Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing through the holiday season

If someone were to ask me, in the months of November and December, which writing gift I would most value, I'd say, hands down, what I most need is focus. It's a distracting time of year, with guilt-inducing "should-be-doings" staring me in the face wherever I look.

Working around the holidays requires careful time management, goal-setting, and most of all, realistic expectations. Figure out which holiday routines truly make you and your loved ones happy. Allot these "deal-breakers" a finite amount of time on specific, determined days. If there are traditions that no one cares that much about (or that you're doing 100% of the work for), try setting them aside for one year to find out if they're missed. Then, you and your family can reset your priorities for next year.

A few years back, I was down to the wire on a December deadline, had a book coming out (with the requisite speaking/signing activities scheduled), and had galleys (page proofs) show up as well. That year, I ordered nearly all gifts online (delivered directly to out of town recipients), didn't get out Christmas cards, and (insert loud gasps) never got to the inside decorations, including the tree. And we went out for dinner, too.

The moral of the story is that the world did not come to an end. But in the years since, we figured out which things mattered to us as a family and which no one was willing to pitch in to lend a hand with. And I've learned to put aside the pressure to be the next Martha Stewart and keep myself sane by keeping the writing fires burning to a realistic degree.

So how much writing are you able to accomplish during November and December? How do you balance work and family?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Colleen's favorite reads of 2009

This year, I'm extremely thankful for a wealth of terrific reading material.

I've read a lot of great books in 2009, but over on the blog Writers Read, I'm discussing some of my favorites for this year.

Check it out and let me know, have you read any of these books? What did you think? And if not, what have been your favorite reads of 2009 (so far, at least)?

(You know, besides Joni's A Little Bit Wicked and my Beneath Bone Lake? ;)

Photo: Burgess Meredith, from "Time Enough at Last," a.k.a. the best episode ever of The Twilight Zone

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Thankful Writer

Now that I have your attention... this Thanksgiving, I'm pushing aside gripes and worries about contracts, reviews, revisions, and the economy to give thanks for the blessings the writing life has bestowed. I'm thankful for the family who support my efforts, the sharp eyes and good will of my critique partners, and the cameraderie of writing buds.

I'm grateful to have found an agent who not only stands up for me but pushes me to take time and risks, for the editors whose thoughtful suggestions and enthusiasm have made me want to work my tail off, and the readers who vote with their wallets to keep me gainfully employed, recommend me to their friends, and write me sweet notes on occasion.

With its ever-changing challenges, the writing life keeps me on my toes and never offers me a chance to grow bored or complacent. Inspired to always strive for better, I continually feel pushed to - and sometimes beyond - my limits. I feel as if I'm doing the work I'm meant to do, and I'm proud of what I'm producing.

I'm thankful, too, to be living in a place and time where creativity is valued rather than stifled, where women's voices matter. Where individual's voices matter, no matter what the writer's ethnic heritage, socioeconomic background, or education level.

Finally, I'm thankful for the supportive community of writers, along with a community of readers hungering for the next great story.

So what aspects of your writing life are you most thankful for this year?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"My cockeyed Valentine to Japan" (3 Questions for Wendy Tokunaga, author of "Love in Translation")

Japan and Japanese culture have been major influences on the life and writing of Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. She signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s just as she was beginning the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco in 2006. Midori by Moonlight came out the following year with terrific reviews, and Love in Translation hits bookstores next week. From the press kit:
After receiving a puzzling phone call and a box full of mysteries, 33-year-old fledgling singer Celeste Duncan is off to Japan to search for a long, lost relative who could hold the key to the identity of the father she never knew. This overwhelming place where nothing is quite as it seems, leading her to ask: What is the true meaning of family? And what does it mean to discover your own voice?
So I have to start by asking, Wendy, how did you discover your voice as a writer?
I’d always written stories as a child and even published my own magazine (I think I had three subscribers!). When I was a teenager I plunged into songwriting, playing bass guitar and singing in my own bands. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my forties, inspired by colleagues at a technical writing job I had who wrote fiction on the side. I decided to take a creative writing night course at a community college and began writing short stories. Over the years that led to a few published stories, then many stabs at novel writing and then finally a two-book publishing deal.

How did you come to this particular story? Or did this story come to you?
This novel is my cockeyed valentine to Japan, a place I have both adored and abhorred over the years and a place that has had a huge impact on my life. Japan and Japanese culture have been my muses. My first novel, Midori by Moonlight, is about a Japanese woman who finds herself in California. Love in Translation is about Celeste, a Californian who finds herself quite unexpectedly in Japan on a search for a long, lost relative who may hold the key to the identity of the father she never knew. The novel is also about the power of music, another force in my life. I met my Japanese husband when I put out an ad for someone to translate my song lyrics into Japanese. Subsequently he ended up helping me record a demo of my songs with me singing in Japanese. In the book when Celeste, a fledgling singer, learns to sing a Japanese song her life changes in ways she never imagined.

Now that you've hit your stride as a novelist, what do you love and hate about the process?
My favorite part of writing is revision and my least favorite is writing new material. I find it excruciating to write a rough draft, just to get the bare bones of the story on paper, no matter how clearly the story may be outlined and in my head. This is when my inner critic is the most vocal and I must fight with her constantly. The most pleasurable part is when I can revise, sculpt, and polish the prose and also experiment with adding elements and cutting others. This is when I read my work aloud, which I find fun and very helpful, in attempting to get the prose sounding just right.

Click here to read Chapter One of Love in Translation. And look for it in bookstores next week. Here's the trailer...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Best. Pie. Ever. Happy Thanksgiving!

If I'm gonna gain weight (I baked two, heaven help me) then I'll feel much better if everyone else does, too, so I'm sharing our family's very favorite pumpkin pie/cheesecake recipe. Shamelessly ripped from the old classic Great Home Cooking in America (c. 1976 from the editors of Farm Journal - so it has to be good).

I defy you not to love this.

Festive Pumpkin Pie

1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened
3/4 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
3 eggs
1 c. canned pumpkin
1 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 unbaked 9" pie shell, edges crimped high
1 c. dairy sour cream
2 tblsp. sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cream together cream cheese, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Blend in pumpkin, milk, and vanilla. Pour into pie shell.

Bake 45-50 min. or until knife inserted halfway between center and edge comes out clean.

Blend sour cream and sugar. Spread over top of pie. Return pie to oven 3 to 5 minutes or just until topping is set.

Chill before serving. Loosen your belt!

A Tip from Twain: Revision

As all you NaNoWrMo folks (and others) finish up manuscripts, here's a great tip from the great beyond to help guide you with what may be the most crucial phase of the writing process.

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
- Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, from a letter to Orion Clemens, 23 March 1878

Have a great Thanksgiving week, everyone!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday groove: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."
Walt Whitman printed 795 copies of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

About two dozen sold.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue

When I'm reading contest entries that fall short, one of the biggest pitfalls I encounter has to do with dialogue. I'm also most at a loss when commenting on this area, which is definitely more art than science. Here are a few things I do know. Since I'm crabby because the dumb dog woke me up way early , they are totally unfiltered for politeness.

Deal with it. ;)

Dialogue should never be:
1. Dull.

"How are you, Alphonse?"
"I am fine, Susie. How are you?"

You're not out to transcribe banal, everyday chit chat. We can all hear that at home. Any dialogue on the page should serve the plot and/or characterization.

2. Stiff.

"I must say, Sue, you are looking especially fetching today in your pretty, red sweater."
Susie's smile turned to a frown. "I am surprised at you, Alphonse. I never realized you were a drug fiend."

Note the overuse of names as a form of address, lack of contractions, use of complete sentences, and bizarre, language that's out of sync with your story's time period.

3. Expository (used solely for the purpose of giving the reader information, especially when it's info the characters already know.
"As you may remember from our high school days together, Susie, I have a rare condition called vocabulus anachronistis, whose major symptoms manifest themselves in bizarre language choices, wolfish eye-goggling, and repulsion of the opposite sex."
"And you may remember, Alphonse, last October's restraining order is still in effect, and my violence-prone daddy's still on the police force."

4. Unintentionally hilarious.

It's definitely not cool when the writer isn't in on the joke.

5. A literal transcription of natural speech (complete with all the "ums," "ers," stammering, and pointless asides.)

Great dialogue is zingy, deep/clever, and makes you wish you could express yourself so well in the heat of the moment. Since the majority of writers I know are introverted nebbishes at heart (no, I don't mean you, personally, of course!) dialogue gives us a chance to shine!

6. Homogenized.

If your book's Harvard-educated philosopher sounds exactly like 82-year-old Daisy from the corner sub shop, you've got yourself a problem.

7. Stupid.

Readers should not be gagging at the cliches, rolling their eyes at the obviousness, or thinking of filing sexual harassment charges against your story's hero.

If you're having trouble with your dialogue, try reading it aloud without the story's narrative, listening to actual human beings talk (eavesdropping in stores, restaurants, and coffee shops is a critical writers' skill), and reading/studying plenty of good books to develop an ear for it. I won't lie to you - a lot of writing dialogue is inborn talent, but you can and will get better at it if you make an effort. And quiz yourself about whether you've committed one of these seven deadly sins.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Not the usual 9 to 5 (looking at the workstyles of creative people)

"Daily Routines" is an interesting little blog that examines the way creative people work.

Simone de Beauvoir
"I'm always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. Most often it's a pleasure to work." (She adds that she works every afternoon, hanging out at Sartre's place.)

Stephen King
“There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon. It’s not any different than a bedtime routine.”

C.S. Lewis
"At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman's knock."

"Daily Routines" features a diverse selection of fascinating people from Obama and Churchill to John Grisham, Mr. Rogers, and Thomas Friedman, who sums up exactly the way I feel about the writing life: "Honestly, I still can't wait to get my pants on in the morning."

Check it out.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Writing Gets Harder

As I labor to revise practically every paragraph of a recent proposal (after rewriting from scratch and then sending off another) I asked myself the same question novelists have been whining since Gutenberg:

When does this %$@#! get easier?

Here's the bad news. I see no sign it ever does.

For the past ten years, I've spent the bulk of my time writing. I've seen fifteen books published and seventeen contracted. Yet I often look back fondly on the days when I was scrambling to squeeze twenty minutes or an hour out of days packed with full-time (plus, if you count the many hours a week spent grading papers) teaching, marriage, and motherhood, days when every time I sat down at my computer, the story spilled out in what seemed like an effortless torrent.

In those halcyon days, it was all about the story and not about the craft. I didn't have time or space enough in my life for worries about reviews, rejection, and sales numbers. I didn't have to care about whether checks showed up late or ever, because I wasn't counting on them.

I do remember wanting "in the club" with an intensity so keen it was painful and the terrible frustration of hovering at the "almost" level for so long. But publishing was the big goal, and I didn't stop to differentiate between starvation-wage, lower-echelon publication and the big-time. I didn't spend much time worrying about advances, royalty rates, or book awards. I just wanted my shot.

And that's all as it should be.

As one crosses over to become a professional, however, the concerns change, the bar rises, and all of this tends to make writing harder instead of easier. What we've learned impinges on the act, and if we're not careful, on the joy of our endeavor.

But here's the good news. Once the writer accepts the inherent challenges as part of the attraction and comes to grip with the constancy of struggle, she can embrace the work itself, in all humility. She can look back at her progress, and based on her own history, take heart in the knowledge that she's faced tough roads in the past and overcome them, that she's slogged through the mire to achieve (however modestly) her goals.

She can tell herself: I've done it before, I can do it again. And this time, I'm taking everything I've learned and using it to make this book a little better.

That's what keeps us going. That's what makes us strong.

So what about the rest of you? What aspects of writing do you find getting tougher? Which come easier?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Note to Book Editors: Call arse-kicking machine repairman!

From the always insightful David Hewson's "Why does a popular press hate popular books?":
The best selling book in Britain last year was Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye. I checked The Times archives to see if they reviewed it. Yes, they did, favourably. But only after it got to number one. When I was a general reporter and that kind of thing happened with news stories there was always an inquest, and usually someone was invited into the room that contained what one executive liked to call ‘the arse-kicking machine’. With good reason too.

I’ve picked on my own paper here because it’s the one I still take at home. This is a little unfair. Snobbery on the literary pages is rife, and not just a British affair. The American prints often behave much the same way. Many of those are steadily killing book review space too on ‘economic grounds’.
Read the rest here.

Read Sam Shepard's "Indianapolis (Highway 74)"

Looking for a culturally edifying way to delay starting your work day? Now in the New Yorker, short fiction from one of my favorite playwrights.

From "Indianapolis (Highway 74)" by Sam Shepard:
Evidently there’s some kind of hot-rod convention going on in town, although I seem to remember those always taking place at the height of summer, when people can run around in convertible coup├ęs with the tops down. Anyway, there are no rooms available, except possibly one, and that one is “Smoking,” which I have nothing against. The desk clerk tells me she’ll know in about ten minutes if there’s going to be a cancellation. I’m welcome to wait, so I do, not wanting to face another ninety-some miles down to Kentucky through threatening weather.
Click here to read the rest.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Potential Pitfalls: Flashbacks

Some techniques are riskier than others. After judging for a number of first chapter writing contests, I've come to the conclusion that one of the toughest to pull off is the flashback.

In skillful, experienced hands, flashbacks may work - and work well. But more often than not, especially in the hands of newer writers, flashbacks serve as stumbling blocks, distancing the reader from the now of the story before the reader's fully bonded with the characters and their present journey.

The writer's goal should be to immerse the audience in the story's real-time flow of events. Anything that detracts from that connection should be cut.

So how, without flashbacks, does the writer effectively dispense critical backstory? Ideally, crumb by crumb, dispensing teasing little hints - the kind that keep the reader madly turning pages as she seeks to piece together the totality. Dispensed a bit as a time, this trail of breadcrumbs enhances rather than detracts from the plot, heightens tension, and raises story questions instead of stomping them flat.

So the next time you're tempted to use a flashback, especially near your manuscript's beginning, ask yourself, could the story possibly be better off without it?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sisterhood over self help (3 Questions for Melissa Senate, author of The Secret of Joy)

New Yorker Rebecca Strand is shocked when her dying father confesses a devastating secret: Joy, a daughter he turned his back on, the result of an affair when Rebecca was a toddler. Now he wants Joy to read the unsent letters he wrote every year on her birthday. Determined to fulfill her father’s last wish, Rebecca drives to a small town in Maine and knocks on her half-sister’s door. As is always the case with sisters, secrets, and broken hearts, everything that happens after that in Melissa Senate's latest novel, The Secret of Joy, is complicated, to say the least. The book is in stores this week, and Melissa spared a moment for 3 Qs in the midst of launch-o-palooza.

This is fertile ground for a story to grow, Melissa. I'm curious about the roots. Where did the idea come from?
Several years ago, I received an email out of the blue that said: I think you might be my half-sister. I was. Am. It took me a long time to decide to take that little (huge) nugget and write a novel to help me figure out the answer to some burning questions, such as: if you haven’t seen or heard from your biological father, or any member of his family, since you were little (or, in Joy’s case, never at all), is his child from another relationship really your sibling? Or just a stranger? Does the word father or sister or brother mean anything without back up? I had a ton of questions and set out to uncover how I felt through a fictional character, but it’s interesting to me that I flipped everything on its head in the writing of the story. Nothing but the basic questions that are proposed in the novel are autobiographical. Just the questions! And I surprised myself quite a few times during the writing of this story with how I felt about certain things. Amazing how writing fiction can teach you so much about yourself.

When a book is about folks -- as opposed to lost symbols, car chases, etc -- the nuances and consistency of character mean everything. How do you anchor yourself, visually and conceptually, while you craft the people in your books?
I picture my characters’ faces with their personalities etched into their features. I rarely base my characters physically on celebs (except for my first book—Jane from See Jane Date looked just like Ann Marie from “That Girl” (a young Marlo Thomas). She did not look like Charisma Carpenter, who perfectly played her in the TV movie, but now when I think of Jane, I think of Charisma only. Which makes me think of hot David Boreanaz, which is a good thing. I have long been drawn to guys with dark eyes and dark hair, starting with my very first serious crush in 7th grade. But Theo, Rebecca’s love interest, has sandy-blond hair and pale brown eyes because that’s just the way he came out of the keyboard -- he sort of created himself. I never base the guys on anyone. They’re always inspired by the guy I wish I were dating. (Yes, I’m single!) Right now, as a single mother, I’d love a guy who, like hot, wise Theo, works with his hands and made things, like porch swings and tree houses for my son. A guy who’s smart and honest and romantic and always seems to say the right thing at the right time.

Okay, putting that out to the Universe. Meanwhile, you seem to have your feet firmly on the ground career-wise. Talk to us a bit about the nuts and bolts of process. (Whatever you're doing is working spectacularly well!)
An idea flits into my heart, mind and soul (if I may be so dramatic!) and I just know. The idea, just a wispy thing, grips me and I think about it until the two major characters—my protagonist and the person or thing who “forces” her change—become clear. Then I write out a one page treatment, a bare bones synopsis, then think about that, then revise the storyline into a “pitch” I can share with my agent. If she green-lights it, I’ll then let myself dream it into a full blown synopsis, which is what I usually sell a novel on. The synopsis, in its major plot points, rarely changes, but how the characters get from page one to page 325 is another story.

I’m crazy about my editor, Jennifer Heddle at Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. I love working with her. She’s just so razor-sharp smart and aware and interested in the world and pop culture (which I’ve learned via being her friend on Facebook!). Her suggestions, starting with our first conversation before she even bought my book, were so intelligent and thoughtful. And she’s New York honest in a very kind way with her editorial letters and edits. I absolutely trust what she says. As I’ve gotten to know her, I’m even more touched that she bought my book. She’s a tough customer, I think. And that’s a good thing.

The Secret of Joy is a Simon & Schuster Book Club Pick. Click here for the Reading Group Guide.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Oh, Deer! Lessons from a Misguided Buck

We've all heard of tilting at windmills, but this week, in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a buck went that old saw one better, mistaking a 640-pound concrete elk statue (to give him credit, it was a misty dawn, and mating season, when buck hormones run amok) for a rival and head-butted the immovable object to hard that Very Bad Stuff ensued. Sure, his "enemy" was toppled and its antlers broken, but the poor, misguided buck cracked his own noggin, stumbled a short distance, and succumbed to his miscalculation.

Almost immediately, I saw the corollary with writers frustrated by rejection, inattention, or poor sales. Perceiving an enemy in the guise of an agent, editor, or publishing house, these writers allow their feelings of impatience, rage, and helplessness to lead them to attack, often in the form of ill-thought e-mails, public Internet postings, and rants at writers' conference. As in the buck's case, the results (to the writers' hoped-for careers, at any rate) can be equally calamatous. Publishing is a very small world, and things do get around. Even more importantly, fury, frustration, and feelings of impotence tend to drive the muse to warmer climes... which leaves a writer no product to peddle.

Just remember, "enemies" are often inanimate or immovable objects, attempts at revenge tend to backfire, and a dead buck gets no doe/dough. I'm not saying that the writer should put up with any old abuse that comes down the pike, only that it might be wise to give the situation the old smell test before you lower your antlers and make a headlong charge.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the origins of genius (and where one goes after everywhere)

Whatever you're doing, writing, being, buying, selling, ramma-jamming today, I hope you'll spare twenty minutes for these wise and comforting words from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and the forthcoming Committed: a Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sound vs. Noise

I have a number of CDs/MP3 tracks I often play but rarely hear. I'm plugged into an old favorite now, An English Ladymass by Anonymous 4, a gorgeous medieval groove.

Beautiful as it is, I don't play it so much to listen as to overlay the harsh cacophony of what I like to call The Noise. More than the literal racket of ringing phones and barking dogs and your neighbor's darned leaf blower, this noise consists in equal parts of old rejections, fear of new ones, and discouraging pronouncements from the Voices of Doom (many of which write articles, post blogs, and tweet copiously, shrilling the news of markets collapsing, agents despairing, and, to put the cherry on top, your most recent effort stinking up the planet.)

Now, I'm not advocating a head-in-the-sand approach to writing (or life in general), but there's a difference between the necessary evil of staying aware and allowing The Noise to take up residence in your skull. Art can't happen in the presence of fear, so you have to find some way to silence both the internal and external factors that prevent you from creating.

In my case, I make the conscious decision to choose sound over noise, to quit reading the naysayers, and to get on with the business of telling the stories I want to tell, to dream, and to inhabit. And I take it as an article of faith that if I love that story and its characters enough, so will others.

So what steps do you take to quiet The Noise?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Upwardly mobile (Levitate innovates more than the world's most awesome staircase)

One of the blogs on our Feed Me bar pointed me toward this amazing multi-tasking bookcase/stairway (to heaven!) in a London home designed by Levitate Architecture. When I visited their site to see what other cool and groovy stuff they were doing, I was taken by their opening statement, which is something a lot of us could tweak to apply to what we do in book world:
We are a practice of Architects and Conservation Architects committed to designing sustainable and contextual contemporary architecture. Architecture that is in harmony with modern life and its setting. We practice what we call "innovative common sense," taking our client's brief and delving into it to find something extra, something unique. We aim to create spaces that function effectively but that are also a joy to be in...We take time to understand the wider context, physical, social, economic, of all our projects, but we also take pleasure in attention to detail. We provide a professional, friendly service and enjoy what we do.

I love that that last sentence is something of which they are particularly proud. It's not a given. It's part of the mission. Madlib all that, substituting books and readers for spaces and clients, and it's a set of directives every working author could take to heart. This is a moment and market environment that calls for "innovative common sense," if ever there was such.

By the way, the Feed Me bar item was on the New Yorker's "Book Bench" blog, a terrific mix of random industry-related stuff. Check it out.

(And no, I have not yet approached the Gare Bear with my secret plan to tear up the hallway carpet and recreate my own suburban crackerbox version of the bookway to heaven. But I will have it. Oh, yes. I will have it...)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Do You Want to Enough?

"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning."
Phyllis A. Whitney

To Ms. Whitney's wisdom, I'd add, do you want to enough to put in the time and sweat equity and expend the effort to silence the voices of doom (many of which are located only inside your head)?

If the answer to any of these is no, then move along. There's nothing to see here. But if you're brave enough, smart enough, diligent enough, talented enough and mule-stubborn, you just may have a shot.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Stoking the Fire: Keeping the Creative Habit Alive

After taking an extra-long weekend for R&R and travel, I find myself playing catch up this week... and tempted to blow off my own writing to tend to the mountain of O.O. (other obligations) in my way. But the trouble is, O.O.s, like the detritus taking over my office, have a way of expanding to overwhelm all available space. Should I allow them to take precedence over my writing, I'll see more and more and still more things that need doing. And before I know it, the habit of writing will be lost.

It's a fragile thing, this habit, and no matter how many years you've stoked its flames, the writer must remember it takes only a little inattention to see them snuffed out by the demands of living. When I've worked for others, my supervisors never would have tolerated my putting their business last on my priority list. It's important that I'm at least as work-oriented a boss to myself.

So instead, I plan to give over the best hours of my week to what's most important to me: my own writing. Instead of shunting it aside, I'll ditch TV, DVD movies, and (this one really hurts) reading for pleasure in the evenings until I get caught up.

In doing so, I will feed the fire of my work, one twig at a time.

What are your work priorities this week? How to you plan to keep your focus on them?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Fortunately, Rue McClanahan has a great heart!

I've gotten a lot of email this week about Rue McClanahan's heart surgery on Wednesday. Rue was going in to have knee surgery, preparing to return to the stage with an adaptation of her memoir My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away. (I had a blast working with her on the book and was delighted to help with the script adaptation.) According to Rue, during the pre-op stuff, it was discovered that she "needed some maintenance on the old ticker."

I really haven't heard any more than has been reported in the media, but word has it she's doing great. What I can tell you for sure is that Rue has one of the biggest, kindest, most genuine hearts in the biz, with or without bipass. I'm sending her a care package today and will pass along all the messages of love and support.

Update Saturday noonish: Just heard from a friend that Rue's doing fabulously well and bossing everyone around the ICU. That's m'girl!

A little Rue for writers: "Now I know why Hemingway killed himself" scene from "The Golden Girls."

Friday, November 06, 2009

Changing the Writer's Point of View

A few years ago, I attended an excellent workshop, given by agent Donald Maass, called Writing the Breakout Novel, based on his outstanding book of the same title. One of the exercises I found particularly intriguing involved having everyone list the one thing their main character would never do.

Then, a little while later, Mr. Maass suggested, "Now, have your character do exactly that thing."

The results were interesting, forcing the writer to plumb un-guessed depths, nuances, and/or contradictions in a character each believed already well known. Whether or not the scene made it to the completed book, it gave each writer excellent food for thought.

I'll take it one step further and suggest a bit of a twist. Why not list several things you would never do as a writer. Then force yourself to try them, one by one. Whether or not you end up with anything useful, you're very likely, by breaking out of a rut, to shake loose at least a few worthwhile new thoughts.

Pictured: This week, I've broken out of the sedentary writer rut and embarked on a three-hour trail ride to the top of a West Texas mountain. Seeing the gorgeous gold of the cottonwoods, blue of the sky, and sweep of landscape from this fresh vantage point gave me an entirely new perspective on a part of the country I've often mined for settings. Though I haven't ridden in years and know I'll be sore as anything tomorrow, I hope to come back to my writing wonderfully refreshed.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Padgett Powell in "The Interrogative Mood"

Are you happy? Do we need galoshes? Are bluebirds perfect? Do you know the distinctions, empirical or theoretical, between moss and lichen? Is it clear to you why I am asking you all these questions? Should I go away? Leave you alone? Should I bother but myself with the interrogative mood?
Yes, no, yes, no, almost, not yet, maybe later, and absolutely not.

Here's another question: Is it possible to pull off a literary parlor trick without making the reader want to crawl through the page and hit you with a shovel?

Answer: Maybe.

I one-clicked Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood, referred to in the press kit as "a bebop solo of a book in which every sentence is a question." It arrived this morning, I love LOVE love the cover, and after a quick skim of the first ten pages, I'm optimistic. I'll let you know how I feel about it as soon as I answer a few of life's other pressing questions.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Save the cat...not. (3 Questions for Peter Leonard, author of "Trust Me")

Yesterday, we went back to the beginning with Peter Leonard whose sophomore novel Trust Me came out earlier this year, bringing together a woman scorned, a load of stolen money, and a host of malefactors in a wildly inventive cocktail of of a plot -- including a triple-double-cross and the antithesis of ye olde "save the cat moment."

From the press kit:
The first mistake Karen Delaney made was entrusting $300,000 to her boyfriend, Samir, the head of an illegal bookmaking operation. The second was breaking up with him---because Samir holds a $300,000 grudge. A few months later, Karen sees a way to get her money back when two thieves break into her house in the middle of the night. She proposes a scheme to steal Samir’s safe, but Karen soon realizes she’s in way over her head as things begin to spin out of control.

Trust Me moves at breakneck speed through the affluent suburbs of Detroit and Chicago as Karen is pursued by O’Clair, an ex-con/ex-cop who works for Samir and wants the money for his own retirement; by Ricky, Samir’s nephew, who sees the money as a way to pay off his own escalating gambling debts; by the thieves who’ve been double-crossed; and by two ruthless hit men who view the money as their stake in the American dream.
I had a hard time limiting myself to three questions, but here goes.

Peter, you've got a great ensemble cast going in Trust Me. Not one of them is an angel, but just about everyone gets at least a moment of likability. Talk to us about that lovable scoundrel vibe. Is it something you build in to each individual character or does it flow from a larger view of how people are wired?
I don't see the characters in TRUST ME as lovable scoundrels. I think they are crooks with likable qualities. I try to develop characters who are real and believable and interesting. Take Bobby for example, everything has gone wrong. He's lost the money and Karen. He's clearly frustrated and takes his aggressions out on Megan's cat, picks it up and throws it across the room. And when O'Clair goes to visit Lloyd in the hospital, they end up talking about hot dish and the Segal movie that's on TV. I think these scenes help define the characters and make them more believable. Everyone in TRUST ME is bad to a certain degree. It's the only way a story like this would work. The theme is trust, or lack thereof. Even Karen, the most decent character in the novel, has larceny in her heart. I believe she is justified in getting her money back, and she doesn't think twice about using the bad guys who are trying to rob her.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, a general question about the twists and turns in Trust Me: Did you know where you were going with this when you first climbed into bed with Lou and Karen or did the plot bombs catch you by surprise?
I knew where I was going but not how it would end. I hoped Karen would win but wasn't sure. In the original version, O'Clair was the bad guy, but I liked him too much, so I expanded Ricky's role and developed the Iraqi hit men. Counting Bobby, Lloyd and O'Clair there are six guys looking for Karen, and that gave me a lot of opportunities to plot and create suspense.

Trust Me fit in nicely with both my film noir and hard boiled fiction addictions. I enjoyed it a lot. Tell us about the reading you've done (other than the obvious) that laid the foundation for your writing. And what are you reading now?
My biggest influences were: Charles Willeford, Miami Blues, George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men, Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck, several by Hemingway and several by my father. I'm reading Crossers by Philip Caputo.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"Boy, you're on your way." (Peter Leonard on getting The Call and stepping out of a tall shadow)

It's a huge moment in every author's career: The Call that instantly takes us from pipe dream to book deal. Today Peter Leonard, author of Quiver and Trust Me (and son of novelist Elmore Leonard) stops by to talk about what his famous father did and didn't do for him in a great "how I got from there to here" story...

I remember when I was nine years old, going down the stairs to the basement, seeing my dad at his desk, white cinder block wall behind him, concrete floor. He was writing longhand on unlined, 8½ x 11 yellow paper, typewriter on a metal stand next to his chair. Across the room was a red wicker waste basket, balls of yellow paper on the floor around it, scenes that didn't work, pages that didn't make it in the basket. In retrospect, it looked like a prison cell but my father didn't seem conscious of his surroundings, deep in concentration, midway through a western called Hombre that would be made into a movie starring Paul Newman.

Forty years later I remember visiting my father after work one evening. I was stressed out after presenting a new ad campaign to Volkswagen that got lukewarm reception. Elmore no longer wrote in a cinder block basement. With forty novels and a dozen scripts to his credit, he now worked in the living room of his manor home in Bloomfield Hills, a tiny suburb of Detroit. What struck me was that his desk looked much the same as it had that day when I was nine. Same yellow pad, and half a dozen balls of yellow paper next to the waste basket against the wall, electric typewriter on a metal stand behind the desk. No computer anywhere in sight. Elmore in Levis and sandals and a dark blue Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, talking enthusiastically about the opening scene of his new book called The Hot Kid.

Watching my father, I thought, here's a guy who really loves what he's doing, and I didn't. Earlier that afternoon, during my presentation, the VW ad manager had taken my first campaign board and flung it like a frisbee across the conference room. And I thought that was our best idea.

I don't know if my observations that day were the final motivator, or if it was my continued disinterest in advertising, but a couple months later I decided to write a novel. I was forty nine. I remember sitting on a couch in the family room, writing the opening scene of a book called Invasion, while two of my kids, Alex and Max, were doing their homework. I read what I had written and thought: this isn't bad, maybe I can do it.

The last piece of fiction I had written was in 1974. I had taken a creative writing class my senior year in college and really enjoyed it. I never aspired to be a novelist, but after graduating I wrote a six page short story -- I can't remember the title -- and mailed it to my father to see what he thought. A few days later I received his three page critique. One line summed up his point of view. "Your characters are like strips of leather drying in the sun. They all look and sound the same." That from a writer who never used similes or metaphors.

I had not written another word of fiction in twenty five years. But as I looked back, it had less to do with Elmore's comments and more to do with getting a job and getting married and raising kids and starting a business. I may also have been intimidated because my father was so good. In fact, I remember having dinner with Senator Don Riegel -- he lived in the neighborhood and our daughters were friends. I told Don I was writing a book and he said, "You writing a book is like Michael Jordon's son trying out for the NBA."

I said, "Don, thanks for your support."

He said, "No, I was kidding. I'm sure you'll make it.'"

It took a year and a half to finish Invasion. I didn't want Elmore involved in any way, so he suggested sending it to Jackie Farber, his former editor at Delacourt.

He said, "Jackie's good. She'll tell you the truth."

I was excited. I thought it was a good story with good characters. I mailed the three hundred page manuscript to Jackie and called her a week later. I said, "What'd you think?"

"You've got a nice facile style," Jackie said. "But I have one question. Who's your protagonist?"

I knew who the main character was, but if it wasn't obvious, I had a problem. I was disappointed, but I could understand what Jackie was saying. I had thirty seven characters, and a murky plot that needed thinning out. I didn't try to defend the book. I put it aside remembering the prophetic words of Russell Banks:

"Most novelists have a failed attempt or two, books that didn't work, didn't make it. Pages in a desk drawer somewhere."

I didn't dwell on the failure of my first novel. I had another idea and began writing Quiver, a story about a woman whose husband is killed in a bow hunting accident by her sixteen-year-old son. While the main character, Kate McCall deals with the loss of her husband and her son's surly guilt, her ex-con, ex-boyfriend comes back in her life and sets into motion a series of events culminating in a life or death confrontation with a gang of killers.

I sent Quiver to my agent, Jeff Posternak at the Wylie Agency. He read it and said, "I guarantee this is going to sell."

And it did.

I remember when Jeff called with the good news. It was an overcast day in March. I was in my office, looking out the window, trying to think of a headline for an ad. The phone rang and I saw the New York caller ID. I picked it up and said, "hello."

Jeff said, "I've got good news for you. Are you sitting down? You're going to be published. St. Martin's has made an offer for two books." I can't tell you how elated I was, finally breaking through after three and a half years. It's a real kick to hold your first published book in your hands, and then to see it on a shelf in bookstores. I don't think that'll ever get old. I called my father and told him.

He said, "Boy, you're on your way."

Visit Leonard's website to learn more about his books and eavesdrop on Elmore and Peter Leonard's father-son conversation about writing. And watch this space tomorrow. Peter stops by to answer 3 Questions.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Wait for it!

Thought I'd share my silly mood with a silly writing joke today.

A hungry lion was roaming through the jungle looking for something to eat. He came across two men. One was sitting under a tree reading a book; the other was typing away on his typewriter.

The lion quickly pounced on the man reading the book and devoured him. Even the king of the jungle knows that readers digest and writers cramp.

Do you know any good writing jokes? We'd love to hear them!


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