladies room here at Starbucks on Market Street. A hurricane really blows, but what comes after a hurricane really sucks. The tedium of recovery grinds on after the adrenalin powered spine-starching of the event. Our vocabulary is being rewritten by the day. We now know the difference between basic needs and basic necessities, jeans that are clean and jeans that are clean enough, the difference between electricity and power, between writing as in typing and writing as in pouring out thoughts late into the night by flashlight, longhand on a yellow legal pad.

I was able to be philosophical at first, but now I just feel bitchy. The cool weather blessing has moved on, oppressive heat moving in. I won't even pretend to be enjoying this. My deep and thinky late night thoughts are mostly about wishing I could do a load of towels and a less specific longing to flip a light switch and see something happen.

I offer the following as a hymn to the Electricity Gods and a pleasant little blast from the past for those of you lucky enough to be plugged in.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Trees, Trees Everywhere

I thought I'd post a couple of shots from my neighborhood in The Woodlands. The first shows the view from my front door and morning after Ike crashed everyone's party. Tree debris everywhere but miraculously, no damage to our house.

The split tree wasn't on our property, but I thought it was an interesting bit of destruction. Everywhere you go you see trees pulled out by the root ball (even gigantic trees) or splintered and twisted at various heights along the trunk. Many landed atop neighbors' fences, roofs, and cars and took out our utilities for days.

But the storm's passage redefined luck -- good and bad -- and my heart goes out to those who've suffered terrible losses, from property to jobs to, in some instances, lives.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hurricane check in from Joni

Hi Family, Friends, and Cohorts ~

First thanks, everyone, for all the well-wishes and concern in the wake of Hurricane Ike. We’re okay, but still without power. Cells are iffy, but we are able to get some text msgs in and out.

Ike (the boy, not the hurricane) is in Tampa, so he’s just chortling at the rest of us. Jerusha and her housemates had a hurricane party up in Huntsville Fri/Sat during the storm. She volunteered at the shelter the next day, then evacuated to Killeen, where she’s staying with Josh and family until classes resume at the university.

Gary and I lost a couple of trees, lots of limbs and branches, some roofing, bits and pieces of front and back porches, and about 50 ft of fencing. Many, many trees down in our neighborhood. Heartbreaking. We spent the last few days lumberjacking and cleaning up debris, trying to feel lucky as our hands turn to raw hamburger. We know we got off easy compared to a lot of folks south of us. Thank God, the weather has cooled off – 80s by day, 50s by night – which helps a lot.

Our wonderful neighbors, George and Tony, let us plug our refrigerator into their generator. Right now, I'm at Colleen's bumming a ride on her wi fi and running a load of seriously foul laundry. No idea when my office will be back up and running, but us and pups made it through. And -- no small blessing -- the water and sewage were working again fairly quickly. Latest estimate from the power company says we should have electricity by Monday. (Please, dear baby Jesus, let us have power Monday!)

Thanks to all for your love and concern. Our love and concern goes out to all our friends and folks around Houston.

(I love you Mom and Dad! Don't worry!)

Grist for the Mill

Though we were told for days our power would take up to six weeks to restore, it came back yesterday here at the house, thanks to the valiant efforts of the utility crews. My phone popped up about the same time, so I have DSL as well for the moment.

Joni's still off-grid, but since we have a laundry pact, she'll be over this PM to wash and hop on my wireless connection. Unless rolling blackouts happen, a distinct possibility.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about gristmills. Or more specifically, how even life's crises can provide grist for our creative mills. For many of us, writing
offers a way to refine life's injustices, tragedies, and hardships, to transform them into flour to nourish not only our own but our readers' spirits. In processing our personal stresses, we offer others a means of escape from their own hardships. It's always an honor to hear from readers who write to let me know my books have helped them through situations from ranging from a root canal to childbirth to the long vigil at the bedside of a dying family member. It gives me faith that novels have a real, enduring value even in our modern world.

I've wanted to write another storm book* for a few years, since Tropical Storm Allison causes such massive flooding in the Houston area. But a friend died far too young in that ordeal, and I couldn't handle it at the time. But finally, that event's been ground done by my subconcious.

I'm ready to bake bread now. Or at least give it a shot.

*My second historical romance, Night Winds (Zebra, 2000), was based on the 1900 storm that destroyed much of Galveston and cost approximately 5000 lives. I've been thinking of it a great deal this week, and my heart goes out to all those on the island and the hard hit coastal and bay communities.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Why Ike Bites

Just a quick post to let everyone know that I'm okay and my house survived. Received a text from Joni saying they're okay and the house is standing. With so many homes damaged, that alone is a real blessing.

There's no power here, no phones, and no Internet (but a few of the myriad reasons Ike bites). I managed to borrow a neighbor's aircard connection briefly but won't have it for long.

The power restoration estimate in my community is 4 to 6 weeks. If I don't hear differently, I'm relocating (sans hubby, who's working in the Houston Fire Dept.) to San Antonio. Will check in from there in a few days if I go that route.

Meanwhile, I have hot and cold water, a gas grill, and some great neighbors who've snaked an extension cord to their generator. Everyone here is pitching in to help with downed tree removal )off of cars and homes in some cases), yard clean up, and finding fuel, ice, and other precious resources. It kind of feels like a giant block party and really serves to bond us, though in the most expensive and inconvenient way.

I hope all of you reading this are okay as well. Take care...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

In case we've been blown away...

I'm scheduling this post in advance, anticipating the loss of electricity and internet in the next few hours. We gave up on getting plywood for the windows but managed to grab the last gas grill on the shelf at Home Depot. By the time this appears on the blog, I expect we'll be having one of those "humbled by the force of nature" experiences. Hopefully, we'll be able to find wi fi and a strong cup of coffee by Sunday morning.

This poem caught my ear on yesterday's Writer's Almanac:

Where I Am With You
by Ryan Vine

Waking from a nap,
we stand at the window
watching dark clouds crawl
across the sky, whip
state-sized wisps
down and out and up.

Lights come on early,
and people below
on the street scurry
and bumble about
My arm around you, you say—
Let it rain, let it pour.

(From the book Distant Engines.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Gift of the Storm

“It takes a real storm in the average person's life to make him realize how much worrying he has done over the squalls.”

-- Bruce Barton (American Congressman, 1886-1967)

On a day when we're all battening down the hatches for the arrival of Hurricane Ike in the Houston area, this quote seemed an appropriate reminder that life's great storms offer us one gift, and that's perspective. As writers, we spend so much time worrying over minutiae: is my website cutting-edge enough, will my career be over if I don't get tchotchkes to this convention or that trade show, should I make bookmarks on my printers or pay for my own bookstore. We drive ourselves nuts over the small stuff until the big stuff swoops in to give us a sense of scale, to awe us with the reality of its power, and inspire us with our capacity to adapt, respond, and help each other through the worst.

We may lose power over the next couple of days, but until then, stay safe and rest assured, the BtO team will be hanging on with all eight legs!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The storm and the stranger

Hustling around HEB this morning, grabbing hurricane groceries from the depleted shelves, I got into a conversation with an elderly lady who was, like us, planning to shelter in place when Hurricane Ike hits tomorrow. Gary and I have approached the whole thing with a sort of carnival attitude. (It's actually a lovely way to spend the weekend of our 25th anniversary, cuddled up in the candlelight, engaged in a Scrabble-to-the-death match.) But for this woman in her late 70s, living alone in a small apartment, the gathering storm was clearly terrifying.

"Come on over and join us," I said. "We have a spare room with a comfortable bed. And Lord knows, we're getting plenty of groceries here. We'd love to have you."

She bit her bottom lip, thought for a long moment, glanced warily at Gary. Vampire that I am, I couldn't look away from her eyes. Vulnerable. Weighing her options. Face the storm alone or trust a total stranger. Which was more frightening?

"That's nice of you," she finally said, "but I'll be fine."

Driving home, I was thinking about the storm and the stranger. Two literary icons for scary. At least with devil and the deep blue sea, you know what you're up against. But the storm represents the utterly random and chaotic force of nature and fate. And the stranger is not only the unknown, it's the unknowable dark reaches of human greed and cruelty. Unfortunately, the kindness of strangers is something you really can't depend on.

Gary says I worry too much about people I meet like this. The skinny, crazy dude who lives under the overpass at 45 & Cypresswood. A little girl I see unsupervised at the park across the street. This elderly lady in the produce aisle. It's the curse of a writer's imagination. All I can do is ask God's hand on her and hope that we all survive the storm with a good story.

Suggested hurricane reading:
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (No kindness amongst these strangers.)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle ("It was a dark and stormy night...")
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Murder, mayhem, and relentless rain.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Voice: WhichFlavor Are You?

I have this thing for ice cream. If it's in the house, I'm helpless to resist it. Which is strange, because I once went years (my thinnest years; hmmm... wonder if there could be a correlation) without eating it after working in an ice cream parlor one summer and gorging myself sick.

But I digress. My point is, when asked to define the elusive literary term "voice," I've come to give an answer related to flavors of ice cream, for the following reasons.

1. New ice cream flavors take time to develop. In R&D departments nationwide, recipes are tweaked, taste-tested, and refined over a long period of time. An author's voice (since it is singular) takes years to develop and thousands of pages to clarify. But eventually, the writer's personality shines through, superceding all the homages to other authors' flavors.

2. Sometimes a consumer's in the mood for one flavor or another. I might walk into an ice cream parlor and choose black raspberry one day, peach-vanilla another, or chocolate chip mint, depending on my whim. This doesn't make one flavor better than another -- and it also explains a lot of book reviews, since reviewers don't get to choose their reads in accordance with their wishes of the moment.

3. Some flavors, such as vanilla or chocolate, appeal to most consumers, but others (chocolate-covered strawberry, black cherry-vanilla, cinnamon pecan, and even cantaloupe) develop cult followings who consume all that they can. There are tons of authors out there who become successful due to a devoted (or one might say rabid) fanbase, but only if the author's voice is sufficiently distinctive.

4. Strong flavors elicit strong reactions, while the milder types are liked a lot (but not necessarily loved emphatically) by many. If your writing voice is strong and unique, people are either going to adore your work or despise it. Forget about the ones who hate it (I am never going to like coffee ice cream or certain authors, for that matter). Target the affections of the ones who do.

Goofy question of the day: So if your writing were an ice cream flavor, what would it be? Something sweetly delicious, complex and resonant, tartly cool (hello, lime sherbet!)? Or are you more of a Neapolitan, with several flavors combined in one carton.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Is the feast more dangerous than the famine?

Remember the Bible story about Joseph being brought out of prison to interpret a disturbing dream for the Pharaoh? In case the King James version is too tame for Tuesday, here's the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber version:

The story is part of one of the Good Book's greatest adventures, but it's also a timeless reminder about the feast and famine of life, whether you're talking about money, love, family, or for our purposes, a writing career. To everything there's ebb and flow. When the house if full of kids, we know the time is coming when they'll (hopefully) leave, so we should be emotionally prepared for that. Lord knows marriage is cyclical, and we have to remember during the grinding times that as long as the baseline of love is maintained, the honeymoon will circle back around. For me, this natural wisdom (aka common sense) has been hardest to apply in my career. In the last several years, the modicum of success I've had has actually gotten me into more trouble than the lean times. Oddly enough, the year I made the most money, I was the least grateful. I wasn't as careful. I didn't work as hard. It took a couple of lean years to restore the fire to my belly.

Publishing is littered with one hit wonders, books whose galactic success stories are jealousy bait in the moment they're streaking across the sky, we don't see the little lump of burnout that plunks smoldering into the discount bin a year later. These aren't lousy writers who got lucky in most cases, these are good writers who momentarily got too lucky for their own good. I'm not saying that good luck is bad, I'm saying that it presents as many challenges as bad luck and its consequences can be equally disastrous.

On the flip side, the consequences of bad luck can be as much a blessing as good luck. An unfortunate turn of events invariably has something to teach us. My education in contract law hasn't been much fun, but what an education! I did not enjoy being unpublished (aka unemployed) for 21 months, but by the end of that time, I was reading and writing with a burning energy that I hope I never lose.

My sister Jas has a "Theory of 50" that hypothesizes we all get an average of 50 in life. Some get it by averaging a series of 49s and 51s, others with 100s and 0s. When she explained this theory to me when we were teenagers, she concluded, "You're in the upper 90s and count-on-one-hand category." For better or worse, this turned out to be true.

I seem to be on a feast trajectory right now, but I'm still feeling the famine of last year and trying hard to heed Joseph's wise advice...

The Broadway version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is available on Netflix.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Forgotten Passion

After a grueling sprint to the finish on my latest manuscript, last week I revisited a forgotten passion.

With a birthday gift card in my hand, I visited my local Big Chain bookstore and spent an hour browsing, with no particular idea what I’d buy. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve indulged in such a pleasure. As an author, I know a lot of authors, talk a lot of book, and read quite a few reviews. Generally, my purchases are hurried, often made online, and all too often consist of books I feel I “should” read for one reason or another.

But yesterday, I wanted to do it the old-fashioned way. Simply walk among the shelves to see what caught my fancy. Only after leaving the store did I sit back to analyze how I’d made my selections, one hardcover and another mass market paperback, both of them thrillers. (I write romantic thrillers, but enjoy “straight” suspense as well, along with lots of other stuff. And I was in a mood for a good, fast scare.)

On walking into the store, I was immediately snared by the new hardcovers with the great placement. I picked up several I had heard of but wasn’t in the mood for any of them. Next a cover caught my eye, not because of its splashiness or beauty or what have you, but because the title (Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain) was completely at odds with the thriller-like cover art.

That incongruity enticed me to pick up the book and read the jacket. After learning it was a follow-up to Cain’s well-reviewed bestseller Heartsick (Tagline: love hurts. Sometimes its torture.) I scooted upstairs to the paperback mystery racks and grabbed one of two spine-out copies of that book instead.

The hardcover I picked up (after deciding to bypass a number by favorite authors because their first pages didn’t appeal and I was in the mood for something new-to-me), was Brad Meltzer’s new release, The Book of Lies. I’ve never read him before and I don’t really love DaVinci-code type ancient-artifact plots, but somehow, the book’s premise so intrigued me, I had to check it out.

So what about the rest of you? What was the last new book you purchased purely on impulse? What about it captured your attention?

By the way, this ubercool illustration is from Austin Kleon. Is that awesome or what?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

What's up with that red herring?

I was sorely confused about the meaning of "red herring" when I was a kid. My father was the son of Scandinavian immigrants, so I'd heard about the pejorative use of the epithet "herring chokers" (the Norsky version of the N word) being applied to him and his family when he was growing up playing hockey on the mean streets of post-war St. Paul. So when I first heard about "red herrings" in the context of a Hardy Boys mystery novel, I was utterly baffled. I asked Miss Andre, my fourth grade teacher, to clarify this for me. She said something about "small fish you eat on crackers" and asked me for the ten thousandth time if I'd decided to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.

I finally went to the source I should have started with, the oracle of all things bookish: my big sister Diana.

"It's when the book tricks you," she said. "Like when Lucy sets up the football and then jerks it away right when Charlie Brown goes to kick it."

That explanation still works for me, but I did appreciate the expanded version I saw a while back in Word Detective:
Until over-fishing depleted their ranks, herring were so numerous and so important as a staple foodstuff to both America and Europe that many writers referred to the Atlantic Ocean as "the herring pond." The downside of the little critters, however, is that they spoil very rapidly and become inedible. The only practical way to preserve herring is to cure them with a combination of salting and smoking, and those herring most heavily cured turn a deep crimson color from the process. Voila, red herring.

Curing herring in this fashion not only preserves the fish and changes its color, but also gives it a distinctive smell, and thereby hangs the modern meaning of "red herring." In training hounds to hunt foxes, these red herrings, dragged on a string through the woods, were used to lay down a trail of scent for the dogs to follow. There is also some evidence that red herrings were, later in the training process, sometimes dragged across the scent trail of a real fox to test the ability of the hounds to ignore a false clue and stick to the scent of the fox. From this practice comes our use of "red herring" to mean a false clue or bogus issue designed to confuse one's opponent (or, in the case of our recent election, the voters). "Red herring" first appeared in the literal "smoked fish" sense around 1420, but the figurative "phony issue or false clue" sense didn't appear until around 1884.

There's also a lesson to be found in Cary Grant's classic line from North By Northwest:
Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that are dependent upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed.

No character, no event, no plot twist can ever be "just a red herring"; there has to be more to it. The character has a life of his own. The event has repercussions. The twist has a flavor. We don't want the reader to end up crashing on his tailbone like Charlie Brown in the wake of the football whip-away. The idea isn't to outfox the reader, but to lead them on a merry chase.

And now for your Sunday deliciousness, a moment from North By Northwest, a veritable red herring fest, though Eva Marie Saint recommends the trout. "A little trouty, but good."

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Saturday Vid: Author Gets Slammed by Grandmother, Press, the World

When bestselling thriller (and graphic) novelist Brad Meltzer's latest offering, The Book of Lies, received some... well, less than enthusiastic reviews, Brad took 'em in stride and put together this hilarious trailer.

You've gotta love an author with a sense of humor, and a feel for the power of viral video. Plus, the audacious premise which links the murder of the father of the young boy who subsequently created (the bulletproof) Man of Steel with the world's first murder, committed by Cain.

I'm also including a way cool conspiracy-theory promotional video (featuring Joss Whedon) on the book to whet your appetite. I loved this, but for the record, I picked up THE BOOK OF LIES the old-fashioned way -- because it caught my eye at the bookstore and I the idea sounded too intriguing to put it down and walk away.

Your book's on my nightstand, Brad, and I really like your style!

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Story for Your Vote

Over the past two weeks, I've watched the national conventions of the Democrats and Republicans with great interest, and one thing (okay, lots of things, but let's put politics aside and stay on track here) has really struck me. That singular thing is the universal power of story to connect us to another human being, even one who is essentially a stranger.

First, we have the narrative of Barak Obama, the son of a young, unwed Midwestern woman and an African student whose swift rise through hard work, talent, and the path of public service embodies the American dream.

Next, we have the tale of Joe Biden, a young Senator-elect whose wife and daughter died tragically and who was sworn in at the bedside of his injured sons and who commuted from Washington by train so he could be at their side each evening.

The following week, we were introduced to the inspiring story of John McCain, a POW who was tortured for years and tempted by offers of freedom, a man whose heroism and patriotism would not allow him to turn his back on his ideals and country.

Finally, we met Sarah Palin a "regular hockey mom" who rose from PTA president to mayor until -- frustrated by corruption within her own party -- she took on the old boy establishment, won the governorship, and put the cushy corporate jet up for sale on Ebay.

These are narratives distilled to legend, tales brief enough to be shared in TV ads or newscast sound bites, or spoken of with friends. They are story without the circumstance, complexity, or ambiguity of real life, but nonetheless, they are critically important.

Because story is how we relate to one another and to our world. It provides the framework on which we may hang the ghostly flesh of abstract issues and ideals. It also provides another example of why storytellers are as important in our world as they ever have been, even (and perhaps especially) within the political arena.

So how important is a candidate's personal narrative to you? Do you find it a shortcut to feeling as if you know him or her, or do you feel it's a slick attempt at manipulation by spin doctors? I'd love to hear your thoughts, but let's try to keep on topic and respectful. I don't want to have to go and dig out my old schoolyard whistle. ;)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Don't get derailed by Dingus Magee

A while back I read William Goldman's terrific Adventures in the Screen Trade, which is so packed with great writing advice, I had to make a list of things to blog about down the road. One particular passage came back to me when a recent proposal of mine was shot down. Discussing the process and production surrounding his script Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Goldman says that when it came time to market the screenplay, it was a "hot item" with interest from several studios, but it was rejected by MGM. Goldman says:
A Metro executive told me that the reason they didn't bid was this: "We've already got our joke western, The Ballad of Dingus Magee."

The fact is this: If Butch went out today, just as it did originally, a simple unencumbered screenplay available for purchase, it would never have sold.

I laughed out loud when I read this. The only time I'd ever heard of Dingus Magee was in an episode of MST3K. Meanwhile, Butch and Sundance went on to become a classic, and Goldman won an Oscar for the screenplay.

There's two things we can take from this. First, there's the eye-roll response to rejection. If they don't get it, they just don't get it. There's nothing you can do to change their mind. Second, Goldman makes the point that to everything there is a season. Timing is everything in the placement of a manuscript. A writer's only response in either case is to write what you want to write. It's a terrible mistake for an author to internalize rejection, change course, or abandon an idea simply because the market for it isn't (at this moment) ripe for it. Or because somebody just doesn't get it.

A universal truth in the writing life: rejection happens. So they sent you a thanks but no thanks. Let them have their Dingus Magee. You know who you are as an artist and what you're doing as a writer. To thine own self be true. Your time will come.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

This Just In: Yay!

I promised myself I'd be finished this draft by September 1st, so I'd have sufficient time to edit. But the story kept growing and growing, becoming The Manuscript That Ate My Brain. So for the past two days, I've glued myself to my chair and fell straight down the rabbit hole.

And what did I find at the bottom, but a (drum roll please) completed draft. Nothing, nothing at all (not even *that*) feels better. So please 'scuse us (Mr. Kool Aid and Jimi are both on my team for this go-round) while we kiss the sky.

And yes, it's September 2nd. Wanta make somethin' of it? ;)

"Ms. Author, Your Character's on Line One

Have you ever noticed that some characters just show up? Fully formed, they burst out of your skull, much like Athena exploded, fully armed and everything, out of Zeus gi-normous headache (which served that womanizing s.o.b. right for swallowing her pregnant mother, if you ask me).

I love it when a character simply bursts onto the scene. Although the other type, the shy ones you only gradually discover, have their appeal, those fictional folks who simply show up make life so much easier, since they arrive packing their own voices, mannerisms, and the willingness to smack down the author who tries to hammer them into a plot where they won't fit.

Sometimes, this type of character is a hero (the hunkalicious desert recluse, Zeke Pike from my latest, Triple Exposure, and Beth Ann Decker from Head On). Other times, it's a secondary character (Patsy from Triple Exposure and Estelle Hooks from The Salt Maiden. Once in a while, it's a villain who comes to breathe down my neck, raising chill bumps and making me want to shower after each scene spent in their heads (the killer from Head On). Whichever the case may be, I feel a special affection (or a special horror) for these folks long after the book is written.

But I often wonder how they come to be. Do they live everyday lives on some alternate plane only to accidentally step inside the (hellish, since I write suspense) wardrobe of my story? Are they subconsciously-formed conglomerates of folks I've known or read about or imagined? Or did they grow from the vines of those watermelon seeds I was warned not to swallow as a kid?

What about you? Do any (or all) of your characters simply show up? Any thoughts on the mystery of how that happens, or on how we as authors can see that it happens more frequently?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Shakespeare's Labour Day advice for writers

From Love's Labour's Lost, Act 5, scene ii:
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical; these summer flies have blown me full of maggot ostentation: I do forswear them.


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