Thursday, December 31, 2009

Rewriting the Law of Inertia

In the beginning, there was Inertia: the tendency of a writer's pace to resist acceleration, the tendency of a writer at rest to lie around reading, vegging to music, or watching reruns of The Dog Whisperer on TV, or to keep moving along the straight line of same well-worn rut as usual. At least until acted upon by an outside force.

In some cases, that outside force might be an agent's request, an editor's call for revisions, or a looming deadline. In others, it might be the state of the writer's bank account and a mailbox full of "Last Notices" in red print.

But all too often, we have only an inside force to rely upon to get us moving, the writer's own Call to Adventure. Certainly, it was that intrinsic dream, rather than coercion or any likelihood of reward, that got us writing in the first place. As the stories we imagined became richer and more detailed, we envisioned a future where we could share our creative universe and allow others to enjoy it, where daydreaming would become communication, a bonding rather than an isolating force.

Gradually, the dream became so powerful that we could not help but pursue it. Vigorously, tirelessly, with zero guarantee (and much evidence against) its ever coming to fruition.

For 2010, I want to breathe fresh life into that old dream, to motivate myself with passion rather than lying around waiting for some outside force to prompt me. I want to rewrite the law of inertia with my own law of inspiration.

Do you still remember your original dream, the one that took you from dilettante to writer? Do you still have it in you to be moved by hope again?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Frost on Writing: How Not to Lose Pressure

Have you ever talked yourself out of an idea by talking too much about it? Discussion is fine, and there are times you can work your way through a tangle with conversation, but every time you open you mouth, you risk letting in enough air to blow out the spark - especially in the project's earliest days.

Since I enjoyed yesterday's Robert Frost poem so much, I'm sharing his thoughts on the topic:

"Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second."

I'm also keeping quiet about my current project. :)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Robert Frost on Christmas Trees and trial by market

...He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to...

Click here to read the rest on Gutenberg. (And thanks to my girl Jerusha for reminding me of this lovely poem.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Have a White (Noise) Christmas

Those of you who are parents, do you remember the days when "white noise" was your friend? A colicky baby could often be called by the hum of tires on highway, the warm rumble of the dryer, or the soothing whir of an oscillating fan.

In more recent years, I've found these same sorts of sounds an invitation to allow my mind to drift aimlessly, tumbling, spinning, and whirling through ideas like a hawk on rising thermals. With the background noises of everyday silences, imagination fills the void with striking images, creative associations... mirages that we can later flesh out at our keyboards or on a pad of paper.

Some of my most compelling ideas had taken shape while driving across barren plains beyond the reach of radio, walking along a beach or hiking through a desert. But often, they occur at home: while running out the hot water in an overlong shower, vacuuming the carpet, or washing dishes by hand.

There's something hypnotic about white noise, something able to take the mind beyond the reach of humdrum worries and allow it to open up to greater possibilites.

So as this holiday season winds down, try turning off the TV, tuning out the music, shutting down the Wii, and carving out a little space from family. Try connecting with the soft hum of the universe and listening for the settling snow of fresh ideas.

Question for the day: Where do you come up with your best, most creative brainstorms? Any tips for quieting the mind for creative thought?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Duck, Folks! Here Comes Literary Diversity" (Michelle Kerns on the Next Decade in Book Culture)

From Michelle Kerns' excellent "Goodbye to Fifth Avenue; Or, Duck, Folks! Here Comes Literary Diversity --Finally" on Critical Mass:
For, lo, these many long years, every aspect of the book world has been dominated by the East Coast and New York City in particular. A relatively small group of people have determined what is published, who is published, what gets reviewed, what gets lauded as a tour de force, and what gets panned as pulp. Or ignored.

The flaw in this brilliant little system is that the majority of things bookish end up filtered through the perspective, the life experience, the belief systems of a distinct group of people who are definitively not representative of the rest of the reading public. In terms of diversity in the literary process and discussion, it's a joke. True diversity in the book world doesn't exist. Yet.
Read the rest plus more voices from the Critical Mass series inviting commentary on the Next Decade in Book Culture.

Seasons Greetings (a little blast from holidays past)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dear Santa, Bring Me a Clue

Dear Santa,

This year, I've been a very diligent and hard-working writer this year...

Oh, you say you've been watching this past week, as I've done everything possible to avoid work? Um, then I submit you're not seeing the deep turmoil and self-loathing that goes on while I struggle with a single question: what to work on next.

I'd just as soon move forward with one of the proposals I've submitted, but absent of feedback, I'd really rather not. I have what I could've sworn was a slam-bang idea for another proposal I've been noodling with, but the words are lying like dead slugs on the paper. I can't get into the protagonist's head and don't really want to hang out with her for 400 pages.

So Santa, could you bring me a character, a strong, true heroine to accompany through the plot line? A force to be reckoned with who smacks up hard against the smooth face of an insurmountable problem? If you have room in your bag, could you also squeeze in an unforgettable hero, a fascinating setting, and wrap 'em all up in shiny twists and turns?

While writing this post, I'm mentally twisting around my original idea and looking at if from all different angles... including one that just may be the foothold I need to reanimate those dead slugs and come up with the sympathetic protagonist I've lacked.

So thanks, Santa! Cookies will be on the table, and maybe a shot of something a little stronger than cow's milk to get you through the long, cold night!

P.S. - Enjoy the video of Eartha Kitt's scrumptious "Santa Baby!"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Quotation for the Week: Edison on Opportunity

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Thomas A. Edison

The trouble is, you have to go ahead and prepare the work, like a big dinner, without any guarantee that opportunity's ever going to show up (in scroungy old overalls or a tux and cummerbund) for the meal. But if you're looking for guarantees or hoping for easy, you've definitely picked out the wrong dream.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Okay, so I've embraced it: This Chrismas sucks.

I had it all figured out. The deadline for my WIP had been set for December 15th, the same day Gary's vacation days kicked in. We planned to be on an airplane to Paris the next day.

I almost forgot the old Jewish proverb: "We make plans. God says,'HA!'"

Cue the unforeseeable circumstances in my client's world, our editor's schedule, and missteps in my own time management and maybe even outright denial when it came to a realistic concept of the sheer tonnage of research involved in this multi-faceted--and incredibly fascinating--book I'm writing. The deadline was shifted to January 4th. I am locked into a jetstream of 18-hour days until then.

Meanwhile, Jerusha is working and doing a mini-mester class for school, so she couldn't get away either. This meant the only way for our family to be together was for Spike to come here from Florida, which he arranged to do, thinking he was headed for something other than the epi-center of the No Fun Zone.

"This is going to suck," Spike told me earlier today when I explained the situation to him.

At the time, I blustered something about how I miss him and it's Christmas, and then I tried to write for a couple hours, blinking tears out of my contact lenses and trying to figure out how to tear myself in two, the way working mothers always have and always will. And then I suddenly said...screw it.

No, not screw the book. If you think this is one of those stories, you don't know me at all. My name is Joni, and I'm a workaholic. But that doesn't mean I have to drag everyone else down with me. I went to Gary with the only plan that makes sense for our family this Christmas. Next week, he and Spike are going to Paris. They might take the train to see Pech Merle, or they might just dumb around together in this city they both love because they're a couple of history and art buffs. I'll find a lot of joy in doing my work well and in knowing they're having a terrific father-son adventure. Jerusha will do her mini-mester here at home with me, and I'll take my laptop to Starbucks during her shifts so I can be there during her 15-minute breaks.

It's not the perfect Christmas for our family, but I felt better about it yesterday when Colleen reminded us of that great and simple truth: "Perfect is the enemy of good."

Sometimes, you just do the best you can with what you got. And there is beauty in that, beyond perfection, beyond struggle, beyond what is expected. It's called "life."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Perfect and the Good

The perfect is the enemy of the good.
- Voltaire

This time of year, it's easy to be brought to despair by idealized visions of The Perfect Christmas, The Perfect You (New Years' resolutions being just around the corner), and The Perfect Creative Effort (with book/movie award nominations zooming about the lofty heights).

The problem is, over-striving toward some extrinsically-based ideal pulls us out of living in the moment of baking broken-legged reindeer cookies (which taste so sweet when fumbled by a child's stubby fingers), enjoying the squeezably-zaftig body of a mature woman rather than a starvation-stunted prepubescent, and taking characters you love through a story that you breathe.

So on this chilly winter's day, trying setting up a queendom within the borders of your own space... a place where YOU shape the perfect holiday, the standards of beauty, and judge the merit of your work by how much fun you had with its creation. You might even find that you enjoy the place so much you never want to venture outside into the brutal world.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cutting to the Chase

Just read a terrific post on Stephen King's Top 7 Tips for Becoming a Better Writer by Henrik Edberg over at the Positivity Blog. Thanks, Henrik, for sharing these reminders from King's classic, On Writing (which I highly recommend). They're absolutely timeless and usable for writers of every ilk.

They were also a great reminder that 90% of editing your work ought to be about cutting to the chase with the surgical excision of anything that form a barrier between the reader and the story. A few of those things include:

1. Show-offish writing: Vocabulary, sentence construction, or artsy-overload which calls attention to itself and the cleverness of author.
2. Backstory and flashbacks: If you can't tell it in real time, hint at it via character actions, attitude, and dialogue.
3. Pointless description. A richly-described world can really make a story - when such description pulls double duty by adding layers to mood, characterization, or the story itself. If it serves none of the previous functions, it either needs to be cut or given significance.
4. confusion: Nothing pulls me out of the story as much as having to flip back to try and figure out which character is which, where I am in the story, or what the heck is going on. To reduce the chance of losing the reader, limit the number of characters when possible and for heaven's sake, don't give a whole mess of them similar names.
5. Scenes that don't matter: If a scene has no impact on the plot and/or nothing at stake, try cutting it and seeing if you can simply allude to any info revealed in other, more interested scenes.
6. Excessive adjectives and adverbs: I'm not among those who thinks the only good modifier's a dead one, but many can be dispensed with, particularly in dialogue tags. If you can tell how someone said something from the context, don't insult the reader's intelligence or slow the story by giving this unnecessary information.

So as you're checking over scenes, chapters, or your whole manuscript, think like a sculptor (or a cosmetic plastic surgeon!) and consider what might best be cut away. Then try saving a new version of your leaner, meaner story, along with an "outtakes file" where you drop and preserve your "killed darlings" in case you need anything from them for later.

I can almost guarantee you'll like the skinnified version better.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hoping to devastate and ravish (3 Questions for D.W. Lichtenberg)

Last week, I introduced you to D.W. Lichtenberg's inside-up poetry collection, The Ancient Book of Hip. Intrigued, I asked Lichtenberg our standard "3 Questions" -- and I should have known the answers wouldn't be business as usual.

I found myself feeling rather motherly toward you by the time I got through your book, so I have to start with how are you? Are you eating right and taking care of yourself? How are you doing with the balance of corporeal life and poetry?
I am all right. If you want, you can call or email my mother, I am sure she will be happy to hear from you, to hear that you are interested in my well-being. And maybe that is the point of the book. A lot of people who see me read or have read my work come up to me and use the word "endearing". I like to use the word "real". I am eating all right. I'm a vegan and my grandfather is constantly on my back about getting enough B12. But I've got no complaints. My poetry (and my prose... I don't like to separate genres too much) is all right. I had to look up the word corporeal. While I may seem like a sad, lonely sort of guy, I'm doing all right, I'm doing okay. (That's a line from a poem in my book ;) I was recently doing a Q & A about my book with a college class. Someone asked if I thought comedy was important in poetry. I ended up answering, I think, with an explanation of my balance between poetry and the real world. One thing about my poems that I can say for sure: they are vulnerable. As vulnerable as anything I can possibly write (maybe that's why you felt motherly towards me). In my ordinary life, I mostly shut out that vulnerability. As soon as I let it in, I am practically on the verge of tears (even now as I write this). In my real life, I am kind of a cold person. I'm friendly, but often cold. I don't like to bother other people with my problems. In my work, the comedy and the vulnerability comes out. When I become vulnerable, I become funny. That's my balance, I suppose.

That intro...first I thought it was a set up for an urban Spoon River Anthology, then I thought I was being punked, then I wondered -- well, I just wondered. Tell us what you were thinking and why this isn't the usual billboard "This Way to the Book" introduction.
This collection consists of the majority of the poems I wrote from 2005 to 2008. And a few from 2009. I mostly lived in New York City at this time (now I live in San Francisco). While I did not really identify with the culture of hip whose hotbed was in Williamsburg (a neighborhood in Brooklyn that I lived in), I was a fan of it. And while a huge portion of New Yorkers seem to despise the hipsters, I admire them for their solidarity and willingness to artify a neighborhood of Brooklyn that's now the artistic center of the city. So what if they're white, often supported by their parents, and ultra-bandwagoneers? They are not the wave of people that outpriced the residents of Williamsburg. It's the wave of bankers that followed them that outpriced the residents.

But wait. I didn't answer your question at all. I liked observing the phenomenon of hip. I felt like my poems were very grounded in the fact that I was an observer and not an active participant. I was lonely. I am lonely. What can I say? The introduction is pretty much just a big joke, as is the title and the cover. Judging by your write-up of the book, you got it. You got it. You got it!

There are at least seven workable novels set up in The Ancient Book of Hip, you've obviously got the voice thing happening, and I personally would like to hear more about your great-granddad. Where are you headed from here?
I have written one novel, when I was 19. It's damned good, and it has been sitting in my mother's basement for years untouched. Nobody was interested in it. I remember one literary agent, probably the only one that got through the manuscript, told me he admired the idealistic and naive nature of the characters. Told me the voice was true, pure, great and everything. But because there was really no plot, and it was just a bunch of interesting conversations between two suburban 18-year-olds in the summer before they went off to college, he didn't think it was sellable. I'm not so sure myself. I think sometimes you can read a book and fall in love with a character, to the point that you will follow that character anywhere. That's generally my approach to writing. I could give a damn about language. I'm interested in people.

Where am I headed from here? I haven't really written in six months, since my father died in a sudden accident. The only good thing I've written was a poem about my father. Besides that, I've only been retroactively working, looking at old notebooks, old poems, old anythings, working the hell out of them. When I can't write, I revise. I hope one day I will be able to generate new material. Before I stopped writing, I was writing a novel about two people that are the subject of a psychological study. The test is studying the effects of a new product that was developed and then abandoned a military weapons company. They invented something you can put in your throat that lets you breathe under water like a fish. The military had no use for it, so a university (duh!) optioned it and put a married couple in a tank of water, where they lived when they were not at work, to see the psychological effects of living under water. It's called "Tank". It will lack a plot. It will lack commercial viability. It will lack everything except a consideration for the real emotions of people, hopefully a consideration that will devastate and ravish.

Click here to purchase The Ancient Book of Hip or visit D.W. Lichtenberg's website for excerpts. There's also some great bits on YouTube from Opium Magazine's Literary Death Match.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Don't Be Publishing's Hoochie Mama: Lessons from Disgraceland

Yesterday, in a fit of disgust, I switched off the Today Show, which has lately stooped to repeated interviews with the Tiger Woods Bimbo of the Day. The two young women I saw interviewed came off as no more or less than your average, starry-eyed groupies, bedazzled by the glamour of the world's most famous athlete and wanting to grab a bit of magic for themselves. Each was so "honored" by his royal golfness's notice that she would put aside her upbringing, her morality, and her common sense for the chance of a hook-up she dreamed would lead to something more.

I see way too many writers whose sensibilities are so overcome by the possibility of "fame" (or at least publication) that at the first hint of praise by some smooth-talking scoundrel with a gleam in his eye, said writers toss off all dignity, caution, and publishing savvy and land themselves in bed with the most unsavory of "agents" and "publishers." By the time these deluded innocents realized they've been had, their dignity is wrecked, their hearts are broken, and they've tainted themselves in such a way that no reputable agent or editor will want to come anywhere near them for fear of catching something.

So just as you'd warn a girlfriend, I'm warning any of you who might be tempted. In any legitimate publishing relationship:

1. The money always flows to rather than from the writer. (For a great discussion of what's a scam, read Laura Resnik's excellent post here at the Novelists Inc. blog.)
2. The agent or editor hasn't left behind him/her a string of infected partners. (Check for known scammers at Preditors & Editors.)
3. A legitimate offer won't evaporate if you ask for a little breathing space. Practice saying these words: "I'd like to take a couple of days to think this over." Then use that time to run a little background on your suitor, so you won't end up as publishing's hoochie mama du jour.

Now that the public service announcement's over, I'd like to say happy birthday to Boxing the Octopus! Our little blog project turns three years old today! We so appreciate those who have been with us for the ride.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dear Cancer, This hurts you more than it hurts me. (Write a letter and raise $$ for the American Cancer Society)

Dear Cancer,

Stop calling me. We are not getting back together.

I learned a lot from our relationship, but I'm with Life now, and we're really happy together. I don't want to hear from you again.

Not to be rude, suck.

Goodbye forever.

Joni R
Write a letter and tell cancer how you really feel! It'll do us all some good. Varian (a cancer imaging technology company) will donate $10 to the American Cancer Society for every letter that appears on their website, up to $100,000.00. Click here to read my letter and post your own and visit the American Cancer Society online to find out more about amazing research being funded.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gatekeeper or good riddance? (Kirkus post mortem)

This weekend, my husband was on a mission to acquire a Ronco rotisserie. (You know. Ron Popeil? “Set it and forget it!”) He loves the low-tech, purist food that comes out of it. The box promised an instructional video, but Gary didn't expect to need it. We both laughed when we discovered it was an actual video. As in VHS tape. Not only is it useless (we haven’t had a VCR since the dawn of the current century), it indicates a messenger out of touch with its audience. We figured it out quite handily on our own.

Dear ones...the publishing industry is like the timeless Ronco rotisserie, always evolving and being repackaged, but forever cooking up succulent books which will be eternally user-friendly in their low-tech purity. Kirkus, with all due respect to what it was back in the 1930s, had become an irrelevant, irritating VHS tape, which -- for those few still equipped and inclined to use it -- featured a modicum of "instructional" info, but mostly obnoxious voices, inadequate lighting, and tragically bad hair.

Last week when it was announced that Kirkus' plug was being pulled, Chip McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, said in the Observer:
It was an early warning system. At the very time that we’re inundated with stuff, that’s the moment when you also need some gatekeepers, tastemakers, guides. Not that any of these are foolproof, but without them, it’s just sort of chaos.
I don't disagree in principle, but I'm not as eager as McGrath to bestow "gatekeeper" status (along with an open ended power trip ticket) without considering the source of Kirkus reviews: anonymous, poorly paid writers, who were willing to emotionally and materially damage working authors on a conveyor belt basis in exchange for forty bucks plus an ort for the ol' clip file. (Snark clips especially well.)

I'm more inclined to agree with the statement issued by ICM co-chair Esther Newberg:
I'm sorry if some people have lost their jobs. I want to make that part very clear. But it's never been a publication worth anything. The reviews were almost always negative and not helpful in any way. And so that's it. Good riddance.
My feelings toward Kirkus softened somewhat after I read this post by former Kirkus reviewer Mark Athitakis on Thursday. Would that all Kirkus reviewers had been this smart and thoughtful. Sadly, they were not, and even Athitakis says this about the books he was assigned to review:
Though the editors there knew my general interests, I didn’t get a vote on what was sent to me to review. In short, it wasn’t a job for reviewers who cared only about books they felt pretty certain they’d like. Which speaks to the most contentious and, I think, admirable aspect of the magazine — that Kirkus' reviews were more negative than positive. Conventional wisdom argues that this is because the reviews were written by large passels of smug know-nothings who used their anonymity as a blunt instrument. I prefer to think Kirkus served an uncomfortable truth -- most books are mediocre.
I have to go with conventional wisdom here. Books speak to particular audiences, and "recovering English majors" is not the widest demographic, nor should they be presumed the smartest. How is it more "admirable" for a book to be reviewed by someone not predisposed to like it or, more honestly, predisposed to not like it? (Because the majority of books are mediocre, right? Why even approach them without prejudice?) By that logic, barbecue cook-offs should be judged by totally unbiased vegetarians. A child of the 60s, I keep hearing "Let Mikey try it. He hates everything!"

A review of the latest in a sci-fi or thriller series has no value if the reviewer is ignorant of its history and scorns its fan base. A review of a fantasy or romance novel has no value if the reviewer holds the genre in contempt. A review of a vampire novel or celeb memoir has no value if the reviewer feels compelled to begin with the blustering disclaimer, "Of course, I'd never read this tripe voluntarily, yeegawdz, no, heh..." A review eviscerating the debut novel of a tender new voice in literary fiction has no value if the reviewer is using it as a vehicle to showcase his or her own cleverness. A review has no value if the reviewer hasn't read the book.

Kirkus dished up all of the above at times, and those reviews were plugged into Amazon listings as a matter of format, unchallenged year after year, as reviewer pay got lousier and reviewers (understandably) grew more cynical and mean-spirited. Way too much credence was given to iron-fisted smack-downs and knee-padded love fests that carried the esteemed name “Kirkus” but were often backed by no more objectivity or expertise than anonymous "Amazon shit-talkers" (a spot-on sobriquet coined by Mike Riggs in his excellent "Kirkus is Dead, Long Live Relentless Positivism.")

One of my goals for 2010 is to expand our book coverage here on Boxing the Octopus, but you won’t see any book trashed in this space. I'm open-minded, but I have very little experience reading certain genres. Rather than trash a book I couldn't connect with, I'd rather use my time and keystrokes talking about a book I did connect with. If I haven't read a book, I'll say that up front. I can’t pretend to like a book I don't, and of course, there's room for mixed feelings, but I intend to adhere to Big Mama's Rule of Book Blogging: "If you can't say something're just an asshole."

No matter how brilliant, cynicool, and sophisticated you are, there’s always a way to be kind, and sometimes that means saying nothing. Silence will more effectively euthanize a truly mediocre book, so let’s not pretend the old hate spew is a public service. I'm not advocating mamby-pambification of literary discussion, but I find snark for snark's sake offensive. It damages people on a personal level and stinks up the work environment with vitriol and animosity at a moment when cooperation and kindness are needed.

Personally, I think kindness is making a comeback. Considering the source has already become a necessity. The need to identify and speak to a targeted audience in the blossoming marketplace is obvious. Kirkus failed to move into that future. I don't see its demise as another sign of the apocalypse; I see it as another cob web being cleared away. I'll have no trouble finding books I love without the guidance of our late great “tastemaker.”

Set it and forget it, baby.

Update July 2011: Kirkus managed to save itself by offering paid reviews to indie authors. Here's my take on that. (Really, I don't bitch that much. This just happens to be a topic that gets under my skin.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Harnessing the Warm Winds

I'm pretty much the tortoise of the writing world. Pretty much every day, I drag myself a few steps forward, regardless of the circumstances. But I have to admit, my progress is sometimes speed-bumped by a bad review, a harsh (though usually well-deserved and ultimately helpful) critique, or less-than-encouraging news from the publishing front.

I expect better of myself, and sometimes I do manage an "I'll show you" attitude that gets me working harder and has seen me through a lot of tough times. But continuous, stoic indifference to negatives is a tough feat to pull off.

Fortunately, the opposite works, too. Whenever I'm given the slightest encouragement -- it could come from a reader, a critique partner, a reviewer, my agent, or an editor -- I harness its power to elevate my mood. Then I ride that burst of optimism as far as it will take me.

And sometimes, I save a kind e-mail or written comment in a folder, where I can take it out to warm my spirit on a bitterly-cold day.

As a result, I've become more likely to write other authors when I've loved something they've written, to share with my CPs how fortunate I feel to have such talent in my corner, and to offer encouragement to deserving up-and-comers. Because you never know when your words might be the very thing that bolster another's spirits and gets them through a rough patch into smoother waters.

One great thing about having writer friends is that everyone seems to instinctively understand that the best defense against rock-hard reality comes in the form of the camaraderie and encouragement we share.

Friday, December 11, 2009

D.W. Lichtenberg's "The Ancient Book of Hip" (Hmm. Brilliant or the bare arse of an emperor?)

Okay, I got this email, and the email was this:
Dear Joni Rodgers at Boxing the Octopus,

On November 18, 2009, Fourteen Hills Press and SFSU Creative Writing Dept. released the winner of the 2009 Michael Rubin Book Award: THE ANCIENT BOOK OF HIP by D.W. Lichtenberg. This debut collection is a case study, a documentation, a journaling. It is a bunch of poems about girls, sex, cigarettes, PBR, and everything else that is the phenomenon of hip.

What people are saying:
"There is a real zest in these poems. Lichtenberg's joy in the every day reminds me of the daily pleasures as Frank O'Hara embraced them."
- John Skoyles, author of The Situation and poetry editor of Ploughshares

"Whether riding the subway or 'talking shit about a pretty sunset,' his is a highly entertaining new voice that will win you over with its combination of disarming simplicity and incisive wit."
- Elaine Equi, author of Ripple Effect

"Lichtenberg possesses a unique charm that attracts people who might otherwise not have much in common."
- Evan Karp, The Examiner

If you are interested in a galley or an interview, please let us know!
I must confess, I don't know what PBR means, but sheesh, how was I not going to be interested?

The book arrived, one of those small format paperbacks you buy at poetry readings (unless you're the callous sort who can walk away without separating yourself from the ten or fifteen bucks that would offer the poor poet a shred of validation to show his mother who once had such high hopes for him.) It actually fit nicely into a pocket of my purse usually reserved for my passport. I liked the title and the primal/childlike cover design, but when I read the introduction, I laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. Yarg. Twenty-somethings. I immediately concluded that I was so not the target audience for this book. Me in this book = The Clapper in a disco bar.

Then I read a few pages and started thinking...oh...maybe the intro was...oh. Okay. Reading on. Ha! Clever turn of phrase. Cringe. Holden Caulfield reference. Whoa. KILLER turn of phrase. Yes. Healthy frisson of big picture.

Colleen has a term for the strutting and circle-jerking that sometimes go on in academic and literary publishing: "the emperor's new prose." Remember that old fable? The preening emperor and all the sycophants pretended to see lavish garments, when in fact their fearless leader was walking down the street bare naked.

Having read through The Ancient Book of Hip four or five times, I'm thinking maybe this is what happens when the emperor knows he's naked, but he walks down the street anyway, revealing himself to his subjects and his subjects to themselves. Maybe the moment you decide you don't get it is the moment you actually do.

Or maybe I seriously don't get it. But if that's the case, why did I like it so much?

It was no struggle to sit with the pages. All the twenty-something writer stuff I usually find annoying was actually kind of...endearing. This collection is entertaining in a way that very few such collections are. I suppose, whether you're gazing at Spoon River or the bare arse of a young emperor -- hey, what's not to enjoy about either experience? At the end of the day, I found myself feeling protective -- auntish even -- toward Lichtenberg, knowing what the writing and publishing life will be for this kid if he stays as viscerally connected to it as he seems to be.

As undeniably un-hip as I am, I knew I could look to my insufferably hip twenty-something daughter for clarity. Last night, when I told her about The Ancient Book of Hip, Jerusha said, "Good poetry doesn't have a target audience. It's like scripture. Different meaning for everyone who reads it with an open mind."

I'm worried that Lichtenberg's mother might be glaring at me, saying, "Must you encourage him?" but I'm purchasing another copy of The Ancient Book of Hip. Jerusha needs a copy, and I'd rather separate myself from the twelve bucks than separate myself from this primal/childlike, evocative, annoying, endearing, quite possibly brilliant little book.

Click here for excerpts. And if anyone out there is hip enough to know what "PBR" means, please clap me on.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Good Grief! Revision in Five Stages

As I wend my way through a particularly challenging batch of revisions, I was brought to mind of the Kubler-Ross model on the stages of grief, which is all too apt in chronicling the reactions of your average working writer.

1. Denial - Surely, the editor doesn't mean my masterpiece! This must have gone out to the wrong author by mistake.

2. Anger - What the (insert strongest, vilest expletive that comes to mind)? Who do those stupid hacks think they are, screwing with me like this? Are they @#$! blind? (Ranting continues, either in the form of silent fuming or a epic hissy fit. If you're very lucky, no phone calls or e-mails to the involved parties originate during this stage and your loved ones have learned to ignore you at this point.)

3. Bargaining - If I change just this one little thing, that'll make it sort of okay, right? You surely didn't mean to imply I have to rewrite the whole, entire...

Oh, no you didn't.

4. Depression - I clearly suck, and everyone else has just been too kind to tell me. Or maybe they're all winking and laughing behind my back. There are septic slugs with more talent, deranged dabblers who smell of old potatoes who write better. I am vile, useless... (reaches for Help Wanted section of paper and checks out listing for fast food clerks.) Writer's block ensues, sometimes for long periods when writers get stuck in this stage.

5. Acceptance. Oh, all right. I guess I'm going to have to do it, so I must as well dig in and make a decent effort. Hey, wait a minute. These changes really do make the story better, and you know, it's getting good here. I'm getting waaay into this again! (Remainder of world peels away as writer falls back in love with his/her own story.)

I'm not sure if it helps knowing we go through these stages, but at least I'm getting a good laugh - at myself and my process.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Monty Python's Working Class Playwright ("It could express a vital theme of our age!")

Spent the last couple weeks writing in snowy seclusion and profoundly nurturing peace next to the big window in my parents' downstairs family room. My long hours were no cause for concern. My obsession with my current project didn't raise an eyebrow. My coffee break yacking about all things publishing was accepted with nods and smiles. It's a luxury to be the child of creative types. Back in my office in Houston today, I'm taking a moment to appreciate that.

And then there's this...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

When Rejection's a Favor

I know what it is to beat one's head against the brick wall of rejection, to turn every stone, cross every T, and [insert additional motheaten cliche here].

I remember well the intense frustration of "almost," when you feel yourself teetering on the verge of publication. When time after time, at that final moment, the prize is snatched from your grasp. When, looking around you, you see others, perhaps those who haven't worked so long or hard or don't seem to have much in the way of talent, achieve what you've worked for so diligently.

Stinks, doesn't it? But the truth is, in a lot of cases, you may look back to discover that rejection was a favor. Either you weren't ready or the writing wasn't. The project offered was one that couldn't possibly commercially succeed or would end up in a niche so narrow, your career as a published author would be brief, stunted, and steeped in bitterness. From the vantage of perspective, the seasoned author will recognize what experienced agents and editors first noticed - and what the novice lacked the objectivity and marketing-savvy to see.

Some manuscripts simply should never be published, and as heartbreaking as that fact is, it doesn't mean they should not have been written. Because with every story completed, the dedicated writer grows in skill until, when her "market sense" evolves to the right degree and the right idea comes up, she'll be ready for it.

More than likely, this will never happen if the writer stubbornly clings to ideas such as "these agents know nothing," "only people with connections can get published," or "if they don't know good art when they see it, I'll publish this myself. And show them!"

I submit to you that if you're winning or placing in contests or getting a lot of bites (including full reads) on your work by industry professionals, you most likely have the talent needed to become a published author. What you may not have is the right idea, the most polished, commercially viable product, or the right timing to make you stand out in an incredibly competitive field.

So my question is, are you going to be one of those who gives up, allowing your dream to fall by the wayside? Are you going to try to second guess the market with a short-cut, such as a vanity press (in all its insidious and tempting guises)? Or will you be among the few who put in the years, study, and sweat equity needed to pursue a quest that offers no one guarantees?

Are you going to be among those who looks back with relief on your early rejections and feels grateful that those developmental manuscripts weren't included in your body of work?

Question for the day: Do you have an "under-the-bed" manuscript you're now glad wasn't published? What did you learn from the experience of writing and submitting it?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Once is not enough (Why you should blow off that thing about "no simultaneous submissions.")

A great post on the BookEnds blog today from literary agent Jessica Faust.

The old hazelnut about "no simultaneous submissions" generates one of the most frequently asked FAQs of aspiring writers. On the one hand, supplicants are loathe to PO the agent being queried. On the other, you'd be a rusty skeleton on the side of the road if you sat there waiting for the response every time you sent a query.

My attitude was always, hey, if the agent is willing to say s/he's not going to look at any other authors, I'm willing to say I won't look at any other agents. I was gratified to see this very smart agent say essentially the same thing in a much more politic way:
I think authors should have the chance to choose an agent if possible, and not accepting simultaneous submissions or asking for exclusives takes the power out of an author’s hand, power you should have since it’s your career.
Click here to read the rest. And spend some time searching the blog. Lots of great advice.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

It's a Bird, it's a Plane... It's Super-Protagonist!

As I rework a flawed synopsis, I'm reminded of a writing basic, a touchstone so elementary that it's easy to forget among all the complexities of crafting a novel.

The book's protagonist must play an active role in solving his/her own problems.

Throughout the story, the main character needs to do more than simply react to events (although she may certainly start out doing so). She needs to be the one who makes things happens, forces responses in the opposition, and becomes a factor that absolutely cannot be ignored. Naturally, her initial attempts to influence the plot may fail, fall short, or have unintended (even fatal) consequences (setting up your story's black moment.) But she must persevere, becoming an active catalyst -- in other words a hero -- if the author expects the reader to root for her success.

Think about it. Did Luke Skywalker sit around moaning about the evil Empire and wait for someone to rescue his hayseed butt? Did Scarlett O'Hara tweedle-de-dee her thumbs until someone picked out the right man to solve all her troubles? Did Elizabeth Bennett sigh gratefully as the first solution to her family's precarious financial situation (the hilariously-odious Mr. Collins) made an offer? Each one of these characters possessed not only a strong will but the courage to act upon it at great risk.

These are the characters we armchair quarterbacks (the readers of this world) want to cheer on, admire, and emulate. So today, think about your book's plot and ask yourself if your book's protagonist is active or acted upon throughout the majority of your plot.

Because in the world of heroes and heroines, no "drifting dust motes" need apply!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Atwood on editing

A bit of brilliant advice from Margaret Atwood's "Ten Editing Tips for Your Fiction Mss"...
Charles Dickens said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” He put “wait” at the end because it was crucial. (In any series of three, the third is the most important.) In terms I’ve picked up by playing with the boys: Drop the hankie early, but make ‘em wait for the opening of the kimono.
Looking forward to handing off my WIP later this month. Atwood's The Year of the Flood is burning a hole in my new Kindle.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Dear Santa, I've been a very good writer this year! (Gift ideas for book makers)

If there's a writer on your holiday shopping list this year (or if you're a writer who wants to drop a few hints), here's a few ideas for the annual Festival of Avarice. Basically my five favorite things that dropped down the chimney into my writing life this year:

ThermaCare HeatWraps for the type-weary wrist. After a day of way too much word count, I ice my hands and wrists with bags of frozen peas, then don these oh-so-comforting...I don't know what to call them. Smittens?

My Canon LiDE200 Color Image Scanner has been an incredibly valuable research tool. It cost less than $100, lightweight, slides right into my laptop bag, nice high res images, and it's super easy to use. I bought one for my mom, too. Gets power from your computer, so you can take it anywhere.

My little red Sony ICDUX70RED Digital Voice Recorder also cost under $100, stores up to 290 hours of interviews, has a slow-down feature on the playback for easier transcription, and plugs directly into a USB port for lightning fast upload. (I also store a couple hours of music on it so it doubles as a slightly less slick iPod on the airplane.)

At 2 AM, I was packing my bags for a 7 AM flight and discovered that my new widescreen laptop didn't fit into my classy leather laptop bag. I had to cart it in an unpadded canvas tote. The answer to my prayers (okay, it was more like swearing): a felt laptop sleeve from opens out to create a cool, mousable work surface. Great for backpack travel to library, coffee shop, first class, or grandmother's house. Swaddling clothes for your computer. A little pricey at $85, but it also keeps your laptop from burning your thighs in bed. (Unless you're into that kinda thing...)

While we're at it, the funky merch dept at features all sorts of bangles, trinkets, T-shirts, and treats for people who love letters, typography, and the visual art of words. (Click here to see the Veer logo spelled out in cheese, balloons, gymnasts, pencil shavings, and pie!)

The under-mistletoe motherload -- sorry, book purists -- for my purposes, the Kindle wireless reading device is the greatest thing since toast on a stick. Again, it's a little pricier than I'd like, but so worth it. The last two or three years, I've been reading less and less because my eyes are fried by the end of a long writing day. The Kindle text to voice feature may not be super-expressive entertainment, but it's fine for research material. That means I can save my eyes for pleasure reading, which is made more pleasurable by print and margins that adjust for comfort.

Yeah, yeah, I know, there's nothing like the interactive feel of a nice hardcover book in your hands, and a book shouldn't feel like a Gameboy and blah blah blah. Bottom line: I'll be reading ten times more and enjoying it thoroughly. And if you're hoping to have me review/blurb your book, your best bet is making it available to my Kindle.

(By the way, if you're shopping for someone in cancer treatment, the Kindle is even more perfect. Oy! What I wouldn't have given for one of these babies when I was in chemo!)

Fellow writers, chime in! What do you want for Christmas this year?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Couple of Links

Today, I'd like to direct your attention to a couple of links.

First of all, over a Romance Roll Call (the military romance blog of Iraq soldier/writer Jessica Scott), I'm talking about homecomings from the front and what they have to do with my latest release, Beneath Bone Lake.

Secondly, I read the most inspiring post this week by author Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) on Overcoming Self-Doubt. It's reassuring to know (in a misery loves company sort of way, I guess) that authors at all stages experience this brand of resistance, and Steven shares some tough-love words to kick self-doubt to the curb. Be sure to check it out!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Writing in Crisis

The other day I wrote about the challenges of writing through the holidays. Today I want to talk about writing through life - or those heavy-duty life issues that pop up for everyone from time to time.

As Joni is at the moment, I'm also dealing with some parental health issues (in my case on both the parent and in-law side). Distracting and stressful to say the least, but I haven't for a moment regretted time spent traveling or on the phone. I've been writing long enough to know that when serious life issues come up, you have to deal with them, allowing yourself whatever time is needed to cope. But whenever possible, you need to dip your toes back into the flow of your work.

Yesterday, I came frighteningly close to losing my dad. Things weren't going well, and I had to sweat out (from 1500 miles away) his ambulance transfer to a larger hospital for an emergency heart procedure to save his life. While waiting to hear about his condition, I tended to routine tasks that would allow me to travel quickly if need be. I comforted myself with tea and prayer and meditation. And I chose some simple proofreading task to give me an opportunity to focus on something other than what-ifs. And I asked myself to write one new sentence - that's all - to move the story forward. (Thanks, Todd Stone, for the tip about setting a tiny goal to get yourself moving!)

I didn't attempt anything huge. Didn't set myself up for failure by demanding ten or five or even two pages in my distracted state. But by getting myself started with that tiny dip of a toe, I immersed myself into the story world long enough to complete the scene.

It was a small victory, but it carried me through to the long-awaited phone call -- and the happy news that my dad received his new stent just in time. I was able to speak to him, to hear him laughing and cutting up with my mom, my sister, and her two kids. What an incredible relief!

When the going gets tough, how do you keep yourself connected with the writing? Anyone have any terrific tips to share?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

You get my drift (a southern writer shovels snow in Montana)

Visiting my folks in Helena while Dad (aka Mr. Invincible) recovers from bypass surgery. It's been a while since I shoveled snow, but I discovered this morning it's a lot like writing a book.

At first, it's all fun and excitement. After a while the novelty wears off, and you discover it's actually a whole lot of dang hard work. Every once in a while you slip and fall on your keister, but you get up and get back to it. It'll go easier if you have the right kind of shovel.

You never know when opportunity's going to come knocking, so it's important to keep the front walk clear and hospitable. Mom and Dad aren't able to drive right now, but I shoveled the driveway nonetheless. No matter what's going on in the house, you've got to hang on to the possibility of going somewhere.

You have to discover your own methodology, but it pretty much comes down to scraping away one line at a time. You make a pass across the pavement, then go back and catch the fallout, and finally go around and tidy up the edges.

Ultimately, life and writing are about doing what needs to be done, and doing it with genuine joy. If nothing else, your life's work in all its variations should be a balm and boon to the people you love.

Several more inches expected by Friday.


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