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Showing posts from 2009

Rewriting the Law of Inertia

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In the beginning, there was Inertia: the tendency of a writer's pace to resist acceleration, the tendency of a writer at rest to lie around reading, vegging to music, or watching reruns of The Dog Whisperer on TV, or to keep moving along the straight line of same well-worn rut as usual. At least until acted upon by an outside force.

In some cases, that outside force might be an agent's request, an editor's call for revisions, or a looming deadline. In others, it might be the state of the writer's bank account and a mailbox full of "Last Notices" in red print.

But all too often, we have only an inside force to rely upon to get us moving, the writer's own Call to Adventure. Certainly, it was that intrinsic dream, rather than coercion or any likelihood of reward, that got us writing in the first place. As the stories we imagined became richer and more detailed, we envisioned a future where we could share our creative universe and allow others to enjoy it, wher…

Typolution (I am an orchard. But I can be a factory when I need to be.)

Frost on Writing: How Not to Lose Pressure

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Have you ever talked yourself out of an idea by talking too much about it? Discussion is fine, and there are times you can work your way through a tangle with conversation, but every time you open you mouth, you risk letting in enough air to blow out the spark - especially in the project's earliest days.

Since I enjoyed yesterday's Robert Frost poem so much, I'm sharing his thoughts on the topic:

"Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second."

I'm also keeping quiet about my current project. :)

Robert Frost on Christmas Trees and trial by market

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...He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to...

Click here to read the rest on Gutenberg. (And thanks to my girl Jerusha for reminding me of this lovely poem.)

Have a White (Noise) Christmas

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Those of you who are parents, do you remember the days when "white noise" was your friend? A colicky baby could often be called by the hum of tires on highway, the warm rumble of the dryer, or the soothing whir of an oscillating fan.

In more recent years, I've found these same sorts of sounds an invitation to allow my mind to drift aimlessly, tumbling, spinning, and whirling through ideas like a hawk on rising thermals. With the background noises of everyday silences, imagination fills the void with striking images, creative associations... mirages that we can later flesh out at our keyboards or on a pad of paper.

Some of my most compelling ideas had taken shape while driving across barren plains beyond the reach of radio, walking along a beach or hiking through a desert. But often, they occur at home: while running out the hot water in an overlong shower, vacuuming the carpet, or washing dishes by hand.

There's something hypnotic about white noise, something able to ta…

"Duck, Folks! Here Comes Literary Diversity" (Michelle Kerns on the Next Decade in Book Culture)

From Michelle Kerns' excellent "Goodbye to Fifth Avenue; Or, Duck, Folks! Here Comes Literary Diversity --Finally" on Critical Mass:
For, lo, these many long years, every aspect of the book world has been dominated by the East Coast and New York City in particular. A relatively small group of people have determined what is published, who is published, what gets reviewed, what gets lauded as a tour de force, and what gets panned as pulp. Or ignored.

The flaw in this brilliant little system is that the majority of things bookish end up filtered through the perspective, the life experience, the belief systems of a distinct group of people who are definitively not representative of the rest of the reading public. In terms of diversity in the literary process and discussion, it's a joke. True diversity in the book world doesn't exist. Yet.Read the rest plus more voices from the Critical Mass series inviting commentary on the Next Decade in Book Culture.

Seasons Greetings (a little blast from holidays past)

Merry Christmas

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Another comment on doing a lot with what ya got:

Dear Santa, Bring Me a Clue

Dear Santa,

This year, I've been a very diligent and hard-working writer this year...

Oh, you say you've been watching this past week, as I've done everything possible to avoid work? Um, then I submit you're not seeing the deep turmoil and self-loathing that goes on while I struggle with a single question: what to work on next.

I'd just as soon move forward with one of the proposals I've submitted, but absent of feedback, I'd really rather not. I have what I could've sworn was a slam-bang idea for another proposal I've been noodling with, but the words are lying like dead slugs on the paper. I can't get into the protagonist's head and don't really want to hang out with her for 400 pages.

So Santa, could you bring me a character, a strong, true heroine to accompany through the plot line? A force to be reckoned with who smacks up hard against the smooth face of an insurmountable problem? If you have room in your bag, could you also squeeze in…

Quotation for the Week: Edison on Opportunity

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Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Thomas A. Edison

The trouble is, you have to go ahead and prepare the work, like a big dinner, without any guarantee that opportunity's ever going to show up (in scroungy old overalls or a tux and cummerbund) for the meal. But if you're looking for guarantees or hoping for easy, you've definitely picked out the wrong dream.

Okay, so I've embraced it: This Chrismas sucks.

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I had it all figured out. The deadline for my WIP had been set for December 15th, the same day Gary's vacation days kicked in. We planned to be on an airplane to Paris the next day.

I almost forgot the old Jewish proverb: "We make plans. God says,'HA!'"

Cue the unforeseeable circumstances in my client's world, our editor's schedule, and missteps in my own time management and maybe even outright denial when it came to a realistic concept of the sheer tonnage of research involved in this multi-faceted--and incredibly fascinating--book I'm writing. The deadline was shifted to January 4th. I am locked into a jetstream of 18-hour days until then.

Meanwhile, Jerusha is working and doing a mini-mester class for school, so she couldn't get away either. This meant the only way for our family to be together was for Spike to come here from Florida, which he arranged to do, thinking he was headed for something other than the epi-center of the No Fun Zone.

&q…

The Perfect and the Good

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The perfect is the enemy of the good.
- Voltaire

This time of year, it's easy to be brought to despair by idealized visions of The Perfect Christmas, The Perfect You (New Years' resolutions being just around the corner), and The Perfect Creative Effort (with book/movie award nominations zooming about the lofty heights).

The problem is, over-striving toward some extrinsically-based ideal pulls us out of living in the moment of baking broken-legged reindeer cookies (which taste so sweet when fumbled by a child's stubby fingers), enjoying the squeezably-zaftig body of a mature woman rather than a starvation-stunted prepubescent, and taking characters you love through a story that you breathe.

So on this chilly winter's day, trying setting up a queendom within the borders of your own space... a place where YOU shape the perfect holiday, the standards of beauty, and judge the merit of your work by how much fun you had with its creation. You might even find …

Because it is Friday, and because we are nerds.

Cutting to the Chase

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Just read a terrific post on Stephen King's Top 7 Tips for Becoming a Better Writer by Henrik Edberg over at the Positivity Blog. Thanks, Henrik, for sharing these reminders from King's classic, On Writing (which I highly recommend). They're absolutely timeless and usable for writers of every ilk.

They were also a great reminder that 90% of editing your work ought to be about cutting to the chase with the surgical excision of anything that form a barrier between the reader and the story. A few of those things include:

1. Show-offish writing: Vocabulary, sentence construction, or artsy-overload which calls attention to itself and the cleverness of author.
2. Backstory and flashbacks: If you can't tell it in real time, hint at it via character actions, attitude, and dialogue.
3. Pointless description. A richly-described world can really make a story - when such description pulls double duty by adding layers to mood, characterization, or the story itself. If it serves none…

Hoping to devastate and ravish (3 Questions for D.W. Lichtenberg)

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Last week, I introduced you to D.W. Lichtenberg's inside-up poetry collection, The Ancient Book of Hip. Intrigued, I asked Lichtenberg our standard "3 Questions" -- and I should have known the answers wouldn't be business as usual.

I found myself feeling rather motherly toward you by the time I got through your book, so I have to start with how are you? Are you eating right and taking care of yourself? How are you doing with the balance of corporeal life and poetry?
I am all right. If you want, you can call or email my mother, I am sure she will be happy to hear from you, to hear that you are interested in my well-being. And maybe that is the point of the book. A lot of people who see me read or have read my work come up to me and use the word "endearing". I like to use the word "real". I am eating all right. I'm a vegan and my grandfather is constantly on my back about getting enough B12. But I've got no complaints. My poetry (and my prose…

Don't Be Publishing's Hoochie Mama: Lessons from Disgraceland

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Yesterday, in a fit of disgust, I switched off the Today Show, which has lately stooped to repeated interviews with the Tiger Woods Bimbo of the Day. The two young women I saw interviewed came off as no more or less than your average, starry-eyed groupies, bedazzled by the glamour of the world's most famous athlete and wanting to grab a bit of magic for themselves. Each was so "honored" by his royal golfness's notice that she would put aside her upbringing, her morality, and her common sense for the chance of a hook-up she dreamed would lead to something more.

I see way too many writers whose sensibilities are so overcome by the possibility of "fame" (or at least publication) that at the first hint of praise by some smooth-talking scoundrel with a gleam in his eye, said writers toss off all dignity, caution, and publishing savvy and land themselves in bed with the most unsavory of "agents" and "publishers." By the time these deluded inno…

Dear Cancer, This hurts you more than it hurts me. (Write a letter and raise $$ for the American Cancer Society)

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Dear Cancer,

Stop calling me. We are not getting back together.

I learned a lot from our relationship, but I'm with Life now, and we're really happy together. I don't want to hear from you again.

Not to be rude, but...you suck.

Goodbye forever.

Joni R
Write a letter and tell cancer how you really feel! It'll do us all some good. Varian (a cancer imaging technology company) will donate $10 to the American Cancer Society for every letter that appears on their website, up to $100,000.00. Click here to read my letter and post your own and visit the American Cancer Society online to find out more about amazing research being funded.

Gatekeeper or good riddance? (Kirkus post mortem)

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This weekend, my husband was on a mission to acquire a Ronco rotisserie. (You know. Ron Popeil? “Set it and forget it!”) He loves the low-tech, purist food that comes out of it. The box promised an instructional video, but Gary didn't expect to need it. We both laughed when we discovered it was an actual video. As in VHS tape. Not only is it useless (we haven’t had a VCR since the dawn of the current century), it indicates a messenger out of touch with its audience. We figured it out quite handily on our own.

Dear ones...the publishing industry is like the timeless Ronco rotisserie, always evolving and being repackaged, but forever cooking up succulent books which will be eternally user-friendly in their low-tech purity. Kirkus, with all due respect to what it was back in the 1930s, had become an irrelevant, irritating VHS tape, which -- for those few still equipped and inclined to use it -- featured a modicum of "instructional" info, but mostly obnoxious voices, inadeq…

Harnessing the Warm Winds

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I'm pretty much the tortoise of the writing world. Pretty much every day, I drag myself a few steps forward, regardless of the circumstances. But I have to admit, my progress is sometimes speed-bumped by a bad review, a harsh (though usually well-deserved and ultimately helpful) critique, or less-than-encouraging news from the publishing front.

I expect better of myself, and sometimes I do manage an "I'll show you" attitude that gets me working harder and has seen me through a lot of tough times. But continuous, stoic indifference to negatives is a tough feat to pull off.

Fortunately, the opposite works, too. Whenever I'm given the slightest encouragement -- it could come from a reader, a critique partner, a reviewer, my agent, or an editor -- I harness its power to elevate my mood. Then I ride that burst of optimism as far as it will take me.

And sometimes, I save a kind e-mail or written comment in a folder, where I can take it out to warm my spirit on a bitterly-…

D.W. Lichtenberg's "The Ancient Book of Hip" (Hmm. Brilliant or the bare arse of an emperor?)

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Okay, I got this email, and the email was this:
Dear Joni Rodgers at Boxing the Octopus,

On November 18, 2009, Fourteen Hills Press and SFSU Creative Writing Dept. released the winner of the 2009 Michael Rubin Book Award: THE ANCIENT BOOK OF HIP by D.W. Lichtenberg. This debut collection is a case study, a documentation, a journaling. It is a bunch of poems about girls, sex, cigarettes, PBR, and everything else that is the phenomenon of hip.

What people are saying:
"There is a real zest in these poems. Lichtenberg's joy in the every day reminds me of the daily pleasures as Frank O'Hara embraced them."
- John Skoyles, author of The Situation and poetry editor of Ploughshares

"Whether riding the subway or 'talking shit about a pretty sunset,' his is a highly entertaining new voice that will win you over with its combination of disarming simplicity and incisive wit."
- Elaine Equi, author of Ripple Effect

"Lichtenberg possesses a unique charm that …

Good Grief! Revision in Five Stages

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As I wend my way through a particularly challenging batch of revisions, I was brought to mind of the Kubler-Ross model on the stages of grief, which is all too apt in chronicling the reactions of your average working writer.

1. Denial - Surely, the editor doesn't mean my masterpiece! This must have gone out to the wrong author by mistake.

2. Anger - What the (insert strongest, vilest expletive that comes to mind)? Who do those stupid hacks think they are, screwing with me like this? Are they @#$! blind? (Ranting continues, either in the form of silent fuming or a epic hissy fit. If you're very lucky, no phone calls or e-mails to the involved parties originate during this stage and your loved ones have learned to ignore you at this point.)

3. Bargaining - If I change just this one little thing, that'll make it sort of okay, right? You surely didn't mean to imply I have to rewrite the whole, entire...

Oh, no you didn't.

4. Depression - I clearly suck, and everyone else h…

Monty Python's Working Class Playwright ("It could express a vital theme of our age!")

Spent the last couple weeks writing in snowy seclusion and profoundly nurturing peace next to the big window in my parents' downstairs family room. My long hours were no cause for concern. My obsession with my current project didn't raise an eyebrow. My coffee break yacking about all things publishing was accepted with nods and smiles. It's a luxury to be the child of creative types. Back in my office in Houston today, I'm taking a moment to appreciate that.

And then there's this...

When Rejection's a Favor

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I know what it is to beat one's head against the brick wall of rejection, to turn every stone, cross every T, and [insert additional motheaten cliche here].

I remember well the intense frustration of "almost," when you feel yourself teetering on the verge of publication. When time after time, at that final moment, the prize is snatched from your grasp. When, looking around you, you see others, perhaps those who haven't worked so long or hard or don't seem to have much in the way of talent, achieve what you've worked for so diligently.

Stinks, doesn't it? But the truth is, in a lot of cases, you may look back to discover that rejection was a favor. Either you weren't ready or the writing wasn't. The project offered was one that couldn't possibly commercially succeed or would end up in a niche so narrow, your career as a published author would be brief, stunted, and steeped in bitterness. From the vantage of perspective, the seasoned author will r…

Once is not enough (Why you should blow off that thing about "no simultaneous submissions.")

A great post on the BookEnds blog today from literary agent Jessica Faust.

The old hazelnut about "no simultaneous submissions" generates one of the most frequently asked FAQs of aspiring writers. On the one hand, supplicants are loathe to PO the agent being queried. On the other, you'd be a rusty skeleton on the side of the road if you sat there waiting for the response every time you sent a query.

My attitude was always, hey, if the agent is willing to say s/he's not going to look at any other authors, I'm willing to say I won't look at any other agents. I was gratified to see this very smart agent say essentially the same thing in a much more politic way:
I think authors should have the chance to choose an agent if possible, and not accepting simultaneous submissions or asking for exclusives takes the power out of an author’s hand, power you should have since it’s your career.Click here to read the rest. And spend some time searching the blog. Lots of grea…

It's a Bird, it's a Plane... It's Super-Protagonist!

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As I rework a flawed synopsis, I'm reminded of a writing basic, a touchstone so elementary that it's easy to forget among all the complexities of crafting a novel.

The book's protagonist must play an active role in solving his/her own problems.

Throughout the story, the main character needs to do more than simply react to events (although she may certainly start out doing so). She needs to be the one who makes things happens, forces responses in the opposition, and becomes a factor that absolutely cannot be ignored. Naturally, her initial attempts to influence the plot may fail, fall short, or have unintended (even fatal) consequences (setting up your story's black moment.) But she must persevere, becoming an active catalyst -- in other words a hero -- if the author expects the reader to root for her success.

Think about it. Did Luke Skywalker sit around moaning about the evil Empire and wait for someone to rescue his hayseed butt? Did Scarlett O'Hara tweedle-de-dee h…

Atwood on editing

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A bit of brilliant advice from Margaret Atwood's "Ten Editing Tips for Your Fiction Mss"...
Charles Dickens said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” He put “wait” at the end because it was crucial. (In any series of three, the third is the most important.) In terms I’ve picked up by playing with the boys: Drop the hankie early, but make ‘em wait for the opening of the kimono.
Looking forward to handing off my WIP later this month. Atwood's The Year of the Flood is burning a hole in my new Kindle.

Dear Santa, I've been a very good writer this year! (Gift ideas for book makers)

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If there's a writer on your holiday shopping list this year (or if you're a writer who wants to drop a few hints), here's a few ideas for the annual Festival of Avarice. Basically my five favorite things that dropped down the chimney into my writing life this year:

ThermaCare HeatWraps for the type-weary wrist. After a day of way too much word count, I ice my hands and wrists with bags of frozen peas, then don these oh-so-comforting...I don't know what to call them. Smittens?

My Canon LiDE200 Color Image Scanner has been an incredibly valuable research tool. It cost less than $100, lightweight, slides right into my laptop bag, nice high res images, and it's super easy to use. I bought one for my mom, too. Gets power from your computer, so you can take it anywhere.

My little red Sony ICDUX70RED Digital Voice Recorder also cost under $100, stores up to 290 hours of interviews, has a slow-down feature on the playback for easier transcription, and plugs directly into a …

A Couple of Links

Today, I'd like to direct your attention to a couple of links.

First of all, over a Romance Roll Call (the military romance blog of Iraq soldier/writer Jessica Scott), I'm talking about homecomings from the front and what they have to do with my latest release, Beneath Bone Lake.

Secondly, I read the most inspiring post this week by author Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) on Overcoming Self-Doubt. It's reassuring to know (in a misery loves company sort of way, I guess) that authors at all stages experience this brand of resistance, and Steven shares some tough-love words to kick self-doubt to the curb. Be sure to check it out!

Writing in Crisis

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The other day I wrote about the challenges of writing through the holidays. Today I want to talk about writing through life - or those heavy-duty life issues that pop up for everyone from time to time.

As Joni is at the moment, I'm also dealing with some parental health issues (in my case on both the parent and in-law side). Distracting and stressful to say the least, but I haven't for a moment regretted time spent traveling or on the phone. I've been writing long enough to know that when serious life issues come up, you have to deal with them, allowing yourself whatever time is needed to cope. But whenever possible, you need to dip your toes back into the flow of your work.

Yesterday, I came frighteningly close to losing my dad. Things weren't going well, and I had to sweat out (from 1500 miles away) his ambulance transfer to a larger hospital for an emergency heart procedure to save his life. While waiting to hear about his condition, I tended to routine tasks that wou…

You get my drift (a southern writer shovels snow in Montana)

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Visiting my folks in Helena while Dad (aka Mr. Invincible) recovers from bypass surgery. It's been a while since I shoveled snow, but I discovered this morning it's a lot like writing a book.

At first, it's all fun and excitement. After a while the novelty wears off, and you discover it's actually a whole lot of dang hard work. Every once in a while you slip and fall on your keister, but you get up and get back to it. It'll go easier if you have the right kind of shovel.

You never know when opportunity's going to come knocking, so it's important to keep the front walk clear and hospitable. Mom and Dad aren't able to drive right now, but I shoveled the driveway nonetheless. No matter what's going on in the house, you've got to hang on to the possibility of going somewhere.



You have to discover your own methodology, but it pretty much comes down to scraping away one line at a time. You make a pass across the pavement, then go back and catch the f…

Start the week groovy with Terra Naomi "Santeria"

Writing through the holiday season

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If someone were to ask me, in the months of November and December, which writing gift I would most value, I'd say, hands down, what I most need is focus. It's a distracting time of year, with guilt-inducing "should-be-doings" staring me in the face wherever I look.

Working around the holidays requires careful time management, goal-setting, and most of all, realistic expectations. Figure out which holiday routines truly make you and your loved ones happy. Allot these "deal-breakers" a finite amount of time on specific, determined days. If there are traditions that no one cares that much about (or that you're doing 100% of the work for), try setting them aside for one year to find out if they're missed. Then, you and your family can reset your priorities for next year.

A few years back, I was down to the wire on a December deadline, had a book coming out (with the requisite speaking/signing activities scheduled), and had galleys (page proofs) show up as…

Charlie Haas reads from "The Enthusiast"

Charlie Haas reads from The Enthusiast at Opium Magazine's Literary Death Match. Enjoy!

Colleen's favorite reads of 2009

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This year, I'm extremely thankful for a wealth of terrific reading material.

I've read a lot of great books in 2009, but over on the blog Writers Read, I'm discussing some of my favorites for this year.

Check it out and let me know, have you read any of these books? What did you think? And if not, what have been your favorite reads of 2009 (so far, at least)?

(You know, besides Joni's A Little Bit Wicked and my Beneath Bone Lake? ;)

Photo: Burgess Meredith, from "Time Enough at Last," a.k.a. the best episode ever of The Twilight Zone

thanks

The Thankful Writer

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Now that I have your attention... this Thanksgiving, I'm pushing aside gripes and worries about contracts, reviews, revisions, and the economy to give thanks for the blessings the writing life has bestowed. I'm thankful for the family who support my efforts, the sharp eyes and good will of my critique partners, and the cameraderie of writing buds.

I'm grateful to have found an agent who not only stands up for me but pushes me to take time and risks, for the editors whose thoughtful suggestions and enthusiasm have made me want to work my tail off, and the readers who vote with their wallets to keep me gainfully employed, recommend me to their friends, and write me sweet notes on occasion.

With its ever-changing challenges, the writing life keeps me on my toes and never offers me a chance to grow bored or complacent. Inspired to always strive for better, I continually feel pushed to - and sometimes beyond - my limits. I feel as if I'm doing the work I'm meant to do, an…

"My cockeyed Valentine to Japan" (3 Questions for Wendy Tokunaga, author of "Love in Translation")

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Japan and Japanese culture have been major influences on the life and writing of Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. She signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s just as she was beginning the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco in 2006. Midori by Moonlight came out the following year with terrific reviews, and Love in Translation hits bookstores next week. From the press kit:
After receiving a puzzling phone call and a box full of mysteries, 33-year-old fledgling singer Celeste Duncan is off to Japan to search for a long, lost relative who could hold the key to the identity of the father she never knew. This overwhelming place where nothing is quite as it seems, leading her to ask: What is the true meaning of family? And what does it mean to discover your own voice?
So I have to start by asking, Wendy, how did you discover your voice as a writer?
I’d always written stories as a child and even published my own magazine (I think I had three subscribers!). When I was a teenager I …

Best. Pie. Ever. Happy Thanksgiving!

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If I'm gonna gain weight (I baked two, heaven help me) then I'll feel much better if everyone else does, too, so I'm sharing our family's very favorite pumpkin pie/cheesecake recipe. Shamelessly ripped from the old classic Great Home Cooking in America (c. 1976 from the editors of Farm Journal - so it has to be good).

I defy you not to love this.

Festive Pumpkin Pie

1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened
3/4 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
3 eggs
1 c. canned pumpkin
1 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 unbaked 9" pie shell, edges crimped high
1 c. dairy sour cream
2 tblsp. sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cream together cream cheese, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Blend in pumpkin, milk, and vanilla. Pour into pie shell.

Bake 45-50 min. or until knife inserted halfway between center and edge comes out clean.

Blend sour cream and sugar. Sprea…

A Tip from Twain: Revision

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As all you NaNoWrMo folks (and others) finish up manuscripts, here's a great tip from the great beyond to help guide you with what may be the most crucial phase of the writing process.


You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
- Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, from a letter to Orion Clemens, 23 March 1878

Have a great Thanksgiving week, everyone!

Sunday groove: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."Walt Whitman printed 795 copies of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

About two dozen sold.

Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue

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When I'm reading contest entries that fall short, one of the biggest pitfalls I encounter has to do with dialogue. I'm also most at a loss when commenting on this area, which is definitely more art than science. Here are a few things I do know. Since I'm crabby because the dumb dog woke me up way early , they are totally unfiltered for politeness.

Deal with it. ;)

Dialogue should never be:
1. Dull.

"How are you, Alphonse?"
"I am fine, Susie. How are you?"
You're not out to transcribe banal, everyday chit chat. We can all hear that at home. Any dialogue on the page should serve the plot and/or characterization.

2. Stiff.
"I must say, Sue, you are looking especially fetching today in your pretty, red sweater."
Susie's smile turned to a frown. "I am surprised at you, Alphonse. I never realized you were a drug fiend."
Note the overuse of names as a form of address, lack of contractions, use of complete sentences, and bizarre, language tha…

Not the usual 9 to 5 (looking at the workstyles of creative people)

"Daily Routines" is an interesting little blog that examines the way creative people work.

Simone de Beauvoir
"I'm always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. Most often it's a pleasure to work." (She adds that she works every afternoon, hanging out at Sartre's place.)

Stephen King
“There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon. It’s not any different than a bedtime rou…

Why Writing Gets Harder

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As I labor to revise practically every paragraph of a recent proposal (after rewriting from scratch and then sending off another) I asked myself the same question novelists have been whining since Gutenberg:

When does this %$@#! get easier?

Here's the bad news. I see no sign it ever does.

For the past ten years, I've spent the bulk of my time writing. I've seen fifteen books published and seventeen contracted. Yet I often look back fondly on the days when I was scrambling to squeeze twenty minutes or an hour out of days packed with full-time (plus, if you count the many hours a week spent grading papers) teaching, marriage, and motherhood, days when every time I sat down at my computer, the story spilled out in what seemed like an effortless torrent.

In those halcyon days, it was all about the story and not about the craft. I didn't have time or space enough in my life for worries about reviews, rejection, and sales numbers. I didn't have to care about whether checks s…

Note to Book Editors: Call arse-kicking machine repairman!

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From the always insightful David Hewson's "Why does a popular press hate popular books?":
The best selling book in Britain last year was Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye. I checked The Times archives to see if they reviewed it. Yes, they did, favourably. But only after it got to number one. When I was a general reporter and that kind of thing happened with news stories there was always an inquest, and usually someone was invited into the room that contained what one executive liked to call ‘the arse-kicking machine’. With good reason too.

I’ve picked on my own paper here because it’s the one I still take at home. This is a little unfair. Snobbery on the literary pages is rife, and not just a British affair. The American prints often behave much the same way. Many of those are steadily killing book review space too on ‘economic grounds’.
Read the rest here.

Read Sam Shepard's "Indianapolis (Highway 74)"

Looking for a culturally edifying way to delay starting your work day? Now in the New Yorker, short fiction from one of my favorite playwrights.

From "Indianapolis (Highway 74)" by Sam Shepard:
Evidently there’s some kind of hot-rod convention going on in town, although I seem to remember those always taking place at the height of summer, when people can run around in convertible coup├ęs with the tops down. Anyway, there are no rooms available, except possibly one, and that one is “Smoking,” which I have nothing against. The desk clerk tells me she’ll know in about ten minutes if there’s going to be a cancellation. I’m welcome to wait, so I do, not wanting to face another ninety-some miles down to Kentucky through threatening weather.Click here to read the rest.

Potential Pitfalls: Flashbacks

Some techniques are riskier than others. After judging for a number of first chapter writing contests, I've come to the conclusion that one of the toughest to pull off is the flashback.

In skillful, experienced hands, flashbacks may work - and work well. But more often than not, especially in the hands of newer writers, flashbacks serve as stumbling blocks, distancing the reader from the now of the story before the reader's fully bonded with the characters and their present journey.

The writer's goal should be to immerse the audience in the story's real-time flow of events. Anything that detracts from that connection should be cut.

So how, without flashbacks, does the writer effectively dispense critical backstory? Ideally, crumb by crumb, dispensing teasing little hints - the kind that keep the reader madly turning pages as she seeks to piece together the totality. Dispensed a bit as a time, this trail of breadcrumbs enhances rather than detracts from the plot, heightens…

Sisterhood over self help (3 Questions for Melissa Senate, author of The Secret of Joy)

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New Yorker Rebecca Strand is shocked when her dying father confesses a devastating secret: Joy, a daughter he turned his back on, the result of an affair when Rebecca was a toddler. Now he wants Joy to read the unsent letters he wrote every year on her birthday. Determined to fulfill her father’s last wish, Rebecca drives to a small town in Maine and knocks on her half-sister’s door. As is always the case with sisters, secrets, and broken hearts, everything that happens after that in Melissa Senate's latest novel, The Secret of Joy, is complicated, to say the least. The book is in stores this week, and Melissa spared a moment for 3 Qs in the midst of launch-o-palooza.

This is fertile ground for a story to grow, Melissa. I'm curious about the roots. Where did the idea come from?
Several years ago, I received an email out of the blue that said: I think you might be my half-sister. I was. Am. It took me a long time to decide to take that little (huge) nugget and write a novel to h…