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Showing posts from December, 2008

Listening with My Pen

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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…

Angels and liars (and another dark moment for memoirs)

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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 boo…

Colleen's Take on 2008

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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-relat…

2008: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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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 Tr…

A Season for Story

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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 fictiona…

Holiday hangover (Ring out wild bells!)

The Girard High School Bell Choir lifts our thoughts heavenward...

Mary Christmas

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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.

What Makes This Writer Jolly

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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) magica…

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"...in 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 …

The Passion Principle

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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…

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…

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.

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

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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 …

BtO on the Road

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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 th…

Anne Tyler on psychic space

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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…

The Coolest Part of Being a Writer

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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 …

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.

Exit Redbone: Every Dog Has His Day Part 1

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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 c…

Quote for an Editing Day

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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!

One Step at a Time

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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 tota…

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.

Begging Doctorow's Pardon, But...

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"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 …

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

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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 …

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 BewareoftheDoghouse.com.

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.

Marching Forward

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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…

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 muc…

Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Writer

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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 no…

Lifestyles of the Creative and Unconventional

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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.

Sample:
...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…

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,…