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Showing posts from July, 2009

No tweed bikinis! (10 Best Beach Reads I Actually Read on Beaches)

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I don't dispute that all the books on the NPR Beach Reads list are great books. I've read 18 (and loved 16) of the top 20. But I'm not sure we're all clear on the "beach reads" vibe. I agree with Colleen's post yesterday -- the prime directive is fun. "Beach Read" is the essence of reading for pleasure, which doesn't mean it has to be brainless, but it needs to be a page turner with a vacationary feel. The NPR list seems to be geared toward people who wear socks to the beach.

This summer, despite an appalling state of over-employment, I'm trying to stick with the Infinite Summer schedule and make my way through David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I was enormously relieved to see Avery Edison's post yesterday, declaring the very truth I was too timid to voice: "I am not enjoying this book." The fact is, I don't think I'm going to make it to page 1000. I do want to read this book, but I think it's a winter th…

What Makes a Great Beach Read?

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It's nearly August and so blazing hot here in Houston that going to the beach would be like reclining on a pancake griddle. But that hasn't stopped me from thinking about Beach Reads, especially after reading NPR's list of The 100 Best Beach Books Ever, tabulated from 136,000 votes by 16,000 fans of National Public Radio. (I love NPR!)

For your enlightenment, here are the top 20:
1. The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
2. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
3. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
4. Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding
5. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
6. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells
7. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
9. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg
10. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver


11. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
12. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
13. The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
14. The…

Write What You (Don't) Know, Part II

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Earlier this week, I wrote about writing what (or who) you know, where I looked at the ways an author's background and circle of associates can influence her characters and setting. Today, I'll be dishing on writing what you don't know on subjects about which you haven't an earthly clue.

At the moment, this is much on my mind because I've bitten off a humongous challenge, taking on a really exciting project that deals with some pretty tricky legal and psychological concepts - concepts about which I have only an interested layman's knowledge and no credentials whatsoever to write about. Unless you count chutzpah, which counts for plenty in this business.

You've gotta have some serious audacity to take whatever expertise you can glean from books, the 'net, and interviews and convince your reader that you know far more than is appearing in the story. I've found that if you lay in enough real facts to gain the reader's trust (the earlier, the better),…

Tempest in the Harrogate Teapot (No vex please, we're British!)

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Interesting piece by Stuart Evers in Guardian on the "unpardonably low literary status" of crime writing. Apparently there was a foot-in-mouth moment at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival last weekend when Booker Prize winner John Banville (aka crime writer Benjamin Black) accidentally dissed his own bad self:
Writing under his own name, Banville manages around 100 sweated-over, teased, honed and polished words a day; but as Benjamin Black, he can manage a couple of thousand. The intimation was quite clear, "Black's" sentences simply weren't as important. Perhaps realising what he'd unwittingly said, he tried to backtrack, but the damage was done and there was more fuel for his critics.

"He's slumming it," author Ruth Dudley Edwards said the following day. "He says he isn't, but he is."
Faster than you can say "tea cozy," Cartier Diamond Dagger recipient Reginald Hill offered this pragmatic response: "When I ge…

The Best of the Worst: 2009's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Winner

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I absolute love the Bulwer-Lytton contest. The contest celebrates Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian novelist who gave us -- and Snoopy -- the following deathless prose:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

--Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

In Bulwer-Lytton's honor, modern smart alecks from around the globe come up with the worst, most belabored opening possible. This year's winner, David McKenzie, of Federal Way, Washington brings us:

"Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful…

Type faster!

Question: "What would you do if the doctor said you had only six months to live?"

Isaac Asimov's legendary answer: "Type faster!"

What to Ask When You Get the Call

Dorchester editor Leah Hultenschmidt (one of the nicest editors in the business) has an excellent post over at Romantic Reads on what to ask when you get "the call," an offer to publish your novel.

Great advice! Check it out.

Write What (or Who) You Know, Part I

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I've never been sold on the old saw, "Write what you know," but I have to admit it has its moments. Faced with difficult and convoluted plotting (which only on the rarest of occasions reflects my own experience, thank goodness) I tend to mix and match aspects of my own personality and/or the personalities of people I've known, to create a new mash-up that takes on a new life of its own.

When I begin a character with the personality of a real person, I find it's a great, shorthand method of getting a handle on my fictional creation. After the book's released, I'm always a little nervous that the real person may recognize herself in the character she's inspired, but so far, that's never happened. For one thing, I'm very careful to change identifying features. For another, the book's plot and other fictional characters substantially alter the "based-on" characters until I'm the only one aware of the connection.

Many of my books …

Don't let the door hit you: The Sequel

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Last year on my husband's birthday I opted to go to an industry party in LA and ended up feeling lousy about it. This morning I woke up in NY, but I'll be home by celebratory dinnertime, learning from history instead of repeating it.

My post-party thoughts last year:
As a writer by profession and a hermit by nature, I've come to accept the fact that I am socially retarded. I try to mitigate by not drinking alcohol at parties or lunches. (So much healthier to drink alone late at night with only dogs to witness my pathetique.) I don't try to fake a more Midwestern accent or try to fake anything, in fact. I lack the organizational skills and short term memory to be successfully full of crap. I have to be myself, for better or worse, and then I have to go home, taking comfort in the simple fact that no one cares about me.

Truly, they don't. It's liberating. My presence in that office, restaurant, or professionally lit pool area has nothing to do with amusing anecdote…

Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!

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My lovely niece Lorna had a baby in Italy yesterday. Mom and daughter gorgeous and healthy. Welcome to the world, Liliana.

My Take on the Trends: Romance Subgenres

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About the time I was just cranking up as a new author (1999-2001 or so), there were a couple of confounding realities taking root in romance novel publishing.

1. American-set historical romances were on the decline. Shrinking demand begat shrinking print runs begat the "death spiral" for a lot of authors, who either had to adapt or die (in the career sense, anyhow.) Most of the readers were senior citizens, who were increasingly turning to used book stores to get their monthly fix, and *all* historicals were routinely predicted to be trending toward extinction.
2. You could hardly give away a paranormal. Authors either shifted to other subgenres, put up with tiny print runs (Dorchester Publishing basically kept this niche alive) and a small but devoted pool of fans. Some die-hards even went to the newly-emerging world of e-publishing. A few of the most talented/popular/lucky went on to great success later, but at the time, they got little respect.
3. You *really* couldn't g…

Retro Cool Pop Culture: Harlequin's Heart of a Woman Art Exhibit

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One of the coolest marketing efforts I observed at the conference was Harlequin's 60th Anniversary Celebration. To direct attention to the company's wonderful effort to give a free sample to every woman in America, the company featured its (mostly male) pulp fiction roots by highlighting those great old covers.

One of my faves, for a title called "You Never Know with Women," graced a huuuge conference bag -- one destined to be collected rather than stowed away or tossed with bags from past years. I also picked up the best swag ever at the Harlequin party, a tin chock full of retro cover postcards.

Didn't get one? The images have been licensed and with soon be available in stores. (Yea!) Meanwhile, allow me to whet your appetite with a preview of the NY Art Exhibition, "The Heart of a Woman."

Be sure to check out those fascinating captions, too.

Art Exhibit

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RWA Conference Oh-Nine, Oh, Yes!

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Every year, I carefully weigh the decision of whether or not to attend RWA's annual national conference. On the minus side, it's expensive, exhausting, and time-consuming. But there are so many pluses, I keep coming back for more. Here are just a few of the reasons.

1. Seeing old friends and making new ones.

It's wonderful meeting people whose eyes light up, rather than glazing over, when the conversation turns to books and writing. From my old friends, many of whom have gone on to great success, I not only derive great pleasure but hard-won wisdom. From those struggling toward publication, I gain an appreciation for the drive, energy, and raw hope needed for the effort. From the newest of the newbies, I smile with the memory of how amazing, terrifying, and exciting this gathering of 2,000 writers and publishing professionals was to me ten years before. (I nearly passed out the first time I rode in the elevator with Nora Roberts. Ten years later, I'm still such a fan gir…

Go with God, Frank McCourt

Birthday books for Malachi (What do you get for the guy who knows everything?)

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My son Malachi turned 22 last week. He celebrated a super cool birthday (starting with the fact that it was 07/08/09) in Israel with his sister. So yeah, I did the mom thing and sent him cash and clothes for the trip, but I wanted to give him something that showed him how much I love and respect the way his brain works.

The two books I ordered have the right balance of testosterone, hippitude, art, and politics:

The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld
In a style that's been called "part Puzo, part Kerouac," author Tom Folsom tells the story of the lovable thug immortalized in a Bob Dylan ballad, "a charismatic beatnik gangster whose forays into Greenwich Village in the 1960s inspired his bloody revolution against the Mafia establishment." I ordered it the day it came out, and I wish I'd had time to read it before sending it off in the birthday box. (Click here to watch the cool trailer.)

Asterios Polyp
I was powerless to r…

If we've lost Cronkite...

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Is it too much to hope that the passing of Walter Cronkite will tweak the conscience of modern journalists? Or is this the dying of an era in which "fair and balanced" actually meant "with unbiased integrity"?

From the obit in the NY Times:
“I am a news presenter, a news broadcaster, an anchorman, a managing editor — not a commentator or analyst,” he said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor in 1973. “I feel no compulsion to be a pundit.”

But when he did pronounce judgment, the impact was large.

In 1968, he visited Vietnam and returned to do a rare special program on the war. He called the conflict a stalemate and advocated a negotiated peace. President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the broadcast, Mr. Cronkite wrote in his 1996 memoir, “A Reporter’s Life,” quoting a description of the scene by Bill Moyers, then a Johnson aide.

“The president flipped off the set,” Mr. Moyers recalled, “and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ ”

Go with God, Walter Cronkite

My most vivid childhood memory of the Most Trusted Man in America.

Cheno gets another Emmy nom! (Go, homegirl, go!)

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Oh, I am a proud book nanny. Kristin Chenoweth scored a second well-deserved Emmy nomination yesterday for her singing, dancing, adorable role as Olive Snook in Pushing Daisies.

No one was surprised to see this hyper-creative show get canceled earlier this year. It was frankly too good to last -- all about rich writing, quirky characters, an elaborately choreographed premise, and more living color than we've ever seen on TV. I got to hang out on the set a bit while I was working on Kristin's book, and everyone in the cast and crew was so proud of this really good art they were making. Happily, the work will live on on DVD -- it's one of those shows destined to have a cult following -- and we'll catch a last loving glance of Olive on Emmy night.

Meanwhile, Kristin's going to be on an upcoming ep of Jerusha's new favorite show, Glee, doing her symphony gigs here and there, and back on Broadway with Tyne Daly, Katie Finneran, Rosie O'Donnell, Mary Louise Wilson…

This week on Mylene Dressler's AMN: The Stunt Man

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I've been quietly enjoying Mylene Dressler's "American Stories NOW" blog, a series of beautifully true moments observed and reported with the grace and skill of a novelist.

This week she tells about sitting next to stunt man Harry Madsen on an airplane...
Harry had worked for years in Hollywood, as a stunt man on tv series like Kojak and McCloud, and for Burt Lancaster in his films ("except I was a little too short--he was nice about it though, a great guy"). He threw himself around in comedies like Ghostbusters and, once, for Helen Hayes, wearing a pink blouse and a gray wig. I asked him how he'd found his way into stuntwork, and he waved his paw of a hand and said his father, who'd owned a ranch and silver mine in Oaxaca, Mexico had wanted him to become an educated man--but that four years of college had been nothing but boring, so Harry decided to join the rodeo circuit instead, working up and down the East Coast. One thing led to another, and one …

Happy Rembrandt's Birthday!

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Enjoy a fat nude moment with "Danae"...

Okay. Get your clothes on and get back to work.

Fresh Pick of the Day: Beneath Bone Lake

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Received an e-mail letting me know that my new book, Beneath Bone Lake, is Fresh Fiction's Fresh Pick of the Day. Tres cool!

Check it out!

Hook 'em and Shut Up: Thoughts on Pitching

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I'm gearing up to go to RWA's annual national conference in D.C., so I'm reminded of a moment from last year's (in blessedly cool San Francisco, where I'd vote to go every year). One afternoon, I skipped out of the sessions and wandering around to see if I could find any of the hundreds of authors I know to hang around and shoot the breeze with. (What was called hooky in high school is networking here, and it's usually where I get my best intelligence on what's happening in the industry.) As I strolled along a corridor, I saw a lady whose name tag designated her as a first-timer to the conference and a fellow Texan, an unpublished member who was on her own and looking so nervous and miserable, I couldn't help but stop and say hi, then ask her how she was enjoying her first time as nationals.

She wasn't at that moment, she said. On her way to her very first editor appointment, she was tying her intestines into knots trying to recall her memorized spie…

The spirit of the writer's space

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Interesting piece in the NYT Real Estate section last week--"For a Writer, a Home with a Hideout"--featuring the gorgeous Upper East Side apartment of author Roxana Robinson, but focusing on the relatively austere writing space she has there. A bit:
Raymond Carver, she points out, claimed that he wrote his short stories in the front seat of his car. Ernest Hemingway holed up above a sawmill in Paris... Annie Dillard wrote in a college library.... Ms. Robinson writes in an 8-by-10 space that faces a tan brick wall and was formerly a maid’s room. Defining a work space that works is one of the most important things an aspiring/ emerging author can do for her/his career.

When I made the shift inside my head that I was determined to do this for a living, my family was in a seriously low ball apartment on the north side of Houston. We'd been bankrupted by my cancer treatment, so there was zero money for any kind of artsy indulgence and zero space available in our cramped quar…

What's Your Guilty Pleasure?

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I've been putting the finishing touches on a novella best described as guilty pleasure. It has all the elements: a darkly handsome rich guy, an innocent young woman, a bitchy, sexpot gossip of a PTO prez, and even a literal cliff-hanger. I had a ball writing it, countering the romantic adventure with touches of humor and a few unsubtle nods to a favorite classic book.

As with popcorn, I wouldn't wouldn't want to live on a diet that contained nothing else but fluffy deliciousness, but when my brain needs a break and I want to cheer the heroes and boo the villains (even Snidely Whiplash villains) with the crowd, there's nothing like a guilty pleasure. I love it in a book like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary, Seth Greenland's Shining City, or Max Brooks' World War Z, in TV shows like the much-lamented Firefly, 30 Rock, and Dexter. And there's also fun-a-plenty in movies such as Love Actually (do I sense a British romance theme here), Shaun of the …

Just keep moving (an elegant lesson in how story works)

From the brilliant creative team at Olympus:
"This is the PEN Story in stop motion. We shot 60,000 pictures, developed 9,600 prints and shot over 1,800 pictures again. No post production! Thanks to all the stop motion artists who inspired us. We hope you enjoy."
I definitely did! Especially the great music and lyrics by Johannes Stankowski. (Download song for free at http://olympus.eu/penstory.)

Taking Time to Celebrate

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You can only be in one of two places when you're writing for a living: on deadline or unemployed. Today, however, I'm celebrating the precise moment of transition, specifically, that blessed moment of completion.

I'm not really finished, I know. There'll be a read-through with self-guided tweakage, comments from a couple of critique partners (if they can swing the time) and resultant helpful changes, and I'm sure the editor will come up with great suggestions to make the story sharper. But the fact is, the story, a novella, is finished -- a beginning, middle, and an end on paper -- and there's not a better feeling in the world.

So I'm taking this evening to revel in it, celebrating with a little 1/2-fat ice cream (I want to live large, not get larger), playing with my dogs, and watching a little Animal Planet until it's time to hit the hay. No fireworks or fanfares needed, no wild parties or confetti. It's the internal satisfaction of the moment that…

Eat, pray, live (God's place in one writer's life)

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Malachi and Jerusha flew into New York from Tel Aviv this morning, weary but thrilled after a few days wandering the streets, seeing the sights, and hitting the holy hookah bars of Jerusalem.

"Mom," said Malachi, "it was Jesus and Jew stuff all over the place. You would have been bawling the whole time."

It's true. I'm sentimental when it comes to the traditions of Judaism and the teachings of Jesus, my Rabbi, who tried so hard -- and died so hard -- trying to tell us one thing: Love one another. Unable to find an organized religion that doesn't make exceptions to that golden rule, I've invented my own sincere but certainly flawed brand -- Jewbuddhistianity -- and developed a quirky little set of rituals over the years.

Robert Wright's fascinating new book The Evolution of God begins with this:
The Chukchee, a people indigenous to Siberia, had their own special way of dealing with unruly winds. A Chukchee man would chant, “Western Wind, look here! L…

Murder by the Book Signing

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Now that I have your attention, this Saturday at 4:30 PM at Houston's Murder by the Book, I'll be signing, along with Christie Craig (Gotcha!), TJ Bennett (The Promise), and Kerrelyn Sparks (Secret Life of a Vampire). Please come and play if you're in the area! We'd love to meet you.

Well, Duh. Of course We're Smart

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Over at USA Today, they're acknowledging the smartitude of certain women writers. Romance writers (gasp.)

We're like all surprised. (Wink)

Thanks to author Jill Monroe for the link.

Pictured, Ivy league Professor Mary Bly, a.k.a. romance author Eloisa James, who writes brilliant historical romances. And no, she's not the only one.

A Mom, a Soldier in Iraq, and a Busy Writer: Meet Jessica Scott

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Many military romance writers have service in their background, but Jessica Scott has the freshest view around. Both a mother and a career soldier in the United States Army, she’s currently deployed, along with her military husband, in Iraq .

But that hasn’t stopped her from writing. Jessica blogs about her experiences, tweets on Twitter, and recently placed her romantic suspense manuscript War’s Darkest Fear, in the capable hand of super agent Kim Whalen of Trident Media.

Fascinated with Jessica’s personal story, I asked her to come visit us at Boxing the Octopus to answer a few questions.

BtO: Welcome to the blog, Jessica, and thank you so much for being with us. Having written stories featuring characters returning from the war zone, I’m especially interested in hearing about your take on life as a woman in the military.

First of all, can you tell us a little about what you’re up to at the moment and where you’re located?

JS: Thanks so much for having me! I'm recently back from R&a…

The Author as Orchard

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Of all the wisdom conferred by Joni Rodgers, one of the most meaningful to me has been the statement, "You are an orchard, not a factory."

Ever year about this time, I need the reminder, especially as I gear up for RWA's national conference. I love this annual meeting, which offers a terrific chance to meet with my agent, visit with writer friends, pick up important news, and absorb some terrific tips, tricks, and the general creative vibe that permeates the air.

But confession time... the conference also tends to make me anxious. As is the case with most authors, I have a competitive Type A personality lurking beneath my cell-thin layer of Zen cool, and, surrounded by all these super-accomplished, incredibly productive and successful women makes me feel like a fraud, a slacker, and a slowpoke.

Intellectually, I know I'm not. I know that out of the attendees, there are a good many who would give a kidney to reach my level of success and productivity. I also know there a…

The Red Tent (thoughts on the canonization of literature)

My kids are off to Israel this week, which got me thinking about Anita Diamant's lovely novelThe Red Tent, which led me to this illuminating introduction, which led me to online litmag ToThinkIsHuman.com, and God only knows where I go from here...

Standing the Test of Time

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In honor of the day, I give you an example of writing that absolutely stands the test of time, mainly written by Thomas Jefferson. Today, I read these words -- really read them as if for the first time -- and marveled that more than two centuries later, I could absolutely feel the author's and signers' outrage, indignation, grief, honor, and pride. Every word is steeped in thoughtful the strongest of emotions, tempered with thoughtful, sober restraint. Which makes sense, since each signer risked his life and the lives and fortunes of his family by affixing his name to this document.

I challenge you to read it today as I did, without anyone assigning it for homework, and really look at the Declaration not as some dry old document, but as the incredible piece of writing that it is.

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which ha…

Road rash! Drama! Really tight pants! Viva le Tour!

It's the Super Bowl of bone-crunching, gut-wrenching human endeavor, the one sporting event I can't keep my eyes off every year. High drama at hot speed, tight corners in tight britches, gorgeous spectators in haut couture and crazy Fellini cast costumes. The Tour de France kicks off in Monaco tomorrow. A quick overview of the grueling three-week course:


The Gare Bear was big into bike racing when I met him (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, but I still remember that bike-racing backside with wistful fondness as we work the daily crossword puzzle...) Decades later, I did a book that required extensive research on le Tour. Gary and I did a long driving trip through France, caught a couple of the mountain legs of the race, and got completely swept up in the history and drama of this amazing event.

Rather than my own ugly American paraphrase, here's l'histoire du Tour in quaint French-to-English from the Tour de France web site:
The line between insanity and genius is s…

Shortcuts

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Returning from vacation to a raft of Stuff That Needed Doing Pronto, I finally found what I've been looking for throughout the month of June. My focus. Gone was the luxury of reading, even skimming, every Yahoogroups digest (a brief scan of the subjects assured me I wasn't missing much but the usual RWA summer squabbling), the temptation to mess around on Facebook or tweet (over it) or obsess about the success of failure of the new book, and the time to kill with inane, addictive Internet games (do you hear me, Bejeweled?). Seduced away from my work in progress by the siren call of an unfinished historical, I'd dallied with a retool of a proposal that will never see the light of day. But really, I know now, I was stalling, stuck on the Hard Work stage of a manuscript I'd hoped to finish early and harder, riskier work of a scary-looking new proposal.

The truth of it, a truth I need to stencil in block letters on my office wall, if not my forehead, is this: There Are No S…