Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Imminent mayhem and timeless patience" (Is James LePore talking about Paris, dads and daughters, or his debut novel?)

The first page of James LePore’s A World I Never Made has us reading over the shoulder of American Pat Nolan as he tries to make sense of the suicide note written by his daughter, Megan. He’s understandably shaken, having just identified her body in a French morgue. We’re understandably shaken when we realize the dead girl is not Nolan’s daughter.

With the help of a savvy French detective, Nolan learns that Megan, a freelance journalist, is tangled in a dangerous affair with a Saudi businessman and that her life is just one of millions at risk. As one who loves Paris as much as I love a good mystery, I thoroughly enjoyed chasing down every twist, turn, and dark alley from the Marais to Morocco to the Czech Republic. A World I Never Made does everything the Bourne books do: the story intrigues, the characters engage, the locations are literally a trip, and the plot bombs don’t stop detonating until the very last page.

Small press The Story Plant will launch the book in hardcover next week, and according to publisher Lou Aronica, buzz is good so far. LePore, a practicing attorney and photographer, lives in South Salem, NY with his wife, artist Karen Chandler. First novel set to launch. Second novel in the pipeline. I figured we’d better get him to sit down with us for a minute before things get crazy.

Before we get down to business, James, how are you? Well and happy and enjoying the First Book ride, I hope.
I alternate between being nervous and elated, but one thing is certain: it’s a dream come true.

Tell us about the genesis of this book. Has it been in your head for a while?
I had written two other novels and although they had not gotten published, I was determined to keep on writing. One night I was told a very sad story about a young woman who had committed suicide and left a taped message to each of her parents and siblings. This woman had been seemingly happy. But what if she had had reason to be angry at one of her loved ones? What was on those cassettes? What story did they tell?

I have good relationships with my daughters, but I got to thinking about a father-daughter relationship that had gone wrong, that had given the daughter reason to be bitter, and angry at her father. And I got to thinking about redemption and the ways it might be offered to us.

This is the genesis of A World I Never Made.

I loved the high mileage of this novel, especially passages set in Paris and Tangiers, two places I love. Familiar neighborhoods rang perfectly clear. I’m curious to know about your travels and why these two particular places speak so strongly to you.
Paris is very hip, but it is its combination of hipness and ancientness--its charm and beauty unchanged for centuries--that to me makes it such a great city. In North Africa I was struck repeatedly by the crazy juxtaposition of imminent mayhem and timeless patience. These are inherently dramatic and romantic places, the perfect settings I think for a story that involves the dramatic and romantic alteration of peoples’ lives.

Tell us about “God’s Warriors” and the other stories you’ll be featuring on your web site. Are these stories you wrote to expand on the book or are they “killed darlings” cut from the original manuscript?
These are not killed darlings. The publisher asked me to write them as a way of helping create the universe of the novel for the website. I was somewhat surprised, but very happy, to find that I knew more about the characters than I thought I did. I believe that the people who read them will come away with a better understanding of what motivated Pat and Megan, for example, to be the people they were, to do the things they did, in the novel. In the novel the reader is basically told (with some showing in the way of flashbacks) that Pat was not a good father to Megan. Is this believable? If you read Till Death Do Us Part, a story that takes place while Pat and his beautiful young wife Lorrie are on their honeymoon, I believe you will see just what he lost and why he behaved as he did after her death.

It’s striking how certain elements that brand your photography also brand your writing voice: urban sensibilities, fashion savvy, the strong undercurrent of mystery. (If it’s possible for colors to be dangerous, yours are.) How does that crossover work for you? Do the images and words inform each other, or are they coming from completely separate hemispheres?
I think you’re right. The two sides of my brain must somehow see the same things but express them differently. The really good thing is that the crossover as you call it is a huge help when I’m describing a person or a scene in my writing. I call upon the things I know that make a good photograph and use them to write descriptively.

There's quite a PR campaign planned for the book. Did you bring in outside help or is it all being generated by the publisher?
The publisher, in house and by outsourcing, has done it all.

Thanks again for your time, James. We wish you great success with this book and all that lies ahead. Before we send you back to the creative salt mine, I have to ask, what are you reading?
I am reading two things at the moment. The Wanderers by Richard Price and Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann. No one captures the rawness of New York’s mean streets quite like Price. Indian Summer is a history, dramatically written, of India’s fight for independence from Great Britain and the breakup of old India into India and Pakistan. I highly recommend them both.

Above: James LePore's "Grand Central Red" (To see more of James LePore's unique imagery, visit Naked Eye Images.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Calling All Editors and Agents

A couple of days ago, I posted "Six Things Authors Wish Every Editor Knew," and an astute reader noted that editors (and I presume agents) have their own lists for authors. So I'm issuing an invitation. If you're a book editor or literary agent, e-mail us your own "Six Things" list directed toward authors. Let's keep the lists positive: what authors can do to help ensure a positive working relationship rather than a litany of gripes, please, and we'll help broaden the discussion.

Any takers?

Consider the gauntlet (ever so politely) thrown. :)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Love is the Answer (Go with God, England Dan.)

Author/musician Jamie Reno sent the following around yesterday after it was reported the musician, mensch, and our fellow lymphomaniac Dan Seals had died:
Hey friends, some sad news to report. Dan Seals was a rare talent, and was very kind to me. He was a big fan of my book on lymphoma survivors, and last time I checked in with him he was optimistic and ready to start his own lymphoma treatment. I was looking forward to recording with him. I’m listening to this classic song of his as I write this, with a tear in my eye. If you owned a radio in the 70s, or 80s, you know Dan Seals. He was a gentle, kind country boy with an inimitably tender voice. I will miss him very much.

Dan Seals partnered with his high school buddy John Ford Coley, who called him "England Dan" because they worshipped the Beatles and Dan adroitly imitated the Liverpool accent. (That was Dan's brother Jim in Seals & Crofts, by the way -- I'm just full of odd little info orts retained from my disc jockey days.) Dan was born in McCamey, Texas and grew up in Dallas. After soft-rockin' the '70s in his stovepipe jeans and mutton chop sideburns, he went on to be a huge country music star and ran for congress. He died at his daughter's home in Nashville.

For more about lymphoma survivors (including yours truly) who made the most of their post-diagnosis bonus years, check out Jamie's book, Hope Begins in the Dark. And for a sentimental blast from the past, chill with John Ford Coley below.
Name your price, a ticket to paradise
I can't stay here anymore
I've looked high and low
I've been from shore to shore to shore
If there's a shortcut, I'd have found it
But there's no easy way around it
Light of the World, shine on me
Love is the answer...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Booksignings 101

From Tony Carillo's brilliant F Minus comic:

F Minus

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Okay, I choose laughter. Glad to know that Tony does as well.

Six Things Authors Wish Every Editor Knew

We authors know that editors talk about us, and we also know we sometimes have it coming. Writers can be needy, difficult, neurotic -- in part because the business is by its very nature crazy-making.

Yet some editors consistently form long-standing, positive relationships with remarkably sane authors. They inspire devotion and win awards and great reps -- few of which have anything to do with the size of the advances they can offer. How do these editors successfully manage? Here are a few tips I've gleaned from dealing with seven different editors at three different publishing houses and countless conversations with authors who have worked with scores.

Editors can help to grow a loyal author by...

1. Keeping the lines of communication open. We're as busy as you are; we don't need or want to hear from you all the time, but we're especially vulnerable to capital-D Doubt after we've turned in a proposal or manuscript. And when you leave us hanging for weeks or even months, our powerful imaginations can't help constructing scenarios of disaster (which way too often lead to the neurotic behavior you love to hate). If we've just turned in something major and you're leaving the country for a month, going out on maternity leave, or just plain swamped, it takes only a few moments to pop out an e-mail saying so. And we will understand, then go on about our business.

2. Remembering the positives. It's so easy when you're busy to forget we need to hear what we've done right. Instead of sending an impersonal, single-spaced seven-page revision letter that's nothing but a laundry list of How We Screwed Up, take a few moments to lead with what you appreciated/enjoyed about the project. (There had to be a reason you bought our work in the first place.) We're not asking you to make something up, just remember, we'll be far, far more receptive to editing should we know we're capable of pleasing you. The editor with whom I've worked the longest is wonderful about calling and telling me exactly what she loved about a project or proposal -- something that eases my anxiety and helps me listen closely to all of her suggestions to make it even better.

3. Treating us as part of the team. Remember that you and the author share the same goal: to sell as many copies of the best book possible to the most readers possible. Let us know how we can help with this, and don't automatically discount out ideas (though you have our permission to gently rebuff those that aren't feasible). Treating authors like cogs, panhandlers, or annoyances is the fastest way to get them looking elsewhere.

4. Tossing off the occasional Attagirl-a-Gram. We'll try not to trumpet the news of every glowing Amazon review or kind word from our relations if you'll congratulate us for those things that mean something: making a list, scoring a positive review from some famously-hard-to-please major publication, making the shortlist for a big award. (And remember, "big" and "major" are subjective; to a new or newish author, everything is so exciting that we hope you'll share our enthusiasm... even if you have to fake it just a little.)

5. Remembering to put in the paperwork. Again, we know you're busy, but even authors have to eat, and we get super-pesky (often through our agents, who are way better at it) when we have trouble getting a contract, an advance or delivery and acceptance payment in a timely manner. Do you count on your paycheck? So do we, even when writing isn't our sole means of support.

6. Taking into consideration that we also have lives. There's nothing like a surprise home delivery of edits due back in a few days on Christmas Eve (been there, done that) or as you're about to leave (or just after you've left for) a vacation or to have surgery that you've warned your editor about in advance. Production schedules may be production schedules, but sometimes, an author's called upon to do ridiculously short turnarounds because the editor got stupendously behind. If you have any inkling this is going to happen, please see Point #1 on this list and call us.

So what about the rest of you? Can you think of things an editor has done or can do to build your loyalty and keep you happy and productive and pretty much out of her hair?

Friday, March 27, 2009

An Open Letter to Houston Chronicle President/Publisher Jack Sweeney (upon the whacking of their book editor)

Wednesday night, I was up late, crafting a scathing post on how I’ve been alternately irked and bored hypnagogic by the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of books over the last fifteen years. A send-up of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” it suggested that half the working writers in Houston should be processed into packing peanuts so the remaining few could be shipped anywhere they wouldn’t be prophets in their own country. My rant was derailed when a friend emailed me a link to a Wall Street Journal article reporting that Jack Sweeney, president and publisher of the Houston Chronicle, had announced the layoff of 12% of its staff. Among the fallen was book editor Fritz Lanham.

My heart sank. How would it impact Houston authors if the Chron’s book coverage got even worse? Oh, wait. That’s not possible, unless they’re planning to actually set local authors on fire.

In 2006, Mr. Lanham was interviewed on “Critical Mass,” the National Book Critics Circle board of directors’ blog.

And I quote:
Q: I don't think most people think Houston when they think literary life, but I get the impression there's a lot going on there. What makes it a lively book town?

A: The University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, one of the largest and best in the country...We also have two first-rate independent bookstores -- Brazos Bookstore, which brings literary writers to town, and Murder by the Book, one of the best mystery bookstores in the country (EVERY major crime novelist comes through here on a regular basis).

Without these two bookstores and the UH program, the books scene in Houston would be pretty grim.

When I saw that, I wanted to slap some yes ma'am right upside his pointy head. There are dozens of talented, hard-working, well-published authors of all genres living in the Houston metroplex. Two indies? There are many! Book clubs buzz in every subdivision, coffee shop, and country club. Houston is the birthplace and headquarters of the RWA, one of the leading professional organizations in the publishing industry worldwide. The Winter Gathering of Authors at the Barnes & Noble flagship store was routinely jammed to the rafters. Nuestra Palabra "gives Latino writers their say." The New Yorker was right; we live in a lively book town. I don’t know where Eeyore gets off calling it “grim” because no one was in a better position to appreciate, facilitate, and preach the gospel of Houston’s literary scene.

Our man Fritz’s nose for book news was chronically stuffed up. Week after week, the Chronicle farted forth dry-as-dog-biscuit fare typified by last Sunday’s ponderous condemnation of a John Cheever biography. (In light of recent events, it’s likely Lanham was already asking for whom the bell tolls, but it's still a fair example of his taste.) There's value in throwing a critic’s well-written two-cents into the cultural conversation on John Cheever, but that’s why God created literary journals.

And why did God create newspaper book pages?

“They inform readers about new books readers might want to pick up -- a consumer-guide function,” Lanham said in that “Critical Mass” interview. “And they tell readers interesting things they didn't know -- they enlighten, teach, unnerve.”

I’m completely on the bus with that, but with the economy suffering, the book industry suffering, the newspaper industry suffering, and dozens of worthy, widely appealing books daily lobbed over his transom, Lanham could have better implemented that philosophy by devoting precious column inches to positive, engaging reviews instead of hurling himself between We the Readers and our potentially disastrous purchase of an eighty-pound Cheever bio.

Asked if local bookstores followed Chron book coverage, Lanham said, “Local bookstores are aware of our coverage, but as a rule I don't hear that our reviews move a bunch of copies. But come to think of it I don't think I've put the question directly to them.”

If he had, he would have been told that in order to be of use as a “consumer guide” (not to mention an advertising space), book pages need to feature timely reviews of books during their excruciatingly brief shelf life. Preferably books that people without elbow patches might actually want to read. Market appeal and artistic merit are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare wrote his plays for the rabble. Dickens was directed at the mass audience. The book industry won't thrive – how can it even survive? -- if the most visible book coverage inculcates the widest market demographics with the belief that they are not smart enough to read. Somehow chortling academics have stretched this Grand Canyon of elitism and inefficacy between hungry readers and the intelligent, artsy, totally happening "let's do lunch" vibe of the book industry.

If the book business is dying of lung cancer, pasty little pedants like Fritz Lanham are the Marlboro Men. I'm sorry to be blunt. I don't want to kick the guy when he's down. (I wanted to kick him when he was up, but I missed my chance.) Mr. Lanham is an excellent writer. I hope he’ll carpe diem, grow a pair, and write a book of his own. I’d definitely buy it. Meanwhile, I hope the powers that be at the Chronicle will take this moment to reinvent the form and function of its book coverage, understanding that (hello!) encouraging reading is good for the newspaper business.

We get the culture we beget, Mr. Sweeney. The culture we carve, decision by decision. Books and newspapers are a vital, dynamic, and undeniably symbiotic aspect of American life. Well-crafted, hilarious, sexy, thought-provoking, educational, enormously entertaining books are being published every day, and there's an intelligent audience wanting to know about them. Ding dong the Fritz is dead, but where will the Chronicle go from here? Will future book coverage be a dynamic, relevant thread that appeals to an untapped audience, attracts advertisers, pumps people into bookstores, and lights a fire under the Houston literary scene? Or will we be yawning over wire service rip 'n' read reviews penned by circle-jerking academics and laid-off book editors?

Jack. Darling. I'm begging you. For the love of words on paper. Let's do lunch.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Viva la RITA! (Colleen's Triple X is short-listed!)

Can I get a "wooot!"? (Or better yet, a "hoot!"?)

Colleen's Triple Exposure was nominated (along with approximately 1200 other novels) for the RWA's highest honor -- the RITA Award, and today she got the word that she's a finalist in the Best Romantic Suspense category.

Winners will be announced at a red carpet event during RWA's National Conference in July. Till then, we must raise the cone of power...

All together now...

Gofightwin, Colleen!

Update: Here's the full list of noms.

I know it's a cliche to say it's an honor to be nominated, but seriously -- to be in the top eight out of several hundred of nominees? An amazing accomplishment making it to the front of the pack. Congrats again, Colleen!

WPA Treasure: Is It Time for a New Deal for Writers?

One of our country's little-known treasures came out of the Federal Government's response to extremely high unemployment among writers during the Great Depression. As part of the WPA (Works Project Administration), the Federal Writers' Project was established in 1935 and signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The project tasked writers (earning about $80 a month each) with collecting and transcribing oral histories for a dying commodity: the generation that had lived through so many historic events and changes throughout the 19th century. Thanks to the WPA, we now have, through the Library of Congress, online transcripts documenting folklore, folk songs, and the narratives of former slaves, pioneers, participants from the Yukon Gold Rush, survivors of the 1900 storm that killed over 5,000 in Galveston, Texas, - all in their own transcribed words. Better yet, in some cases, the original tape recordings have been digitized, allowing historians, writers, and other researchers (remember Ken Burns' outstanding documentaries?) to hear the actual voices, rhythms, and cadences of the subjects. Some photographs are included as well in the collection, and if you go to Washington in person, you can find much more that has not been digitized in the Hall of American Memory.As I said, it's a national treasure, one I first became familiar with in my college library in the '80's, when I came across and fell in love with recorded folk songs from the late 19th century. Skin tingling, I listened to as much pressed vinyl and reel to reel as I could, and I marveled that the government would have the foresight to record something so fleeting and invaluable before it was lost forever.

So what about now, as bookstore chains collapse, publishers nervously regroup, and a host of writers suddenly find themselves cut from the lists? Do we have a corps of skilled workers at the ready, and are there stories so seemingly-everyday and humble that will be lost forever, taken to the grave, if we can't quickly catch them?

Is the idea of a renewed Federal Writers' Project something that has merit when weighed against our country's immediate, pressing needs? Do we still have the vision to consider an investment in the preservation of the past as a worthy building block of our nation's future?

These are the questions we should ask each other as writers before we ask our government for even the tiniest slice of the stimulus pie.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

See sneak peek (It's never to early to start building the summer reading list!)

The minute I saw yesterday's PW review of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See I had a vision. Me...sling chair...white sand...SPF 50 on my nose and the healthy weight of a hardcover in my hand...

Saith PW:
Pearl and her younger sister, May, enjoy an upper-crust life in 1930s Shanghai, until their father reveals that his gambling habit has decimated the family's finances and to make good on his debts, he has sold both girls to a wealthy Chinese-American as wives for his sons... See's skillful plotting and richly drawn characters immediately draw in the reader, covering 20 years of love, loss, heartbreak and joy while delivering a sobering history lesson. ...an accomplished and absorbing novel.

We have to hang on till June, but I'll remind you when it's time to break out the beach cruisers.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Imagination Is the Beginning

"Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”
- George Bernard Shaw

You'll notice that Shaw didn't say imagination was the end. It may be a start - and for certain it's what many believe to be the end-all and be-all of being a successful writer. But the difference between the dreamer and the doer is in the discovery of the will and in the act of the creation.

So this week for me is going to be focused on the action, the hard work side of an equation that began with dreams and play. This week, I want to make real progress toward completing this draft.

What's your weekly goal?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Boo! (Scott Westerfeld on the spooky art of ghostwriting)

This week several people sent me links to this excellent article, "On Ghostwriting" by Scott Westerfeld, author of a popular YA Uglies series.

"I am a ghost writer, a literary doppleganger," says Westerfeld. "I write books that other people take credit for. People more famous than I, or busier, or who simply can't be trusted with a pen." He goes on to outline ghost parameters and protocol and addresses some of the pressing questions that haunt the field: "What are the implications of such duplicity? Is ghost-writing a case of false advertising? Is it simply bad manners, like bringing take-out to a potluck supper?"

Since Westerfeld ghosted fiction back when he was doing this sort of work, his perspective is a bit different from mine. As a celeb memoir ghost, I do for my clients what the Ghost of Christmas Past does in “A Christmas Carol” — I take them by the hand, lead them past their life experiences from the perspective of an observer, help them find peace with the characters who people their memories, and then excavate a language that expresses how they feel about it all. These stories are not mine to tell, so I’ve never felt that my words were being taken from me.

Quoth Westerfeld:
Reading reviews of one's ghosted works is an equally ambivalent experience. One is partially immunized from negative comments, but any high praise is half pleasure, half pain. For the ghost, the only real satisfaction comes from the phrase "competent prose." Some ghosts I know are haunted by their lost kudos...

Not me. I don’t writhe even a little when the book gets a great review, and I prefer that the reviews not mention me, because I want to do what a good ghost does: disappear. I can’t say how I’d feel about ghosting fiction, but I can say that the invisibility has become addictive. I never fight for cover credit; on a recent project, the client was the one who insisted my name be on the cover. She didn’t want people to think she was pretending to have written the book.

Ghosting forced me to examine the essence of why I write. I love living a creative life — and actually making a good living. I love the endlessly entertaining puzzle play of setting words in rows. I genuinely love listening to people -- my clients, airplane seatmates, random people on park benches and subways; I've never met a human being who was not fascinating and beautiful in some unique way. I love learning daily through research on everything from theatre history to bicycle racing to monoclonal antibody therapy. Public applause is a really pale reward compared to all that. I have a lot of love in my life; I’m not missing anything if strangers don’t love me.

I ghost memoirs for the same purely selfish reason I write novels: I love writing. Fame was never my objective. And candidly, I’ve hung around famous people enough to know that fame exacts a price I’m not willing to pony up. I’d rather be the piano player who does my thing and provides the ways and means for the jazz diva to do hers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Making Work Play the Sociogram Way

I've been working away toward the end of a big, hairy haystack of a draft and couldn't begin to keep all my spaghetti strands in order. My spreadsheet (which I resorted to for the first time with this manuscript because it has so many characters) wasn't doing it for me. Index cards weren't helping, and neither were my usual legal pad notes.

So I decided to try a lower tech version and trotted out the sociogram, something I studied all the way back (lo, these many years ago) in a college education course. Sociograms are used in many fields, but as a teacher, I used them to map out social relationships among my students. I'd start off by telling the class something like this:

The class is going to be doing a project soon for what will be a major grade, and I'd like you to work in groups. Before I assign groups, though, you can help me by writing the answers to these three questions. Be sure to keep your answers covered up and private. We don't want anyone's feelings hurt.

Then each student answers these questions:
1. Which classmate would you most like to have in your group?
2. Which classmate do you think would make a good group leader?
3. Which classmate would you rather not have in your group?

After you collect the papers, you make a chart and use circles for each kiddo with solid lines to show affinities, broken lines to show antipathies, and a different colored line to show leadership - using directional arrow to show whether each of these as one-way or mutual.

You can learn so much about a group this way. Who's the natural leader? (If it's a trouble-maker, you'll have the whole class with you if you can get him/her on your side.) Who're the cliques? (Break 'em up, or at least diffuse them.) Who are the loners, with no real connections? (You can help them out by putting them into groups with popular but kind kids, maybe those broken out of cliques.) Who are the outcasts no one likes? (Often because they have horrendously inappropriate social skills, which may be addressed by special services.)

As a writer, I do the same sort of thing (minus the questions) to graphically depict character relationships. I can then look at them and see where it's possible to make one character serve multiple purposes or eliminate a character or even create a surprising connection (surprising connections being my stock in trade) between characters. The photo I've posted shows the sociogram I made for the current work in progress (with a few deletions so my critique partners won't hunt up spoilers ).

I need a large sheet, so I coughed up the tax deductible funds to by a giant-sized Post-It Easel Pad and a 12-pack of color Sharpies, and some on-sale stickie notes (any brand'll do) so I could move around, change, and/or write on the backs of some of my comments. Then I went to town, using color and stickies (I drew the line at glitter, which makes such a mess it should be outlawed) with the joy of a third-grade girl.

And I saw things as I worked. Really saw them for the first time. Maybe it was the physicality of the ideas. Maybe it was getting away from the computer for a while. Or maybe it was just because I stopped grinding so hard and took the time to make work play.

After I was finished, I peeling off my completed page (happy to learn the Sharpies hadn't bled through several layers of my high-dollar Post-It Easel Pad and stuck the whole sheet on my office closet door, where I continue tinkering with it.

As a technique, it worked for me on this occasion, as collaging, notecards, and a host of other methods sometimes have in the past. Is any one method the right way or only way of doing things? Absolutely not, but the moral of the story is to keep making creative use of a variety of tools until you find the one that turns a knotty problem into child's play...

For that may just be the key to the locked door of imagination.

What are some fun ways you have used to play with ideas, develop characters, or brainstorm a plot? We'd love to hear about them.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Whimsy matters." (Aimee Mullins on aesthetics, prosthetics, and her glorious gams)

Okay, we've talked a lot of business this week, so I thought we might wind down to the weekend with a healthy stretching exercise, which will hopefully offer a different way to wrap your head around both form and function in your WIP, whatever that may be.

A natural born athlete who lost her legs as an infant, Aimee Mullins learned to walk, then run, then fly on prosthetics. As a student at Georgetown, she was the first disabled athlete to compete in NCAA Division I track and field. But don't say that in front of her.

"Pamela Anderson has a lot more prosthetics in her body than I do, and nobody calls her disabled," says Mullins. "The conversation is no longer about overcoming a deficiency; it's about augmentation."

About five minutes into the video below, Mullins introduces this awesome pair of ornately carved wooden legs, on which she strolled the catwalk in her first runway fashion show. The array of prosthetic legs she's inspired and collaborated on include the mind-blowing glass, cheetah girl, and jellyfish legs in Matthew Barney's freaky Cremaster Cycle. That's when she clicked to the idea that her legs could be "wearable sculpture."

"I started to move away from the need to replicate human-ness as the aesthetic ideal," Mullins says. "The only purpose these legs can serve outside the film is to provoke the senses and ignite the imagination. The whimsy matters."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Set the Tone, Define the Audience

Yesterday, I read a terrific post on opening hooks by Jennifer Bray Weber over at Musetracks, where the writer talks about grabbing the reader's attention by beginning in the midst of quest or conflict - anything to create a lightning-quick emotional connection with the reader.

The opening lines have another function, too, to set the story's tone. Will it be sassy, whimsical, romantic? Mysterious, foreboding? When the reader flips open to the story's first page, it's an if she's seeing a contract from the author: This Is What You're in For, should you sign on for the experience.

It's a pretty good system, one that, when supported by an appropriate title, cover art, and cover or flap copy, gives the author the best chance of gaining the right audience, the one most likely to enjoy the story offered and (please, oh pretty please) go looking for more books by that same author.

For the purpose of discussion, let's take a look at a couple of opening paragraphs, both from romantic suspense novels published by the same house, same imprint.

From Christie Craig's Weddings Can Be Murder (Love Spell, June 2008):
Yesterday, Carl Hades had been shot at by a man wearing a black thong and a pink silk nightie. Even in his line of work, that was hard for a devout heterosexual male to digest.

I still laugh every time I read that. :)

Here's another, from my upcoming Beneath Bone Lake (Love Spell, June 2009):

The boatman’s paddle dug deep beneath the moss-green surface, biting and twisting like a switchblade’s killing thrust. Pulse thrummed and muscles burned as he dragged the canoe forward, threading through a swamp-dank maze of pale trees, the ghost sentries of a forest flooded years before. Above, the skeletal branches reached skyward into silver, their bony fingers veiled in Spanish moss and predawn mist.

As I mentioned, both books have the same publisher and both could be categorized as romantic suspense. But in terms of style and voice, they couldn't be more different. Christie Craig, a good friend of mine as well as a terrific writer, and I often do book signing events in tandem, and sometimes readers will pick up both of our releases. Because sometimes a body's in the mood to laugh and other times, she's looking for a good scare.

More often, however, we have very different audiences. And that's just fine by both of us. Because the best thing an author can do is give readers a well-defined, consistent, and repeatable reading experience with each book. Although Christie's books have scary moments, the overall emphasis is on romantic comedy. Although my books contain the leavening of humor (often of the dry or black variety), eeriness and emotional drama reign supreme.

So today, I challenge you to look at (or post in the comments section, if you'd like to share) the opening lines of your current work in progress. Then ask yourself, do they not only hook the reader, but offer a representative sample of the book's tone and your own authorial voice.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The little press that seriously could (a conversation with Lou Aronica of The Story Plant)

As tough economic times force publishing professionals to think outside the box, perhaps those best equipped to weather the storm are the ones who were already doing it. The Story Plant is a small press and relatively fresh to the universe, but its founders state their goal without flinching: "The Story Plant is dedicated to developing commercial novelists into bestselling authors." Publisher Lou Aronica came to the project after twenty years at Bantam, Berkley, and Avon, during which he edited and published a number of NYT bestsellers. Teammate Peter Miller spent thirty years managing writers, repping several NYT bestsellers, and Executive Producing more than a dozen movies. He's currently working on a HBO miniseries with Tom Hanks' Playtone company. All of which is to say: these guys clearly know what they're talking about.

I got curious about The Story Plant when I received a review copy of James LePore's forthcoming A World I Never Made. (Watch this space for an author interview and more about the book next week.) It's a well-written international thriller a la Bourne -- danger, intense personal backstory, and location location location -- but can a David-sized press really generate a bestseller in Goliathville? Lou Aronica graciously takes a moment to talk to us about it.

Lou, thanks for being here. I’m curious about the conversation at the root (no pun intended) of The Story Plant. What is it you set out to accomplish?
Peter and I started The Story Plant because we felt that, while the world certainly didn’t need another publisher, it did need someone to make commitments to novelists and work aggressively to build their careers. Throughout my earlier publishing career, I’d dedicated myself to author development. This requires launching a writer with a vision of four or five books, not one. Publishers have moved away from that for financial reasons. This move made good fiscal sense, but not good publishing sense. With few exceptions, readers don’t discover a writer en masse the first time out. Peter and I felt that a company dedicated to commercial fiction and a long-term commitment to the writers it publishes could make a mark.

And how’s all that working out so far?
Well, we certainly picked the best possible time to start a new company…. We haven’t had any breakthroughs yet, but we’ve only published two books in the midst of a miserable economy. What has worked out is that we’ve managed to put a very strong little list together. I think we’re working with a first-rate team of writers. Our plans are on course with those writers.

How has the shift in the economy changed your business plan?
It hasn’t changed the core business plan at all. We still see The Story Plant as an author development house. What has changed is our expectations for our authors’ first books because booksellers are being ultra conservative. It’s still too early to see how this will affect the growth curves we expected for each writer.

It says on The Story Plant web site: “While we understand that no one buys a book because of the logo on the spine, we hope you'll come to find our imprimatur synonymous with storytelling excellence.” Define “storytelling excellence.”
To me, “storytelling excellence” means giving readers characters they can relate to and sympathize with at some level, presenting stories that hold together well from beginning to end without becoming predictable, and writing those stories with crisp prose. We’re publishing commercial fiction and our goal is very high quality entertainment.

You’ve also said The Story Plant is dedicated to developing commercial novelists into bestselling authors. How do you go about that? And what are the essential elements that make a novelist commercial in your view?
The first step is picking a writer who writes something that speaks to a large potential audience but does so in a distinctive way. I think a writer is commercial if that writer addresses something that matters to a large segment of the readership, either via subject (love, crime, family, friendship, overcoming hardship, etc.) or treatment (memorable characters, high emotional engagement, clever turns of phrase, fast pacing, etc.). A writer breaks out if he or she presents the work in a distinctive way.

Next, one needs to connect with a core readership. It’s very difficult to promote your way onto the bestseller list. Overwhelmingly, reader enthusiasm drives commercial success. Our goal with The Story Plant is to get a core of readers interested in and talking about each of our writers. Our expectation is that this core will be relatively small with the author’s first book but, because it is enthusiastic, it will continue to grow from book to book. I’m very encouraged by what we’re seeing with our third publication, James LePore’s A World I Never Made. The blogosphere is already buzzing about it and the novel has received several enthusiastic reviews – and it doesn’t go on sale until mid-April. People care about this novel and I think that level of connection will drive word-of-mouth and build Jim over the four books we currently have planned with him.

Would you take a chance on a book you love if you felt in your gut that it wasn’t going to sell well?
I did that several times at Bantam and Avon because I thought the writer was someone we should be working with, someone with true skill as a writer. Often, the results were ugly, but sometimes this paid off in a major way because we were by the writer’s side when he or she came up with a bigger idea. We don’t have the room to do that in The Story Plant right now because we’re a small company. We know that some of our books aren’t going to sell because that’s the nature of the marketplace. But we can’t buy anything right now unless we think it has a better-than-average chance to sell at least moderately well.

In terms of both quality and quantity, how would you describe the submissions your receiving?
I’m satisfied with both so far. We’re only planning to publish seven books this year and maybe a dozen in 2010 and I have no concerns about being able to reach those marks with very good books.

Looking at the books on your list this year, what is it about each of them that really clicked for you?
What’s consistent about all of our 2009 titles is that they all engage the reader emotionally. Whether it’s a suspense novel, a mystery, a fantasy, or a romance, each touches the reader at a deep emotional level: a man searching for his troubled, estranged daughter; an emotionally scarred woman who needs to pretend to be a mother; a family trying to contend with sudden tragedy and the effects that time has had on who they wanted to be; a lover refusing to give up hope in the face of overwhelming odds; a widowed man caring for his infant son. The books on our list excited us for various reasons, but all of them connected with our hearts. I think that’s critical if the goal is to build a dedicated audience.

Lou, thanks again for stopping by. We truly appreciate your time. Final question: What are you reading?
One of the hazards of spending the entire day around words is that one doesn’t necessarily want to spend the entire night with words as well. I don’t do nearly as much reading “for fun” as I would like and I therefore have a huge backlog of books. Right now, I’ve finally gotten to Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert is a truly inspired writer and I find her perspective illuminating and her sense of humor revitalizing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The personal approach (diving for pearls of wisdom from Erin Galloway)

Just finished browsing the lively discussion folowing Colleen's interview with marketing manager Erin Galloway. I'm not great about reading the comments on the blog, but I'm glad I took the time to follow this conversation.

One of the many great points Erin makes:
The most effective form of author self-promotion I see working now is the “personal approach.” We have an author that personally contacted several hundred bookstores last summer. She contacted each store, provided information on her book and explained why she felt her book would suit their readers. It was extremely time consuming, but it paid off. She went from a virtual unknown to the New York Times list almost overnight. In our current economy the personal touch matters even more. If people are going to spend their money they want to feel very connected to and very confident about what they are purchasing.

Click here, scroll down, and check it out.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! (Take a moment to drive your snakes out.)

Taking a moment out of the busy business week to celebrate my daughter's 20th birthday this morning. No more teens at Chez Rodgers. The 20-Somethings have taken over. When Jerusha was little, Malachi was in awe that there was a huge parade celebrating his little sister's birthday. For her sixteenth, Gary took her to Ireland where everyone wanted to buy her her first pint. This morning, she was bubbling over about debate nationals and in a hurry to head out the door in her appropriately green attire.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

If you need a moment to wrangle your inner snakes this morning (or just in case you were wondering what it's all about), here's this from "Give Up Yer Aul Sins", the Oscar nominated series from Brown Bag Films.

Director/Producer - Cathal Gaffney
Animator - Alan Shannon
Producer - Darragh O'Connell
Original recordings by Peig Cunningham

Monday, March 16, 2009

Industry Insider Interview:Marketing Up (and Through) a Storm

With my next release, Beneath Bone Lake, on the horizon, I’ve been wondering how the current economic climate might affect efforts to promote new books. To find out, I contacted Erin Galloway, Manager of Marketing for Dorchester Publishing and asked if she’d be willing to share her answers to a few questions on the blog.

CT: Thanks so much for stopping by Boxing the Octopus, Erin. We appreciate your willingness to share your considerable knowledge of the book biz. First of all, could you tell us just a little about what is it you do for Dorchester?

EG: Colleen, thank you very much for having me at Boxing the Octopus. I am the Manager of Marketing for Dorchester, so my main job is to promote our novels to readers. I do this through consumer advertising, email marketing, content on the Dorchester web site, in-person promotion at various conferences and conventions, and through publicity pitches to various online organizations and print publications.

CT: How would you say recent economic trends have impacted your efforts? Have you and the terrific team at Dorchester come up with any creative ways to generate buzz without straining the bottom line?

EG: The internet is a goldmine, especially in today’s economy. While we will certainly continue our print advertising, we are going to be very targeted in those efforts in the future. Print media tends to reach a more finite audience whereas the internet allows for endless possibilities. I have been carefully cultivating relationships with bloggers and web sites for some time and it is times like these that those relationships will prove invaluable.

CT: Most of us have been hearing stories about reduced print runs and weaker sell-through percentages. Are there any particular authors, books, lines, or subgenres that are defying that trend, and if so, why do you feel this type of product has been especially successful?

EG: The sad truth is our economy is indeed suffering and thus the book industry is suffering as well. The weaker sell thrus are a result of the tremendous slow down in the economy for the last half of the year through the holidays.

And, if the economy wasn’t causing enough of a problem in the marketplace, this difficult situation helped create a major disruption in the distribution channels for both books and magazines. In January, two major magazine wholesalers—Anderson News (ANCO) and Source Interlink (who, combined, represented roughly 50% of the magazine distribution market)—separately announced plans to charge publishers a 7-cents-per-copy distribution fee, effective February 2009. The magazine publishers announced they would not comply with the price increase and as a result, Anderson News, who also controlled a major portion of the wholesale mass market book distribution, did not survive and closed. This loss dramatically altered current print runs. You should know that all publishers are working daily to regain ANCO’s distributions to minimize the negative impact on the affected retailers. In some cases, the wholesalers have already worked out interim and long-term arrangements to ensure the continuation of product into those markets.

And yet, it is important to note that romance as a genre is bucking the downward trend. In a difficult time people need escapist literature even more to allow themselves time away from the stresses of everyday life. Romance provides that escape and relaxation. While I do think this year will be a difficult one for books, I have been heartened to hear from booksellers that romance is not only selling, it’s selling well.

CT: Finally, what advice can you offer authors in working with their house’s publicity/marketing department? What can we do to make your job easier? And is there anything you wouldn’t recommend, either because you’ve found it ineffective, overly expensive, or too time-consuming to be realistic?

EG: More than ever I think it’s really important to think about what audience you are targeting and marketing properly to that audience. If you are an established author with a solid reader base, is there any way you can expand? As a matter of fact, you are a great example, Colleen. We know you have a very established reader base and that romantic suspense readers are loyal to you. In order to introduce you to a new audience, we sent a special promotional mailing “introducing you” to the top bookstores of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. We wanted to seek out new readers that enjoy a good mystery (and some suspense) but perhaps were not yet familiar with your work.

I think it’s very important to communicate with your in-house publicist what audience you want to target and what your goals are. Once you have established that you have a framework for a plan. There may be specific blogs or web sites you can pitch to be featured on. Some places may offer you the opportunity to write a guest blog. Have you received any emails from reviewers saying how much they enjoyed your book? Write back and say thanks and feel free to politely ask if there is a way to be included in their site newsletter or in a guest blog. As long as you do so in a nice respectful way, it’s okay to be a little shameless when it comes to self promotion!

Think long and hard about where you are going to spend your money this year and do not spend it on any marketing and promo items if you don’t have specific targets in mind for them. If you want to print a thousand bookmarks or excerpt booklets, carefully consider who you will distribute those items to and how. Confirm with booksellers, librarians or conference organizers that they will be willing to distribute your materials or ask your in-house publicist or marketing team if they could use these items. It’s okay to order some extra items for unexpected opportunities that come up along the way, but ensure you have definite distribution channels before investing your money.

CT: This is all excellent information. Thanks again for taking time to tell us a little about your work and what authors can do to work with, rather than against, the publishing/marketing/sales team!

EG: Thank you so much for letting me join you and I wish all of you out there promoting yourselves and your books the best!

Note to BtO readers:
Ms. Galloway will be popping in as time permits to respond to questions and comments left here, so please feel free to leave a note. And please feel free to share a link with anyone you know who might be interested in the discussion.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Underground and on the outside (Go with God, James Purdy.)

Gore Vidal described James Purdy as "an authentic American genius." Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Edward Albee were big fans of his stories, poems, and plays. Pretty impressive company for a guy from Hicksville, Ohio, but if there's a common thread running through that group, it's definitely...(hmm, how to put it)...idiosyncrasy?

According to the obit by Hillel Italie in USA Today:
Purdy published poetry, drawings, the plays Children Is All and Enduring Zeal, the novels Mourners Below and Narrow Rooms, and the collection Moe's Villa and Other Stories. Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years. In the spring, Ivan Dee will issue a collection of his plays.

Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker were among his fans, but Purdy won few awards and was little known to the general public. He spent most of his latter years in a one-room Brooklyn walk-up apartment, bitterly outside what he called "the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment."

James Purdy died Friday. He was 94. Talking with Purdy in 2004, Martin Goodman asked the author if he'd enjoyed his life.

“I don’t know about enjoy," said Purdy. "I’d hate to live it over. Now there’s all these problems with my health and no real money coming in. But I don’t really care about that. I don’t care that I’m not a money maker. I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me. I’d think that something had gone wrong.”

His best epitaph, perhaps, is a line from his novel In a Shallow Grave: "You are a vessel in which is flowing the underground river of life."

(Kate Simon's portrait of Purdy appeared in the New York Times in 2005.)

The business of the biz (and a busy week on the way)

We've got a nice juicy week ahead here at Boxing the Octopus. On Monday, Colleen's going to be visiting with the marketing manager from her publisher, following up with Q&A. Wednesday, small press publisher Lou Aronica stops by with an insightful interview. If I can get my tech on, booksellers from the Barnes & Noble flagship store in Houston will weigh in on the anatomy of a successful book signing, and we'll hear from the movers and shakers of Nuestra Palabra, where Latino writers have their say. There's a lot going on in the industry right now, and Colleen and I are ramping up our effort to provide a platform for smart soapboxers, industry pros, and emerging writers.

We want to hear from you. Let us know what you're doing and who you want to hear from. Flip us an email at boxocto@gmail.com or post a comment below.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The making of Madame Tutli Putli (contemplating the creative process)

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

"Madame Tutli-Putli boards the night train, weighed down with all her earthly possessions and the ghosts of her past. She travels alone, facing both the kindness and menace of strangers. As day descends into dark, she finds herself caught up in a desperate metaphysical adventure. Adrift between real and imagined worlds, Madame Tutli-Putli confronts her demons and is drawn into an undertow of mystery and suspense..."

Click here to see more of the brilliant "Madame Tutli Putli".

Friday, March 13, 2009

Coming Monday: An Insider's Look at the Economy's Impact on Book Sales

Be sure to check in Monday when Boxing the Octopus welcomes Erin Galloway, Manager of Marketing for Dorchester Publishing. Erin was kind enough to answer some questions on "Marketing Up (and Through) a Storm," including information regarding the impact of the current economic challenges on book sales and promotions, tips on getting the most bang for the buck with author self-promotion, and information on how to work with an in-house publicist for maximum effect.

As time permits, Ms. Galloway will be responding to posts and questions in the blog comments section, so I hope you'll join us for the discussion.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

We Now Pause for This Message from the Ministry of Propaganda

We want you to sell. Sell, sell, sell! Don't come within ten feet of anybody without jumping down their throat with bookmarks, a nutshell synopsis, and the hardest press since the '86 Chicago Bears. Don't be shy! You are your own sales force.

Okay, now. Let's get real.

When I first came to publishing, lo these many years ago (ten, away), I had the naive idea that all I really had to do was write the books. Actually, that turns out to be only a portion of the job, and not even the majority. Much of being a working class novelist is devoted to the biz part: answering copyeditor queries, revising various drafts of various projects, parsing contracts with your agent, replying to reader e-mail (love that part), and attending to the myriad activities that fall squarely under the heading of self-promotion.

Never sit down at a book signing! Get out there and press some flesh. Have your friend run up and down the aisles witnessing. Block the book store's exits if you must!

The latter group can be, if you allow it, completely consuming. I've watched new authors self-combust as they try to do everything, be everywhere, and spend every cent of their advance (or more) buying and distributing tchotchkes, advertising in magazines with a circulation of about 12, hiring publicists, etc.. Convinced success will lie under any unturned stone, these fledging authors spend so much time, effort, and money in this area that they neglect to give their all to work in progress.

And quite naturally, disaster ensues.

Don't forget web presence! You're gonna need the fanciest web site you can swing. And book preview videos! Newsletters with great graphics! A mailing list! And for that extra-special personal touch, be sure and send out birthday greeting to each potential or past customer!

For a while, I've been fairly minimalistic in my self-promotion efforts. Slacker! I do book club or speaking engagement here and there - drawing the line at those that cost me money or too much time away from writing. I do a few book signing per release, choosing those stores with which I've had a positive prior experience. I advertise in Romance Sells, a preview mag (developed by RWA) sent to librarians and booksellers for a reasonable cost. I blog at those reader-oriented sites that ask me. And once in a blue moon, I order myself a sparkling new set of bookmarks.

Bookmarks? Why not postcards? Coffee mugs? Chocolates stamped with your book's likeness? Surely you can't just stop at bookmarks!

Sure you can. It's nice having a little something to send out to readers and booksellers who request things. I also love having something to put into the hands of people who ask about my writing or to hand out at places where I'm speaking. Plus, with the rise of online printers, you can design your own and have them made and delivered very inexpensively. (I paid about $60 for 1000 of the double color-sided, glossy bookmarks you see here from Gotoprint.com.) And all you really need is something with the title and cover of your new book, your name, printed backlist, and a website. That's plenty.

What do you mean that's plenty? As in enough? There's never enough! There never can be?

So what do you do or plan to do to silence the screeching voices (which are, to be fair, mostly in your own head) from the Ministry of Propaganda? How do you manage to keep your focus on the writing?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

'Splain it to me, Lucy (Niffenegger gets $5 mill for second novel)

Next time I hear an agent or editor tell me how the faltering economy means authors have to accept smaller advances, I'm going to whip out a copy of yesterday's New York Times. Word has it, Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, has signed a "close to $5 million" deal for her second novel.

So they say:
After a fiercely contested auction, Scribner, a unit of Simon & Schuster, bought the rights to publish the new novel, "Her Fearful Symmetry," in the United States this fall. The book is a supernatural story about twins who inherit an apartment near a London cemetery and become embroiled in the lives of the building’s other residents and the ghost of their aunt, who left them the flat.

The auction for Ms. Niffenegger’s second novel involved several large New York publishing houses, as well as the original hardcover publisher of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” MacAdam/Cage, the San Francisco-based independent, and the publisher that holds paperback rights to the first novel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Read the article in full here.

I can't decide if I envy Niffenegger or not. She's an amazing writer who completely deserves her great success, and five million bucks is great, of course, but that's a lot of barge to pull. I'm reminded of the vociferous attacks on Alice Seybold's breathlessly anticipated second novel. And the resounding thud of Charles Frazier's. Even Audrey's agent Joe Regal had to acknowledge, “There are going to be people coming to the book with claws out. That’s just reality."

On the other hand...five million samoleans. Sheesh.

What we the unanointed must remember is that every one of the publishers in that conversation must have been prepared to fork over millions, which means, my darlings, they have it. I'm not listening to one more bullshit claim that this money doesn't exist. For the right project, the money will materialize. Hold fast, me hearties.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Imagining the Worst (A Case for Backup)

At one time or another, most of us have lost work. An untimely power surge or outage, a corrupted file, or a failed hard drive can take with it the work of an hour, a week, or even years.

Years back, I suffered a string of hard drive failures that drove home the value of backing up regularly. Since then, I've owned Iomega Zip drives (remember those), burned CDs, and/or saved my works in progress to a flash drive regularly. But then I got to thinking about the wisdom of storing all this data in the same place. I've known writers who have lost their homes to fires and their roofs to hurricanes. I recently read of one whose computer and backup drives were all stolen by an especially thorough thief.

For a while, my ISP (SBC Yahoo) provided an online briefcase, which I used for several years to back up my writing, website, and photos files. It didn't allow for automatic updating, but I was pretty good about manually doing so every few days, and it also helped me move files between the two computers I routinely use. But I recently received word the service was being discontinued, and with my laptop's motherboard failing, I went in search of a new solution.

Joni recommended Carbonite, which offers encrypted, password-protected, automatic online backup of document files. After doing some research, I decided to check it out with a free 15-day trial.

It's working great. The initial upload runs in the background for a day or two and slowing the computer somewhat. But after that, the daily updates (it automatically saves new or modified doc files) run in the background so seamlessly, I don't even notice. And best of all, if I ever come home to find a great, smoking crater where my house used to be, I can recover all of my document files from any computer at my convenience. It's well worth the $50 a year in peace of mind.

I still have stuff to figure out. I don't know if I can add my desktop computer onto the same account, something I'd like to do since I switch between the two so often. And I haven't yet used it for recovery. Still, I thought I'd post this friendly reminder about backup.

Because disasters happen - and not just to other writers.

So what are you using to safeguard your important document files? Are you devout about it, lax about it, or just plain avoidant? Anyone have a different backup solution to share.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Eating Your Veggies

When the going gets tough on the work in progress (the one with the fast-approaching deadline) there is absolutely no temptation like the project I'm supposed to write next. Faced with the hard work of ironing out my tangled plot threads or writing a love scene (Believe it or not, I've always found these the toughest passages in the books), my devilishly-resistant brain points at some enticing sparkle on the horizon and shouts, "Look! Over There!" for all the darned thing's worth.

Think of it as the strawberry cheesecake that just distracted me from my dinner salad. Now I love a good salad, and I feel so much better for having eaten one, but if there's strawberry cheesecake anywhere in visual range, unh uh. No. Not happening.

So distracted by the cheesecake, last weekend I dropped what I was doing and worked on a synopsis for another story (which does, in my defense, have its own pressing deadline). And so it was the last two days when I noodled with the opening of the very same book (one not due for quite a long time) rather than attending several far more urgent tasks, especially muddling through the toughest parts of the current work in progress.

Eventually, I forced myself back to the big green-leafy after writing a sweet, delicious opening chapter on the distraction mechanism. But the trouble was, by the time I got to my veggies, I'd already filled up on the junk and made very little progress.

So this week, I'm going for a more disciplined approach. Veggies first, and then dessert... in a sparing, measured manner.

What's your writing goal for this week? Post here and then let's see how we do by week's end.

The ultimate backstory: Dr. Donald Johanson and Kate Wong on Lucy's Legacy

This week Random House released Lucy's Legacy: the Quest for Human Origins by Dr. Donald Johanson and Kate Wong, and I'm pretty sure I'll be seeing it on Gary's nightstand in the near future. Gary's fascination with all things ancient has led us on some great adventures and sparked many thinky thoughts about the humanity of art and the art of humanity. In the fall of 2007, I blogged about seeing Lucy at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Aside from the wonder of the discovery, I was taken with the idea that a single moment could blossom into a life's work. It's been thirty-five years since the discovery of Lucy, and Johanson is still learning. Still evolving.

From the press kit:
In his New York Times bestseller, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, renowned paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson told the incredible story of his discovery of a partial female skeleton that revolutionized the study of human origins. Lucy literally changed our understanding of our world and who we come from. Since that dramatic find in 1974, there has been heated debate and–most important–more groundbreaking discoveries that have further transformed our understanding of when and how humans evolved.

In Lucy’s Legacy, Johanson takes readers on a fascinating tour of the last three decades of study–the most exciting period of paleoanthropologic investigation thus far. In that time, Johanson and his colleagues have uncovered a total of 363 specimens of Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species, a transitional creature between apes and humans), spanning 400,000 years. As a result, we now have a unique fossil record of one branch of our family tree–that family being humanity–a tree that is believed to date back a staggering 7 million years.

Look for Lucy's Legacy in bookstores this week. And look for Lucy in the mirror tomorrow morning.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Unlikeliest of Allies

When I saw this beautiful CBS piece on the unlikely alliance (or let's call it what it is: love) between an aging elephant and a stray dog, it touched my heart... and reminded me that in this business, it's important to have a like-minded pal or 2 (or 70) in your corner. If you're open to it, you'll find writing allies from vastly different backgrounds and experience can not only add immensely to your knowledge, but can immeasurably enrich your life.

This little clip should be required viewing for those on Capitol Hill. ;)

Friday, March 06, 2009

"Novels need to have an urgency about them..." (a moment with Meg Wolitzer)

A few years back, I asked my editor at Random House to suggest a "Writers Who'll Make Me a Better Writer" reading list. One of the first names out of her mouth was Meg Wolitzer. An author to watch, Meg had a movie deal in motion for Surrender, Dorothy and a solid hit with The Wife at the time. Last year, her novel The Ten Year Nap gained rave reviews, and this week, it's out in trade paper. (Scroll down to yesterday's post for more on the book.)

Meg, thanks for taking a moment to chat with us today. Before we get down to the business, how's it going? Is all well and groovy in Megworld?
All is well and groovy, indeed.

With The Ten-Year Nap coming out in trade paper, it's current popularity with book clubs is bound to beef up exponentially. There's a lot to discuss in this book. How has the book club response been so far, and what's your hope for the focus of future conversations?
I think book clubs have been tremendous for writers, and in particular I think they've been useful for writers whose books generate a certain kind of fierce conversation. (Although, having just written that, I think that any good book can generate fierce conversation. You can get all fired up reading Nabokov's Pale Fire--not necessarily in dissent, but in excitement or even bewilderment.) I have met some women in book groups who have read my book, and some of them have come to readings I've given, which is always gratifying.

I don't know what my hope is, exactly, for future conversations, but I think if readers are talking about your book, that can't be a bad thing. Books become marginalized in the culture if no one talks about them. If they go undiscussed, then they are in danger of becoming like scrimshaw or lute-playing: of interest mostly to the craftspeople who do the thing, and not to many other people. Conversation--even when it's critical, and I'm sure some of the conversation about my book is critical, not that I'm there to hear it--is essential.

There’s been a dramatic shift in the economic and political climate since The Ten Year Nap was written. How do you see these changes affecting the "mommy wars" in general and these characters in particular?
I have been hoping that the mommy wars will sort of subside, given the fact that we are all in trouble. I don't think this is a moment in which people are turning on one another. There's no time for that now. Though The Ten-Year Nap was written before the so-called downturn, which sounds like too gentle a term, doesn't it?--the novel was certainly not free of financial anxiety. In fact, I think it was kind of riddled with it. The anxiety that pre-dated the economic collapse was very palpable in New York City and elsewhere, and so I put it in my novel, as a way of creating this snapshot in time.

While we're on the subject, how do you see the changes in economic and political climate affecting the publishing industry?
We've been hearing about the death of the book for a long time, but clearly the book may be reimagining itself in different forms right now because of technology. I for one need a book in my hand--an actual book-shaped object, as opposed to a screen with a faux-page on it, although my sons have been encouraging me to read things on my iphone lately. (The screen is so small that I am reminded of the pleasures of reading the Maurice Sendak "Nutshell Library," which had tiny books in it, including "Chicken Soup with Rice," and "Pierre.") But another concern is what will happen to the novel. We live in an information-based world at the moment, and novels need to make the case that a piece of writing that is thoughtful and perhaps discursive and that doesn't state its "point" up front is just as necessary as a non-fiction book. Novels need to have an urgency about them, even if it's a quiet urgency.

A lot of "Boxing the Octopus" readers are aspiring or emerging writers working hard to get publishing careers in motion. Yesterday, I mentioned some of the milestones of your success, but I'm curious, if you had one professional do-over, what would it be?
Well, to be honest, while I like my first novel Sleepwalking, I don't truly feel attached to any of my novels until The Wife. When I wrote The Wife, I had begun figuring out what I wanted to do as a writer. I started writing very young, so it was a long trajectory.

Thanks again for your time, Meg. Before we let you get back to the salt mine, I have to ask: What are you reading?
I am reading Nabokov's Pale Fire, as mentioned above, and also the sequel to Stieg Larsson's Swedish thriller, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which has only appeared in the UK thus far, and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. McEwan is one of my favorite writers.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Rise and shine: Meg Wolitzer'sThe Ten Year Nap is an eye-opener

Chapter One of Meg Wolitzer's novel, The Ten Year Nap, begins with this eloquent wake-up call:
"All around the country, the women were waking up. Their alarm clocks bleated one by one, making soothing sounds or grating sounds or the stirrings of a favorite song. There were hums and beeps and a random burst of radio. There were wind chimes and roaring surf, and the electronic approximation of birdsong and other gentle animal noises. All of it accompanied the passage of time, sliding forward in liquid crystal. Almost everything in these women's homes required a plug. Voltage stuttered through the curls of wire, and if you put your ear to one of the complicated clocks in any of the bedrooms, you could hear the burble of industry deep inside its cavity. Something was quietly happening."

In The Ten Year Nap, Meg Wolitzer offers us an extended play date with four women who set aside their careers in order to stay home and care for their kids. Ten years later, they open their eyes to find that—well, they’re ten years older, so are their kids, and so is the world around them. Contrasting vignettes place the story of their reawakening alongside the troubles and triumphs of their foremoms. We’re hanging out with sisters but haunted by ghosts of feminism past.

Quoting Sheri Holman from the Washington Post:
If Wolitzer were content to people her book solely with women happily married and wealthy enough to afford the luxury of ambivalence, it would be a too-familiar read. But she weaves in vignettes of marginal South Dakotans and various iconoclastic mothers and muses, subtly showing how women's individual choices (or lack thereof) are inextricable from the history and future of feminism…Wolitzer perfectly captures her women's resolve in the face of a dizzying array of conflicting loyalties.

When The Ten Year Nap came out in hardcover last year, the Chicago Tribune described Wolitzer as being “as precise and rigorous an observer of social status as Tom Wolfe…as incisive and pitiless and clear-eyed a chronicler of female-male tandems as Philip Roth or John Updike.” (Wow.) And the New York Times said, “The tartly funny Wolitzer is a miniaturist who can nail a contemporary type, scene, or artifact with deadeye accuracy.”

High praise, but great reviews are nothing new for Meg. Her debut novel, Sleepwalking, was published to critical acclaim a year after she graduated college in 1981. Her steadily growing body of work—novels, short stories, and screenplays—has earned a steadily growing audience. She won a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1994 and a Pushcart Prize in 1998. And as far as I can tell, none of this has gone to her head.

“I am a fiction writer who, like most writers, is happiest when I'm working,” Meg says. “I have somewhat erratic work habits, and can go for weeks without producing much, then suddenly find myself in a whirlwind of productivity that lasts a long time and occupies most of my waking hours. Between those productive bouts I tend to read a lot, mostly contemporary novels, an activity that serves as a kind of re-fueling that I seem to need. I love being excited and keyed up by other people's novels; the best of them remind me of how powerful fiction can be.”

More from Meg tomorrow when she drops by Boxing the Octopus to chat about her career and offer some insight into the state of the industry. Meanwhile, click here to read the rest of Chapter One, and look for The Ten Year Nap in trade paperback everywhere this week.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The end...until further notice (Picoult novel rewritten for film)

When Jodi Picoult's 12-year-old son Kyle picked up his mom's novel My Sister's Keeper, he was immediately engrossed in it.

"The day he finished the book, I found him weeping on the couch," Picoult said in an interview. "He pushed me away and went up to his room and told me that he really didn't want to see me or talk to me for a while - he was THAT upset."

The shocker ending of the novel evoked a lot of response, ranging from throw-the-book-across-the-room outrage to quiet Kleenex-plucking reflection. But you won't know it from the film starring Cameron Diaz as the mom who has a baby to create a bone marrow match for a daughter with leukemia, and Abigail Breslin as the baby who grows into a teenager and doesn't want to donate a kidney to her big sister. According to an article in USA Today, :
Picoult hasn't seen the movie but has read the script: "Having the ending changed would certainly not have been my choice. I wrote the ending very intentionally because I wanted to leave the reader with a certain message. And changing that ending changes that message. However, I am excited to see the movie and to judge it on its strengths."

One hardcore Picoult fan, 16-year-old Lauren Kobren of Jericho, N.Y., started a "Save My Sister's Keeper!!" group on Facebook.

"For anyone who has finished the book," says Kobren, "I think most of us can agree that the ending is most of the reason that we literally throw the book at our friends and demand that they read it!" So far 1,655 readers agree.

When asked why she chose the ending she did, Picoult tells book clubbers (who probably come to blows over the complex issues of MSK): "This isn't an easy book, and you know from the first page, that there are no easy answers."

We'll have to wait until June to see how this ends...but I'm pretty sure I already know.



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