Saturday, January 31, 2009

In memoriam: Cher and Nicholson do Updike

I guess I'm not queegee enough to appreciate the rabbit stuff, but I do so love The Witches of Eastwick.

Go with God, John Updike.

Friday, January 30, 2009

When Life Imitates Art

Yesterday, I received the eeriest e-mail from a reader writing to let me know that the small-town tragedy involving high school students I wrote about in a book I called HEAD ON had to some extent played out in real life recently, shattering families and putting one of those involved into extended rehab, much as was the heroine of my story. The reader also noticed some a number of surprising similarities between his town and my fictional locale, from its approximate location, I'm sure, to the fact that my version bore the name of a leading local senior citizen.

They didn't surprise me, however, as the moment I saw the name of his town, I recognized it as my "model." I'd walked and photographed its brick streets, swiped one of its free weekly newspaper, and generally used it for inspiration after an author friend -- knowing the story and setting I had in mind -- offered to show me around. I didn't want to use the actual town for my book, just as inspiration. That way I get to rearrange things as I need to for the story's good, make unflattering comments about local officials (who are entirely fictional) and the character who owns the mortuary without insulting real folks (important when you're dealing with very small towns) and generally make up details because I think they're cool. So I gave my version a name, but it never felt quite "true" to me.

Later, when I was nearly through the draft, I flipped through my research materials, including the free paper. While skimming through an article naming attendees of a Fourth of July celebration. One first name jumped out at me, an unusual old name that seemed to embody the small-town's spirit and sounded a little like the name of the real place.

So I appropriated the name and completed my story, which took on such a life of its own, I never imagined that its roots might be showing. Which just goes to show that even when you go out of way to disguise a place or person or what have you, somehow the similarity can leach through the veneer and give the story a strange sense of verisimilitude.

On a related note, I was deeply saddened, even chilled, to hear of the young lives lost in a terrible collision, as so many young lives are tragically lost each year. My heart goes out to survivors and the families of those lost, along with the fervent wish for peace and healing.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hyacinths to feed the soul (The writing life is all about priorities)

If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy store there be but left,
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole,
Buy Hyacinths to feed thy soul.

~Muslih-uddin Sadi

With two kids in college and the economy what it is, Gary and I are on credit card lock-down. No non-biz expenditures, and we've been good about it, but today is my birthday, and I refuse to give up my long-standing birthday tradition: I sent my mom flowers. It's a priority that might not pass the Suze Orman smell test, but I have never felt a twinge about it. There were times in my rock 'n' roll youth that I had to hock my guitar or take an odd job I'd rather not talk about in order to scrape up enough to order my mom's birthday bouquet, but that actually made it more fun because it reminded me how important it is and how lucky I am to have been born to two unbelievably talented, intelligent, loving, courageous people. I was introduced early to life outside the box, and witnessing the way my parents have lived their lives taught me a lot about priorities. Family, faith, adventure and art rank high. Money, caution, and status -- not s'much.

Setting priorities is one of the great ongoing challenges of the writing life. Weighting ideas. Is this a project I want to take on? Managing time. How should I spend the next 45 minutes of my work day? The next 45 days? The coming year? I'm 47 today, and I'm not complaining. Not for a free boob job and a bag of gold bullion would I go back to my 20s. But I do feel the clock ticking on my career. I came to this calling fairly late, and there's a lot I want to do. The after-effects of chemo have shortened my life expectancy a bit, but that doesn't mean I expect any less from life -- today, this week, this year. And I'm not talking about money or gigs, I'm talking about happiness.

If joy is not part of your business plan, you seriously need to think about your priorities. It's comfortable to be lazy, but "comfort" and "joy" coexist only in the chorus of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"; everywhere else, joy requires challenge, sacrifice, effort, doubt, and industriousness. Sometimes the reward is a book contract. Sometimes it's a bouquet of soul-feeding flowers.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Joanne Rendell on the "Damned Mob of Scribbling Chicks"

Writers are about as stratified as they come, with this weird pecking order of snobbism (and reverse snobbism) that defies all logic. Tough as making it as a published author is, I have limited patience with those who make themselves feel better by denigrating others.

But it's nothing new, and the prejudice against women writers, writing for women readers, has for centuries been especially harsh. Over at the Huffington Post today, author Joanne Rendell speaks brilliantly on this phenomena.

By all means, check it out.

And the photo's for all you haters out there. ;)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Amazing Adrenaline Simulator

Ever wonder how your characters feel after you've put them through car chases, murder attempts, and various/sundry other calamities? Well, as of this AM, I've developed the Amazing Adrenaline Simulator to help you get a feel for it.

First, you'll need two dogs (most will do, but mid-sized terrier mixes preferred; feel free to borrow my two), a fenced back yard, and a hopelessly-trapped member of the local wildlife community.

It helps if it's about 6:20 AM, just getting light, your dogs wake you from a sound sleep, and you stumble out in your night shirt and fuzzy slippers, your half-awake brain cells reminding you of the mess you had to clean up when you ignored their whining the previous morning.

As the dogs explode out of the back door, you notice that instead of one of the gray squirrels that frequently taunt them and seem to enjoy the chase before invariably escaping, the beasts are zigzagging through (and shredding) plantings in hot pursuit of an absolutely panic-stricken nine-banded armadillo.

Now, for those of you who don't know it, armadillos are nearly blind, dumb as posts, and known for two things around these parts: the long, sharp claws they use for excavation and seriously bad rep for carrying diseases. But not just any diseases; we're talking rabies and (wait for it) leprosy (yikes!) which they've been known to pass on to human beings who come into contact with them.

The armadillo runs faster than you might think, but not faster than the usually-benign dogs, who are tag-teaming the poor thing with savage, silent glee. (Too caught up in the kill to bark. Wow.) Running toward the fray, you start screaming at them (thinking of the gi-normous vet bill from hell this will likely result in): "Leave it! Leave! No! Bad dogs!" but they are hearing nothing but the panicked scrambled. Potted plants are knocked assunder, bushes are snapped, and just as the armadillo seems to have a shot of getting out (it had to've gotten in somehow), one of the dogs grabs it by the tail and holds on tight, then drags it back into the open, where the two cooperate to flip it over. (Even mutt terriers have some kind of instinct for this.)

The armadillo briefly escapes and determines that you offer the Path of Least Resistance. It scrabbles over your bare feet and ankles. (What the heck happened to those slippers?) Several times. You grab the larger, stronger dog with one hand, but alas, the other arm is broken, leaving the other dog free to C-R-U-N-C-H.

The sound of canine teeth against that chitinous shell is too much. Screaming "NOOO!" and feeling a surge of pity for the poor, terrified armadillo (which probably just gave you some biblical plague disease destined to make various body parts rot off) you loose your grip on the other dog, and the mayhem starts all over. And goes on for God knows how long.

Much chasing, barking, and shouting ensue, but you're committed now to preventing the inevitable carnage. You wade in, wondering if your own animals -- as in a dogfight -- will turn and bite your face off. Everything seems crystal clear and decision making (not always the best decision-making, either) happens at lightning speed. Saying screw-it to the broken arm, you manage to grab a collar in each hand, then somehow get both collars in the good one and drag them, muddy paws and all back into the house...

Where you sink to your knees, shaking so hard your movements lose all coordination. Feeling sick to your stomach, you huddle, looking at the dogs (no visible blood, but you never know with all that hair) but unable to move for minutes that seem like hours, you finally manage to get up and call your husband and blubber out a story so disjointed that he immediately ditches his golf plans and rushes home, fully expecting to find all manner of carnage.

It takes more than twenty minutes to stop shaking, about the same for the nausea to calm down. About that time, you start to feel the scratches and bruising on your own ankle (from one of the dogs, you're pretty sure) and the throbbing protests of your arm for your abuse of it.

If all this sounds like way too much trouble, you may just want to take my word for it. An adrenaline rush is far more potent and debilitating than it is in books and movies. And regardless of the cause, from a slasher coming after you with an axe or your dogs scrapping with an armadillo (this sounds so very Hee Haw, doesn't it?), your body will react in exactly the same way.

Note: This all happened a few hours ago. Miraculously, the dogs weren't hurt (unlike the oppossums and racoons around here, armadillos rarely bite), the armadillo survived (probably sore from its mauling but essentially intact thanks to its hard shell) to dig its way out of the yard (we think it pushed in beneath some wire in one spot, but because the wire had bent in toward the yard, it couldn't leave that way) and I'm fine, after a shower with plenty of soap, peroxide, a thick slathering of Neosporine just in case, and a couple of Aleve.

All in all, this turned out to be less trouble than the Zippy vs. skunk fiasco (after which she ran inside and rolled all over everything, from the carpets to my bedding) but this was much more dramatic.

Thank God my son wasn't there with a camera, or this episode would already be up on Youtube.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Finalists for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Awards

It's out! The hotly anticipated list of nominees for Best Books People Pretended to Read last year. Below are the highlights so folks can Wiki accordingly before the next faculty cocktail party.

(Don't mind us. We're just a coupla swells.)

Roberto Bolaño, 2666, Farrar, Straus
Marilynne Robinson, Home, Farrar, Straus
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project, Riverhead
M. Glenn Taylor, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, West Virginia University Press
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge, Random

August Kleinzahler, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, Farrar, Strauss
Juan Felipe Herrera, Half the World in Light, University of Arizona Press
Devin Johnston, Sources, Turtle Point Press
Pierre Martory (trans. John Ashbery), The Landscapist Sheep Meadow Press
Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar, Copper Canyon Press

Paula J. Giddings, Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, Amistad
Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family In An American Century, Penguin Press
Patrick. French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, Knopf
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, Norton
Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Knopf

Rick Bass, Why I Came West, Houghton Mifflin
Helene Cooper, The House On Sugar Beach, Simon and Schuster
Honor Moore, The Bishop’s Daughter, WW Norton
Andrew X. Pham, The Eaves Of Heaven, Harmony Books
Ariel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, Algonquin

Dexter Filkins, The Forever War, Knopf
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War, Knopf
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side, Doubleday
Allan Lichtman, White Protestant Nation, Atlantic
George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776, Oxford University Press

Click here for the full list.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Every Villain's the Hero of His Own Story

While scratching my head at this perplexing AP headline yesterday, Blagojevich: I'm the victim of plot to raise taxes, I was reminded of an absolute truism. Every villain is the hero or her of his own story. Often, said villains are incredibly creative about how they warp reality in order to craft a heroic narrative for themselves. In this story, the embattled Illinois governor rails against the "black hats" plotting to oust him for nefarious tax-related reasons. In another shining moment, Blogovich actually compared the federal corruption charges against him to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

He's hardly alone in coming up with such comparisons. People invent all sorts of explanations, a million different justifications for why they've committed every act deemed unacceptable by our society. It's fascinating and often more than a little sad to hear their reasoning, to know that somewhere inside their own minds, they are Absolutely Blameless.

When crafting a villain for your book, it's important to keep this in mind. No one simply wakes up one morning and decides to be evil. He has what seems, to him at least. to be good reasons or worthy ends in mind, even when he doesn't like to look too closely at the means he's using to achieve them. And many times, blinded by his own narrative, he's completely unable to see other alternatives.

A really talented author can make readers relate on some level with the book's antagonist while also convincing them to root for the poor, doomed villain's failure (and for the protagonist's success, with any luck). With all the antagonist's hopes, dreams, and motives laid bare, the reader cannot help but relate to him (or her, of course) as a living, breathing human being.

So today, think about your story's bad guy. Really think about his whys and wherefores, and convince us that they matter to him. More than anything. Make them see the human tragedy of one wrong turn (or many) taken, a choice that separates the villain from a hero.

Otherwise, you've got yourself a parody, and not a character.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Saturday morning cartoon: Konstantin Bronzit's "Lavatory Lovestory"

This week's Oscar noms included a nod for Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit's brilliant hand-drawn animated short, "Lavatory Lovestory". Nothing healthier for writers than a bit of wordless storytelling. Watch and fall in love.

(SPOILER ALERT: I posted a comment below translating the sign if you're curious.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Books Unbound: Lev Grossman on the state of the publishing industry

On magazine racks today is the current issue of TIME magazine, which includes Lev Grossman's interesting article on all the reeling and writhing currently going on in the publishing industry.

Quoth Grossman:
A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.

I'm freshly back from New York where I had a number of interesting conversations on that very topic this week. I'll share some of the highlights next week. Meanwhile, read the TIME article here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Getting It Down

"Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite - getting something down."
Julia Cameron

Amen, Julia.

Most writers and artists have no trouble with the idea part of the equation. We can hardly help thinking things up. The trouble is, far too many impediments arise to keep us from giving these ideas form.

But unless we kick our way through these roadblocks and actually do the grunt work of creation, we aren't artists at all, merely dime-a-dozen dreamers.

So with that, I'm waving goodbye and getting back to work.

For more information on the artwork, Encre L. Marquet, please follow this link to the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Romancing the Season:Win a Basket of Autographed Books

Now that I have your attention (VBG), I wanted to let you know I'm helping author-pal T.J. Bennett kick off a wonderful new contest at her blog, IMHO. Commenters on the blog post I've written on What Romance Means to Me (which includes an original poem by yours truly, if you can believe that) can win ten autographed books by various authors, including Kerrelyn Sparks, Susan Squires, Lynne Marshall, Trish Albright, Sophie Jordan/Sharie Kohler, Christie Craig, and Lynda Hillburn. (You must comment on at least two authors' posts in the coming days to be eligible.)

So please stop by and say hello, or share your own romantic gesture... and get a chance to win some inspiring reading just in time for Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Theresa Meyers Shares Lessons from Second Graders

I wanted to give a shout-out to author Theresa Meyers, who's written in her blog Title Wave (love that name) about the lessons she's learned as a writer from teaching second graders. Wonderful post. Hope you'll migrate right over for a look-see.

Real life has so much more to teach us than the ivory tower writers long for. And having worked with kids for most of my adult life, I can tell you they're about as real as it gets.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Prima Donna vs. Patsy: Finding Middle Ground

Too demanding and quick to offense, and an author -- especially one who happens to be female -- is labeled a prima donna. Self-serving, conniving -- and these are only a few of the more printable terms one might hear.(If you're a man, you sort of get a pass on this, being called difficult, reclusive, or at worst anti-social, but it's generally assumed this eccentric behavior is part of your genius and people are almost *thrilled* to tiptoe around you for fear of giving offense.)

But in trying to be "nice," the female author can go too far in the other direction, turning herself into a patsy who always puts her needs, her time, and herself last. She's the one who's always there to volunteer or mentor, who wouldn't think of asking for a speaking fee or balking at late (or missing payments), and who rushes around tying herself up in knots trying not to give offense.

As you might guess, she's not going anywhere in her career. She doesn't have the time, for one thing. And when it comes to crappy covers, low advances, poor positioning on the publisher's list, etc., her editor (who may well love this woman, since she's so darned easy to work with) always knows she'll understand.

Understand and keep her mouth shut like a very good girl.

Fortunately, there is a middle ground. A few years back, Kate White wrote about it in a fun book called Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead... But Gutsy Girls Do: Nine Secrets Every Working Woman Must Know. If you're really having trouble with wimpiness, I recommend it (as long as you take it with a grain of salt.)

I absolutely believe you can be assertive and reasonable without being unpleasant. My little trick is picturing a confident, successful businessman (the kind others don't mind having drinks with or playing a round of golf with once the tough negotiations are over) and asking myself whether he would feel too shy or worried to bring up whatever's on his mind. (Yeah, I know my subconscious is using a gender-biased stereotype, but hey, it works for me!)

As a woman, I can empathize with the other person's position, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't advocate for my own interests first and foremost. It's not selfish; it's good business, and it creates a healthier self-concept that will (believe it or not) generally attract respect... and leave the door open to form friendships.

Friendships among equals, that is, not master and supplicant.

So how about the rest of you? Do you ever have trouble asserting yourself? Or do you have any tricks to help you?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Go with God, Andrew Wyeth (a Secret Life rediscovered)

I was not at all sad this weekend when I heard about the death of Andrew Wyeth, the great American artist. His long life was everything an artist could hope for. He grew up surrounded by artists who loved him and nurtured his talent. At the ripe old age of twenty, he had mounted his first one-man exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery in New York, selling out his entire inventory and guaranteeing a future in which he would be free to explore and express himself however he wanted for the next 72 years. He leaves us with a body of work that takes his uniquely American spirit into the future.

I've loved Andrew Wyeth since I was just barely big enough to hold a big book of American art (appropriately titled The Big Book of American Art) open to the full page print of "Christina's World". Whenever I see that painting, I'm struck with one particularly vivid memory: sitting on the floor in our house in Tomah, Wisconsin, tucked into a corner close to the heater between the wall and a big old console stereo. Chet Atkins was on the record player, smooth and mellow in contrast to the sound of my mother's manual typewriter.

When my own kids were little, Gary and I took them to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadd's Ford, PA, to see the paintings of members of the Wyeth family, and years later, I finally saw Christina in person at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Up close, it's one of those paintings you fall into for an hour, and seeing it left me choked up and weepy, partly because it connected to such a potent memory of the happy childhood in which I too was surrounded by love and nurtured by artists.

I was alive with curiosity when Wyeth's closely kept secret, the Helga series, came to light in the late '80s, but because I loved Wyeth's work so dearly, I was nervous about knowing too much about the man himself, so I put off reading Richard Meryman's Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. As I recall, I finally picked it up one long evening when I was doing a table signing no one came to. Here's a bit from the front matter in the Harper Perennial paperback edition:
This biography became for me a map of Andrew's all-consuming obsession with painting: its ripple effects on his relationships, its roots in N.C.. Wyeth's romanticized legacy, both dynamic and darkly distorting. The book is the story of how the complex pieces of his life--the inputs, the conscious choices, the compulsions, the angers and affections--have combined to transmit emotion onto his flat surfaces...

He did not want the reproductions of his work reverentially placed or the page surrounded by white borders like a frame. He wanted the excitement of the pictures bled off the edges and carried across the gutter between the pages.

It's a terrific book about an amazing life. I'm going to try to find a copy so I can read it on my way to New York, where I plan to pay a visit to Christina this week. My way of saying thank you and goodbye.

Go with God, Mr. Wyeth.

Top: "Trodden Weed", Wyeth's unconventional self-portrait, middle: "Christina's World", bottom: Time Magazine's Helga cover

Saturday, January 17, 2009

You 've Got to Laugh

From time to time, I'll meet authors who're clearly juiced on their own grandeur. Frankly, I can't imagine how many layers of insulation it would take to lose touch with publishing's myriad humbling lessons. These puffed up peacocks must have legions of flunkies running interference and whispering sweet pull-quotes in their ears as they walk out the door.

These haughty types must never read snarkily superior Amazon reviews, either, or snotterati comments on so-called "review" blogs, and I'm sure they have never responded to gushing, sob-story requests for autographed books or photos (does anyone really collect autographed author photos?) only to find them for sale on eBay a few days later.

And clearly, these arrogant authors are not attending the same book signings as the rest of us. Such as the one a friend recently reminded me of, where a man rushed up to me holding a book open and asked me, somewhat breathlessly, to sign the inner liner.

"But I didn't write that book," I said, peering at him through stacks of books I had written.

"I know that," he said, looking at me as though I had the intellect of your average rutabaga. "But this is the book I want to buy."

For the record, I didn't sign his book (he was suitably indignant) but I did convert this minor-league humiliation into a funny story to share with other writers. Which, the way I see it, is the best way of surviving this biz with one's ego relatively-intact.

You've got to laugh.

And every day I try to, when I receive scam pitches fairly oozing with false (and transparently generic) flattery; when my dictation software transmutes my brilliant prose into gobbledygook; when my editor's assistant e-mails me a request for something she needed 10 minutes ago as I'm walking out the door to an appointment.

I laugh to keep from tearing out my hair, to keep from turning cynical, and because I'm not in this business as a sprinter, but a marathoner, and I want to be here -- sane and smiling -- for the long haul.

So what about writing keeps you laughing? Any funny stories to share from signings, critique group meetings, or the Internet? If so, I'd love to hear them. It's 10 AM already, and I haven't had my first laugh of the day.

Answering Colleen's question above: Mitchell and Webb make me laugh.

We ran this little video on BtO a while back, and as hilarious as it is, it seriously changed the way I hear criticism and comments from editors, agents, critique partners, and myself. It's worth a rerun. I still fall out every time I see it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A joint's only as classy as the last guy in the door (Joni's publishing parable du jour)

Several months ago, I went to a private party at an upscale restaurant in Philly. In attendance were a number of classical musicians, some movie people, a few attorneys, agents, and that sort. Everyone was dressed for the opera, including the waiters. I had my customary ONE glass of champagne (I get tipsy only in the company of people and dogs who can be trusted to still love me in the morning) and then refilled my dainty fluted glass from a water bottle I kept tucked away on a window ledge. Not everyone at the soiree was that timid/circumspect about consumption, but folks generally behaved like they were at a business function, which they were. (Make no mistake: all publishing and entertainment industry parties are business functions.)

Late in the evening, I and a producer who'd chatted me up decided to scout out the ladies room. A waiter penguin pointed toward an ornate staircase, and because the hand of God is upon me, the producer headed up just in front of me with her hand on the scrolling banister. About halfway up, she stopped with a choked shriek of horror. Someone -- either a bar patron or one of the less circumspect party-goers -- had barfed, and we'd walked right into it. She got the worst of the deal, but I didn't escape entirely untainted. It was on the banister, the wall, the carpeted steps...

"Oh, God...oh, God..." she whispered, frozen on the stairway, holding her hand as far from herself as is possible when one's own hand has suddenly become an object of revulsion. "Help."

I dashed down the steps and pushed through a swinging door to the kitchen, calling, "Towels! One wet, one dry! Stat!"

By the time the two busboys and I got back to the producer, she was seething. The hostess and maitre d' soon joined the fray, frantically apologizing, swiping at the producer's dress and my dressy Nine West shoes with damp bar rags, and trying their best to make it right with vouchers for dinner for two with our spouses.

"Don't bother," the producer said icily. "I won't be back."

The hostess turned to me with the vouchers, but I shook my head.

"I know it's not your fault," I said. "I'm sure it's a very nice place, but..."

One of the busboys shrugged and said philosophically, "Joint's only as classy as the last guy in the door."

Ain't it the truth?

Last year, I read a bestselling novel by a very successful author, and everything was chugging along fine until -- blllaaaagh -- out of nowhere, one of the minor characters did something really stupid. And then a bunch of stilted dialogue ensued, trying to justify this choice. I could just see the editor's note on the first draft: What? WTF? And then the author thinking, Zounds! I better trump up some way to justify that because I'm certainly not going to cut something that entertains me like this does.

I tried to be cordial and read on, but the book found it's way to my bedside heap and sat there for about seven months collecting dust, until yesterday, when I admitted to myself that as much as I wanted to read that book, I just couldn't go back without thinking about that one absolutely putrid moment. I chucked it into a box in my garage. A book for which I paid twenty-four bucks. Written by an author I respect...but not as much as I used to.

It seems like a lot of response to one moment in a fleeting appearance by a minor character, but I'm sorry -- it stank up the place! I can't walk through the front door of that book ever again without thinking...bllaaagh.

You know what they say about theatre: "There are no small parts, only small actors." Well, the same dynamic applies to a novel. Truth be told, there's no such thing as a minor character. And a book is only as good as the last character on deck.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The More, the Merrier

Recently, I was asked to speak to local writing group about forming and reforming effective critique groups. While some cynical souls might say misery loves company, I'm of the philosophy "the more, the merrier." So I asked critique partners Joni Rodgers and TJ Bennett to come and join me.

It really was enjoyable, dishing with the two of them while entertaining questions from members of the group. Somehow, having company makes speaking a far friendlier, far more dynamic experience. Interactions become more natural and less stilted, and those listening were treated to a much better idea of our critique group's dynamics that I could've possibly given them by speaking on my own.

In the photo, from left to right, you'll see me, Joni, and then TJ. And I want to give a friendly shout-out to the wonderful members of the Northwest Houston chapter of RWA.

The following week, I was involved in a panel discussion of various publishers for another RWA group. As with the critique group talk, this one had a natural flow and was nowhere near as exhausting as a solo presentation.

I've also found that signings with one or two friends are far more pleasant than signing by myself. Though I dislike large group signings, which intimidate buyers by forcing them to pick and choose where to spend their money and can engender unhealthy competition, the smaller ones generate a pleasant, chatty atmosphere that actually encourages potential customers to join in. Also, I found that when signing with only one other, potential buyers frequently feel inclined to buy a book from each person. This works especially well with mass-market paperbacks, where the financial outlay is modest.

So the next time you're asked to sign or speak, consider inviting a writer friend (hint: pick a really fun one!) to join you. Many times, your fellow authors are happy for the exposure, and if nothing else, you can count on a more pleasant experience.

What about the rest of you? Do you (or would you) prefer to sign or speak on your own or with a friend?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Score one for Joni and Kristin Chenoweth:A rocking great review from PW!

Congratulations to Kristin Chenoweth and BTO's own Joni Rodgers on the fabulous Publishers Weekly review for their upcoming memoir collaboration, A Little Bit Wicked, which is due in stores April 14!

As Joni would say, gofightwin, book! Here's the review:

A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages Kristin Chenoweth with Joni Rodgers. Touchstone, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4165-8055-3
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 himself. With digressions, detours and words like "whack-a-noodle," the book is busy with show-biz flip quips and writing reminiscent of Julia Phillips's You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (minus the drugs and invective). Chenoweth has a frenzied, free-associative style; it's as if she's speaking breathlessly into a tape recorder between sitcom scenes. To use her phrase, this book is "a hoot and a holler"—a fast-paced frolic that her fans will appreciate. (Apr. 14)

Orwell's "Why I Write"

Stumbled on George Orwell's magnificent essay "Why I Write" recently. Hadn't read it in years, and it's something that every writer should take a look at every once in a while.
"...All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."

So with that in mind, here's this from 1984...

"To be a minority of one doesn't make one mad..." Sidestepping the potential double-speak there, I shall embrace this thought as I struggle onward.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sunday Quote: Mansfield on Risk

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
-- Katherine Mansfield

This is a quote that really spoke to me today. I've been troubled by doubt and having a hard time writing. I need to refocus on pleasing myself, telling the story as I want to hear it, and trusting appreciative readers -- the right readers -- to find it.

Thought I'd also slip in a sneak peak at the cover for my upcoming novel, Beneath Bone Lake. I'm told the colors and lettering will be more vivid in the finished product.

While I'm at it, here's the copy from the back cover:

Ruby Monroe knows she's way out of her depth the minute she lays eyes on Sam McCoy. She's been warned to steer clear of this neighbor, the sexy bad boy with a criminal past. But with her four-year-old daughter missing, her home incinerated and her own life threatened by a tattooed gunman, where else can she turn? Drowning in the flood of emotion unleashed by their mind-blowing encounters, Ruby is horrified to learn an unidentified body has been dredged up, the local sheriff is somehow involved, and Sam hasn't told her all he knows. Has she put her trust in the wrong man and jeopardized her very survival by uncovering the secrets...


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Life Interruptus

Today we welcome special guest blogger, historical romance author Emily Bryan, here to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart.
Read on for a chance to win signed hilarious upcoming release, Vexing the Viscount.

Ah! The writer’s life.

We sit about in our posh home offices, gazing out at picture perfect scenery, and creating our masterpieces of prose without effort. We fling our words on the page with abandon and without need of revision. Stories flow from our fingertips so easily, we laugh at deadlines. A few scribbled phrases on a crumpled napkin will net us a multi-book contract. Promotion is taken care of by the promo-elves who creep out each night and stuff envelops, craft clever blog posts, and contact influential media types about TV interviews and feature stories. Royalty checks roll in like clockwork and our families bask in the reflected glow of our success.

And you didn’t think I could write fantasy!

The truth is a writer’s life is very much like everyone else’s. We do housework. We take care of our families. Lots of us hold down 9-5 jobs (I’m no longer in that camp. Thank you, God!) We wonder how we’ll get everything done that needs doing, but somehow, we knuckle down and meet the deadlines and produce stories that we hope people will want to read.

Then like everyone else, sometimes life throws us a serious curve. Colleen Thompson and I are just two of the most recent poster girls for Life Interruptus. Colleen with an elbow injury that restricts her typing and me with cancer.

My mantra has always been “You-Must-Write-Every-Day-To-Be-A-Good-Writer.” I took my computer with us on vacations. I wrote at my grandmother’s hospital bedside after she had a stroke (while she was sleeping, of course!). Even when I worked 40 hours a week, I consistently produced 100 manuscript pages a month. When I started writing full time, I kicked myself each day I didn’t produce 10 pages. I fully believed Norman Mailer’s credo. “Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day."

Good luck with that when you’re mainlining morphine.

Being diagnosed with cancer has changed my views a little. I’m re-evaluating what it means to be a writer. Yes, it’s important to set goals and a deadline is a professional obligation I will not violate. And I still believe the only way to improve as a writer is to write.

But part of a writer’s job is to experience life deeply enough to share it in a meaningful way. To observe with fresh eyes. To store up emotions and motivations for our characters’ future use. Nothing is ever wasted on a writer. We’ll use every tragedy, every triumph, every hysterically funny or terrifying thing that happens to us or to anyone within our circle of observation.

So I gave myself permission for a little downtime while I recuperated from my December surgery. I caught up on my reading for pleasure. I did some research for the novella I’m working on (yes, I find research fun!). I watched some movies I’d been meaning to see, ticking off plotpoints in my head as the story scrolled by. I enjoyed Christmas with my family.

And I thought about life and death and laughter and loving.

On Monday of this week, I started working on my holiday novella again. After my brief hiatus, it was wonderfully refreshing to slip into my fictional world once again. I had great fun walking in my characters’ shoes and even more fun thwarting them with obstacles to overcome. I crafted a few zingers I hope will have my readers chuckling. I polished and tightened a love scene that had me squirming in my recliner.

The rest did me good. Now the work is doing me one better. While I was writing, I forgot to fret about how chemo might impact my 2009. Even my incision hurt less. My “Life Interruptus” experience made me appreciate afresh the simple joy of putting words together.

If there does turn out to be chemo in my future, I may have to reduce my 10-page-a-day expectations, but I’ll still be able to do the work of a writer.

Even on a bad day.

If you’re an aspiring writer, please visit my website and check out my WRITE STUFF pages. They are just for you.

Thanks for letting me visit with your readers, Colleen and Joni. Feel better, Colleen. I’m happy to be able to offer a FREE copy of Vexing the Viscount to one lucky commenter today. I haven’t mentioned much about my upcoming release in this post, so if you’d like to read an excerpt from Vexing the Viscount, please visit! I’ll be popping in to answer questions and shoot the breeze. Be sure to check back tomorrow to see if YOU are the winner!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Angels and Liars PS

Betwixt holidays, I blogged about Herman Rosenblat's concentration camp memoir Angel at the Fence, the publication of which imploded when he admitted that he'd fabricated most of the story. I've gotten a lot of interesting email about the controversy, including a heads up about Marjorie Ingall's excellent column yesterday in Forward. Check it out.

Go get mooned this weekend! (Every once in a while, we have to look up.)

Breaking away from a critique ms last night, I went to let my dog out, and the moment I opened the back door, I knew something was different. I crossed the patio, out of the shadow of the roof and into a power wash of the brightest moonlight I've experienced south of Montana. And the moon isn't even full until Saturday; right now it's waxing gibbous.

"Gare Bear!" I called. "Get out here and look at this." And I swear the moon was so bright, it changed the sound of my voice.

Gary's my go-to guy for all things astronomical. He calls in the middle of the night whenever there's a conjunction or an occultation or the space station is flying over, and he regularly checks to make sure we don't miss any major happenings that can be seen with naked eye, spotting scope, or web cam. According to my old man, we're about to experience a perigee moon, the brightest full moon of 2009.

Here's how SpaceWeather explains it:
Johannes Kepler explained the phenomenon 400 years ago. The Moon's orbit around Earth is not a circle; it is an ellipse, with one side 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other. Astronomers call the point of closest approach "perigee," and that is where the Moon will be this weekend...

January is a snowy month in the northern hemisphere, and the combination of snow + perigee moonlight is simply amazing. When the Moon soars overhead at midnight, the white terrain springs to life with a reflected glow that banishes night, yet is not the same as day. You can read a newspaper, ride a bike, write a letter, and at the same time count the stars overhead. It is an otherworldly experience that really must be sampled first hand.

The most spectacular effect will be when the moon is close to the horizon, and the actual phenomenon blends with optical illusion. If you're in position, you'll be blown away by...well, it's just a huge honkin' moon!

Okay, how do I tie this into the writing life...let's see. Well, there's the blending of truth and illusion to create something striking and memorable. Or there's something oovy groovy about the trepidation of the spheres. Or maybe it's simply that it momentarily drags our nose away from the grindstone and up to the heavens.

I'm reminded of a favorite zen koan: "Barn's burned down. Now I can see the moon."

Thursday, January 08, 2009

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Start Dragon

Ever wonder what you'd do if you were suddenly incapacitated and unable to complete a deadline? After all, only a tiny minority of writers have disability insurance, and sugar daddies are in woefully short supply these days.

After injuring my dominant left arm and shoulder and finding myself unable to type, I quickly thought of a program I heard other writers discussing. Dragon NaturallySpeaking contains everything you need to get started with dictation. Included with the standard program you'll receive one microphone headset and a clear set of instructions to turn your computer into a voice recognition machine.

Yes, you will have to spend some time learning the software and training it to recognize your distinct voice. But within two hours of receiving the package, I was responding to e-mails and beginning work on my manuscript.

At first, Dragon was making many mistakes, and I was constantly forgetting the correct commands. However, in another day I was using the program almost effortlessly -- and that was under the influence of painkillers.

I've thought about trying out Dragon in the past, but I seriously doubted I could write creatively via dictation. However, when forced to make the transition, I found it far easier than expected. Yes, I still have to watch Dragon for mistakes and I'm new enough to the program that I'm forced to give it my full attention. I've also found it's a bit prudish about off-color language, but I'm equally determined to allow my characters to say what they want to say.

At the moment, I'm dictating this blog post. The only corrections I've made so far, outside of a couple of miscues, are the sort of normal tweaks I make any time I'm writing.

For certain, I'm writing much faster than I possibly could typing with one hand, and with far less frustration. I can definitely see why the software is popular among those with temporary or permanent disabilities. While I'm not sure I would've wanted to go through the bother and expense of learning and buying Dragon without a compelling reason, I'm definitely glad I have it now and would highly recommend it to anyone experiencing hand or eye problems.

My husband, a slow typist, is interested in training the software to his voice as well. I'll keep you posted on how that works out for him, though I'm betting without an injury to force him into it, he'll find it more frustrating than helpful.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Diagrammar (a moment of unabashed love for Strunk & White)

Critiquing a ms for a talented young fantasy writer, I'm getting an interesting taste of a genre in which I'm not at all well read. The story is strong enough to pull me in. I adjusted quickly to the unfamiliar names. I'm not feeling overly video-gamish about the balls-out action movie battle scenes. What is hanging me up is the desire to smack this young man's middle school English teachers. Here's a guy who's got the essential unteachable element of talent; it hurts my soul to see him tripped up by technical issues, which -- because he is a good writer -- stand out like dung piles in a diamond mine. If he was a lousy writer, I'd never notice the minutia.

Good grammar skills don't make for rigid prose. Just the opposite. When you know the rules well enough to follow them consistently, wrap your head around the structure of a sentence as a series of stepping stones -- without stumbling blocks or switchbacks -- then you instinctively know how to bend and break the rules without betraying the spirit of grammar, which is to facilitate the reader's experience.

One of the most important things a writer needs to have firmly ingrained in the brain is sentence diagramming. It's not about anal retention or rigid conformity, it's about a welcoming world of words in which the reader doesn't have to climb over anything to get to the characters and sail into the journey.

If your diagramming skills are due for a refresher, click here to revisit the basics. Or there's this...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Here at the Intersection of Discretion and Valor

Thanks to Joni and to everyone who's expressed concern over my broken wing. I hope to receive my copy of Dragon tomorrow and will start working to train it. Meanwhile, I'm laboriously typing with one hand to see how frustrated I get. :)

As I mentioned in the comments, I was really embarrassed to have injured myself doing something so crazy as trying out my teen son's skateboard. At least one family member has given me the "why don't you just admit you're old and uncoordinated" lecture, but not a one of my writer friends.

Why? I think it's because as novelists, we live at the intersection of Discretion and Valor, where we continually dare to defy the tremendous odds favoring failure for a single chance to fly.

And even when we crash, we have only to look around for someone to offer a hand up... someone else who understands the reasons we brave the breaks and bruises time and time again.

May you all, however, experience far gentler landings. Or at least remember to keep your dominant hand tucked.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Life smarts (update on Colleen's broken wing)

When asked what on earth would tempt an intelligent woman to hop on her son's skateboard on New Year's Eve, Colleen's been quipping, "I realized I hadn't done anything incredibly stupid in 2008. This was my last chance." The resulting broken elbow and wrecked shoulder are no joke. It's every writer's nightmare: a typing handicap.

Colleen called me less than 24 hours after this spectacular ass-over-tea-kettle flying-Walenda-meets-driveway event, and she'd already ordered Dragon Naturally Speaking, a voice recognition software that's gotten great reviews. (Colleen promises to update us on how that works out for her.) She's a "life goes on" kind of person who knows that writing is not about typing and falling is all about getting up again. She's got a book under contract, deadlines looming, bloggery to be blogged and stories to be told. Braced by a healthy dose of Darvocet, she showed up at a North Houston chapter of the RWA on Saturday to give a scheduled talk on critique group dynamics. I am struggling to swallow the word...plucky. Gotta love her.

After a weekend of stout drugs and the love of a good fireman, Colleen's off to the orthopedic surgeon today to find out exactly how long she'll be trying to write around her broken wing. I'll update as soon as I hear from her. I'll also be reminding her often over the next few months, as difficult as they might be, that living life, attempting to fly, daring to try -- that is the antithesis of stupid. Adventure is the only sensible use of a human life. Sometimes pain is the price of our ticket to ride, and as the story unfolds, it's worth it. (And yes, this is all easy for me to say since I can still sleep on either side and type with both hands.)

Since the rest of us don't get to be on drugs today, I'll leave you with this Mister Mister moment from the days of our youth, when we sailed the suburbs on neon skateboards, unbroken and indestructible, our bangs feathered like a Flock of Seagulls on the breeze.
"Take these broken wings and learn to fly again,
learn to live so free.
When we hear the voices sing
the book of love will open up and let us in..."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Declaring your genius

This in Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac yesterday:
It was on this day in 1882 that the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde docked in New York. Customs asked him if he had anything to declare. Oscar Wilde replied, "Nothing but my genius."

Every time I hear that story, I'm reminded that this is all any of us have in this profession. The total contents of my office is worth two or three thousand tops, including all the technology, my Louis Vuitton knock-off tote, and the dog's new chew toys. Rights and royalties provide a dependable trickle of butter and egg money. Sometimes right before I hand off a manuscript, I have bad dreams about my house exploding in flames. Sometimes I have to get up out of bed and compulsively back up everything online, just to make sure. The only real asset I have is my ability to set words in rows, and this work has value, but it took me a long time to take ownership of that.

Why is it so hard to say "I'm a good writer" and so easy to say "I suck"? I was always big on the self-deprecating humor and self-slamming blah blah blah until an editor bluntly said to me, "If you don't believe in this work, stop wasting my time with it. If you do believe in it, stop disingenuously running it down."

Suggested New Years resolution for every writer within hearing: declare a moratorium on negative self-talk. You are the first and most powerful advocate of your own work. Declare your genius and stand by it.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Saturday morning video: "The Darlene Sunshine Show"

Just for fun. This mostly deleted scene from the movie "Stranger Than Fiction" does a pretty acurate send up of the typical author interview.

Friday, January 02, 2009

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button": Did you love it or hate it?

Earlier this week, Colleen and I went to see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", the extraordinary movie based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I loved it. Colleen not s'much. (I was sitting there choked in tears at the end of the three hour film, so I only vaguely remember her saying something about "watching paint dry.") I want to see it again, so I'm trying to get the Gare Bear to go with me this weekend, but I won't be surprised if he reacts the same way Colleen did.

The movie is long. And odd. It requires patience and a complete suspension of disbelief that modern audiences simply aren't trained for, so you've got to be in the right mood for it. The same is true of the short story, though the story and script have very little in common -- at least superficially.

The story is very Fitzgerald (though it's not an example of his best writing, IMHO), and the setting -- Baltimore during the industrial revolution, Spanish American War, roaring twenties -- is far removed from the movie, which is set in New Orleans between WWI and Hurricane Katrina. That shift in time and geography has a major impact on the characters, of course. The story is sort of absurdist or maybe Kafkaesque. It's very short and wry and walks us briskly through the pragmatic challenges of Benjamin's backwards life while the movie takes time to be sentimental, philosophical, and rich with beautifully wrought images. The women in the story are a lot less noble than the movie women, typical of Fitz, and made me newly sad for him and Zelda, two people who loved and tortured each other famously.

When Fitzgerald included the story in his collection Tales of the Jazz Age, he had this to say about it:
This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain's to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. By trying the experiment upon only one man in a perfectly normal world I have scarcely given his idea a fair trial. Several weeks after completing it, I discovered an almost identical plot in Samuel Butler's "Note-books."

The story was published in "Collier's" last summer and provoked this startling letter from an anonymous admirer in Cincinnati:


I have read the story Benjamin Button in Colliers and I wish to say that as a short story writer you would make a good lunatic I have seen many peices of cheese in my life but of all the peices of cheese I have ever seen you are the biggest peice. I hate to waste a peice of stationary on you but I will."

The two Benjamin Buttons -- screen and story -- seem to have in common a serious case of love-it-or-hate-it. As someone who often feels out of sync with the rest of the world, I loved them both.

We're interested in your thoughts. Anyone else see the movie this week?

Read "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and the rest of Tales of the Jazz Age in full on Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

Wishing everyone a joyfully productive and wildly creative 2009!

Ring Out Wild Bells
by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, love, and statutory compliance ~