Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Listening with My Pen

Many years ago, I learned (what a shocker!) that my words don't fall out onto the paper in crystalline patterns of immutable perfection, that my manuscripts -- if they're ever going to make it into book form -- have to be rewritten as much as written. More shocking still, I came to the conclusion that alone, I lack sufficient perspective to see where the problems lie.

What took me far longer was to learn to listen, really listen, when others make suggestions. Instead, as they were speaking (or I was reading their judging sheets or personal rejections) my mind was too busy churning out a bunch of garbage. This person's clearly an idiot! Or obviously, she doesn't *get* me. Or what a bunch of horse crap! All excuses as to why I needn't listen to them.

Yet still, I wasn't selling, no matter how hard I worked on my own.

And then one day, while cleaning out my office, I came across some months-old contest scoresheets and discovered that, lo and behold, this judge's comments about my work made sense. That, in fact, they were dead right. Not all of them, but many, and I could really learn from the points this person had made.

I started wondering what else I hadn't truly "heard" while my ego was making so much noise throwing tantrums. From that point on, when I attended writers' group critiques, I started taking careful notes when people talked about the work I'd read. I made a rule against arguing with them or defending any choices. Instead, I listened, pen in hand, and let them finish. Then I thanked them and promised I'd carefully consider their suggestions.

By the time I finally started selling, this habit of "listening with my pen" and taking time to think about suggestions was incredibly helpful when dealing with editors' requests. Lots of times, editors will make what seem like unworkable (um, sometimes ridiculous) suggestions to fix some problem in the manuscript. But if you dismiss the suggestions out of hand, you'll miss the chance to see there really *is* a problem and come up with your own, far better solution.

Besides that, amateurs and a few doomed divas are the ones who argue. Pros listen to other pros, and to those who've earned respect. And they give a chance to others, too, because professionals are interested in what's best for the story, not in coddling their own egos.

And that's how they *stay* pros.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Angels and liars (and another dark moment for memoirs)

Dang. Oprah is going to be seriously pissed when she sees this. Last year, she featured a compelling story that left audiences breathless: a boy in a concentration camp (cue cello) survives with the help of a girl who slips apples to him through the barbed wire fence and then years later, having resettled in America, (cue violin) astonishingly, he meets this very girl on a blind date and marries her! Herman Rosenblat first shared this heart-wrenching tale in a newspaper contest about ten years ago. It was subsequently featured on Oprah (in '96 and '07) and other media. A portion of the story was retold in Laurie Friedman's picture book Angel Girl (Carolhroda Books, 2008), and Berkley Books was gearing up to publish Rosenblat’s memoir, Angel at the Fence, in February with the film rights already optioned.

Today Lynn Andriani reports in Publishers Weekly:
Upon learning that the widely publicized Holocaust love story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, which inspired the picture book Angel Girl, is not entirely true, Lerner Publishing Group announced yesterday that it would pull the book from shelves...The house has canceled all pending reprints and is issuing refunds on all returned books. The company is no longer offering the book for sale and is recalling the book from the market.

...After investigation by the New Republic, Rosenblat and his agent, Andrea Hurst, released statements on December 27, saying parts of his story were fabricated. Hurst’s statement said that although Rosenblat’s stories from the concentration camps were true, he invented the love story. Rosenblat also revealed that he made up the chance reunion with the girl.

This sucks on so many levels, most notably for Friedman, who took Rosenblat's story on faith (as did O) and is now going to be crucified for his sins. It's also heartbreaking for artist Ofra Amit, whose luminous paintings illustrate Angel Girl. Friedman told PW that her goal in writing the book was "to communicate that even in the darkest of times, no one should give up hope.” She might want to post that on her office wall for the next few months. She should also email it to Oprah. Since she's been chicken Freyed on this issue once before, I suspect it's going to be a cold day in Ixtapa before she features another memoir on her show, and that (said the memoirist) really kills me. The word "memoir" is becoming synonymous with "bull", and that is an injustice to all those who dig deep, do the work, and tell their true stories.

As a memoir guru, frequent flyer, and all-around motherly type, I spend a lot of my life listening to the stories of clients, seatmates, and strangers. I don't take these stories with a grain of salt; I take them with a grain of sugar. If I can't listen to someone with a willing and compassionate heart, I may as well just sit there and eat my peanuts. When you truly listen to someone's story, you're not hearing a recitation of facts; you're hearing a longing for redemption, a search for meaning, a plea for vindication or forgiveness. Some moments receive plastic surgery, others a decent burial. Shrines are built in the heart and mind. We each have our own truth.

Perhaps Rosenblat's wife is an angel in his eyes, and at what moment could an angel be more desperately prayed for? Perhaps what kept him going was the idea of a future of love and plenty. Maybe what sustained him was the faith that there would be witnesses to this terrible moment, that help was just on the other side of the wire. Or maybe he just went slightly (and understandably) nuts. In fabricating this story, either he's revealing an image created by his mind as a means of self-preservation or he's consciously spinning straw into gold, cranking out a line of BS which brought him rewards and recognition he felt he'd earned.

If Rosenblat had told this story to his grandchildren and let it go at that, there would have been no harm in it. (Oh, grow up. Sixty percent of all family lore is fairy tale. Your grandmother did not trip on the cellar stair and invent the potato pancake.) This is an elderly man who was a prisoner at Buchenwald; that much we know is factually correct. God alone knows what he actually endured and how he lived through it. If history is written by the winners, he gets to write this episode because his every heartbeat is a victory over incredible odds and unthinkable wrong. That's undisputed truth. But it's not the kind of truth that gets you on Oprah. In the memoir market, you've got to have more than truth; you gotta have a hook. The hook here was the serendipitous love story.

I wish Rosenblat had kept the angel alive for his grandchildren instead of trying to cash in on her. I also wish the story of an earth-bound woman who mended the heart of a deeply damaged man could be enough for hungry producers. And I wish there had been angels outside a lot of history's fences. In the cold light of fact, every love has lies in it, every life suffers wrongs that can never be written right. The purpose of memoir is not only to suss out emotional truth and meaning in the actual events, but also to recognize the angel and the liar in each of us. There is a way to tell what really happened and still give voice to what might have been, to what we prayed for or dreamed of. The powerful opportunity to do that here was lost in a fog of greed. This story of love and survivorship is now a saga of squandered resources, the involvement of lawyers, boxes on a loading dock at the destruction warehouse, a writer's worst nightmare.

Every time this happens, it makes me very sad for all involved and scared for the future of memoirs, which (when truly written and properly vetted) hold such healing power for both authors and readers.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Colleen's Take on 2008

I enjoyed Joni's recap of the year so much that I thought I'd share, from my point of view, the highs and lows of my 2008 writing life. One more year and we'll officially have a tradition.

The Good
Compared to 2007, where I was slapped down by a debilitating viral infection that rained down all kinds of nasty repercussions, '08 was a year that brought both physical healing and much-improved focus. It brought, too, a bit of badly-needed equanimity as I settled into a relationship (one that began in 2007) with a terrific new agent, saw the publication of my fourteenth novel, Triple Exposure, and agreed to write two more romantic suspense novels for Dorchester Publishing.

I count among my year's blessings my first final in the Daphne Du Maurier Awards (for Head On, a 2007 release), a number of lovely reviews and reader letters, and a small flurry of foreign sales and publications. In addition, I've kept busy speaking to writers' groups and penning writing-related articles. A teacher by trade and personality, I derive a great deal of satisfaction from these and other mentoring activities.

I'm continually grateful as well for the many close friendships I've developed as a result of writing. Whether I need a pal to yahoo with me over some good news or someone to talk me off the ledge when I'm having a crisis of confidence (as does every writer I know), I have a number of good friends I can count on, as they can count on me.

And last but not least, I wanted to mentioned how thrilled I am to live in a country, culture, place, and time where creativity is celebrated. From television and movies to novels, nonfiction, plays, poetry, music, dance, the visual arts and beyond, our world is alive with artistic vision. Not always the Capital-A Art and not limited to dusty classics, but the living, breathing, growing, changing little-a arts that add so much color and texture to our lives.

The Bad

During the first half of 2008, I was still feeling a lot of fallout from the Virus from Hell. I didn't get out nearly as much as I would have liked, and I completely fell out of the exercise habit. Though I managed to get quite a bit of work accomplished, I feel sluggish and slackerish, like a flabby, middle-aged woman treading water as the Michael Phelpses of this world go streaking past. I'm hoping that a brisk daily walk will signal to my subconscious that it's time to really get much more productive and quit goofing off, and I'll regain the energetic confidence and tolerance for "informed risk-taking" needed to keep boxing octopi!

The Ugly
Compared to so many others, my family and I emerged unscathed from Hurricane Ike, but it certainly blew me off course for awhile. Already hard on the heels of a tight deadline, the power outage and general upheaval forced me to ask for my very first deadline extension. Though the book was turned in only two weeks late, I've felt way behind (see the old postcard from Bob Weeks' collection) ever since.

Like many others in this economy, I look toward 2009 with a bit of trepidation but thankfully, a good deal of hope that I'll be able to see beyond the stress and to the opportunity.

So how about you, brave BtO readers? What in your opinion was the best and worst of this past year?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It's been a tempestuous year in more ways than one. We were battered by gas prices, election ads, and Hurricane Ike. We said goodbye to Studs Terkel, Sydney Pollack, Arthur C. Clark, Michael Crichton, and Eartha Kitt. (Not to mention these poor turkeys.) The publishing industry experienced some high highs (as a thousand Schnauzer puppies were named Brunonia) and some low lows (as Borders and B&N teeter on the edge of the cosmic bargain bin), and here in Blog Vegas, Colleen and I attempted to make sense of it all. A year-end inventory of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly always helps put things in perspective. So how was your year? We'd love to hear from you, celebrate your accomplishments, commiserate your losses, and/or share your outrage. Pop us an email or post a comment.

Here's my list:

The Good
Ghostworld was a trip this year. In April, I went to LA to meet with ridiculously multi-talented Kristin Chenoweth, who'd just finished doing a revival of "The Apple Tree" on Broadway. We clicked immediately. She's delightful. Huge heart, head on straight, and a laugh riot. While I was in New York doing the book nanny thing, my ed at Random House emailed me the new paperback cover of a project I worked on last year, Rue McClanahan's My First Five Husbands. I instantly recognized the photo of Rue from the original production of "The Apple Tree" back in the 1960s. Seemed like a good omen, and as it turned out, Kristin's project was a blast -- fabulous story, fun fun fun fun research, terrific editor, intensely educational legal review. Unexpected perks of the gig included becoming friends with Kristin's wonderful mom, Junie and best bud Denny, getting to hang out on the set of create-o-palooza "Pushing Daisies", and making the acquaintance of K Chen's famously on again/off again paramour, the brilliant Aaron Sorkin. He generously contributed a short chapter to the book and (totally above and beyond the call of menschly duty) spent time educating me on the screen trade and dialogueing about political, historical, and literary shoes, ships, and ceiling wax.

K Chen's memoir A Little Bit Wicked (think Anne of Green Gables meets Sex and the City) is due out from S&S in April. It's too early to talk about my next ghost gig, but I'm fully engaged, up to my neck in research, and loving it.

It was a great reading year, too. I stepped away from the sort of books I usually consume and worked through about a dozen screenplays. Aaron gave me a list and said, "Read these if you're interested in being lured over to the dark side. I think it's something you'd be good at." Too early to tell if he was right, but reading screenplays is an excellent way to study dialogue. I also delved into the seriously thinky thoughts of Clarence Darrow, Truman Capote, Aristotle, Plato, and some of the philosophical works I way didn't get but read when I was in college so I'd fit in with the hipsters at the Wunder Bar. I read only about a dozen novels this year. Mostly crime suspense thriller lawyer type stuff mixed with complete non sequiturs to cleanse the palate. Two freaky delicious diversions I particularly loved: The Annotated Nose by Marc Estrin and House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

The Bad
Last year, I declared my intent to separate my fiction and nonfiction identities and publish novels under a nom de plume from now on. It hadn't occurred to me that launching that fiction persona's career would be every bit as challenging as launching my own career twelve years ago. Progress is slow, but that's okay; my fiction life is a wheatfield, not a factory. The toughest thing about my professional year was making the decision to change agents. Again. This is always a stressful process that sucks a ton of time and energy away from writing, but I ended up with a fantastic agent who will hopefully never never ever retire, catch the flu or get hit by a bicycle messenger.

The Ugly
Being without power for almost three weeks after Hurricane Ike derailed both my WIP and my gym habit. We lost trees, fencing, and shingles (not to mention most of the skin off our knuckles during lumberjacking and clean up) but I did enjoy doing a guerrilla bookmobile for the neighborhood kids, and I was surprised and touched by all the lovely email and comments about that.

All in all, my year was a lot like a spaghetti Western. Hard labor in the hot sun, stunning reversals, agonizingly slow periods interspersed with mood music and dramatic posturing, stunning scenery, and over-the-top characters. In the end, Clint Eastwood speaks the words I'll take with me into 2009: "There's two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with loaded guns and those who dig."

I dig.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Season for Story

With so many distractions -- many of them wonderful -- it's a tough season for writing but a terrific one for story. With a pile of exciting new books to read, the discovery of a great, undiscovered series (Showtime's DEXTER, which I'm loving) to watch on DVD, and a slew of promising-looking award contendah movies I'm dying to see (DOUBT, BENJAMIN BUTTON, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, and then some), it's tempting to want to slip away from the work-in-progress and fill my head with others' stories.

Not only that, but there's the distraction of real characters, real stories crowding into the writer's life during the holiday season. Visits to and from family, children returning to the nest, friends dropping by. Life bustling all around me, refilling my well against the coming drought of solitude, when everything falls quiet.

So for now, I work when I can to keep my eye on the thread of the story I'm unravelling. But I can't begrudge the real and the fictional stories of this season, the straw I'll attempt to spin into gold in more productive months.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Mary Christmas

Alma Redemptóris Mater, quae pérvia caeli
porta manes, et stella maris, succúrre cadénti,
súrgere qui curat, pópulo; tu quae genuísti,
natúra miránte, tuum sanctum Genitórem,
Virgo prius ac postérius, Gabriélis ab ore
sumens illud Ave, peccatórum miserére.

Left, Botticelli's "Madonna of the Book". Below, Goldberg's Madonna of the hip.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What Makes This Writer Jolly

Santa may get his jollies out of Mrs. Claus (with her little fur tassels) and cookies and milk. Okay, all that AND bringing big smiles to good girls and boys, not to mention being beloved by millions.

But what's it take to make a writer jolly? Here's my list of those year-round gifts for which I'm most grateful. Feel free to add some of your own.

1. Peace on Earth, or at least my little corner. A drama-free marriage and family life enhances productivity like nothing else I know.

2. Three wise friends, minimum. Who needs myrrh and incense when you can have the counsel, support, and camaraderie of writing pals and critique buddies? I'm happy to say I've exceeded the minimum many times over.

3. A Star in the East, to light my path and harness my creativity. My star -- my agent -- helps me keep my course and occasionally saves me from myself (or at least my more hare-brained ideas.)

4. The elves, God love 'em, to help with the hard, detailed, and (yes, Virginia) magical work of making a manuscript into a book and getting it into the hands of readers. These valued allies (the Fellowship of the Book) range from editors to copy editors to members of the art department, those in sales, and all the wonderful booksellers and librarians.

5. A few good reindeer games, to remind me that writing's *supposed* to be fun.

6. The open-mindedness to take whatever lumps of coal this business slips inside my stocking and use them to stoke my creative fires instead of burning out my will to work.

7. A grain of salt to balance out the sugar in whatever Christmas cookies come my way in the form of honors.

8. Lots and lots of Carols. And Lindas and Susans and Annes and Kathys and readers by any other name. May I never lose sight of the fact that they're out there, plunking down their hard-earned money for the chance to read my stories. May I never indulge myself at their expense and lose the faith entrusted to me.

Thanks to each and every one of you, and to those of you who stop by the blog and share my journey as well as Joni's. I'll be taking a few days away from the desk, but I wish all of you the merriest of Christmases and the happiest and most productive of New Years.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My attorney has read WAY too many book contracts this year...

Cracking me up today is this from my terrific taxmistress:

"The Night Before Christmas" Legalese
(Author unknown)

Whereas, on or about the night prior to Christmas, there did occur at a certain improved piece of real property (hereinafter "the House") a general lack of stirring by all creatures therein, including, but not limited to a mouse.

A variety of foot apparel, e.g., stocking, socks, etc., had been affixed by and around the chimney in said House in the hope and/or belief that St. Nick a/k/a/ St. Nicholas a/k/a/ Santa Claus (hereinafter "Claus") would arrive at sometime thereafter. The minor residents, i.e. the children, of the aforementioned House were located in their individual beds and were engaged in nocturnal hallucinations, i.e. dreams, wherein vision of confectionery treats, including, but not limited to, candies, nuts and/or sugar plums, did dance, cavort and otherwise appear in said dreams.

Whereupon the party of the first part (sometimes hereinafter referred to as ("I"), being the joint-owner in fee simple of the House with the party of the second part (hereinafter "Mamma"), and said Mamma had retired for a sustained period of sleep. (At such time, the parties were clad in various forms of headgear, e.g., kerchief and cap.

Suddenly, and without prior notice or warning, there did occur upon the unimproved real property adjacent and appurtenant to said House, i.e., the lawn, a certain disruption of unknown nature, cause and/or circumstance. The party of the first part did immediately rush to a window in the House to investigate the cause of such disturbance.

At that time, the party of the first part did observe, with some degree of wonder and/or disbelief, a miniature sleigh (hereinafter "the Vehicle") being pulled and/or drawn very rapidly through the air by approximately eight (8) reindeer. The driver of the Vehicle appeared to be and in fact was, the previously referenced Claus.

Said Claus was providing specific direction, instruction and guidance to the approximately eight (8) reindeer and specifically identified the animal co-conspirators by name: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen (hereinafter "the Deer"). (Upon information and belief, it is further asserted that an additional co- conspirator named "Rudolph" may have been involved.)

The party of the first part witnessed Claus, the Vehicle and the Deer intentionally and willfully trespass upon the roofs of several residences located adjacent to and in the vicinity of the House, and noted that the Vehicle was heavily laden with packages, toys and other items of unknown origin or nature. Suddenly, without prior invitation or permission, either express or implied, the Vehicle arrived at the House, and Claus entered said House via the chimney.

Said Claus was clad in a red fur suit, which was partially covered with residue from the chimney, and he carried a large sack containing a portion of the aforementioned packages, toys, and other unknown items. He was smoking what appeared to be tobacco in a small pipe in blatant violation of local ordinances and health regulations.

Claus did not speak, but immediately began to fill the stocking of the minor children, which hung adjacent to the chimney, with toys and other small gifts. (Said items did not, however, constitute "gifts" to said minor pursuant to the applicable provisions of the U.S. Tax Code.)

Upon completion of such task, Claus touched the side of his nose and flew, rose and/or ascended up the chimney of the House to the roof where the Vehicle and Deer waited and/or served as "lookouts." Claus immediately departed for an unknown destination.

However, prior to the departure of the Vehicle, Deer and Claus from said House, the party of the first part did hear Claus state and/or exclaim: "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!" Or words to that effect

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Passion Principle

Many times, I've heard readers and booksellers saying they seek out debut authors regularly. Though I often find debut offerings a little on the rough side when it comes to craft, there's no denying the power of a passion so deeply felt, it moves the author to bruisingly, repeatedly slam him/herself headfirst against the Walls of Publishing to break through.

I recently finished reading a first book, Kerry Max Cook's amazing Chasing Justice: The Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit. It's heartbreaking, infuriating, and inspiring by turns as it discusses a horrendous case of railroading in Texas, along with the sisyphean labor of climbing up from the abyss.

At first, I had a little trouble with the writing, particularly the dialogue, but Cook's very personal relationship with his story, the fire of his belief in it shines through so clearly, I soon found myself sucked in (and highly recommend the book). It served as a reminder that all the practiced wordsmithing in the world can't begin to trump a true passion for one's subject matter.

Which brings me to my resolution for the coming year. I mean to believe in every story so strongly that I hold back nothing whatsoever. I want to throw myself headlong into the characters and plot and setting, live my invented world until I dream it, and never give a second thought to embarrassing myself

Before, I've shared my "Write Fearlessly" mantra. This year, I want to be certain to add a healthy dash of passion to the mix, to recall the thrill I felt ten years ago, just before the publication of my first novel and to rekindle that enthusiasm in the writing act itself.

Because I never want to be one of those authors in whom readers lose faith, one of the ones where they say, "Oh, she used to be so good, but lately..." I never want to let fear shackle my imagination, or overly-rational attempts to cash in on some trend.

So what about you? What are your writing resolutions for 2009? And do you have any tricks to share for keeping passion in your process?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stuck like a dope on a thing called hope

Last year, Colleen and I both posted year end wraps up for 2007, and I’m thinking if we do it again this year, then next year we’ll be able to call it a tradition, so look for a summation of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” later this week.

Looking back on what I wrote last year, I laughed out loud. You’ve heard the old saying, “We make plans; God says ‘Ha!’” This was all about that. As is almost always the case, my optimistic forecast for the coming year was less than accurate. As I read my gung-ho resolutions for the wide-open territory of 2008, I wondered for more than a moment what is wrong with me. How could I continue to be such a cock-eyed optimist when things so seldom go according to my plans? Why do I continue to believe the best about people when people often abide by definitions of “right” and “truth” and “friend” that vary widely from mine. Am I in denial? Or delusional? Or just plain dumb?

Novelist James Branch Cabell wrote in The Silver Stallion, “The optimist proclaims we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” I'm somewhere in the middle, but tend to swing hopeful. It’s not that I’ve failed to learn harsh lessons about the publishing business; it’s that I’ve succeeded in learning lessons about a benevolent universe, a loving God whose hand is on me, and the topsy-turvy way things always seem to work out. And it’s not dumb luck. Antonio Gamsci said in his Letters from Prison, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Bottom lining it, optimism is born of gratitude, and gratitude is a conscious choice, an act of will.

Keep talkin' that happy talk.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saturday morning video: William Shatner in "It seemed like a good idea at the production meeting..."

So what lesson may we as writers extrapolate?

1) Stick with what you do best.

2) Don't let yourself get talked into a project you know is not for you.

3) If you're going to go down in flames, go down boldly. And with a sense of humor.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The tough get going! (Three things to keep in mind as you forge fearlessly into the New Year)

Seems like every conversation I have with a publishing industry colleague these days -- my agent, editors, a PR diva, fellow writers -- there's one common thread: deep abiding fear. The book business is difficult in the best of circumstances, and when the economy goes south, we're among those who feel the first (and the worst) effects. Anybody who isn't deeply concerned right now is not paying attention.

Last time I felt this vibe ribble through the book world was after 9/11. I'd just had a book come out in February of 2001; Bald in the Land of Big Hair was my third book to be published, but it was my first with a big NY house, and because the subject matter was so personal (it's a memoir about how my cancer experience led me to become a writer) I was strongly emotionally invested in the project. Harper Collins sent me on my first real book tour that spring, the publicity echo pinged and picked up speed through the summer as one terrific review after another popped up and book clubs started reading and recommending the book. As autumn approached, speaking gigs started falling into place. I was thrilled. My editor was optimistic (which is as thrilled as most editors ever get). I'd gotten a respectable advance for the book, so 2001 was the first year I was able to say that I earned more as an author than I would have as a secretary. And since the book had earned out in subrights prior to pub, I was confident I'd be able to say the same in 2002. I'd be able to say that I'd made a living writing.

I was scheduled to speak at a fundraiser in NYC the first week of October, and the first inkling I had that something was terribly wrong on that terrible September morning was an email from the event coordinator.

"Did you get my last message? Our power is being weird. I think there's a fire or something up the street." And a few minutes later, she wrote: "Something is seriously happening. Plane crash at the World Trade Center. I think our venue might be affected. I'll let you know of any change in schedule." Over the next several hours, I received a series of bizarre messages from her as she made her way home on foot through the chaos and smoke. "I think we should definitely do book sales during the break right after you speak. I'll have staff on hand to help. This is really bad here. Hard to breath but we had to run for a while." Late that night, she emailed me one last time: "I think we will have to cancel the event. People were falling."

Of course, the event was cancelled, but they'd provided me with a nonrefundable plane ticket, so a few weeks later, I went to NY anyway, walked around town, visited a few people I know. My editor was working from her place upstate, but I had lunch with the woman who'd handled PR for my memoir.

"Everything is at a standstill," she said. "It's unbelievably bad luck for anyone with a book coming out this year. At least you had a chance to get out there as much as you did."

New York was paralyzed for several weeks and traumatized for a lot longer. Sales curdled nationwide, and the market was utterly unreadable. What -- if anything -- did people want to read now? Many books were postponed or cancelled. Advances sucked. There were cutbacks and layoffs at all the big houses and frozen silence from some of the small ones. I can only imagine what was going on at the query stage, but I'd be willing to bet it was Zoloft-waiting-to-happen because I was sitting there with an agent and a strong senior editor advocate at a major house, and couldn't coax a spark for my next book. I pitched several novel ideas and was shot down. I pitched three nonfiction ideas and was shot down. Each of the proposals took a month or two to write, so we were now well into 2002, and I had nothing in the pipeline.

Deep. Abiding. Fear.

Thinking about it this week, I identified three things I could take from all that and apply to what's happening now.

1) Maintain a connection to the real world.
As the event planner (whose name I can't recall for the life of me, but bless her heart) made her way through that day, she kept reaching out to me, a virtual stranger. Why? I wondered at the time, but now I think she needed to connect to someone in a calmer, safer place. That event was all we had in common, but it was something solid, a neatly filled square on her calendar, a better day just one page away. "If you can keep your head when all those about you are losing theirs," Kipling wrote, but maybe the reverse is equally helpful: if you lose your head, best to have those about you keeping theirs. After I got The Call from my agent about BLBH getting sold, I ran up the street to meet my friend GayLynn for our daily dog walk.

"My book was picked up by Harper Collins!" I shrieked.

"Oh, my gosh!" GayLynn enthused. "Will he be able to help you get it published?"

I hold that moment in my heart as a cherished reminder that there is a whole big world out there, and it does not revolve around this business. It keeps on rolling, and so shall we all. One of the healthiest elements of my writing life is that I am married to an airline mechanic who reminds me daily that flight is about physics, not fancy.

2) Be patient. What goes up must come down and vice versa.
The publishing industry is cyclical. That's just the nature of the beast. I think it's a testament to the resilient spirit of people who love and believe in books. Things get bollixed for one reason or another, and you hear a lot of doomsaying, but you also hear the war stories of the past. You hear about innovations that were birthed by bad times, fresh energy that came out of adversity. Talk to the writers around you. How did they survive the swampy markets that followed 9/11? Or the Doldrums of the late 80s? Or the Great Upheaval of blah blah blah. The names, dates, and particulars change, but trust me, there's nothing new going on here. This business is a roller coaster. We accept that going in and make the decision daily to take the ride. Yes, we're speeding face-first toward the earth right now, but rest assured, there is a loop-dee-loop ahead.

When I was researching a memoir for Linda Armstrong Kelly, the mom of Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong, she showed me an unforgettable video from the 2003 Tour. Lance was not having a great race that year. As he rode the Luz Ariden stage, a little girl on the side of the road was swinging a musette -- a little yellow souvenir bag on a long strap. As Lance flashed by, his handlebar snagged the strap. Instant face plant. He hit the asphalt like a hard sleet. When he got up, he was roaring like an animal. (That poor little French girl; she must have peed her pantalon.) Bloodied and braying, his competitors streaming past him, he wrangled the chain back on his bike and -- well, you know the rest. If there ever was an icon for "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," it's this guy. He chose a life comprised of hills and valleys. So did we. May your adrenaline flow like Asti Spumante!

3) To thine own self be true.
Back in 2002, rather than try to come up with a project that would please the people around me, I opted to stop pitching book ideas for a while. On my editor's advice, I started writing a syndicated weekly column that kept me productive, generated a small but steady income, and got my name out there. In 2003, I did my first ghostwriting gig, which was a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I quietly worked on the novel I wanted to write. When I presented the manuscript to my editor at Harper Collins in 2004, it was a polished novel, not a nebulous idea coming at her in a storm of desperate spitballs. I'd written the book I wanted to write, the market had recovered, and HC offered me a respectable advance.

A while back, Colleen posted about the human need to bring order to chaos and why that will never work in the publishing world. Doing work you love and believe in must be your prime directive at all times. During tough times, everyone from your agent to the pizza delivery dude has advice on what you should be writing, who's really selling, where it's all going. If you try to go where you think the money is, I promise, you will succeed only in making yourself crazy. Chances are, there won't be any money, and if there's not, you have to come away from a project having gotten something else from it. Joy. Learning. The satisfaction of freely speaking your mind. Once you've gotten a taste of writing for a living, it's incredibly hard to rise above the money and write for the pure pleasure of writing, but if that spirit has been bled from your work, the work is doomed. Even if it sells, the money will never feel like enough.

The downtrend in the publishing industry and the economy in general do make it exponentially tougher to sell your book right now. But your goal is not to sell a book; your goal is to be happy. If writing makes you happy, write without fear. The rest, to a certain degree, is all tumbling dice. As it turned out, the five years following that last bombastically bad downturn in the publishing biz were the most financially successful years of my career. All I can do now is take what I've learned, work as hard and as true as I can, and hope that more bad luck will come my way.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

BtO on the Road

Thought I'd let you know about a couple of appearances Joni and I are doing in the Houston area in the coming months. Follow the links for more information. Both groups welcome visitors, but you must sign up ahead for the West Houston RWA meeting. (See site for details.)

Saturday, January 3rd
Northwest Houston Romance Writers of America meeting

"Critique Group Confidential" Critique partners Colleen Thompson, Joni Rodgers, and T.J. Bennett discuss how to find, form, or reform a productive, positive, and successful critique group that will take your career to the next level.

Saturday, February 14th
West Houston Romance Writers of AmericaEmily Awards Meeting

Fat Nude Writing: Find your Raw Voice and Revel in It! (AM session)
Critically acclaimed novelist and NYT bestselling memoirist Joni Rodgers speaks about stripping away self-doubt, plumping up authentic voice, and producing work that is both personally fulfilling and market friendly. Illustrating with her own adventures in the industry (starting with The Worst Possible Way to Become a Published Author and moving on to Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful—Hate Me Because I Get Paid!), Joni shares what she’s learned and inspires you to explore the art, craft, and business of writing with lots of laughter along the way.

Boxing the Octopus: Eight Strategies for Mastering the Many-Tentacled Beast that is the Writing Life (PM Session)
Literary working girls Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers go live with some of the lessons and laughter found on the BtO blog, offering thinky thoughts and hard-learned advice, plus plenty of Q&A on balancing the eight challenges that can punch a writer’s lights out:

Building the Book
Managing Research
Critique Group Dynamics
Agent Relations
Publishing Process
Getting Paid
Artistic Being and Wellbeing

I hope you'll come and join us!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Anne Tyler on psychic space

Friday, I posted what I thought would be the first half of one of my little parables, thinky thoughts on life and art, and I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say in Part 2. Four days later, it's proving elusive, and I know myself well enough to let it ride until it clicks, and that probably won't happen until I have the house to myself again. My kids are both at home this week, and while they're both busy with their own stuff, something about having them here puts me in a different state of brain. I'm Mom first, author in between. Reminded me of something I read and tucked in my quote bank.

Anne Tyler: "I can never tell ahead of time which book will give me trouble - some balk every step of the way, others seem to write themselves - but certainly the mechanics of writing, finding the time and the psychic space,are easier now that my children are grown."

That phrase "psychic space" stayed with me. It's not office space, quiet time, or actual opportunity. It's mental real estate, a frame of mind.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Coolest Part of Being a Writer

Most writers are inquisitive sorts, the kind who as children wore out adults by asking endless questions, annoyed (and occasionally outraged) Sunday school teachers with paradoxical what-ifs, and Hoovered up every factoid from the school and public library, then bugged the librarians (remember when they used to know *everything*?) with still more curiosity.

So it should come as no surprise that so many of us enjoy the bejeebers out of playing the writer card. You know, the one that gives us carte blanche to ask a million nosy questions in the name of research. And amazingly, people are rarely annoyed by this. Most experts have a passion for their own interests, and having long since bored their personal circle of family and friends into insensibility, are absolutely *thrilled* when some writer writes, phones, or e-mails and asks to pick their brains. Sometimes, in the course of asking one minor question for a smallish detail in one's novel, the writer will end up having to listen to years' worth of dammed up anecdotes and lectures.

But no problem. We're fascinated, captured by the speaker's enthusiasm for his/her subject. I once spent three hours on the phone (long distance, daylight hours, huge phone bill) with an elderly gentleman who was telling me about all sorts of cool arcania about Civil War-era steamboats on the Mississippi River. After while, I began to imagine that this guy had been hanging on by his toenails, actually staying alive just for the day when someone would call and ask about his lifelong passion. Little of what he told me ended up on the pages of the book I was researching at the time, but one of the more obscure details stuck with me... and eventually spawning its own book some time later. (In case you're curious, my two Civil War-era steamboat disaster-related Zebra Historical Romances, Against the Odds and Trust to Chance, were written under my Gwyneth Atlee pseudonym in 2001.)

And that's the way of expert interviews, just as it's the way of long stretches of browsing through dusty shelves of research books. You never know what gems you'll happen upon during your investigation. Writer who rely solely on Internet search engines often miss the joy of incidental discoveries.

As well, they miss one of the coolest aspects of the writing life.

So what's been the most fascinating incidental or accidental discovery you've made while doing research? Who have been some of the most interesting people you've encountered?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday cartoon: Dusan Vukotic's uber cool "Surogat"

Just one of those trippy little things I came across in the course of research and wanted to share. In 1963, Dusan Vukotic was first non-American to win the Oscar for animated short (which they were still calling "best cartoon" back then). Freaky-deaky Picassoesque cool, "Surogat" was released in English-speaking countries as "Ersatz." Forty-five years later, the art holds up, a testament to the do-what-grooves-you school of artistic thought and the inflatible nature of life.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Exit Redbone: Every Dog Has His Day Part 1

September 4, 2008

It’s been a week since Hurricane Ike rolled over our sky-blue house in Spring, Texas, and I’m lying on the garage floor with Redbone, our beloved family dog, a senile English Springer whose twisted hillbilly lineage actually makes him his own uncle. His once-chocolate muzzle has grayed to salt and pepper; his bounding back legs have stiffened to arthritic stone. Stroking his belly, my hand travels the soft swell of a grapefruit sized lipoma, one of many benign fatty tumors that have developed on his body, as benign fatty tumors commonly do in a dog this age and a breed this inbred. I avoid the feverish spots where he’s chewed himself raw, but the sleepy weight of my hand is too much on his spavined hip, and he growls to let me know. The doggie downer Gary administered earlier has taken full effect. Redbone’s eyes are as red-rimmed and spillish as if he just stumbled out of Nine Inch Nails concert.

I make an effort to get up. That doesn’t work. Redbone licks my bloody chin. He still loves me. But I suspect that on some level he’s known all day that I was plotting to kill him.

Redbone was having a bad time even before the storm. The last few summers have been hard on him. The week since the storm has been even harder. He’s not used to being tied up, but with the fences flattened by the wind and exposed power lines in the streets, we have no choice but to tether him to one of the still-standing porch posts, where he thrashes and bays until he makes himself ill. Nothing in his staid world is as it should be since the night he shrank into a puppy again and huddled in my arms, whining at the shrill chorus of witches in the wind and the shummering vibrations of the steel playground equipment across the street. Eight days later, his expression is still shell-shocked, utterly bewildered. The electricity is still out, so there’s no AC. Redbone’s tongue lolls in the oppressive heat, drop-jawed, mouthing the humid air.

Redbone has been wildly agitated since the storm, but I didn’t decide to kill him because he bit me. He’s bitten me many times over the last six months, and we both understand that this is not his fault, that these flashes of rage and frustration are as much an embarrassment to him as the way he’s taken to yelping when he poops. The point of no return was the sight of his canine incisors, bared and scissoring like jagged-edge pinking shears about eighteen inches from the spindly, sunburned arm of Riley, the four-year-old boy who lives next door.

We’re all cooking out these days, of course, so the morning air was full of campout breakfast. Pancakes. Bacon. Greasy eggs over easy. Redbone lumbered out of the garage and loped across the lawn. I caught up with him and seized his collar just as he lunged for the plate on Riley’s plastic Little Tykes picnic table. He wheeled, snarling, and even as he sank his teeth into my wrist, his big old doggie eyes were pleading up at me. Bacon, bacon, bacon. In the name of Christ’s mother immaculate, woman, do you not smell the bacon?

“Huh,” said Riley’s father, who is a nice enough guy but about as quick on the uptake as a persistent fatty tumor. Instead of scooping Riley into his arms, he just stood there next to the barbecue grill, spatula in hand, observing the scene as if he was watching a couple of rodeo clowns. Tears of pain and heartsickness stung my eyes as I struggled my dog back to our own driveway. There was no more denying it. Redbone had punched his ticket.

I spent some time crying in the bathroom, contemplating how to get the job done. I didn’t want to talk to Gary about it. He is the Clarence Darrow of denial when it comes to this sort of thing; we traveled this same downhill slope with an old dog we adopted shortly before we were married twenty-five years ago. I couldn’t bear to be cast as the prosecutor lobbying for the death of a dog I loved against Gary’s love-means-never-having-to-face-reality defense. The phone was nonfunctional, my cell service spotty, so I couldn’t call the vet who had no power in whatever office was left anyway, so no hope of getting help or an additional supply of the pet sedatives we’d gotten before the storm, anticipating Redbone’s distress combined with the thunder-chasing hyperactivity of Manny, our Boston terrier. A few hours after the Riley incident, as I waited in the long gas line for my twenty dollars worth of strictly rationed fuel, I saw an open drug store. I found sleeping pills in aisle five. A lone jar of creamy peanut butter stranded on a picked-over shelf.

After Gary administered the doggie downers and left to put in an extra nightshift at the ravaged airport, I assembled the extra creamy death on white bread. I figured ten sleeping pills would do the trick. Then I put in ten more, just to make sure. That left only four in the packet, so I put those in as well, sprinkling the contents of each capsule on a liberally slathered slice of bread. As I spread the second slice thickly, Redbone snuffled in anticipation, wagging his sawed-off stump of tail. With a broken, guilty heart, I knelt and hugged my arms around him.

“Been a long time since you had a nutter-butter sammy, huh, Mr. Bones?”

Come to think of it, it had been a while since I’d had one myself. We’d both come to an age where diet was so much about caution and so little about pleasure. Pondering the difference between being alive and truly living, I made myself a nice thick peanut butter sandwich, too, and carried the round cutting board out to the dark garage, where the open door was full of late evening air. Redbone and I sat down and ate our sandwiches without caution, without care, relishing the rare snatches of birdsong that managed to peek through the roar of gas generators. It didn’t taste as good as I thought it would. The bread was stale, and the creamy peanut butter had an odd post-shelf-life graininess to it.

“You’re a good dog, Redbone,” I whispered, scratching behind his shaggy ear. “Thank you for being such a wonderful part of this family.”

I started crying again, remembering how I’d slept on the kitchen floor with him his first night in our home. He was four weeks old, a calendar cute puppy with enormous paws and huge, soulful eyes that reminded me of Leon Redbone. My kids had already named him “Dodger Rodgers”, so they were dismayed to discover I’d rechristened him before they got up the next morning.


“Yup,” I said. “Redbone Blues Doggie. That’s his name.”

“How do you know?” said my skeptical second-grader.

“I said to him, ‘Puppy, if your name is Redbone, keep me up all night whining and then pee on my shirt.’ And he did.”

I bought a book about holistic new-age dog training. The puppy slumbered in my lap while I studied it from cover to cover. Then he peed on it.

“Redbone,” I said sternly. “You sadden me when you don’t bizzy in the bizzy place.”

The book suggested using the word bizzy because it was more easily distinguished. It also suggested expressing strong feelings and mimicking an elaborate system of behaviors designed to make him think I was his mother. After two or three weeks of rolling on the floor, barking, growling, fetching chew toys in my teeth and throttling him with my mouth on the downy scruff of his neck, I bought another book, this one written by a group of monks who train personal assistance dogs. These monks didn’t mess around with a lot of bizzy psychobabble. Puppy boot camp ensued, and within a few months, I had this dog respecting the sanctity of the upstairs carpet, walking at heel three miles every morning without a leash, and depositing his own chew toys into a plastic bin every night before bed.

“English Springers are a sociable breed,” the vet told me. “Four hundred years of hanging out with human beings. All this dog wants is to be the best friend of anyone patient enough to teach him.”

Redbone spent the next twelve years Velcroed to my side. He listened with rapt interest while I did phone interviews promoting my second novel and snoozed at my feet while I wrote my third. He gamely danced with me whenever I was fighting to stay awake and stolidly kept watch if I stretched out to nap on my office floor. When I laughed, he barked along; when I cried, he nuzzled my knees. He alerted me every afternoon when the elementary school bus arrived, rode in the back seat to pick up the kids from junior high, patiently waited for them to come home from college on the weekends.

Now we’d come to the end of our last day together. Redbone lay down on the cement floor, and I went to lie beside him, but squatting there in the dark, I suddenly felt a bit off balance. My head nodded forward, and I bumped my chin on the wooden arm of the Adirondack chair. The sharp edge and jolt to my jaw jogged something loose in the back of my brain. I touched my face, stared blankly at the blood on my fingertips, greenish black and shiny under the amber flashlight. There was a cloudiness, like sediment stirred up from the bottom of a fish tank, then a disconnected retracing of steps leading back, back, back, and then forward again to the moment when I set the two sandwiches side by side on the cutting board—as identical as two MREs in a POD—the sandwich of death on the right.

No. Left.


Rewind. Play.

I watched myself eat the sleeping pill sandwich. Along with the realization came a tsunami of dizziness and nausea.

So now I’m lying on the floor with Redbone. My cell phone is in my pocket, smooth as a skipping stone and just as useful. Gary is as good as a thousand miles away. Across the street, the generators roar an ocean of sound that drowns my feeble cries for help along with the thin songs of the mockingbirds perched among the debris.

This is the end, I’m thinking.

But of course, it’s only the beginning.

Will Joni survive the Socrates sandwich of doom? Does Redbone receive a stay of execution? And what the hell does any of this have to do with writing and/or publishing? Tune in Monday for "Every Dog Has His Day: Part 2"...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Quote for an Editing Day

We had snow last night here in the Houston area. Can you believe it? Nothing but some fluffy flurries in my neighborhood, but they brought back so many wonderful memories of growing up in the Northeast. They also prompted me to light my seldom-used fireplace, which brings me to this lovely quote for my day of editing.

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”

-Arthur Polotnik

Stay warm!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One Step at a Time

Though my head's been in a new project for the past two months, I've been called upon to do some edits of the previous manuscript. This happens frequently. You'll be happily slogging away at the work in progress when another one comes home to roost for a spell like an errant, grown child.

I have this one, last chance (other than galley proofs, which allow me to change nothing but typos and the occasional glaring continuity error) to straighten this book's collar and neaten her hair before sending her out for the world to see. I'm initially daunted by my editor's list of suggestions, which will require my to reread the entire manuscript so I can be sure not to drop threads or contradict myself as I make changes.

So I trot out an old mantra used for facing edits, galleys, and at times the writing of the manuscript itself. One step at a time, it goes, meaning that it's imperative to really focus on each page separately, apart from and yet together with the totality of the book. It's my way of breaking up the task into bite-sized chunks, a hold-over from my teaching experience, which taught me (as nothing teaches one like teaching) that human beings freeze mentally when faced with an overwhelming, new expectation, that the only way to conquer it is to break it up into small steps.

I use this method to break down my deadline, planning pages to be completed per month and per day and allowing time for days off and a solid block for editing. Mini-deadlines have kept me sane in this business, and since I now have an external one (a week to turn around these edits) I'll be moving on to that task...

One step at a time, one page at a time.

By the way, this lovely photo is of the mysterious staircase of the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place well worth visiting. To find out why it's so mysterious, check out this website.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Phil & Olly's "The Black Hole" (brevity is the soul of wit)

Colleen sent me a note: "Story-telling at its best and briefest." Followed by a link to this from Phil and Olly Future Shorts.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Begging Doctorow's Pardon, But...

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
E.L. Doctorow

After writing some fifteen novels using a road map (a synopsis, which is usually required to make a sale), I've taken advantage of the opportunity to fly by the seat of my pants on this one, to see if Doctorow is right.

What I've discovered is Doctorow is probably right for many novelists, but for me, the process is more akin to the disgusting business of sausage-making. There's nothing pretty about it, with a hodge podge of borrowed ingredients, revisions-on-the-fly, and bastardized reinventions of my own and others' techniques. But by the time I finish, I hope to end up with a delicious product nonetheless.

This one, it appears will involve a synopsis at some point, since I've lost my way about 25% through that dark and foggy journey.

So do you vary your tehcnique as you write, or do you pretty much have one plan that works for you and you can stick to? If so, I'll try not to hate you. I'm too busy grinding plot and characters and things I don't want to think about stuffing them inside these casings.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The day that would live in infamy lives on in librarian's letter home

A wonderful piece in this morning's Houston Chronicle: "Letter from Pearl Harbor" features US Army librarian Helene Gowan's calm account of Dec 7, 1941. I guess a librarian would know better than anyone that history requires a witness and she gives us that without embellishment, without claiming any part of the devastation that doesn't belong to her or generating any additional panic. The event is so huge, any hint of melodrama would have dishonored it. There's no bleating, no superlatives. All we need is that glimpse of the rising sun. A lesson for writers.

From Ms. Gowen's letter to her family:
About ten minutes to eight Sunday morning we were awakened by a noise of planes, and what sounded like bombing and firing - we, of course, like many others, thought it was just a practice alert. I put on my coat over my pajamas, went out to get the paper, and when I failed to discover it, stayed for a while to watch the planes which were flying very low. The Rodby boys, also pajama clad, suddenly appeared, explaining breathlessly, "Oh, Miss Gowen, this is a raid - see the rising sun on those planes, and look at the smoke over there." Just then, one dived even lower, and I could see what appeared to be a rising sun but thought it was just my imagination. Mil' looked out the window to say she was almost shaken out of her bed and she wished they wouldn't have such noisy alerts on Sunday. We decided, since we were awake, to go to nine-fifteen Mass...

(At this moment, there doesn't seem to be a link to the article on, but I'll check back later and post it if I can.)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Beware of the Doghouse

If you want a *really* good holiday laugh, check out J.C. Penney's uber-clever video for the holiday season. For more cool, related stuff, check out

Though Penney's is using this hilarious send up of male gift-giving cluelessness to sell diamonds, you can check out BtO's list of great gifts for the writer in your life.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Marching Forward

I read something about the publishing biz the other day that really resonated, from "The Tao of Publishing," an article by respected literary agent Steven Axelrod and author Julie Ann Long in the December issue of The Romance Writers Report (the trade magazine of Romance Writers of America... and a very worthwhile member benefit). In it, Axelrod discussed the human wish to impose order, to seek out patterns and rules that can guarantee success. I'm paraphrasing here, but when this pattern-seeking tendency is wed to a random, unpredictable environment, we have trouble accepting chaos and continue searching for some hidden, reliable cause-and-effect (if I do X and Y, then Z will necessarily follow).

But publishing's not like that, he argues, and an author can't duplicate another writer's success predictably because he/she can't duplicate whatever "random factors were at play." In trying (desperately at times) to impose order, authors waste a lot of time and money on promotional efforts and checking whatever numbers they can glean instead of doing the one thing that really gives them a better shot at success: diligently writing more good books.

He also shares a pair of quotes that particularly struck me, the first from Leonard Mlodinow, who tells us, "What I've learned above all is to keep marching important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized."

The second quote, Thomas Watson (who founded IBM) shares this world-rocking wisdom: "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate."

I've been writing in this blog for quite a while about authors who rise after years of obscurity or crash and burn under one or two names before triumphing under yet another. As long as the writer keeps "marching forward," there's always the chance that publishing's roulette wheel will eventually stop at his/her number, always a reason to have hope.

So today, let's accept the harsh truths about this business. There are a ton of random factors. There's not a shred of "fairness." Real talent is often overlooked, and at times the mediocre flourish.

Take a deep breath and move past this. Then move on to the work you love.

*Thanks so much to Steve Axelrod (may you and your clients prosper) and Julie Ann Long (may all bestseller listes be yours) for this meaty and thought-provoking article. Thanks also to Carsten Peter for this awesome National Geographic photo.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How do you measure a year?

Well, on Broadway, of course it's 525,600 minutes...

Around here, there's less vibrato, more gelato. As close as I can calculate, my experience of 2008 consisted of:

188,400 words Not counting all the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor, or the time spent revamping, rewriting, rethinking, I produced a finished first draft of a mystery novel, a signed/sealed/delivered ghost memoir, and some sizable pieces of my WIP.

22 Friday night critique sessions And for another year, I'd have to say that my critique group is one of the best things to happen to my personal and professional life. I'm not even counting the one-on-one coffee and crit or (or coffee and commiseration) sessions.

12,775 text messages About evenly split between Boy Man, Girl Child, and Grizzly Bear. Of course, that balance will tip dramatically this week since Jerusha got her tonsils out on Tues and can only communicate her need for Popsicles and crochet hooks via text.

Only 4 printer cartridges How much do we love the Internet? The days of printing and sending hard copies are few and far between. Pretty much copy edits and galley proofs. I print for critique, read-throughs, and work-on-the-plane stuff.

4285 hours of ass-in-chair writing I put in a lot of tailbone-numbing 17 hour days, but there were a few lovely days of utter sloth and Top Chef reruns.

74 hours of Top Chef reruns I know this is an odd fixation for a person who doesn't know how to cook and has no interest in learning, but I love this show. I don't spend many hours watching TV or movies, so when I do it's either research or pure escape.

410 hours at the gym Spin class twice a week, Pilates once or twice, and some resistance training. Sadly, none of that has been in the last six weeks. I've hardly been to the gym since Hurricane Ike shut the place down for a few weeks and got me out of the habit. (Cracking tiny whip in my head, but it's not working.)

2190 hours of sleep Which is not nearly enough. I average four or five hours a night plus a 45 min afternoon nap. One of my goals for 2009 is to go to bed before midnight at least four times a week.

43 pounds of bird seed I've trained a veritable chamber choir of song birds to buffet daily on my window sill. Some will actually tap on the glass if the cafeteria has run low on sunflower seeds. I get a ridiculous amount of pleasure from my office window birds.

I won't say anything sappy about how the moments of joy and I love yous have been countless. The fact is, frustrations were many and peace hard to come by. But I'd have to say, this was a year with a thousand good stories.

So how did your year add up?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Writer

As the holiday season approaches, one of my toughest writing assignments is to come up with a list of gifts I might enjoy. Normally, I jot down the titles and authors of a few novels (this year's requests: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, The Given Day by Dennis Lehane, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and, somewhat incongruously, Duma Key by Stephen King.) or ask for a nice Barnes & Noble giftcard, since to my mind, absolutely nothing is more fun than an afternood spent blowing someone else's money at a bookstore.

So what else besides novels could a writer want? Here are a few ideas, ranging from the inexpensive to the pricey, for your consideration. And writers, this could be a good list to print out, highlight, and "accidentally" leave lying about.

1. Ruled Moleskine Notebook: For $17.95 or less ($12.21 at Amazon), you get the journaling notebook used by countless famous writers. Cheaper notebooks can be had, but the quality's nice... the inspiration priceless.

2. One fancy, boxed pen, such as this Cross Contour. One of the most thoughtful gifts I've received, early in my writing career, was a fine-quality pen, which the giver (my mother-in-law) said I should have for booksignings. These range widely in price, but it's the idea that the giver believes the writer will have signings and they should be special events that matters.

3. Here's a free one. A book of coupons for blocks of writing time. These could be offers to take care of the kids or tend some time-consuming chore while the writer in your life goes to a coffee house to create. (A giftcard to said coffee house is a nice touch, too, though I prefer the fabulously-free public library for my writing outings.) The real gift is the acknowledgment that you understand that writing time is a valuable commodity, not just something to be squeezed in between household chores, housework, and the day job.

4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Every writer on the planet should own two copies, one to keep and one to share. Best resource ever for quitting the stalling and actually producing. And it's in paperback, too.

5. My husband once made me a coupon stating that he'd work XX days of overtime so I could go to a very special writers' conference in NYC. I cried when I read it. Helping a writer attend a conference (it doesn't have to be a distant of expensive one, either) is a wonderful gift.

6. Asus Eee PC 4G Smaller and lighter than a laptop, this Linux-based mini-PC has flash-based memory, so it's tough as nails. Perfect for the traveling writer, it allows one to check e-mail and write on the fly, then easily tucks into a purse. I saw one of these colorful, hard-shelled wonders at a conference and immediately fell in lust. At $345.10 at Amazon, they're a lot for the $$$... a perfect replacement to my Alphasmart, which finally croaked after years of service. Alas, this one's too much an extravagance for me this year, but that won't stop me from drooling!

So what are your favorite writing gift ideas? Has a loved one ever surprised you with a great one you'd like to share?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Lifestyles of the Creative and Unconventional

Last year, my son's Christmas stocking was plumped with two books that were perfect for his gap year travel lifestyle: Ayun Halliday's hilarious No Touch Monkey and the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. This year, Ike's back in school and as Henry Miller said, "there is only one great adventure and that is inward toward the self..." So I just ordered The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People by career counselor Carol Eikleberry, PhD.

...So this is not a set of how-to-do-it tips for boneheads. Instead, consider this book your invitation to adventure. By adventure I mean personal growth: the spiritual quest to become the person you were born to become. The adventure begins when you set out to develop your own unique potential instead of following conventional expectations to become like someone else. It is a hero's journey, undertaken not only to develop your own potential but also to return with a gift for the world.

I'll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, check out Dr. Eikleberry's pragmatic Tips for Life/Work Transitions, which I plan to post on my Wall o' Smartness. Transitioning from project to project can be a mindbender, and I always flounder and flail through it. Might not hurt to try it with a sane survival strategy.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Didn't We Just *Have* Christmas?

It is an unwritten rule that the busiest season for any writer will be the busiest season of her personal life. And when it comes to the mom-writer, the Christmas season is often the busiest of all.

Which means, it's only a matter of days (weeks, perhaps) before my edits show up, which will derail my attempts to get my current off-track WIP back on track. In these desperate hour, shopping goes online and decorating goes... well, let's put it this way. Two years ago I relegated all decorating to the guys, and we haven't put up a tree since.

But nevertheless, there's something warm and fuzzy about Christmas that remains stubbornly nestled in my heart. The music, the wrapping, and of course the reason for the season, that best-beloved of all stories... and most meaningful.

And then there are Rudolph and Clarice, perhaps the first star-crossed romance that captured my imagination. They'll be making their Christmas visit to network TV this Wednesday evening, and this year, I swear I'm making time to revisit that favorite childhood memory.


To subscribe to BtO, click "Subcribe to: Posts" at the bottom of the page and then "Subscribe to this feed."

Want to borrow a cup of content? Feel free to share our link or a brief quote with your friends. But please e-mail for permission to reprint or repost our work elsewhere, and always add an attribution and a link back to our site.

We welcome your feedback. Feel free to post comments. PR and outreach from publishers and published authors should be sent to:

Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.

We welcome payola in the form of pies, cakes, neatly folded laundry and free books!

In accordance with FTC regulations, we're required to inform readers that we receive books from publishers, authors, and PR folk for review. We'd like to receive money via an offshore bank account, but that hasn't happened yet. When my dad was in radio back in the '50s, a local baker used to sneak over in the dead of night and fill the back seat of his car with bread and pastries. We would NOT object to this. Please review our review policy here. And let us know if we should leave the car outside the garage tonight.

Peace, love, and statutory compliance ~