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Monday, August 31, 2009

Let's Pause for a Moment of Clarity (the good, the bad, and the BS a la "Entourage")


"Entourage" is (in a bright and hilarious nutshell) all the reasons I don't aspire to live in LA, but last night's ep featuring screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (as himself) and that guy who shall forever be the Nihilist from The Big Lebowski (as an overzealous security guard) inspired a moment of clarity about the under-appreciated benevolent side of BS and the over-arcing truth that keeps creative industry alive on both coasts.

[###SPOILER ALERT###]
Hardcore "Entourage" fans, please be advised I'm going to mention something that happens late in the script of Season 6, Ep 8 "The Sorkin Notes." You've been warned. No whining. (Also note that the video clip below is not work safe.)

The Sorkin storyline revolves around an uber-important meeting for which Andrew (played ridiculously well by Gary Cole) must retrieve crucial notes from the angry grasp of his estranged wife. As his personal life and career simultaneously circle the drain, Andrew takes extreme measures...

So Andrew ends up in jail, and the meeting takes place through the safety glass at county lockup. At first, he attempts a tepid pitch, suggesting Sorkin should get into directing.

"I don't want to direct," Sorkin says. "I'm a writer. I like writing."

Andrew struggles for a moment, then says, "Act as if you have faith, and faith shall be given to you."

Sounds like Tao, but Sorkin quickly pegs it as a line from "The West Wing." The assassination episode. Had it been tossed out in the pristine conference room, it would have been a lame suck-up thing to say, but in this setting, the line visibly means something to Andrew. He experiences a moment of clarity, and despairing, lays himself bare.

"I drove into my own house for you, Aaron," he says. "My own under-insured, over-priced Beverly Hills mother-fucking home. I took my car, and I put it in gear, and I drove right into my own goddamn living room. For you. Now who else would do that?"

He breaks down weeping. Sorkin raps a knuckle on the glass and says with understated but genuine compassion, "I had a rough divorce, too. I get it. We'll give it a shot."

Of course, they quickly recover with a parting shot that restores the sharp wit and lets you know you're watching HBO, not Hallmark, but the ep ends doing what this show does so well: laughing at the biz it's in and reminding us that creative industries are populated with creative people who are (as almost all people are) essentially good.

For a while, hard-edged snark was the new black in both Hollywood and New York, but it's definitely fading. In tough times, kindness and candor are as refreshing -- and as necessary -- as oxygen and cold water. BS becomes less useful as a grappling hook and more beneficial as a greeting card. People in Hollywood seem to have a much better grasp on this concept than New York publishing folk, and we need to take a lesson from that. People in Hollywood, however, could learn something from the old-school publishing tradition of telling it like it is. (Notice I said "old-school"; blogging and twittering is loaded -- and uploaded -- with cocktail party crap.)

When someone in Hollywood says they love my books, think I'm genius, want to option blah blah blah -- I've learned to take this with a sizable grain (read "truckload") of salt. Coming from the publishing world where agents are wisely loathe to offer any ray of sunlight that can't be backed up with a dotted line, I was baffled at first as to why someone would toy with a writer's desperate hopes like that. I came to understand that flattery is a rain dance everyone does in that culture. It's a way to open the door for networking or to bring a newcomer to the conversation up to speed without emphasizing the horrifying reality that most of those at the table never heard of you.

Hollywood is hard, and everyone there knows it. The last thing anyone needs is another smackdown. What does it really hurt to say something nice?

On the flip side, there's the benefit of being the bullshitter: "Act as if you have faith, and faith shall be given to you." Apply that dynamic to caring about what someone else is saying. Finding something about their work to appreciate. Seeing hope in a scenario that feels bleak at first glance. That's right, darlings, I'm saying "Fake it till you make it." Slam a sunny look on your face and forge ahead. Groaning and bitching about how tough the book industry is right now is not helpful.

All that said, there's also an immediate need for candor with others and honesty with ourselves. There are times when protocol fails and a moment of clarity is called for. That takes guts, because we're not on a sitcom where problems get unraveled in a 2 1/2 minute Come to Jesus scene. Publishing is so much about relationship building, one overly blunt phone call or late night email rant can do a lot of damage, but so can equivocating or mealy-mouthing about what's going on, what you need, or what you're willing to put up with.

It's insanely tough out there for writers right now; the ground is shifting daily beneath our feet. It's imperative that we be true to ourselves as artists and solidly grown up as professionals. There's always a gracious way to say what needs to be said, and the longer you stew in your juices -- ruminating, obsessing, trying to read between the lines -- the harder it is to find the right words. (Helpful Hint: Candor always goes down better on the phone or in person, but back it up with a well-crafted, unemotional, respectful email to clarify your meaning and leave an unmistakable paper trail.)

The primary evil of BS is that if the hearer buys into it, s/he can no longer tell the difference between genuine interest and empty flattery. But if you know who you are ("I'm a writer. I like writing.") and you understand that "money talks and BS walks," everything clearly weighs in for what it's worth. And a kind word is worth something, even if it's not offered with a contract. Give it a shot.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Fun: Inkygirl's Unhappy Muse


Unhappy Muse



So what sort of snackage does your muse demand? Is is chocolate, cashews, Diet Coke, or Jelly Bellys (one of my muse's personal favorites)? Do you run on caffeine or Jim Beam while writing?

If you haven't checked it out yet, be sure to visit Inkygirl.com for more of her fun, writer-themed comics. Or follow her on Twitter at @inkyelbows

Friday, August 28, 2009

National Book Awards @ 60


Just added the National Book Foundation's Book-a-Day blog to our feed on the right. From their website:
To celebrate the 60th year of the National Book Awards, the National Book Foundation will present a book-a-day blog on the Fiction winners from 1950 to 2008.

The blog will run from July 7th to September 21st, starting with Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, ending with Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, and including works by Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Alice McDermott. Discover lesser known but equally talented National Book Award Fiction Winners such as Conrad Richter, Wright Morris, and Robb Forman Dew. Then return here, on September 21st, you will have a chance to select The Best of the National Book Awards Fiction and win two tickets to the 2009 National Book Awards, the first time in its history the Awards will open to a public vote.

Visit every day for the next 77 days, and get your copies of these American classics from your local bookstore, online bookseller, or library.

Check it out.

The Trigger-Happy Writer



I suspect most of us have done it, gotten so excited about an idea that we've killed its chances by presenting it before it's had the chance to fully develop. We might talk it to tell with a spouse or critique partners, show a clumsily-sketched thumbnail to an agent, or pitch prematurely to an editor. Or we might rush a proposal or even a full manuscript to submissions before it's been properly vetted and honed to sleek perfection.

Caught up in our enthusiasm, we squander the magic and give away our fire. I know, I've been very guilty of this on more than one occasion. Very recently, in fact.

Yet there's a balance to be sought. At times, it's very helpful to consult with touchstones who can offer bits of wisdom to help you shape the emerging story. And you can certainly err on the side of playing things too close to the vest and failing to allow the light in, or holding onto material so tightly that you never actually manage to get your work submitted.

Since I tend to jump too quickly, I'm recommitting myself to patience and getting back to work. Because any fool can sit there whipping out ideas. In the end, it's really all about the execution.

So what about you? Are you ever trigger happy or more ofter reluctant? Any techniques to share to curb impulsive impulses?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mark Twain on the particulars of the general readership


From Who is Mark Twain?, a collection of 24 previously unpublished essays.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Woo, hoo! Free Resource on Writing Queries


Here's a heads up for everyone out wandering the barren wastes of query-land. Literary agent Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile and other helpful writers' resources, is offering the 75-page How to Write a Great Query Letter as a free download!

The Amazon customer reviews are terrific, so snap up this freebie while it's available. And if you enjoy it, be sure to consider buying one of Lukeman's terrific books on writing.

Here's what Amazon has to say:

Noah Lukeman is author of the bestselling The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster, 1999); of the bestselling The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St Martin's Press, 2002), a BookSense 76 Selection, a Publishers Weekly Daily pick, and a selection of the Writers Digest Book Club; and of A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation (WW Norton, 2006). His books are already part of the curriculum in many universities. He has also worked as a collaborator, and is co-author, with Lieutenant General Michael “Rifle” DeLong, USMC, Ret., of A General Speaks Out (Zenith, 2006), a Main Selection of the Military Book Club. He has contributed to Poets & Writers, Writers Digest, The Writer, and to The Writers Market, and was anthologized in The Practical Writer (Viking, 2004). Foreign editions of his books have been published in the UK and in many languages, including Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Turkish and Indonesian. Noah Lukeman is also president of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd, a New York-based literary agency, which he founded in 1996. His clients include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Award, finalists for the National Book Award, Edgar Award, Pacific Rim Prize, multiple New York Times bestsellers, national journalists, major celebrities, and faculties of American universities ranging from Harvard to Stanford. He has worked as a manager in the New York office of Artists Management Group, Michael Ovitz's multi-talent management company, and has worked for another New York literary agency. Prior to becoming an agent he worked on the editorial side of several major publishers, including William Morrow and Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and as editor of a literary magazine. He earned his BA with High Honors in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University, cum laude. To contact the author, visit: www.adashofstyle.com.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back to school (one writer's education and a few good resources for lifelong learning)


My kids both started the new semester today. Of course, now that they're in college the first day of school thrill isn't quite what it used to be. Not sure they'd appreciate me showing up to videotape them marching in the front door. They're not here to pose for pictures with their shiny new lunch boxes. I did get a couple of text messages. ((sigh))

What is thrilling to me is that they're now beyond my highest level of education. I screwed up my opportunity to finish my degree when I was their age. I planned to go back to college the year my daughter started kindergarten but ended up going to chemo instead. A very different sort of education ensued. I don't recommend it, but I'd have to say it's served me well. Blasphemous as this may be, in my heart of hearts, I think a creative writing degree is the worst thing a person can do to prepare for a career as a writer. The best education for writers (in my humble opinion): a degree in anything else -- seriously, botany, poli sci, arc welding, anything -- plus the living of life and the reading of books.

One of my favorite things about my job is the built in continuing education. Every book, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, takes me on an amazing research journey. In the last 18 months, I've spent hundreds of hours exploring ancient Egyptian medical scrolls, Victorian surgeons, 1970s politics, 1950s television, capital punishment, the Texas prison system, primate behavior, spinal cord injuries, opera, theatre, pulp fiction, equestrian methods and facilities, Afghani agriculture, Hungarian art, the 1952 polio epidemic, Girl Scouting...and I went on a little side trip to Thornton Wilder just for the heck of it.

Learning is a limitless and decadent pleasure. It keeps us young (school-age!) and engaged with the world. Below are a few of the fascinating sites I've stumbled upon and gotten completely drawn into.

Read classics online at Project Gutenberg

Carnivorous plants at Black Jungle

50 famous trials from Socrates to OJ

Pulp fiction book cover post cards

The Edwin Smith Papyrus

Sister Kenny

Texas Death Row

Berlin history for travelers

Connected to the backbone

Belief-o-Matic

Sunday, August 23, 2009

You Had Me at Hell, No:A Writer's Guide to Boundaries


In a desperate bid to avoid work the other day, I was reading an article on 10 Things You Shouldn't Do in Job Interviews when I noticed that the number one warning was not to smile too much.

After thinking about it, I agree that excessive smiling can convey the image of neediness, subservience, and desperation. Just as single folks most often run from members of the opposite sex who come off as neurotically eager for approval and a quick commitment, prospective agents, editors, and others in the business of writing can be turned off by an author whose bargaining position is on her knees.

I'm not advocating behaving like a diva (believe me), but neither should you play the doormat by caving to every demand, no matter how outrageous (beat me! whip me! make me write bad checks!) or putting on the please-sir-may-I-have-some-more face when you're negotiating contracts or other terms of business. Because you are a business, bringing a product to the table that others need and want, and if you don't start by believing in yourself and what you have to offer (or at least pretending you do), you can't realistically expect anyone else to buy into your dreams.

Along with excessive smiling and giving in, too many compliments can also work against you. It's bad enough to act like the suck-up every school kid hated, but when you go overboard in this area, you may be perceived as insincere and, worse yet, manipulative. While everyone appreciates being thanked and the sparing use of sincere and relevant compliments is quite appropriate, gushing makes you look weak and submissive.

Back when I was just getting started and facing a lot of failure and rejection, I sometimes found it tough to project the confidence I needed. I managed by reminding myself that the successful businessmen and women I've met never:

1. apologize for taking up the time of someone to whom they're presenting what they believe to be a mutually beneficial opportunity.
2. constantly worry their approaches my be misconstrued or laughed at.
3. allow a customer or client's yes or no to impact their sense of self-worth.
4. endlessly obsess about the reasons for a turn-down.
4. imagine that refusing a sub-basement offer is The End.

If handled professionally and pleasantly, saying no (though probably not "Hell, no) can be a real boon for your career, especially if you state your reasoning and/or come back with an appropriate counter-offer. Rather than causing the person offering to slam down the phone (or delete your e-mail or what have you), you may often find that a refusal sets you on the path to a negotiation that will bring you much, much more.

At the very least, it will earn you a bit of respect, both from others (in many cases) and yourself and may help ensure that you won't become the go-to author for ridiculous offers and unreasonable demands.

So is my list missing anything? What else should writers remember to be perceived as businesslike?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Friday, August 21, 2009

Oh, Behaaave, You Characters!


We novelists may not be control freaks in their everyday lives, but when it comes to our fiction, watch out! We create whole worlds of characters to boss around, casts of characters to set down inside a maze we've not only laid out for them but stocked with pitfalls, bombs, and monsters.

And then we make these characters behave exactly as we like.

Right...

I doesn't quite work that way. Because if you're created fully-realized "people," they're going to have their own, very definite opinions on how they'll behave. And they're going to develop (at least at your unconscious level) their own thoughts about and relationships with the other characters who populate the story. Once in a while, they'll even tap you on the shoulder and inform you there's a new character just around the corner emerging without so much as a by-your-leave, a "person" that the character you've come up with knows or loves or hates.

Your job, as the author, is to manage without micromanaging, allowing your characters to surprise you without letting them totally derail the story. Because, just like the rest of us, characters like to sit around and gab, goof off, or laugh about The Donald's hair-wing.

The trouble is, this sort of thing does not a story make. So try allowing the characters to talk among themselves as they stroll the maze. But don't be shy about tossing in a hand grenade when things start to get boring, or dropping in a monster to chase them back on track.

Then sit back and allow them to surprise and delight you as they react in interesting and unanticipated ways.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In space and in story, there's no such thing as nothing

Gary and I were quite taken with this little piece about the Hubble telescope's observations in deep space. I couldn't help thinking about how this applies to the evolution of story. You open your eyes, allow the light to come in, and the possibilities are infinite.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Backstory Breadcrumbs


Joni's post yesterday (and the lovely Edna St. Vincent Millay poem used as an example) got me thinking of my own theory of backstory, or the setup explaining all that came before the start of any narrative.

It's critically important to begin a story with some conflict, action, inciting incident, or at the very least, a hint of tension. (One of the most common flaws of manuscripts is having pages and pages of dull and static set-up, where a character basically sits around thinking of how he/she came to be at this point.) To really pull your reader in, start dropping your breadcrumbs - tantalizing little hints of something really intriguing, yet mostly shrouded in mystery (though it doesn't have to be a deep, dark mystery) in the background of the unfolding story. The breadcrumbs are there to raise questions, but you don't want to answer them too quickly -- not unless you've dropped an even tastier tidbit farther along the trail.

Suspense builds in the space between the dropping of any breadcrumb and the satisfaction of the reader's hunger to know. Yet by the time you've rewarded the reader with an answer, you've hopefully laid down enough additional questions to get the reader well and truly invested in the story.

There's a balance necessary. Give the payout too quickly, and you lower the reader's tension enough that she won't care what happens. Bring up too many questions or wait too long to answer at least some, and you risk confusing or frustrating the reader.

For a masterful use of "breadcrumbs," check out the opening paragraph of Jeanette Walls' fabulous memoir, The Glass Castle. Notice the magnitude of the question raised, even as the protagonist (Walls herself) exhibits forward motion.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.


To read a longer excerpt, click here. But I warn you, if you do, you'll almost certainly be hooked.

The author's handling of backstory can absolutely make or break a book. And especially in the book's beginning, it can be one of the most challenging aspects of the story to get exactly right. But it's definitely worth the effort, even if it means having to revise your opening scene a multitude of times.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Come up and see me some time (Edna's visit to the nuthouse = great lesson on backstory)


I was trying to express the concept of backstory to someone the other day: what needs to be told and what needs to be left unsaid, fully known to the writer but barely glimpsed from the corner of the reader's eye -- and how to tell the difference. The best example I could come up with was this wonderful little poem.

"A Visit to the Asylum"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay


Once from a big, big building,
When I was small, small,
The queer folk in the windows
Would smile at me and call.

And in the hard wee gardens
Such pleasant men would hoe:
"Sir, may we touch the little girl's hair!"—
It was so red, you know.

They cut me coloured asters
With shears so sharp and neat,
They brought me grapes and plums and pears
And pretty cakes to eat.

And out of all the windows,
No matter where we went,
The merriest eyes would follow me
And make me compliment.

There were a thousand windows,
All latticed up and down.
And up to all the windows,
When we went back to town,

The queer folk put their faces,
As gentle as could be;
"Come again, little girl!" they called, and I
Called back, "You come see me!"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tech Alert: Free Open Office Productivity Suite


This past spring, I bought one of those cute little Acer Aspire netbooks for travel and those occasions where I want to work elsewhere but don't want to lug around my bulky, hot-as-the-sun, full-sized laptop. One of the first things I discovered was that the Cute Little Netbook didn't come with Microsoft Office, or even just Word. No problema, thought I. I own an older, perfectly legal copy of Word, so I'll install it. Trouble was, CLN has no disk drive.

So I ordered an external CD-ROM to better be able to install software. Wish I'd noticed before ordering that my disk was a DVD. Oh, well.

Next, I looked into buying yet another copy of Office (aside from the one I'd legally purchased and the one I legally purchased for my son's computer.) Silly me, I didn't want to pay Microsoft yet another $150 for the download. That's when I heard about Open Office Productivity Suite.

After hearing that I could A. legally download this open source program for FREE and B. open or save my documents in .doc form, making it simple to move back and forth from files written on my netbook and those created on my other computers, I decided I'd give it a try, figuring what did I have to lose?

Not much, it turns out. The software works as advertised, and I move documents seamlessly between computers. I still prefer MS Word, mainly because I know it so much better and haven't spent enough time learning the ins and outs of Open Office. But Open Office is a simple, viable alternative, created by and constantly improved by the efforts of dedicated volunteers.

Highly recommended!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sometimes I just need a moment of meditation (or a very tall building)



I'm having one of those moments Emo Phillips was referring to when he said, "Some days it's just not worth chewing through the leather straps."

Peace be with us all.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rant of the Moment: Eyes on Your Own Homework!


I love helping people reach toward their dreams. Truly, I do, or I'd never judge another contest, do another writing workshop, or post again on this blog. Nearly everyone I deal with in this way is polite, appreciative, and encourages me to do more with their enthusiasm. But every now and then, I'm bothered by someone who expects me to do the heavy lifting for them, to hand over the keys to the kingdom, as if I keep a set in my back pocket. They e-mail for advice or cadge my home phone number out of my husband for a niece of a friend. And I spend time - often quite a bit - because I remember how it felt to be hungry, and it gives me great satisfication to toss a handful of seeds onto fertile soil.

But I admit, I run out of patience with those who feel entitled to a short cut. Because (here comes the hard part) there aren't any shortcuts. We all hate that, but it's true.

Everybody on this Earth comes equipped to daydream. We're made that way, and that's a Very Good Thing. But don't expect to get too far on daydreams alone.
If you want to bring what you've imagined into reality, it's going to take hard work, probably the hardest work you've ever done in your life. And don't imagine for a minute that anybody out there can do this "homework" for you.

First of all, you have to put your work on paper. This is going to take sustained attention, and you'll have to give up something else along the way. Then you'll need to edit. Ruthlessly, after receiving feedback from someone with no stake in your success. A good way to find this someone is to attend writers' groups and ask if anyone would like to form a critique partnership or group, where you'll be expected to give as much as you take.

While you're doing all this, you also have to read -- great gobs of books from the same section of the bookstore where you expect your project to be sold. And these need to be brand new books, especially releases from emerging and debut authors. (Established bestsellers don't necessarily have to follow the latest set of market expectations. These authors have already found their audience; you've yet to do so.) New releases tell you what was selling in your genre about a year ago.

So what's selling now? I'd suggest subscribing to Publisher's Marketplace and eyeballing the deals reported there daily. Not every agent reports sales, but it's a great place to start.

Next, you need to get out there and research agents. Find out who's repping the kind of book you're schlepping. You can look up Who Represents through Publisher's Marketplace (see previous link.) There are plenty of other good resources, such as Query Tracker, and there are even great sites to help you figure out if an agent is legit, such as SFFWA's Writer Beware. Finding out about agents has gotten so much easier since I began the process years ago, and many have websites and/or blogs letting you know how they prefer to be approached.

Finally, you have to start submitting the most polished, marketable work you can manage. On your own, without anyone introducing you to their agent or suggesting that their editor acquire your book immediately. Because the truth is, that hardly ever works, and even if it did, you'd miss out on the lessons you're supposed to learn along the way.

If you've read all the way down to this point, I strongly suspect you already realize that this dream is your dream, and you'll have to do the heavy lifting on your own. Because though you may find allies, no one is ever going to care as much whether your novel or book project joins the crowded shelves than you do. As long as you know that, and build your own sweat equity, I wish every one of you the very best the writing life has to offer.

But if you're a lazy slug who wants to sit next to me and peek off my homework without cracking your book, that wouldn't work with me in high school, and it's not going to fly now.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Chasing Sound (Go with God, Les Paul.)


In my earliest memories, I'm curled up in my dad's guitar case (yes, it was open!) listening to him riff on "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise." I learned about Les Paul in the same context as Beethoven or Mozart. He was...well, he was Les Paul. A great man, nice guy, insanely virtuosic guitarist, and brilliant inventor. One of the great artists who showed us how to live a healthy, hard-working artistic life. Go with God, Les.

Chasing Sound is an authorized film biography that chronicles Les Paul's extraordinary life and career including his partnership with his great love, Mary Ford, and the NY gigs he played right up until a few weeks ago.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Happy B-day, Alfred!


Fellow author Amanda Stevens (love her suspense!) alerted me to the fact that today would have been Alfred Hitchcock's 110th birthday. In an ubercool non-marketing marketing move, Freixenet Champagne had Martin Scorsese produce this amazing short, Hitchcock-style. I absolutely loved it, but couldn't embed it here with good quality. To watch this short film (maybe about 8 minutes), follow the link. And be sure and stay tuned for the ending. Beautifully done... and pretty funny, too.

And in honor of the day, I give you one of my favorite Hitchcock quotes:

“Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”

Pictured, favorite Hitchcock blonde, Tippi Hedren, from The Birds.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Never underestimate the power (Obama awards Ambassador Nancy Brinker the Medal of Freedom)


Couldn't be more thrilled to see Ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom today. As founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Nancy was instrumental in bringing about a dramatic cultural, political, and scientific shift in the way breast cancer is perceived and treated, and the ripple effects from that have had an immeasurable impact on women's health care in America and around the world.

When Nancy's big sister Suzy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980, there were no support groups, pink ribbon races, or 800 numbers. Media refused to print the words "breast cancer." Treatment protocols were limited and brutal. Funding and awareness efforts were tepid. Before Suzy died, Nancy promised to change all that, and over the next twenty-five years, she built one of the world’s leading grassroots organizations.

Nancy pioneered the cause-marketing model that has become the gold standard for charitable fundraising, and awarded over a billion dollars in research grants. Race for the Cure events are staged around the world, raising awareness and pumping funding into local cancer resources.

As US Ambassador to Hungary, White House Chief of Protocol during the Bush administration, and now United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, she took her cause global. And she's just getting started.

From the White House blog:
The President praised the [Medal of Freedom] recipients for breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens: "These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds. Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way."

Congratulations, Nancy!

I've never met a more dynamic, committed, and visionary person. I'm delighted to be serving as Nancy's book sherpa on her forthcoming memoir, coming from Broadway in October of 2010. It's an amazing story.

(Scroll down and look left to pink your Twitter avatar with a Susan G. Komen for the Cure "Twibbon.")

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Praise of Slow Cooking


At times, there can be a lot of pressure to write novels quickly. Self-imposed pressure, for the most part, when authors, most of whom are in reality hyper-competitive little Hermione Granger Type A's, take a look around and see so many others zipping out three, four or even five or more books a year. Often, that's compounded by a look at our banks statements to create a lot of stress and such the joy from writing.

I have nothing but respect for authors who naturally produce a great volume of great work. From Louis L'Amour to Nora Roberts, there are a rare few who make it look easy and do it oh-so-well. What I'm trying to back away from is the idea that I need to compete on that particular field of battle, that pushing myself to blaze through projects ever-more-speedily is a bright idea. Because sometimes, it's slow cooking that brings out the richest flavors.

I'm not advocating taking three or six or more years on a project or blowing off your deadlines. In my case, I've found I can't sustain the story's momentum if I don't work every, or very nearly every, day, and my slow but steady approach covers a lot of ground. But the time spent walking in a character's footsteps, absorbing the world where she lives, and comprehending the complexities of her life add something irreplaceable to a novel, something that the reader can stop and savor on the page.

It enriches my life, too, as an author. Because when it really comes down to it, do I want to spend most of my time in Deadline Hell or Writing Heaven?

So what about the rest of you? How do you find a balance between idleness and productivity, quantity and quality?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hey! I hear exclamation points are back! (The Vegas showgirl of punctuation marks!)


Interesting article from Stuart Jeffries in Guardian on "The Joy of Exclamation Marks!":
There is a town of 1,471 happy souls in Quebec called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!. The second "Ha!", amazingly, is part of the town's name, not my commentary on the first "Ha!". Unlike, for example, the Devon town of Westward Ho! Ho! There, the second "Ho!" is mine. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is the only town in the world whose name has two exclamation marks. It will remain so until Wolverhampton is renamed Wolverhampton!! to highlight its funky new Black Country vibe, which, all things considered, seems unlikely.

Jeffries goes on to chronicle the maligning of the poor exclamation point throughout the noble history of publishing, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that "an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes."

But wait! That was then! This is now! OMG! The internet is here! And we're all free! free! free! to write like 14-yr-old chat room grrlz!

In their book Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, David Shipley, a comment editor for the NY TImes, and Will Schwalbe, Hyperion ed-in-chief make a case for the ol' "dog's cock" -- in email, that is:
Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth...Because email is without effect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it up to where it would normally be. If you try saying "Thanks" or "Congratulations" in the flattest tone you can muster, you'll notice it sounds sarcastic. Without an exclamation point, these may read the same way on the screen.

Hooray. I mean, Hooray! (Dang, they're right about that.)

So how does this translate in book mind? For my taste, there's still never an exclamation point in narrative, and as few as possible in dialogue. The Jeffries article also quotes Fowler's Modern English Usage:
Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.

Okay. I mean -- Okay! I get it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Free Summer Read from Colleen


In honor of the season, I'm leading off a free summer read round robin story called CRIMSON SURF online at Romance in the Backseat. A romantic suspense short story set at my native Jersey shore, the story features Paramedic Andrea Whitaker, still devastated by her divorce from Police Chief Jake Boone in the wake of the murder that rocked Andrea's family the previous summer. But with the new beach season in full swing, a killer has returned... and this time he's targeting another lovely brunette, Andrea herself.

In the coming days, look for the next installment from Rita nominated author Joyce Lamb.

If you leave a comment on the site, I'll enter your name for a drawing to win an autographed signed book from my backlist.

I hope you'll enjoy this free special summer bonus read!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Christoph Rehage takes the longest way (and now you know what it feels like to write a memoir)

This is the blitz version of what I mean when I say a life story is told in moments...



Rehage's website seems to be kaput just now, but there was this on YouTube:
I never finished my original goal of walking to Germany. Instead, I walked for a year and roughly 4500km, passed the desert of Gobi, and then decided to stop walking for now. All of the distance from Beijing to Ürümqi has been completed solely on foot, straight good old walking. There are instances where you can see me in the video sitting on a plane or riding a boat, but those are during breaks I had to take from walking, either to sort out bureaucracy issues or to take care of some personal things.

I had been planning this trip for over a year before I even started, and getting as far as I got was an experience for which I am very grateful. Obtaining the necessary visa for a trip like this was not very easy, hence I had to go back to Beijing a few times to resolve some issues.

The songs I used in the video are 1) Zhu Fengbo - "Olive Tree" and 2) The Kingpins - "L'aventurier" - visit the Kingpins website if you want to know more, they are very cool I think.

This is not a strict "1 pic a day" video, because I wanted to make it a bit more alive by adding some additional movement. Sometimes during the film you would follow me turn around, or something would happen in the background. I tried to capture these moments to make the video more interesting.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Weekly Quote: Thompson on Coming to Grips



Ah, so this is it. The real reason so many of us write...


"One of the few ways I can almost be certain I'll understand something is by sitting down and writing about it. Because by forcing yourself to write about it and putting it down in words, you can't avoid having to come to grips with it. You might be wrong, but you have to think about it very intensely to write about it. So I use writing as a learning tool."
- Hunter S. Thompson

Thursday, August 06, 2009

"It seemed a romantic business..." (F. Scott Fitzgerald on the rise and fall of a "literary man")


In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this in The Crack Up, a self-searching three-part series for Esquire.
Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation -- the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both. It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man -- you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived; you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied -- but I, for one, would not have chosen any other.

Life, ten years ago, was largely a personal matter. I must hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to “succeed” -- and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future. If I could do this through the common ills -- domestic, professional, and personal -- then the ego would continue as an arrow shot from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity would bring it to earth at last.

For seventeen years, with a year of deliberate loafing and resting out in the center -- things went on like that, with a new chore only a nice prospect for the next day. I was living hard, too, but: “Up to forty-nine it’ll be all right,” I said. “I can count on that. For a man who’s lived as I have, that’s all you could ask.”

And then, ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized I had prematurely cracked.

Read the rest here. And then get back to work.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Consider Your Deadline Merely a Suggestion? Consider This...


According to the Leon Newfakn's New York Observer article yesterday, publishers are more frequently demanding the return of advances on late books. In some cases, it's because the book is really late. (We're talkin' years, folks, in some cases.) In other cases, maybe the publisher's overextended and simply trying to cut its losses on a book they suspect won't be a money-maker. (Boo! Hiss! Let 'em do a P&L - profit and loss statement - up front and take their chances, just as we are.)

To keep in the clear, be prompt whenever possible. If you see you're not going to be able to deliver on time, for heaven's sake, chat with your editor about this. Generally, there's a bit of wiggle room to play with. But two years (surprise!) doesn't cut it.

Any thoughts on this development?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Rant on a Review


I was thrilled to see this weekend that the Houston Chronicle book section chose to run Maureen Corrigan's Washington Post review of Nora Roberts' new romantic suspense novel, Black Hills. I'm a big fan of Roberts' hardcover romantic suspense, especially past winners such as Montana Sky, Angels Fall, and Northern Lights along with the futuristic police procedurals she writes as J.D. Robb. That's not to say I love all of Roberts books; I haven't, so I was eager to read the reviewer's opinion on this outing.

And more than that, I was thrilled to see a romantic suspense novel (the genre I write) seriously reviewed. Though newspapers occasionally deign to offer print space to reviews of mystery/suspense/thrillers, the other genres are treated like publishing's red-headed stepchildren... embarrassments that must be kept locked in the basement so they won't rot readers' brains.

My celebration didn't last long. Corrigan not only didn't like the book -- which is her perfect right -- her disdain for the entire genre came through at every turn. Phrases such as "smooch-and-shoot saga," "tussling in the sack again," and the offensively-outdated "this latest bodice-ripper" tell me this reviewer set out with a bias, with her hypersensitive Bowdler-calibrated radar quivering for the slightest hint of (insert gasp here) S-E-X.

Funny, how love scenes (which are often present) rarely come up in reviews of books by male authors writing thrillers, mystery, or horror. Funny, how in reviews of female-written, female-targeted romance, that's just about the only thing the critics ever notice.

Though Publisher's Weekly and other reviewers have praised Black Hills, I have no problem at all with the fact that Maureen Corrigan didn't. What chapped my hide was the condescending language and the implication that female fantasy is somehow inferior to male.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Universe is Calling (Are you screening or picking up?)


An extraordinary thing happened to my mom on Friday, and it got me thinking about the tides and eddies of the universe.

It started as an ordinary annoyance: the phone and internet were on the fritz all day. Late in the afternoon, the service was back, but Mom and Dad realized they were inexplicably getting someone else's phone calls and this other party was getting theirs. The other party involved called and asked Mom to please make sure anyone who called was given the bollixed number.

Mom, being the Universal Mother Soul that she is, sensed this woman was upset over more than phone trouble.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

The woman was not all right. Her son, a young man in his 20s, had been diagnosed with lymphoma that afternoon and would be starting chemo this week. He has a 4-yr-old daughter, the woman said, and they didn't know what to tell her.

"My daughter was diagnosed with lymphoma when her daughter was five," said Mom. "She's still alive. She's doing fine. And her little girl is 20 now."

I hate that my mom had to live through this world-wrecking experience with me, but I'm so grateful she was there for this woman in that moment. Mom stayed on the phone with her for over an hour, listening with informed compassion, sharing hard-earned practical knowledge and mom-of-the-cancer-person coping mechanisms. When you're suddenly adrift in that storm, a lighthouse means everything, and my mom is so good at that, shining a steady beam of faith from a rock solid foundation of common sense.

Astonishingly, when Mom told this woman I'd written a book about my chemo experience and mentioned my name, the woman actually recognized me from my radio show twenty years ago. They'd apparently listened to me every afternoon in her office, where she'd worked with my brother, Bruce, who died in 1999.

By the time these two mother-soul-sisters tearfully hung up their mutually discombobulated phones, Mom says, "We had to believe that God was very much in charge of crossing the phone lines."

Moments later, Qwest called to say they'd uncrossed the lines and Mom's phone was working fine.

"Do you believe in God or coincidence?" I asked Gary after I read him my mother's email.

"I believe in ball-bearings," he huffed.

"Oh, come on!" I said. "At the very least, that deserves a resounding What are the odds?"

"That had to be Uncle Bruce," said my grown up little girl, Jerusha. "He was a techie." (And ever shall be.)

I'm a big ol' hippie, I know, but in my heart, I believe in God as the continuum of love that connects everything and everyone. Together we are the Universe. And Universal Love is the heart of God. Anecdotal evidence is all around us: we are the answer to each other's prayers. We keep looking for a bolt from above, but God has already given us to each other as a gift.

The thing is, this sort of extraordinary happening is actually not out of the ordinary at all for my mother -- or for me, in fact. I'm constantly amazed at all the little ties that bind. But that's because I'm my mother's daughter. When I was a teenager, I genuinely thought she was psychic, but the kitchen table reality is that she generates these serendipitous encounters by being the kind of woman who says "Are you all right?" instead of ignoring the pain in the voice of a stranger. She experiences extraordinary connections with people because the door to her heart is always open. The Universe speaks to her no more often than it does to anyone else; the difference is, she's listening.

I could get lost in thoughts about what it would mean to art, relationships, politics, and publishing if we could all keep that line open, but I want to end here with a few words on the ball bearings of the situation. Having cancer as a 20-something seriously sucks, and I've recently learned of a couple terrific resources I wish had been around when I was diagnosed:

Everything Changes: The Insider's Guide to Cancer in Your 20's and 30's by Kairol Rosenthal
From Publishers Weekly:
After being diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 27, Rosenthal, a choreographer and now a patient advocate for young adults with cancer, crisscrossed the country, interviewing other young cancer victims. Rosenthals text is part guidebook, part true confessions (including her own), as she segues between intimate conversations and sound advice on topics ranging from dating and parenting to working the health-care system and coping with pain. The interviews are riveting...the work as a whole is poignant, raw and informative.

Visit Kairol's "Everything Changes" blog for book tour info and continuing insights. (Note to PW: We are not "victims"; we are "survivors" for whatever the number of hours, days, or years we are alive to give interviews.)

Plus peace, love and grooviness to all.

PS ~ If you'd like to read a meticulously researched book on a fascinating bit of American history, check out my mom's book, Fifty Cents An Hour: The Builders and Boomtowns of the Fort Peck Dam.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

You'll Laugh, You'll Wince... You Might Even Recognize Yourself Here

I was bopping around the web checking out Dorchester Editor Leah Hultenschmidt's Romantic Reads blog when I came across this book teaser video for Bill Folman's political satire, The Scandal Plan. I probably would've passed on a ten-minute teaser, but Leah said it was hilarious, so I clicked... and laughed my head off.

If you've ever poured your heart and soul into a book, then wondered what the heck you'd have to do to make anyone -- anyone at all -- pay one lick of attention, you've gotta see this send-up of Folman's efforts to get folks to give his book a whirl.

Trust me on this one. Check it out - and Bill Folman's website, too. If he's this funny in film, the novel sounds like a great bet.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

How to Blow It


Thanks to YA author Tera Lynn Childs for her Twitter posts on reasons for instant rejection by agents Jessica Faust of BookEnds and Janet Reid.

Both ladies are spot on. When I meet someone who claims to want to be a novelist, I know I'm in the presence of a light-weight never-will-be when the following credibility bombs drop from their mouths. My curmudgeonly, uncharitable thoughts are included for your edification - and you can bet most agents and edits out there, who are approached so much more often - feel about the same.

1. I just don't really have the time to write, you know?
(Nobody's given extra hours for writing. We just make it a priority, you know?)

2. I have this great idea for a book. You want to work on it together? You do the writing and use your contacts -- I'll share the profits 50-50.
(Excuse me, I'm running late for an appointment.)

3. I have this great idea for a book. It's going to be a huuuuge bestseller.
(Great writers prove their greatness. With their published work.)

4. Favorite authors? I don't really read much.
(Bwahaha! If you don't really, really love books and reading, your dream's toast. No exceptions.)

5. Besides, everything out there is such crap.
(Not everything published is great. But people who slam everything aren't paying attention. Plus they come off sounding like sour-grape, egotistical know-nothings.)

6. My book's just like (insert title of humongous bestseller). Only it's well-written.
(Uh, no, I wasn't rolling my eyes. There was just something stuck in them. Scout's honor.)

7. My sister/mother/husband/best friend says it's great, so would you mind taking a look and recommending me to your agent? (No. I have only a precious few credibility cards to play with my agent, and I'm not wasting one on some stranger who doesn't know enough to get an unbiased opinion.)

8. Someone helped you out, right? So don't you think you ought to give me a break and hook me up with your editor? (Your obnoxiousness is tempting me to give you the kind of break that involves emergency rooms, itchy casts, and pesky assault charges. I don't know you and don't owe you, and you're coming off as stalkerish.)

9. Do you think you could read my manuscript and give me some pointers? (This really isn't such a loser thing to ask, but I have very limited time for critiquing unpublished work, and it's pretty much all taken up with reading the manuscripts of critique partners with whom I've established long relationships and great trust. Besides that, like most authors, I've been burned, hurt badly by people who not only didn't appreciate my two cents but have accused me of trying to sabotage them, being jealous, or wanting to steal from their ideas. In our litigious society, I can't afford to take the chance on getting my arse sued off for doing a near-stranger a huge favor. Sorry.)


10. Well, anybody can get published if they're only writing romance. What I write's much more challenging. Way more selective, you know?
(Must. Leave. Now. Before violence ensues.)