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Showing posts from October, 2008

Don't close your eyes! (Scary Mary is coming for your children...)

Clever writing tie-in: it's all about how you spin it.

Happy Halloween!

The Art of Introduction

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As I work through the beginning of a new manuscript, I'm reminded of the challenges of introductions. Not so much of the story, but of the characters the reader will need to follow through the coming pages.

One mistake I often see in unpublished manuscripts -- and more than a few that make it through to publications -- is the tendency to bring in too many characters at once. In general, the fewer you introduce at a time, the better. Otherwise the reader may have trouble keeping names straight and differentiating the characters from one another.

In some books, however -- including my current project -- it's necessary to introduce characters in groups rather than one by one. If you have to do this, less is more. In other words, keep your group of family members, coworkers, et cetera, as small as you can manage. Give some characters dual roles. (Agent/author Donald Maass calls this "telescoping" in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel.) For example, if the head of the her…

"The Worn Path": Eudora Welty speaks about the genesis of a story

A Lonely Pursuit? Not Unless You Want It to Be.

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A lot of people have this image of the novelist as a solitary type who never leaves the home office, unless it's to sit brooding in some smoky bar... or (updating on the stereotype) sit behind a laptop in a Parisian coffee house. Or maybe just the local Starbucks.

I know writers whose journey is largely solo, who don't care much for people and are quite content to live inside a world of their own making. There are probably tons more that I don't know, because they don't want me (or anyone) to bug them.

Fair enough, because I'm one of the other kind of writers. Though I enjoy and need time alone, I genuinely like people. Especially my fellow writers, with whom I have so much in common. Every once in a while, I have to come out of my cave and hang out with people who understand what it's like to feel at the mercy of some editor or agent who's ohlding my work hostage, with people who know (or crave) the challenges of deadline, with folks who'll help me brai…

Margaret Atwood on life and debt

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On our way to the crossword puzzle, I had to stop and read Gary this terrific op ed piece by Margaret Atwood in Sunday's Houston Chronicle. In "A matter of life and debt: Moral balance must be restored for recovery of financial system", Atwood (author The Handmaid's Tale et al) discusses the spiritual consequences of borrowing and lending, setting the morality and human condition of indebtedness in historical and literary context.

Here's a bit of it:
Debtor-creditor bonds are also central to the plots of many novels — especially those from the 19th century, when the boom-and-bust cycles of manufacturing and no-holds-barred capitalism were new and frightening phenomena, and ruined many. Such stories tell what happens when you don't pay, won't pay or can't pay, and when official punishments ranged from debtors' prisons to debt slavery.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, human beings are sold to pay off the rashly contracted debts. In Madame Bovary,…

"The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter

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I was reminded recently of one of my all time favorite bits of words, the achingly beautiful short story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter. I promised Colleen I'd post a link so she and our other critique-mates could read it and (oh, yes) weep. Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Russel Porter in Indian Creek, Texas. She was proud to be a direct descendant of Daniel Boone. When Porter was just two years old, her mother died, and her father took her and her four siblings to live with their grandmother, Catherine Anne Porter. Porter spent part of her childhood with relatives in Marfa, Texas, and her work held a whole new meaning for me after I went to Marfa with Colleen when she was researching her novel Triple Exposure. Bleakness and beauty coexist, as do life and death, hope and despair, miles and miles of everything that goes on.

My daughter Jerusha and I discussed the story at length as we were driving to Killeen a few months ago, and it stru…

Saturday Quote: Lee Child on The Invisible Undercarriage

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As gleaned from the most recent Author's Guild Bulletin (if you haven't joined, get on it!), quoting from a June 2008 New York Times interview with bestselling suspense novelist Lee Child:

"I want the books to be entertaining, and I want them to be easy reads. It's up to me, not the reader, to do the work...If someone says that my books are well written, I worry a little. I mean, I hope they are, but I don't want that to be noticed. It should be the invisible undercarriage."

This may be the smartest bit of writing advice I've ever read... and key in avoiding the sin of elegant variation.

Although I still have enough of an ego to like it if someone compliments my writing. ;)

Write What You Know (Nothing About)

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As I work through the early stages of a contracted novel, I never know what craziness is going to pop out of my head and land with a big, juicy *ker-splattt!* inside the story. Generally, each book's good for one major topic about which I know almost nothing. In one historical, it turned out to be the tragic explosion of the Civil War-era steamboat, The Sultana, which took the lives of 1700, mostly half-starved Union POWs from Confederate prison camps. Mymost recent romantic suspense explored both glider flight and fine art photography.

Every one of these topics scared the snot out of me and resurrected the ghost of that hoariest bit of writing adivice: Write What You Know. So with much trepidation (and visions of angry reader letters calling me on my ignorance), I set out to learn everything I could about each topic...

And made a wonderful discovery. I love research, love learning, adore experiencing new things. I find the new "expertise" I've picked up along the way …

'Tis the season for philippics

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Okay, I am a word nerd, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. In the course of our morning coffee and crossword puzzle ritual this morning, Gary and I learned what we agreed is one of favorite words in a long while:

philippic
Pronunciation: \fə-ˈli-pik\
Function: noun

Definition: a discourse or declamation full of bitter condemnation; a tirade

Etymology: Middle French philippique, from Latin & Greek; Latin philippica, orationes philippicae, speeches of Cicero against Mark Antony, translation of Greek philippikoi logoi, speeches of Demosthenes against Philip II of Macedon, literally, speeches relating to Philip
Date: 1592

Feel free to flip me a sentence using the word philippic, which seems particularly apt for election season. Or go hear to read The Philippics of Cisero.

Too Good Not to Share: On Being Skipped

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Over at The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, blogger Andrew Wheeler writes about books being skipped, or passed over, by the major chains. Wheeler, a marketing manager for John Wiley & Sons with a long career in publishing (mostly in the science fiction arena), gives up some detailed numbers in this longish but extremely worthwhile post.

While it's a problem for the publisher to have books skipped, it's pretty much a disaster for the author. Sadly, I know this from my past writing life as historical romance author Gwyneth Atlee. Great reviews, endorsements, and awards notwithstanding, publishing, in the end, is a popularity contest. If your work isn't "popular" with your publisher (compared to other books on the list), with the chain's buyers, and ultimately with sufficient numbers of readers, you're going to end up experiencing a numbers "death spiral" that will eventually put you out of business.

So does that mean the end for you as a…

Cue the Thunder...

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ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH. Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
-- From Shakespeare's Macbeth

These days, I'm plotting, tossing a lot of ingredients I barely understand into the cauldron of my work in progress. It's an exciting time because almost anything can find its way into the story: aspects of characters I've met in real life, shards I've plucked from gossip or news items, shiny bits of life that have caught my eye and won't let go.

It's a dangerous time, too. With the wrong combination, the whole plot can blow up, showering the story with corrosive gook and melting down my bright hopes for a worthy n…

One for the toolbox: Forgotten Books online

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A great resource I've been digging lately is ForgottenBooks.org, where you can read thousands of books online for free or purchase in paperback at wholesale prices. I ordered collected writings of Clarence Darrow and a few other lovely old chestnuts. I've also taken advantage of the nifty Google feature to search inside.

From the website:
We specialize in historical writings, this includes works such as: classical fiction, philosophy, science, religion, folklore, mythology and sacred texts, in addition to secret and esoteric subjects, such as: occult, freemasonry, alchemy, hermetic and ancient knowledge. Fiction and non-fiction books.

It is our mission to find hidden knowledge and preserve lost knowledge, from antiquity to the present day, and make this information freely available to the world.
Check it out.

Sunday Quote: King on the Truth of Fiction

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"Fiction is the truth inside the lie."
-- Stephen King

I love this quote. It makes me think of all the great novels I've read and plays or movies I've seen whose imagined characters have taught me something real about the human soul. To me, there's more truth in The Kite Runner by the talented Khaled Husseini or in The Trip to Bountiful by the brilliant Horton Foote than in any number of newscasts.

Which novels (or fictional stories from other media) have felt especially true to you?

Sometimes you just need to rock it out

Most of the time, I feel pretty good about the publishing industry. The rest of the time...there's Frank Zappa.

Nice to know we're not alone, n'set pas?

Gotta love today's Crankshaft

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Today's Crankshaft by Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers

National Book Awards finalist announced

National Book Award finalist were announced this week:

Fiction
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba (Scribner)
Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Salvatore Scibona, The End (Graywolf Press)

Nonfiction
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf)
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton & Company)
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday)
Jim Sheeler, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (Penguin)
Joan Wickersham, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Harcourt)

Poetry
Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mark Doty, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems (HarperCollins)
Reginald Gibbons, Creatures of a Day (Louisiana State University Press)
Richard Howard, Withou…

Note from New York

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In New York to visit with one of my all-time favorite Broadway divas to see if we’re a love connection for her memoir. She graciously invited me to stay at her loft but I decided on the spur of the moment to roll in a day early and connect with her yesterday. Full disclosure: I decided this at 4:55 AM Wednesday, right after Jerusha dropped me off at the airport and Gary called me to say, “I thought you were supposed to go tomorrow.”

Moral of that story is as follows:

1) Don’t buy the cheap daytimer that runs with the school year instead of the calendar year, because September arrives and – fnark – no more pages. And the daytimers for next year start in January. The intervening autumn months are spent flying by the seat of one’s Post-It-note-stuffed pants.

2) When you’ve got one foot out the door, the other foot might as well follow through. You never know what adventures might ensue. Don’t waste karma cussing. Make the most of a good screw-up. Best way to travel, write, and live your l…

The Daydream and the Will

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"I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one."
-- Flannery O'Connor

When I go out into the world as a writer, I meet a lot of these "most people," the ones who are "going to write a book someday." After the day job settles or money problems evaporate. Once the kids are in school (or grown) and the elderly parents no longer require so much attention.

I smile indulgently and nod as I listen to these folks spin out daydreams. For all I know, they have the talent. But as for the will? Probably not so much.

And as all of us really in the trenches know, the will to write no matter what is the more important factor. If you don't have that, what do you have? An empty sheet of paper and a head packed full of dreams.

Art from the upcoming remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Neil Gaiman wants to read you a bedtime story

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Check out the cool promotion Harper Collins is doing for The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman did a nine-city tour starting with the National Book Festival in September. At each stop on the tour, he read a chapter, and HC started posting videos of the readings October 1st. With patience and a good broadband connection, you can now watch the master storyteller himself read The Graveyard Book in its entirety (eight chapters running 40-45 minutes each). The book is written for a middle school audience, but the writing is -- well, it's Neil Gaiman. What else do you need to know?

About the book:
Bod is an unusual boy who inhabits an unusual place—he's the only living resident of a graveyard. Raised from infancy by the ghosts, werewolves, and other cemetery denizens, Bod has learned the antiquated customs of his guardians' time as well as their timely ghostly teachings—like the ability to Fade. Can a boy raised by ghosts face the wonders and terrors of the worlds of both the …

Terrible Titles... or Just Terribly Weird?

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In the last year or so, I've become something of a connoisseur of bad, bizarre, and often hilarious book titles. From last year's Big, Spankable Asses (trying to imagine carrying that book to the check-out counter of my local Borders) to one called Thong on Fire (ouch!), I've cracked up over the names of several "hot" reads -- and concluded that anything that memorable might very well be good for sales.

But recently, I discovered that erotica doesn't have the market cornered for bizarro titles. British magazine The Bookseller awards an annual Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year. This year's winner (for 2007)? If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs by Big Boom, a former pimp and hustler. Previous winners that caught my eye include The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (are the horses lesbians or the readers?), The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (why didn't I think of this), …

Patricia Cornwell (inside the mind of a crime writer)

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Visit Patricia Cornwell's website for more on the mind of a crime writer, including her struggle with bipolar disorder, a condition Cornwell says is "quite common with artists."

"It is difficult to gauge how any medical condition affects one’s professional performance, but my suspicion is that the great range of feelings or moods does have an impact on creative expression and the intensity of the work. I can’t say that I am aware of a day-to-day challenge, but I suspect that for anyone who has any disorder (whether it is a psychiatric one or a physical one such as diabetes), it is inevitable that you tend to frequently monitor how you feel just to make sure that everything is in balance. And rather sadly, you tend to question yourself and your behavior more than someone else might."

Secrets of Starving Artists

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Admit it. You're worried about money. You and just about everybody else, considering what's been going on of late. You're in particular worried about the future.

Welcome to the world of those who make their living in the arts, the chronically under- and un-employed writers and performers who share a bed with feast and famine. With little job security, those in this boat either move on to something less nerve-wracking (Stop-n-Rob stickups spring to mind) or learn to adapt with the cyclical nature of their career choice.

One way artists and writers manage to survive the lean times is by hanging onto a day job or working part-time in some field where they've had previous training or where their minds, at least, can run free. I know many novelists who get up obscenely early or stay up quite late to write before or after work and "give up" almost every weekend. A lot of them dream of the day they'll be able to give up this paycheck (or its benefits) and devote …

I heard that (Toni McGee Causey on the art of eavesdropping)

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Yesterday on the Murder She Writes blog, Toni McGee Causey -- author of Bobbie Faye's (kinda, sorta, not-exactly) Family Jewels and Bobbie Faye's Very (very, very, very) Bad Day -- posted about one of my favorite pastimes: eavesdropping. (Here's what I said about it last spring when I was being a New York vampire.)

Says Toni, "I have a lot of fun whenever I’m traveling… or out at restaurants… or sitting at big family gatherings, because inevitably, someone says something that sparks an idea I can use to deepen a character, give a flavor that it something other than just me, just how I would react in that moment. Sometimes I’ll immediately make a note, but often, the best bits of dialog stick with me for years and will resurface just when I need that little detail to help create a character."

And then she goes on to give an insightful breakdown of what she's listening for: cadence/rhythm, syntax, conflict, and pitch/tone. Very interesting. Check it out.

And click…

Quiet: I'm Trying to Write!

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Yesterday around dawn, my husband and I woke to the sound of some insanely-loud crows. Turns out we had a murder of 'em (one never gets enough chances to use the collective noun for a grouping of crows) in and around the giant pine tree just behind our house.

While we're incredibly thankful to the tree for dutifully remaining upright instead of crushing us in our sleep during the recent hurricane, the crows congregating in its crown refused to shut up. All day long, they went on, cawing so furiously as I attempted to write that they began to remind me of a murder of (if the collective noun fits...) critics having a huge snarkfest -- or at the very least, those forces of resistance that absolutely hate to see a novel written.

I went out back a few times and stared up into the tree in an attempt to see if they were nesting up there, which might call for the purchase of sound-proof windows. I didn't see a nest, and the crows paid me no heed. They ignored the dogs, too, rather …

May the stores be with you

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Recently read Seth Greenland's Shining City, a terrifically funny novel Colleen turned me onto. (Click here to watch the trailer.) From the PW rave:
Greenland's uproarious second novel (after The Bones) follows the manifold ups and downs of Marcus Ripps, an unemployed and ill-fated altruist who inherits from his estranged brother an escort service run out of a Hollywood dry cleaning shop. Burdened by mounting debt and his chilly wife, Jan, and concerned that he won't be able to pay for his son's bar mitzvah, Marcus decides to become a pimp. With assistance from Kostya, his brother's former bodyguard, Marcus not only keeps the business afloat, he improves it and offers the prostitutes health insurance and retirement plans. After a john dies handcuffed to a bed, Marcus enlists Jan's help to dump the body. Eager to work with her husband, Jan joins the company, a move that improves their marriage and business, as the Smart Tarts (as Jan names the service) becomes a …

Fabulous Freebie Alert

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One of my favorite books on how to make a living in the novel biz is now available online for a price a writer's gotta love. Agent extraordinaire Donald Maass is offering an absolutely free download of The Career Novelist,which offers advice on how to achieve long-term success.

If you enjoy it, I highly recommend his fabulous follow-up, Writing the Breakout Novel. Maass also gives a popular workshop based on the book's tenets. It's well worth attending if you get the chance, but the book alone is extremely worthwhile.

Maass has a third book on writing in the works, too. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great will be available in May 2009. I'm looking forward to it eagerly.

Making Stories Human

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"Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better."
-- Ernest Hemingway

I've judged a good number of first chapter writing contests, and I like to think I've developed a good eye for spotting potential. Whether or not the entrant has begun to master craft, there's a sense of story and an ear for dialogue that set up a new writer for the possibility of success. Almost as important is a talent (and I think it is more a talent than a learned skilled) for detail. Not the commonplace sort that anybody could come up with, but that pitch-perfect detail that drops the reader head-first into the story.

When it comes to such details, less is more. Too much description can bury the characters and bore the reader. But the right words are not only unexpected, they also provoke instant recognition, so the reader thinks, "Yes, this is truth."

And once you've hooked them with the tiny truths, it&…

I'm no poet (and I know it)

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Writing under the influence of Erica Jong and deep in the delusional state that clouds the mind of a first time novelist, I decided to make the mother of my main character an infamous radical feminist poet. Handily enough, I had rafts of angsty, vaginesque poetry on hand; I'd been laboring over my portfolio since high school and had several pieces published in the college literary quarterly alongside other Janis Ian wannabes. When my novel was (cue the angel chorus) picked up by the wonderful small press (which later morphed into MacAdam-Cage) my editor thought I was spoofing on Jong and told me that one of the funniest elements in the book was her "god-awful, grotesquely hilarious poetry." (Cue the tuba plotz.)

My free verse hasn't seen the light of day since, but still I'm like Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife: "Dear me. Scraps of old poems. They keep wandering around like ghosts, hoping to get use someday."

Poetry is worth the effort, even if it'…

Pet Peeves of Prose: What Drives You Nuts?

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Every reader has pet peeves. The more you read, the more certain phrases, plot devices, or usage errors get under your skin. So it should come as no surprise that authors, agents, and editors develop hair-trigger gag reflexes when it comes to all sorts of little land mines you innocently set down on the paper.

I've heard agent extraordinaire Donald Maass say he can't stand it when characters are "fighting their demons" (which I've seen written on the jackets of countless books). The blogger/agent known as Miss Snark detests prologues (while many readers enjoy them). I've read interviews from agents or editors who can't stand to see characters with certain names or who have biases against certain fonts (for heaven sake!) because they've come to associate them with genre writers.

Many romance readers hate first-person stories with a passion, as I once learned the hard way when an editor put first-person copy on my third-person book. (Mystery readers tend…

Don't vote! (Unless you actually care...)

Elegant Variation

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Recently, Joni has taught me a new (to me) term for an old sin: the elegant variation. Coined by Henry Watson Fowler in 1926, the phrase refers to the tendency to dude up what ought to be a simple, straight-forward bit of prose with overly-affected language and syntax.

My favorite definition is comes from the blog The Elegant Variation:

The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between whic…

Note to Self: Samara O'Shea on journaling the journey

Midweek movie moment: here's a fun trailer for Samara O'Shea's Note to Self: On Keeping a Journal and Other Dangerous Pursuits, freshly out from Harper Collins earlier this summer.



O'Shea on the journaling process:
Often times when I tell people about [Note to Self]—they say, “I tried to keep a journal once and it didn’t really work.” I tired several times, too, before it worked. The way I made it work was I stopped getting mad at myself if I didn’t write everyday, and I stopped expecting myself to write down the exact details of the day. Basically, I broke the journal-writing rules, and, as a result, I was able to keep a journal. Many journals. Now, sometimes six months will go by and I don’t write at all, while other times I write everyday. Some days I write an epic poem, and other days I only write two sentences. I am the policy maker for my journal, and the policy is, “Write what feels right.” Keep this in mind if you’d consider trying a journal again. It’s worth it!…