Thursday, April 30, 2009

Trolling the Shallows



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

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

It's not a day for in-depth research, not a day for much of anything but reeling in thoughts and admiring their glittering scales before throwing them back to swim free again beneath the surface.

Since I have a contracted novella to write (all too quickly, thank you) some might see this as a wasted day, but I can assure you that it won't be. Because as I work on my novella project, some minnow will turn into a fine, fat keeper, an idea to keep me busy for months and months to come.

So what are your favorite places to troll for new ideas? How do you recognize when the right one comes along?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Eagerly awaiting Tom Folsom's The Mad Ones

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



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

Celebrated in a Bob Dylan ballad, Joey was the epitome of gangster chic, an anti-hero and counterculture rebel/philosopher who read Camus and Sartre. He made the rounds of high society with Jerry Orbach before being gunned down midbite at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy. Coinciding with this year's 40th anniversary of the publication of The Godfather, The Mad Ones brings to life the true stories that inspired Puzo's masterpiece.

Click here to visit Folsom's web site. And yes, I will be reading before I giftwrap.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Series Sensibility



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

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

Pros

1. Can save the author time on research, world-building, and character development.
2. May build reader loyalty as people enjoy revisiting "old friends" or need to find out what happens to characters in which they already have an investment.
3. Sells backlist titles with each new release.
4. Allows author to enrich fictional world with each addition to the series.
5. Gives the publisher an opportunity to "brand" the series, release titles back-to-back, and keep backlist titles in print.

Cons
1. Increases the chance for errors, as author may forget details from manuscripts written years before. (Many authors keep detailed series' notebooks to help keep things straight.)
2. Some readers won't pick up any books in a series until it's completely written for fear of being burned by dropped series. (Series are often dropped due to weak sales or other factors.)
3. Many readers won't start with the author's current release but insist on beginning with the first book in the series. (As I reader, I tend to do this.) So unless the series gets off to a very strong start and the publisher keeps the backlist readily available, sales of each title may drop off.)
4. Author has little control over gap between publication of the titles, backlist staying in print and in stores, etc. Without strong publisher commitment, even a terrific series will fail.
5. Author can get "trapped in" a world that loses its freshness. Readers may reject any other offering from this author, possibly requiring her to use another name and start over if creative needs take her in another direction.
6. Readers (and author, see above) may grow tired of the series (especially if characters never significantly grow.)


I often see unpublished writers make the mistake (or what usually turns out to be a mistake) of writing sequels to their unsold projects. The trouble is, beginning writers (if they're any good) improve so much with each manuscript that by the time they complete a saleable manuscript (this often happens around Book Three) the first one looks godawful in comparison and may never sell. Also, as my brilliant agent warned me, when writing series, authors tend to hold back "the good stuff," saving it for future books. But there won't be any future books in the series unless you put your very, very best into the first one.

So what are your views on reading and writing series? Are you loyal to any of them? Have you written or are you considering writing any? Why or why not?

Monday, April 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 26, 2009

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


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

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

On a more personal note, Rue tells how Bea took her in after her mother's funeral:
Thanksgiving day, I flew back to LA and walked into the dark, empty Palisades house at dusk. Not a soul in the place. As the desolate dusk swept over me, I picked up the phone and called the strongest person I could think of.

Bea said, "You’re coming out to my house. Right now."

When I arrived, there were maybe ten people around the table, including her mother, who lived with her and her husband and their boys. Bea made me a plate of food, then tucked me into bed in a guest room. Her tender, gentle care finally brought me peace, and I slept soundly.

The theme song played at the start of every episode of The Golden Girls was a little ditty called “Thank You For Being a Friend.” A bouncy little bit of bubble gum music. Hardly a tear-jerker. But those words probably don’t get said enough. A friend in a moment of deepest need—that’s truly something to be grateful for. I shall never forget Bea Arthur’s loving kindness that night.

Go with God, Bea. And may I just say, Right on, Maud.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pulitzer on Writing & Pulitzer Fiction


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

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

Joseph Pulitzer


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

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

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

There's a new paperback edition come out 4/27/09 for only $8.40 on Amazon. That's a lot of quality fiction for the price! Follow the link above to check it out.

Friday, April 24, 2009

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


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

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

Click here for a full schedule of stage events.

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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Poetry As Fuel for Prose


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

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

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

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


Mad Girl's Love Song
by Sylvia Plath

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

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Weigh in on the 2009 Pulitzer winners

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

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

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

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

Biography
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham (Random House)
An unflinching portrait of a not always admirable democrat but a pivotal president, written with an agile prose that brings the Jackson saga to life.

Poetry
The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press)
a collection of luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory.

General Nonfiction
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon (Doubleday)
A precise and eloquent work that examines a deliberate system of racial suppression and that rescues a multitude of atrocities from virtual obscurity.

Veer (resources for we who love words)


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

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

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

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

Enjoy."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Looting the Graves: Resurrecting Dead Authors



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

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

Not cool, nor do I think it's cool to dig through a popular author's old manuscripts and/or hard drive looking for incomplete (and possibly ill-conceived) manuscripts, having them completed by a relative or hired gun and passed off as the author's work. (Hence, Michael Crichton has two posthumous books forthcoming.) Dicier still are situations where heirs treat the late author as a franchise and continue to produce "new work" in the "spirit of" the deceased while slapping his/her name on the new product. Or situations such as the one where Margaret Mitchell's relatives authorized the creative of an apologist "sequel" to Gone With the Wind.

In one particularly egregious example (sorry but I can't name this author because I'm allergic to lawsuits) I'm aware of, the family members of a dead author hired a publicist to occasionally plant "news items" making it appear as if their cash cow, er, beloved, is actually alive.

Seriously, seriously not cool.

The moral of this story? As an author, make your wishes crystal clear. And if you have old manuscripts lying around you wouldn't be "caught dead" putting your name behind, give some thought as to their final disposition.

I'm one of those writers who saves everything, at least electronically, as I often repurpose old ideas and like to have them around to look back on (even though they mostly make me cringe). And while I'm not nearly popular enough to warrant "grave robbing," I'm betting Austen never would've seen the zombie mash-up coming either. So I'm newly inspired to either designate someone to destroy certain files (this can be risky, especially when we're talking heirs, who might be convinced by those who stand to profit of the literary merit of the material), check into how I can prevent this legally, or destroy the most embarrassing old manuscripts myself.

So what are your thoughts on this issue? Do you believe an author's works should stand as published at the time of her death? Or are there exceptions? (For example, most of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson's masterpieces were collected and published after her death, and I for one believe the world would be a poorer place without their discovery.) What about your own work, for those of you who write? Do you like the idea of your work, ideas, or name going on to support your heirs? Or would you rather control your own literary legacy?

Monday, April 20, 2009

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


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

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

My heart aches when I hear the message of that song from "Les Mis": "Life has killed the dream I dreamed." It's a terribly sad refrain from women of any age, but particularly women of "a certain age." Middle-aged women are intellectually on fire, spiritually seasoned, and sexually ripe, but there's not a demographic on the planet that gets less respect, especially those of us who aren't aging like Rene Russo. And perhaps the worst travesty of all is how women my age dismiss themselves. It takes more than talent to sashay out in front of the world; that's an act of courage, a decision of will, and a prayer of gratitude for one's own gifts.

Susan Boyle clearly appreciates the gift she has, even though others never embraced her in a big way until now. I love that she delivered the song like a wrecking ball, then went striding off the stage instead of waiting for the panel to judge her. She's been judged plenty, no doubt. Maybe she's grown so used to being overlooked by a world that rewards youth and beauty, she's learned to fully live in her skin and find her rewards in the work.

When a woman in her Power Decades tells me she's always dreamed of being a writer, I want to shake her and say, "Wake up!" Dreams are lovely, but waking life is where it's at. Today's the day, sisters. Embrace your power, steel your spirit, sail it out there, and stride on off to the next challenge without regard for the judgement of others.

By the way, if you were thinking Susan is a one-hit-wonder, listen to this...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It Takes a Village


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

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

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

Then there are the members of my fabulous critique group, The Midwives (Joni Rodgers, TJ Bennett, Barbara Taylor Sissel, and Wanda Dionne). Twice a month we get together and talk books, chitchat, and then get down to the nitty-gritty. Not much gets by these women. They're Tasmanian devils when it comes to rooting out the dead flesh (there I go, with the flattery) in each member's bimonthy ten-twelve pages. But they do it with such respect and such a genuine desire to made each member's work shine that you hardly notice the gore dripping - okay, just kidding. I adore these ladies. They're all incredibly talented, and they're wonderful about giving positive feedback.

Once I'm finished a draft, I draft at least two of my critique partners. (The irreplaceable Barbara Sissel has been first full-draft reader for every book I've done in the past ten years!) And Joni's offered some amazing input that's helped me kick things up another notch.

With every pass, the manuscript gets stronger (and shorn of another round of the insidious typos), but at this point, I take one last step before passing it on to my editor. JoAnne Banker, a writer with a wonderful eye for story, is my "cold reader". She hasn't seen any pages or the synopsis, and she's not influenced by various and sundry versions of the book. She just calls 'em as she sees 'em and gives me one last chance.

Now, you'd think with allll that feedback, I'd turn in a perfect manuscript. But last of all, my brilliant editor Alicia Condon takes a crack at it and invariably comes back with insightful suggestions to improve the story even further.

Thanks so much to all of you!

So who's your village? Who do you count on to brainstorm ideas, read drafts or pages, or simply hold your hand and help you keep your sanity?

Since it's Sunday, I'll restrain myself from asking "Who's your village idiot?" ;)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Saturday Morning Cartoon: "9"

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

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bouncing Baby Boxers?



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

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

But there is a time and place for everything, including bouncing unripe ideas around in a brainstorming session with a trusted pal -- or better yet, a trusted pal who's also a seasoned pro. Especially when you're really not certain whether the project's viable. Joni calls this "dating the idea" with an eye toward commitment. She and I have had a lot of "let me bounce this crazy idea I have off you and see what you think" sessions, and I had such a discussion yesterday with friend and fellow romantic suspense author Karen Young.

"Is this fertile ground (another Joni-ism; I'm full of 'em today) or a train wreck?" I asked her. We both agreed the idea was extremely high-concept but potentially risky, but sure enough, Karen starting tossing out her thoughts (good ones) on how to make it work, I piggy-backed off those ideas and bounced back more, and before I knew it, I'd decided to go ahead and write up this proposal, one that had so fired my imagination, I barely slept last night.

So how about the rest of you? Do you bounce your ideas off a friend, critique partner, your agent or an editor? Or do you nurture them in isolation until they're well grown enough to come out and play?

And enjoy this Boxer on a trampoline video. It's hilarious!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What My Wheels Are Saying



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

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kristin Chenoweth is A Little Bit Wicked and whole lotta fun


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

Gotta love her.

No, I mean it. To know this woman is to love her. Not a vindictive bone in her body, generous to a fault, funny, smart, and a phenomenal, classically trained performer completely dedicated to the hard-working work of art. Always willing to give up glamour in favor of a good laugh. She's a diva, no doubt, but she doesn't take herself too seriously, and I've never seen her be rude or impatient with any of the many fans who approach her on the streets of New York, where she's a highly visible Broadway demi-goddess. My objective as her memoir guru was to capture her delightful voice so readers could enjoy hanging out with her as much as I have.

So far, buzz is good, including this item in Express Night Out that captured her spiritual side:
COOTER, HOO HOO and Georgia O'Keefe. Those are a few of the terms that Kristin Chenoweth uses for her vagina in her new memoir, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages. And that's really about as wicked as the book ever gets; not surprising really, considering she's a squeaky-clean, God-fearing lass from the Bible Belt state of Oklahoma... Throughout the book, Chenoweth manages to speak of her faith in God in a way that's not cloying or preachy. She's candid about her views of homosexuality. Her appearance on Pat Robertson's ultra-conservative talk show "The 700 Club," "urging the Christian community to be more open-minded, loving, and inclusive," angered many of her gay and Christian fans alike, and Chenoweth is genuinely surprised and saddened by the results: boycotts of her shows and albums were called for from both sides and she was fired from a stint on the Women of Faith tour.

The first week we worked together, Kristin and I had a long conversation about that and other smackdowns she's sustained because of her open support for gay marriage, which actually goes well with her unapologetic old-time religion. (Kind of like the way she carried off Jimmy Choo slingbacks with a Snuggie.) When we parted, I sent her home with a little English assignment: "Questions for God When I Meet Him." A few queries on Kristin's list:
Who killed JonBenét? And does she pretty much own the pageant circuit up here?

Why is forgiveness so dang hard?

Why is slapstick so dang funny?

Who is the sadistic genius behind cellulite? Lord, please tell me you did not have anything to do with that.

Does restless legs syndrome actually exist? And is there something about it that compels the person to sit in the front row?

Why would someone go to all the trouble it takes to be a serial killer? Is there always some kind of Sweeney Todd backstory?

Where are the mates to most of my socks?

Does sugar cause cancer? And if not, what does?

Does sugar cure cancer? And if not, what does?

Why do so many people find homosexuality scarier than war?

What if you made it so that hate would cause hemorrhoids? Just an idea.


For the full list (along with Advice for Actors from Cool Aunt Kristin, recipes for White Trash Cookies and Chenolicious No Calorie Left Behind Pie, a guest appearance by the amazing Aaron Sorkin, and a great story about coming of age on Broadway) hitch a ride to the bookstore in the handiest magic bubble and hook up a copy of A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages Kristin's book tour includes appearances on Good Morning America and The View this week and events in New York, Philly, and her native OK. Catch her if you can!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Happy Release Day, Kristen Chenoweth!


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

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

Currently seen as waitress Olive Snook in ABC's Pushing Daisies, the Tony Award–winning singer-actress Chenoweth looks back at her multifaceted career, which has encompassed recordings (As I Am), films (Four Christmases), television (The West Wing), Broadway (Wicked), solo concerts, animation (Tinker Bell), opera and Opryland. Beginning with the intriguing speculation that her unknown birth mother could be watching her career rise, she recalls her Oklahoma childhood and vocal training when she learned "[t]he music didn't come from notes and lyrics; it came from life and mileage." Personal revelations, such as her experiences with Ménière's disease, are balanced with bubbling backstage anecdotes. A chapter about her on-and-off relationship with writer-producer Aaron Sorkin includes a section written by Sorkin himself. With digressions, detours and words like "whack-a-noodle," the book is busy with show-biz flip quips and writing reminiscent of Julia Phillips's You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (minus the drugs and invective). Chenoweth has a frenzied, free-associative style; it's as if she's speaking breathlessly into a tape recorder between sitcom scenes. To use her phrase, this book is "a hoot and a holler"—a fast-paced frolic that her fans will appreciate. (Apr. 14)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Check it out!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday Link n' Stink


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

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

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

Golly gosh, I don't see a whole lot of hands up out there. Anyway, it's a fascinating article. Check it out.

Now for the "stink" portion of today's post: the huuuuugggeee brouhaha over Amazon.com, who, not content with shaping the future of book-buying, has decided to get into the morality business by "de-ranking" what they're calling "adult" books, many of which seem to be gay-themed or gay-friendly. Check out the thought-provoking article from the LA Times.

What I want to know is what Amazon employee(s) got stuck with (or more frighteningly, volunteered for) the task of being moral arbiter of the Amazon world, decided which books would be excluded from searches or bestseller list? (De-ranked: Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain. Not de-ranked: Brett Easton Ellis's uber-violent American Psycho. Because while being showered with gore is a personal choice, we as Americans must be protected at all costs from sex.)

While I totally admit I can see the point of not wanting to offend readers searching for Babar the Elephant for their kiddies by popping up a pornographic title or cover (they're out there and some are really raunchy), some of the choices are mind boggling - not to mention whipping up a huge controversy and potential boycott.

C'mon, Bezos, what are you thinking here? You guys love books and I love you, so just get out of the way and admit you bit off more than you can chew before this gets way too crazy.

Update: Publishers' Weekly is reporting Amazon claiming this was all a "glitch" rather than a nefarious plan. This is a pretty thin explanation, considering their early attempts to justify it. But at least they're reversing the "de-listing."

Pictured: Leslea Newman's Heather Has Two Mommies. Insidious threat or teaching tool for tolerance? (And by the way, today's link's to Barnes and Noble.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eyes on Your Own Basket: An Easter Parable for Writers



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

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

She was getting quite a kick out of it, too, until she turned her back to boast as our perpetually-scavenging beagle, Queenie, stuck her head into her basket and laid waste to it -- slobbering over what she didn't bolt down before we could pull her off it. (I'd like to think we did this as quickly as we could, but I'm not certain, all these years later, that we didn't wait a bit to see if the little show-off would notice what was going on behind her.) Of course, the poor little girl cried, and (I'm ashamed to say) my sibs and I laughed as she snatched up the wreckage and raced home with it to tell her parents what the walking garbage disposal had done.

Here in the land of working writers, each of us wakes to a basket. Some of the baskets contain no more than the fruits of the authors' labors (a completed proposal or a manuscript, query letters mailed out. Others contain the plastic grass and jellybeans of encouraging feedback or the Peeps and little chocolate eggs of agent requests or contest finals. Some will have a big, hollow rabbit thrown in for good measure, while others seem to have hit the jackpot, scoring riches that dwarf all others in comparison but can easily be gobbled up by forces outside of the authors' control.

The trick is keeping your eyes on your own basket. Savoring what you've achieved and planning for a fuller bounty next year. Lusting after someone else's does you no good, and as for complacency or boasting... Well, that's not only bad manners, but you could be tempting fate.

The hard truth is, somebody else will always have the fuller basket -- and Lord bless 'em for their fortune. But whatever's happening in their house has not one thing to do with you.

So Happy Easter, everybody! With my family away for the day, I'm off to count my blessings and get to work on the filling of a future basket!

Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

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


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

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

My all-time favorite rabbit moment in literature or cinema: "What's Opera, Doc?", the send up of Wagnerian splendor starring Bugs and Elmer Fudd. I loved this cartoon when I was a little girl. The first time I saw it, I was so taken with it, I got my big sister Diana to help me search through the gigantic bins of record albums upstairs at the public library for the source music. We found Wagner...and Puccini...and Verdi...and my lifelong love of opera was born.

I have an odd recurring dream about this Bugs Bunny ep from time to time, and I have all sorts of theories about why. Perhaps my subconscious is telling me to lighten up. Or perhaps it's reminding me of the fundamental elements of story that remain unchanged from Die Feen to das Fudd. Or maybe it's something far deeper about the psycho-sexual ramifications of the cross-dressing Bugs. Or maybe it's something about the smallest, silliest seed growing into a lifelong passion.

Whatever. Enjoy. And have a Happy Easter!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday quote: Rollins on the Compulsion to Write


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

- Henry Rollins

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

That tinkling noise you heard was another stereotype being shattered.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

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


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

During Sunday's event at the Firehouse Saloon in Houston, Coben said a line from Missy's song "Where I Stood" made an appearance in one of his novels: "I don't know if I can stand another hand upon you, all I know is that I should." (The song also made an appearance in a Grey's Anatomy ep, soundtracking the aftermath of an ambulance crash.) Missy's mum, reading the novel on a beach on the other side of the planet, saw her daughter's music and got a huge kick out of it, so now here they are, and there we were, and that thread of inspiration continues to wrap around the global spool. How cool is that?

Colleen, of course, being the big Harlan Coben fan (reference huge smile to the right) and the instigator of most of our adventures, was the one behind the wheel here, but as soon as she told me about the event, I had to know who else was going to show up. The place was packed. Hipsters had drifted in from the nearby Montrose gayborhood, and Colleen and I sat with a couple of Australian engineers who were there to see their homegirl, but it looked to me like most of the people were there to see Harlan Coben. Murder By the Book knows how to get out the vote, so there were a lot of hard core mystery fans, who can't disguise themselves even if they lint-roller the cat hair off the embroidered red Christmas sweaters. Aspiring writers scored seats early, turning out for the witty, wise Coben like mountaineers would turn out for Sir Edmund Hillary.

During the hour or so of banter and music, there was a lot of cross-talk about the creative process. Coben seemed genuinely interested in introducing Higgins' work to his audience and not desperate to pluggetty-plug-plug his book, which most people had bought on their way in the door anyway. Higgins' fans gave the group a great body, and she has a delicious stage presence that definitely endows him with some cool. The contrasting styles and gracious cooperative transformed an event that is traditionally about selling into a groovy sort of happening that was all about enjoying a Sunday afternoon with friends. It was fun, entertaining, thoughtful, and in terms of bottom line being the bottom line, it worked. I spent cover price plus five bucks for the book, $15 for Missy's CD (warmly autographed to my hipster daughter), and another $8 for drinks. Love and money--depending on which song you listen to--making the world go round.

Listening to Missy's music this morning, I was thinking about the beauty of evolution. If Murder By the Book had brought Harlan Coben in for the standard book tour event, they'd have had a respectable turnout, but I wouldn't have been there. I wouldn't be blogging about it right now, and I wouldn't have bought Long Lost, which either Colleen or I will be blogging about as soon as one of us has a moment to read it. A serious rethinking of the book tour is long overdue. Publishers have known for a long time it doesn't work, but force of habit kept it going until money got tight. Now, ready or not, like it or don't, the page is turning.

The squeeze we feel in the publishing industry right now is labor pain. Something new is being born, and birth is a traumatic but ultimately glorious -- and unstoppable -- process. In his inauguration speech, Barack Obama said that people would have to accept that the ground has shifted beneath their feet. That's true of the book biz to the tenth power. And the key to survival is not clinging to the last scrap of business as usual, grabbing for the evaporating advertising budget, or grasping for every fifteen seconds of face time we can score. The key is the artistic cooperative. We'll help ourselves by helping each other, by pulling that thread of inspiration to see what unravels.

Ponder while you groove to the amazing Missy Higgins...

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

This Papery Hellsbroth of... Despair



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

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

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


I usually finish my page proofs thinking, this is it, the beginning of the end. The book that will have the critics saying Thompson's lost it and my readers turning their backs on me forever. I'm so sickened by the activity, I'm never able to reread the book after publication. What if I find something else - something critical I missed which people snicker about behind their hands but are too polite to tell me? I can certainly relate to the old joke about writer's Hell being a place where all the libraries contain only copies of his/her own books.

By now, I've realized, of course, that it's familiarity that's bred contempt and that there's no paranoia quite like a writer's. Still, it does my heart good to know I'm not the only person who reacts this way to page proofs or the umpteenth revision of a manuscript. It's a great reminder that we lose perspective on our own work and, at times, turn into our own worst critics. I can think of one incident where a critique partner (thank you, Pat Kay) prevented me from trashing a proposal that ultimately went on to launch a publishing line and garner a Rita nomination and giving up on the idea I could ever write a contemporary novel, much less something as challenging as romantic suspense.

Anyone else ever suffer this same writers' ailment? Is there anything you can do to regain perspective?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Stumbling into Truth


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

For those of you who slept through or have slept since literature classes, it's pretty much the general idea or "lesson" of the story. For example, for Orwell's Animal Farm, you might say "Absolute power corrupts." For Dickens' Great Expectations, "Class is defined by character more surely than money and education" might fill the bill.

Back in English 201, I got the idea that Great Writers (dead white guys, usually) came up with all these themes, motifs, and symbols and brilliantly tucked these gems into their Deathless Prose as they salted the mine for future lit students to unearth.

Here in Reality 101, I'm finding it works differently. You develop characters and write the story, slaving over the what and why and whom until, if you're very, very lucky you earn the grace of a discovery. And the manuscript suddenly leans forward --on page 428 of a supposedly 400-page project, in my case -- and whispers into your ear, "This is what I am about. This is what all these months or years and countless pages boil down to."

And then you go back and you sculpt, chipping away at what doesn't fulfill the story's mission and leaving, if you're very lucky, the clean lines of a story emerge to arrow toward a truth.

Or at least this is how the process works for me. Maybe it's because I'm not a centuries dead, male writer of "Great Literature." But somehow, I think that many of them stumbled, struggled, and crochet-hooked their brains out through their nostrils also. Which is a great reminder that writing, like sausage-making, as I heard suspense author extraordinaire Harlan Coben mention in a Q&A this weekend, doesn't have to be a pretty process.

It's the end result that matters.

Monday, April 06, 2009

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


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

“It’s going to get dark on us.”

Understatement of the year. (Click here to read the whole prologue, and read it with your shoes on because you'll want to head for the nearest bookstore.) When our sketchy but likable protagonist, Josh Hagarty, signs on to manage a farming project in third-world Africa, the charity he works for turns out to be less than benevolent. Lords of Corruption takes us on a terrible journey to the dark continent and deep into the even murkier territory of corporate greed, political grasping, insidious underbelly-dwelling, and unchecked balls-out thuggery. Think The Firm meets Feed the Children. With machetes. And prepare to be open-minded. As the adventure unwinds, important questions are raised, and there are no easy answers.

Hooked and inhaling Lords of Corruption, I had a few questions of my own, and Kyle kindly agreed to stop by for a chat.

Welcome, Kyle, and thanks for being here. Before we cut to the chase, how are you? Is it good to be Kyle Mills right now?
As much as I like to complain, yeah, it is good. I get paid to travel the globe learning about things that fascinate me. I’m sure there are better jobs in the world, but it’s hard to think of one off the top of my head.

I read that you were working in a bank and tried your hand making furniture before your first novel, Rising Phoenix, was published in hardcover by Harper Collins twelve years ago. How did that first book deal happen?
At first, my experience was pretty typical. I wrote a book and it was rejected by virtually every self-respecting agent in New York. But persistence counts in this business and I finally got someone interested.

After that, things went really fast. Within two weeks I had a contract and six months later, I had a best seller on the shelves. It was kind of a whirlwind—great in some ways but a little strange in others. I remember feeling a bit befuddled when I started my next book. I didn’t really feel like a writer. I felt like a banker posing as a writer.

Publishing-wise, has it been a pretty smooth ride since then or have there been a few educational bumps in the road?
In many ways, my career has been one disaster after another. For a while, it was almost certain that when I signed with a publisher, the editor who acquired me would leave within a few weeks. Or the entire management team would be replaced with people who’d never heard of me. And then there was my now infamous submission of a manuscript about al Qaeda attacking the U.S. a week before 9/11.

It’s a testament to the loyalty of my readers that I even have a career.

Between Rising Phoenix and your latest, Lords of Corruption, you evolved a lot as an artist. Were you being mentored or do you think your writing has muscled up with the act of writing?
Part of it is just practice. Counting drafts, I’ve probably written five million words over my career. Most, though, is just confidence. I’m willing to go out on a limb artistically now, whereas earlier in my career it was just too scary.

I’m free to explore just about anything I want and to define my genre any way I want. That makes it possible to create more unique and thoughtful books than I could have in my twenties. Maturity. Maybe that’s it. There has to be something good about getting older, right?

The main character in Lords of Corruption is a bit of a scoundrel, and moral ambiguity is something you do well. (As a writer, I mean!) What’s the key to making a morally shady character a sympathetic protagonist the reader can relate to and genuinely like?
I think that the readers have to see themselves in the character. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many Mother Teresas in the world.

To me, moral ambiguity goes hand in hand with character motivation. Everybody is afraid at one time or another, everybody does subtle “what’s in it for me” calculations, and everybody has the potential for good and evil. The question that interests me is where and why people draw their lines and how those lines can evolve.

My sister spent three years in Gabon with the Peace Corps back in the mid ‘80s, and she’s struggled ever since with some of the issues you raise in Lords of Corruption. Bottom line it for us: Is American aid doing more harm than good in Africa?
Like everything in Africa, it’s complicated.

Certainly the aid industry has been successful in alleviating short-term suffering through providing food for famine victims, medical care for the sick, etc.

On the other hand, the grandiose plans of transforming Africa socially and economically have been completely ineffective at best and disastrous at worst. There needs to be a reassessment of our goals based not on theory, but the reality on the ground. Aid strategists seem to believe that there is nothing they can’t achieve with sufficient funds. Of course, both their own experience and the entire span of human history shows this belief to be false. How can you seriously say you’re going to eradicate poverty in Gabon when you can’t eradicate it in the U.S.?

Thanks for your time, Kyle. Last question before we send you back to the salt mine: What are you reading?
I just finished William Easterly’s terrific book, The White Man’s Burden. He’s a guy who spent years with the World Bank and has the presence of mind to admit that he doesn’t know how to fix Africa’s problems. But while he doesn’t have the answers, he seems to be one of the few people asking the right questions.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sunday Quote: Wallach on Critics as Hangmen


“Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you've got a pretty neck”
- Eli Wallach

While digging up epigraphs for a book I'm writing (working title: Hangman's Bayou), I came across this fabulous quote and immediately grokked it. Not that I don't love praise. I wag like a whipped puppy. But there's a huge danger in assigning any one critic, whether it be a reviewer, judge, agent, editor, or even a reader, too much importance.

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

I learned a lot about this while working with one particular agent. At my request (masochist that I am), I asked her to send me copies of rejections, but she would only send them in batches. When I put three to five together, I could see the reasons stated for the rejections (sometimes on work that ultimately sold to an editor who loved it, was well reviewed, and later won awards) were almost always contradictory. If I'd received each rejection right away, I might've been tempted to keep going back and revising -- likely eviscerating the raw story magic that eventually found its audience.

The best policy is to take the good and bad with a grain of salt. Remember it's not your manuscript's job to please every audience, but to find its particular fans. If you must read your reviews (I admit, I have to) try looking for a preponderance of opinion about your strengths and/or weaknesses rather than paying too much attention to the individual judgment.

So how do you handle good reviews and cope with bad ones?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

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


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

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

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

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

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

"I immediately burst into tears. When my oncology nurse asked me what was wrong, I told her how relieved and happy I was that the book deal was still going through. She decided that we’d celebrate with Haagen Dazs chocolate covered ice cream pops, and popped out to the store to get some. Immediately, I became addicted to these pops. Throughout my chemo and radiation treatments, I ate one, sometimes two each day."

Now, sixteen months into remission, Jen's finished writing all three books, and the first of the series, Stop Second-Guessing Yourself, came out this week. ("But I’m still working off the #@*! ice cream!" Jen adds.) Stop Second-Guessing Yourself offers the big picture on parenting toddlers in a way readers have never seen before. Anyone who's been there knows those toddler years are never what you expected when you were expecting. Skimming through Jens always-a-delight-to-read writing, I nodded a lot (and laughed a lot) and realized a lot of this common sense advice actually applies to the publishing industry...

The Major Meltdown: "The best way to deal with a tantruming toddler is to get the heck out of wherever you are and don't look back...It's the only way your toddler will learn that his manipulative superpowers have no effect on you."
(Having heard tales of woe from all sides, I know for a fact that editors, agents, and writers all have their moments. Getting on the diva bus only encourages it to make more regularly scheduled stops.)

How to Host a Playdate/Playgroup without Ticking Anyone Off: "Here's the dirty little secret about playdates: it's more about the mommies than anyone else. Don't be fooled into thinking you can sink into a comfy chair with your coffee and dish for an hour or two. Your parenting skills are on display and under scrutiny."
(Apply this dynamic to industry cocktail parties, signings, lunches, and "casual" meet 'n' greets.)

When Your Toddler is Jealous: "One day, your toddler is the center of attention and the reason for everything that happens in the house. The next, there's a new baby in the house, and everyone is oohing and aahing and ignoring your poor toddler, who probably feels like she's been knocked off of American Idol by some up-and-coming, no-good, talentless singer who seemed to come out of nowhere."
(Do I even need to connect the dots here?)

Beyond Blue's Clues--Entertaining Your Toddler: "As a full-time stay-at-home mom, I learned how to fill upward of 100 hours a week, some of it with entertaining and even educational activities, some of it with letting my toddlers pull all of the tissues out of the box and then stuff them back in. Did I mention it was 100 hours a week?"
(Have you noticed how that every WIP expands to fill the time allotted to it? See Colleen's "Fun Factor(y)" post yesterday.)

Whiiiiiiiiines: "Whining is your toddler's way of manipulating you into doing what she wants you to do. If you let her get away with it now because she's 'just a baby,' picture yourself at the mall in ten years trying to explain to your whining tween why she can't have a skin-tight T-shirt that reads: 'Is it hot in here or is it me?'"
(Trying to get what they want is in the job description of everyone at the negotiating table. Set your boundaries, gird your loins, and stand firm.)

It is important to remember: "You are not the only one going through it, no matter how lonely it feels at times."
(Self-explanatory.)

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Fun Factor(y)


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

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

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

The puppy story took me maybe ten or fifteen minutes tops, and I was laughing the whole time I wrote it, enjoying mightily the play aspect of a piece of writing with no outside deadline, no pressure to sell, review well, or live up to reader expectations -- nothing to worry about except having a bit of harmless fun. If it amused a few other people, great. If not, I've heard the crickets before after posting blog entries, and I've survived the silence just fine, thank you.

But here's the really cool part. After writing it, I went back to the manuscript from hell and finally found the flow I'd been struggling toward for what seems like forever. I found my fingers flying, the pages mounting as the story took off like a sled with fresh-greased runners.

I'm pretty sure I know the reason. With another deadline following this one, two proposals to write, and a couple of trips planned -- all during this summer, my mind had turned the current project into WORK, a brick wall to be painfully bashed through on my way to even more work. I'd forgotten how to have fun with the writing, how to divorce my brain from the outcome and expectation and whoop my way downhill as the story and its characters took me for a wild ride. Doing even a tiny blog gag for the sheer joy of it unlocked the keys to the abandoned fun factory where I'd left my sled tucked in a corner (next to the dusty trampoline and silly Groucho glasses). Laughing helped knock off the cobwebs and finally get me moving once again.

The more complicated truth is that sometimes writing has to be work. It takes discipline to see through an idea, discipline that's a lot tougher to come by when you're stretching to do something challenging and scary. But an infusion of fun resurrects those first, giddy days of writing for mere pleasre, where the simple love of process was the only anticipated reward.

So when you're really struggling, with your back against the wall, why not try writing something for the fun of it? Song lyrics, an-fashioned letter, a short poem (you have my permission to write a really bad one), or a gag. Spend a half-hour playing to refresh your tired noggin, and see if you can loosen up the tight knot in your prose.

What about the rest of you? What do you do to make the writing process fun again?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

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


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

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

I expected listeners to say, "Huh?", then immediately connect this ludicrous idea with April Fools. Chuckle, shrug, move on. Instead, they gridlocked the phone company, police, and health department switchboards with calls. Several official types were unamused. So was my boss. More importantly, a lot of nice folks were needlessly distressed, and that was uncool.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001. Gary and I sat drop-jawed in front of the TV as the second tower fell. About three minutes later, our power went off. Sirens began wailing in the distance. We sat there in stunned silence.

"Okay…" Gary said carefully. "That doesn't necessarily mean anything. But just in case...let's go fill our gas tanks."

He took the truck. I drove the car. On the way to the gas station, I heard something on the radio about bombs at area high schools, including my son's. In a panic, I slammed on the brakes and clubbed into the curb, badly spraining my thumb, spun a Y-turn and drove like a maniac to the high school. The parking lot was cluttered with police cars. But officers weren't managing evacuations. They were admonishing hysterical parents to get a grip.

"But--but on the radio," I stammered. And then it hit me. I was a big fat phone-bagger. There was no bomb or even a bomb threat. There was a rumor. As unnerved as we were by the events of the day, that's all it took. Terrorism is an attack on the mind, but tell that to my throbbing thumb. With misinformation as the propellant, panic can be as lethal as a chemical plume.

The hotly rumored April Fools computer worm that never materialized this week reminded me of the hotly rumored “Y2K” computer mayhem that never materialized. And despite the ravages of Hurricane Ike last year, seasoned Gulf Coasters will continue to take dire weather predictions with a grain of salt. We’ve heard it a thousand times. The end is near! What? Oh. Never mind. Hope you enjoy the ten cases of Spam.

There are situations in which our writerly imaginations work against us. We tend to be gullible because we’re hard-wired to see the possible in every plotline. No matter how implausible the scenario, leave Colleen and I together in a corner at the Black Walnut for twenty minutes, and we’ll present you with a fully peopled synopsis in which the ridiculous becomes perfectly credible. Meanwhile, if we don’t hear from agents or editors for three weeks, we fix on a vision of them roasting marshmallows over our laboriously rendered manuscripts. It’s a blessing and a curse.

We work in an industry where literally anything can and does happen. With rumors flying and fear on the rise, we’ve got to take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Respond to what you know is true, not the fairies and gremlins that inhabit your imagination, and subject everything you hear to serious smell testing. You have to be your own stability in this biz. All other ground is quicksand.

We're going to be stepping up our efforts to make industry news available here on "Boxing the Octopus", but with the snazzy new feeds, let me offer the following caveat: Take it for what it's worth. Consider the source. And listen to your gut. You know who you are. You know what you’re good at. You know what you’re worth. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

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



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

To make matters worse, the now-deeply-embittered Otto claims he sacrificed "a matched set of globular organs and the happy possibility of fatherhood" to his possible gig at White House Dog in Chief. "Far be it from me to be a whiner," Otto growls, "but somebody owes me a g-d new set of nuggets."

When questioned about whether a chewed section of Oval Office carpet and a possible tax "oversight" may have been to blame for his reduced circumstances, Otto had no verbal comment, but rolled over and piddled on himself in reply.

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