Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Art of Introduction

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One mistake I often see in unpublished manuscripts -- and more than a few that make it through to publications -- is the tendency to bring in too many characters at once.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 hero's department is also his brother-in-law, readers will have someone recognizable to anchor them when they go from the workplace to the family celebration scene. Since I write books set in small towns, overlapping roles are very likely.

Another important factor is each individual character's distinctiveness. If you absolutely have to introduce, say, a half-dozen firefighters at once, choose a few on which to focus, and carefully differentiate them in terms of how they speak/act/attitude, dress (even people in uniform can vary, some wearing rumpled, faded, stained, or ill-fitting versions while others don meticulously ironed clothing or perhaps a shirt so obviously new one can still make out the creases from the package), age, and appearance. Rather than sling out too many details at once, choose one or two "distinguishing features" matched with individualized dialogue. All you're trying to accomplish is recognition later in the story when the character pops up again. If you fail and the reader has to flip back to figure out who on earth someone is, this can destroy the story's flow -- or be distastrous if the character ends up having a crucial role near the book's ending. (I once read the unveiling of a mystery's killer and exclaimed, "Who the heck is that?" Totally wrecked the impact when I had to start flipping through pages to come up with an answer.)

Names are also very important. I try to avoid using too many sound-alike names or names beginning with the same letter. I like to throw in likely nicknames here and there, but I try not to get too weird with character names, which to me can make the characters sound artificial. If someone does have a supremely odd or ill-fitting name, another character might comment on it, but otherwise, I like them to sound like the kind of name you might encounter in real life.

Do you have any pet peeves to share about character introductions? Or any rules of thumb to share? If so, I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

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

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 brainstorm a title or untangle a knotty problem with my plot. And I love hearing about what they're up to, love helping out where I can, as long as I can keep the sharing part of me from gobbling up too much of my writing time.

Out of these writers' gatherings, which may be group meetings, conferences, or classes, I've forged some mighty alliances and met the closest friends of my adult life. Some of them, I critique with twice monthly and see even more often. Others, I run into at area writing events and enjoy a friendly catch-up session. Still others, I bump into annually at conference. There are some, too, I online know from online venues. I've never met them personally, but we come close via e-mail.

Although big crowds make me nervous and I can be socially inept in other situations, when I'm around those who love books and writing, something in me comes alive.

What about you? Do you consider yourself a loner, or do you seek out other writers? What organizations have you found most valuable?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Margaret Atwood on life and debt

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, a provincial wife takes not only to love and extramarital sex as an escape from boredom, but also — more dangerously — to overspending. She poisons herself when her unpaid creditor threatens to expose her double life. Had Emma Bovary but learned double-entry bookkeeping and drawn up a budget, she could easily have gone on with her hobby of adultery.

Check it out. And while we're at it, here's a link to O.W. Toad, the Margaret Atwood Information Site.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter

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 struck me deeply how drastically the meaning of the story had changed since I first read it as a teenager.

Here's a bit from the story:
Her bones felt loose, and floated around in her skin, and Doctor Harry floated like a balloon around the foot of the bed. He floated and pulled down his waistcoat, and swung his glasses on a cord. “Well, stay where you are, it certainly can’t hurt you.”

“Get along and doctor your sick,” said Granny Weatherall. “Leave a well woman alone. I’ll call for you when I want you…Where were you forty years ago when I pulled through milk-leg and double pneumonia? You weren’t even born. Don’t let Cornelia lead you on,” she shouted, because Doctor Harry appeared to float up to the ceiling and out. “I pay my own bills, and I don’t throw my money away on nonsense!”

She meant to wave good-by, but it was too much trouble. Her eyes closed of themselves, it was like a dark curtain drawn around the bed. The pillow rose and floated under her, pleasant as a hammock in a light wind. She listened to the leaves rustling outside the window. No, somebody was swishing newspapers: no, Cornelia and Doctor Harry were whispering together. She leaped broad awake, thinking they whispered in her ear.

“She was never like this, never like this!” “Well, what can we expect?” “Yes, eighty years old…”

Well, and what if she was? She still had ears. It was like Cornelia to whisper around doors. She always kept things secret in such a public way. She was always being tactful and kind. Cornelia was dutiful; that was the trouble with her. Dutiful and good: “So good and dutiful,” said Granny, “that I’d like to spank her.” She saw herself spanking Cornelia and making a fine job of it.

“What’d you say, mother?”

Granny felt her face tying up in hard knots.

“Can’t a body think, I’d like to know?”

“I thought you might like something.”

“I do. I want a lot of things. First off, go away and don’t whisper.”

Click here to read "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" in full. And in case you're worried that kids today aren't getting any great words thrown at their heads, here's a moment from TV's teen angst-fest One Tree Hill, featuring the profound words of Katherine Anne Porter. Kudos to the writers for including this quote, even if they had to google for it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saturday Quote: Lee Child on The Invisible Undercarriage

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. ;)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Write What You Know (Nothing About)

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 to be one of the most rewarding facets of the writing life. Sure, it can be taken too far, sucking the research junkie into an addiction so strong, no actual writing ever takes place. Or it can bog down a manuscript, if the author feels the need to pour every crumb of newly-discovered knowledge into her plot. (Yawn!) But for the most part, the excitement the writer feels in the discovery adds freshness to the story. It can even hook readers on newly-found enthusiasms.

So with that in mind, I'm forging ahead with a plot containing a frightening new element, one about which I know zero. But you can bet that won't be true by the time I finish this book. (For one thing, my husband is already planning a research road trip for the two of us. Yea!)

So do you agree with me that "Write What You Know" should be changed to "Write What You Want to Learn"? And what's the most interesting research you've ever done for writing?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

'Tis the season for philippics

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:

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.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Too Good Not to Share: On Being Skipped

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 writer? It can -- or it may just be opportunity calling you to change and grow and reinvent yourself as a success. And you may be surprised to know that your "failures" give you a leg up -- as well as a depth of knowledge and experience -- that can serve you well.

So as the economy shrinks and the chains continue to face huge challenges, expect more books to be skipped and more authors to fall upon tough times. But don't count anybody out because people will always need stories to help them make sense of their world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cue the Thunder...

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 novel... as well as a completed manuscript before my springtime (gulp) deadline.

But more often than not, the strange ingredients, no matter how disparate (or desperate) eventually form worthy characters and a cohesive tale. How does it happen? I could tell you it's all due to hard work, time... imagination.

Or I could speak the truth: that's it's a form of magic -- a mystery I've never understood and can't begin to explain.

So what's your recipe for beginning a new story? Do you dream plots, as does an author friend of mine? (I'm frankly jealous.) Do you start with a simple idea and then embroider upon it? Do you begin with a character? A place? A situation? (I've done each of these, at one point or another.) How do you get started?

And does anybody have an eye of newt to lend me?

Monday, October 20, 2008

One for the toolbox: Forgotten Books online

A great resource I've been digging lately is, 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, October 19, 2008

Sunday Quote: King on the Truth of Fiction

"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?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

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?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gotta love today's Crankshaft

Today's Crankshaft by Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers

National Book Awards finalist announced

National Book Award finalist were announced this week:

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)

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)

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, Without Saying (Turtle Point Press)
Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press)

Young People’s Literature
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains (Simon & Schuster)
Kathi Appelt, The Underneath (Atheneum)
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic)
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion)
Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now (Alfred A. Knopf)

Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters: Maxine Hong Kingston

Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community: Barney Rosset

The National Book Awards ceremony takes place in NYC November 19 with Eric Bogosian hosting.

(And I bet it won't be at all pretentious or anything...)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Note from New York

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 life: no reservations.

So here’s me, rolling into Laguardia at 11 AM, no place to go, only two days worth of socks and undies, and the world is my oyster. I ducked into Au bon Pain just on the freedom side of security check, one of my trusty satellite office locations where I know exactly the right internet to piggyback on. I google mapped my diva’s location and searched on hotels nearby. Pricey. Dang. Finally found a hostel-type flop house in Chelsea where I slept on a single bed and shared the bathroom with a pleasant enough man from Portugal. I was told upon check in that if there was a problem (I guess he mentioned this because there was a hooker in the next room, earning her daily bread), I was supposed to run three doors down the block, up four flights of stairs to apt 4A, and pound on the door. I was told that “Voolahree is help.” Very comforting.

This is a great neighborhood. Usually, I’m in either the Ave of the Americas publishing ghetto or kicking around the tony brownstones near Central Park. Here, funky fashions stride past the window, everyone is very artsy but purposeful. (Unlike the artsy slackards of LA, who seem to hang about a lot, their only excuse being how great they look doing nothing.)

I’m writing this at a place called Spoon, where they serve a good selection of organic vegan food plus a few items snatched from the free range and grilled with incredibly spicy dressing. (So I feel very healthy, but I probably smell like a dragon.) I won’t be able to post until later. I’m told that “We eschew that wi-fi crap.” I asked if there was a Starbucks nearby and received a scathing glance that conveyed a message in the vein of “why don’t you just go step on newborn bunny heads, you soulless moron.”

Well. I’m off. Gotta check out the Gucci knock-off bags on the street outside, then continue my covert ops, nosing around the diva’s neighborhood, trying to get a sense of what she might want to say about it.

At the Hollywood Diner on 6th between 17th and 16th, a few hopeful wireless rides popped up on the list. “Not a greedy bastard” offered only a few bars of signal, and “Free public internet” got me nowhere. I’m always scared to log onto anything like that, but if you can’t believe in the good of people, what’s the point?

“People are no good,” says Ari the manager. “You’re lying to yourself.” We engage in a long spirited discussion of world politics, psychology, and the upcoming election, and I plan to give him a hug as I walk out. I also plan to leave a good tip in hopes that his faith in humankind will receive a small booster shot. The clientele here is more elderly folks than groovsters. I had a nice talk with Annette, who told me she is 85 and has never used anything but soap and water on her face. She looks fabulous.

The waiter tells me he wants to move to Houston. He asks me all about it, and I tell him the paltry price I paid for my house and how there’s flowers all year round for people who are good at flowers, and excellent restaurants for the rest of us.

And that’s New York. I’m waiting for a call from Allison, my sort of goddaughter, a starving theatre waif who undoubtedly needs a good meal. We may be back to see Ari later, so I’d better forego the hug. Don’t want to give him the wrong impression.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Daydream and the Will

"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.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Neil Gaiman wants to read you a bedtime story

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 living and the dead? And then there are things like ghouls that aren't really one thing or the other.

An appetizer:
Chapter 1

How Nobody Came to the Graveyard

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.

He flexed his fingers. The man Jack was, above all things, a professional, or so he told himself, and he would not allow himself to smile until the job was completed.

His hair was dark and his eyes were dark and he wore black leather gloves of the thinnest lambskin.

The toddler’s room was at the very top of the house...

There's lots more fun and games (and just in time for Halloween!) on Mr. Bobo's Remarkable Mouse Circus, Gaiman's site for young readers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Terrible Titles... or Just Terribly Weird?

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), Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It, and the ever-popular Highlights in the History of Concrete.

Frankly, just reading these titles makes me deliriously happy, in a book-nerd sort of way. To read even more, click here. And feel free to post your favorite odd title!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Patricia Cornwell (inside the mind of a crime writer)

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."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Secrets of Starving Artists

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 themselves to their art; others enjoy either the security or the work of their "other" job. But there's no shame attached to moonlighting, no admission of failure inherent in the act.

Those "starving" artists who keep at it long-term also tend to help each other. They talk up each other's work, band together to take advantage of opportunities, and introduce newcomers to the "rules of the community." Rather than jealously hoarding scraps of potentially-helpful information, they share tips with others who may benefit and develop a network of contacts that often helps them in the long haul. After all, if your buddy's career skyrockets, he may have the opportunity to offer you a hand up -- something which happens far more often that you might think.

One last thing I've noticed is those living on the poverty-prone fringes of the creative territories (which would include most of us) celebrate not only capital-S Success but every baby step in its direction. Get a halfway encouraging rejection? An invitation to submit your next work? A kind word from a mentor or an offer from a small press or a nice online review? Your buds are out there genuinely cheering for you, even when they're dying for some good news of their own.

You'll notice that a lot of this comes down to community, to finding others who share or at least support your goal. And it never hurts to have friends with whom to share recipes for inexpensive meals, tips on the best paper prices, and, oh, yes... that all important opportunity to laugh about the craziness of this life we're living.

So what are your "starving artist" secrets? How do you save or raise more money or plan for the lean times between contracts? And if you want to share or link to a great deal, we would love it!

Friday, October 10, 2008

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

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 here for a fun Bobbie Faye book trailer.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Quiet: I'm Trying to Write!

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 than swooping down and dive-bombing as they sometimes will when they perceive their young are threatened by a predator.

It wasn't until late in the day that my husband spotted the cause of all the commotion. Looking over from the angle of our neighbor's deck, he saw a huge owl roosting near the uppermost branches. A great horned owl, it turned out. After checking it out thoroughly with a pair of field glasses, we turned to Google to find out about the crows' behavior.

According to various bird sites, great horned owls kill roosting crows and young crows at night, so during the day, if a crow spots one near its territory, it raises a noisy alarm. So noisy that crows gather from miles around to mob and jeer and occasionally (emboldened by their numbers) dive and peck at the sleepy owl. According to the experts, crows -- which are about the smartest birds I know of -- do this to drive off the predator and protect their families.

Call me paranoid, but I have another theory. I suspect that poor owl up there is only trying to write a novel, and the voices of resistance know this must be stopped.

So which incarnations of resistance do you find most annoying as you try to write? Telemarketers? Naysaying relatives? Voices from past critics/rejections? Or the interruptions of your own kiddos, clamoring for attention?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

May the stores be with you

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 Web-based cash cow. (Even Jan's ailing mother gets involved.) Things turn around for the Ripps, but trouble comes when a rival pimp threatens Marcus's life. Despite some predictable plot twists and the requisite Hollywood ending, Greenland's novel is entertaining and intelligent, and packed with enough hooks (and hookers) to keep readers sucked in to the last page.

In this book that's all about the commerce, it makes sense that the business names are never throw-away; every one pops and gets a laugh. The title comes from Shining City Dry Cleaning. Then there's Wazoo Toys, which relocates to China and becomes Ameri-Can Industries. I also love JackMart (self-explanatory) and Color Me Mine, a stripmall paint-it-yourself ceramics place.

As Jan considers a new name for the escort biz, she ponders the meaningful name with which she and her partner christened their offbeat boutique:
She had loved the word Ripcord. The verb rip was an active one that implied a tear in the fabric of the ordinary, and cord suggested strength, versatility, and perhaps a hint of bondage for those whose thoughts leaned that way...The two discreet words when combined formed something even more powerful.

Out for a drive with the ol' man whilst working on a novel (which is currently lost in the pipeline but will hopefully see the light of day eventually), I told him, "I need a good name for a store."

"What kind of store?"

"I have no idea. It's a chain, though. With an internet marketing division."

Without missing a beat, Gary said, "Gimme Wicker."

Killed me dead. I laughed till I cried, and the Gimme Wicker! franchise took on a life of it's own, bringing a surprising little plot bomb with it.

Colleen is a wiz at the biz names. My all-time favorite is Haz-Vestment, Inc., a toxic waste disposal firm up to no good in The Salt Maiden.

Anyone else care to share their favorites?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Fabulous Freebie Alert

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.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Making Stories Human

"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's easier to sell the big lies that comprise the story.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

I'm no poet (and I know it)

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's not particularly worth publishing. Processing thoughts in a framework of words, rhythm, and (if you're in the mood for it) rhyme -- that's how I process things. The tighter the form, the deeper you have to dig for the right words, examining the possibilities, turning the syllables like stones in your palm. I'm a compulsive list-maker, so sometimes the two forms combine in an interesting mental rug-hooking sort of way.

Example: I made this list in response to my first literary agent telling me, "You need to clearly define what you want to be."
What I want to be:
thoroughly loved
deliciously laid
consistently working
handsomely paid
smart in my business
true in my art
wise at the finish
brave at the start
occasionally humbled
appropriately proud
prone to be quiet
allowed to be loud
wholly welcome
sorely missed
predominantly peaceful
righteously pissed
rich without bitching
famous with reason
restful on Sabbath
productive in season
aware of my weakness
in awe of my power
profoundly grateful
alive every hour

It's an interesting meditative exercise. Give it a whirl and post the results in the comment section if you feel inclined to share.

(And click here for more of Doug Savage's hilarious "Savage Chickens.")

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Pet Peeves of Prose: What Drives You Nuts?

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 to enjoy first person, so this is not a universal.) Romance readers also detest stories involving the protagonists' adultery, and many readers can't stomach violence against defenseless furry animals or children.

Though most writers do their best to keep readers happy, you can't possibly know about or avoid every reader's individual pet peeves... except, perhaps, those related to usage errors, since they're shared by many. And not only recovering English teachers such as myself. Although I can take them in dialogue or certain "folksy" narratives, for the most part, please, no.

Here are a few particular usage issues that rip me out of a story (often on local newscasts, where I frequently hear the language butchered):

1. The use of any form of bust/busted when you should be saying broke/broken. I want to scream every time I hear/read about "thieves busting into" the local Stop n' Rob. I realize that "bust" has been gaining ground, but it sounds hickish to me.
2. Qualifiers used with the word "unique." Since unique means "one of a kind," please don't say something is "very" or "exceptionally" unique. There are already a lot of synonyms for "special" or "different," but "unique" is unique, so let's keep it that way.
3. Misuse of "like" as a comparative. I was late to the game learning this rule, but you're only supposed to use "like" to compare nouns. When you're comparing verb phrases, "as" is your word.
4. The use of an adjective to modify a verb. Although adverbs should be used sparingly, I have to be physically restrained when I hear even smart folks say "Drive careful!"
5. Confusion between "lie" and "lay." "To lay" means to put down. A person or animals "lies" itself down. The tricky part is that the past tense of "to lie" is "lay." By the way, when you tell your dog to "go lay down," you are teaching it bad grammar. ;)

So what about you? Which errors or author choices make you want to tear your hair out?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Elegant Variation

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 which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

I confess, I've fought this tendency for years, not out of any conscious desire to write pretentiously, but because my mind tends to loop its convoluted way around the page. I've noticed over the years that I spend a lot of my revision time ferreting out flourishes and replacing them with straight lines. I still get creative with language whenever I feel it's the best way to get across my story (and because a writer has to get her kicks somewhere), but when it starts getting in the way, it's time to start deleting.

So thanks, Joni, for giving the sin I've so long called "Beautiful Writing to Absolutely No Effect" a proper (and predictably less convoluted) handle. And does anyone else out there admit to having EV (not ED, mind you) moments?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

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! We need to check in with ourselves and seeing our thoughts come alive on paper is a meaningful and profound way to do it.

Check the girl out.


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