Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Three Questions with Steven Pressfield


I've recommended Steven Pressfield's THE WAR OF ART to so many writers, I ought to be on commission. As I've mentioned on the blog, WOA is one of the best resources at a writer's disposal for helping to fight the evil powers of procrastination, which Pressfield calls resistance. I'm such a believer, I'll draw the name of one commenter on today's post and send you your own copy!

And here's something even more exciting. Recently, I was very delighted when Steven Pressfield was kind enough to answer these three brief questions for the blog.

BtO: How does resistance make every other looming task (including toilet-bowl scrubbing) more attractive than the work we're trying to get started?

SP: I don't know, but it sure does, doesn't it? Somebody should write a book about all the different activities that suddenly become so attractive the instant the thought of actually Doing Our Work enters our mind. Did you read that one in Robert McKee's intro to WOA--where he took out all his clothes from his closet and arranged them into "winter," "summer," etc. That is demented! Me? I've done everything from drive across the country thirteen different times to totally screwing up my life. "Whatever works, baby!"

BtO: As useful as it is, I'm pretty sure the Internet is the handmaiden of resistance, with its myriad distractions and the dangerous temptation to hunt up your own reviews (and believe only the bad ones). How do you cope with the web's dark side?

SP: I get sucked into it too. I'm afraid there's no answer but pure will power. How do you stop yourself from eating chocolate? [Colleen's Response: Have been asking self that question for years.] There's a great book, not easy to find, by Roberto Assagioli called "The Act of Will." Try reading that. I started, but it put up so much Resistance, I stopped.

BtO: What's the most important thing you've learned about writing since the completion of THE WAR OF ART?

SP: If anything, I would say I have even more respect for Resistance now than I did when I wrote WOA. In other words, I believe it's even more powerful and insidious than I thought--and I thought it was unbelievably powerful and insidious back then!

The forms that Resistance can take, particularly in interpersonal relationships, seem to be infinite and incredibly subtle and pernicious. It's a subject for a whole other book, or certainly part of one.

Resistance, in my experience, doesn't diminish with time or skill or the accumulation of past successes. It's just as brutal for the long-time pro as it is for the neophyte. And I haven't found, nor do I expect to, any magic bullet to overcome it. The result is I've come to have even more respect for working writers and artists and entrepreneurs who face it down every day and do their work.

"Turning pro" is still the best answer--at least for me. And it helps to associate with other pros, whom we recognize if we ourselves are doing our work. As someone once said, "A gun recognizes another gun."

Hope that helps, Colleen. Thanks for three terrific questions.

This is terrific, Steven. Thanks so much for stopping by.

I hope every BtO reader will checking Writing Wednesdays over on Steven's blog. I especially loved the post "What the Muse Wants." Also, for those who enjoyed historical fiction, be sure to check out Steven's latest, Killing Rommel. My son, an avid WW II buff, loved it.

I'll leave BtO blogsters with one last question. What's the most ridiculous task you've been driven to (see toilet cleaning and closet sorting, above) in order to resist doing your actual work?

Monday, September 28, 2009

A tweet in the dark, author to agent


Blame it on the Middle Sister, my new favorite cheap red wine, or maybe I had my carpal tunnel brace on too tight, but I just couldn't stand it last night when I saw this tweet pop up from literary agent Janet Reid:
One of my least favorite things as an agent: reading a perfectly lovely book, and having NO idea of where to sell it. Dangnabit to helvetica

I don't know Janet, but her solid rep precedes her. She's smart, industry savvy, one of the brave ones. If she thinks this book is perfectly lovely, the author must be good, and if she has no idea where to sell the book, the author is seriously adrift.

I glanced toward my fireplace where I light a candle every night for my friend -- let's call her Jane A, for obvious reasons. Jane A's a terrific writer, but she's been stranded without an agent for almost three years. She keeps getting close-but-no-cigar responses from agents who are intrigued by her query and request opening chapters. Impressed by her opening chapters, they request the full ms. And they always think it's perfectly lovely. But they decline to rep her. It baffles me. Every night I light that candle begging, "God of Abraham, you gave water to Hagar in the desert, please send this woman a F=@#ing literary agent!"

Another tweet from Janet:
alright, off to break the bad news. I hate this. I'm dawdling.

I couldn't take it. None of my business, but I did what I could in less than 140 characters:
@Janet_Reid No! If it's a lovely book, find a way. Change the world. Reinvent the wheel. Please! Begging for that author. If not you, who?

Janet replied:
@JoniRodgers someone else is a better fit for this. Someone who can see the market. Honest.

I don't doubt that this is true, but who is that elusive someone?
@Janet_Reid ((sigh)) Whoever that writer is...I feel her pain.

@JoniRodgers I do too.

I appreciated her saying that, though I don't believe she actually has an inkling, just as authors have no inkling what it is to be in the agent's proverbial moccasins. We'd love to think they have the power to change the world, reinvent the wheel, but the truth is -- well, like the song says, "It's hard out there for a pimp."

I'm happily agented right now, partnered with an advocate who has great instincts, a sturdy capitalist vision, and no fear when it comes to negotiating. I'm enormously grateful. Because I do feel that author's pain. I know the ping of adrenalin she felt this morning when she pulled up her inbox and saw an email from that smart, savvy agent -- the one she's been holding her breath for.

I also know the bottom-drops-out feeling that followed, probably not much more than 140 characters from the opening pat on the head. "While I found this book perfectly lovely, I have to say..." blah blah blah. In some ways it's worse than a flat form rejection, but hopefully, Ms. Reid will include some clue as to the identity of that elusive "someone" who might see the market. Or maybe she'll be haunted by the people in that book. Maybe she won't be able to resist...

I keep wanting it to be like -- oh, God forgive me, I'm going to trot out a Star Wars metaphor. The query zizzles up out of the computer like a hologram. "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope!" Unfortunately, the person receiving it isn't Obi-Wan. It's Luke, and his initial response is, "That's meant for someone else. It's not my cause. There's nothing I can do." But there is something he can do. He just has to believe it. He has to take it on, be the someone who makes it his cause.

I keep lighting that candle, hoping sooner or later a heroic journey will ensue.

Perfectionism as a Crippling Force


Over on Peter Bregman's How We Work blog, there's a fabulous, must-read post called "How to Escape Perfectionism."

I absolutely believe perfectionism cripples many writers, and that it's really just another word for fear.

Here's my favorite quote from Bregman's post:

[T]he world doesn't reward perfection. It rewards productivity. And productivity can only be achieved through imperfection. Make a decision. Follow through. Learn from the outcome. Repeat over and over and over again. It's the scientific method of trial and error. Only by wading through the imperfect can we begin to achieve glimpses of the perfect.


So for now, I plan to put aside my need to write the scene perfectly and instead go for the very best that I can do today. Because tomorrow, I can clean it up. The next day, I can seek outside input. The day after, I can respond to feedback that resonates with me.

Writing isn't live performance art. It isn't improv. We don't have to get it right on the first take.

Isn't that a huge relief?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Happy Prince (a small Sunday decadence)


From "The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde:
One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.

"Shall I love you?" said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer.

To be transported for a lovely half hour of Sunday bliss, click here and listen to Jane Aker's beautiful reading of "The Happy Prince," available for free on LearnOutLoud.com.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Random House lobby is book nerd Mecca


Book nerd that I am, I feel choked up every time I push through the revolving door into the lobby at Random House. I always try to get there early so I can walk the entire perimeter, taking in the grand history of this place -- this institution -- built by generations of editors who cared deeply about their authors and authors who cared deeply about their craft. This place literally towers with an unabashed love of books. Floor-to-ceiling shelves flank the expansive entryway. Every tome at eye level was in some way groundbreaking. The covers and titles are iconic, instantly evoking an era, a watershed, a sea change. As a reader and a writer, I'm starstruck.

So many of these book covers transport me to an exact time and place in my life as a reader. I always loved that these particular editions of Gulliver's Travels and Tom Sawyer are displayed together. I bought them both off the dollar-a-bag table at the LaCrosse Public Library's annual used book sale the summer before sixth grade, and I vividly remember sitting up in a huge mulberry tree, sucking on an orange Popsicle, drinking in these two brain-changing works. When I see that cover art, I remember the smell of these great books with the baking grass below and hot, ripe berries hanging in the air around me. Walking the perimeter of the Random House lobby, I feel a personal history with so many of these stories, and I'm profoundly grateful for what these books were in my life.

For a writer (unless you're Dan Brown), a stroll around the Random House lobby is a humbling experience. The layout of the lobby is an accidental parable. At one end is the reception desk; at the other end is that revolving door. (Need I elaborate?)

In the most frustrating moments of my work life, I sternly remind myself of the blood, sweat and tears that built these walls. Every one of these giants was kicked by critics, rejected by readers, thrashed at times by the daily ranch work and personal drain of the writing life. And tucked between the iconic titles and literary giants are thousands of authors who labored in obscurity. I've often wished they'd install library ladders in the Random House lobby, because I'm dying to see who's up there, out of sight and out of mind, but there, dignified, binding intact. It's a privilege to be with them in this building, in this business.

Well. Enough kvelling for Saturday. I've got a deadline looming.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Research Tool Alert: The Criminal Law Handbook


Ever write a scene involving law enforcement or legal action and fear getting your facts wrong? Then I have a book that should be on your shelves.

As an author of crime fiction, I jumped at the chance to pick up Nolo's The Criminal Law Handbook, by Attorneys Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman, as an aid to my research. In the past, I've found guides written for the average personal too generic or slanted to be helpful, but this one is helpful, practical, and sensible, with a wealth of plain English examples to help clarify complex issues and enough depth to make it indispensable.

The book is sensibly laid-out with a detailed table of contents and index. The language of the explanations is easy to understand and has no obvious bias. Instead, it counsels restraint while clearly helping the reader understand his/her rights. I also love that www.nolo.com offers free legal updates, along with a variety of other services.

This is a terrific resource for anyone going through or having a loved one go through the legal system as a defendant, witness, or victim, or anyone who wishes to understand his/her rights. The handbook is an invaluable starting place for those writing fiction that touches on police/legal activity (though you shouldn't forget to carefully check the jurisdiction where your story's set.) And even more surprisingly, it's interesting reading with touches of humor that will keep your eyes from glazing over while researching the issues.

For a look at what's included, check out the table of contents here, at Nolo's website.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Say hello to my little friends (2 sweet new research wranglers for the writer's toolbox)


Spent last week with my current memoir guru client and her wonderful mother. We talked for hours, poured over photo albums, dug into dusty boxes of old letters, sifted through thousands of press clippings. I came away with a blossoming vision of this important book, completely on fire for the project, but more than a little overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information needing to be assimilated. Fortunately, I came to the project armed with two nifty new tools -- both priced at less than $100 -- every research hound needs in her laptop bag.

Sony ICD-UX71 Digital Voice Recorder
Tiny, super easy to operate, and quick to upload with a built in USB connection that pops right into the side of my laptop. Features include ambient noise reduction and transcription friendly slow-down. Stores up to 287 hours of audio and doubles as an MP3 player. And it's red! (Also available in silver for boring people.)

Canon LiDE200 Color Image Scanner
So glad I didn't buy the portable scanner that requires feed-through! Many of my client's old letters were written on that incredibly thin old-school airmail paper. And one was written on toilet paper. No way would I have risked damaging these. This flatbed scanner is super lightweight and slender. It slides right into my laptop bag alongside my computer, requires no independent power (draws from the computer through USB connection), and quickly renders high resolution images that store neatly on hard drive or upload instantly to online storage.

Research is truly (for me) one of the great pleasures of the writing life, and I'm always looking for ways to improve my skills and resources. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You Know You're Married to a Writer When...



1. You begin to associate deadlines with pizza.

2. Your children learn to forage and do laundry before the age of five.

3. You're greeted with the Atomic Death Glare when asking spouse to predict the year's income.

4. You've been brainwashed into thinking of long walks, bookstore runs, vacant stares, and long intervals of computer solitaire as "work."

5. You're not at all freaked to find spouse using flashlight to take notes by bedside after a round of you-know-what.

6. You aren't sure if you own an ironing board.

7. "Vacations" are suspiciously timed to coincide with writers' conferences.

8. You don't find it unusual when spouse shakes you awake to ask if you'd find it plausible if dead body's fingers popped off after being slammed by the trunk lid of a '94 Buick.

9. The only royalty you bow and scrape to comes in an envelope.

10. You've learned you can get your spouse to agree to most anything while she's in a writing trance... but don't expect her to remember later.


Okay, writers. For the sake of our long-suffering spouses out there, what would you add to the list?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Inertia


I just handed off a proposal to my agent, so it's time for me to move on to one of several writing items on my to-do list.

Except that I don't wanna. It's a gloomy, rainy day in Houston, and chores need doing, the dogs want petting, the soup requires cooking and...

Oh, crud, it's just inertia, creeping over me like kudzu. And as with kudzu, there's not a darned thing you can do except to whip out your machete (or pen or keyboard in my case) and hack straight through the crud. Because the more you put it off, the thicker inertia's vines grow all about you, and before you know it, you've wasted not a day but a week, a month, or a career to what Steven Pressfield, in his fabulous War of Art, calls the forces of resistance.

By the way, if you're having problems with procrastination, try Pressfield's little book. It's a quick read but one ever writer should own.

Or you can try my time-honored technique and whine about it on the blog 'til you feel too guilty to avoid the real work.

Anyone have other tips to get themselves started? I'd love to hear your ideas.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What Kristin Chenoweth knows (and Kanye West and Joe Wilson don't) that writers need to learn

Last year on Emmy night, Kristin Chenoweth showed up dressed to the requisite long and flowy nines, nominated for her role in "Pushing Daisies," a quirky but critically acclaimed show that was on the rise and destined to become a cult hit.

"It wasn't my moment," she shrugged the next time I saw her. "And losing to someone as fabulous as Jean Smart doesn't sting too much."

Last night was her moment. My girl Cheno showed up in an adorable dress that was neither long nor flowy. Hers were the only legs I saw on the red carpet, and if she hadn't been fighting off a migraine headache, she'd have been suffering less than anyone else there because the poorly planned gauntlet stretched out stifling hot in the direct sun.

She was nominated for the same role in "Pushing Daisies," but the show was canceled last spring and sank quickly and quietly beneath the waves. Turns out destiny isn't always what we think it is. As delightful as she was in the show, the show was dead, and frankly, I don't think anyone was betting the farm on anything other than "30 Rock to sweep." Kristin was surprised to have been nominated and looked stunned when she won.

Alone in a hotel room in Florida (I'm off working with another ghost client), I leaped off the couch, spilled my wine, whooped out loud. This victory is so much more delicious because I've seen this woman lose so graciously.

Kristin is a serious artist with an Masters in Opera Performance and a long history of mule-tough theatre work. Despite the cutesy stuff you see on E!, her career is about dedication to craft, not the collection of accolades. Losing well is something she talks a lot about in her NYT bestselling memoir, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love and Faith in Stages. There's a long, hilarious chapter about her perennial "second runner-upness" and various "nomin-not-tions."

"Awards are on the outside. Rewards are on the inside," she says in a sidebar of advice for young actors. "That means rewards don't have to be dusted."

When she collected her soon-to-be-well-dusted Emmy last night, Kristin gave credit to Amy Poehler for rallying her fellow noms in the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy category ("C'mon! We're the funny girls!") to steal the show with a great little bit. I loved the spirit of that bit: We're all in this together. Only one of us is going to win this time, but we're here because we love what we do.

We've seen some examples of galactically poor losers lately, and in a field as fiercely competitive as publishing, we see the same bitterness play out on smaller stages every day. I just want to take a moment to celebrate these women who know the essential truth of making a life in the arts: You win some, you lose some. But if you hang in there long enough, work hard enough, care about craft deeply enough, and rise above the disappointments, your moment will come.

Watch and learn...

Benefit Critique Auction


I've donated a 50-page critique to benefit former RWA National president Janis
Reams Hudson, who has just received a lung transplant in an effort to overcome
end-stage emphysema. Check out my auction on Ebay, please click here. Or check out other fabulous items here.

To read more about Janis and the auction, follow this link.

I hope some of you will consider helping.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

If You Build It... They Won't Look Under the Bed


This past week, I've written some reminders (mainly to myself) that jumping the gun with a submission can be a bad thing, then sending out your "baby" before it's polished can be fatal. But today, let's talk about the opposite problem, the fear-based reluctance to send your project out the door.

Today I finished one last read-through and then sent my much-sweated-over new proposal off to meet its fate. Before doing so, I have to admit, I felt a moment's trepidation, the fear that it may fall short, and the instinctive desire to wrap this "child" in cotton and stuff it somewhere nice and safe.

Unfortunately, that doesn't work any better with manuscripts than it does for our real children. Besides that, manuscripts aren't kids, and it's dangerous for us to think about them that way. Manuscripts are products, and we'd do well to remember that as we edit in response to suggestion, cope with criticism, or face flat-out rejection.

You can't sell a product you keep tucked beneath your bed. As far as I can think of, the only writer that worked out well for was Emily Dickinson, and she had to go and die before anybody noticed and sent those suckers out.

Assuming you don't want to be a posthumous success (or risk relatives like mine, who, having no real interest in reading, would shove your life's work into Hefty bags without bothering to read it) you're going to have to get submissions out the door. Scary, sure. They absolutely can end up rejected, but you can be positive they never will be published if you tinker with them 'til the world's end or hold back "just in case" you learn some new technique that might help you improve your craft.

So learn to find the sweet spot, that middle place that enables you to be productive (in this lifetime) without having you go off half-cocked and send out junk. And if you are one of the procrastinators among us, answer this question honestly. Are you holding off because of perfectionism, or are you enabling fear?

Whether it's fear of failure or fear of success (and yes, this happens!) it's equally crippling, and you're going to have to find some way to defeat it if you'll even stand a chance.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Respect for the Work


This week, I listened to the universe. I got myself unstuck, with a little help from my friend. (Thanks, Joni!) And by golly, I finished the proposal I've been dying to write for quite some time now.

My natural inclination was to throw together an e-mail to my agent, attach the file, and hit send so I could get it to her before the weekend.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, blared the warning claxons in my brain. Because I'm well aware that what looks great to me one minute will soon reveal itself to me to be riddled with typos, awkward sentences, and wordy passages. The trouble is, in the heated glow of my initial enthusiasm, I'll be unable to see any of it.

So out of respect for the work, myself, and my agent's time (everybody deserves a weekend) I held off and read, then reread some more. Afterwards, I called and begged two of my critique partners if they could manage to read as well, and both were kind enough to agree to look it over.

Both are also whip-smart writers with the editorial savvy to help me take these chapters to a higher level. I'd be an idiot if I didn't take advantage of their expertise before sending anything important to me out the door.

And the writing is always important, as it should be. If I ever get to the point where I'm phoning it in, where I'm thinking "well, I've worked more than hard enough for what I'm getting paid," or where I'm counting on an editor or agent to make the work presentable for me, I'll know it's time to hang up my keyboard.

Because the quality of the work is the one part of this business I control.

So what about the rest of you? Do you have any tips that help you with quality control?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Worst blog buddy in the world here (but I promise to do better)


Just glancing over the last week or so of posts and had to say thanks to Colleen for making the blog worthwhile. I've been buried and haven't added much. I'm turning a corner, however. I'll be back in my natural habitat soon and my list of author interviews is piling up. Almost a dozen terrific authors are patiently waiting for me to swim to the surface, so watch this space for some enlightened Q&A from the people who are launching fall books. You also be seeing a few interesting interviews with publishing pros. (Pay attention if you're a launchee.)

Also on my To Do list is a revamp of our "Feed Me" sidebar, which I'm planning to split into four shorter lists featuring Author, PR, Publishing News, and Reader feeds. Post a comment here clue me in if there's a great writing/publishing blog you'd like us to be aware of.

Meanwhile, thanks for so generously sharing the hard-won lessons of the writing life, Colleen. I promise to be a better blog buddy in the not too distant future.

(Above: Detail from "Remorse" by Salvador Dali)

Foreign Cover Fun:Triple Exposure's Polish Edition



Look what I found online. The cover art for the brand, new Polish edition of Triple Exposure, Fałszywe ujęcie, from Amber Publishing. I have to admit, I don't always "get" where they're going with their covers but I kind of like this new one. Definitely interesting.

To see the other Polish Editions, follow the link. The fun part is figuring out which art goes with which of my releases. Someday I ought to hold a contest... if I could figure out a way to set that up.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Coming Unstuck without Coming Unglued


Yesterday, I had a fairly good day writing. Edited the previous day's work, piled into the next chapter, and then somehow wandered...

into...

the...

La Brea Tar Pits.

It happens to every writer at times. Things are grooving right along, and then you realize, hey, there's no bridge between Point A and Point C. So you have to slam on the brakes and somehow figure out a way to build one.

So what do you do to come unstuck? I've developed several techniques to deal with it. I might take a walk or run the vacuum. I'll drive over to the bank or grocery store to take care of some errands. I will pick up my laptop and move to another location, either in the house or over at the library or a coffee joint. Sometimes (shockingly) I even resort to pen and paper because using another modality seems to break loose mental logjams.

Today, however, I've chosen the time-honored Griping About It strategy. I'm blogging about the problem, talking to my husband about it (even though he's rarely all that helpful, the process of articulating my conundrum often is enough to get me moving in the right direction) and maybe even calling a critique partner and asking, "Can I bounce something off your head for a few minutes? I'm stuck and need a few extra brain cells."

Here's what isn't helpful. Watching a movie, TV, or reading someone else's novel just sends my brain on vacation. Going out for fun activities, too, is a bad move, since I'm rewarding my subconscious for stalling. I try to reserve these treats for when I've actually accomplished something. Playing mindless Internet games (Bejeweled is an addiction!) sometimes helps to ease anxiety, but unless I limit myself to under five minutes, it just becomes a work-avoidance technique.

And coming unstuck is work. It requires tenacity and discipline.

Now that I've shared my techniques, I'm starting to get a glimmer or a mental image... I think I'm about ready to attempt to build my bridge. While I'm hard at it, can you tell me, did I miss any of your favorite ways to get yourself unstuck?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How's This for a Boxing Octopus?


Today I'm giving a big BtO shout-out to all my friends at the Houston Bay Area Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, where I spoke last night on the topic of using sociograms to get to know your characters and shape your plot. It's a brainstorming device I initially shared here and have since developed into an interactive workshop.

Though it's quite a drive for me, I always look forward to speaking to HBA, which has some of the most hilarious chapter meetings and most supportive members I've ever experienced. The speaker intro itself had me rolling (thank you, Anne and Terri!) but when they surprised me with Miss Boxing the Octopus, I could hardly wait to come home and share her on the blog.

Better yet, they somehow figured out that I love mint chewing gum and Jelly Bellies while I'm writing, so I'm fully stocked with a more than generous supply. So thanks a bunch HBA, for making an author feel super welcome!

And no, Joni, I'm not letting you borrow Miss BTO. Fahgettaboutit... mostly 'cause I know I'd never get her back. ;)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What is truth? (Ben Yagoda on the life story of an art form)

Eagerly awaiting Ben Yagoda's forthcoming Memoir: A History (Riverhead, Nov 2009), a book about books aboout life stories.

From PW:
...a spirited account of a form of writing that since its inception has been one of the most contested and most popular. Without dwelling too heavily on the genre's most recent scandals, Yagoda begins with the fifth-century Confessions of Saint Augustine, still cited as a prime example. ...Yagoda explores the fluid definition of “truth” and whether, given memory's malleability, it's possible to achieve it in any memoir.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Okay, I'm Listening Already!


Have you ever been encouraged, all right abetted by the universe on a writing project? Back in July, some pages popped out -- something for which I had neither the time nor concentration to spare (I was finishing a contracted work, and then I had to complete another proposal), but it hardly mattered. Once this opening spilled out on paper, I couldn't wait to get the chance to dive into it, since it's a project that's been percolating in the back of my brain for years.

Since then, however, I've been bombarded with signs that this is exactly what I need to be doing. Numerous newspaper headlines and related articles. An in-depth interview with a woman who's through living my heroine's situation. Detailed, specific, up-to-date research all but falling from the sky. A "chance" meeting, on the same day, with someone (who had no idea what I was writing) offering to introduce me to a man who's gone through the exactly career crisis as my story's hero, followed by (only minutes late) another "chance" meeting with an neuroscientist whose doctorate was on the precise psychological phenomena about which I'm so interested.

Call it synchronicity or serendipidity or the law of attraction or whatever woo-woo concept you like (and I am sooo now a woo-woo person), I'm starting to believe, as fellow novelist Allison Brennan put it when I mentioned it on Twitter, that "resistance is futile."

I just wanted to say, I'm listening, universe! I've cleared my schedule so I can focus, focus, focus on this story. I don't know what will come of it in the long run, but I'm dying to find out.

So have any of you ever had this experience? From what I've heard, I'm definitely not alone.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Cover Art

I admit it. One of my very favorite parts of being an author (other than interacting with happy readers!) is opening a new piece of cover art. Whenever I receive one, I hold my breath like a little kid about to open birthday presents. And yes, I'm praying for the pony instead of sensible new socks and undies. Or worse yet (gasp), something educational.

I think I got the pony this time, with my cover for my March 2010 release, Touch of Evil. Though it's sexier than my past covers, it conveys the story and its characters nicely.

Hope you'll forgive my sloppy scan. This was the best I could manage for some reason.

Here's a sneak peek at the back cover copy, too.

Tight

The noose cuts off all air, leaving its victim struggling hopelessly against death. One by one, the members of a small town zydeco band are being murdered by a macabre killer.

Tight

Sheriff Justine Wofford is boxed in on all sides, investigating a series of gruesome hangings everyone else considers suicide. Hospitalized by a severe blow to the head, unable to remember the details of the attack, under fire from her own department, she reaches out to the man she’s sworn to avoid at any cost.

Tight

Their affair was a close-kept secret, their bodies coming together with explosive heat even as she tried to maintain emotional distance. But now Justine can’t stay away from Ross. Somehow, he’s mixed up in this case and his hold on her is only getting tighter.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Some Things Defy Words: 9/11/01



Like millions around the globe, I can't help thinking about the events that unfolded eight years ago today, can't help recalling all the lives impacted, all the grief and, yes, the surging of a fierce, defiant pride in our country and its people.

I was with a friend, researching a book and travel article in Key West, when a pierced, tattooed guy taking out his trash blurted the ridiculous "sky is falling" news to us. We didn't believe him, thought it must be some bizarre and cruel "joke" a mentally ill or drug-addled local liked to play on the turistas. It took a while for it to sink in, for more news to reach us from the guide narrating our cheesy tram tour through the city. Few of those riding with us spoke sufficient English to "get" what was happening, but we did, along with the American guide. That moment, and his false cheer for the sake of the other tour guests, stand out as the most surreal of my life.

I don't really like to think about that time and those extra days I spent stuck, separated from my firefighter husband and our young son, as we waited to get a plane out of paradise, worry for our loved ones, and mourned, as the country mourned, its loss of innocence. But just as some memories defy words, they defy a person to put them aside.

This is certainly one.

Afterwards, like so many Americans, I went on with my work, slogging past our collective post traumatic stress to complete my writing obligations. But that book was the last historical romance I wrote. And I've never set foot back in Key West since.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Get your Jack Imel on! (The writing life is all about multi-tasking.)

"What separates the men from the boys in this business is the ability to multi-task." Wise words from an editor I worked with at Random House a while back. We were talking about the overlapping timelines on two projects that had me editing and writing at the same time. It can be crazy-making, but a successful writing life requires the ability to compartmentalize projects and isolate the muscles you need to do more than one thing at a time. Throw motherhood into that mix, and you're seriously...tap dancing.

Spend a moment with the great Jack Imel from the old Lawrence Welk Show, then get into your jazz pants and have a great day.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Crashing Through Brick Walls: First Lines that Sold


On one of my writing loops (sending a shout out to my friends from PASIC) we've been sharing first lines from our own novels, specifically our first novels published. It's been so much fun reading the openings of books that snagged an editor's or agent's attention that I thought I'd carry it over to the blog today and see if I could entice any of you to share.

But first, a little about the rumored "rules" for openings. I've been hearing them for years: Don't start with the weather. Or a funeral. Or a woman sipping tea. Don't begin with a long sentence (some rule-spouters are so specific, they give an exact word count you mustn't exceed). Avoid prologues at all cost. Start with dialogue. Begin in the middle of things. Set off at the moment everything changes. Never start with a description. Eschew backstory.

I could go on, but I won't. Because I think it's all a load of bunkum. First lines aren't meant to be paint-by-number prescriptions. They're meant to engage the reader on some level, to transport us or raise some question that keeps you reading to the next line... then the next. To establish the author's voice and give the reader faith she is in good hands.

Truth to be told, a lot of really great books don't start with great first lines, but those that do definitely have a competitive advantage. Or at least they do if the story can live up to those first words.

To show how different successful beginnings can be, please share the opening line or lines (no more than a paragraph, please) of the first piece of fiction that netted you a contest win, an agent, or a contract.

I'll start off with the first paragraph from my 1999 historical romance debut, Touched by Fire (written as Gwyneth Atlee and published by Kensington). From the prologue:

The hardest part was stealing the fresh blood. True, the shabby boardinghouse where Hannah Shelton now resided was just around the corner from the butcher's, and often the smell of death loomed large. Truer still, the old meat dealer was a drunkard, but even so, he normally locked the slaughterhouse.


Big surprise I later ended up switching to suspense, huh? ;)

Now don't leave me swinging in the wind here, please. How about sharing some openings of your own?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Are you suffering Rejection Fatigue? (Take two of these with a glass of wine.)

Adding Scott Jeffrey's "Enlightened Business" blog to our Feed Me sidebar after seeing his post about ignoring the critics. Just a few examples of titanically wrong calls on the part of agents, editors and reviewers...
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
“It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss
“Too different from the other [books for] juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”

Animal Farm by George Orwell
“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

Carrie by Stephen King
“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
“I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”

I know you've probably heard these before, but it's important to be reminded every once in a while that opinions are like...well, you know. Everybody has one. And the only one that matters is your own.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

An early end to my Infinite Summer


After I flooded the bathroom at the Hay-Adams Hotel, I came to the inescapable conclusion that I would never finish reading Infinite Jest. I understand now. This book I've wanted to read for years does not want to be read by me.

Back in May, I enthusiastically hopped on the Infinite Summer bus and dove into David Foster Wallace's hefty tome for the severalth time. Cool, smart people discussing the magnum opus of a brilliant author at a super-doable pace of 75 pgs/week. What's not to love? I ordered a shiny new copy and enthusiastically posted here on BoxOcto:
Am I a huge bifocula for being really excited about this? I don't care. I think when I get to the final page of this extraordinary book, I'm going to be a better reader, a better writer, and I will have settled into a strong habit of crawling into bed at a reasonable hour with a good book.

By the end of July, about 400 pgs in (not even approaching halfway home), I'd remembered all the reasons why I keep picking this book up...and putting it down. I love the writing; I hate the book. And then I hate myself. Why why why can't I be cool enough and smart enough to see the Magic Eye puzzle? I was immensely relieved to see this incredibly brave post from Avery Edison on the Infinite Summer site, expressing exactly the way I felt about my IJ experience thus far...
I resent that I’m having to work this hard, that I feel like I’m indulging the author. I resent having to read enormous blocks of text, with no paragraph breaks, for pages and pages at a time. I resent the endnotes that (more often than not) only serve to either waste my time or confuse me even further. I resent that I’m continually reaching supposed milestones (”just make it to page 100!” “get to 200!” “300 is where you get rewarded for all your effort!”)...

Which brings me to the Hay-Adams.

In Washington DC on business a few weeks ago, I stayed at the la-dee-da digs where the Obama family stayed while waiting to move into the White House, which is visible from many of the Hay-Adams' immaculately appointed suites. The front desk clerk had a florid European accent. The orchids by the elevator were real. I checked. There was no coffee maker in the bathroom.

And no bathtub.

I was surprised -- and disappointed, actually; a long, hot bath is always part of my ritual when I stay at a swanky hotel. The elegant bathroom was equipped with an elaborate shower. Lovely architectural features. Multiple water features. It seemed odd that there was no ledge or barrier between the shower floor and general bathroom floor, but the floor was very beautiful, and I did see a portal for water to drain at one end. I considered calling down to the front desk for advice, but I wasn't about to admit to the continental clerk that I wasn't up to the bathroom fixtures of my betters. C'mon. This was the Hay-Adams, so it must be wonderful, right? To my tiny mind, it might seem like water spraying onto a pristinely flat marble floor would tend to run all over the place, but clearly, this was a high-end head of state shower, the special design of which I was too pedestrian to comprehend. Clearly, this was how the intelligentsia and power brokers were showering while I bubble-bathed like a soccer mom in the suburbs.

In LA, luxury has a wonderfully old-school seediness. In NY, it's about money money chic. In DC, luxury feels intelligent. Venerable. They don't cater to commoners like me. This was a shower where duchesses rinsed away polo pony dust and congressmen seduced ivy league idealists. This was going to be the most amazing shower ever!

It took me ten minutes to figure out how to turn the snazzy water features on -- and another five minutes to get them turned off. By that time, the entire bathroom was flooded. Soapy water turned the plush area rugs to marshland and seeped out into the pile carpet of the entryway. I seized a complementary bathrobe and shoved it against the bottom of the door. Still naked, on hands and knees, I frantically pawed fluffy towels from the ornate cabinet, mopping and sopping, wringing water into the toilet.

What made me think I was good enough to be in this hotel, in this town, in this business--

There was a knock at the door, and a voice called, "Turn down service?"

Shit. "Just a second..."

"Would you like warm towels, ma'am?"

"Um..."

First impulse: hide the mess. Not even possible. Second impulse: my writer mind crowded with plausible scenarios in which a brilliant but eccentric author purposely creates a giant pile of sodden terry cloth and Velour heaped in a corner by a useless drain. You know -- like art! My mother mind had already moved to methods whereby I could clean and dry the towels before checkout time the next morning. Or I could just be honest and ask the housekeeper for help.

I pulled on PJ pants and a tee-shirt, shame-faced, prepping my profuse apology. But when I opened the door, the housekeeper said, "You got water on the floor, didn't you?"

"Yes. I did. I'm so sorry..."

"Happens all the time in this room," she said, pulling a stack of towels from her cart. "That shower is actually for handicapped people."

She wouldn't let me help clean up, but we chatted pleasantly. (Her son is getting married this month in Managua. The girl is extraordinarily beautiful, and her son is blind. A nice love story.) She left a few extra chocolates on my desk.

When I crawled into the perfectly turned-down bed that night, I took up my sky blue copy of Infinite Jest, as I have every night since the first week of June, but I couldn't bring myself to open it. I was stricken with the ridiculousness of my continuing battle to force-feed myself this book that simply was not designed for me. I'd assumed I didn't get it because I'm not smart/cool enough, when the truth is, there's nothing to get. I can't hear what this book is saying because it has nothing to say to me. It was intended for someone else.

Infinite Jest is like the New Testament book of Revelations. People have raised up an entire mythology around that book and endowed it with all sorts of meaning it never had. It was intended for a small, specific audience -- seven specific churches at a specific moment in history -- and only those few could truly understand its message. But it was so beautifully written, all those wonderfully cryptic predictions and wildly creative images. It took on a life of its own. First came the true believers, then the curious scholars, then the agenda-mongers, and then the flood of those who ably regurgitate the religion but are secretly baffled by the book itself. They loudly pledge their allegiance because they desperately fear being "left behind."

I'll never turn the final page of Infinite Jest, but looking back at my June post, I feel better about the time I invested.

Am I a better reader? Yes. Because after choking on that giant horse pill for two months, I was hungry for fiction. As soon as I got back from DC, I pulled the shortest novel from my TBR pile -- Thornton Wilder's slim but eloquent The Bridge of San Louis Rey -- and sank into a warm bubble bath with it. Now that is luxury. I read that and the next three shortest novels on my pile in quick succession and loved them. I've been on a classic fiction binge ever since.

Am I a better writer? Yes. Because I explored something that challenged my brain, and that's always good. I've also been sternly reminded of the toxicity of pretense and envy. When I finished Wilder's Bridge of SL, I realized it was every bit as convoluted and plot-wandering as IJ. But it worked for me because Wilder wanted to crawl in the tub with me and whisper in my ear. I know this sounds blousey, but I felt loved by that book -- and I felt jilted and scorned by Infinite Jest. Maybe that was DFW's intention: to let Me the Reader know how suburban and bovine and not in with the in crowd I am. If so, he succeeded. Brilliantly. But I'm not sure how much joy he took from that before he hanged himself, and I take absolutely no joy in knowing he came to that sad end.

"I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers," said DFW, "this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader."

I find that statement incredibly sad coming from someone who had a chance to make a life and living writing anything he wanted to write. A desperate desire to please is just as inwardly corrosive as hostility, and neither springs from the gratitude or eyes-wide-openness required to make a peaceful, joyous life in this industry.

I guess I have a different relationship with the nebulous entity that is The Readership. We take turns being the blind man and the beautiful girl, but there's mutual love married with occasional heartbreak, elegantly complicated with the handicap of being human.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Camel Bookmobile Project

Read Masha Hamilton's riveting novel 31 Hours this week (more about that tomorrow) and it made me want to go back and check out her previous work. I'll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, be intrigued by these images and click to read the story behind The Camel Bookmobile...

Friday, September 04, 2009

Dialogue's Pettiest of Peeves


“Let's bring it up to date with some snappy nineteenth century dialogue”

Samuel Goldwyn, the movie Goldwyn (and the G in MGM) said this back in 1924, which brings up another great point about dialogue. It's a tether to the story's setting.

In thought and speech, characters reflect their milieu. Place, time, educational background, social standing: every one of these should be reflected. But delicately, as if you're painting a pastel watercolor instead of troweling foundation on a sow's face. (What an image!)

By this I mean please don't go overboard with dialect. At best, it get be offensive. At worst, incomprehensible. A few dropped g's and f-bombs go a long way, as do "lads" and "lassies." And if you try to transcribe a cherubic little child lisping or using a lot of baby talk, I'm sooo out of there! (Can you hear my pet peeves coming out?)

Resist the temptation to stereotype by prissifying the speech of "good" characters (often in terms of grammar and level of sophistication) and "dumbing down" the speech of villains. And please, for the sake of all of us living in the South (here comes another of the pet peeves) don't link Southern dialect, i.e. y'all and "shuggah" or sugar, to gross stupidity, or I will curse your Daisy Duke gams with an eternal case of cellulite.

If figurative language (similes, metaphors, and the like) come into play, the character will naturally use comparisons with which he or she would be familiar. A Twentieth Century longshoreman won't be comparing his girl's temper to a drunken lord's.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to go wrong with linking dialogue to setting. But no one ever said this business was for sissies!

So what are your pet peeves in terms of dialogue? I'd love to hear some more.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Tao of Dialogue


One of the most challenging skills a novelist needs to develop is writing great dialogue. For the purposes of fiction (or narrative nonfiction, including memoirs), the author has to do far more than depicting "real conversation," which (if you really listen) is most often halting, repetitive, and mundane enough to put anyone attempting to read it to sleep.

So let's agree that dialogue has to do far more, and far better, than simply sounding real. In general, writers do best to remember the following.

1. Keep it pithy. Assume you're writing the "Best of" whatever comes out of that character's mouth. So you want only the cleverest, the most conflict-rich, and the most character-revealing. And for heaven's sake, avoid the temptation to allow characters to speak in long monologues. Nobody likes a blowhard. Especially in print.

2. Keep it pertinent. All, or very nearly all, dialogue must move the plot forward, heighten the tension of the story question, or raise new questions. There's no room for "How are you, I am fine" drivel, not unless it's loaded with irony or subtext. (You can use narrative to reveal this, for example, characters engaging in trite conversation as bombs or bullets fly around them. Or try showing body language which contradicts the spoken word.)

3. Keep it peculiar. By that, I mean peculiar to the individual who says it. Ideally, each character in your story should be so richly realized (or at least hinted at) that his/her lines could not have been uttered by any other character. To check to see if you're succeeding, try stripping your scene of everything except dialogue, and then see if you can still tell who's talking in the conversation. Though this isn't always going to be possible (anyone can shout "No," for example), it's a very worthy goal.

For a howlingly-funny (and obscenity-laced, I warn you) example of pithy, pertinent, peculiar dialogue, check out the Twitter page of a guy who identifies himself as Justin, whose bio says: "I'm 28. I live with my 73-year-old dad. He is awesome. I just write down shit that he says." Justin proves he has a great ear for dialogue on his popular Shitmydadsays page.

Best grumpy old man material ever...

Today's question: Which authors do you particularly admire for writing great dialogue? Also, do you have any helpful dialogue tips to add?

P.S.- The adorable pups are from Loldogs. Check 'em out (if you have a taste for saccharine, anyhow.)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Your Attention Please


That's right, I'm after your attention. Or your attention span, which I'm sure must be better than mine of late, with all of life's distractions.

In part, I blame technology, which gives us such a wealth of easily-accessible entertainment and information options, it's becoming increasingly difficult to focus on the work. Twitter tweets for my attention, e-mails and other social networks clamor, and it's not hard to talk myself into the notion that all of these (including the blog) are work, that it's important to "put myself out there."

But I remind myself, that's not the work I chose. (The blog's fun; I admit that. And a nice little journaling warm-up in the mornings.)

And then there are other people's stories (and oh, how I love stories) drifting through the ether. Stories I can plug into via TV, DVD, Hulu.com, audio downloads, Kindle (if I had one), iPhone (ditto), or, lo and behold, the classic book. It's hard to resist the siren calls of story, for I can tell myself how important it is that I keep "up to date and plugged in to the storytelling culture." (My subconscious always sounds quite reasonable when wheedling to get its way.)

But absorbing all those lovely stories doesn't get my work done either. So there's nothing for it but to chain myself to my laptop, shut off the Internet for a while, and get down to the hard stuff. Because sometimes, writing's sledding, and other days you have to pull a heavy plow all by your lonesome. It's been the plow for me this past week, a synopsis that's giving me fits, but there's nothing for it but to throw myself against that harness and pull with all my might.

And pay attention so I can finally get my rows (and maybe my story) planted!

How about the rest of you? Have any tips to share on keeping focused?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Speaking of Structure


Late last night I finished reading a wonderfully rich, inventive novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The book, the ensemble cast story of how a mutual love of books pulled together a small, eccentric band of Channel Islanders (British citizens) and helped them survive the horrors and hardships of German occupation during WW II. I loved it because it truly transported me to another place and time, and rather than detracting, the many voices wove a gorgeous tapestry of a story told entirely through letters, telegrams, and (in one brief section) journal entries.

It's an interesting structure that really works for this book but wouldn't in most cases, and it got me thinking about structurally-different novels. A lot of fascinating possibilities are out there, from variations in tense to changing up or mixing the expected use of third or first person, and/or using the omniscient voice, where the "wise narrator" knows all. (This is mainly a 19th century technique, Dear Reader.) And of course, in this day and age, one could tell a story composed of e-mails, text messages, blog posts, or even pithy Twitter tweets.

But the thing about switching up structure is it often diverts attention from the story itself, screaming at the reader, "Hey, look at how I'm writing this! Aren't I awfully clever?" Not a good thing, unless A. the story is so engaging and the writing so smooth, the reader barely notices the switch up, B. the story is better told by using the "different" structure/technique.

If the technique turns into a parlor trick, distracts the reader, or doesn't serve the story, the writer has to face the fact that it's not working for but against her. Which means that it should either be revised or overhauled completely to put the focus where it should be: on the characters and their story.

Today's questions: Have you read any uniquely (or differently) structured stories you would like to recommend? And have you ever broken away from genre expectations in terms of structure, and how do you feel it worked for you?

THANK YOU

To subscribe to BtO, click "Subcribe to: Posts" at the bottom of the page and then "Subscribe to this feed."

Want to borrow a cup of content? Feel free to share our link or a brief quote with your friends. But please e-mail for permission to reprint or repost our work elsewhere, and always add an attribution and a link back to our site.

We welcome your feedback. Feel free to post comments. PR and outreach from publishers and published authors should be sent to: boxocto@gmail.com.

Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.

We welcome payola in the form of pies, cakes, neatly folded laundry and free books!

In accordance with FTC regulations, we're required to inform readers that we receive books from publishers, authors, and PR folk for review. We'd like to receive money via an offshore bank account, but that hasn't happened yet. When my dad was in radio back in the '50s, a local baker used to sneak over in the dead of night and fill the back seat of his car with bread and pastries. We would NOT object to this. Please review our review policy here. And let us know if we should leave the car outside the garage tonight.

Peace, love, and statutory compliance ~
Joni