Friday, July 31, 2009

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

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 thing.

The novel that's really calling to me right now is one of my old favorites. Reading Colleen's WIP recently made me remember how much I loved this book when I was a kid, and it tops my Books I Actually Read (and Mightily Enjoyed) On or Near Beaches and Highly Recommend in No Particular Order List '09.

Pleasure reading at it's coastalest...

#1 Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Thrilla chilla! Love! Reversals of fortune! Spectacular vistas of great writing and gothica. The second Mrs. DeWinter finds her way through a maze of murder and obsession.

#2 My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki
This book is so dang funny but there's still plenty of thinky thoughts. A fab young reality TV producer discovers offal truths about the meat industry. (Warning: Plan to eat a nice summer salad that day.)

#3 Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
An orphan's adventure in a simpler time and place. Everybody has that dear old friend they need to connect with once in a while, and Anne is mine. First read it on a beach camping trip in Michigan. (Yes, they have beaches in Michigan.)

#4 Valley of the Dolls by Jaqueline Susann
That's right! I said it! V to the D, bi-otch. Get in the tub and pretend it's the insane asylum. "Neeeeely! Neely O'Hara!" It's trashy, it's flashy, it's the sand-in-your-pantiest beach read of all time. Take two and call me in the morning.

#5 Scruples by Judith Krantz
See above. It's a feast of Funions and Tab in book form.

#6 Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
The loveliest, most delicious, truest, funniest, heart-rendingest novel I've ever read. Unrequited love and magical realism in old Mexico. Must must must must read. Ah, Destin. Ah, Esquivel. Ah, Gulf of Mexico, how I love you!

#7 Henry and June by Anais Nin
The subtitle is From "A Journal of Love" -The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin (1931-1932). Yeah. Unexpurgated. Eat that, NPR. Nin's gorgeously salacious account of the time she spent with Henry Miller and his wife June. I started it in the bathtub at a hotel in Gibraltar and finished it on the ferry from Spain to Morocco. Couldn't wait to get back to Paris.

#8 Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
Okay, I read most of this in a park overlooking the East River, but I say that counts. Amnesia, love, intrigue, haunting characters, twisty turns, and melodic writing. I read this book months ago and just can't get shed of it.

#9 Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday
As gut-wrenching, street smart, lovelorn and darkly comic as her music. First read this nestled in a sand dune when I was a kid in Pensacola Beach, then revisited when I knew being a memoir guru was what I wanted to do. Best celeb memoir ever. Lady Day's story is beautifully co-authored by William Dufty, a music enthusiast, freelancer for the New York Post, and Gloria Swanson’s last husband.

#10 Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado
Somehow manages to set a wry political parable against a lovely love story. Readable and unforgettable. Loved it 25 years ago on a firetower and rocky beaches in Northern California. The enchanting words and places are woven together in my head forever.

So there you have it. The ten best books I've read on the beach. Would love to hear your list! Dish it, darlings, dish it! And don't forget the sunscreen.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Makes a Great Beach Read?

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 Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
15. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
16. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
17. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
18. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
19. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
20. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

I've read most of these books, and have loved nearly all of them, but I have to admit, I scratched my head at the idea of calling THE KITE RUNNER a beach read. Sorry, but the material's way too dark for that. BRIDGET JONES, yes! THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE, amen! But LIFE OF PI? Seriously?

To me, a perfect beach read has to be, first and foremost, fun. Romantic fun (An oldie but goodie, Julie Garwood's FOR THE ROSES), scary fun (Stephen King's DUMA KEY would be a great choice), or fantastic fun (going with the Harry Potter series here, or THE HOBBIT would do, nicely). Nothing dense or heavy, nothing requiring too much concentration. Just an entertaining, engaging story that keeps me sizzling far beyond my SPF.

And sexy fun's never a bad choice either. :)

What are your qualifications for a beach or vacation read? Care to name any all-time favorites?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

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

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), you can fudge a little (or fictionalize) and bring your merry bands of readers along for the ride.

The trick is doing enough research that you can convincingly BS your way to the reader's Willing Suspension of Disbelief. A skilled novelist is often a bit of a con artist, subbing in borrowed jargon, collected factoids, and, perhaps a more expert acquaintance's opinion in place of a real depth of knowledge.

There are dangers a-plenty in failing to do one's homework. When knowledgeable readers are jerked out of the story, they'll seldom give the author a second shot.

But over-researching is equally dangerous. If you substitute the joy of researching (this is directed to my fellow library nerds) for the joy of writing, the manuscript simply never happens. Worse yet, you might succumb to the temptation to wow the reader with every speck of trivia you've gleaned. Not only does nobody like a show-off, knowledge dumps, usually in the form of narrative, can seriously bog down your story.

How do you maintain a balance between not enough and too much research? Do you prefer sticking with familiar topics, or, like me, do you enjoy writing about what you truly wish to know?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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

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 get up in the morning, I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker prize winning novel, or another bestselling crime book. And we always come down on the side of the crime book."

Click here for the whole story.

Monday, July 27, 2009

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

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 screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests."

Love it! But many of the runners up, in my opinion, are even more hysterical. Check 'em out.

And for even more laughs, check out the past "Lyttony" (their word, not mine!) of grand prize winners here.

I'm thinking we all need to try our hand at this next year. But something tells me that really bad writing might be as tough as doing it well. Maybe even harder. :)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

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!"

Saturday, July 25, 2009

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

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 are inspired by real-life events "ripped from the headlines" (to borrow a term. At their starting point, I read or hear about some provocative/horrifying/outrageous/frightening situation and wonder "What if that happened to me? How would I react?" Consequently, many of my books' protagonists have the same life concerns (raising a kiddo, worries over aging parents, anxiety over bills or jobs) I've experienced. They also, especially in the case of the heroines, tend to live in settings and have careers with which I'm familiar. I've written a couple of stories featuring teachers (my previous career - and I can tell you, it gives me much joy to poke fun at school boards or gossipy PTO moms from a safe distance), one with a traveling hospice nurse (my sister's job), and another with an asthmatic female firefighter (my husband's a firefighter and I have asthma, so I'd always wondered how awful it would be to be a committed firefighter who finds herself developing that condition).

None of my characters really are me, but they often share my observations, secret sarcastic thoughts, and weird fixations (i.e. Bluebell Homemade Vanilla ice cream and hand-carved Oaxacan animals). The heroes often react in ways in keeping with the macho guys I've known and loved (no affected pretty boys or metrosexuals need apply) and tend toward overtly manly careers rather than desk jobs.

These are the people I understand, the people whose heads I can most easily get inside of. Which is critical, because as I develop the story, I'm about to dump them into serious hot water. (A marketing-oriented friend recently asked me to define my novels' core message. "That's easy," I told her, "It's 'Regular people in deep sh*t.'")

Faced with extraordinary circumstances, I'm always more comfortable with a little familiarity. And I find those particular characters are often my most memorable and compelling.

So what about the rest of you? Do you interweave familiar settings, events from your own life, or character aspects with elements from your own imagination? If so, how do you handle the blending of the real and the imaginary?

Pictured: Woman Standing In Front Of A Mirror 1841
by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Friday, July 24, 2009

Don't let the door hit you: The Sequel

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 anecdotes about my kids and everything to do with the market value of my skill. As long as I don't fall in the pool or set a parking valet on fire, I'll be remembered only by those who asked for my card -- and only a few of those will remember why they asked for it. And only a few of those will feel the need to follow up. (My follow up consists of "thank yous" only. It's important to me to avoid any whiff of hanger on; I let them come to me.) One lesson I'm still learning: when to go and when to stay home.

I've learned a lot this year, but the balancing act continues. Bottom line, as clients, agents, editors, taxis, airplanes, and books have come and gone over the years, my family has remained rock steady and they'll always be my top priority. Sometimes that means going, sometimes that means coming home.

And now, here's Topo Gigio...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Take on the Trends: Romance Subgenres

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 give away a young adult romance.
4. Historicals were the sexiest books on the market.

In 2009, things have certainly changed. Paranormal red-hot, and its popularity with young people certainly bodes well for its future. It's a trend, not a fad, but the field's gotten so crowded with series, publishers are becoming more selective.

YA is superhot as well, largely fueled by mega-authors such as JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. Kids are reading a ton of highly-imaginative paranormals, "dating" tales, "problem/social issue" stories, and humor, and many young women are transitioning into reading adult romance, especially of the paranormal variety.

As for American historicals, there are certainly glimmers of hope, with some readers yearning for the return of the Western. I'm not seeing a big resurgence yet, but the British-set historicals have really bounced back, with a growing, increasingly-vocal group of younger authors and readers (yea!) coming on board.

Fueled by Internet sales by e-book pioneers like Ellora's Cave, erotica shot past the old-school historicals to give readers some incredibly-hot material in a variety of settings. (I'm told that contemporary and paranormal are the most popular.) Print publishers eager to get in on this trend bought plenty of erotica, but marketing the superhot read in brick-and-mortar stores has been problematic. How does a company create packaging that gets across the content to the reader without offending other customers (or being banned from the shelves by major players such as Wal-Mart?) As a result, I'm seeing print publishers' interest in erotica declining... or maybe they just overbought and are slowing it down to see what's happening with the economy.

In other observations, romantic suspense, which was the hottest thing going back when I was getting started, has matured from fad (meaning publishers overbought too many less-than-stellar books) to a mature but still-strong trend (with more selective buying). Women's fiction peaked, declined, and is now showing signs of being on an upswing as consumers look for "comfort reads." The traditional Regency is no longer published by major publishers, but has been replaced by the sexier Regency romance, which shows no signs of fading.

These are my opinions, based on a dozen years of observation, but I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on publishing trends.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

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

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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Monday, July 20, 2009

RWA Conference Oh-Nine, Oh, Yes!

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 girl around superstars like Linda Howard, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Sharon Sala, though Sharon's become a very good friend.)

2. Connecting with publishing pros.

There's nothing like a face-to-face meeting with your agent or editor to make sure everyone's on the same page. If you don't have an agent or editor, this is a great place to see them in action and/or ask those working with them for their impressions. Just remember, one author's dream agent/editor/publishing house is another's nightmare (and vice versa), so take each person's experience as a piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture.

3. Learning something new.

Whether it's getting a feeling for the latest emerging trend, improving your craft, or honing your business skills and knowledge of the industry, there's always something new to learn. RWA national strives to select a broad range of workshops from the best of the best presenters, but frankly, I've learned as much or more from networking with other conference attendees as in any presentation.

4. Soaking up creative juices.

The cloud of creativity floating above 2,000 writers and publishing pros is so charged with hopeful excitement that it's hard not to be struck by powerful new ideas. I can't tell you how many books I've written have come to pass because an idea has caught fire at a conference -- ignited by some workshop, meeting, or passing comment.

5. Glamming it up for a change.

Since I spend 99% of my summer in denim capris, tees, and Birkenstocks (I make no claims as to fashion sense), it's fun to dress in grown-up clothes and even glam it up now and then. And the Golden Heart and Rita award celebration is as good of an excuse as any. Besides, I *love* seeing my pals dressed up.

Pictured, fellow Rita finalist and pal Terri Brisbin and me just before the awards ceremony. Neither of us went home with golden ladies this year (congrats to the talented NYT bestselling Cindy Gerard, who won in my category, Romantic Suspense!) but we left there smiling nonetheless. (That line about it being an honor to be nominated in such company... I really mean that!)

6. Partying with pals.

I am soooo not a party animal, it's pathetic. But even I was rocking at my very first Harlequin party. Most of the publishers host some sort of dinner or reception, and it's a great chance to connect with fellow authors and the publishing pros in a fun, social setting. And since you automatically have someting in common with these people, there's none of the awkward standing around that dominates so many of my non-writing social forays.

Not pictured, now or ever (I pray): me dancing!

All in all, conference was a great time. But it may take me 12 months to rest up for next summer in Nashville!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Go with God, Frank McCourt

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

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 resist the starred review in Publisher's Weekly that starts: "For decades, Mazzucchelli has been a master without a masterpiece. Now he has one." Asterios Polyp is a celebrated architect who's never actually built anything. Way too smart for his own comfort (one of the reasons I thought of my son), he's in the grip of a spiritual crisis. Philosophy, satire, thinky thoughts, arty art. Think Fountainhead meets Sin City.

Mazzecchelli is an American comic book artist who's also done covers and interior work for The New Yorker. The PW review goes on to call his much anticipated graphic novel "a huge, knotty marvel." (The reviewer also calls the book "the comics equivalent of a Pynchon or Gaddis novel," but I'm not holding that against it.)

I also sent the freshly released DVD, Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a slightly suck-up but tremendously entertaining documentary about one of my favorite writers. You've seen his infamous "Pay the Writer Rant" in this space, and that's a pretty good taste of what you get in the rest of the show. Tons of excellent writing advice, huge laughs, and lots of in your face Ellison wisdom. ("The trick isn't becoming a writer; the trick is staying a writer.")

Take a look at the trailer:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

If we've lost Cronkite...

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.’ ”

Friday, July 17, 2009

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!)

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, and Rita Wilson in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora and Delia Ephron's adaptation of Ilene Beckerman's 1995 book, about clothes and the memories they trigger.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

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

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 summer he found he was stunting in New York on the original The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.

"I love that movie!" I say, delighted. "Were you down on the train tracks with the electric rail? Did you bite it?"

"That was me, all right."

Check out the whole story here and watch for "American Stories NOW" updates on our FEED ME sidebar.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Happy Rembrandt's Birthday!

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

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fresh Pick of the Day: Beneath Bone Lake

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

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 spiel. Since she still had some time and I wasn't doing anything productive, I gave her a "We Texans have to stick together" line and asked her to come over to the chairs that lined the corridor and practice her pitch with me.

So she did, vomiting out this confusing mass of information designed to fill every second of her allotted ten minute appointment time. There was no stopping her to ask a question, no interrupting to clarify a point, and as motivated as I was to listen, I had a hard time figuring out what the marketing hooks might be, what kind of book this was (both genre and subgenre), what the length was and whether it was complete.) If I had been an editor, I would've given up, let her run her course, and sent her on her way, none the wiser as to how I might sell her story.

After she finished, I asked her a few questions, then looked for how it best fit this particular editor's interests. (She was pitching to an editor I know from my own publishing house. A lucky break, but a basic awareness of each house's lines and authors is critical. And not at all hard to find out.) So we pulled the marketing hooks that might possibly be relevant to and published by that house and crafted a sort of teaser line or two around them, along with the crucial info.

Here's a brief example (something I just made up) of the sort of thing you might lead with.

"Hi, I'm (give your name - your real name), and I've completed a 90,000 (or what have you) word light paranormal romance (or what have you) about a misunderstood (or name your own adjective) demoness (name your own noun) who wants to go straight and play for the other team (name your own intriguing goal.) Only centuries of prior bad acts and the handsome demon-slayer (another adj-noun combo) who's been pursuing her as long (obstacle) conspire to send her to Hell on Earth -- an eternity as a "performer" for a Chuck E Cheese-like party spot for kids. (Remember, this is a "light" paranormal, so I've set up a possibility with humorous potential.)"

Delivered calmly and in a friendly manner (sometimes after a moment of small talk and a handshake, depending on the pub pro), this spiel should take no more than a minute or two to deliver. Once you've finished stating your case (you might add, say, any publishing/significant contest credentials if you have them or that your book might appeal to, for example, readers of Angie Fox, Kerrelyn Sparks, and Mary Janice Davidson), then it's time to simply sit back and shut your mouth.

Let the agent take the lead from here, asking you questions about your story. Sometimes you'll actually see the spark of excitement ignite as the pro's imagination takes your concept and runs with it. And if what you've pitched is actually something this house publishes, you'll generally get a request to see either the partial or a manuscript.

So what if there's time left? Try asking some questions of your own about the publishing house and/or how the editor works. Or try asking (I ask this all the time of agents and editors) what the person's working on that he/she's particularly excited about right now. It's a wonderful snapshot of what may be up and coming in the market.

If you get into a give and take conversation with the editor or agent, you'll be much less likely to be nervous. Which is a very good thing, since I've never heard of anyone buying a project from an author who's just thrown up on her shoes!

By the way, I received an excited thank you note from the Texas woman I'd helped. She'd gotten a request from the editor, and she was absolutely thrilled about it. So was I, since once we figured out what she was actually selling, it sounded terrific.

Best of luck to those of you pitching at Nationals this year!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The spirit of the writer's space

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 quarters.

So I moved the sofa out from the wall about 2 1/2 feet and stacked up three clean banana boxes from the produce department at the grocery store. I topped my "desk" with a square of Formica counter top plucked from the trash in a nearby neighborhood, and Gary neatly duct taped the rough edges. My folding chair wouldn't fold, so I had to leave it set up, which meant I had to climb over the back of the couch to sit down.

That 30x60 inch space was the "office" in which I finished my first novel and wrote my second. I called it "my office" with genuine gratitude and not a shred of chagrin. Since pulling the sofa out was how the kids and I had often made a "fort" to play in, they were a little irked that they weren't allowed to play in Mom's Office. They could, however, sit on the back of the couch and lean a head on my shoulder as I typed, and often, as I worked late into the night, Jerusha would sleep soundly, straddling my lap with her cheek against my chest as I typed with my arms around her.

The first royalty check from my first novel was the down payment on the house we live in now. I promptly scored the second biggest of the four bedrooms for my office, and Gary built in a fantastic wrap-around desk. There's a big window where I feed the birds, bountiful book shelves, a beautifully hand painted storage cabinet, and a comfy easy chair for reading and conference calls.

I love my office.

So you'll think I'm crazy when I tell you that a couple weeks ago, when things were a bit stressy for me, I went down to the living room, shifted the sofa a couple feet from the wall, and worked through the night sitting on the floor with my lap top on a laundry basket. Make of that what you will, but remember as you work through the week, it's the spirit of the space that makes it your own. And it's you that makes it work.

We'd love to hear about your space! Drop a line and feel free to share cell cam photos.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What's Your Guilty Pleasure?

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 Dead (and a zombie there, too), and the recently-released Star Trek. (I almost hesitate to mention my taste in comedies, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the impolitic but hysterical Undercover Brother.)

So when you're not reading Shakespeare (one of the guilty pleasures of his time), writing masterworks, and saving the planet, which are your favorite guilty indulgences?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

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

Friday, July 10, 2009

Taking Time to Celebrate

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 makes the work worthwhile.

How do you celebrate the completion of a draft? Or do you simply see it as one part of the equation rather than an end in itself.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

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

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! Look down on my buttocks. We are going to give you some fat. Cease blowing!” The nineteenth-century European visitor who reported this ritual described it as follows: “The man pronouncing the incantation lets his breeches fall down, and bucks leeward, exposing his bare buttocks to the wind. At every word he claps his hands.”

My own rituals aren't as literally embarrassing, but probably appear almost as odd to casual observers. They make sense to me, however, and they do what rituals are supposed to do (contrary to the "do this or get smited" orthodoxy that basically employs ritual as crowd control), and they're an important part of my writing life.

Some rituals calm me, the way a child is calmed by the silky edge on a flannel security blanket. Whenever I FedEx anything -- starting fifteen years ago with queries and now proposals, finished manuscripts, and galleys -- I kiss the package, press it to my forehead, and say, "God's hand." Acknowledging this moment of letting go keeps me from obsessing over what the recipient is going to say or do about the enclosed material. Whatever their response, I know I'll be all right, because I believe in both the benevolent slipstream of the universe and in my own ability to navigate whatever whitewater is ahead. The Tao te Ching says, "Do your work, then step back." This is one way I try to do that.

Other rituals function as a string-around-the-finger reminder of something that too often fades out of sight, out of mind. Whenever my husband or I receive a paycheck, the other person kisses the payee and says, "My breadwinner! Thank you for everything you do for our family." We say these words with joy, gratitude, and genuine eye contact. We both work incredibly hard, and it feels good to remember why we do what we do. My checks tend to be a lot bigger than Gary's but are way fewer and far between. I relish hearing those words from the ol' Bear, and my response is a silent prayer of gratitude for one of the most potent assets any artist can have: a solidly supportive life mate. It takes serious fortitude to stay married to a writer. I'd like to think I could have made it without him, but I can't imagine how, and I know I wouldn't have been a fraction as happy.

I believe in prayer, a concerted focus of good will, so every night for the last several months, I've been lighting a candle for one of my critique partners with the plea, "God of Abraham, you gave water to Hagar in the wilderness. Please send this worthy woman a literary agent." Sometimes there's not much else you can do in the face of the inequities of this business. My friend is a wonderfully talented author -- as she keeps hearing from the agents who keep requesting manuscripts and loving what they see, but for reasons I truly can't fathom, keep turning out close but no cigar. If there was something more concrete I could do to help her, I would. If nothing else, I hope the ritual makes her feel loved and believed in.

I have several little rituals that physically anchor me to an intangible belief I can't afford to drift away from. It used to be when I'd do a speaking gig or face an important meeting, after I did my makeup, I'd look at myself disdainfully and say, "Why am I here?" When I realized the undermining and stupid effect of that habit -- which had become an involuntary little ritual -- I gave myself a spiritual slap upside the head and purposely replaced it with something positive and powerful. Now before I walk out of the hotel room, I face myself in the mirror and say, "Because I'm JONI FUCKING RODGERS. That's why." And then I add a heartfelt "Fwayaweh!" or "Tawanda!" or something like that. If we don't believe in ourselves with what Colleen calls the "kernel of arrogance", how are we supposed to get up in the morning and take the slings and arrows of the biz? I am who I am. I do what I do. God's hand is on me. Screw the naysayers. Amen.

The writing life -- and any life, I would hope -- is a continuing cycle of genesis and revelations with a rich collection of poetry and stories in between. Faith in some form is an integral part of the journey. Anyone else care to share their writing rituals? I'd love to hear from you so I don't feel like a big Chuckchee with my bare fanny in the breeze.

Meanwhile, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you.

(Click here to read more from "The Primordial Faith" and other excerpts from The Evolution of God on Robert Wright's website.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Murder by the Book Signing

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

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.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

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

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&R and am in Mosul, Iraq. I'm a Signal officer, which means I work on the communications network for my brigade. As far as writing goes, I'm rewriting, from scratch, my very first novel, hoping to get back to the original idea that sparked it: a soldier/mom who's lost her spouse in the Iraq war but continues to serve, despite being a single mom.

BtO: Sounds like a great concept. And thank goodness for the Internet, and for men and women willing to serve our country at home and abroad. If it’s not too personal, how do you and you husband handle the family situation?

JS: I admit to becoming somewhat of an Internet addict during my deployment. Thank God for Skype, I get to call home to the kids (both girls, age 2 and 4) on a fairly regular basis. My husband is deployed over here in Mosul with me and even though we work opposite shifts, just getting to see him for a few minutes every day makes a huge difference in my morale. The girls are really doing great. My mom assures me that there are some rough days and my oldest doesn't quite know what to do with her emotions sometimes, but the relatively constant phone calls and web cam sessions seem to help. This is the first time I've deployed away from the kids but my husband's third deployment. We kept in touch via email and web cams when we could and it really helped when he finally did come home. Overall, the constant deployments have made us both realize the importance of time with each other and our children.

BtO: Thanks so much, and it's great that you have such strong family support.

Which came first for you, the military or an interest in writing novels? And what special challenges do those two competing career paths create in your life?

JS: I've been a soldier since I was eighteen. I joined the army right out of high school and never looked back but I've always written, too. When I went to Officer Candidate School in 2007, I had an idea for a story and it just kept coming, forming my first (now under the bed) book After the War. I decided after finishing it that hey, why not become a writer (but of course New York would love this book: it was crap and never should have gone out but what else to we unpublished writers have if not faith in our own work). And I've kept writing almost daily ever since. As far as special challenges, I'm sure one most folks can relate to is the need for time. While I'm still unpublished, it's hard to explain to my husband the need to get pages done when there's only the deadline in my head. And I chose a pen name to write under because I'm an army officer and therefore, I need to be more careful with things I say in a public forum. Even though I do write under a pen name, I still remain conscious of what I say in public because of my obligations as an officer.

BtO: On the flip side, what special advantages does your military career offer you as a writer?

JS: I've been told by other authors that my characters and writing is very real. I spend a lot of time around men, so I have a perspective from the guys I hang out with that differs from someone who hasn't walked in my boots. I'm by no means an expert on all things army but the thing I've learned the most is that our men and women in uniform are just people like every one else. I've got an inside glimpse into the army life and a life impacted by Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that gives me the ability to put a little more reality into my characters because most of their traits are inspired by the men and women around me. I also have a different perspective regarding the roles of women in combat arms versus women in combat than some folks who haven't worn the uniform. My military experiences have shaped how I see the world. I didn't realize how differently I saw things from civilians until I joined the Austin RWA and met the most fantastic group of writers out there. They've taken me under their collective wing and helped me out as I've grown as a writer and I wouldn't be nearly as sane if not for their support while I've been over here.

BtO: I agree that RWA chapters can make an incredible difference for aspiring and published authors!

How did you manage to not only write but attract the attention of an agent while bouncing around between the US and the sandbox?

JS: Stubbornness, pure and simple. And the desire NOT to tell my husband that you know, that writer, thing? I'm giving up (especially not after he bought me a Macbook so I could have Scrivener). Seriously, though, I had finally accepted the advice of my critique partner and STOPPED shopping my book with agents. I'd gotten a great rejection letter from an editor and I sat on it for a while. Then I sat down with a member of the Austin RWA who helped me get the book that is now War's Darkest Fear into shape. Contrary to what people might think, there's a whole lot of hurry up and wait in the army, so the time I had, I either read or wrote.

I won't lie and tell you there have been periods of time where I was simply too busy to write but for the most part, I tried to write every day after my first month in theater and kept that trend going until I went on R&R. I just kept at it. You can't succeed if you give up and I knew landing an agent would happen, it just took time: first to get my book into the right shape, then to find the right one.

BtO: With so much hurry up & wait in publishing, maybe the army's a good training ground!

Care to tell us a little about War’s Darkest Fear, the manuscript your agent is currently shopping?

JS: She's not shopping it yet. We're waiting until after the summer break in publishing but I'm excited at the prospect. Fear is a wounded GI story but I tackled it from the fear that I heard a lot around the army. The fear of losing a limb is more than just flesh. It's losing the ability to be in the army. The normalcy that life in the army brings. So my main character has nothing in his life but the army and must confront the reality of life without the army that defines him. And the woman that cares for him has her own challenges to over come in allowing herself to care for a man who's first love is the army.

BtO: Sounds like a wonderful story; I'll be in line to read that one for sure.

Do you have any concerns about the reaction of your fellow soldiers and commanding officers once the book makes it into print? (Thinking positively here!)

JS: I'm sure there will be people who troubleshoot my writing as inaccurate or wrong or dismiss it as 'trashy romance'. I have changed some aspects to add to the drama, but for the most part, I try to stick with reality as it's been defined for me in the units I've been a part of. One of the reasons I chose a pen name is because I don't want to advertise that hey, this is me and I don't want it to distract from my mission but I also haven't hidden my writing from my unit and I'm not going to lie about it. Mostly, I simply hope they read it before they form an opinion on it. But there will alway be negativity and those who seek to pull people down. I just hope the people who like my book outweigh those who don't. Plus, I'm pretty pro soldier in my books and I hope that giving people insight into the motivations of the soldiers who make up the army will only be a good thing for the army.

BtO: You have a terrific attitude!

Thanks so much for joining us, Jessica. We’ve been delighted to get to know you a little and wish you the very best, both in your writing career and current deployment. Stay safe and keep us posted on your progress! And BtO readers, if you have questions or comments for Jessica, she'll pop back to respond as she's able.

JS: Thanks so much for having me! I'm so grateful for the chance to tell your readers a little about my work, both as a writer and as a soldier. I'm looking forward to reading your latest, Beneath Bone Lake!

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Author as Orchard

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 are people going through such tough times, I should be smacked into the next ZIP code for daring to feel crappy. But that's the way it is, and I'm told that nearly everyone, from the newest of the newbies to New York Times bestsellers, struggles with the same emotions.

So I remind myself, I'm flowering and bearing fruit. I might not be mass-producing mega-hits, but I'm soaking in the rain and sunshine and creating my own unique stories in my season, no one else's. And that's all I have to give the world.

So what about the rest of you? Ever struggle with these feelings? If so, how do you cope?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

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, and God only knows where I go from here...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Standing the Test of Time

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.

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 have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Happy Independence Day, America.

Friday, July 03, 2009

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 said to be a fine one, and in early 20th century France, anyone envisaging a near-2,500-km-long cycle race across the country would have been widely viewed as unhinged. But that didn’t stop Géo Lefèvre, a journalist with L’Auto magazine at the time, from proceeding with his inspired plan. His editor, Henri Desgrange, was bold enough to believe in the idea and to throw his backing behind the Tour de France. And so it was that, on 1 July 1903, sixty pioneers set out on their bicycles from Montgeron. After six mammoth stages (Nantes - Paris, 471 km!), only 21 “routiers”, led by Maurice Garin, arrived at the end of this first epic.

Having provoked a mixture of astonishment and admiration, le Tour soon won over the sporting public and the roadside crowds swelled. The French people took to their hearts this unusual event which placed their towns, their countryside and, since 1910, even their mountains, in the spotlight.

Le Tour has always moved with the times. Like France as a whole, it benefited from the introduction of paid holidays from 1936; it has lived through wars, and then savoured the “trente glorieuses” period of economic prosperity while enjoying the heydays of Coppi, Bobet, Anquetil and Poulidor; it has opened itself up to foreign countries with the onset of globalisation, and now finds itself at the forefront of the debate on the malaise afflicting world sport in general. Over a hundred years after its inception, le Tour continues to gain strength from its experience.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


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 Shortcuts. None. There is only hard, sustained work, seasoned with the unpredictable, incomprehensible "luck" of opportunity.

Certainly, this is the advice I want to tell aspiring authors every time I give a talk or workshop, what I ought to tell the newly-contracted or self-published or wannabees who seek me out looking for a hand up, what I need to tell myself the ten times a day I get distracted.

The hard work part isn't a necessary evil; it's a joy, too, and the hum of one's creative machinery is the soundtrack of progress. It's the sweat equity component of success.

So what do you do to keep yourself on track? Do you find, as I do, a brief vacation can reforge your focus? Or have you found another strategy that serves you as well?


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