Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Get out!" Garrison Keillor's best advice for writers

Writer/tale teller/national treasure Garrison Keillor has this to say as we prepare to begin another work week:

And also this about diversity and academic intolerance for genre fiction:

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Thankful Writer

Writers tend to gripe a lot, especially among other writers. Figuring prominently in such discussions are hair-raising contract negotiations, lack of job security and benefits, and the myriad things that can kill a book before it ever draws breath. It's a tough way to make a buck, and tougher still to stay in business.

But today it seems appropriate to offer up those facets of the work for which I am so thankful.

1. The fulfillment of a long-held dream after many years of hard work.

2. The satisfaction of watching my fictional world come to life on the page.

3. The Fellowship of the Written Word, which extends from avid readers and impassioned writers to librarians to booksellers, and those in publishing.

4. The opportunity to work in comfort in my own home, or just about anywhere else, for that matter.

5. Deadlines, bless their nerve-wracking little hearts, because they equal employment.

6. Imagination, inspiration, and desire, which keep refilling my well.

7. Non-book-obsessed loved ones, who nevertheless support my dream.

8. The furry fan club, which offers wags and kisses even on the worst days.

For what writing gifts are you most grateful this year?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

"Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago, was on - two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the restaurant, but Alice doesn't live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. And livin' in the bell tower like that, they got a lot of room downstairs where the pews used to be in. Havin' all that room, seein' as how they took out all the pews, they decided that they didn't have to take out their garbage for a long time..."

Click here to hear Arlo Guthrie tell the whole sordid tale. Or visit Arlo Guthrie's official website for the complete lyrics.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

FYI: Query Dos and Don'ts

You'd like to think that once you've been published, you'll never have to write another query letter, but Colleen and I both know better. You change agents, you do proposals, you have to pitch every project in one way or another. So there's something for everyone in this no nonsense list of Query Dos and Don'ts from literary agent Wendy Sherman:

Write a fabulous query letter

Tell us why you chose our agency

Tell us why this book has an audience, and why you're the one to write it

Include information about your credentials to write this book, publications and prizes, awards, and conferences

Know the competition and describe those titles

Tell us which well-known writer's work yours most clearly compares to

Keep your letter under two pages

You can include a double-spaced table of contents and overview (non-fiction)

You can include a double spaced 1st chapter (fiction)

Tell us if you are submitting to more than one agency

Always include a SASE

Please be sure to provide us with your email, phone number, and address.

Read the books on how to find an agent - there are several. There is much valuable information that will help you throughout this process.

Refer me to your website for a reading sample.

Tell me about all the agents who have turned you down

Call to see if we received the material

Send me a query for something I turned down before (even if you rewrote it)

Tell me about several books I can choose from. Pick one!

Send anything that is single-spaced or in type less than 12 pt.

E-mail. We no longer accept e-mail queries.

Fax. We do not accept fax queries

Drop it off in person

According to Sherman, "The bottom line is: do your homework. Be as well prepared as possible. Read the books that will help you present yourself and your work with polish."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Lemon or Creampuff: The Selling of Story

I've spent the last few days helping a loved one car shop, which has changed a lot in some ways (thanks to the Internet and Consumer Reports) and is exactly the same (unfortunately) in others. Most of the sales people are knowledgeable, helpful, and respectful, but sadly, a few of them are still the kind who give car guys a bad name.

But it's possible to learn lessons from both the good and bad that can be applied to the "selling" of your story to the reader (a group which includes agents and editors.)

1. Be honest about what you're selling. The promise you set out for the reader in the story's opening should not later shift in a whole different direction. ("You don't look like the kind of woman who ought to drive an economy vehicle. Let's walk over and look at some of these beauties! You like red, don't you?") Consumers who feel tricked, manipulated, or flat-out lied to won't be inclined to buy.

2. The shiny little extras may add a bit of razzle-dazzle, but it's what's under the hood that really counts. Is your story premise solid? Are your characters compelling? Is your dialogue sharp and crisp? If the answer is no, all the extra chrome appearance packaging (or snazzy gimmicks) in the world won't sell your work.

3. Don't rely too much on slick salesmanship. A great product sells itself -- if you'll only quietly introduce it and then get the heck out of its way.

So as you go about the selling part of this career, take heart. It's really not all about the cult of self-promotion or whether you aggressively chase down readers at your signing. (Heaven forbid.)

It's about story in the end, and I find that heartening.

Freedom of Speech meets “Loose lips sink ships”

It was inevitable. Joe the Plumber has a book coming out. According to the Huffington Post:
The book, called "Joe the Plumber -- Fighting for the American Dream," is to be released by a group called Pearlgate Publishing
and other small publishing houses.

"I am not going to a conglomerate that way we actually can get the economy jump started. Like there is five publishing companies in Michigan. There's a couple down in Texas. They are small ones that can handle like 10 or 15,000 copies. I can go to a big one that could handle a million or two. But they don't need the help. They are already rich. So that's spreading the wealth to me," he said.

Errrkaaay…It’s totally possible that a gifted ghostwriter could take the raw material of Joe's life story and make a great book out of it, but I don’t think that’s going to happen here. I think this is going to be more of his chunky, ill-informed "folk wisdom" (not). Frankly, I wish the dude would, for the good of the nation, shut up and go away. But I love living in a country where people don't have to shut up and go away. It's a conundrum. I guess if not having a plumbing license hasn’t kept him from being “the plumber,” there’s no reason his Flintstonian grasp on the language should keep him from being “the writer”. All I can do is exercise my right as a reader to say no thanks.

One of the most disturbing trends in the publishing industry lately is the manipulation of bestseller lists in order to impart legitimacy on books that haven’t earned the bestseller rank. I suspect many of these would never get done at all if the publisher didn’t know in advance that a sponsoring special interest group was going to buy the copies required to pump it into the market like a barium enema. If a book I hate is loved by enough readers to earn a place on the lists, so be it, but bulk purchases that use the lists as a high-priced ad space corrode the credibility of lists themselves and harm authors who’ve legitimately gotten agonizingly close, only to be edged out by well-funded pretenders. It kills me that respected publishers participate in these shenanigans. The only upside is that the dirty money might be used to provide advances for more deserving authors. Whatevah. All I can do in my little corner of the universe is email bookstores and tell them that I will not patronize the store while books with falsified bestseller stats have FOS (Front of Store) placement.

My extended family is living proof that liberals and conservatives can peacefully coexist with genuine love and respect for one another. Coulter, Hannity, and Limbaugh are not my enemies. Franken, Moore, and Olbermann are not the enemies of my parents. In the big picture, it’s the constant vociferous bashing, jingoism, and hate talk that are the enemies of peace and progress. I can't tell Rush or Rachel to shut up. I cherish their right to speak freely. But I am hereby exercising my right to say "I'm not listening." I refuse to tune in for one more word of slanted, vitriolic, blow-holes-gone-wild blather, be it righty tighty or lefty libby. And I'm taking fifteen minutes a couple times a week to email the local businesses who sponsor AM hate radio to tell them that I will be unable to patronize their business as long as they sponsor programming that promotes hate and ignorance because I feel that it is tangibly damaging the country I love.

I will never support any restrictions on free speech. I honor Joe the Plumber’s right to peddle his pretzel logic and snake oil via the media of his choice. God bless the America in which any megalomaniacal pinhead is free to grasp after his fiteen minutes and sign a "book deal" (with like five publishing companies in Michigan and a couple down in Texas), but having heard this guy talk, I’m just not interested in anything he has to say. I invite you to join me in my disinterest and enjoy not reading Joe’s book. (I’m going to enjoy not reading it next week almost as much as I’m enjoying not buying it right now!)

Do the tiny seeds I sow in my little victory garden change the world? Heck, yes! They change my world. Cultural dynamics begin with personal conscience. We the People (make that We the Market) have the power to guide the publishing industry and the airwaves in a more intelligent direction by choosing civility over slander, journalism over jingoism, craft over craftiness. One little string bean at a time, we can tone down the tone by turning down the volume (the sales volume, that is). It can’t be legislated politically, it has to be embraced individually.

We don’t need less freedom; we need less speech.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday Morning Cartoon: "Give Up Yer Aul Sins"

An eloquent lesson in storytelling, "Give Up Yer Aul Sins" is the Oscar nomniated short from a Brown Bag Film series that repurposed 50-yr-old recordings of Dublin school children telling Bible stories. Watch and learn.

Director/Producer - Cathal Gaffney
Animator - Alan Shannon
Producer - Darragh O'Connell
Original recordings by Peig Cunningham

Friday, November 21, 2008

How to Avoid Criticism

There's really only one way...

To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.
Elbert Hubbard (1856 - 1915)

And even then, you'll have your mother or your old man or some other spoilsport riding you, asking you why the hell you never get up off the couch.

So I guess we've established that criticism is a part of life. So you might as well be happy doing whatever you're being flailed about.

As for me, I choose to write books, risk rejection, pick myself up and write another and another. I have something to say, and this is how I choose to say it. To the very best of my ability.

So what about you? Are you sitting around waiting for some sort of guarantee of universal acceptance? Seriously. Or are you going to finish polishing that book, research those markets, and (you know who you are) finally get that query or submission in the mail?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

2008 National Book Awards

2008 National Book Awards were announced last night at a black tie dinner in New York. I was in Houston, Texas in my PJs, taking a break from a 16-hour writing day, downing a beer in front of "Top Chef". (Sheesh, we live in a competitive world.) Anyway. The envelope, please...

YA Lit
Judy Blundell
What I Saw and How I Lied

Mark Doty
Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems

Annette Gordon-Reed
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
(W.W. Norton & Company)

Peter Matthiessen
Shadow Country
(Modern Library)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Shelves Overfloweth

I have a serious problem. All of my bookshelves (and I have many) look like the ones pictured. Or much worse. Besides that, there are the books stacked beneath nightstands, hidden in magazine racks, and shoved in various nooks and crannies.

Many are old favorites. Some not so much. Others are autographed by good friends, and far too many are waiting around to catch my eye.

So what's a book hoarder to do? Psst... Buy more bookcases, whispers my avaricious soul, but I know in my heart there could never be enough bookcases or enough room in my house to place them.

I know in my heart the time has come. Time to set some books free, from paperbacks (even autographed copies) I know I'll never reread to those I suspect, after a decent interval (years-long in many cases) will never get read in the first place. It's time to find new homes for hardcovers I've loved and loaned to friends and duplicate copies of the audio version of my own book. Though I've been holding on to most of the books I've used to research the historicals I've written, it's probably time to turn some of them loose as well. (Sob!!!)

So today I culled, at least a little, but rather than earn a few measly bucks of store credit trading in, I e-mailed a young mother I barely know save for the fact that she loves to read and has little money to buy books. She reacted quickly, gratefully, reminding me of something Joni recently wrote about so movingly: that of all the joys that books can bring up, it is sharing them that's best.

But lest you think I'm as generous as St. Joni, I still have hundreds of books left. As proof, I'll tell you that this photo was taken *after* I cleaned house. ;)

So, bibliophiles out there, how do you deal with the storage problem? Have you ever been tempted, as I have lately, to buy an Amazon Kindle or E-reader due to space considerations? And if you have one, do you miss the feel of paper-in-your hands, the smell the wafts up from fresh pages? And what about your eyes? Do they suffer from the screen-time?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

We call upon the author to explain (the poetry of Nick Cave)

Sitting under an acutely blue sky in her quiet garden yesterday, my friend and I were talking about the way we process ourselves and the world through both writing and reading stories. While the gently literary women's fiction written by my friend is a world away from Nick Cave's cynical lyrics in terms of genre and style, both consistently generate a host of thinky thoughts for me -- hers are soundtracked by brown wrens and mockingbirds, his by weathered band buddies.

Check this out. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live via the BBC. "What we once thought we had we didn't, and what we have now will never be that way again...we call upon the author to explain..."

...Well, I go guruing down the street, young people gather round my feet
Ask me things, but I don't know where to start
They ignite the power-trail straight to my father's heart
And once again I call upon the author to explain

Who is this great burdensome slavering dog-thing that mediocres my every thought?
I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker, it's fucked up and he is a fucker
But what an enormous and encyclopaedic brain
I call upon the author to explain

...Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best!
He wrote like wet papier mache, went the Heming-way weirdly on wings and with maximum pain
We call upon the author to explain

Down in my bolthole I see they've published another volume of unreconstructed rubbish
"The waves, the waves were soldiers moving". Well, thank you, thank you, thank you
And again I call upon the author to explain
Yeah, we call upon the author to explain

Prolix! Prolix! There's nothing a pair of scissors can't fix!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Faces of Irony

Speaking of things that bring a lump to my throat, I thought I'd share this Reuter's photo by Goran Tomasevic working in Iraq. According to Yahoo News, it was one of this past week's most e-mailed photos, and no wonder.

This photo is a study in irony: the innocence of the sleeping puppy juxtaposed against the instruments of war. There is a sweetness in the fact that some GI, most likely a young person very far from home, would shelter this pup under such conditions; there is a tragedy in the bleak surroundings and the danger to both the GIs and the animal.

In that irony there is story. And in every good story, I believe, irony abounds.

There are three main types, you may recall from high school. Verbal is often synonymous with sarcasm. It's the contrast between what a character says and what he/she means.

Dramatic is often used to build suspense. It's when the reader knows something the character does not. Usually something having to do with a nasty surprise in store for our intrepid heroine.

Situational is when the reader expects one thing to happen and something else entirely occurs. (Surprise!) This one is often used to great effect in comedy.

Sounds relatively simple, but don't sell irony short. In addition to its use in plot and dialogue, irony can be used to deepen character by giving a person who appears to be a stock type totally unexpected, seemingly contradictory attributes. Irony can even be used to enhance setting, for example when writing of a rough-and-tumble frontier town's beloved opera house or a leather S&M bar in an Iowa City suburb. Irony adds complexity and hints in all those contradictions we find so captivating in real life.

So as you write today, think about how you might use this tool to add depth to your work. And if you're really interested, check out more on the many faces or irony.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Quote: Frost on a Lump in the Throat

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.
-Robert Frost

Frost has always had the ability to elicit a lump in my throat, so I'll share this lesser-known favorite of his work. I used the final stanza as an epigraph on one of my desert-set novels.

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Saturday cartoon: Steven King's very graphic novel

PW reported yesterday that Steven King's animated short story "N" has hit a million downloads. According to Yahoo News:
"Stephen King has once again lured his readers to try a new way to enjoy a story," Susan Moldow, executive vice president and publisher of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, said Thursday in a statement.

The print version of King's short story, in which a psychiatrist fatally absorbs the madness of one of his patients, is included in the collection "Just After Sunset," released this week.

Enjoy Kings commentary and all 25 eps via the widget below!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sarah Silverman conquers the economy

Yesterday the New York Observer reported the acquisition of a book of essays by Sarah Silverman.

Early in the day they said:
Sarah Silverman is writing a book, several sources confirm. Publishers have been fighting over it all morning and afternoon, with Trident Media Group founder Daniel Strone overseeing the proceedings and no doubt smiling broadly as the pot climbs past $2.5 million.

One of Mr. Strone's other clients, meanwhile, ex-Microsoft sponsor Jerry Seinfeld, has a book on the market this week that is said to have driven at least two publishers crazy enough to submit bids in the $7 million to $8 million dollar range.

And later...
The auction for comedian Sarah Silverman's book has ended, with HarperCollins emerging victorious after submitting a house bid in the neighborhood of $2.5 million dollars..

Meanwhile, a Tina Fey book recently sold for $6 million.

There's a lot to say about the this and that of mega mill advances for celebs, but if you (like me) momentarily felt this news flash like a fork to the spleen, let's remember two things.

First, all three of these celebs are genuine writers, not some barely literate pro football oaf and two well-packaged pop princesses. This is not book money being sucked up by Paris Hilton gassing on about her four minutes in jail. These are three people who love words and have the talent and skill to use them masterfully.

Second, we're contantly told by our agents that book deals are about one thing and one thing only: what the market will bear. And this is proof that the market will bear a hell of a lot. I'm not saying, Hey, Tina got six mill, so can we!; I'm saying that in the present whirling maelstrom of craptacular dysfunction that is the American economy, Sarah Silverman got exactly the same advance she would have gotten six months ago. I think this is a good indication of faith in the recovery of the market. The dire predictions we're hearing are not unfounded, but there is good reason to be optimistic, or at least remain calm.

The publishing industry is still here and will remain. Yes, there will be some bloodletting, but the dust will settle, and writers with talent, tenacity, and a cool head prevailing will survive just fine.

And in case this pep talk hasn't cheered you up, here's Sarah's disection of the word cancer. ("Wordplay can be fun!")

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If You Want to Make Your Book Laugh at You, Tell It About Your Plans

Before you ask, I am borrowing from Woody Allen's terrific quote about God. This morning, the notion seems appropos because the manuscript on which I'm currently working has made a mockery of what I like to think of as my process.

First of all, this particular story demands a larger than normal cast of characters. So large, last night I resorted to something I never in a million years thought I'd do. I input every character's name, description, relationship, and page of first appearance into a spreadsheet because I could know longer stand to use my usual Ctrl-F (that's the "find" function on MS Word) or frequently-lost index card method of keeping characters' names and traits straight. (On the last book, I ended up with one minor character who had *three* different first names. Thank goodness, someone caught this before it went to press.)

Already, I've seen one benefit in that this allows me to see that A. I have entirely too many characters and B. several can be combined to perform overlapping functions in the story. For whatever reason, it became obvious as I input the information. Since I've always smiled and shaken my head indulgently over people who use bookkeeping software to organize novels, this was a big deal.

An even bigger deal is the fact that for the first time in about fourteen books, I've decided to try writing one organically. In other words, I can't make myself stop and hash out a synopsis, as I've been in the habit of doing after the third chapter or so since writing my second book, back in the day. This change feels pretty risky, considering the story's heavy mystery component. Besides that, I've blathered on quite a bit about why writing a synopsis early in your game is a fabulous idea, and I certainly meant what I said.

But this book seems to have its own agenda. Like a fractious horse, it's taken the bit in its teeth and ripped the reins from my hands. Whether or not this wild gallop's a good idea, I've given up fighting. Instead, I plan to hold on tight and enjoy the fresh, new scenery rushing past.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Crime and legal researchapalooza resources

Up to my bloodshot eyes in research this week, I discovered a few excellent resources for searching case law, procedural stuff, and Supreme Court decisions: offers two searchable sites, one for professional (cases and codes, marketing advice, latest court related news, and lots more) and one for consumers (basics of family and divorce law, small biz, and when your kid is in trouble type stuff).

The Justia Supreme Court Center offers a searchable data base of decisions, info on the justices, and PDF files of arguments, plus links to various and sundry related stuff. features a nifty virtual tour of chambers and facilities, audio files of oral arguments, and lots more.

The University of Missouri-Kansas School of Law has a great data base of famous trials from the interrogation of Socrates to the mutiny on the Bounty to the Chicago 7, Manson murders, and impeachment of President Clinton. More than you ever needed to know about the McMartin Pre-School or Lizzie Borden. (Warning! You will get sucked in for hours!)

Monday, November 10, 2008

On Overload

It's not that I have anything against any one of the networking communities that have sprung up like fire ant mounds after a heavy rain here in the South. My Space serves its purpose, as do all the rest of them. But then you add in the virtual bookshelf communities where you supposedly talk lit with your friends, not to mention the bulletin boards, chat rooms, and, yes, the blogs where a web-savvy author "ought" to be out schmoozing in furtherance of The Cause. Oh, and let's not forget Second Life, where virtual authors have been known to hawk their wares to virtual readers.

I'm feeling fragmented, splintered by the geometric progression of online communities. Or maybe pixelated is the correct term for this Twenty-first Century "disease."

Whatever it is, this author is declaring a rebellion, and here's my manifesto.

From this point forward, I want to be about the depth of focus: in the work I do, the relationships I nurture, and the literature I read. Rather than skimming the surface to do one hundred things poorly, I will strive to do one well. I will be mindful of the satisfaction found in doing work to the best of my ability and I will stop regretting those peripheral things I choose to let go.

In choosing activities to promote my work, I will keep those I enjoy and have the time and will to do effectively and forget about the others. I will banish the words "going through the motions" from my vocabulary.

I will walk in the sunshine, breathe in the air, and live in the real world rather than its virtual equivalent.

Amen... Well, um, as soon as I check my e-mail.

Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day. But that doesn't mean it was never built at all.

NaNoWriMo or No-NoWriMo?

Every November much is made of NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month -- which encourages aspiring authors to set aside their procrastinating ways and blitz out a 50K word manuscript in 30 days.

From the NaNoWriMo web site:
National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Here's what I love about this endeavor:

Writers learn by writing. I truly believe there is no other way to learn how to write a novel. Just do it. Yeah, baby. I applaud that approach in writing and in life. I'm up for just about anything that includes "seat-of-the-pants" in the instruction manual.

Daily ass-to-chair application is the foundation of the writing life. Thirty days of due diligence is probably going to entrench the work ethic -- or at least the habit -- and train family and friends to honor writing space and work hours.

The process is demysticated. Yes, I just made that up. It's a hybrid of "domesticated" and "mysterious...not". I was always a voracious reader, but the daydream that I could write a book and get it published seemed as realistic as travel by tornado to the Emerald City. It's healthy to boil the process down to a doable little pot of potatoes and get it done.

On the other hand...

Not "everyone who's thought fleetingly of writing a novel" is a novelist. According to the NaNoWriMo site:
In 2007, we had over 100,000 participants. More than 15,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists., they didn't. I have fleeting thoughts of pole dancing. I share on a basic structural level the physical ability and innate sense of rhythm it takes to pole dance. I have the wherewithal to purchase necessary technology and could probably muster the will to practice daily for 30 days, but thinking that's all it takes is an insult to dedicated pole dancers. Unless I recognize that pole dancing will never be more than a hobby for me, I can only be a danger to myself and an annoyance to others.

There's a lot to be said for the "painstaking craft" being chucked out the window. I'm on board with the NaNoWriMo "build without tearing down" philosophy, but I don't think "obsessing over quality" is a bad thing. Unless December through April are to be designated NitNoEdPro (Nitpicking Novel Editing Process), the product of the 30-day effort is a rough draft, not a novel -- it's a manuscript, at very best -- and I get crankled when the vast difference between is disrespected. That first draft is a huge step, yes, but only the first of several huge steps. I've produced eleven manuscripts; only seven of them have gone through the refining fire to become honest-to-God books. I work incredibly hard to see a draft through that journey. I've sacrificed a lot to make this process my living and livelihood.

As a memoir guru, I get flogged with that "everyone has a book in them" axe. My standard come-back: Everyone has a spleen in them, too, but it takes a particular skill set to get it out.

Bottom line, I love the idea of NaNoWriMo as a writing exercise, and I don't discourage anyone from going for that 50K. I can definitely see it sparking the beginning of a writing career. Participants are bound to discover some things about the creative process. I just hope one of those discoveries is that it takes a hell of a lot more than 30 days to be a novelist.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sunday Quote: Hawkes on Fiction

“Fiction is an act of revenge”
-- John Hawkes

It absolutely can be. Furious about the state of the world? Write about it, and show the truth through fiction. So many great, great books have come about that way. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Can you think of any other books written as a form of protest?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tall, dark, and iconic (Go with God, Michael Crichton)

With all the fooferah about the election on Tuesday, I didn't even hear until Thursday that Michael Crichton had died.

From the New York Times obituary:
Michael Crichton, who died on Tuesday at the age of 66, was like a character in a Michael Crichton novel. He was unusually tall (6 feet 7 inches), strikingly handsome and encyclopedically well informed about everything from dinosaurs to medieval banquet halls to nanotechnology. As a writer he was a kind of cyborg, tirelessly turning out novels that were intricately engineered entertainment systems. No one — except possibly Mr. Crichton himself — ever confused them with great literature, but very few readers who started a Crichton novel ever put it down...

All the Crichton books depend to a certain extent on a little frisson of fear and suspense: that’s what kept you turning the pages. But a deeper source of their appeal was the author’s extravagant care in working out the clockwork mechanics of his experiments — the DNA replication in “Jurassic Park,” the time travel in “Timeline,” the submarine technology in “Sphere.” The novels have embedded in them little lectures or mini-seminars on, say, the Bernoulli principle, voice-recognition software or medieval jousting etiquette. Several also came with extensive scientific bibliographies, as if the author, having learned all this fascinating stuff, couldn’t help sharing it with his reader.

Crichton came into our family via the stony gateway of Jurassic Park. My son Malachi was going on six and crazy excited to see the movie when it came out, but I was afraid it would be too intense for a guy just finishing kindergarten. Cruel beast mater that I am, I imposed the Gone With the Wind rule: You're mature enough to see the movie if you've read the book. Ike had been reading for a little over a year and was pretty precocious that way, but Gary and I were utterly astonished when he dug in, consumed, and loved the hefty novel, his first "real big book." Good as our word, we took him directly from the school bus to the movie theater the day Jurassic Park was released.

I think this is one of the most wonderful things a writer can aspire to: enticing a reader to stretch the limits of what they're willing and able to read. I always hoped I'd have the opportunity to tell Mr. Crichton about it, and I was just a degree of separation from him on a few occasions. He and I had the same editor at Harper Collins, and Chip Kidd, who designed the instantly recognizable J Park book jacket also designed the cover for my memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair. But our paths never did cross. I was sad to hear he'd died so young with so many words unwritten, but I'm grateful for his moment in the life of my son, who grew up with that same burning interest in the world and all it's workings.

Friday, November 07, 2008


An article in this morning's Houston Chronicle discusses the special affinity many writers have for a president-elect who is himself an author.

Author Rick Moody (The Right Livelihoods, Back Bay Books, Aug. 2008)had this to say:

"…I think the larger issue is cultural. There's a trickle down from the top in the way art exists inside and outside of the culture as a whole. Here in the USA, you could feel in the Bush years how little regard there was for it. People who disliked art, literature, dance, fine arts, they had a lot of cover for this antipathy. There's reason to believe that we are in for a much better period."

Check out the link above to read the thoughts of illustrious authors Toni Morrison, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others. Then let us know, do you believe the country's leadership has an impact on the place of writers and literature in our culture? Or do you feel respect for the arts emanates from the family, the schools, or society in general?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Time to Get that Map out of the Glovebox

Until I get to know my characters a little, I can't quite wrap my brain around the journey they'll be taking. So for the past month, I've been driving around the wilderness: writing pages, tossing pages, looking for some signs.

One by one, characters have shown up, some of them almost-eerily developed, as if they've been gestating on another plane. Others are still growing, but at least I have my cast now -- and, in draft form, the first few chapters of the book.

But it's time now to pull over on this dirt track's unpaved shoulder. Time to reach deep into the glovebox and pull out a roadmap. Unfortunately, that map hasn't yet been drawn. Oh, I've come up with a vague premise. I have some idea of the conflicts and the precipitating crisis that will act as catalyst.

But now it's time to come up with the narrative to pull these disparate parts together, to tell the story in some rudimentary form. Other authors do this with notecards, storyboards, or spreadsheets, but I've grown used to sitting down and writing a synopsis, which I call "Colleen's Theoretical Guide to How This Story Could Go."

In reality, I almost always end up at a slightly different destination. All right, sometimes it's radically different. But the map's part of my process, so I'll be writing it this week.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"Repeat great words. Repeat them stubbornly."

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito
by Zbigniew Herbert

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards - they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called - weren't there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant - when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Swing State (Jo the Writer casts her vote)

In the presidential primaries of 1980, I cast my virgin vote for Jerry Brown for the fantastically principled reason that he was dating Linda Ronstadt, and oh my gosh, how awesomely cool would it be if Linda Ronstadt was the first lady? Brown abandoned the race shortly thereafter, and when I complained to my father that my vote was wasted, he told me very seriously, "No vote is ever wasted. A vote might be misguided or ill-informed. But it is not wasted. It's your voice, and it counts. If all you wanted to say with your vote is 'Linda Ronstadt for first lady', well, that was your priority and you spoke up for it. But here's a few other things that you might consider before you vote in November..."

He talked to me about what a good man Jimmy Carter was. Dad had organized a statewide town hall meeting sort of broadcast during the '76 campaign and was invited to a press gathering at the White House, where he actually met and talked with the president. But a lot had happened to the economy since then. Dad explained to me what it means when you take out a car loan at 26% interest, the impact of the Mariel boatlift, the backstory on the hostage crisis in Iran, and on the flipside, the spirit of forward thinking that was behind the skilled rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. In the following months, I paid attention to the op eds in the newspaper and watched the evening news. In November, I stood for a long time in the voting booth, then voted for Reagan. I supported mostly Dems in state and local elections, but went for Reagan again in '84 and Bush Sr in '88. (C'mon, y'all. Dukakis? Not even Linda Ronstadt could have made him look good.)

In '92 and '96, a progressive Bill Clinton won my vote. I wasn't madly in love with the stolid Al Gore, however, and having seen what a poor governor Bush was here in Texas, I was certain he'd be a catastrophically bad president. I backed McCain in the primaries of 2000. I believed then, and I believe now, that he was a great man, and we'd be living in an entirely different world had he been in charge on 9/11. As I watched his own party consume and digest him on the 24-hour news channels, I told my dad, "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to vote Republican again. I don't know if there's any point in voting in this election at all. It's the evil of two lessers."

"You have to vote!" Dad told me. "It's not a privilege, it's a responsibility. You vote, and you vote your conscience, not your party. Sometimes it's the direction you're voting for, though, not the man himself." Dad still believed in the direction of the Republican party, so ultimately, Dad and I cancelled each other out, one for Bush, one for Gore.

Fast forward past "My Pet Goat" and Mission Accomplished (not). In 2004, with my son approaching draft age and my worst opinions of W confirmed, I decided to do more than cast my vote. I got involved. Gave money, phone-banked for Kerry, a war hero with a conscience. I bought cases of water bottles and snacks and took them to people standing in the long lines outside the Bar Bush Library, not proselytizing for Kerry but letting them know that Liberals love Jesus too. Just before the election, I traveled with my then 16-year-old daughter Jerusha from a solidly red Texas to swing state Florida, where my sister Diana lives. While Jerusha went canvassing and demonstrating with a group of young environmentalists, I signed up online to volunteer at the Democratic headquarters, driving elderly people to the poles.

When I first arrived in Orlando, I visited the Republican HQ, which was as quietly controlled as a corporate office. Then I went to the Democrat HQ, which resembled the aftermath of a Brazilian soccer match. Fast food trash on the floor in the corner, mayhem, noise, idiocy. After I'd waited 40 minutes for someone to find somebody who knew something about anything, a woman told me to go around the office and collect everyone's names and email addresses and type it up in a nice spread sheet.

"A lot of us have gotten really close," she said. "It would be great if we could stay in touch."

Now, let me preface my response to that with the fact that this election coincided with my first really bad bout of arthritis, so I was on a mission and on steroids. A dangerous combo.

"Are you f^@#ing kidding me?" I said. "We are in a fight for the soul of our nation! I'm sorry, but your Kwanzaa card list is going to have to wait. I’m busy trying to get Curious f*<>&ing George out of the F()%#ING WHITE HOUSE!"

I was hastily referred to the guy giving out assignments to people driving elderly voters to the polls. He flailed through rafts of papers and finally sent me off to fetch "three handicapped seniors", but I arrived to find that the calls had been placed by spoilers. No such folks existed. The last trip I made was to pick up Gloria Hooper, who told me she was “92 years and still kicking, a lifelong Democrat.” Mrs. Hooper’s home had been damaged by Hurricane Ivan, and the resulting water and mold had left her chronically ill and disabled, but she hadn’t missed an election since WWII and was determined to make her voice heard. On the way to her polling place, she told me about her father’s electioneering and how he’d impressed on her the importance of her vote. My eyes burned with tears. This made it all worth while. I went inside the local library, fetched a disabled ballot and brought it to her in the air-conditioned car.

“I was afraid the Democrats might not want to give me a ride,” she told me as she marked the ballot. “Since I’m not voting for Kerry.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, no, hon,” said the proud lifelong Democrat, “the pastor of my church told us that God has said George Bush is to be president in 2005 when the Rapture comes.”

I tried to respectfully speak to her about this, but she was adamant. She filled out her ballot and I took it back inside, but just before I deposited it, I noticed that it had not been signed. The battle for the soul of our nation was now a battle for my own soul. I could deposit the ballot, knowing it would be declared invalid or have Mrs. Hooper sign it and contribute to the cause I’d spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars fighting. I thought of my father. And Linda Ronstadt. And the cause I was truly fighting for. I returned to the car with Mrs. Hooper’s ballot, deposited it with her signature, and cried all the way back to Houston.

Flash forward again. Past the drowning of New Orleans, the draining of our 401K, and a conspicuous lack of rapture. Four years later, inspired by the forward thinking rhetoric of Barack Obama, I've returned to the swing state to do what I can. I'm not usually one to hold a grudge, but driving into Orlando, I thought of Gloria Hooper in her soggy little house, abandoned by God and FEMA, and I felt a fresh surge of anger.

“Anger is easier to recover than hope,” my niece Jenny told me. “Anger is a safer place to speak from. Hope leaves you open to disaster.”

Jenny is 23 years and kicking. Computer savvy, newly graduated from college, and gung-ho for Obama. She is proud that her genetic history is much like his; her father is a black man from Africa, and her mother is my white as Wonder Bread sister. She and I spent Monday evening making a bucket of black bean salsa and frosting chocolate cupcakes for the workers in the Obama field office, which is as well-ordered, efficient, and intelligently run as a bullet train. But Jenny is all about the ideaology. She's completely convinced that come Wednesday morning, the world will be a better place.

“Aunt Joni, have you seen the video by will i. am? I can’t watch it without bawling.”

I hear her voice, and I feel hope.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Free coffee after you vote

Starbucks is doing their share to get out the vote tomorrow. Do your civic duty, then stop in for a free cup o' joe.

Quote of the Week: Doctorow on Evoking Sensation

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it's raining, but the feel of being rained upon."

-- (E. L. Doctorow)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Beyond Blinders

"There's a whole other world out there ," my agent told me a while back. She was reminding me of other possibilities, which authors in my (or any) genre totally ignore. Limited by our own successes, however modest, we fail to consider other ways of earning a living and finding creative fulfillment.

It feels safer, sticking with the area we know, and getting to really understand and master our own small pond feels manageable. But it's limiting as well, which is one reason I make it a point to read broadly. My list of favorite books includes historical nonfiction, memoir, lots of mystery/suspense, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and let's not forget romance.

But for a long time, it never occurred to me that I could learn valuable lessons from authors in other areas of writing beyond my chosen genre. I was very wrong on that score, and in the past few years I've broadened my horizons with literary techniques borrowed from screenwriting (thanks, Chris Vogler), gleaned in college English class (and Flannery O'Connor), or picked up from wise and eloquent thriller writers on the 'net (love your blog, Tess Gerritsen).

Interestingly, however, I meet a lot of authors in my genre who seem content with blinders. As incoming program chair/VP of my area RWA chapter, I'm hoping to let in a little light by inviting some prominent speakers from (gasp!) other areas of creative writing. Because strong dialogue is strong dialogue, great characterization great characterization, and the fine art of wresting a living from the world of words is a miracle worth celebrating!

So who are the best speakers/teachers on writing you're heard or read in the last few years? Or what classics have helped you untie some knotty writing problem?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

For the Tool Box: Final Draft is the transcriptionist's BFF

I love research in general and the interview process in specific, whether I'm talking to an expert, gathering information that will make a fictional character ring true or listening to the life story of one of my memoir clients, corralling the facts that I know will be tested in the legal review. For the last five years, I've been using a terrific little Olympus digital recorder. I upload interviews to my laptop (backing up on an online storage facility), listen to them two or three times while I fold laundry or paint, and then I sit down to the task that will set the facts solidly in my brain and make the language "pullable" for the working draft: I transcribe the SOBs pretty much word for word. Yech.

There's nothing in the world that will make me enjoy this task, but it has to be done, so I'm constantly searching for anything that might improve on the process. A couple years ago, I found an upgraded program that enables me to slow the playback to 50% or speed it up to 200%, which helps me keep up with the important passages and blast past the interruptions and tangential chit chat. (I'm a southern girl; we tend to go off topic.)

A screenwriter friend recently introduced me to Final Draft, the standard industry software for the creation and delivery of movie and television scripts. I found the best price at The Writer's Store, and picked up on it quickly and easily. His intention was to "lure me to the dark side", but as I learned Final Draft, I quickly realized that this would make transcribing interviews a whole lot faster and easier.

For one thing, it automatically plugs in the name of the character talking. Once you've typed the person's name once, it's stored and suggested as soon as you tab to start a new voice and pop the first letter. If the conversation is between two people, you don't even have to pop the first letter, Final Draft instantly recognizes and suggests the alternating voices. Nifty.

Final draft also sets up the standard screenwriting format, which is an easy-on-the-eye Courier font with wide margins and center placement.

Everything about your co-dependant relationship with Word will be fed with Final Draft: search and replace, spell check, yada yada.

So that's my favorite tool box addition for the year, I think. I spent about 75 hours this week transcribing over 500 pages of interviews. When I finished the final hour last night, I sat on the edge of the coffee table while Gary massaged lotion into my aching hands, wrists, and forearms. I'd been typing so much faster than I normally do, every muscle from elbow to pinkie was a flaming licorice whip of agony. Which leads me to my second favorite toolbox addition of the week: gel keyboard bumper. Check it out.


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