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Showing posts from October, 2009

Laughing at Fear (of Success)

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Happy Halloween, BtO readers!

In honor of the day, I thought I'd spend a few moments reflecting on the fears that sometimes block our path. Not so much the legimate fears of the scary monsters of the writing business -- tough deadlines, fickle markets, and the ever-popular rejection -- but the subtle terrors that can take up residence in our subconscious and cause us to defeat ourselves.

I'm talking in particular about fear of success.

By it's very nature, Big Success is scary. It puts a writer out there in uncharted waters. It makes her visible in a way that modest, middle-of-the-pack achievement never can. It pushes her out of the safety of her current peer group and creates a profound shift in the way she will be viewed by friends and family.

It tempts the gods to smite us (you've read your mythology, right?) and inspires our internal editor (vicious harpies though they are) to shriek, "Who do you think you are?"

It also comes with larger risks, because no one …

Can This Story Be Saved? Perspective 101

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Sometimes, a project's just not working. You might come to the conclusion yourself, or it might be painfully visited upon you in the form of rejection (or gigantic revision letters and/or concerned calls from your agent) but failures of perspective strike nearly every writer now and then.

I can't tell you how many times I've been blinded by the white heat of the creative process, an impending deadline, or the need to hook up a new writing contract. But this close, quick work too often takes its toll. Fear, too, muddies the water and at times gives way to desperation. And let me tell you, desperation attaches its reek to the written word and stinks up the whole project.

Often, however, months or even years later, after the emotion's had a chance to dissipate, the writer can reread the work and, Wham, Bam, really see it for the first time. Objectively, with all its strengths and flaws revealed. Suddenly, the solution is obvious, and the story can be rewritten with a singu…

Reflections on a firestorm (3 Questions for Sherry Jones, author of "The Sword of Medina")

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Fourteen months ago, authors and others in the publishing industry were stunned to hear that Random House was pulling the plug on a six-figure, two-book deal, the fiction debut of journalist Sherry Jones, a matter of weeks before the first book was set to hit bookstores. The news touched off a firestorm of controversy, raised some tough questions, and threatened to drown the book in a flood of the very misconceptions and prejudices Jones had hoped the story would dispel. Ultimately, Jones reached a settlement with RH, and brave Beaufort Books stepped up and released The Jewel of Medina last October. This month the sequel, The Sword of Medina, is in bookstores.

From the press kit:

A'isha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, charmed him with her wit and intelligence, eventually earning the confidence and respect of her husband and the community. When Muhammad dies without a successor, A'isha and her sister wives are devastated with grief and struggle in their new roles as …

Making Friends with the Revision Process

BtO reader Lark asks us:
I've heard some authors say they never have them, others talk about 10+ page revision letters. If an agent or editor "loved" the work, what kind of revisions are they likely to want?

That's a terrific question. I well remember, after the initial rush had faded in the wake of my first novel sale, receiving a box from my editor containing the battle-scarred manuscript, which was marked up for revisions. The delivery followed a phone conversation touching on some more general points she hoped I would address. (Throughout my career, I've never received the "revision letter" a lot of authors bemoan. At some houses, they're de rigueur, but for me, phone calls from the editor have always been the way.)

But back to the box in the mail. I decided to go through the manuscript and mark the location of every editorial note with a green sticky note. By the time I'd finished, the manuscript - all 500 pages of it (ten years ago, it was no…

Scott Jeffrey's "5 Powerful Decisions to Transform Your Business" (tweaked for the writing life)

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I've been keeping one eye on Scott Jeffrey's Enlightened Business blog lately, and last week I saw something that blew my mind a little. These "5 Powerful Decisions to Transform Your Business" will radically change my 2010 business plan. (And YES, you need a business plan if you're in the business of writing! My dad always said. "Plan your work, work your plan." We'll return to that topic at the end of the year.) Scott's original post makes great sense for any company, but here's my tweak on it, applying the same principles to the soul proprietorship that is the corporate body for most working authors.

#1 Decide to focus on your best customers.
This is that "laser like focus" Colleen talks about, and it goes beyond cultivating a readership. It also speaks to the relationships we build with our publishers.

#2 Decide to focus on building a highly functional team.
Three essential teammates for writers: A smart, aggressive, like-minded …

Sunday Groove (Remember that thing called a "weekEND"?

Plenty of hard information headed your way this week. Just for today, can you surrey? Can you picnic? Easier said than done, but go outside and give it a try...

Back to the Basics

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This weekend I'm attending Todd Stone's Novelist Boot Camp, a hands-on workshop covering practical strategies for writing and revising. I'm really enjoying it, but then, I'm a sucker for any workshop that gives me tools for looking at the overarching structure of my work in progress and dynamics of its characters, etc. Basically, Todd points to one of his helpful charts or makes some comment that helps me connect with earlier learning, and bang! My brain's off to the races as I think about some critical element that needs to be worked into my book.

I think that far too often, working writers lose touch with improving our craft. Overwhelmed with juggling the promotion of a new release, edits for a manuscript, and the creation of a new story (among other tasks) we fail to make time to revisit the touchstones that helped us sell books in the first place. It's not that most writers get lazy or complacent (writers as a group are remarkably insecure, in fact, because…

Sweet Deal (It's not always about the money)

I'm out of town and up to my neck, but I wanted to chime in at least a little this week. About 18 months ago, I posted the bit below, and I got an email earlier this week from a reader who pointed out that with the dramatic shifts in the marketplace, it's even more true now than when I wrote it...

According to the legend at the bottom of every deal report from Publisher's Marketplace, a "nice deal" is $1 - $49,000, a "very nice deal" is $50,000 - $99,000, a "good deal" is $100,000 - $250,000, a "significant deal" $251,000 - $499,000, a "major deal" is $500,000 and up. The legend is basically a waste of space, of course, because only a tiny fraction of authors make it past "good", and even those lucky ducks who do recognize the difference between the $100K and $250K per annum lifestyle. If PM actually wants to make this information useful, to give authors (and agents and editors) some actual frame of reference, the…

Increasing Your Productivity

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BtO reader Suzan Harden wants to know:
Have you become faster in writing a first draft as you gain more experience? What tips would you recommend for us newbies besides having a detailed outline (and other than sending the family to the in-laws and the dogs to the kennel)?

My first manuscript (written with a co-writer) took seven years to write. My first novel that sold (my fourth manuscript overall) took about a year. Subsequent full-length books have taken between five and nine months, depending on the length and complexity of the project, time needed for research, and how desperate I am to meet some deadline.

So how does one shorten the length of time necessary to produce a manuscript?

1. Set a goal and work backward from it.
I knew I wanted to put out two books a year whenever possible. If it takes me a month to write a proposal (about 50 pages plus synopsis) and a month to revise/edit, the leaves me four months writing time for the bulk of the manuscript. Once I get moving on the book…

BtO Contest: Win Linda Cowgill's The Art of Plotting

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A friend gave me a brand, spanking new copy of Linda Cowgill's guide for screenwriters, The Art of Plotting: Add Emotion, Suspense, and Depth to Your Screenplay and asked if I'd like to give it away on the blog.

I seriously thought about swiping it for my own, but since my to be read pile threatens to scrape the ceiling, I've restrained myself.

To be eligible to win the drawing, all you have to do is post a comment telling us what future writing-related topics would you like to see us discuss in future posts here on Boxing the Octopus.


Linda Cowgill is a screen and TV screenwriter, instructor, and author of several books on writing. You can read more about her here.

Palindrome for the soul ("Lost Generation" by Jonathan Reed)

Yo, Ho, Ho and a Bottle of Rum: Thoughts on Life as a Galley Slave

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This morning, I received the galleys, or page proofs, for my March release, Touch of (cue ominous music) Evil. Since I only completed edits about a month ago and went through it again for copyedits two weeks back, I have to admit, I wasn't exactly thrilled to see it darken my door again so soon, especially since galleys always have a fairly short turnaround, and I'm working on getting a couple of proposals shaped up for submission.

But galleys matter. Really matter. They're the very last line of defense for your readers, and it's up to you to save them from any missed typos, screw-ups introduced during the editing process, and continuity errors. They're the last chance to wash the face and tie the shoelaces of this project you've sunk hundreds of hours into creating before you send it out into the world.

Give your galleys short shrift, and problems will come back to haunt you, if not in the guise of angry reader letters, then in lackluster reviews or more importa…

Jane Campion's brilliant "Bright Star"

Jerusha pried me out of my office to see "Bright Star" on Saturday afternoon, and it was quite lovely. Every frame of this movie is so beautiful, every word of the script so meticulously crafted...it momentarily displaced my almost unshakable hatred for the Regency period. (All that standing on ceremony at the expense of practicality and compassion makes me want to smack somebody.) Check it out. With Kleenex.

Bright Star, Would I Were Stedfast
By John Keats


Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art---
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors---
No---yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet u…

Sunday Quote: Radcliffe on This Weak Hand

If the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it - the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.
- Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1764

Like Ann Radcliffe, I love the idea that my work my touch some unknown reader, perhaps even decades later, that it might alleviate stress or boredom or illuminate a new idea. People write for many reasons, but to my way of thinking, this is the real reason that underlies every writer's efforts to publish.

Saturday Morning Cartoon (kind of): a moment of music meets magical realism

Think about this:
On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Then go watch this.

Now go write something.

Won't you be my neighbor? (A few simple rules from Mrs. Rodgers)

When Gary and I moved into this house with our two little kids, we were lucky enough to be two doors down from the nicest neighbors on the planet: George and Toni, a kindly all-American couple in their post-childrearing years. George has the knowledge and wherewithal to fix anything and has always been ridiculously generous with his time and good humor. Toni is one of those good souls who's all about caring for others, and she's plugged into the grapevine like Anderson Cooper. She knows all and shares info without judgment or gossipiness.

Last year a nice young couple with two adorable kids moved in next door. I told Gary, "We got George and Toni; these people got us."

"They were robbed," said Gary. "We suck."

Alas, it's true. Our yard is often a jungle. Loud parties happen when our kids are home. If someone needs to borrow a tool, they're SOL in our jumbled garage -- worse if they need a cup of sugar from our Mother Hubbard cupboard. I ge…

Asking for Help

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The writing life is either feast or famine. You're either on your own, trying to figure out how to structure your day halfway productively or going crazy trying to survive a hundred tasks bombarding you.

Sometimes you simply find yourself buried beneath them.

I'm having one of those moments where I realize I've bitten off more than I can chew. I'm writing one proposal, editing another as per my agent's suggestions, waiting on galleys, juggling appearances, trying to keep my head above water as I handle my board responsibilities for a writers' organization, and buried under a landslide of stuff I've committed to (and honestly want to) read - and feel obligated to read in a meaningful, helpful manner.

Help!

Gosh, it feels so good to say that. And guess what? It's not against the law. Nor is it a sin to set boundaries and say to people (starting with yourself): This is what I can do and want to do, but my writing career (it's my livelihood, after all) is m…

2009 National Book Awards Finalists Announced

Full list is on the National Book Foundation website. Highlights...

Fiction nominees:
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

YA nominees:
Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
(Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)

Shouts & Murmurs: Subject: Our Marketing Plan: newyorker.com

Both hilarious and wince-worthy, this is all too tragically true of late!
Shouts & Murmurs: Subject: Our Marketing Plan: newyorker.com

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Finding story in the shadows

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This weekend, a friend told me about a mind-changing exercise she did during a stage makeup class in college. The assignment was to sketch a face from a black and white photo. Challenging my friend was the fact that she couldn't draw (or at least she'd convinced herself she couldn't draw.) Seeing her getting frustrated, the instructor told her, "Forget about drawing the face. Just fill in the shadows."

"So I did that," she told me. "No lines. No shapes. Just shading. And eventually -- there was Clark Gable."

My brain instantly went to how that lesson could be applied to storytelling.

I'm currently writing a book in which a main character dies very early on in the story. I knew I wanted this woman's presence to be felt, vibrantly alive, throughout the book. Because the book is also a history of a cultural shift, I didn't want to fudge up the timeline with a bunch of flashbacks. I experimented with a structure that made her death the c…

The Joy of Picking Brains

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At yesterday's meeting of the West Houston RWA, we tried something new, inviting in a "panel of experts" on various topics we thought would be of interest to members. Among our experts were a criminal law attorney/former prosecutor, police office, firefighter/EMT, emergency physician, computer forensic investigator, and an expert on Regency England. (Fun, fun!) After having each expert talk about his/her relevant background for a couple of minutes, we sent each to a table and let writers flow among them to ask questions pertinent to their manuscripts or simply listen in as these folks "talked the talk."

It reminded me of how very fortunate we are as writers to come with a built-in excuse to speak with fascinating people, very often to people who have the same kind of passion for their work that we have for what we do. It's their passion for it that makes these sources so interesting and out ability to imagine ourselves in the skins of strangers, to inhabit …

Three Questions for Marilyn Brant (and whispers from the ghost of Jane Austen)

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Life is changing for former teacher/librarian Marilyn Brant with the recent release of her debut novel, According to Jane, the story of a modern woman who has the ghost of Jane Austen in her head giving her advice on love and life (and love life) for almost twenty years.

According to NYT bestselling author Susan Wiggs: "Marilyn Brant's debut novel is proof that Jane Austen never goes out of style. This is a warm, witty and charmingly original story of a woman coming of age and finding her own happy ending--with a little help from the ultimate authority--Jane Austen herself."

We caught up with Marilyn for 3 Questions about writing and life...

Where did you find Ellie and Jane, and how did you get them together?
I first read Pride & Prejudice as a high-school freshman. Like my heroine Ellie, I raced through the novel way ahead of the reading assignments. I loved both the story and Austen’s writing style immediately. Her books changed the way I perceived the behavior of eve…

Writing the Selling Romance Synopsis

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Lately, I've found myself referring to a post I wrote on one of the toughest tasks in fiction back in June for the Mid-Williamette Valley Chapter of RWA. Synopsis writing may be a daunting challenge, but it's critical enough that I thought the article worth reposting here today. Hope you'll find this rerun-worthy.

I thought I’d take time to chat a bit today about what began for me (and still sometimes feels like) a hideous torment and ended up an effective tool for selling and shaping more than fifteen books: the writing of the romance synopsis. Like a lot of writers, I started out my writing life as a pantser, meandering my way through hundreds of pages while my characters and stories developed. Since I didn’t have an instinctive feel for story structure, I often wrote myself down blind alleys, had to cut massively, couldn’t predict the length of the completed manuscript, and took approximately forever to finish.

But I’m a pantser, I thought. I can’t do it any differently. …

Fantastic trailer for Kevin Michael Connolly's "Double Take" (Prepare to tweet with superlatives)

Kevin Connolly has used an unusual physical circumstance to create a gripping work of art. This deeply affecting memoir will place him in the company of Jeanette Walls and Augusten Burroughs.” ~ Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

Making a Case for Knowing Your Place

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Over at the Scott Waxman Literary Agency blog the other day, agent Holly Root wrote a marvelous post about the scourge of cart-before-horse-itis afflicting far too many prepublished and early career writers. I recommend you check it out, but to summarize, Ms. Root is referring to those newly or not-yet sold writers who have mapped out their whole career arc (usually based on some icon's success) and too soon demand that their agent (or worse yet, potential agent) get cracking fulfilling their wish list.

Ambition's important. Without drive, the writer may be content with far too little and unmotivated to make necessary changes. But when she charges in with expectations of instantaneous TV or movie options, sub-right sales (translation, audio, etc.), or appearances on Oprah, she risks alienating (or at least inspiring eye-rolls from) the very allies capable of helping her achieve her goals.

Or helping her achieve them within reason...

The trouble is, as a new or newish writer, you …

Consider yourself duly cautioned as to our lack of objectivity

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I was vaguely aware that the Federal Trade Commission had recently introduced some new rules designed to stem blog payola (another echo from radio days past), but wasn't quite sure how those rules pertained to us, here at Box~Octo. (I actually typed "to us Octopussies" just now, but then madly backspaced in shame when I had this vision of Colleen's eyebrows flying off her head.) Essentially, they want bloggers to expose freebies they're getting in exchange for product reviews, which I don't think is a bad thing, but it's a little murky how they're going to levy citations or fines -- and they're threatening some fairly chunky dollar amounts for the fines.

Anyway, I loved literary agent Janet Reid's approach. Her disclaimer in part:
For the purposes of FTC compliance it's just best to assume I'm a bought and paid for pawn of the publishing industry.

It's best to just assume I have a vested financial interest in any and every book an…

Sending Up a Test Balloon

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It's been a while since we had a rainy, do-nothing weekend, but this past one was just that. Great, I thought, this is the chance I need to focus on the idea I've been dating (to borrow Joni's term) to see if there's really a book in it.

Or maybe I should say to find out if my heart's in it. At times, I like to do a 30-page test run. If I love the characters, the concept, and feel excited about writing the story at the end of those pages, I go ahead and put everything I have into developing that world and its people. If I run out of steam before finishing those pages, I save the file and put it away. Doesn't mean I'll never come back to it; it just means I'm not approaching the original idea from the correct angle.

This weekend, at around page twenty (this after cutting and replacing chunks of it a half-dozen times) I came to the conclusion that the test balloon was sinking like a stone. Something's critically wrong, and no matter how hard I tried to …

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Sunday morning meditation and publishing spark plug all in one!)

The new age message and Neil Diamond music seem pretty smarmy now. Edgy is in. Hope is out. Cynical is the new tie-dye. But back in the '70s, I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, lying on the floor in the living room at my parents' home in Onalaska, Wisconsin, listening to Neil Diamond's musical adaptation at top volume -- and it worked. I cried. I thought lofty thoughts and dreamed big dreams.

Years later, when I was trying to break into publishing, I heard about Richard Bach's personal and professional journey as a writer -- including an apocryphal tale about how he received the acceptance letter for JLS as he was watching the repo man tow his car away. This book was, by any sensible standards, unpublishable and Bach had a stack of rejection letters to prove it. I would assume Bach got his car back (and probably traded up) after the book sold its first two million copies. I just ordered a fresh paperback to replace the one I gave away in my post-hurricane guerrilla boo…

Setting as Tightrope

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Last night, at a meeting of my wonderful critique group, I got to thinking about settings and how vitally important they are in a novel. By skillfully weaving together the threads of place and time, the author gives the story a texture that can feel more real than truth and transports the reader in a way that's very difficult to duplicate in plays, TV, or movies.

So many of the books I love are distinguished by their use of setting, whether it's real (The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, The Help, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, The Other Boleyn Girl) or imagined (Dune, The Lord of the Rings, etc.). But the author has to consider far more than a bunch of pretty descriptions, which can easily obscure the real story and bore a reader to tears. To really make the "exotic" setting work, the writer has to consider what characters would grow organically out of that setting and what the impact of living under those particular circumstances woul…

Memoir Maverickiness (Letterman shares Sarah Palin's Top 10 tips for writing a book)

Not Okay 101 (Being a brilliant artist is no excuse for being a lousy human.)

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Prefacing these remarks with a little audio-visual aid:

This is Elizabeth Taylor at age 12...



And this is Elizabeth Taylor at age 19...



If any child molesters out there are still unclear about the Grand Canyon of difference that separates "little girl" from "young woman," I bet there's a suburban mommy who'd be happy to stop by with a baseball bat and explain it to you.

All week I've been listening to Hollywood power people, artsy apologists and hipsters attempting to convince us that Roman Polanski's brilliance somehow made his sexual assault of a little girl less reprehensible. Or that getting away with it for 30 years gives him a pass now. Or that the suffix "-teen" makes a child an adult. The girl in question was 13 -- a few months older than Liz was in "National Velvet" -- and a year younger than she is here in "Courage of Lassie." And this kid twarn't no Liz Taylor. This was an unsophisticated, druggy little LA wa…