Sunday, May 31, 2009

Anne Stuart: "Don't Abuse the Muse"

Over on her "Blah Blog", author Alison Kent has the coolest quote from NY Times bestselling author (and industry legend) Anne Stuart, one so wise I had to share it for your Sunday quote:

"My New Year's resolution is to focus on the book and forget all the crap that surrounds the writing business. To lose myself in a story, and not give a damn if it makes any lists, has a good sell-through, gets glowing reviews on Amazon, pleases my editors, hell, even pleases my readers. I want to love what I'm writing so much that none of the rest of it matters, and if I don't, I won't write it. Life's too short to abuse the muse."

Thanks for the sensible advice, Anne. Love your books, too - dearly.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

William Shatner on beginning, endings, and "Why Am I Here?" (followed by a delicious studio smackdown)

With BookExpo 2009 in full swing this weekend, I've got one eye on the twitter and blog feeds in the right hand sidebar, but I haven't gotten the "you are there" updates I'd hoped for. We'll recap the highlights when the dust has settled. Meanwhile, here's my favorite moment from last year's BEA coverage: PW's interview with William Shatner, who was there stumping for his fresh-out memoir.

And then there's this...which I much. (Though I hate that they say on the label "loses it" -- because he's totally in charge. Listen and learn.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Storytelling in 3-D

Earlier today, I let my college-student son talk me into playing hooky from writing and going to see Pixar's latest, UP, because we both thought it looked like such fun. When we arrived at the theater at 10:30 for the first showing, we were informed they'd rescheduled it for a school group (ACK! Avoid at all cost!) so the next available showing was at 11:30 AM, which would be a 3-D screening. I wasn't really interested in 3D, but I'd read it had improved since I'd last seen it (circa 19-mumble-mumble) and, besides, I love any excuse to spend time with the big kid.

After I picked my teeth up off the floor at the outrageous price ($19.50 for two tickets, because there's no early show discount on 3-D films and also a premium charged for those swell glasses) and we sat through approximately three months' worth of trailers, commercials, and little kids climbing all over one another, the movie finally started.

It was exactly what you'd expect from a Pixar film. Fun with a great (surprisingly but beautifully bittersweet at times) story, well-defined characters, and a wonderful story. And most importantly, the beautiful eye candy, especially the 3D, seamlessly blended into the whole instead of calling attention to itself. The effect, like the special effects from this summer's terrific Star Trek movie, didn't jerk you out of the story or distract from what was otherwise a weak effort.

Yea, I say! Someone in Hollywood has finally clapped on. (Is it too much to hope there will never be another Phantom Menace?)

For those of us who tell our stories using the written word, there's a great lesson here as well. No matter what shiny new techniques you trot out, which cover treatments are designed to showcase the book, or what you do so sell it, all the sizzle in the world won't make a three-dimensional experience from cardboard. You need to pour heart and soul first into rounding out compelling characters the audience will want to succeed and tossing challenging problems and lots of surprises (of Plot Bombs, as Joni calls them) between them and their goals.

Special effect notwithstanding, that's the real way to tell a 3-D tale.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shavuotapalooza! (Joni's Ten Commandments For Writers)

Happy Shavuot! ‘Tis the season to celebrate the dramatic delivery of the Ten Commandments by consuming delicious dairy products! (Because the Torah nourishes us like milk, you see.) In honor of the occasion, I humbly offer…

Ten Commandments For Writers
(inspired by my hazy memories of Lutheran Catechism class)

1: Thou shalt have no other gods nor worship any graven images.
Artistic integrity uber alles. The worst mistake a writer can make is the embrace of greed or a neediness for fame. When "success" as defined by numbers is the prime objective, it pollutes every creative decision, corrupts the joy of every accomplishment, seduces us into projects we don’t belong to, and distracts us from the organic nature of our art. I don’t care if you’re writing literary fiction or catalogue copy, do it for love of language or don’t do it at all.

2: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.
Nor vainly bandy random potty-mouth verbage. Overusing profanity dulls its effect. Make every F-bomb count by reserving the word for special occasions. My dad always said (in re the use of vulgarities on the radio), “A truly creative mind has the vocabulary to express itself without needlessly offending members of the audience.”

3: Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Jesus had it right on: “God made Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It’s a gift, that day/hour/fifteen minutes of rest, and essential to prolonged periods of poker-hot productivity, not to mention ocular health. Slap a couple cucumber slices on those tired eyes and listen to some Enigma. Take a walk with kids, dogs, or love interests. Watch a “Top Chef” marathon. Go to bed, for crying out loud; whatever you’re staying up for isn’t worth it. Rest is sacred. We’re in a profession where there’s no such thing as “enough” until you say the word and mean it. Harlan Ellison says “Do 1000 words a day. Don’t go for more.” (I shoot for 1200-1400, but what do I know?)

4: Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother that it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long upon the earth.
I suppose this should be about not neglecting the family (and it’s a good idea to look up every once in a while and make sure they haven’t relocated to South Dakota without you), but since I’m pretty much the worst daughter in the world, I’m applying this to our literary forebears. A great thing about being the mother of English majors: their required reading takes me back to revisit the classics. In addition to the Dead White Guys, there’s ancient Sappho and scripture and the riches of mythology. We also need to tear our attention away from the hottie literati who dominate the scene these days and revere the icons of our industry - Ray Bradbury, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Stephen King - commercially gigantic writers who’ve conducted themselves with class, grace, generosity, and style.

5: Thou shalt not kill.
Unless it’s essential to the plot. And if it works for the plot, thou shalt not NOT kill, even if you’ve grown attached to that character who, you know in your heart, must die. Death is part of life. Each story must have its true body count, and not one gratuitously bloated corpse more.

6: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Faithfulness and commitment to storytelling must trump the temptation to cheat with suspiciously handy Hum-Vees, wood-chippers, and other naughty little god-in-the-machine devices.

7: Thou shalt not steal.
But feel free to glean, eavesdrop, and spy on life every minute of every day. The best material isn't inside your head or the result of navel contemplation; it's all around you. Standing in line at the grocery store, hanging out in a bar on the Upper West Side, kicked back in the stands of an Astros game...stick a straw in the vast fruit smoothie of humanity and suck like a vampire.

8: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
See #s 1 and 6. Honesty is essential to all good writing, including fiction. A theatre director friend of mine used to live by motto “No bit too small, no laugh too cheap.” That might work for Comedia dell’arte, but it just doesn’t play on paper. Every character, including the less involved comers and goers—the “neighbors”, if you will—must ring true and multi-dimensional. And on an industrial level—it means giving our colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment says we should “put the best construction on everything.” We work in a tough biz where gossip is gold. Let’s be kind to each other and reserve the backbiting to our morally conflicted characters.

9: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house.
You’re screwed if you measure your happiness by the size of someone else’s advance. This business is so random, so universally unfair, and such a capricious SOB, very few (if any) of us are ever going to get what we feel we deserve. A tremendous advantage I’ve had in the publishing industry is the fact that I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that I deserved to be part of it. My career has been a huge surprise party. This isn’t to say I’m willing to devalue my work or accept lowball wages. I’m not! Because I have huge respect for the art and craft of writing. I’m serious as a heart attack about my work. But I keep my eye on MY prize, not someone else’s.

10: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his.
Like I said above…although there is an upside to envy.

Happy Shavuot! Enjoy some cheesecake, be good, and prosper!

Post a Phobia, Win a Book

Over at Fresh Fiction today, I'm giving away a free, autographed copy of any of my backlist books to one lucky commenter (comments must be at the Fresh Fiction site to win). The creepy-crawly question: which animal/bug/other creature elicits the most chills for you? (And lets remember, phobias don't follow logic, so if you're afraid of fuzzy bunnies after watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, fess up!)

If you'd like to expand the conversation over here to include non-animal phobias (and possibly give me some great ideas for taking readers on a thrill-ride in an upcoming book), this is the place to discuss them...

If you dare.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

This Post Brought to You by Your Literary Agent

A reminder to authors everywhere that agents can only sell the raw material they're given to work with. :)

F Minus

I adore Tony Carillo's F-Minus. Check it out for more laughs!

It's all good (Diversify and thrive!)

I started out writing mainstream/women's fiction, then did a memoir and a weekly syndicated column, which led to a monthly advice column in a national magazine, which I continued while I ghosted my first memoir guru project and wrote another novel, which I edited while plotting my first mystery novel and taking a screenwriting class, which led to other mysteries, other ghost stories...

Schizophrenic or Renaissance woman? I guess it's a matter of opinion. In his wonderful book Adventures in the Screen Trade, novelist/screenwriter William Goldman recommends writing in multiple formats and genres as a way to keep the minds moving, and adds: “Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before."

So in that spirit, let's have a little more writing and a little less conversation.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hatching Day Blues

So today it's here, release day for my eighth romantic thriller (fifteenth novel overall) Beneath Bone Lake. What's it like, a prepublished friend asks wistfully. Does it really feel like giving birth?

Well, yes, if you're one of my favorite creatures, the sea turtle. Every year, Mama Turtle, ever so graceful and gorgeous in the water, hauls her bulks onto the beach where she hatched, laboriously drags her heavy carcass up to the full moon, high water line with her flippers and slowly, painfully scoops out the hole to lay her eggs. After hours and hours of hard work, she pats the sand over her offspring and treks back to her element, the water, where she will swim and feed and mate so she can do it all again another year from now.

By hatching day, she's already immersed in these pursuits when her offspring dig themselves free and make the mad dash to the water. A host of predators try to destroy them, from crabs to fish and sharks to hungry gulls and stupid tourists ("Aw! How cute! Let's keep him as a pet and throw him in with our goldfish!")

Mama sea turtle has no more control over their survival. She's unaware of how many -- if any -- will make it to their destination, whether they will flourish or get caught up in a fisherman's net or plastic flotsam. The truth is, very few survive.

But it matters not. Next year, she'll still try again, because it's the way she's programmed. She can no more choose not to be a female sea turtle than a novelist by nature can choose to give up writing. And although we always want to hit the lists, win the acclaim, and be assured our creations have reached their audience, nothing will keep us from hitting the shore again until our minds or bodies or our spirits wear out.

Or at least that's how I feel today.

Happy hatch-day,
Beneath Bone Lake.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Some showers are more fun than others (Your invitation to the BBL Buy Blitz)

Colleen Thompson's latest, Beneath Bone Lake, officially hits the bookshelf tomorrow and is now shipping on Amazon and other online book sources. So let me start by saying:


No one I know is more dedicated to her craft. And no one does more to encourage, support, and mentor fellow authors. Please join me in a Buy Blitz and review shower for Colleen tomorrow. If you're buying the book in store, take a sec to call today and make sure it's on shelves. If you're buying online, please do so tomorrow before 4PM. And as soon as you've read, take another minute to pop back to Amazon and post a review.

Quoth Colleen in the press kit:
"Stretched along the East Texas and Louisiana border, there lies a lake populated by old cypress trees cobwebbed with thick strands of Spanish moss. Inhabited by the ghostly calls of great birds and huge alligators that lurk just beneath the surface, the lake is also home to the sun-bleached, standing skeletons of huge trees drowned as the area first flooded. It's an eerie world, lonely and primordial and beautiful and sometimes frightening. It is also the setting of my next romantic thriller, Beneath Bone Lake..."

Early buzz is buzzing. Just a few of the tasty pull quotes:
“Gripping and engaging from the very first page, Thompson’s novel demonstrates why she's a master of suspense and mystery. The author weaves a well-plotted tale of corruption, horror, violence and the enduring love formed by an impenetrable bond of trust.”
—Romantic Times BOOKreviews

“BENEATH BONE LAKE continues Colleen Thompson's fantastic storytelling. The fleshed-out characters, the setting and the suspense will keep you reading page after page.”
—Fresh Fiction

"From start to finish, BENEATH BONE LAKE is a must read for romantic suspense lovers with its edge-of-the seat suspense and its daring romance."
—Merrimon Crawford, Book Illuminations

Beneath Bone Lake combines a tightly-wound plot, fully fleshed characters, and the lush Colleen Thompson landscaping her fans have come to love in her last dozen-plus books.

Jump in the shower with us and check it out!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

In Praise of the Sunday Paper

I've had quite enough of Twitter, thank you. I'm also over MySpace and growing tired of Facebook, with all the fragmentary discourse on things I couldn't care less about. (Such as, apparently, the "grammar myth" about the undesirability of ending a sentence with a preposition.)

On Sunday mornings, I want spread my newspaper across the kitchen table. Preferably, a great, big fat edition with lots of in-depth, locally-written articles/series. I want a nice book section, color funny pages, grocery-store and car ads, an occasional slow-cooker recipe, crossword puzzles, and Dear Abby.

I want my week to start on simmer, not a boil (or ten million wisps of steam) and I want to enjoy it at the breakfast table with my tea or coffee and my breakfast. I want to quietly recharge my batteries without the noise or clicking or the backlit screen that makes my eyes sting.

I want that sense of continuity that connects me with my parents', grandparents', and great grandparents' generations. I want to imagine the journalists out interviewing folks with stubby pencils or working in a Lou Grant-style newsroom. (My imagination's shamelessly old school in this area, though I'm well aware the world has changed.)

And I want this tradition to continue, which is why I won't consider letting my newspaper subscription lapse. It's cheap, for one thing, considering what it offers. If I want to economize (always), there are plenty of other "frills" I can cut instead.

If we want great newspapers to happen, we need to vote for our wallets by supporting those that offer depth beyond the wire service stories we can all see online and original reporting. Otherwise, you lose the privilege of wringing your hands and lamenting when your city loses its last print paper.

And the rest of us lose something well worth saving.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Eggers to authors: "When in doubt about the future of the written word -- email me!"

And I thought I was the last optimist in the publishing industry...

Here's what Dave Eggers said to members of the Authors Guild, who'd gathered last week at the Tribeca Rooftop to honor him for his work with 826 National, his nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for kids and teens:
"Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down. I actually have established an e-mail address,—if you want to take it down—if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong."

Read more in the New Yorker.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Linking Old Readers with New

I wanted to give you all a head's up that I'm also blogging today over at 2BRead on my thoughts on the new Star Trek movie and how it pertains to the tough challenge of writing sequels.

Please drop by and say hello or share your thoughts by clicking this link!

Tech Report:Netbooks vs. Full-sized Laptops

I have some traveling to do this summer, coupled with a tight deadline and unrealistically-high expectations for my own output. And the thought of dragging around my big, heavy laptop made me groan. Besides, when I go to meetings of the writers' group where I'm the program chair, I invariably forget something (upcoming meeting schedule, the speaker's introduction, uh, the speaker's name), which makes me feel incompetent, scatter-brained, and embarrassed until I bum someone else's computer to look the stuff up online. So I told myself I needed one of those cute little netbooks I've been seeing people tool around with.

But honestly, I just really wanted one, because I've seen a few and fell in love with them. Normally, I sit on my hands until a tech-envy moment passes. I keep myself on a tight budget, and try to differentiate needs from wants.

This time, however, the thought of trying to haul the big laptop (which has recently gone through three motherboards and two power supplies) through the airports convinced me, and I went ahead and ordered an 8.9-inch blue Acer Aspire One, the kind with the 6-cell battery and Windows XP, because I don't want to fool with learning Linux.

After playing with it for a few days, here are a few thoughts.

1. Outstanding battery life with the six cell. Better yet, the screen doesn't dim like my Dell's does on battery (you can barely make out the screen), so I can actually see what I'm doing and happily haul it around unplugged.
2. Portability - about 2.3 lbs. compared to over 7. I can pop it in a little cover and slip in into a larger handbag or a tote, no problem.
3. Sleek, without a lot of sticky-outty whatsits (that's the official, high-tech phrase) to catch on everything, so it easily slips in and out of its protector.
4. Cute and cool-looking. I'm usually about four generations behind any tech wave, so it's kind of fun to have the latest little doodad. (Well, not the very latest, but something pretty close that I could actually afford.)

1. Teeny screen vs. middle-aged eyesight. It's sharp and clear, and I have good glasses, but this could cause strain if I used it full-time.
2. Teeny keyboard vs. middle-aged hands. The 8.9" keyboard's a bit cramped even for my small hands. I've noticed I was accidentally hitting the number row when attempting to hit the "QWERTY" row of keys. More troubling, my hands and fingers ached from the strain of the smaller board. Thank heavens I didn't try for the 7" model!
3. Touchpad "pinch" feature was randomly selecting and then enlarging or shrinking text on the screen, and I had no idea how to turn it off or even what it was. Which leads me to the biggie:
4. Worst tech support ever. Unlike Dell, Acer has a website that's not at all user friendly and the only support available was via e-mail. The first tech who wrote back about my problem didn't write in English well enough to comprehend, clearly didn't know what my problem was, and said (once I got a translation from a second tech after I sent a rude, frustrated e-mail) that it was a software, not an Acer issue. Plus, he encouraged me to use their phone tech support line for an exorbitant amount of money. There were no helpful user forum, but I finally found something at another site online (thank God for helpful geeks) that showed me how to successfully turn off the "pinch" feature on the touchpad (which doesn't work well with that tiny pad).
5. You have to buy an external CD drive if you want to be able to load your own software. Otherwise, it'll cost a boatload of bucks to repurchase programs such as MS Word, which I already legally own. Fortunately, external CD drives are fairly inexpensive, but it was an unexpected added expense. And I'm cheap, remember?
6. Slower than my full-sized laptop, with only 1 GB of RAM. You wouldn't want to use it for anything more memory intensive than writing, e-mail, or browsing the web. Which is exactly what the thing's for anyway.

The bottom line:
Now that I've turned off the annoying-as-heck pinch function, I love this little netbook. It's perfect for working at Starbucks or the library, hauling to take notes at a meeting, or taking along while traveling by air.

What it isn't is a replacement for my larger, faster, more comfortable-to-use (if temperamental) full-sized laptop. So if you keep your expectations realistic (and aren't unlucky enough to need a lot of tech support), the Acer Aspire One could be a nice addition to your toolkit.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I browse (Thinking about switching to Google Chrome?)

Since my dial up days, I've been pretty much married to Internet Explorer. Oh, sure, the hep cats came along with their fancy Firefox and all, but I'm a total Granny Clampett about all things computer. I don't want to learn any dad-blasted new-fangled contabulations on the computer machine. I'm willing to invest time in learning what I need to know for the work I do, and the rest I leave to those geekier and tweakier (and savvier) than I. Then Internet Explorer did the unforgivable: they changed. Or maybe I just caught up with them when I got a new computer. In any case, I was forced to learn something. So I poked around to see if I might learn something better. And I did.

Chrome is the browser launched at some point (I don't know when because I live in the word cave) by Google. Last year, when the beta testing was going on, PC World did an article listing 7 reasons for and 7 reasons against switching to Google Chrome. I think some evolution has taken place since the article was written, but here's the list with the response from someone who just wants to yank a chain and have the closet light come on.

PC World's Seven Reasons Chrome Could Be Cool
1. It won't crash.
PC World: “Perhaps Chrome's biggest draw is its multiprocess architecture…”
Joni: Thank you, Baby Jesus.

2. It's really fast.
PC World: blah blah blah multiprocess blah blah one slow site won't drag down the rest blah blah.
Joni: Vroom! Hey Jed, this is way faster!

3. You barely notice it's there.
PC World: “Calling the design of Chrome's interface streamlined is an understatement…”
Joni: Notice what?

4. It makes searching simpler.
PC World: “One of Chrome's signature features is its Omnibox, an integrated all-purpose bar … Omnibox can learn what you like, too--a talent that goes beyond the obvious automatic completion function.”
Joni: Google! Stop messing with my mind!

5. It gives you more control over tabs.
PC World: “blah blah tab configuration blah”
Joni: Okay, we’re coming dangerously close to learning something here. Don’t push it.

6. It opens new doors on your home page.
PC World: “Chrome comes with a default dynamic home page…”
Joni: I heart dynamic home page.

7. It lets you stay incognito.
PC World: “Chrome offers a private browsing option…”
Joni: So I can shop for drag-wear in peace?

Some of the “Seven Chrome-Related Concerns” are no longer relevant, but here they are, just to be fair:
1. It's only in its first beta.
(No longer the case.)

2. You won't have any add-ons.
PC World: “Add-ons are a huge draw for Firefox fans…”
Joni: Same could be said of anime and glow stick dancing. I’m not big on those either.

3. You can't synchronize.
PC World: “One big plus of Firefox is its ability to synchronize across multiple computers using Mozilla's Weave option.”
Joni: Yeah, whatever. Is anybody making coffee?

4. You may draw the short stick on standards.
PC World: “…when you look at pages in Chrome compared to pages in Firefox or IE, you'll notice a difference in text formatting.”
Joni: Not that I’ve noticed.

5. You're giving advertisers extra ammo.
PC World: “Have you seen all the hype about Google's privacy practices and how much of your data it shares with advertisers? Imagine the potential ammo you're giving it by using this browser.”
Joni: I have no problem with this as long as it’s not colon-clogging my computer like hidden spyware. If the advertisers’ goal is to give me what I want in the least annoying way, why should I not want to assist them in that endeavor? It’s a little Big Brotherish. I get that. But you know what? That’s the age we live in. Something this good can’t be done for free. They need something back from the users to make the world go 'round. That’s the reality.

6. The dropdown bar is dropped.
PC World: “The idea of the URL dropdown bar is dropped in Chrome.”
Joni: It took me seven minutes or so, but I got over it.

7. You lose some history power.
PC World: “Chrome offers only a simple screen showing your day-by-day history. The ability to sort everything by date, site, or most visited appear to have joined the distaff and spindle on the ash heap.”
Joni: Until the History feature learns to tell me where I left my car keys, it’s dead to me.

Bottom line, I like Google Chrome much better than Internet Explorer, and I found it quick and simple to learn, while Firefox asked too much orientation time; the bells and whistles just aren’t worth it to me, mastodon that I am. I’m doing tons of research right now, so finding and organizing that material is a major issue for me, and Chrome is working fantastically well for that.

Check it out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


transitive verb
from Vulgar Latin cominitiare
1. to have or make a beginning

Maura de Souza earned her degree in music from Sam Houston State, completing her last year of studies after being diagnosed with sarcoma. Maura's graduation was cause for huge celebration -- including a moonwalk, but a few days before the ceremonies, Maura had returned to MD Anderson Cancer Center. The struggle would be over within a few days.

Commencement. From the Vulgar Latin. To have or make a beginning.

If you feel moved by Maura's story, please consider making a donation to sarcoma research.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The World in a Drop of Water: Writing on the Small Stage

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved a science book called The World in a Drop of Water. (The link is to what I assume to be a newer edition.) For some reason, my imagination was captured by the idea of the "wee beasties" that swim and feed and reproduce in their tiny kingdoms. I begged a kid's microscope out of Santa that Christmas, checked out my brother's blood cells, mosquito larvae, and my sister's fine, blond hairs, and ended up a little disappointed that what I saw wasn't nearly as vivid as the photos in that book or the pictures painted in my imagination.

I still love the idea of an entire world in microcosm. I often write romantic suspense set in very tiny towns, where everyone's in everyone else's business and any individual can take on myriad roles. While other writers find charm and warmth within "closed systems," in my stories, I play up small towns for the creep factor and weave a complex fabric of relationships.

At the moment, however, I'm dealing with a different kind of small stage. After writing sixteen consecutive novel manuscripts topping ninety thousand words each (most are over a hundred), I have fewer than thirty thousand words to tell my story, a novella I'm writing for a "two in one" edition for a new-to-me publisher. At the start, I wondered how I'd manage, since I'm forever in danger of running over on my word counts for even my full length book.

But I'm fascinated with the challenge, which is forcing me to think more like a playwright and economize on the narrative, descriptions, everything. But not on the emotion, since I'm getting to "the good stuff" early. And to my surprise, I'm enjoying the heck out of this shake up in the status quo.

So what new techniques or material have you attempted lately? Have you enjoyed the change or hated it? What refreshes you as a writer?

Monday, May 18, 2009

You Heard It From Nora... There Ain't No Muse

I absolutely love these first lines from novelist Nora Roberts' interview with Clarissa Sansone over at

Well, first: There ain't no muse. If you sit around and wait to channel the muse, you can sit around and wait a long time. It's not effortless.

Since Nora's a bigtime inspiration (and a darned good and incredibly prolific author) I've checked out a number of her interviews, and I love her no-mumbo jumbo, elbow-grease-and-a-strong-work-ethic philosophy about writing. She talks tough on whiners and their endless litany of excuses, as refreshing as Harlan Ellison's sometimes profane but always entertaining take on the writing process.

I do think there's no one-size-fits-all reality, however. There are sublime, if unreliable, moments of inspiration. Writer's block is real and absolutely devastating to those who are afflicted. And every author has his/her own natural pace, which can be enhanced somewhat but never completely overcome. As Joni is so fond of saying, we are orchards and not factories.

But it's nice to be reminded of the sheer grit, determination, and butt-in-chair approach we all need to get us through those less-inspired days. It's old-fashioned self-discipline, folks, which is far less fun than sneaking off to shop, lunch with a friend, or go see Star Trek (though I'm not against any of those once the day's work's been accomplished.)

Follow the link above to read the rest of Nora Roberts' interview, or stop by her website to learn more about one amazing author (or two, if you count her J.D. Robb persona!)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Morning Mellow

I don't know about you, but I had an intense work week. And a house full of 20-somethings until 3 AM. Can we take a moment to reboot and rebreathe before we start the work week?

C' know you wanna do pilates right now...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

It's Here... Beneath Bone Lake

I was surprised to get word the other day that copies of my 5/26/09 release, Beneath Bone Lake, are already shipping from and Barnes and Noble, which should mean it'll be showing up in local stores any time now.

While the logical part of me wishes the release date would be the same everywhere (this is rare except in the case of authors so profitable that the publisher can afford to police/threaten sellers into complying), the excited little kid part is dancing around and singing, Yea, it's here! It's here!

This may be my fifteenth novel, but I'm dying to hold my author's copies in my hands. I hope I never lose that feeling... although I *am* wondering where I'm going to store an extra box of books.

In case you've missed the video trailer for the book and might be interested, I'm reposting. Enjoy!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Networking Etiquette

Had to post this little video about Facebook etiquette just because it cracked me up. A lot of the "rules" certainly apply to those of us networking out little hearts out online as we promote ourselves professionally. Especially the TMI rule!


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Web-present: A conversation with PR diva Yen Cheong of "The Book Publicity Blog"

We started Monday with Sharon Mignerey's idea pitching tips, then heard some hard-ass writing advice from Harlan Ellison. Seems like we're having a very reality based week here at Boxing the Octopus. Perfect time to talk about what to expect when your book launches--and what you can do to help your baby bird out of the nest.

From her vantage point in the PR department at a major New York publisher, Yen Cheong pays close attention to what ranks and who tanks. In a recent communications/tech article in the New York Times "You've Got Voice Mail, But Do You Care?", Yen discusses the importance of velocity in day to day book industry dialogue. And there's a steady stream of pragmatic insight on her "Book Publicity Blog." I caught up with Yen long enough to press her with a few questions about the constantly changing (but always challenging) art of promotion as it relates to both established and pre-published authors.

Thanks for your time, Yen. Let's start with your take on the importance of the pre-pub web presence. You offered some great thoughts on your blog this week.
Typically, four to six months before the hardcover publication of a book, the publicity department sends out galleys to magazine and newspaper book editors as well as to some broadcast producers and online journalists. When I follow up with galley recipients, I’ll include some information about the book in the text of my email message, but it’s helpful for me to be able to link to more information online — links are an extremely effective and unobtrusive way for book publicists to provide the media with the additional details that could sell a writer or editor on a book. They are also vital tools for bloggers whose posts are lent credibility by links that direct readers to further information.

I’m not saying the complete author website needs to be up and ready six months before the book’s publication date. I’m not even saying the author has to have a web site at all. But I am saying it’s a really, really good idea for *something* — a website, a social networking profile, a blog — to be accessible when galleys are mailed out. An author without a web presence is a bit like the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around.

Is there any effort being made to educate authors on how they can better participate?
We are trying to educate authors about how they can better participate regarding web and social marketing initiatives. I’ve written about this a fair amount on The Book Publicity Blog and if you’re interested in something in particular, you can do a keyword search on the site to find posts about social networking / marketing in general.

Is there some methodology in place for measuring what (if any) effect blog tours have on actual book sales?
We don’t have any methodology in place for measuring what effect blog tours have on book sales – although this is a good idea and makes sense, we just don’t have the manpower to track much beyond Amazon rankings!

Do you think the growing effect and credibility of grass roots marketing on the internet will make mid-list authors more attractive to publishers?
As you point out, grass-roots Internet marketing can be very effective, but in order for it to make a mid-list author more attractive to publishers, we’d need to see evidence of its success. (In other words, an author would have to show such marketing success with a previous book or at the very least with their online “persona” – it’s unlikely that simply the promise of a grass-roots initiative would affect an editor’s or an agent’s decision to acquire a book.)

For books being launched into the current economic gloom with squashed budgets for PR and touring, will there be additional sweat equity invested on the part of the publisher's PR department? If so, what will that extra effort be? And if not, what can authors do to compensate?
In publicity we’re certainly all aware of the effects of the recession, whether it be fewer ads or folding book sections, so we’re doing our best to get the most out of reviews / interviews / mentions / etc. which are free. Not surprisingly, we don’t have plans to add more staff members, if that’s what you mean by investing “additional sweat equity.” As at all publishing houses -- and probably all companies these days -- we need to make the most of what we have. Authors can certainly help by networking with bloggers and readers online. As you’re well aware, there’s no way one person can successfully reach out to everyone who could potentially be interested in a book and the more hands we have on board, the more successful an effort will be.

Thanks, Yen.

Readers: Any questions? Yen is out of the country on vacation, but she'll be checking comments below and answering your questions today and tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Schenectady idea factory (Harlan Ellison on the real secret of writerly success)

Profundity du jour...

From SF Site's "Conversation with Harlan Ellison":
"The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer. Day after month after year after story after book. That's the secret. And if you can do that and produce a body of work, no matter how large or small it is, that is true and can pull the plow, then you're a writer. If you are not prepared to spend your life doing that, then, for christsake, don't do it."

And then there's this from "Dark Dreamers"...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More on Pitching by Sharon Mignerey

Yesterday, I introduced my friend and fellow writer, Sharon Mignerey, along with Part One of an article she wrote on pitching your novel project. Today she's back sharing more tips on how to boil down your idea to a delectable, marketable, sound byte.

Feel free to post questions, comments, or your own tips on pitching.

And now, Part Two of "The Pitch . . . Formula or Free-for-all?"

Figure out what your story is about. According to Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) every story, no matter how complex, can be reduced to the following five elements: (1) a character in a (2) situation with an (3) objective he or she hopes to attain, an (4) opponent (villain or situation) who strives against your character, and (5) a possible catastrophe that can result. If you can reduce your story to these five elements using no more than two sentences, you’ll be a star. One common technique is to put the first three elements in a statement and pose the last two as a question. A couple of examples:

When a huge superstore opens around the corner, Kathleen Kelly struggles to keep her small bookstore open and is comforted by an online buddy she knows simply as NY152--a man she grows to love though she’s never met him. After her business is forced to close, can she pick up the pieces of her life, especially after she discovers her nemesis and her trusted online friend are the same man? (YOU’VE GOT MAIL starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks)

Detective Wade Prescott is investigating the first murder in this small town in thirty years, and all the evidence is pointing toward to pretty next-door neighbor who found the body. Which does he trust: the mounting evidence against her or his instinct that says she’s not the killer and that someone is doing an effective job of framing her? (THE GOOD NEIGHBOR by Sharon Mignerey)
Write your two or three sentences on a 3x5 card, and carry it around until you have them memorized and can say what your story is about no matter how distracted you feel. Why? The truth is that you’re going to be nervous, and so if you have this memorized to the point that preparation overrides nerves, the better you will feel. All you need are those five elements boiled down to two sentences. Your character (1) is in a situation (2) and has a goal(3). Remember, this says nothing more than the bare bones about your character. It’s using that dominant impression of a noun and an adjective – the burned out district attorney wants to move to the country, the idealistic rookie sets out to make a name for himself, the nurturing teacher gets too involved with a needy student, and so on. You don’t have to include all the stuff that brings your story alive–this is telling in its leanest form. Do the same thing with the obstacle (4), which can be in the form of a villain or situation. The disaster (5) is that question that ends the back cover copy, which asks: will there be a happily-ever-after.

When Lucy rescues the man of her dreams from an oncoming train, the misunderstandings that follow have his close-knit family thinking she is his fiancé, a situation further complicated when she begins to fall in love with his brother. When the mess is untangled, where will her heart lead her--toward the man of her dreams or the brother who has captured her heart? (WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman)

If you can’t figure out how to do this for your own story, pair up with a writing buddy. Do this exercise for her story and have her do it for yours.

Michael Hauge also says that your job is to sell yourself and your passion for your story rather than selling the story. He advises leading with, if it’s relevant, how you came to write this story. For example, I’ve been hearing a lot on the news recently about kids using cell phones to engage in sexting. We also know that laws have never been tougher about putting sex offenders on a national registry. If you had a teen touched by this topic to the point of writing a novel with this as a background, it might be one that you have some passion for, in addition to being timely.

After you’ve pitched your story, a good close is always: Can I answer any questions or would you like me to send you my manuscript? As soon as she says yes, thank her for her time and leave. End on that up note before nerves take over and you put your foot in your mouth.

As part of your preparation for answering those additional questions an editor or agent may have, prepare a query letter that is no longer than two pages (double spaced). Think of the query letter as the quick telling of your story as you’d relate it to friends over lunch. Include those journalistic conventions of who, what, where, and why. Who is the hero? What is his internal conflict and what is his goal? What is the heroine’s internal conflict, and what is her goal? What is the story problem? How do they grow and change? Where is the story set? Why is this story important? As you did with your pitch, know this material inside and out, practically word for word. Then practice answering those imaginary questions until you can be as conversational as you are with your critique partners.

Bear in mind, the above is not your pitch. It’s additional preparation so you don’t stumble over your answers when an editor asks you to tell her more.

Before you go to your appointment, find out as much about the editor or agent as you can. If she has a blog, go read her recent posts. If you have questions, write them down on a separate 3 x 5 card so you don’t forget.

For a meeting at a conference, keep your questions brief and general. You may want to know the royalty rate a publisher pays or how much of a fee an agent charges. These are good questions, but the pitch is not the time to ask them. And, you probably already know this, but it’s worth repeating. Never ask an editor or agent to take your query letter, your proposal, or your manuscript. If they want it, mail it or send it by whatever means they request.

So . . . you’ve made your appointment. You’ve prepared. You’re ready. There’s only one final step – present yourself as the confident, professional author you know yourself to be.

Guest Blogger Bio: Sharon Mignerey can personally attest that she gets just as nervous pitching to editors and agents now as she did as an unpublished author. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway. Sharon’s most recent book is THE GOOD NEIGHBOR (November 2008) from Love Inspired Suspense. She’s closing in on the end of her Masters program at Seton Hill University and expects to graduate in January 2010.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sharon Mignerey on Pitching Your Book

Every writer out there needs to learn to pitch a project. Whether you're participating in a formal pitch session at a conference, asked what you're working on by an agent at a mixer, or on the phone with your editor when she says, "So tell me what you're writing next," you have to be able to boil down your idea into something concise, appealing, and hopefully marketable. Even if you're not great at thinking on your feet, a well-written nugget can be tucked into a query letter or an e-mail and used to great effect.

Recently, author Sharon Mignerey, who's also an amazing writing teacher, wrote an article so terrific on the topic for the Happily Ever After, the newsletter of the West Houston Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, that I asked for her permission to reprint it here, in two parts. She'll also be stopping by the blog the next two days to answer your questions on the topic.

The Pitch . . . Formula or Free-for-all?
by Sharon Mignerey

You’re on your way to the RWA conference in July, and you’ve taken that leap--made an appointment to meet with an editor or an agent.

Editors and agents are looking for new writers and new material. That’s why they attend conferences. That face to face contact with a person is as important to them as it is to you, but remember: it’s only an appointment. Important as the time may seem to you, world peace and your career as a writer do not hang in the balance on that ten or fifteen minutes. . . time that will simultaneously seem like forever and will also seem like trying to explain the plots of Kerrelyn Sparks’ Vampire series in two seconds flat.

Michael Hauge, author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds has this sage advice: Your only goal is to get an editor or agent to read your story. That’s all. Sounds simple enough, right? Except I know what you’re thinking. That elevator pitch you keep hearing about is a bit like trying to stuff a size 22 woman into a size 2 bikini. And you’re right. It can’t be done, not without things flopping out all over the place that should never, ever flop.

The following pointers will help you.

First, relax! Though you may view editors and agents as god-like creatures who hold your future in their hands, they do spit when they brush their teeth, and they do want the same thing you do – a good book (hopefully yours) in print. Editors, especially new ones, are often just as nervous as you are and just as anxious as you to make a good impression. Agents may be more extroverted, but they, too, want to make a good impression. When you put them at ease, you’ll be doing the same for yourself.

Second, be prepared. Your appointment will go more smoothly if you know what you want to talk about before you arrive. Whether you’re talking to an editor or an agent, they want to know about your work and about you. So, to prepare for that appointment . . .

Figure out what your story is about.

So how, exactly, are we supposed to do that? Stay tuned for tomorrow's post containing a terrific "formula," helpful examples, and some more of Sharon's excellent tips.

If you have questions about pitching fiction project, please feel free to ask away, and we'll do our best to help.

Guest Blogger bio: Sharon Mignerey can personally attest that she gets just as nervous pitching to editors and agents now as she did as an unpublished author. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway. Sharon’s most recent book is The Good Neighbor(November 2008) from Love Inspired Suspense. She’s closing in on the end of her Masters program at Seton Hill University and expects to graduate in January 2010.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day (from Child #5)

My five sibs and I grew up in an immaculately kept house, surrounded by music, books, art, and encouragement. All six of us have gone on to lead extraordinary lives, each of which in some way mirrors our mother, Lois Lonnquist. She can play (and I mean really play, with or without sheet music) any stringed instrument, including the piano and was always able to ramp cash by playing gigs, first with her dad in the bars around the WPA project where he worked, later with my dad (who looks a bit like Orlando Bloom in this picture, doesn't he?), and eventually with all the little Lonnquists in tow. When I was little, she got her pilot's license to fly the two-seat Aronca Champ she and Dad bought so they could take aerial photos, which Mom developed in an old school dark room in our basement. (And yes, The Dakota Ramblers are still married, Dad being hardy enough to stay married to an artist and smart enough to know how lucky he is.)

When I was in high school, Mom went to college (having made it as far as she did after dropping out of the Indian res school somewhere around eighth grade), but she was home while We Six were growing up. She described herself as a "housewife and mother", but she was also a stringer for the local paper and had a post-kids-growing-up career as a newspaper librarian and editor. Now she has a post-career career as an author, traveling to various Montana historical societies, doing a musical presentation on her meticulously researched book, Fifty Cents an Hour: The Builders and Boom Towns of the Fort Peck Dam.

My mom is a good mom for grownups: a wellspring of excellent advice with the gracious spirit to keep most of it to herself. She's the genetrix of my mad grammar skills and in no way responsible for my inferiority complex beyond the reality that she is so exhaustingly amazing. My greatest frustration as a daughter has been witnessing her be too hard on herself. My greatest luxury as a mother is being able to offer this extraordinary woman as an example to my daughter.

Thanks, Mom.

Ruth Hurlburt Hamilton's "Song for a Fifth Child" was published in Ladies Home Journal in 1958, and as #5 of my mother's 6, I always felt a proprietary edge when she recited it...and when I became a mother myself, its meaning was not lost on me.

Song for a Fifth Child
by Ruth Hulburt Hamilton

Mother, oh Mother, come shake out your cloth
empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
hang out the washing and butter the bread,
sew on a button and make up a bed.
Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She's up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.

Oh, I've grown shiftless as Little Boy Blue
(lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due
(pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo).
The shopping's not done and there's nothing for stew
and out in the yard there's a hullabaloo
but I'm playing Kanga and this is my Roo.
Look! Aren't her eyes the most wonderful hue?
(lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).

The cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
for children grow up, as I've learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust go to sleep.
I'm rocking my baby and babies don't keep.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Secrets and memories (a conversation with "Annie's Ghosts" author Steve Luxenberg)

"Part memoir, part detective story, part history," Steve Luxenberg's riveting memoir Annie’s Ghosts is the story of a journalist's search for his own hidden family history. (Read more about it on the Friday edition of BtO and click here to read the prologue.) The book is out in hardcover from Hyperion this week, buzz is healthy, and Luxenberg is making the rounds...

Steve, I was really taken with this book, and I appreciate your taking the time to pay us a visit. I have my theories about the healing properties and “cosmic cartography” of memoirs. Was it just the journalist in you that couldn't resist the secret your mother had so painstakingly kept or is something larger at the heart of this memoir?
There's a personal journey involved in any memoir, and there's one in mine as well. I wanted to apply the discipline of journalism to ferret out the reasons why my mom kept hidden the existence of a disabled sister, a secret she kept for more than more than 50, and never revealed to her family. But I didn’t want to push aside my feelings—they were part of the story, too.

As readers of Annie's Ghosts will learn, quite early in the book, there's a painful day for my mom and me. She's begging me to take her out of a psychiatric ward where she's supposed to stay for two weeks, and I'm unsure about what to do. She keeps repeating, "You don't understand, I can't stay here." Because I didn't know her secret, because I didn't know she had a sister who had spent 31 years in a psychiatric institution, I truly didn't understand.

It would be inaccurate to say that Annie's Ghosts arises from that single day. But the events of that day—-and the emotions that went along with them—-certainly were central to my desire to find out as much as I could about her reasons for creating and keeping the secret.

I'll try hard to avoid spoilers here, but as you say right up front in Annie's Ghosts, "secrets have a way of working themselves free of their keepers.” You also mention early on that your mom constantly brought up the fact that she was an only child. Was it possible that she was baiting you? That on some level she wanted her brilliant journalist son to uncover the truth? Perhaps you are the "savior" she yearned for in her love letters to your dad.
Thanks for caring about spoilers! I don’t mind revealing a bit of the story—-the prologue is available on my website, and I don’t want to frustrate your readers with vague answers.

Baiting me? I doubt it. My mom, whose name was Beth, created the secret before I was born. I can’t imagine that I became central to her thinking about whether to let it out.

Then, in 1995, she inexplicably told a psychiatrist as he was taking a routine family history that she had a disabled sister. She didn’t tell the psychiatrist that she was hiding her sister’s existence, and he didn’t take any particular note of it. But a social worker had heard Mom describe herself as an only child, and so she asked my sister, “Did your mom have a sister?” That was our first inkling of the secret.

Characterizing herself as an only child, sometimes in vivid detail, was a necessary part of my mom’s deception, it seems to me. She had to believe it, otherwise she might stumble when asked her about her childhood. She took the lead, heading off questions by telling people, upon first meeting, “I’m an only child.”

By the way, I'm not sure I can accept your kind characterization of my talents. A "brilliant journalist" might have felt his antenna quiver when he heard the first wisps of the secret from the social worker. But I was reacting as a son, and the son didn't suspect that the few details Mom had volunteered to the psychiatrist weren’t true.

Part of what kept pages turning for me was a growing emotional investment as the story of your mother and her sister peels like an onion, but I felt guilty at moments. As if I was rummaging the top drawer of this woman’s nightstand. At the same time, Annie's story reveals the damaging nature of secrets. How did you define the "need to know" parameters as you crafted the story?
That question—am I invading her privacy?—stayed with me throughout my search. But I didn’t feel I was rummaging in her drawer. I can’t imagine I would have written this book if she were alive. But her death changed the parameters. It triggered the events that caused the secret to emerge a second time, and with enough information to suggest that there was a larger story here.

If my mom were still alive, and the secret had come to the surface, it would have been her story to tell, not mine. Annie’s Ghosts is largely my story, a combination of detective story and memoir, as I try to put myself back in my mom’s place and time so that I can understand her decision. At the same time, it’s also an attempt to restore my secret aunt’s identity, to describe her life as best as I could.

As Dickens once wrote, every family has its secrets, and I think that's why so many early readers are connecting to the book. People can identify with my mom, and the trap that she set for herself by carrying this secret. I've come to believe that her secret became a burden, and that she wanted to let it out, but felt she couldn't.

Should my mom have revealed her secret? I think so. I don’t believe that all secrets are damaging, or that we should live our lives as open books, for anyone to read. But here’s a simple rule that I think helps: If a secret is causing pain, to you or those close to you, then it’s time to consider whether to let it go.

Your quest is going to resonate with anyone who's into family history (and anyone who loves a good mystery), but the cultural aspect of this story took you way above and beyond the casual visit to During the writing process, did the balance come naturally or were you making conscious choices about how to integrate personal story and social comment?
Good writing always involves conscious choice. I saw my mom, and my aunt, as being part of a much larger canvass, and I wanted to connect them, seamlessly if I could, to the social forces that shaped them—immigration, poverty, Depression-era Detroit, wartime, the evolution of public mental hospitals into huge institutions, aided by a legal system that handled allegations of insanity as more akin to a crime than a medical problem.

Readers will visit a time and place that is familiar to them, and yet will seem very different. My aunt’s stay at the hospital known as Eloise—which at its peak had more than 10,000 residents, half of whom were psychiatric patients—spanned two eras in the treatment of the mentally ill. That allowed me to marry the narrative of her life to the narrative of the revolution in mental health treatment that occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The memoir genre has taken some serious hits in the last few years with high profile books turning out to be BS, buyers and reviewers getting skeptical, and legal reviews intensifying. Care to wax philosophical about any of that?
On a Facebook discussion recently, the question came up: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?

The answer might seem obvious, but as you said, a few high-profile memoirs have gone beyond reconstructed dialogue. Some memoir writers even argue that invention (based on memory, of course) is legitimate — because truth, they say, is in the eye of the beholder anyway.

I draw a harder line. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? That's why we have novels.

Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don't have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what's the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust—and their interest. Bad deal for me.

Steve, thanks for your time. Before I let you go, I have to ask: What are you reading?
Never enough! As a nonfiction writer, I often myself gravitating toward fiction when I leave the keyboard for the day. I love history, but writers of history tell their stories at lengths that require a kind of monogamy that I’m not always willing to spare. I spent a month last fall immersed in Team of Rivals, a book that I wish I could call my own.

Since then, I’ve read Charles Lane’s remarkable account of a post-Civil War massacre in Louisiana, The Day Freedom Died; a collection of novelist Michael Chabon’s essays, Maps and Legends; novelist Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (set in Boston at the time of the 1918-19 police strike), and novelist Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News.

Two memoirs that have stayed with me for several years: Roya Hakakian’s Journey From the Land of No, about growing up in revolutionary Tehran, and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, perhaps the most honest writing about friendship I’ve had the chance to read.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The truth will out (Steve Luxenberg's "Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret")

Journalist Steve Luxenberg has worked for more than 30 years as a newspaper editor and reporter. In 1991, he succeeded Bob Woodward as head of the investigative staff at the Washington Post, shepherding reporters through several major reporting awards, including two Pulitzers. He's spent his life excavating facts and assembling stories, but in 1995, he opened a trap door in his own family history and was confronted with an impossibly compelling mystery.

"The secret emerged, without warning or provocation, on an ordinary April afternoon in 1995," Luxenberg says in the prologue to Annie's Ghosts. "Secrets, I’ve discovered, have a way of working themselves free of their keepers."

His mother, Beth Luxenberg, had always made a point of identifying herself as an only child, but approaching eighty and in fragile health, she mentioned to her doctor that she had a "disabled" sister who'd been institutionalized as a toddler. Beth claimed to know nothing of her sister's fate, and after his mother's death, Luxenberg began digging. His mother's name was not Beth, he was startled to discover. And his aunt, Annie, was hospitalized at age twenty-one, not age two. The sisters had grown up together, but after Annie was consigned to spend the remainder of her life in a mental institution, Beth constructed a careful series of lies that erased Annie's face and name.

"Whenever the secret threatened to make its way to the surface," says Luxenberg, "Mom did whatever she could to push it back underground. Just as Annie was a prisoner of her condition and of the hospital that became her home, my mother became a virtual prisoner of the secret she chose to keep."

Luxenberg had to know why. Following the trail from Depression-era Detroit to imperial Russia, through the Holocaust in Ukraine and the Philippine war zone, Luxenberg eventually returned to the hospitals where Annie and countless others lived and died as shadows. The resulting memoir, Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret (out this week in hardcover from Hyperion), is a family saga, a flowers-in-the-attic mystery, and a tragic history of mental health care in the United States. Starred reviews and kudos across the board are praising the reportage, but I think what will resonate with many readers is the emotional journey of this book. A familiar ache of separation, a need to know, and certain realizations that come with coming of age.

Tomorrow Steve Luxenberg joins us for a conversation about Annie's Ghosts, the memoir process, and the nature of secrets. Meanwhile, click here to read the prologue.

And while we're at might want to call your mom.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Jennifer Ashley Book Drawing Winner

Commenter #1, Willa,
Your name was drawn as the winner of Jennifer Ashley's drawing for a free backlist book (choose from among those written under any of her names.)

Please e-mail me at for more information.

Thanks to everyone who commented!

"Editing Letter" (Debut novelist Lara Zielin's karaoke of creative angst)

I don't know where Colleen comes up with this stuff, but she flipped it to me and I had to pass it along...

"Lara Zielin's agony and ecstasy as she edits her debut novel, DONUT DAYS."

Click here to pay Lara a visit and look for Donut Days in bookstores this August.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Jennifer Ashley on Breaking New Ground

Every once in a long while, a genre book grabs the reader by the throat and gives her a good shake by standing some convention on its ear. In The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, Rita®-winning USA Today bestseller Jennifer Ashley breaks new ground with a hero who suffers symptoms consistent with Asperger’s Syndome, a serious disability that afflicts him with rages, difficulty understanding "normal" emotion, and a profound aversion to eye contact.

I absolutely loved this book — and immediately knew it would make a big splash in the historical romance world, so I asked (insert arm-twisting sound effects here) Jennifer if she’d be willing to take time from her very busy schedule and answer a few questions.

BtO: Jennifer, welcome to the blog, and congratulations on the outstanding work and wonderful buzz this book has gotten (from stellar Publisher’s Weekly and Romantic Times reviews to its own fan group on Twitter!)

First question for you: When you started developing this book, did you begin with a character (Ian Mackenzie, I’m betting), the book’s plot, or with the overarching idea for the planned Highland Pleasures series?

JA: The series took root when I decided I wanted to write about a family of decadent, over-the-top, dangerous bad boys. I enjoyed writing about bad boys in my pirate series, and I wanted to explore the badness in a normal (or in this case, dysfunctional) family.

The four brothers have always been who they are in my head. Hart is more or less the patriarch, and the other three have their own complicated lives and life issues. I always intended to make the youngest brother, the one they all protected, considered mad.

As the series developed in my head, it felt like I was writing a family saga rather than a succession of books about individual couples. I don’t like secondary series characters to be wallpaper, so I incorporated them each brother into the story (and they will appear in all the other books). These four all need each other, even though they clash from time to time (and no one can clash better than family!).

I’ve been daydreaming the Mackenzies (who sprang forth fully formed) for a very long time, and I’m happy to at last be able to get them on paper. Their heroines, on the other hand, have taken a bit of work.

BtO: I really enjoyed the complex family dynamics in this story. I love it when you read a book where all the secondary characters feel as if they really have their own lives going.

On another note, I’ve been writing a romantic suspense about a heroine with an autistic nine-year-old, so I’ve been doing quite a lot of research on the topic to augment my observations from my teaching days. I love the way you pulled no punches about the extent of Lord Ian’s disability, but I’m dying to know, what on earth inspired you to choose such a socially-challenged character for a romantic hero?

JA: I’m looking forward to your book already! Being socially challenged myself (ahem) I wanted to explore a hero who truly was on the outside and didn’t understand why. I also wanted to show that a person like Ian still has needs and thoughts and emotions and can fall in love as hard as anyone else. In other words, I wanted to show that “different” is not so different after all. He has difficulty relating to other people on their terms, but he isn’t stupid or unfeeling.

It was a brave and risky choice, but I have to say, the emotional payoff between the hero and heroine at the book’s end was one of the best I’ve ever read. Did you find that challenging to write? Or did it just flow from the development of the two leads.

JA: The entire book was a challenge to write, as you might imagine. Having a hero who can’t look at anyone ensured that I could not do any lazy writing. I had to go over every line and make sure it stayed true to the character.

The emotional payoff did grow out of the two leads. I’m a “seat of the pants” writer, which means if it feels good to me, I put it on the page. The ending was what the characters “wanted” it to be.

I have to say the ending was fairly easy to write, but the beginning--oof, that was hard! I started this story eight times before I finally got it right. And what ended up in the book is nothing to the reams of pages I cut.

BtO: Wow! That’s interesting. For me, beginnings are easier and endings much more difficult to write. If nothing else, this speaks to the benefits of sticking to something until it feels right to you.

Speaking of thing that felt right, the character of the heroine, Beth Ackerly, was essential to creating a believable Happily Ever After ending for the lead couple. When casting this story, what did you think of as the most important qualities for this heroine?

JA: Beth was one of the most difficult characters I have ever cast (Christopher Raine in Care and Feeding of Pirates was the other).

Many young ladies auditioned, and many were rejected. I’d start writing the heroine’s meet with Ian, read it back, scream in frustration, and fire her. It wasn’t until I conceived of Beth having quite a lot of life experience, both good and terrible, that she clicked.

I needed someone resilient (who could take this odd family of overbearing men), and someone who had compassion and understanding. Beth had a horrible childhood, but she also knew happiness—she’d loved her husband (and he, her), and the lady who took her as companion was kind in her own way. Also, I needed her to be independent, not an innocent daughter. Beth inherited money, she was old enough to live on her own, and she wasn’t sheltered from the dangers of the world. She also was enough of an outsider in her own world that she could understand Ian’s alienation.

It took me about a year to develop Beth. Happily once I had her, the story came.

BtO: I’m laughing at the idea of firing heroines. But you were right to hold out for this one. She really made the story work.

I’m dying to know how you’ll top this. Please tell us a little about the next book in the series and when it will be out. Also, we’d love to hear what your alter ego, Allyson James, has been up to lately in the world of paranormal romance.

JA: I’d like to know how I’m going to top it, too. Scary stuff. The next book in the series will be Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage, which will be about Isabella and Mac. These two had a rough marriage, and I’ll come out and say that their breakup had nothing to do with adultery. That would be too easy—I will be working hard to make their story just as poignant as Ian and Beth’s, with no simple solutions.

BtO: Yea! I was hoping you’d write their story next.

JA: This book won’t be out until 2010. I’m not happy with that, but there are scheduling difficulties.

BtO: Boo, scheduling difficulties! But we’ll be patient. Or try.

JA: In the meantime, I have a couple more books coming out:

Pride Mates, by Jennifer Ashley (new paranormal; my slant on shape shifters), Jan. 2010 (I just saw the cover art for this—oh my!)

More hot books from Allyson James:

Mortal Seductions (Sept. 2009). This is erotica, not for the faint of heart. But fun! (I posted the first chapter at

Stormwalker (May 2010), an urban fantasy/paranormal romance (but set in the desert southwest, so not really “urban”). Navajo witch with powers she draws from storms and a very sexy love interest. And she’s not all she seems to be.

Also two anthologies in October: Hot for the Holidays (as Allyson James), and A Christmas Ball (as Jennifer Ashley).

BtO: No wonder scheduling’s a challenge. That’s a lot of books!

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your insights on the writing of The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. Thanks for writing a historical that made me hungry for historicals again. I can’t wait to read more!

JA: No problem! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love historicals (at one point it was the only thing I’d read or write), and I plan to always write them, no matter where else I stray. I’m looking forward to your June book!

Note to BtO Readers: Jennifer will be drawing from among those who comment to give away free books! What here for an announcement on the lucky winners!

And just one more thing: Intrigued by Lord Ian? After reading Jennifer’s book, you may enjoy Mark Haddon’s break-out mystery, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, told from the viewpoint of a young man with autism. It’s another huge favorite of mine and a fast-paced, very quick read.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Learning from Failure

We've all heard them, those myriad platitudes that tell you if you just hang in there, you will make it. The ones that say the only difference between success and failure is the persistence to make one more submission.

This appeals to our inner sense of justice, to the idea that working hard will always eventually be rewarded. Unfortunately, the universe doesn't consistently play fair. So while hanging in there is commendable, a surer route to success in publishing involves what I call "hanging in smart."

In other words, you have to have the sense to recognize when something isn't working and you need a course correction. Often this involves steep learning curves, plenty of false starts, and the occasional all-out failure. But generally, if you simply continue on the same unsuccessful course, even with some refinements, you're likely to experience the same results.

So let's say you've been sweating out, submitting, and studying the craft of poems and short stories for years (this describes my early efforts pretty well), with no success. That's not to say you learned nothing from the experience, so when you move on to writing, say, short plays (something else I tried for a bit), you'll come to the table with more skill. If that's not working for you (or you suddenly clap on, as I did finally, to the fact that since you love reading novels above all else, that's what you should be writing - no matter how long and scary they seem), you're bringing along a whole wagon-full of craft lessons from your prior "failures."

Same goes within the world of novel writing. My first three full-length manuscripts were fantasy (adult) and young adult (time travel/ghost story), and I came pretty close to publishing in both genres. But while writing YA, I had an idea that could only be written for adults, so I studied, studied, studied my intended market (historical romance) and joined the Romance Writers of America (because by now I was serious enough -- and seriously sick of falling a bit short of my goal) as I wrote. With this "do-over," however, I was bringing the experience of having won a number of writing contests and worked with one agent (with whom I'd parted ways).

To make a long story short, my first historical romance manuscript netted me a new agent and sold. But even after the publication of seven historicals, I wasn't through adapting. When a shrinking demand for American-set historicals hit me hard, I once more started experimenting in other areas, particularly in mystery/suspense, which I love to read (but had previously thought I wasn't smart enough/good enough/ready enough to write). Bringing along what I knew by then from my prior "failures," I was able to shift gears into writing contemporary romantic suspense.

Am I finished evolving? I seriously doubt it. With each new release, I try to analyze what's worked for me, what hasn't, and what I might do differently to appeal to more readers and keep myself from burning out from the boredom of repetition. All while striving to give my readers a "consistent experience" as they run through my romantic suspense backlist. But whoever said this writing stuff was supposed to be easy?

So where are you in your evolution as a writer? Where did you start, and where do you have the feeling you might be going? And for those of you who made a change, what convinced you it was time to move on to the next stage?


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