Friday, February 27, 2009

Authors Guild v. Google (kinda dry for Friday, but possibly worth looking into)

Somewhat in keeping with Colleen's post about intellectual property theft yesterday, I thought I'd pass along this notice from the Authors Guild regarding the $125 million settlement with Google:
"The settlement strengthens authors' rights and will, if approved by the court, result in millions of dollars of payments to authors. At least $45 million will be paid to authors and publishers to release claims for books that are scanned by Google by May 5th of this year. But that's not the most significant part of the settlement, in our view. We expect the licensing that this settlement would enable, particularly of out-of-print books, will result in far more revenues for authors over the coming years.

The settlement covers essentially all in-copyright books that were published by January 5, 2009. (Some authors have told us that they think of the settlement as covering only books for adults or nonfiction books. This is incorrect. Books of all types are covered by the settlement.)

We think it's in the strong interest of authors of all books, whether in print or out of print, to go to and claim their books. Here are some of the benefits of doing so:

1. If you file your claim by January 5, 2010, and a book in which you have a copyright interest is scanned by Google before May 5, 2009, you will be entitled to a small share (at least $60 per book, but up to $300, depending on the number of claims) in a pool of at least $45 million that Google is paying to release claims for works that were scanned without rightsholder permission.

2. By registering, you'll be able to share in potential revenues for uses of your works under several new licensing programs that the settlement enables. Here are examples of licensing revenues you may be entitled to share in:

A. Revenues from printing out pages from your works at terminals in public libraries.

B. Revenues from ads that may appear near "previews" of your works at

C. Revenues from sales of special online editions of your works.

D. Revenues from institutional subscriptions that may include your works.

Important note: Only out-of-print books will be included in these programs by default. In-print books will be included only where rightsholders affirmatively elect to do so.

3. By registering, you'll automatically enroll in the new Book Rights Registry, which will give you a considerable amount of control over the rights to your works, including your right to withdraw your work from the licensing programs described above.

The important thing is to assert your rights. It's easiest to do so by setting up an account at, the official settlement website. Once you're logged in, it's generally most efficient to claim your works by searching the database of titles by your name.

There are many more details, which the attached document spells out. For those who would like more information, we'll soon be announcing a new series of phone-in seminars. You will receive that e-mail later this week.

Please feel free to forward and post this message: non-Guild members are entitled to the same advantages of the settlement as Guild members."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Cost of Free: How File-Sharing Hurts Us

This morning on the Today Show, I watched a story about identity theft through file-sharing sites such as Limewire. While users (an alarming number of them children) use such sites to steal copyrighted material, such as music, movies, and more and more frequently, novels, identity thieves are reaching into their computers (as often as not their parents' computers) and downloading personal information. Then, before you can say Chapter 11, the victims' tax returns, college financial aid applications, and banking information are out there in cyberspace, where anyone can steal them... and wreak absolute havoc in your life. Apparently, this problem is nothing new and extends to plenty of other file-sharing sites as well.

I heard a couple of stunned parents find out their tax return had been fraudulently filed before they had the chance to do it, with their $2000 refund wired into some thief's bank account. They seemed stunned because they had no clue that their daughters' file-sharing habits were hurting anybody. Until thieve reached out and hurt the family, taking "everything we've worked for."

Though I feel compassion for the victims of ID theft, this is sort of the way I feel when I see my work coming up as available for "free download" on Internet searches. I even see sites (many of them off-shore, with no contact info offered) claiming to have material that hasn't yet been properly edited or published. I work for nine months to a year on each book, with little guarantee of numeration, only to see it stolen, and its sharing passed off as innocuous "fun" and a "great way to save money." As if downloaders have a god-given right to take whatever can be stolen.

Not long ago, author Stephanie Meyer of the popular Twilight series had the partial rough draft of her work in progress, Midnight Sun, stolen and widely, illegally disseminated over the 'Net. Meyer was mortified, angry, hurt -- as any author would be. In fact, she was so upset, she abandoned the project for a time, unable to handle the pain of having the material out in the world before it was ready. By following the link to her response, you can get an glimpse of the quality of pain this illegal distribution caused her.

The trouble is, many people think of all artists, whether they be authors, musicians, or those in the movie industry as something other than "real people." They believe (with a painful degree of wrongness) that we're all so rich this won't affect us. They also think of the publishers, distributors, and other purveyors of art as faceless corporations, too large to be seriously damaged by the loss of "a few" sales. But the fact is, when theft puts publishers or record labels out of business, they can't go out and find new artists, or pay them for their labors. And less-established, rising stars (the struggling majority) will never get their chance. Nor will the public have the chance to experience their talent, since they'll be forced to go work in fast food jobs.

But if simple decency and fairness aren't enough to stop people from downloading or teach their kids that they won't tolerate it, perhaps the specter of identity theft will do it. Because there's no honor among pirates, nor on the file-sharing websites where they so often weigh anchor.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fat Nude Writers rock (with congrats to Patty, our Fat Nude winner!)

A thoroughly enjoyable flurry came in response to our Fat Nude Writing challenge. Sarah talked about an Indigo Girls song that asks “How long till my soul gets it right?” provoking questions about the possible consequences of expressing herself as an artist:
…Truly, I have never felt right. Something feels out of place, and I have never been able to put my finger on it. Maybe it is the mistakes of the long lost past haunting me. Is it strange that the lines of a song could affect me so? Maybe the voices of the Indigo Girls is speaking to my soul, reminding me that there is more to what I see in me…

Colleen’s fat, nude moment came when she graduated college and accepted a teaching job 2,500 miles away from her close-knit family in New Jersey:
Without knowing a soul or much of anything about the southwest corner of Arizona (except that it didn't snow, which was a big plus at the moment) I packed my belongings in a car that wasn't long for the world and did the whole "Go West, Young Woman" thing. Because I wanted to claim an adventure for myself while I had that opportunity.

Dorothy’s “Delusions of Grandeur” may pay off yet:
Age 34. Remarried. Pregnant. Really feeling like it’s time to write that novel. Terrified to start because…Fame and Fortune. A virtual certainty my name will become the household word I’ve always known it would be. With certainty. Because I survived a crazy childhood. Because I had my 19th birthday in Alexandria, Egypt where I sailed as a merchant marine. Because I was destined to be remembered throughout the ages.

…Fourteen years and four novels later, Katie changed jobs and hasn’t called. Son of a bitch.

Stepping up and speaking out, Vicky surprised everyone including herself at a writing conference:
I signed up to pitch my fledgling manuscript. Unfortunately I didn't know how to pitch...

The editor asked me, "Is this the one where the guy is really hung over?" I said, "Yes, but I promise he's gettting reformed." Everybody cracked up...

Then she asked me if I'd entered it in another contest. I knew there was only one left. So I meekly asked, "The Orange Rose?" She nodded. "I gave you first place. I guess you won it."

Lark talked about summoning the courage to reconnect with an old flame:
...In the long run, things didn’t work out for us, but over the next five years we gave it a hell of a good shot. Best of all, we’re still friends and I’ve never had to wonder what might have been.

Jo Anne inspired me by embracing her bignitude:
...I’m not a head-down, eyes-averted, knees-together person. I’m a throw-my-arms-wide-open, open-my-mind, open-my-life-to-people soul. I’ve got a big smile. I’ve got big energy. I have a big personality and a big heart filled with the capacity for big love.

So I come to you today. A big woman of sixty-two, with a big, booming voice. I’m out of shape, and I have bad knees. I’ve got gray hair and arthritis. But by God, I’m fearless.

And our winner, Patty Henderson, spoke of keeping a “Fat Nude Eye to the Sky”:
Not one to learn the easy way, having a male nurse mere inches from my face as my left eye continued to blossom to a royal blue with a tint of purple and shades of pink etched in a bloody crust I found the words "you need to file charges," a rude and abrupt reality.

The chill of the examination room was warm in comparison to the sadness that ran through my veins. However, as I turned for the photographs the deputy needed, the stark reality was I was on the way back. My spirit had risen and it would no longer be beaten down. The limit of defeat of my soul had been touched upon and no longer would the man who'd driven me to this exhaustive, stark awakening ever take me here again.

To say the departure was immediate would be misleading. I stood steadfast, determined to give it my all. The last call, if you will. But that proverbial straw came and the door didn't hit me. There was little drama left. The woman I'd always been capable of being was fully present, not to be engaged, bent or torn.

With God, my guides and the angels who watch over me, I moved gently, but steadily, making constant headway, never looking back. It was and will always be about looking forward. It is not where I was nor what happened, but how blessed I am and how far I have come.

The journey is tender, earthy and reverent. I realized my soul is precious and I have gifts to nurture, share and treasure. My children and I have found what we lost and the peace I'd thought forever missing, is found.

It took a man to point to another man and say this is wrong for me to believe.

Now I am a woman, whole, powerful, enlightened, strengthened by pain, done with thinking I was less instead of more, now looking at goals and life plans when there were, at one time, no dreams or prayers I could hear in my heart.

I will not look back. My eyes will be to the sky and my soul will do a tantric dance.

It took the spastic journey to the bottom to propel me to bliss.

Huge thanks to all our contributors, and congrats to Patty. (Flip me an email, girlfriend, and let me know which book you want.) Click here to read all the entries in their entirety.

(Above: Pieter Paul Rubens' "Union of Earth and Water")

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's Keeping You Tethered?

"A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."
--Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

We allow all sorts of things to keep us "safely" in port. Fear of failure. Fear of success. The pain of some childhood rejection still telling us we don't deserve better.

What's keeping you tethered? And what's your plan for casting off and doing what you must to hoist the sails? For without a plan, the the courage to act on it, the one certainly in this life is that you're staying where you are.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fat, Nude Writing Contest

Just a quick note to let out fabulous entrants know we're delaying the post on the winners for a few days, as Joni was called out of town on business. (See her post below!)

Stay tuned for a winner early this coming week!

Today's image is Rubens' The Three Graces. Lovely!

Joni says:
Thanks, Colleen. And sorry about that, gals. One too many subdivisions in the mental real estate combined with chock-full-o-nuts schedule and iffy internet at the hotel. Back in my office tomorrow with the winning results!

Feel free to dive in there with a last minute entry!

The view from here

Hope everyone's had a wonderfully productive week. I'm in New York working on a bombastically fun project. Rue McClanahan's book is being adapted for Broadway, and as her memoir guru, I've been brought in to collaborate on the script. Suddenly, everything I've learned in my script/screenwriting studies over the last year is coming into play (ba-dum-bum CHHH!). I had no idea where, when, how, or if I was ever going to use any of that, but now here I am.

The last few times I've been in the city, I've stayed at the pleasant Park Central Hotel on 7th Ave betwixt 56th & 57th. Close to the publishing and theater neighborhoods, an easy hop to anywhere on the subway. This week, I'm on the 11th floor. From up here, the people on the street look busy but not as intimidating as they seemed to me the first few times I came to New York. What looks like a tangle of traffic from street level -- dodging taxis, rumbling buses, daring pedestrians -- from up here, it all makes perfect sense. It's like looking down on the June Taylor Dancers and seeing their ridiculously fabulous legs forming stars and asterisks.

Looking up, there's a lot going on between here and the skyline. And a whole lot more between skyline and sky. Last night, I opened the window and listened to someone practicing violin somewhere overhead. This morning, someone a few floors above me leaned out her open window to air a slinky red dress. As I scan the windows straight across the way, I see no less than a dozen people tapping away on laptops.

The 11th floor is about where I see myself as a writer, professionally and artistically. My father always told me, "Luck is preparedness meeting opportunity." By that definition, I've definitely been lucky in my career. This job is a prime example. Writers lay the foundation for their work starting with "Pat the Bunny"; I don't know any writer who wasn't a voracious reader from tiny childhood. By being insatiably interested in people, places, and things, we live in a constant state of research, never knowing how one tidbit or another will come in handy, but knowing that sooner or later it will -- as long as we keep working at our craft. There are always apocryphal tales of those who find an express elevator, but most of us climb, word by word. Don't be afraid to look down once in a while and see how far you've come.

Meanwhile, one glance upward reminds us how far we have to go. We look up and see other writers who (from our perspective) have "made it", and we think their careers are a breeze now. We think, wow, if only I could catch a break, maybe someday I'll get to where they are, but my dears, they're all looking up and thinking the same thing. (Except Stephen King. He looks up and sees...Pluto.) There's no such thing as "arrived" in this business. No such thing as "done" or "enough" or "over." That's part of the thrill. Look up at the skyscrapers once in a while and feel dizzy with your own potential. Look up at the sky and know that there are no boundaries between you and your future.

Then crack out the laptop and get back to work.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Saturday morning video: Happy Birthday, Rue!

Below is a little blast from the past in celebration of my dear friend Rue McClanahan's 75th birthday. Rue is one of the dearest most delightful people I know and still every bit the comedic genius she was when Maude was the first feminist on TV. Shortly before she joined the cast of Maude, Rue (who was classically trained in dance at Jacob's Pillow and in acting by the legendary Uta Hagen) did the play Dylan in New York, and Tennessee Williams attended a performance.

"Your work has that rare combination of earthiness and lapidary polish," Williams wrote to Rue, "that quality of being utterly common and utterly noble. Frippery combined with fierceness."

From Rue's memoir My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away (which is currently being adapted for Broadway): "Even as a child I had the strong feeling that life is good. I had passion for work, an openness to love, and a penchant for joy. In a word, I had hope. I still have it."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Beneath Bone Lake Trailer

I started playing this afternoon with Windows Movie Maker, and before I knew it, I'd blazed through several hours. Here's me first attempt at making a video book trailer. If nothing else, I kept it short and to the point, which to me is all you want to capture a potential reader's interest. (Fingers crossed on that.)

If this actually works, let me know what you think. I'm a total novice, so your suggestions are welcome. Just don't suggest anything too complicated!

Salvage Operations: Taking the Best from Your Worst

Sometimes, an idea doesn't quite fly. Maybe because the author had the bad luck to mis-time the market, or perhaps because she's struck at the story from the wrong angle. Or it could be, it's not ripe yet -- or it just plain stinks like Limburger cheese. (Happens to the best of us!)

In some cases, the author may recognize that something's off and not bother submitting. (You get better at recognizing this with experience.) A lot of other times, submissions will be sent out and rejected. Editors may compliment the author on the writing or the characters or some aspect of the plot, but in the end, the project isn't picked up, for one reason or another.

At some point, the author (or her agent) will come to the sad conclusion that this manuscript or proposal's had its shot. It's always a tough moment, and a little grieving's certainly in order.

But whatever you do, don't go burying the body. Do not toss, shred, or delete your work unless you've carefully saved a backup copy. Because often, sometimes years later, you're going to think about it, and you may suddenly realize exactly where you went wrong and how to fix it, or what elements are worth a second look.

I can think of one case where I had what I knew was a strong, complex idea, but I wasn't yet experienced enough to write it. My first attempt was lousy, as were the second and the third. They were so awful, I didn't bother to submit them and couldn't even place in the one contest I entered for feedback (and this was after I had published a half-dozen books, albeit in another subgenre). As I gained confidence and sharpened my skills, however, I came to a point where, with a couple of years' distance from the original story, I was able to make a fresh start, which sold quickly and went on to become my second romantic suspense novel, Fade the Heat.

Flash forward a year or two later, when I wrote a trilogy proposal. My then-agent loved it, and I was psyched about it. Though it went to committee at more than one publishing house, something was clearly off with the proposal, which died a slow and (at least to me) very painful death.

I wrote a different book to clear my head, then tried revising the proposal and giving it another shot. No dice, so I gave up on it... except that there was something in it I couldn't quite let go of. So I pulled the central story idea (my favorite) out of what was to have been the second book, and I sold it as a stand-alone. (This book, Triple Exposure, was released last August.) Later, I went on to strip out the setting (from its geography to its economic and political complexities) and certain characters from what I'd meant to be Books 1 and 3 and used those "spare parts" in creating what will be my next two books. As I'm working on the two of them, I keep going back to look up facts from that original, failed proposal, which somehow breathed life into three books after all. (Three very different books. And far better books than the original proposals, in my opinion.)

My most recent sale, for another upcoming book, came out of a little mini-proposal I've had stored on my hard drive for about three years (without submitting it), and I have yet another partial proposal that I've finally realized how to make work, after several years and multiple attempts.

The moral of the story is that a lot of failures aren't. They're simply "not-yets," so don't waste them. Store them, back them up well, and save them, because you never known when one will be worth reworking or provide exactly the spare part you need to make a new book run.

So what about you? Have you even used an old project as an "organ donor" for a new one? Or have you gone back to rework a not-yet manuscript because it wouldn't turn loose of your imagination?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Swamped Thing

It is a truism that while waiting for an answer about a proposal or book manuscript, time slows to a snail's pace, and the endless silence screams.

It is also a truism that when things finally start popping, there's nothing slow about it. Manuscript deadlines collide with galley deadlines that come smack up against (guess what) still more deadlines. For promotional responsibilities, a synopsis due to another editor, a proposal that your agent is expecting... possibly last week.

These competing pressures are enough to make a writer feel like a Swamped Thing... and quite literally turn into a monster (ask my family) under the stress.

Over time, however, I've gotten far better at handling things. I've learned to block out my upcoming schedule and compartmentalize rather than stressing over all of it at once. (You'll often hear my wandering around muttering, "One page at a time.")I've learned to schedule in some extra time for "oopsies," those unpredictable time drains that show up when they show up, and I've learned that it's important to fence off (with barbed wire) a reasonable amount of time for family, friends, boring-but-necessary-household-tasks, and an occasional walk in the sunshine.

Because a little dose of sunshine and downtime are the enemies of monsterdom. You have my family's word about that, too.

What strategies do you use to cope with both the waiting and the stress of time-crunches?

Gotta run now. My daily pages and my galleys both await!

By the way, the cool comic graphic comes from Gotta love it!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The etiquette of connection

Yesterday I promised to post a few thoughts about connection etiquette, and I was initially envisioning a few simple rules of engagement, but I think I can best illustrate the big picture by offering an example of the best and worst ways to get the most from networking opportunities. Long story short:

A while back I found myself at a party with someone I'm absolutely gaga over -- I try not to drop names but -- oh, hell, it was Nathan Lane. (I was a theatre major, people. Nathan Lane is every theatre major's demigod.) After agonizing over my cocktail for forty minutes, I decided that it was very important for Nathan Lane to know that I am the only person on this earth who could, who should -- who must -- ghost his memoir. How many times in this incarnation was I going to be in the same room with Nathan Lane? What kind of limp biznaz woman am I if I can't go in for the networking op? Okay. On three. I'm goin' in.

"Hi, Nathan..."

A bevy of admirers hovered around him like a crown of Santa Lucia flowers. He looked up at me and smiled. "Do I know you?"

"I'm Joni Rodgers. I just think you're wonderful and -- and I would love to do you. I'm very good. Loving but firm. I think you'd be really satisfied with the experience."

The bevy of flower boys giggled knowingly. Nathan nervously fingered his ascot. (Shut up! Nathan Lane can wear an ascot if he bloody well wants to.)

"Oh...oh, no," I stammered like a big hot trannie mess. "I mean -- I -- see, I'm a ghost writer..."

"Ah. Well, you certainly have a way with words."

He slid a wise side-glance back to his bevy, leaving me deservedly burned. But, hey, hon -- burned by Nathan Lane. It hurt so good.

Later on that same evening, I sought out a quiet space where I could kick off my shoes and sit for a moment. I didn't notice the little girl in the corner until she piped up, "What are you writing?"

"Oh, I just had some thoughts about a story I'm working on." I nodded to the book in her hand. "What are you reading?"

"Island of Blue Dolphins," she said, "but I just finished."

"And you're not weeping? That book always left me utterly destroyed."

We fell into an impassioned conversation about this book and several other favorites we had in common. She was quite the precocious reader for her age -- which was eleven, and we had quite the conversation about that, too. A girl entering her double digit years in Hollywood. Scary. But she had her head on remarkably straight.

"Oh! There's my dad," she said after we'd been talking for over an hour. I looked up and immediately recognized her extremely recognizable father. She introduced us, and he acted duly impressed when she said, "Joni is a writer and she's read all the Lucy Maud Montgomery books."

"You're raising an excellent young woman here," I told him, and he asked me about my kids, and we kibitzed about that and then segued into a project he was working on, and then he asked me about my books. When I mentioned the memoir I wrote about chemo, he said that someone close to him had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, and we talked about that for a while. It's my least favorite area of expertise, but I'm happy to help newbie lymphomaniacs and their families whenever I can. Noticing his little girl nodding off in her chair, he got up to go and asked for my card.

The major player. Asked for my card. Ah, I thought, that's how it's done.

It's not about following rules of engagement or sporting the brassiest balls. It's about genuinely caring about other people, listening with sincere interest in what they have to say. I got in Nathan Lane's face with no thought other than what I wanted from him. The other contact grew out of an organically friendly connection and left a far, far better impression.

Monday in her excellent post on the "To Be Read" blog, Colleen asked about readers' first encounter with a published author. Mine was memorable: Pulitzer Prize winner A. B. Guthrie was doing a tour for what would be his last book, and I took my husband's first edition copy of The Big Sky to the Little Professor bookstore in Helena, Montana for him to sign. Friends, I was the only one there. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, and he was sitting there in a rocking chair by himself. Sensing that he was a little bummed, I sat there and chatted for about two hours. Because this was years before I had any notion of being a writer myself, I had zero agenda; I was just keeping this nice old guy company because he was stuck sitting there and he'd written this book my husband loved.

I've looked back on that wide-ranging conversation as I've found my creative path, and so many things we talked about have taken on new meaning. I can't describe how grateful I am to have had that opportunity. Mr. Guthrie could have easily been parumphed about the poor showing for his signing -- or about the fact that I was such a gork I didn't buy a book! -- but he was gracious and funny. The conversation was organic; even the small talk felt from the heart.

This is what established authors have to offer newbies: the benefit of experience. We can't offer an "in". We cannot, for legal reasons, read an unpublished manuscript. We cannot, for reasons too numerous to mention, introduce you to our agents or editors. It's not appropriate to ask. Too often, newbies focus on these things and completely miss out on the encouragement, compassion, and school-of-hard-knocks education that established authors are more than willing to share. And in the big picture, therein lies the true value of the connection.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who do you think you are?

A few months prior to the release of my second novel, I filled out the standard Author Questionnaire listing any and all media connections who might pay attention and notable authors who might possibly deign to lend a blurb. On my author list, I included -- well, let's call her Hyanna Pedestal. I'd loved loved loved Hyanna's first novel, which had not been a NYT bestseller but had gotten rave reviews and made many regional lists, which led to a deal with a prestigious literary house for her second book, which had just been released and was getting a lot of buzz. My publisher's PR Hilde was thrilled to hear that I had a tenuous six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon sort of connection to Hyanna, who could in theory be listed as "bestselling author of Hungaunga Hungadunga" on the back of my forthcoming tome if she was willing to blurb it. I'd even chatted with her at a Book Expo party, though I was certain she wouldn't remember. An email was sent, reminding Hyanna of the party, mentioning the connecting thread, yodeling how great my book was, and offering a bound galley for her review.

"Sure, I'll read her book," the quick reply began, "if she'll come to my house and do my laundry for a week." The note went on to say (with a distinctly irritated edge) that she was "constantly inundated with requests from shirt-tail acquaintances" and didn't have time to read all the books she actually wanted to read, much less the ones (like mine, apparently) that didn't interest her. I felt about two inches tall. How could I have imagined it would be appropriate to set my puny peepings at the feet of this great author? I asked the PR Hilde if I should send a note apologizing for bothering her.

"Screw that," she scoffed. "Everybody asks everybody. That's how it works. You ask two dozen people and hope maybe three will respond. If she doesn't have time, that's fine, but to go all 'Don't you know who I think I am?' and snap my head off -- no. That's not the way we do. If she ever comes around asking one of my authors for a blurb, she can suck my dick."

Flash forward several years. World turns, Jell-O is set, potholes stepped in, hills and valleys traversed, so on, so forth. One day last year, I opened my email and was surprised to find a note from Hyanna Pedestal's PR Hilde, asking if I'd be willing to read and blurb Hyanna's forthcoming tome. She mentioned our tenuous connection, reminded me that I'd chatted with Hyanna at a BookExpo party once, though I probably wouldn't remember.

Several possible replies horse-raced through my head, and I won't lie -- "suck my dick" had the inside edge for a moment. I noted that Hyanna had migrated from the prestigious literary house that had picked up her second novel to a mid-level mainstream publisher. Several silent years had passed between her last book and this one. Well familiar with the vagaries of the publishing industry with all it's slings and arrows, I felt a rush of compassion. I was also stricken (for the thousandth time in my career) with what a small world publishing is, and I cringed at the thought of my own interpersonal missteps, of which there have been plenty.

I clicked "reply" and said of course I remembered Hyanna and thought she was a wonderful writer, and sure, send over the galley, I'd be happy to give it a read. In truth, I was bombastically over-extended at the time (as I am at pretty much any given moment -- that's how I roll) so I knew I'd be able to at best skim Hyanna's novel, but since I'd loved her first book, I could offer a blurb, declaring in all honesty what I admire about her writing.

Now, for some folks, this makes me Miss Congeniality, and for others, it makes me a big weenie push-over. I'm neither. I'm a hardworking writer who values the work of other hardworking writers. I want to see the cosmic body literati grow and be healthy, so if I have a chance to talk up good books -- particularly books by smart, talented women authors -- heck, yes, I'll do it. At the top of this blog, there's a mission statement that says we seek to encourage emerging authors and support books and authors we love. On a more pragmatic level, relationships are important in this biz; that particular PR Hilde has been terrific to me in the past. I'm happy to help her out if she asks.

Please understand that I'm not sharing this story to tweak Hyanna's nose. It sounds to me like she doesn't remember my ancient blurb request so she won't even know this is about her, but if she does recognize herself here, I hope she'll know that it's cool. Truth is, back when I thought she was a rock star, I was completely deluded about what a writing career is like. I thought once you had that golden ticket (book contract) in hand, well, you're in like Flynn, baby. You were on the side with the door handle and could open the magic portal for whomever you deemed worthy. I genuinely thought that this "famous" (Lord, how that word has been redefined for me!) author would read my small press paperback, get on the horn to her editor at Mega Mega Big Whoop in NYC, and I'd have an in, right?


It's disingenuous to say we're all in the same boat. At that time, she was on a commuter ferry and I was in a dingy. Now she's in a canoe and paddling hard; I'm on a fishing pontoon, but could fall overboard at any moment. Stephen King blows by on his aircraft carrier. To someone swimming in the slush pile, they all look like Carnival cruise ships. There's this idea that someone can toss you a line and pull you aboard, but that's just not how it works.

There are many lessons one might extrapolate from this tale of fantastical reversal, and some of it is nuts and bolts knowledge that may apply to your career. Tune in tomorrow; I'll post a bit about the etiquette of working one's connections. Meanwhile, perhaps the bottom line is that in this industry, as in life in general, there are two great misconceptions we must never fall prey to: One is thinking that you're somebody. The other is thinking that you're nobody.

(For Karma Police gear including the T-shirt design above, visit the Good Karma Factory.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hatching a Dream

This morning, I'm blogging over at To Be Read -- So Many Authors, So Little Time and chatting about first times, particularly the first time I (quivering with terror) met and actually spoke to what I thought of as a "real, live published author," which happened to be at the first writer's group meeting I attended.

So pop on over if you would and tell us about coming out of the closet on your writing dreams or finding a mentor who's helped you along the way.

I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fat Nude Writing contest (Show us your stuff!)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in the West Houston RWA Emily Meeting -- a full day of writerly camaraderie, awards, and way too much food. In the afternoon, Colleen and I did a Boxing the Octopus session on challenges of the writing life. The AM session was my workshop on "Fat Nude Writing", which was actually Colleen's idea, inspired by a post I did about a year ago.

The gist of Fat Nude Writing or “The Lord never gives us more than we can bare.”:
One of the few genuine regrets I have about my youth is that I turned down a role in the musical Hair, singing “My Body is Walking in Space”, one of my all-time favorite songs, in the nude. I didn’t turn it down out of modesty; I turned it down out of shame, which was stupid. I thought my body was just too, too mortifyingly awful. I was young, six feet tall, a size nine! I had an awesome body! The director tried to tell me that it was my vocal and physical uniqueness that made him want to cast me. But my tall, flat-chested body was not like other girls’ petite, busty little cheerleader bodies. And different equals wrong. Right? Different is bad. Ugly. He ended up casting a coloratura soprano who weighed about 250 lbs, and the song was one of the most stunningly beautiful moments of theatre I’ve ever witnessed. That fat nude chick blew the doors off the place. The song soared; her fearlessness was mesmerizing. I have mourned missing out on that moment of tastefully lit abandon onstage, and I try to avoid that chicken-livered mistake as a writer. Different art form. Same dynamic.

An older, wiser, more zaftig woman now, I doubt that I will ever have the courage to visit the nude beach, but I aspire to bare my soul through my work. For any artist, fear is a weakness. Uniqueness – abnormality, even – is a strength. And so is regret, I suppose, because at the core of good writing – plump, juicy, fat nude writing – is the torn and mended heart of the writer. Ungirdled, unbridled, unadorned.

During the workshop, I challenged participants to write a paragraph or two on a fat, nude moment from their own life -- a moment that was not particularly earth-shattering or news-making but life-changing in an intensely personal way -- and submit it to us here at Boxing the Octopus. I'd like to expand that and invite any and all Box Octo visitors to submit a Fat Nude Writing sample. Let's use the "comment" section here to post entries (500 words or less, please). I'll snag a few highlights, do a Fat Nude-a-palooza post on Saturday, and send our favorite Fat Nude Writer a signed copy of my memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair (definitely the fattest, nudest writing I've done in my career thus far.)

(Above: "La Grande Odalisque" painted in 1814 by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day!

Since both Joni and I are going to be out of pocket on Saturday, Feb. 14th, presenting a workshop to the West Houston Romance Writers of America, I thought I'd post a link to my recent interview with romantic suspense author extraordinaire Teri Thackston of the Houston Examiner. Teri's been doing a great series over there spotlighting the Houston area's many romance authors.

Check it out!

More good news for me! According to the bone doc, my elbow fracture's healed, so I'm out of my sling (have been out of the splint for a couple of weeks, too) and back to typing up a storm instead of dictating! Woo, hoo!

May your Valentine's Day be full of hugs and kisses! And if you don't have a significant other, I'll be glad to loan you my dog, Jewel "Smooch Pooch" Kissinger, who will gladly make you feel the sun rises and sets upon you. (If she were human, she'd probably become a stalker. But in her current incarnation, she's safe... if slobbery.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mining Hard Stone

As I was reading Stephen King's Duma Key last night, I was blown away by King's depiction of the main character, Edgar Freemantle, survivor of a deadly pickup vs. crane accident on a construction worksite. Freemantle's severely injured, losing an arm, breaking ribs, his hip, and sustaining a brain injury that leaves him feeling that "behind my forehead it was alway midnight in the world's biggest clock shop."

Having suffered a viral infection that left me with several unbroken weeks' worth of the worst headache I've ever experienced, I shuddered at the description because it was so dead on. Which reminded me, of course, of the terrible accident that nearly killed Mr. King some years back and his painful, longterm recovery, which he chronicles in his excellent book, On Writing. (If you haven't read it, do. Whether or not you're a fan of King's fiction, it's extremely worthwhile for anyone interested in crafting novels.)

Getting back to my point, the kind of pain King suffered makes my three-week headache from hell seem like a gnat bite on the bumpus. But rather than doing all he can to forget it, King uses the experience to inform his fiction. He mines life's hardest stone to bring his characters alive.

Hard stone doesn't have to come in the form of physicial injury. A broken heart, profound embarrassment, soul-splitting grief and loneliness -- every pain we've ever suffered can be transmuted into writing gold, because no matter how different the factual details of any given story, human emotions are universals to which every reader can connect.

So as you go about your daily writing, ask yourself to recall a time when you've experienced a similar emotion to what your character may be feeling. Mine the hard stone of experience and see if there's a gem to be uncovered

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Art of Eliciting Emotion

Because I'm a complete sucker for dog stories, the other night, I picked up Garth Stein's thoroughly-engaging novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain and started reading. And reading. And reading. Before I knew it, it was well after midnight and I was sitting in the crumpled forest of damp tissues. Yep, I'd read it straight through, and like just about every dog book since Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller, I ended up bawling my eyes out. What is it about dog books and their gut-wrenching endings? Even The Story of Edgar Sawtelle left me with the sniffles.

But that's not all bad, is it? When a story tethers itself to our hearts and elicits genuine emotion, it's succeeded on a primal level, whatever its other flaws may be. And surprising as it seems, it's the genuineness of the emotion, rather than the pleasantness, that really sucks in readers. As much as I love to laugh, a good cry is not only cathartic, it makes me feel more connected to my humanity. (Pretty ironic, since I'm speaking of dog books at the moment.)

Still, it's important that an author doesn't go too far. If a tearjerker comes from your heart and you never talk down to the reader, it can work well. Yet when an author deliberately attempts to emotionally manipulate the reader, it will hack off a large percentage of the audience and leave the author vulnerable to the appearance of words such as "sappy," "melodramatic," and even "cloying" in reviews. (The appearance of those criticism is more likely if you're female. If you're male -- a couple of well-known authors of unapologetically-sentimental stuff spring to mind -- you'll probably have mass appeal and make a pile of money.)

I find a lot of early-career novelists err on the side of excess in the emotion department. But often, readers love it one heck of a lot more than the excessively restrained (i.e. boring) stuff that can come of being "too" stingy with sentiment.

My philosophy is to write fearlessly, with plenty of emotion, but pay attention to my critique partners', agent's, and editor's gag reflex. You can always edit out some of the emotion, but it's really tough to shovel it back into the manuscript.

Question for the day: What are the very best books you've ever cried over? Do you sometimes enjoy a good tearjerker, or do you avoid unpleasant emotions in your reading material?

And by the way, I highly recommend The Art of Racing in the Rain. If you want a great example of an author emotionally engaging the reader, this is it. Just make sure you have some Kleenex handy and a solid block of time.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Octopulp (because it is Wednesday and because it is my heart)

I have tried and been interrupted mid-post half a dozen times now, so I'm just going to share something quick and fun from my "bloggo" file -- a storage locker of interesting things I stumble upon (no, not Stumbled Upon, and gimme back my idiom, Internet) whilst doing research on other stuff.

"Poulpe Pulps: a silly web site" is dedicated to images of giant squids in pulp fiction and comics.

You are allowed to enjoy this for twenty minutes in lieu of playing Word Mojo, then it's back to the salt mine for all us flat-nosed grindstoners! In the words of Sir John Buchan, first Barron of Tweedsmuir (seriously) and author of The Thirty-Nine Steps: "It's a great life if you don't weaken!"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kindling Desire

Amazon has just announced the release of the Kindle 2, an electronic reading device that has taken aim at the intersection of booklust and gadget-philia in my avaricious little heart.

Three hundred fifty-nice bucks or not, I want one. I want to be able to buy books and have them appear, as if by magic, at the touch of a button. I want to be able to store as many of them as I want without having them pile up all over my house. I want to have the cool new tool and take it for a test drive.

I want...
I want...
I want... (Wiping away drool)

Or do I? Because I love the tactile pleasure of the page, the smell of the new ink and paper, the craft and thought that went into the embossing of the title's letters, the font and the layout and artwork and all the little details. I love the feeling of reading books as prior generations read them, of pulling myself out of technology's slipstream and reverting to a slower-paced world.

Also, to me, the joy of discovering a great book isn't complete until I've loaned it to a friend, and we've discussed it. But the Kindle, terrific as it it, won't allow you to pass books along to others. In a way, that's great for authors, since it lessens the chance the electronic version of their labor will be distributed far and wide for free. But it also deprives these same writers of the chance to earn new fans.

Besides, as much as I admire the Kindle's cleverness, I'm also very aware that Amazon's got itself a terrific little racket going, since Kindle users can only purchase Kindle books through Amazon. As the device grows more popular (and it's bound to, particularly since Oprah recently declared how much she loved it) what will this do to my favorite brick & mortar bookstores, particularly the independent booksellers nearest and dearest to my heart? (Sending a shout-out to my friends at Katy Budget Books and Houston's Murder by the Book, among others. You folks are what book selling's all about!)

I'm not sure I want to live in a world where cool, little stores with employees who know books and hand-sell them can't survive, a world where Amazon -- much as I love it -- and e-retailers (should you use another brand of e-reader) are the only game in town. So for the time being, I'm holding off on purchasing a Kindle.

Besides, I've decided it would be waaaay too dangerous to have my credit card on file and only the touch of a button between me and my addiction. I shudder, thinking of the book bill I'd rack up.

So what about the rest of you? Any Kindle fans here? If not, are you waiting for the price to come down, or does the idea of reading from a screen leave you cold?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Leaning Toward the Light

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

-Albert Schweitzer

I love this quote, but I think writers too often misinterpret this sort of thing as meaning if you love it, then money and fame and perhaps a National Book Award or two will definitely come. Not so, of course, there are too many other factors (from talent to timing to the mood of the market to luck itself) to guarantee anything of the sort, but I think that living a life you love is the definition of success.

Besides, joy shines through art, whether it's writing, music, dance, teaching, or what have you. And people respond to that joy, leaning toward the light.

Maybe it won't necessarily bring you world domination, but satisfying, meaningful work is a reward unto itself.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Introducing the Fabulous Lonnquist Sisters

My sisters are the authors of me in more ways than they will ever know. When I was little, I toddled after them, longing to be included in the secret, fabulous lives I was convinced they must live while I was sleeping, and that hasn't really changed. Linda is the crusader, Diana the adventurer, Jas the procedural genius. Their style, grace, wit, and creative genius with everything from computers to Campbell's cream of mushroom soup still intimidates and inspires me. The books they've shared with me have influenced me as both a reader and a writer, so I wanted to share a few of their favorites.

A problem solver by nature, Linda loves a good mystery. She cut her teeth on Trixie Belden books and graduated to Agatha Christie. A strong conservative Christian, she says the Bible is the book that has most influenced her, of course, specifically the writings of Paul. She loves the boldness of his stories and identifies with his driven nature. Having home-schooled her four children and worked in a children's bookstore for several years, Linda has an encyclopedic knowledge of children's lit. She reads tirelessly to her grandchildren (who are, if you ask me, the luckiest grandkids on the planet.) A current favorite: When Pigs Fly by Valerie Coulman, illustrated by Roge Girard. "It's about a cow named Ralph, who wants a bike. When everyone tells him cows don't ride bikes, he says, 'Well, not yet.' His father tells him that he can ride a bike 'when pigs fly.' So Ralph figures out how to make that happen.

I asked Linda if any one book on grieving or loss that had been especially helpful to her after the death of her husband, and she said she would recommend Will I Ever Be Whole Again: Surviving the Death of Someone You Love by Sandra Aldrich. "It's a spiritual yet extremely practical guide to widowhood that tells you what you need to know instead of trying to tell you how to feel." A book I loved and recommended to Linda is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which is not about widowhood so much as it is about the stories we tell ourselves in the falling silence of loss.

Diana's taste in books always ran to the classics. She particularly loves Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre for its "marvelous dialogue and beautifully articulated sentiments with a feminist story line" and The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, because "There are foreign countries, and then there are really foreign countries. Buck's stories of China open this country up to westerners." Having spent three transformative years in the Peace Corps in Gabon, Diana says The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is "the best depiction of Africa I've ever seen. Usually people think of sweeping vistas and loping, exotic animals. This book talks about the smell of rotting wood, the trees fighting for the sun, and the real price of the diamonds and cotton people wear so casually."

I asked Diana, "What's you're favorite book about sisters?" and she surprised me by saying, "Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. It's really about Scarlet's relationship with her sister-in-law, Melanie. Then there's the animosity between her and Ashley's sister, India. And Scarlet even marries her own sister's beau. You really don't get the fullness of that from the movie. You have to read the book." If you asked her about the best book I've sent her way recently, she would say The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. "This book creates its own reality—like any good science fiction—and then weaves a wonderful story into it." Or she might mention The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which takes you inside the orderly world of an English Butler and examines the compelling question: What constitutes a wasted life?

Since Jas started writing seriously a few years before I did, she blazed a trail for me and provided me with some valuable resources, including my first copy of that essential sledgehammer in any writer's tool shed: Writer's Market, a comprehensive listing of American book and magazine publishers, along with helpful articles on breaking into print. "Don't be cheap," she told me. "Buy a new one every year." And I repeat that advice to every aspiring writer I meet.

Jas also turned me on to Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg ("Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the type writer.") and Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life ("We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little.") Both authors are passionate about the art of writing, diligent about the craft, and savvy about the business. The same can be said about my sister.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Booya! TJ Bennett's The Legacy is a "Desert Island Keeper"

Congrats to our critique bud TJ Bennett whose debut novel The Legacy made the AAR Buried Treasure list, scoring a rave review and "Desert Island Keeper" status.

Anyone familiar with All About Romance knows that these reader/reviewers are extremely difficult to please, so you know you've got something going on when the reviewer is "overwhelmed by the quality of the writing, by the fascinating characters, and by the authors’ happy disregard of the usual formulas of historical romance writing."

The glowing review goes on to say:
"I loved the way the historic background got subtly woven into the tale without overpowering it. That includes the issue of religion. Sabina is a former nun, and religion is an integral part of the characters’ lives without any trace of preachiness. The secondary characters were delightful...and I can’t wait to read about Wolf’s delicious brothers G√ľnter and Peter."

(Coming later this spring: The Promise. Visit TJ's web site for updates.)

Gofightwin, TJ!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Stephen King Calls 'Em As He Sees 'Em

There's been a lot of hoopla on the 'net over reports that in an upcoming interview for USA Weekend, Stephen King spoke his mind (gasp!) to writer Lorrie Lynch in her "Who's News" celeb column. And by speaking his mind, I mean saying that he thinks certain popular writers, chief among them Stephanie Meyer of Twilight fame and James Patterson are lousy writers. Very popular, but crummy in the craft department.

So which popular authors does King think are terrific? Jodi Piccoult was mentioned, along with J.K. Rowling, and King feels Dean Koontz "can write like hell. And then sometimes he’s just awful. It varies."

A lot of people on the 'net are frothing at the mouth that Mr. Stephen has broken some sort of unwritten "code of silence," where authors don't indulge in public put-downs of other authors. What do I think about this interview and the resulting controversy?

I think it's great because it gets people talking about authors, writing quality, and storytelling. If folks are arguing the merits of their favorite writer, they're probably also reading and forming opinions of their own. Huzzah!

As for my personal opinions, let me just say there are authors who are craftspersons, author who are what I call "natural storytellers" (not necessarily great writers but still suck readers right in), and a small minority who combine the best of both worlds. And then there are authors who (at least with some efforts) strike out on both counts. As for who's who and which type or individual is your favorite, I'll leave that to you to sort out, as long as you're actually reading books and not simply parroting someone else's opinion. :) And as for my personal takes on each of these authors, I'll tell you -- but only in a one-on-one conversation over margaritas. (Warning: By the time I hit bottom on the first margarita, I won't actually recall the names of any other authors.)

For now, however, let me pose a couple of questions. First, do you think King was right to publicly criticize other bestselling authors? Also, to your way of thinking, which authors are outstanding at consistently combining great writing skills with page-turning storytelling? Some of my favorites (Harlan Coben is one example) work in this exciting intersection, and I'm always eager to find more.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Last Night in Montreal (a strangely beautiful story of love and forgetting)

Up to my eyes in research, rough writing, and revisions on a work in progress, I have absolutely no time for pleasure reading right now. So it was a huge mistake to allow even a passing glance at an advance copy of Emily St. John Mandel's lovely debut novel, Last Night in Montreal. I can't help it; I am about to utter the hacky cliche of all book recommendations: I couldn't put it down. The words "pleasure reading" hardly begin to describe it. This was somewhere between a spa treatment and mid-day lovemaking. It's a mystery and a love story, a twisting path through the heart and mind of a richly drawn character.

From the flap:
Lilia Albert has been leaving people behind for her entire life. She spends her childhood and adolescence traveling constantly and changing identities. In adulthood, she finds it impossible to stop. Haunted by an inability to remember her early childhood, she moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning lovers along with way, possibly still followed by a private detective who has pursued her for years. Then her latest lover follows her from New York to Montreal, determined to learn her secrets and make sure she’s safe. Last Night in Montreal is a story of love, amnesia, compulsive travel, the depths and the limits of family bonds, and the nature of obsession. In this extraordinary debut, Emily St. John Mandel casts a powerful spell that captures the reader in a gritty, youthful world—charged with an atmosphere of mystery, promise and foreboding—where small revelations continuously change our understanding of the truth and lead to desperate consequences. Mandel’s characters will resonate with you long after the final page is turned.

This is not the blockbuster you're going to see on an endcap at Borders, but I hope hope hope it catches on with book clubs. There's so much fertile ground for discussion here, and this talented author deserves the affirmation.

Warning: If you read the following excerpt, you will want to read more.
No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lilia woke early, and lay still for a moment in the bed. It was the last day of October. She slept naked.

Eli heard the sounds of awakening, the rustling of the duvet, her bare footsteps on the hardwood floor, and she kissed the top of his head very lightly en route to the bathroom—he made an agreeable humming noise but didn’t look up—and the shower started on the other side of the almost-closed door. She stayed in the shower for forty-five minutes, but this wasn’t unusual; the day was still unremarkable. Eli glanced up briefly when she emerged from the bathroom. Lilia, naked: pale skin wrapped in a soft white towel, short dark hair wet on her forehead, and she smiled when he met her eyes.

“Good morning,” he said. Smiling back at her. “How did you sleep?” He was already typing again.

She kissed his hair again instead of answering, and left a trail of wet footprints all the way back to the bedroom. He heard her towel fall softly to the bedroom floor and he wanted to go and make love to her just then; but he was immersed so deeply in the work that morning, accomplishing things, and he didn’t want to break the spell. He heard the dresser drawer slide shut in the bedroom.

She came out dressed all in black and carrying the three pieces of a plate that had fallen off the bed the night before; it was a light shade of blue, and sticky with pomegranate juice. He heard her dropping it into the kitchen trashcan before she wandered past him into the living room. She stood in front of his sofa, running her fingers through her hair to test for dampness, her expression a little blank when he glanced up at her, and it seemed to him later that she’d been considering something, perhaps making up her mind. But then, he played the morning back so many times that the tape was ruined—later it seemed possible that she’d simply been thinking about the weather, and later still he was even willing to consider the possibility that she hadn't stood in front of the sofa at all--had merely paused there, perhaps, for an instant that the stretched-out reel extended into a moment, a scene, and finally a major plot point.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"The Impotence of Proofreading" by Taylor Mali

Typos are my curse...

So I had too laugh at this piece. Thought I'd share it again for those of you who share my frustration and might have missed it in the past.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Kat Von D's High Voltage Tattoo (plugged in to the culture of ink)

The incomparable Kat Von D will be at B&N on Westheimer, signing her new book, High Voltage Tattoo. From the flap: "High Voltage Tattoo is a graphic perspective on today's global tattoo culture by Kat Von D, star of The Learning Channel's L.A. Ink and one of the most talented and popular artists working today. Designed in a style that is reminiscent of a handmade Gothic journal with its red padded cover, ornate typography, and parchmentlike pages, it throws the door wide open to tattooing culture in the way only an insider like Kat can. High Voltage Tattoo traces Kat's career as an artist, from early childhood influences to recent work, along with examples of what inspires her, information about the show and her shop, her sketches, and personal tattoos. The book goes deep into tattoo process and culture: readers can see up close the pigments, the tools, and the making of complex, even collaborative, tattoos."

My daughter Jerusha's been a huge admirer of Kat's art and the free spirit in which she conducts business. I'm more intrigued by the culture that surrounds tattoo art -- and the psychology of personal and cultural response to it. In the two years since Jerusha chose to emblazon the upper half of her back with her personal manifesto ("To thine own self be true") along with a custom illustration of a mechanical bird, she's gotten a variety of reactions to it. Her dad was just kind of jaw-dropped. Her friends think it's the coolest thing ever, of course. Guys who might have hit on her at a concert think twice about a woman with that sort of pain threshold. And a cop we used to see at Starbucks sometimes said, "If that was my daughter, I'd burn it off her." (Which makes him a really scary cop, and I don't mean scary in cool Patrick Swayze in "Road House" kinda way, I mean scary in a too redneck to tell the difference between a gang member and an artsy dean's list debate diva kinda way.)

I'll let you know what Kat has to say about it. Jerusha and I will be heading downtown tonight to hear her talk about the art form that literally gets under your skin.

In honor of the occasion, I'm rerunning a post from September of 2007:

Men and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (or "Why I Love This Bird")

Shortly after I posted about risk-takery on Wed morning, my son Malachi walked into Starbucks with his girlfriend, a voluptuous psych major who actually seems to get his sense of humor (a testament to the towering abilities of the psych professors of Central Florida.) Gary and I were doing a fast latte and email check on our way out of town.

I said, “Hey, Spike. How are you today?” He responded, “I am astonishingly well.” And he was. Gary had trucked him and his wounded motorbike around Orlando in search of repairs the previous day, the VPM had driven over from Tampa for a pleasant meet the parents over Mexican food, and Malachi was preparing to meet his fate as a UPS box hefter, a job that might be less than edifying on an artistic level, but will fund his travels to Asia and Europe this year.

Sitting across from him at Starbucks, I observed a happy man. He had wheels. He had a woman. He had work. His life, for this brief and shining moment at least, was working on a mechanical level. When we parted in the parking lot a little while later, I was weeping about this, and thinking I was crying because I wanted him to remain my baby, he put his arms around me and said quietly, “I love you, Mom. I’m still your kid in a lot of ways.”

Meanwhile, holding down the fort here at home, our daughter Jerusha was apparently feeling the need to spread her wings, as it were. For three years, she’s been talking about getting a tattoo of a mechanical bird on her back. The idea presented itself to her in a dream when she was fifteen, and she fixated on it, but I said, “Absolutely not. A tattoo is an adult decision. If you end up regretting it, I’ll be responsible because I gave permission.”

Now she’s eighteen. My permission is no longer required. (Neither is my blessing, so I appreciated that she was up front enough to keep me in the information loop.) With the droning folks conveniently out of town, she drove down to Sacred Heart Studio (“best tats in Houston”, according to her exhaustive research) and talked with a guy named Grimm ((gulp!)) about the design. In an effort to assuage my fears, she sent me a link to his page on the Sacred Heart website:
…I am an artist first and foremost, and then a tattooist, so my style isn't what most consider traditional tattooing. I like rendering things in unusual combinations of color and like my tattoos to look like paintings rather than tattoos…I believe a tattoo should be a reflection of an individuals spirit and perspective on life not mine. Therefore I gather lots of information as well as references from a client when I'm working on a piece.

Decepticons Rule!

Now, I don’t know what “decepticons” are, and I try not to render hasty judgments about the maturity level of people who state that things “rule”, except in cases where this person is jamming a permanently disfiguring ink-loaded needle into the baby soft flesh that was knit in the foundry of my womb. I was not greatly comforted by Grimm’s artistic manifesto. I did look at photos of his other work, however, and he is an amazing artist. He spoke at length with Jerusha about her vision and looked over some Victorian art samples she’d collected, then spent the following day free-handing a design.

As Gary and I drove across the Florida panhandle, I received a text message from Jerusha’s friend Jess: “Tattoo is underway and she’s taking it like a trooper.” A few grainy photos made their way through our leaky cell phone signal. We got the general idea. It was not small. It was not pale. Or fragile. Or temporary. I sent Colleen and the other midwives an email from a Starbucks somewhere in Alabama: “It’s a whole lotta tattoo.” Ever the pragmatist, Colleen urged perspective: “It’s not a swastika, or a 666, or anything that will show under an interview suit.” (Lord, I can’t wait till her kid turns eighteen…)

Grimm’s opus was still swathed in gauze when Gary and I got home last night. Jerusha brought the after care instructions up to my bathroom, where I peeled away the bandage and gently washed away the dried blood, spare ink, and surgical tape stickum. The bird emerged in stunning detail. Spring-loaded wings, hinges, gears, tiny cogs and rivets, even a little mechanical heart. It’s good art. Astonishingly good. Gorgeously rendered, minutely nuanced, placed with enormous sensitivity to the pepper of freckles I kissed the day my daughter -- the child of an artist and an airplane mechanic -- was born.

This tattoo, which I thought was about rebellion, is in fact about resilience and maturity, the beauty of strength and the strength of beauty. It’s about life and art and love all working on a mechanical level.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Rituals of Writing

Lately, I've gotten hopelessly hooked, via the series DVDs, on Showtime's fabulous Dexter series, which was based on Jeff Lindsay's novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter. In case you're unfamiliar with it, Dexter is a friendly, wryly-funny serial killer -- a forensic blood spatter expert who only kills other serial killers. I love how the author/series writers get the reader/viewer rooting for this antihero. (Michael C. Hall's brilliant portrayal -- and handsomeness -- don't hurt a bit, either!)

When he goes about his grisly business, Dexter Morgan has his rituals, patterns of behavior that make the act "feel right" and help him get into the zone. Which got me thinking about my own evolving rituals to help me fall down the rabbit hole of writing and achieve a state some psychologists call "flow." This is where the effort (be it writing, art, or serial kills, I suppose) shifts into that effortless overtime where the doer loses track of time. Flow is a pleasurable, powerfully-addictive sensation. What writer doesn't love "coming up for air" to find she's spent hours upon hours happily and completely immersed in the story she's creating?

My own rituals for descending into flow include or have included scented candles (vanilla or cinnamon are best), wordless, ethereal music (Phillip Glass and Anonymous 4 are a couple of favorites), and playing a mesmerizing computer game (Bejeweled, Scrabble, etc.) for about fifteen minutes while I focus my thoughts (or just plain stall). Then I reread and edit the prior day's work before beginning The Descent. Any interruption (a ringing phone or one of my husband's "Are you really writing or just playing with the computer? I have one quick question. Are you listening to me? Hey, there's no need to give me that look" jerks me out of my twilight, which often takes me another twenty minutes to recover. (Grrr)

So how do you get going and achieve flow in your work? Do you have a ritual, or are you blessed with special "anytime, anyplace" skills? I'd love to do an article on this topic, and I'm looking for some great quotes (for which I'll be sure to ask permission).

Sunday, February 01, 2009

David Denby on the destructive creep of snark

David L. Ulin posts an excellent, thought-provoking review in today's Houston Chronicle, commenting on Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation by David Denby (author of one of my favorite tomes, Great Books.)

Quoth Ulin:
God save us from Gawker’s world.

The New York-based media gossip Web site, which launched in 2002 and has distinguished itself by, among other things, attacking writer Neal Pollack’s young son, Elijah, is generally regarded as the prototype of a new style of cultural discourse: dismissive, superior, jaded, marked by what David Denby, in Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation, calls “false knowingness,” a way of pretending to be more clued-in than it is.

Denby quotes Gawker founder Nick Denton: “The ideal Gawker item is something triggered by a quote at a party, or an incident, or a story somewhere else and serves to expose hypocrisy, or turn conventional wisdom on its head, and it’s 100 words long, 200 max.” This, Denby continues, is “snark’s mission statement — indolent parasitism as a work ethos.”

Snark aspires to make a counter-argument: that the culture of mean, as exemplified by Gawker, TMZ and Perez Hilton, is not just idiotic but a dehumanizing force. “We are in a shaky moment,” Denby writes, “a moment of transition, and I think it’s reasonable to ask: What are we doing to ourselves? What kind of journalistic culture do we want? ... What kind of national conversation?”

These are excellent questions, the kind any thinking person ought to be asking as the top-down authority of traditional media yields to the fluidity of the electronic frontier. What makes this new paradigm so exciting, after all, is what makes it so unsettling: that we can respond to anything instantaneously, almost without thinking, Twittering and posting and YouTubing in an endless monologue, like Joyce’s stream of consciousness run amok.

Click here to read the rest on

The hilarious footnote to this post is that when I went to Amazon to grab a link for Denby's book, I couldn't help but notice that it has been (predictably) lambasted by two dozen snarky one star reviews.


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