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Showing posts from April, 2009

Trolling the Shallows

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Some parts of the writing process are work... serious drudgery, in fact. It takes discipline to plunk oneself down and write, with or without fickle inspiration. It takes will power to complete a project when the going gets tough, and it's just as tough to read through the manuscript for the tenth time and do your level best to see what it would take to make it better.

But today, I get to do the fun stuff. Today's a day I plan to spend "trolling the shallows," fishing for ideas for an upcoming proposal. When trolling, I have no idea what juiciness my hooks will snag. I'll go through my "idea files" and look over half-formed thoughts. I'll thumb through magazine and newspaper articles I've been saving because something in them called to me. I'll Google to my heart's content, flitting from topic to topic related (barely, in many cases) to one or another of the thoughts darting through my shallows.

It's not a day for in-depth research, no…

Eagerly awaiting Tom Folsom's The Mad Ones

The moment I saw the engaging book trailer (below) for Tom Folsom's forthcoming The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld, I knew what my son Spike would be getting for his 22nd birthday this summer. He's in those "I'd rather have cash" years, but this is one I know he's going to love.



From the press kit:
For anyone who loves The Godfather and Jack Kerouac, THE MAD ONES: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld (Weinstein Books; May 5, 2009), tells for the first time the complete story of Joey Gallo, a charismatic beatnik gangster whose forays into Greenwich Village in the 1960s inspired his bloody revolution against the Mafia establishment.

Celebrated in a Bob Dylan ballad, Joey was the epitome of gangster chic, an anti-hero and counterculture rebel/philosopher who read Camus and Sartre. He made the rounds of high society with Jerry Orbach before being gunned down midbite at Umberto’s Clam House in Li…

Series Sensibility

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Lately, I've been in the mood for "comfort reads," many of them books belonging to series I've enjoyed for some time. From Eve Dallas and Roark's capers in J.D. Robb's In Death series to Mma Ramotswe's latest adventures (if you could call them that, since not a lot ever happens) in Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series) to Harlan Coben's Myron Bollitar, I've been tending toward known quantities in a time of uncertainty.

None of this is to say that I don't love and enjoy (and generally prefer, in fact) stand-alone titles. I've just been in a mood, that's all, and it's extended to my writing, where a secondary character from next month's release Beneath Bone Lake stormed into my head and demanded a book of her own. I'm editing that manuscript, called Hangman's Bayou, right now, and it's got me thinking about the pros and cons of writing a s…

Kristin Chenoweth hits NYT Bestseller List (and makes her book nanny very proud!)

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Whabam! My homegirl hit the New York Times bestseller list at a respectable #12 her first week out. Gotta love this girl. She was wonderful to work with throughout the process and the moment this book hit the shelf, she busted out the hustle, touring from New York (where she closed her first B&N event by presenting her blushing ghostwriter with a dozen roses) to her native Oklahoma, onto LA, and back to NY this week.

I particularly love that she managed all this without bashing or bad-mouthing anyone in her family or the biz. A few cynical reviewers knocked her for not "digging deeper" (translation: "dishing dirtier"), but Kristin consistently took the high road without even having to sit through my standard "why being gracious facilitates both the legal review and future family picnics" lecture. Read all about her on Broadway World.

Update 4/29: Second week on the NYT list, LIL WICKED moves up to #11! Go, girl, go!

Right on, Maude (Rue McClanahan remembers Bea Arthur.)

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Women of my daughter's generation will never fully appreciate, I fear, how hard the women of my mother's generation worked to blaze trails in politics, literature, and entertainment. When Bea Arthur came on the scene in "Maude", the scripts were nothing less than groundbreaking. Maude spoke her mind, and not softly. Maude worked. Maude voted. Maude had an abortion.

"No one but Bea Arthur could have played that character," Rue says in her memoir My First Five Husbands. "The first (and only) sit-com to successfully portray the emerging feminist sensibilities of the 'Women’s Lib' movement in a way people were willing to embrace. (Well, some people, anyway.) Like All in the Family, it presented prickly issues to the mass audience with whip-crack comedy writing and a super-talented cast...I found Bea wonderful to work with—-and to watch. She was powerful, smart, statuesque, with surgically precise comedic timing, and she wore her star quality like a …

Pulitzer on Writing & Pulitzer Fiction

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As I work on edits this week, I've found some special words to guide me.

Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.

Joseph Pulitzer

And speaking of Pulitzer, I'd like to give a shout-out of congratulations to Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In a starred review, Publishers' Weekly calls this series of interconnected stories "easy to read and impossible to forget."

In yet another starred review, Booklist says, "Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope. People are sustained by the rhythms of ordinary life and the natural wonders of coastal Maine, and even Olive is sometimes caught off guard by life’s baffling beauty."

There's a new paperback edition come out 4/27/09 for only $8.40 on…

"What are you reading?" (Los Angeles Times Festival of Books project wants to know)

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It's going to be a big weekend at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, and throughout the doings, the Times will be asking the same question I always ask at the end of an interview with an author or industry pro: "What are you reading?" (I also ask people in line at Starbucks, my airplane seat mate, the girl who highlights my hair....)

The "What Are You Reading?" project will turn the camera on Festival attendees, and we'll be able to see the responses on the "Your Scene" page at LA Times online. Readers will also be invited to leave messages on the "What are you reading?" graffiti wall.

Click here for a full schedule of stage events.

And visit Book TV for live events coverage. (Strong coffee highly recommended. We can always count on Book TV to protect us from anything that strays from monotone.)

Poetry As Fuel for Prose

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April is National Poetry Month, an event well worth celebrating. I often find myself inspired by half-remembered poems and have lately spent a lot of happy hours finding the perfect quote to set off a chapter as an epigraph.

To me, a few lines of poetry can be great for establishing mood and tone, offering a clue, or adding resonance to prose. Not everyone enjoys epigraphs-- I've had editors forbid their use at "distracting," but I think those who dislike them usually skip them, so why omit them and deprive like-minded readers of another layer of meaning?

How do you feel about quotes and bits of poetry used as epigraphs on chapters? Love 'em, hate 'em, or skip 'em entirely?

Today, I leave you with a poem from which I recently quoted, which inspired me to read much more of Plath's work.


Mad Girl's Love Song
by Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go walt…

Weigh in on the 2009 Pulitzer winners

2009 Pulitzer winners were announced this week. What have you read, what's on your nightstand, and what do you wish had won instead?

Fiction
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
A collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine that packs a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating.

Drama
Ruined by Lynn Nottage
A searing drama set in chaotic Congo that compels audiences to face the horror of wartime rape and brutality while still finding affirmation of life and hope amid hopelessness.

History
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed (W.W. Norton & Company)
A painstaking exploration of a sprawling multi-generation slave family that casts provocative new light on the relationship between Sally Hemings and her master, Thomas Jefferson.

Biography
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham (Random House)
An unflinching portrait …

Veer (resources for we who love words)

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My daughter Jerusha turned me on to Veer, a website for all of us in love with language and visual arts, book nerds of the highest order, anyone into the nuances of typography. If you're looking for a scarf of lacy letters or would appreciate setting your coffee on a grammatically correct coaster, you'll find it worth clicking into.

From the Veer welcome page:
"See things in a new light. Hint at potential. Invent contexts. Create concepts.

It’s what you do as a creative. It’s our goal at Veer, too.

We want to help you break out of the grid, the list, the rulebook. To show you visual elements for design in ways that work. To filter out the obvious and the mundane, in our products and our presentation. To help you do the best creative work possible.

Enjoy."

Looting the Graves: Resurrecting Dead Authors

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I have to admit, I love a good, meaty (ewww!) zombie story. World War Z by Max Brooks had me at hello, and I think Shaun of the Dead is one of the funniest movies ever. And I very much enjoy a good historical romance as well, but when I saw the recent monster mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! , "by" Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, my jaw dropped.

It might be great fun. I have no idea. But did Grahame-Smith resurrect Austen and ask her to agree to this "collaboration"? Or, once in the public domain, can anyone exploit the author's work for any purpose? (Hint: Yep.)

Not cool, nor do I think it's cool to dig through a popular author's old manuscripts and/or hard drive looking for incomplete (and possibly ill-conceived) manuscripts, having them completed by a relative or hired gun and passed off as the author's work. (Hence, Michael Crichton has two posthumous books forthcoming.…

Dream the dream...then wake up and do it

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Everywhere I went last week, people were talking about Susan Boyle's show-stopping performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent. It's impossible to watch without feeling choked up because the lyrics are so painfully apt in combination with the power of her voice. Watching the video that rapidly went viral was exactly like an experience I described a while back in a post about "Fat Nude Writing."

As glad as I am for Susan's moment in the sun, I feel angry and sad for every job interview that blew her off, every date she never went on, and all the other Susans all around the world who are passed over on face value. Why should it surprise anyone that this woman has an amazing gift? Because she's 47 and looks it? So am I, and I must have missed the memo that said I was supposed to go out on an ice-flow and submit my spirit to the wind, having outlived my usefulness as home decor and/or potential octo-mom.

My heart aches when I hear the m…

It Takes a Village

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Though many wonderful authors work in isolation and use their agent or editor as first readers, for me, it takes a village to get a manuscript ready to send in. I do my best work in response to thoughtful feedback from trusted friends and often go back and rewrite great swaths of manuscript after someone's comment sparks an idea that sharpens the book's focus. I absolutely love this phase (where I am now) when I have a complete draft and can work on the big picture, looking at motivation, character arc, even the theme... stuff it's hard to focus on while the daily quota's pressing.

Today, I'd like to introduce my village and say thanks.

USA Today bestselling author Patricia Kay is my line of first defense. We exchange chapters as we complete them via e-mail. She sees the raw stuff, including all the typos (which are legion), and helps steer me away from dangerous shoals.

Then there are the members of my fabulous critique group, The Midwives (Joni Rodgers, TJ Bennett, …

Saturday Morning Cartoon: "9"

Shane Acker's brilliant animated short (Oscar nom in 2005) reminds me a little too much of my life sometimes. Click here to watch the trailer for the full length film coming out 9/9/09.

Bouncing Baby Boxers?

Yesterday, I was thrilled and relieved to finish the draft of a novel that's been punching my lights out lately. The work is far from over, as editing begins, but I'm already conjuring some ideas for a new single title romantic suspense proposal.

Normally, at the idea stage, I try to keep my mouth shut. Not because I'm paranoid someone with steal my brilliant thought. (No one else *can* write your book, not even if you handed out free copies of your synopsis.) Mostly, I keep quiet because it's possible to get bored with the idea before it's committed to paper if you yap about it too much. Plus, I hate listening to people gas on about the brilliance of books they haven't yet written (and most likely won't). You know, the people who, on discovering you're a novelist, feel compelled to tell you they're going to write their book when they have time, only they'll be *really* successful at it. They'd be doing it right now, but they're busy (INS…

What My Wheels Are Saying

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Ever think about what a character's car has to say about him/her? I'm blogging on the subject today over at To Be Read. Please stop by and check it out. Or better yet, say hello. I'd love the company.

Kristin Chenoweth is A Little Bit Wicked and whole lotta fun

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I've watched Kristin Chenoweth raise the roof on a concert hall, blow the doors off a Broadway theater, and melt a movie camera, but Monday night on Jay Leno to plug her memoir A Little Bit Wicked, she accomplished her most astonishing feat to date: she made the Snuggie look good. My homegirl has a penchant for late night infomercial shopping, so I wasn't surprised to see her in the voluminous red blanket-robe-Druid-ceremonial-costume thing that's been advertised lately.

Gotta love her.

No, I mean it. To know this woman is to love her. Not a vindictive bone in her body, generous to a fault, funny, smart, and a phenomenal, classically trained performer completely dedicated to the hard-working work of art. Always willing to give up glamour in favor of a good laugh. She's a diva, no doubt, but she doesn't take herself too seriously, and I've never seen her be rude or impatient with any of the many fans who approach her on the streets of New York, where she's…

Happy Release Day, Kristen Chenoweth!

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Today's the big release for Kristen Chenoweth's A Little Bit Wicked, by way of our own Joni Rodgers.

Here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say:

Currently seen as waitress Olive Snook in ABC's Pushing Daisies, the Tony Award–winning singer-actress Chenoweth looks back at her multifaceted career, which has encompassed recordings (As I Am), films (Four Christmases), television (The West Wing), Broadway (Wicked), solo concerts, animation (Tinker Bell), opera and Opryland. Beginning with the intriguing speculation that her unknown birth mother could be watching her career rise, she recalls her Oklahoma childhood and vocal training when she learned "[t]he music didn't come from notes and lyrics; it came from life and mileage." Personal revelations, such as her experiences with Ménière's disease, are balanced with bubbling backstage anecdotes. A chapter about her on-and-off relationship with writer-producer Aaron Sorkin includes a section written by Sorkin…

Monday Link n' Stink

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This morning, I thought I'd call your attention to two interesting articles.

First, here's a link to the New York Times Sunday Book Review article talking about high-end advances. These have not a thing to do with those of working-class authors such as yours truly, but I'm taking my own advice from yesterday's post to heart, thank you very much, which allows me to read about five million-dollar advancing without (much) threat of spontaneous combustion.

The Times article talks about a trend toward no or low-advance contracts, where the author gets his/her filthy lucre down the line rather than up front. While this might seem like a good idea (for the publisher, maybe, in these "challenging financial times"), I have to wonder how many people working on the other side of the industry would enjoy forgoing a paycheck which for one which might or might not happen for six or twelve months -- often even later. A paycheck whose exact amount could total, well, pick any f…

Eyes on Your Own Basket: An Easter Parable for Writers

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I distinctly remember one particular Easter from my childhood when my brother, sister, and I all awakened to find some pretty great baskets filled with the usual: plastic "grass," eggs we'd dyed the day before (never as deep and rich as the colors on the package but delicious nonetheless), chocolate bunnies and eggs (yea! even if they did give me a headache), Peeps (gross) and jellybeans (even grosser, but they were all part of the experience). Anyway, I was pretty thrilled about my goodies -- until the neighbor's kid, a younger girl, trotted over to show hers off.

She'd hit the mother lode -- a huuuuge basket overflowing with an unimaginable array of goodies. I don't recall what was in that basket as we all compared at our backyard picnic table. I only know that hers made ours look paltry by comparison and made her seem much more special in her parents' -- oops! the Easter Bunny's -- eyes.

She was getting quite a kick out of it, too, until she turned …

Happy Easter!

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Saturday Morning Cartoon: Hippety hop opera and EW's 15 best pop culture bunnies

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This weekend it's all about the Easter Bunny, but this EW photo gallery of pop culture rabbits got me thinking about the use of bunnies in literature and film. In addition to the obvious biggies--the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter's Peter and brethren, Pooh's pal, and The Velveteen Rabbit--you've got the creepy use of rabbits in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the pot-boiled bunny in Fatal Attraction, and the freaky lepus in Donnie Darko.

What is it about rabbits? They couldn't be cuddlier, but shift the lights and music, and (as with clowns) they quickly make the leap to creepiness. Is it the hunchbacked silence? The weirdly cleft lip? (Think about it when you bite the head off that pink sugar cousin of the Marshmallow Peep tomorrow morning...with those beady little eyes following you across the room...)

My all-time favorite rabbit moment in literature or cinema: "What's Opera, Doc?", the send up of Wagnerian splendor starring Bu…

Friday quote: Rollins on the Compulsion to Write

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“If I lose the light of the sun, I will write by candlelight, moonlight, no light. If I lose paper and ink, I will write in blood on forgotten walls. I will write always. I will capture nights all over the world and bring them to you.”

- Henry Rollins

Boy, do I ever grok this! Beautifully put. And not at all what I'd expect from a guy best known for punk rock.

That tinkling noise you heard was another stereotype being shattered.

Harlan Coben and Missy Higgins at the Firehouse Saloon (words + music = best book tour ever)

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I can't stop listening to the Missy Higgins CD I bought on Sunday at the Harlan Coben book event, and what's odd about that is 1) I don't listen to CDs, 2) I don't buy CDs, and 3) I don't go to book events. Usually. What made me roust myself out the door, crack open the constricted Visa card, and change my behavior is an event that dared to do business as unusual. This was not your father's book signing. No cringe-inducing Pynchonian nerd behind a podium. No beggar-can't-be-chooser behind a table. No reading over the roar of an espresso machine. By bringing in Missy Higgins, who's known and loved in Australia but largely pre-discovered here in the US, Harlan Coben is making the tour for his latest novel, Long Lost, a series of lively events that tap into two disparate fan bases to create the one thing both he and Higgins are looking for: an audience.

During Sunday's event at the Firehouse Saloon in Houston, Coben said a line from Missy's song &qu…

This Papery Hellsbroth of... Despair

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Call me insensitive (I've been called worse), but I laughed my head off in self-recognition over AL Kennedy's despair while editing her book's page proofs. Page proofs, otherwise known as galleys, are the author's last chance to catch errors.

At the proof stage, the author may only correct spelling, punctuation, grammatical, and continuity errors. She's not allowed (under threat of being charged the cost of resetting type - as if this were still being done by ink-spattered medieval printers) to do any rewriting. Which is where the horror sets in, as the author -- desensitized to the story's charm after rereading it dozens of times -- sees nothing but, well, as AL Kennedy puts it...

Did you ever know what this final sentence means? Will that character stand up to even the most cursory examination? Why did you ever think this was any use? Can anything within the compass of your meagre abilities be done to remedy this papery hellsbroth of shit?

I usually finish my pa…

Stumbling into Truth

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I've been laboring mightily to complete a novel I've been working on for what seems like centuries but in reality has been about six months. One thing I love about writing romantic suspense is the challenge of interweaving elements from three genres in a balanced way: the suspense (easy for me; I'm an author born for cliffhangers), the romance (tougher with all the murderous mayhem, but do-able), and the mystery (the writing of which often feels like pulling my brain through nostrils with a crochet needle, something akin to the process the Egyptians used to prepare a dead poo-bah's noggin for mummification). With all this going on and a deadline to boot, it's no wonder that subtle element of theme escapes consideration.

For those of you who slept through or have slept since literature classes, it's pretty much the general idea or "lesson" of the story. For example, for Orwell's Animal Farm, you might say "Absolute power corrupts." For Dic…

Raising the right questions (Kyle Mills talks about writing, life, and Lords of Corruption)

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Kyle Mills, New York Times bestselling author of Darkness Falls, completely had me at hello with the compelling prologue to his latest novel, Lords of Corruption.
After four hours of rutted dirt, military roadblocks, and fetid mud bogs, the landscape around Dan Ordman had completely transformed. The jagged, grass-covered hills that made up his world had been replaced by dense jungle rolling into a reddening horizon. Although he’d lived in Africa for almost a year, this was the first time he’d seen the rain forest, smelled the damp rot, listened to the birds and monkeys just out of sight. There was something about it that made him nervous. Probably just the fact that, until now, he’d never been more than twenty miles from the comfortable expatriate community that he’d wrapped himself in. Or maybe it was something more primordial.

“It’s going to get dark on us.”
Understatement of the year. (Click here to read the whole prologue, and read it with your shoes on because you'll want to hea…

Sunday Quote: Wallach on Critics as Hangmen

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“Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you've got a pretty neck”
- Eli Wallach
While digging up epigraphs for a book I'm writing (working title: Hangman's Bayou), I came across this fabulous quote and immediately grokked it. Not that I don't love praise. I wag like a whipped puppy. But there's a huge danger in assigning any one critic, whether it be a reviewer, judge, agent, editor, or even a reader, too much importance.

If you allow others to be the only worthwhile judges of your work, you give away your power, your own sense of what resonates. And you risk falling victim to any negative word that comes your way.

I learned a lot about this while working with one particular agent. At my request (masochist that I am), I asked her to send me copies of rejections, but she would only send them in batches. When I put three to five together, I could see the reasons stated for the rejections (some…

Stop second guessing yourself! (Sane advice for writers and moms from Jen Singer)

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I flipped Jen Singer a message yesterday: "How goes the book launch?"

"Agonizing and thrilling," Jen responded. "You know. The usual."

Jen is one of the sanest writers I know. She has to be. She's a mom, dispensing sane mommy advice via her website, MommaSaid.net, her Good Housekeeeping blog, and a multi-book deal with "Chicken Soup" publisher HCI. Her first book, You're a Good Mom, came out last year and was anything but the usual thrill ride.

"I’d met my editor, Allison Janse, from HCI at BEA just days before I was diagnosed with lymphoma," says Jen. "We were all aglow from our pending deal, with hugs all around. Well, no hugs because I had 'pneumonia,' which was really a 15 cm tumor in my lung. But I didn’t know that when I was at BEA."

When Jen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (a virulent blood cancer) and started chemo, she was still waiting on the contract for the three-book deal, but HCI steppe…

The Fun Factor(y)

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Thanks so much to those of you who have posted and/or e-mailed regarding the Twelve-Million-Dollar Spurned Obama Puppy memoir item which appeared here on April 1st. The morning of April 1st, Joni and I were chatting, laughing because we were both attempting to work on the blog at the same time and kept messing up each other's changes, when I suggested that we should do an April Fool's post and proceeded to spit out some lame idea.

Joni suggested a better one, and for a few minutes, we lobbed thoughts back and forth over the phone until somebody (I forget who, but I think it was a combination effort) came up with the passed over puppy story. I volunteered to write it, because I'm the certified (certifiable) doggie-lover in this pack, and it just plain sounded like a lot of fun.

Mostly because it was NOT the manuscript I should be writing, the one that's been eating my brain and frustrating the tar out of me for lo, these many months.

The puppy story took me maybe ten or f…

Fool me once...can't get...won't...oh, hell, not again!

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Okay, did you about rip a stitch over Colleen’s April Fools prank post yesterday morning? What really killed me was later reports of outrage from people who were momentarily fished in. The post had the essential element of every brilliant practical joke: a kernel of truth. Several book deals lately have had us asking “Are you kidding me?” With the publishing industry climate what it is, that shouldn’t be a rhetorical question. Everything writers hear right now (including silence) should be subject to a rigorous reality check.

Back in the day, as a DJ at a radio station in Helena, Montana, I often created cleverly edited bits for my show. My boss eating an exploding Twinkie. Richard Nixon begging me for a date. On April Fools Day, 1987, I facetiously announced, "The phone company will be cleaning their wires with electromagnetic blowers today. Please bag your telephone to prevent a puff of phone dust into your home."

I expected listeners to say, "Huh?", then immediat…

BtO Scoop:Sold at Auction, Memoir of Spurned Puppy for $12M

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This just in, in a Boxing the Octopus exclusive. In a twelve million dollar auction deal, an as-yet undisclosed major New York publisher has secured the memoirs of little Otto Zelznik, an "adorable puppy passed over" for the job of White House dog by the the Obama family. Otto, who claims his canine dander is protected under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, had already come to think of Sasha and Malia, Barack and Michelle as "his people" and was making plans for a special line of commemorative White House biscuits when he was cruelly shoved back into an airline carrier and forced to settle for adoption by outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Otto claims has "absolutely no damned sense of humor" regarding puddles left in the center of his bedspread.

To make matters worse, the now-deeply-embittered Otto claims he sacrificed "a matched set of globular organs and the happy possibility of fatherhood" to his possible gig at Whit…