Saturday, October 31, 2009

Laughing at Fear (of Success)

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 makes as loud a belly flop as the highest divers when they enter the water at the wrong angle. And Big Success can't be achieved in the service of the status quo, can't be found in safety.

So just for today, try and root out any fear of success rooted in your psyche. Dress it up it a silly costume (like one of those so many insists on humiliating their poor pets with), and look at it for what it is. Then have yourself a good laugh, roll your eyes, and get yourself back to the kind of risk taking that this life (and sometimes Big Success) are all about.

In other words, get out of your own way and trust that this business will offer impediments enough.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Can This Story Be Saved? Perspective 101

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 singular clarity of purpose.

In many cases, the manuscript can be saved, sometimes succeeding beyond the author's wildest dreams. Think of this: Jane Austen's beloved Pride & Prejudice was written in 1796 and 1797 (when the author was only 21-22 years of age). Afterward, it was quickly rejected, but in 1809, Austen revised and sold the book, which was published following Sense & Sensibility to lasting acclaim.

In this day and age, however, it's tough to imagine building a career waiting around eleven years to gain perspective on a failed piece of work. So what's an author to do to put "wisdom" on the fast track?

1. Putting the troublesome story aside to work on other projects is often helpful. Instead of flogging the dead horse interminably, go and till another field. Try writing something very different: nonfiction instead of fiction, historical rather than contemporary (or any different genre), a short story or article or poem rather than a novel. After accomplishing useful work in another area, come back and check your "horse" for signs of life (or, alternately, the realization that the poor thing should be buried, at least for the time being).

2. Review notes from beta readers, judges, agents, or editors. Often, our emotions (pride and prejudice among them!) prevent us from really comprehending what the reviewer meant. I distinctly recall pulling out months'-old judges' sheets I'd originally thought completely idiotic and suddenly seeing the truth in them. After heeding the suggestions, I revised and quickly sold the manuscript.

3. Try tricking your brain into thinking you're reading someone else's story. Format your manuscript like a real book, using landscape orientation, two columns, narrow margins, a smaller font, and single spacing. Then print it out and pretend you're simply reading it for pleasure. Where did you get bored? Or roll your eyes in disbelief? Oftentimes, the solution will jump out at you.

One last bit of advice: Never throw away a story that's not working. Always keep an archived copy, because you never know when it make tickle your unconscious and motivate you to revise and resurrect the thing.

Does anyone else have a great tip to share for gaining perspective on a project that's not working? I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

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

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 Mothers of the Believers without his presence. Even worse, the Muslim community is thrown into turmoil as a Bedouin army threatens its very survival.
After losing his Prophet and then his beloved wife, Ali, the Prophet's only surviving heir, is torn. The newly chosen leadership of the faith is pressuring him to swear allegiance to them, while others urge him to seek power himself so he can lead the Muslim people as Muhammad intended. Ali fears if he does not take action, Muhammad's successors and their corrupt advisors could endanger the survival of Islam and all of its followers.
Before dying, Muhammad left his jeweled sword, al-Ma'thur, to A'isha, telling her to use it in the jihad to come. But what if the jihad is against her own people? After twenty years of distrust and anger, can A'isha and Ali come together to preserve the future of their people and their faith--or will their hatred of each other destroy everything Muhammad worked to build? This climactic sequel to the controversial The Jewel of Medina returns to 7th century Arabia to discover whether, after fighting a civil war, a people can ever truly heal.
It's been a big year, but Sherry found a moment to share a few thoughts on staying true and pushing through...

We have to start by catching up. How the heck are you? Tell us about the roller coaster ride you've been on since the enormous controversy over the publication of The Jewel of Medina.
"Roller coaster" pretty much sums it up. A year ago, I was getting death threats, directly and online, and trying to keep my British publisher after his home office was attacked. I got several nasty reviews from U.S. critics who, by and large, never even discussed The Jewel of Medina but focused on the controversy. I had hate mail from Islamophobes offended by my portrayal of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. But I tried to keep my goals in sight.

I wrote The Jewel of Medina not only out of a huge respect and regard for A'isha, the book's protagonist and the most famous and influential woman in all of Islam, but also out of a desire to demonstrate that oppression of women is not Islamic. The Sword of Medina shows how women's considerable rights under Muhammad were eroded by the male power structure after the Prophet's death. Both are feminist books. They're also books that I hope will help eliminate hatred by helping non-Muslims understand Islam and its founders. So even as I've been attacked by various factions for mostly political reasons, I've kept love and peace in mind. The result is that I've been able to rise above the nastiness and speak around the world about women's rights, women in Islam, Islamophobia, and, of course, free speech, which as a journalist I hold very dear.

The Sword of Medina continues the compelling story of A'isha, the youngest wife of Muhammad, after the death of the Prophet, taking us back to 7th century Arabia and tossing us into the middle of a civil war. You haven't backed down a bit from the story, but did the events of the past 18 months influence your approach to the material?

I wrote The Sword of Medina before the controversy erupted, and had turned it in to Random House before I learned of their decision to "indefinitely postpone" publication of both books. Since I'd already done most of the research and I already knew my characters, The Sword of Medina practically wrote itself. But in the wake of the controversy, I'm glad I made some of the choices I made for the sequel. I was aware, for instance, that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and A'isha's nemesis, comes off as a jerk in The Jewel of Medina. Of course he was much more complex than that, but the story is from the point of view of A'isha, who didn't like him. In The Sword of Medina, I included Ali's voice. As a result, both he and A'isha are deeper, rounder, fuller characters -- and the Shi'a version of events gets told as well as the Sunni version, which prevailed in the first book.

You must feel like you've climbed a mountain with these two books, my dear. A phenomenal way to begin a career as a novelist at a pivotal moment in the publishing industry -- and in the world. Where will you go from here?
I've always had many more ideas than time to execute them. The same holds true now. I'm working on another historical fiction novel and I have at least one more in mind after that, but I also have contemporary fiction in mind. The themes that seem to excite me the most are women's rights and the huge influence of religion on societies. I worked as a journalist for thirty years and I never lost my idealistic hopes of making a positive difference in the world. I hope to do the same now through fiction.

Visit Sherry's website for more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

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 great shakes if your historical romance was 120 or 125K words) looked as if it had grown moss. Seriously, there were suggestions on nearly every page, and we're not talking copyedits but commentary regarding character consistency, flat or jarring dialogue, sexual tension (or lack thereof), hooks for the end of not only every chapter but each scene, etc.. It was a wonderful and incredibly rare (editors seldom can spare the time or have the patience do edit on this level, especially nowadays) crash course that was the best education I could have possibly received at that juncture.

It was also scary as hell.

"But I thought it meant she liked my book when she bought it!" I wailed after looking at the Mountain O' Moss and trying to imagine how long it would take me to get through it. And what might happen if I failed to address each requested change. Would she yell at me? Bad-mouth me to all the other editors? Fly to Texas, spit in my eye, kick my dog and steal my firstborn child? Or, WORSE YET (cue the gasping) kick me out of the published author club by canceling my book?

As I painstakingly worked my way, page by page, through those revisions, it gradually dawned on me that -- hey, wait a minute -- the editor was actually on my side, the book's side, and the side of its potential readers. The changes I was making were sharpening the book's focus, ramping up its impact, and, what's more, making me a far better writer as I absorbed the lessons gleaned from her experience working on countless other novels. By clapping onto the fact that we were working as a team in the service of my novel's success, I totally changed my attitude about revisions. Instead of dreading them, I came to see them as a sign I had an editor who really cared about the story.

I've never again had to do such extensive edits, but when I do get those calls, I welcome them (after a few minutes of feeling bruised and misunderstood, anyhow) as the chance they are to make my manuscript the very best book I can.

Monday, October 26, 2009

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

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 agent. A smart, supportive, and collegial critique group. Domestic allies who understand what you do. Team-building with those key people is a whole 'nother post. Watch this space.

#3 Decide to grow from within.
Scott's post talks about a "corporate culture" that aligns core values. For a company of one, that means being the industry you want to work in. Organized. Optimistic. Perseverant. That's not what you do; that's who you are. Seriously sit down and consider your artistic philosophy, then embrace and embody it without apology or compromise. To thine own self be true -- all other ground is quicksand.

#4 Decide to be the best at something.
"This decision requires sacrifice and focus," says Jeffreys. Boy howdy. Does it ever. Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that you're the master of a craft after 10,000 hours of practice. And you've really got to LOVE doing something if you're going to put in that kind of mileage. What is it about this work that gives you that little chill of yes? Dialogue? Sense of place? Untying a Gordian knot of a plot? I think that frisson becomes an affinity at about 3,000 hours. After 6,000 hours, the affinity becomes a knack. Somewhere around 9,000 hours, that knack becomes a strength. And once you become a master, that strength becomes your brand.

#5 Decide on a more compelling future for your organization to rally around.
The publishing industry has undergone a seismic shift in the last 12 months. We're in the wild, wild west now, my darlings. Anything is possible, so why not envision something wonderful? What is the real essence of what we all want for this industry? For me, it largely comes down to fair pay for good art. Writers have to envision that future and earn it.

My first step in that direction: a solid business plan. I can't wait to sit down on Dec 26 to work on mine with my annual "Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan" breakfast of coffee and Christmas cookies. These five transformative rules have seriously adjusted my thought process and just might make 2010 my best year ever.

We live by decision. It's that simple. Large and small choices shape an office environment, a day, a career, and ultimately a life. That's the terrifying, thrilling possibility for transformation in every moment.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

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...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Back to the Basics

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 of the built-in instability of the business). We're simply overcome by the incredible amount of multitasking needed to keep the boat afloat.

Now and again, though, the universe sends the writer a sign (often in the unsubtle form of a poor review, major revisions, or an unexpected rejection) that reminds one it may be time to revisit the fundamentals and pay close attention to the elements of craft. I heed those warnings because I'd far rather being one of the more experienced authors in a workshop than being one of those whose very best work is receding in the rear-view mirror.

Are there any particular writing books or workshops you find yourself revisiting when you're in need of a craft boost?

Friday, October 23, 2009

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, they need to break those first two levels down to bite size and label anything over $150K "Neenur Neenur Neenur".

A far more accurate system for quantifying your latest advance: "The Real World Book Deal Descriptions" from John Scalzi's Whatever blog, which still cracks me up years later.
$0 to $3,000: A Shitty Deal. Because that's what it is, my friends. Possibly the only thing worse than a shitty deal is no deal at all. Possibly.

$3,000 to $5,000: A Contemptible Deal. The deal you get when your publisher has well and truly got your number, and it is low.

$5,000 to $10,000: A "Meh" Deal. It's not great, you know. But you can pay some bills. Get a few of these, and a tolerant spouse with a regular income, and you can tell your day job to piss off. This year, anyway.

$10,000 to $20,000: A Not Bad Deal. Note that "not bad" here should be said with a slight appreciative rise of the eyebrows and a small approving nod -- this is the level at which the money begins to look not embarrassing both to writers and non-writers. A couple of these, and you'll definitely be punting the day job (I did, anyway).

$20,000 to $100,000: A "Shut Up!" Deal. This needs to be said in the same enviously admiring vocal tone as a teenage girl might use to her girlfriend who is showing off the delicious new pumps she got at Robinsons-May for 30% off, or the vocal tone (same idea, lower register) Jim Kelly used when one of our number admitted to having at least a couple of deals in this range. With this kind of money, you don't even need a supportive spouse to avoid the Enforced Top Ramen Diet (although, you know. Having one doesn't hurt). But it's not so much that the other writers actively begin to hate you.

$100,000 and above: "I'm Getting the Next Round." Because if you're at this level, you can buy and sell all the other writers at the table. Get 'em a friggin' beer, for God's sake (ironically, this is the only level not thought up at the bar, but in the cold hard light of the next morning, by Shara Zoll).

Seriously. There's a lot of truth there. But we need to go one step beyond that and recognize that there are a lot of intangibles that have to be considered when striking a book deal, whether it's your first or forty-first.

I placed my first novel with a small literary press. (A book presciently titled Crazy for Trying .) I had no agent, so I fielded The Call on my own.

"What sort of advance were you hoping to receive?" asked the editor.

"Advance?" I gasped liked I'd been goosed. "Oh, I never expected you to offer me an advance."

He cleared his throat and quietly said, "Um...Joni? You're not supposed to tell me that."

"Ah. Right. I meant..." (Backpedal, girl, backpedal!) "I meant eight million. Yeah, eight million is what I usually get."

The fact is, getting published by this prestigious little press was -- well, it was beyond stepping stone. It was elevator. It was oil rig. It was flying buttress. It was the vital difference between being a writer and being an author. In the course of that phone call, I went from being Joni Rodgers to being Joni (Crazy for Trying) Rodgers.

The editor offered me $4K, I gratefully accepted it, and took my kids to DisneyWorld. I've gotten bigger advances for subsequent books, but that was the biggest deal I ever signed.

The bottom line isn't always the bottom line in book deals. Getting that first book properly published is a huge, crucial step. Any advance is gravy on top of that critical career biscuit, and as you go forward, there are other concerns worth compromising for. Working with a particular editor. Building a relationship with a publishing home. Signing with a smaller press with a more motivated and personalized PR plan.

On the flip side, I was watching Suze Orman's spiel on PBS the other day, and she said two things that really resonated with me: "You are not on sale." And "Stop doing things that make you feel like a liar." It's really tough for me to be assertive about my own value, especially in the realm of ghostwriting, but homegirl here ain't no bargain basement. I'm good at what I do, and I work insanely hard at it. If I sign a deal that strips me of my self-respect, I am forcing every word and faking every smile. That doesn't serve anyone well.

It's been ten plus years since I struck that first book deal -- a nice deal, a sweet deal -- and I've learned a bit from every contract since. A good deal is not just in the dollars. It's in how I feel about my work, where it goes, and how it gets there.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Increasing Your Productivity

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, I figured I can reasonably write at least five new pages per day any five days per week for a net gain of about 100 pages per month. Four months, therefore, equals a 400-page draft and six months, a complete manuscript. At least, it works that way in theory.

In reality, it takes me longer than a month to nail down the proposal (part of the reason that publishing two big books a year doesn't always happen for me). This is the point at which I'm establishing characters, framing the story, and figuring out not only what happens but what themes I'm exploring. I tend to do lots of big-picture work, such as webbing, creating sociograms, collaging, and/or brainstorming with critique partners and my agent at this point. This all saves me time in the long run, and in a lot of ways, it's the most exciting, truly creative part of my process.

One time-saver that can be worked into the planning stage is thinking about several connected books and their overarching story, if you plan to do a series, all at once. This makes things much faster when you go to write the latter books, since you'll already know some of the characters and your overall direction.

2. Create a personal "sense of obligation."
I'm very motivated by deadlines. I despise being late for anything, to the point where it gives me nightmares. I put this aversion to good use by telling my agent, "I'll have this proposal to you by ______________." Even though she won't hold me to it, I will. I promise my editor to have projects turned in by a certain date and sign a contract to that effect. But even before I had obligations to publishing professionals, I trained myself for them by setting my own deadlines. I would have a manuscript finished before, i.e., the cut-off to enter the Golden Heart or by the end of my summer vacation. (As a teacher, I worked on a manuscript throughout the school year, then finished it during the summer break, when I had a chunk of uninterrupted (or less frequently interrupted) time. My self-imposed deadlines (written on my calendar in ink) were absolutely rigid in my mind, which turned out to be very good training.

3. Come to terms with my individual pace.
In my heart of Hermione Granger-like hearts, I'm a competitive, Type A creature, as I suspect most authors are. I remember looking around myself, thinking this is cool. I can write a book every six to nine months without killing myself or driving off family and friends. Yet, I looked around and saw that some authors were published three, four, five, or more books in a year. And let's not get started on La Nora (who has the nerve to write as skillfully as she does swiftly.) I had to accept that, as Joni likes to say, I am an orchard not a factory, and that, beyond a certain threshhold (every writer has one) I would be spitting out work that's less than my best and hating the whole process. I'd rather go back to teaching (another career I really enjoyed) than do that.

4. Sell your children off for scientific experiments.
Let's face it, kids are real time-sucks. Spouses, too, and friends, parents, pets, so if you really want to increase your writing speed ---

Wait. Seriously. This solution only seems like a good idea in the heat of frustration or the occasional, deadline-spawned nightmare. You do not want to end up falling dead over your keyboard at the age of whatever, only to find out you completely forgot to live a life.

I hope that this has helped a little, Suzan (and thanks for the great question.) I know that National Novel Writing Month is fun and motivational for a lot of people, but it leaves me feeling frustrated and defeated. As you discover your own process, you'll find bits and pieces of many different approaches that work well for you and others that clash. The trick is in picking the good and tossing the latter.

If anyone else has tips for increasing productivity, I'd love to hear yours!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

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

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.

Monday, October 19, 2009

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

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 importantly, a lost opportunity for repeat business from readers jerked out of the story by your sloppy workmanship. Some writers might think, "Well, it's my job to write the story, and the editors' job to clean it up," but in the mind of most readers, the buck stops with the person whose name graces the cover of the book.

So there'll be no rum for me, or wine or vodka either, until I finish and not a lot of yo-ho-hoing, either, only sustained and serious concentration on a story as I wish it luck and send it on its way.

It's a goodbye for me as well, for this will be the last time I read the novel I've read so many times before. Many of my colleagues read their books as soon as they're in print, but I'm always afraid I'll spot some error that slipped past me, ones that can't be fixed. Besides, by the time this book appears, I'll be immersed in other projects, and as a writer, I much prefer looking forward and not back.

If anyone has any brilliant tips for improving your focus on galleys, I would love to hear them. Otherwise, I'll see you on the other side!

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 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 unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever---or else swoon in death.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

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, October 17, 2009

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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

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 genuinely like the young couple, but I'm terrible about reaching out. I'm an office hermit. The art of the kaffeeklatsch eludes me.

I'm a lousy neighbor in subdivision world, but I try hard to be like George and Toni in my publishing life. Kind, welcoming, helpful, and informative.

A lot of the same dynamics apply. The publishing neighborhood is a mix of people from disparate backgrounds with varying motives and ambitions, but ultimately, each of us is just trying to make a home. The deed restrictions are unwritten, and it takes a while to become familiar with the folkways and mores. So for those who are considering taking up residence in our little community, I'll be so bold as to offer a few simple rules (all of which I've bent and/or broken with semi-disastrous consequences.)

Be pleasant.
Not as easy as it sounds, given the intense personalities, burning yearnings, meteoric rises, and spectacular crashes pervasive (if not inherent) in this line of work. Emotions run high. And that's a good thing. It means we care. But there's really no good purpose to be served by authors trashing, flaming, backbiting, or otherwise mean-mouthing each other. There's room for everyone. And if you're agent hunting, you're not going to score points with blog rants that make you sound less than fun to work with.

Don't stink up the place.
The traditional publishing process is brutal, but in the past it effectively weeded out the half-hearted by holding an author's feet to the fire and forcing us through a rigorous process that (for the most part) rendered cleaner, stronger manuscripts. Sadly, it also weeded out a lot of worthy, talented writers who just didn't have the stomach for it. We now have technology that handily circumvents all that soul-killing rejection and criticism. It also circumvents the whole weeding out thing and opens the door for a flood of -- sorry, but it's true -- yak shit. I'm not saying all self-pubbed books are crap (or that all traditionally pubbed books are good); I'm just saying self-pubbed authors are charged with holding their own feet to their own fire, and that takes a lot of self-discipline. Writing a book without an editor is like applying lipstick without a mirror. Think before you pub.

Keep your yard well-groomed.
It's important for authors to remember that we are spirits in a material world. This is a business, and we have to conduct ourselves like professionals if we hope to be included in the corporate process -- and the corporate income. A lot of networking goes on at lunch and parties in this biz, and the atmosphere is often so congenial and casual, newbies forget they're at work. Artsy is great. Drunk, not s'much. Communication through email is another minefield. Even the little back and forth stuff should be kept clean, and any major rant that needs to happen should be vetted by a trusted third party prior to clicking "send."

Have garage sales only when absolutely necessary.
Fiction is a flamingo rodeo without rules when it comes to money, but nonfiction work -- technical writing, ghostwriting, script-doctoring, proposals, etc -- has value in the marketplace, and giving your work away for no or lowball money makes it harder for all of us to get paid. If you get a gig by undercutting another writer's fee, you haven't done yourself any favor; you've devalued your own work. I routinely get asked to do things "on spec" (which really means "for nothing") because it would be "good exposure." That's just bull. Why would you want to advertise yourself as someone who works for free? If you want to get hired more often, sharpen your skills instead of lowering your price. The only reason to cut rate is for love -- and I mean LOVE -- of the project. (Just remember that for that to be worthwhile, the project has to love you back.)

Fences should be hip high and in good repair.
I've always felt the 6-ft privacy fences in my neighborhood foster an isolating, unfriendly vibe. Picket fences half that height would be adequate to keep the dogs in their own yards, while allowing polite conversation or at least a friendly wave. In the publishing industry, we're seeing the deconstruction of the brick walls (real and imagined) that used to separate agents and editors from writers. I think it's healthy for emerging writers to be better informed and less intimidated, but I've spotted too much information about people on Twitter more than once. Socializing (and social media) are not without professional consequences.

Instead of calling the cops, join the party.
This business is not fair. Never has been, never will be. There's no use complaining or trying to fight that. All you can do is dive in and enjoy all the unruly people, high stakes, ridiculous reversals, fraught encounters, and unabashed passion that make this an amazingly great place in which to live.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Asking for Help

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.


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 my priority.

Yet asking for help is hard to do at times. We want to look strong and capable, unbounded by the same 24-hour clock that rules the lives of mere mortals.

Or you might want to burn yourself out in the attempt to keep the illusion afloat. As for me, I'm over it... and calling in some reinforcements.

People are usually great about responding to such requests if you give them some smaller, concrete task, let them know how much their time and effort are appreciated, and they can see you working like a fiend to cut through your backlog.

So what about the rest of you? Are you able to admit it when you need a helping hand?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Finding story in the shadows

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 climax of the book and revealed the cultural shift in flash-forwards, but that quickly turned to moose droppings.

What clicked when my friend told me about that experience is that this woman cast a very large shadow. Her life was short, but her influence has been profound. The story of the cultural shift and the changes in the lives of the people she loved -- that is her story.

Now apply the same dynamic in microcosm. Say for example, the "line" of the action is that a body hits the floor. That action is the line, but the story is in the shadows. A shudder through the ceiling of the downstairs neighbor, blood spattered on a cat, an ominous smell reported by the newspaper boy. Who turned? What tipped? Why did it matter?

A tree falls in the forest and no one was there to hear. Did it make a sound? That's been debated in salons, classrooms, and corner bars for ages. One thing is certain, it cast a shadow. It changed things. And that's where the story is.

(Above: Lubomir Bukov's "Shadows of the Past")

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Joy of Picking Brains

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 their existence in the guise of the characters we create, that breathes a bit of magic into our prose.

So today I'm giving thanks for the chance to pick so many willing brains, to learn about subjects ranging from Mississippi River steamboats and hog-rendering (really!) to criminal law, human psychology, glider flight, and Civil War spies. Being a writer can be an incredible (and tuition free!) education, and for the most part, all the teachers are just out there in the wide world, eager to share their knowledge for the asking.

What are some of the most interesting people or fascinating topics you have learned about while researching?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

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

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 everyone around me, and I spent the rest of freshman year trying to figure out which Austen character each of my friends and family members most resembled! Also like Ellie, I had a few (okay, a lot) of less-than-wonderful boyfriends, and I would have loved to have been given romantic advice from the author I most respected and the one who’d written one of my all-time favorite love stories.

Every writer makes her own circuitous journey to that first book contract. How did you find your way?
Aside from being on the newspaper and yearbook staff in high school and publishing some academic work in college, I didn’t take writing seriously until I was about 30. I was a stay-at-home mom with a baby and desperately in need of a creative outlet, so I began writing poems, essays on being a parent and educational articles for family magazines. I wrote my first book having never taken a creative-writing class or even having read a book on the craft of fiction. (The lack of craft is very evident when I reread chapters from that first book, btw! I don’t recommend this level of ignorance…) I got some feedback though--mostly negative--from a prominent literary agency, which led me to study fiction formally, delve into craft books and, eventually, go to my first writing conference. It was there that I heard about RWA. I joined, wrote three more unpublished manuscripts and, then, came up with the idea for According to Jane. My agent signed me on this book and submitted it to editors, but it needed to be significantly restructured before it sold. Nine months after it won the Golden Heart and was revised (again), it finally did sell--to John Scognamiglio at Kensington--on a sunny and surrealistic day in April 2008.

What's your optimum writing environment?
I write in my home office--a messy, absolutely cluttered place--I won’t deny it! There are stacks of paper and towers of books everywhere, but also a very nice window overlooking our backyard. Sometimes I’ll write at a local coffee shop (either with my laptop or, most often, just with pen and notebook paper), and that location has the advantage of endless cups of coffee and occasional snacks.

Visit Marilyn's website to read an excerpt from According to Jane.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Writing the Selling Romance Synopsis

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. And besides, I hate writing the synopsis and would rather put it off until I finish a manuscript.

Flash forward mumble-mumble years, to when I sold my first book, a historical romance. (Before I wrote romantic suspense under my own name, I did seven U.S.-set historical romances as Gwyneth Atlee and Colleen Easton.) At the time of the sale, I was about a hundred pages into a second historical, which my agent told me she believed she could sell if I’d give her the first three chapters and a synopsis.

The thought was paralyzing. Would I steal the story’s magic by putting it down on paper before the manuscript unfolded? But the lure of selling a second book quickly was strong, so I sucked it up and pretended I was writing a short story (though in present tense), tossing in little snippets of clever dialogue to help illustrate the characters, and lots of exciting, harrowing events. I was surprised to find it was easier to summarize scenes I hadn’t yet written, and easier to see the big picture.

Except I forgot the biggest. Yes, I initially left out the romance. (Duh!) Since then, I’ve discovered beginning/early career writers do this all the time, focusing on the external plot because to their minds, the romantic journey goes without saying.

No, actually, it doesn’t. Because every couple’s story is fresh and unique, for one thing (or you’d better make it seem so!) and the editor needs some assurance that you realize this book is shelved in romance and that you’re consciously aware of and can articulate the stages readers have come to suspect. Woven through the external story elements, I’ve found you need to put your own unique spin on the following steps in the romantic journey.

1. Attraction/awareness
2. “Forced” proximity despite obstacles
3. Development of emotional and/or physical relationship overcoming characters’ reservations
4. Dark moment/separation, often involving real/perceived betrayal or recognition of insurmountable obstacles
5. Sacrifice leading to a romantic resolution with a – here’s the clincher - strong emotional payoff.

Critics may feel this sort of thing reduces genre romance to a formula. But nobody bashes mystery writers (since my romantic suspense novels all involve a murder mystery, I have to be aware of this as well for my external plot) for adhering to reader expectations involving the presence of viable clues, multiple suspects, convincing distractions (red herrings, if you don’t handle them well) and a credible, satisfying solution. You’re simply showing the editor or agent that you understand the rules of the game, that you’re not trying to play tennis on a basketball court.

Do you love synopses? Hate them? Do any of you have questions or tips on the process that you’d enjoy sharing? I’d love to hear from you.

P.S.- Artwork from Romance without Tears, available on Amazon. 'Cause retro romance is a hoot.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

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

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Making a Case for Knowing Your Place

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 have no idea what's reasonable to expect for your unique material and skill level, at this particular moment in the marketplace. Don't beat yourself up. You really can't know, unless you work in publishing every day and have a grasp on the wriggling trout-in-hand that represents the ever-changing popular taste of consumers.

As a newbie, I used to subscribe to the "if you build it, they will come" theory, and I sank heart and soul into crafting the most perfect gem of a story I could each time out. Yes, they sold, and most were reviewed well, but for whatever reason (remember, there is no fair in publishing) they didn't accurately reflect what the market wanted (in large numbers, anyway) at the moment of publication. So it would have be delusional for me to call my agent and/or publisher demanding a lot of expensive co-op support, advertising, and all the other goodies mentioned above.

So how did I know what to realistically expect? At first, of course, I didn't, but after chatting with authors of similarly themed and positioned books and conferring with my then-agent (whom I didn't listen to nearly often enough) I was able to moderate my expectations. My early royalty statements (once someone was kind enough to explain them to me) helped bring me down to earth, too. But mainly, I started paying attention to which authors my publisher and competing publishers were expending most of their efforts to promote.

Using all this information, I gradually pieced together where I fell within the pantheon of published authors. Not at the bottom of the pile, thank goodness, but nowhere near the stratosphere, either.

Thankfully, however, publishing's not the kind of caste system that consigns an author for life to whatever station she's first published. As an author becomes more skillful and more aware of what's going on in the day-to-day marketplace, lightning can definitely strike in the form of a manuscript so strong, it catapults her to the "heavens."

Is there a guaranteed way to achieve this? Sorry, but the game's definitely more art than science, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the luck factor, too, of having your consciousness tuned to the right cultural frequency at the right moment. But I can tell you what won't work: hounding your agent/publishing house with the kind of unreasonable, unrealistic demands that label you an amateur or beating the dead horse of self-promotion until readers are sick of hearing your name.

I know some of you have heard that the squeaky wheel's always the one to get the grease, but if it's sufficiently annoying, that wheel can/will be replaced.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Consider yourself duly cautioned as to our lack of objectivity

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 and product mentioned on this blog, particularly the ones I don't identify as written by my clients.

Consider yourself duly notified of my lack of objectivity, and of course thank the FTC for watching out for you.

I'm going to follow her lead and cover our collective octo-fanny with a blanket disclaimer, but with the addition of this woo woo thought for the day:

Publishing is a community. We all have a vested interest in each other's success -- or failure. Every book is our book. Every time you help a neighbor, you benefit. Every time you tear someone else down, you lose something. Karmic payola, my friends.

For the record, Collen and I do receive a lot of free books from publishers, authors, and PR folk. We don't always plug the book or interview the author, but that's because Colleen and I are both under deadline pretty much all the time. We try hard to do as many as we can. We've fallen down a bit lately. Super busy summer. (I have a dozen people waiting very patiently for me right now, so let me add an official apology for my neglect. I'm getting there.)

I have friends at various large and small presses, and if they ask me for a favor, I do what I can to help out. I don't lie and say I like a book I hate, but I'm predisposed to like most books, especially those written or published by my friends, who tend to be nerdy types, and I will try hard to find something positive to say about any book or author. I will not trash a book or author in this space. If I really had to hold my nose while reading, I'll opt to say nothing at all.

Colleen has strong ties to the RWA and the Houston romance writing community, where she is revered as a bit of a goddess, but she's pretty much the same way I am with reviews. If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all, just like Mom always told you. While books are being given to her, she's not getting paid, and no authors are stopping by her house to do her laundry or anything. (I've actually stopped by her house to do MY laundry, but that's another story.)

Bottom lining it, we are strongly biased in favor of a healthy publishing industry in general and our friends in particular. We like free books! If you want to send us a published book (no self-published books, please) or a bound galley, we will embrace it with all the love in our hearts, review it if we can, interview the author if at all possible, or at the very least wish you well.

(Above "Rules for Living in Misery" are from Twelve Guaranteed Ways to Stay Miserable (or Change) by Patricia L. Zerman and Beverly J. Wolf. Full disclosure: I have not read this book, but it seems like she's onto something. This list is intensely applicable to writer/moms. Click graphic to enlarge.)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sending Up a Test Balloon

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 reformulate the pieces, I couldn't figure out the problem -- and really didn't care to keep bashing my head against the bricks.


But it's important to experiment, to step out of one's comfort zone and take risks. Some will work and work well. Some will work in part, giving you material with which to cross-pollinate a more workable project. And others, unfortunately will be consigned to the permanent scrap heap

I'm thinking my last couple of weeks' work fall into that middle ground. There's something there, but either it's not ready, I'm not ready, or only part of it holds real potential. (Which part? Not quite sure yet.)

So how do you know when a new project's not quite right? Is there anything you can do to reinflate the balloon?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

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 bookmobile last year. It's about to celebrate its 40th year in print.

Ray Bradbury blessed JLS with this generous blurb: "Richard Bach with this book does two things. He gives me Flight. He makes me Young. For both I am deeply grateful."

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is about striving for something higher. And about falling to earth. Aging hippie that I am, it still works for me. Bach hated the film with the Neil Diamond music so much that he sued the production company, and critics hated it even worse, but in my head, I can't separate the two, and in a weird way, that part of the saga sort of goes with the message of the book:

Most gulls don't bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight--how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight...

What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Setting as Tightrope

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 would be on that person. The author's goal should be to create characters that could only exist in that milieu.

We've all read stories that read as if the author plucked a modern-day (or urban) character with modern-day attitudes and dropped him/her into another place/time. This misfit character then proceeds to show the misguided yokels how very wrong they are in light of our current society's perceptions.

Ugh. Doesn't work, but neither does alienating today's readers by confronting them with attitudes most would find repellent. The challenge is finding shared values between the culture you're writing and our own and creating a character that champions them while remaining true to his/her own milieu.

It's a tightrope, definitely. But nobody ever promised that this writing thing was easy.

Do you have a favorite setting or an example of a book that makes excellent use of setting? Can you think of any books with contemporary settings that accomplish the same feat?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

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.)

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 wannabe with a stage-sucking mother who delivered her baby girl into the hands of a predator.

"I don't believe it was rape rape," Whoopi Goldberg was quoted, and if she actually said that, I'm sick with disappointment. I've always loved and admired her, and she's literally the last person on earth I would have expected to poopoo the sexual assault of a child. I'm not sure what rape rape is that regular ol' rape isn't, and I haven't been educated on forms of rape that are okay, but according to grand jury testimony from 1977, a seriously creepy crime was committed. It almost certainly was not an isolated incident. Polanski admitted guilt. There's no question concerning statute of limitation, and Polanski's "settlement" with the victim doesn't satisfy the charges against him. If Polanski was a plumber or a dentist, we wouldn't be having this conversation. If he'd been a gaffer or craft service provider on one of his own movies, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

But Polanski is a brilliant artist, so...what -- he's entitled to cross lines? Because brilliant artists are above the mores and folkways that apply to "normal" people? Or should he be pardoned now because he was rich enough to jump bail and live a life of luxury in Europe for 30 years? Or because there's no age limit on predatory "casting couch" manipulation and intimidation?

The bad behavior of artists and writers is such a time-honored tradition, those of us who've never been in a jail cell, bar fight, or nut house feel like underachievers. All that business about being polite, showing up on time, staying sober at least 85% of the time -- that stuff is like Pirate Rules for writers. "More like guidelines." Tortured novelists are supposed to screw around on their wives and neglect their children. If a poet's not completely insane, what good is she to anyone?

As a mom and an artist, I can't stomach the destructive fallout from the wrong-headed indulgence of bad behavior by authors and artists. It's privately corrosive and publicly devalues our work.

I'm an odd duck, I won't deny it. Eccentricity is a pretty standard byproduct of the writing life, and we do have to cultivate a healthy disregard for what's "done" and "not done." But there are rules, even for the unruly. Our freedom from convention doesn't authorize us to abuse people, physically or emotionally. If an artist is also a mother, she's morally obligated to keep at least one foot in the real world. Personally, I'm proud to be the uncool mom who would not in a thousand years allow -- much less encourage -- my starstruck teenage daughter to go off alone with a 43 yr old director. Professionally, I'm happy to be the pedestrian worker bee who honors my deadlines and survives industry cocktail parties upright.

Bottom-lining it: there's okay and there's not okay. That goes for everybody, including artists. No matter how much I love Roman Polanski's movies -- and no matter how much I love certain people in Hollywood -- I love my daughter more. I love anyone's daughter more.

"The whole art world suffers!" said Debra Winger, distraught that her pet film festival had been disrupted over what a famous Swiss director called Polanski's "little mistake." Please.

The idea that it is somehow understandable or okay for any man to exploit and brutalize any young girl is unconscionable, and no art of any value can come from a culture that condones it.


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