Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amazon: "Ultimately, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms..."

Posted this after noon on Amazon:
Macmillan, one of the "big six" publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it's reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don't believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!
Click here to read commentary from bookish conspiracy theorists.

Why I wish I could be at St. Brigid's tonight

Flannery O'Connor famously described the process of writing a book as "a terrible experience during which hair often falls out and teeth decay." I'm having one of those books. I've never been so emotionally and physically exhausted by a project or so completely grateful and thrilled to be part of the creative process. Final rewrites are now in progress. Two weeks from now, I'll be home in Houston painting my kitchen. That's the light at the end of the tunnel, and my spouse and children are patiently waiting for me to emerge. I just wish I'd made it through in time to participate in the "Womanhood on Fire" even tonight at Brigid's Place.

Per the Brigid's Place website:
This year we celebrate the saint’s Feast Day and the ripening of the New Year with movement and breath, poetry and silence, chant and rhythm. Leading us in this very special tribute will be noted speaker, author and feminist, Dr. Mylene Dressler...a noted author, speaker and feminist ... A former ballet dancer and university professor, she leads workshops in creativity, inspiration, and women’s empowerment, and has crafted a uniquely moving event for Brigid’s Place. Bring your hands, your heart, and your appetite for creativity and community. Food and refreshments provided. Come, kindle your fire.
The creative life (for writers, painters, chefs, mothers, and all our ilk) is by nature a life of giving, and somehow we have it in our heads that our creative resources never give out. That simply isn't true. There's a limit to what we can give and a tangible need to feed the creative spirit in a way that keeps it strong. This isn't about taking a spa day, this is about reminding ourselves that the creative life is noble and important and availing ourselves of new resources in the form of inspiration, community, and raw energy. The creative life deserves celebration and reward, and the cynical world we live in doesn't always offer that. What an absolute joy to come together with other creative women for an evening of affirmation and oxygen.

I'll be there in spirit.

(Also upcoming at Brigid's place: Three Cups of Tea with Greg Mortenson.)

What the heck is happening with Amazon and Macmillan?

Disturbing development this weekend as Amazon yanks Macmillan titles from its website and strips sample chapters from Kindles. John Sargent's message, which ran as a paid advertisement in a special Saturday edition of Publishers Lunch, attempts to explain the backstory and calm fears:
This past Thursday I met with Amazon in Seattle. I gave them our proposal for new terms of sale for e books under the agency model which will become effective in early March. In addition, I told them they could stay with their old terms of sale, but that this would involve extensive and deep windowing of titles. By the time I arrived back in New York late yesterday afternoon they informed me that they were taking all our books off the Kindle site, and off Amazon. The books will continue to be available on through third parties.

I regret that we have reached this impasse. Amazon has been a valuable customer for a long time, and it is my great hope that they will continue to be in the very near future. They have been a great innovator in our industry, and I suspect they will continue to be for decades to come.

It is those decades that concern me now, as I am sure they concern you...
There's an old saying: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

This Sunday: An Inspirational Event for Women

Extending a warm invitation to our all women friends and readers in Houston, Texas, to "Womanhood On Fire," a lively and inspirational event I'll be leading this Sunday, January 31, at 6 pm. Crafted to ignite your creative fires and keep you leaping forward into the new year, "Womanhood on Fire" takes as its symbol the Celtic goddess Brigid, patron of poets, smiths, artisans and healers. I'd love to have you join us for this marvelous celebration of women's gifts and women's community. For more information, please click here. Tickets are $25 at the door, with all proceeds to benefit Brigid's Place.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Video Book Preview - Touch of Evil

For the last few days, I've been working on my own book video preview for my upcoming romantic thriller, Touch of Evil (Lovespell, March 2010.) It's been an intriguing exercise, full of technical challenges, visual and audio choices, and the boiling down of close to one hundred thousand words of text into one minute that captures the novel's tone, central conflict, and heroine in what I hope is an appealing and memorable package.

In other words, it's storytelling in a completely different format. I opted to stay away from self-agrandizing author credits and quotes from some of the (lovely, thank goodness) reviews the book has so far garnered, and stick to what I hope potential readers want to see while keeping my message as concise as possible.

Update: I've revised the video to get rid of the scrolling text and added a neat effect in the final frames. Hopefully, this one will be a bit smoother. Thanks so much for all your feedback!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Go with God, JD Salinger

"I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetary. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody."
From Catcher in the Rye

The New York Times obit.

More on the Future of Fiction

Continuing a conversation some of us began earlier in the week, on the state of storytelling in America in the 21st century, I refer you to a blog entry by the literary novelist Alexander Chee, entitled "Why Must the Novel Be Boring?" In it, Chee (prompted by one of his own creative writing students) gamely explores the limitations of the 20th-century novel of angst, and quotes writer Lev Grossman on why adult hardcover fiction is having such a tough time holding its own against the YA vampire novel these days:

"There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it's still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged."

Chee then adds his two cents:

"The thing that I see so many people do with their books is they break it up into all these nutty little pieces where they're talking to me about character development and backstory. All these phrases that were really just meant to describe something have suddenly become orthodoxies. And they've lost their sense of the unity of the thing. They keep asking me, “How do I develop my character?” And I say, “Tell the story" . . . Too many writing students are trying to become masters of style and not masters of story, and they do so to their detriment. They have all these beautiful beautiful sentences and we don't really know what they're doing with them. Be sure to tell a story."

Please note: neither of these writers blame faulty taste or lapses in our educational system for why some readers these days are finding more satisfaction in genre fiction. And while we're at it, let's think about some of the great novels of the past--those that midwived the very form of the novel itself--and recall that these, while not avoiding pain, evil, or any of the ills attendant on the human narrative, nevertheless manage to be rollicking good reads: Tristram Shandy, David Cooperfield, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

I became and stay a writer not to win awards, make money (god knows) or curry favor with the devil. I became a writer to imitate, learn, and then master, and then celebrate and finally to become part of and advance the human art of story, and play some role in its survival as a moving way for experience to connect to experience, imagination to imagination, mind to mind and heart to heart. I do love a good sentence; but if you're in this for the sentence rather than the story, it's like going to Vancouver to admire the skis rather than the skier.

Story is just another word for movement. Exhilarating movement.

Get moving.


Strategies for Getting Started

I've been struggling for several days with a scene that's just not working. Much of the problem centers on the fact that I'm very early into a new project, and I barely know these characters. Sure, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to happen with (and to) them, but I can't make them do much of anything until I figure out what makes each one tick, who the supporting players are in the lives of each protagonist, and start auditioning a couple of antagonists.

I've never had much luck with those character interviews/dossiers some authors complete in the prewriting stages. (When I've tried this, the characters seem to delight in contradicting every neat little notes I've taken.) Mostly, I just use my head as a battering ram and write my way, in fits and starts, through the characterization process, delighting myself with each new discovery -- and trashing pages and pages that don't fit with my emerging picture of who each person is.

This is all when and good, except that what works for one project is useless with another, so it's important to have some backup strategies. Today, I'm going to step away from the keyboard, turn up the music, and sketch out a sociogram, to graphically depict character relationships (from affinities to antipathies to anything you want to show). If that doesn't get me in the mood for writing, I'm going to get out my magazines, scissors, and glue, and make a great big, messy collage of what I like to think of as the story's central imagery.

As I've learned from experience, however, neither one may get me where I need to go, so I'm also thinking of trying out a strategy Joni once mentioned, that of jotting on notecards each scene I have in mind. Then I can shuffle the order of events as needed and jot character notes that will enhance the dramatic impact of the story. Because to my mind, the plot and characters need to develop in tandem. Otherwise, they won't complement each other.

Once you have an inciting inciting or scenario in mind (if you begin that way, as I do) you can start out by asking yourself a few important questions.

1. How would the backstory (past events) impact a man or woman's personality? Think of several possible reactions/outcomes and consider choosing one that moves beyond, or in a different direction, from the obvious. Or one that seems on the surface to contradict expectations. (That's how complex characterization happens, as you can spend a whole book, even a whole series, unravelling the reasons.)

2. Which type of person would be most challenged by the plot events you have in mind? What career, family situation, or personality trait would offer the most dramatic tension, yet feel natural enough that it won't seemed contrived or melodramatic?

3. When it comes to the story's protagonists, which qualities make them relatable, even heroic, in the eyes of readers? How can I quickly establish that, in spite of all their challenges and flaws, these are people my audience will want to ride along with on their journeys. If I fail in this, I may as well stay home because no one will read beyond page six of the story. (And no, the "page six" isn't literal, but you know what I mean.)

So there you have it, my everything but the kitchen sink list of strategies for getting started. Does anyone have another to add? I'm always looking for another weapon to add to my arsenal and would appreciate your tips.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A moment by the sea (in praise of loneliness)

Met my memoir client in Palm Beach this weekend for a live group read through of her manuscript. It's an intense experience all around the table. I was grateful to have a free hour yesterday to sit by myself and watch the waves roll in.

From Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea:
The loneliness you get by the sea is personal and alive. It doesn't subdue you and make you feel abject. It's stimulating loneliness.
I feel exactly the same way about the lonely endeavor of writing. As much as I love the collaborative process -- and as much as I love my clients -- I'm looking forward to spending the summer in my own little corner in my own little chair, working on my own little book. Personal and alive. That's it exactly.

I love that Anne Morrow Lindbergh chose the word "loneliness" instead of "solitude" here. Solitude is being alone. Loneliness is feeling alone. Which can be quite lovely.

An Interview, a Contest, and a Touch of Evil

This week, I've been interviewed at The Examiner, where author Teri Thackston asks me about getting started as a writer and my upcoming release, Touch of Evil (Lovespell, 2.23.10). Those of you who click through and leave a comment by Jan. 30th will be entered in a drawing to win an autographed copy of one of my backlist titles.

I'd appreciate if you'd stop by so I won't feel so lonely.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Future of Literary Magazines

It's a pill to swallow, but check out Ted Genoways' article in Mother Jones, "The Death of Fiction?"--note the question mark--and gird your loins to ask the tough questions we need to ask about the future of literary writing. Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quaterly Review, offers up a tidy history lesson, tracing the rise (and current decline) of academic literary journals in the United States. He doesn't have much to say about the rise of lively publications--both online and in-print--that have little or nothing to do with academe but are doing much to keep the Internet an interesting place to read and enjoy fresh writing right now; but he does offer this stringent advice to anyone trying to find an audience in today's competitive literary market:

"Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ's sake, write something we might want to read."

To read the full article, click here. And check back with the Octopus later this week, when I'll be punchy about literary survival, the rise of Young Adult fiction, and what we can ALL learn from ANY kind of writing that runs red instead of yellow.--MD

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Fun Quotient

Though I write about and live in the Southwest, I'm a Jersey Girl by birth, which means I'm hard-wired to love most anything Bruce Springsteen sings. This afternoon, I dragged out a CD I haven't listened to in some time called We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

Unlike the Boss's usual rock 'n roll, this is folk music, recorded in three one-day sessions at an old farmhouse Springsteen owns with a bunch of folk musicians he respected and enjoyed. It's that enjoyment that really shines through - these men and women were clearly having a blast making art.

Which brings me to the point of this post -- that writing ought to be a fun thing, with a thrill communicating itself from the writer's spirit to her fingertips to the printed word and finally to the reader herself. Because joy can be contagious, and we all need more of that in our lives.

Of course, making any kind of art, books included, takes lots and lots of concentrated effort, and sometimes it feels like darned hard work. But in those shining moments when the words sing through the author, writing feels like a little magic here on earth.

And sometimes, when I read as when I listen, I smile, lit up by the knowledge of a private pleasure shared.

So what was the last book you read that made you feel the author's love for her characters, her setting, and her story? Inquiring minds want to know.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Milestones and Turning Points: The Moments that Change Our Lives

The day I defended my dissertation, I woke up with a steely, nervous calm. It was like the energy that had been circling throughout my body the entire four years I'd been working on the novel had suddenly risen up through my pores. It stayed there, dancing among the goosebumps, flirting with my hair. Mark (my husband) asked if I wanted anything to eat. "No," I said. "I couldn't possibly." He decided not to eat anything either--he was defending his own master's thesis in computer science later that day. So we drove, empty and charged, to the campus together.

I can't really say what happened next, except that it was sort of like our wedding. All these months and months--years--of preparation, and it all came down to less than two hours. I remember sucking in a breath and feeling it go down through my empty body. I remember putting my palm over my navel and feeling the rise and fall. I remember my second and third readers (bless them!) going out into the hall for extra chairs, so that there were enough seats and so that I wouldn't have to. I remember talking through the outline I'd prepared and feeling fairly confident about what I was saying. I remember the questions, questions, questions, and then the answers, answers, answers. And I remember at some point relaxing, then feeling a strange disorientation, as if instead of talking with a roomful of professors, I was suddenly seated among my peers.

Then I had to step outside, so they could deliberate before the moment of truth. To be honest, I had no doubt I had passed. I knew they were going to welcome me back into the room as doctor. But what unsettled me, what caused all that energy to sweep out and around and almost vacate, was the realization that I suddenly no longer cared. Yes, I wanted to be Dr. Paterson, wanted that very badly, but if the choice was between that and seeing my book succeed in the world, I'd have walked out of that building and never looked back. At that point, all I cared about was the snippets of feedback I had just received, and how they made me completely re-envision my novel. At that point, all I wanted to do was grab my novel and hold it tightly, say "Where are you not working? Where? I want to make you work, damn it; I want to make you work more than I want my life."

Then, of course, my dissertation director came out and got me, and everyone clapped, in the lukewarm, self-conscious way that only academics can clap, and my third reader gave me a thumbs up and said "You did it!"

But I wanted to say, "No, I didn't." "No, I haven't." I haven't done it until it works. And that's where I am now, getting back into the book, trying to rethink how to make it work--not just parts of it--but all of it. I hope I can. I know I can. I will will this into being.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Weekly Quote: Twain on Assumptions

I was having a conversation with my agent the other day wherein I expressed a business prejudice based upon a business situation in which I'd been burned years before. When held up to the light and examined, I quickly saw that I'd succumbed to the mind's need to create cause and effect associations, an inclination that can prove counterproductive, as Mark Twain noted long ago.

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it - and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit on a hot stove lid again - and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore. -Mark Twain

As you go about your busy week, take time to dust off an old assumption and ask yourself, is there really anything to this that holds up now? Try opening your mind and looking at the possibilities anew. You may find your own faulty beliefs have been holding you back for far too long.

This week's writing theme song: "The Waiting" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Listen to it free here.

Do you have a theme to share?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Robert Louis Stevenson on trying to make sense of the art and craft of writing

From Essays in the Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson:
There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art. All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys...

We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man. The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained; nay, on the principle laid down in Hudibras, that "Still the less they understand, The more they admire the sleight-of-hand," many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure.

I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I Celebrate The Reader

I'd arrived a bit early for the lecture I was scheduled to give, and was introducing myself to some of the audience trickling in who'd come to hear me talk about creativity and leaping forward in our work, when a tall, quiet woman glanced over at me and seemed to want to catch my attention, yet seemed shy about it at the same time. I came over and we started chatting, and finally I asked her what it was she did.

"Nothing," she said.


She meant, she explained quickly, that she did nothing "creative." And added that she probably didn't really "belong" at my lecture. She was just . . . visiting.

"But what do you like to do?" I asked.

"Oh, I love to read. I have a book group. I have to read good books, and I have to be with people who know how to talk about books in a way that matters. So I started this group. There are just seven of us. But it's really important to me."

"So you created this group."

"Well . . ."

"And you love to read. And you create discussions about books, original discussions. And reading itself--that involves your imagination interacting with the imagination of an author. You create images in your head. You create your own reading of the book. Yes?"

"Well . . . "

Someone else came up to us. Again my new friend was asked what she did.

"Nothing," she answered, shyly.


My challenge to myself, this weekend, is to think more closely about that word "creative," and to dream up new and still better ways to tear down the walls that have inadvertently grown up and hedged that word for so many people.

Creativity isn't only over on this acre, and not on that one. Writers, if we achieve anything at all, achieve it through the hearts and spirits and minds of those who open their eyes to our work, and who lend their memory and imagination to the page so that it no longer lies flat and full of dull symbols, but rises as if under a wand. Reading is a deeply creative act. Readers are our partners in creativity. Readers are not canvas. They are brush against our brush.

I celebrate the reader. Click clack click clack. I make. She makes happen.


An Author in Waiting: How a Gun Knows

Back in September, I asked author Steven Pressfield (The War of Art, The Legend of Bagger Vance) about grappling with our own resistance to writing, and he mentioned something that's stuck with me.

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

I've been a member of various writers' groups for more than fifteen years, and I can tell you it's true. Those who are serious about going pro recognize each other and frequently form alliances to the benefit of all, sharing craft tips, information about the business side of writing, and encouragement. Many such alliances (often critique groups) see member after member go on to achieve their goals.

So how does a gun recognize another gun?

1. Natural talent
This is critical. If there's not at least a native spark, there's no chance. Still, it's only a small part of the equation.

2. Dedication
The writer must put her money where her mouth is, making the work a priority in terms of time and energy. The world is full of people dedicated enough to attend meetings or classes and talk about writing. When it comes to putting in the sweat equity, however, the field thins considerably.

And the dedication can't stop with the actual writing but must extend to a systematic study of the craft of writing, the business of writing, and competitive books within the targeted market area. If you aren't voraciously reading in your chosen area, you aren't absorbing reader and editorial expectations, and that lack of knowledge will brand you an amateur when you make your submissions.

All the meeting/conference/academic class attendance awards in the world won't serve as a substitute for doing the reading.

3. The Kernel of Arrogance

It takes just a tiny bit of arrogance to believe you have something to say that's worth the world's time, that you're good enough to merit the dream that you're pursuing. Think of fighter pilots, star quarterbacks, and those testosterone-drenched business tycoons you love to hate for their swagger. You're going to need a measure of it, not on the outside, where it will be deemed obnoxious (especially and unfairly if you're a woman!) but in your heart, where it will steel you for the coming battles. A pro must have enough confidence to face down rejection and keep fighting.

4. Tolerance for Risk
Writers' workshops are brimming with those who spend year after year (sometimes running into decades) overpolishing the same darned opening chapter. A pro finishes things and takes the next step, risking critiques from unbiased readers (not ammother or a sister!), entries in contests for blind feedback, and (gasp!) submissions to appropriate editors and/or agents.

After a few rejections, the dilettantes go cry in the corner and find another hobby. The pros just lick their wounds and get back up, blood in their eyes, to continue the fight.

5. Business-like Attitude
Writing is a hobby, publishing a business. Those who move beyond the amateur stage treat it as such by learning about agents, publishing houses, and book contracts. This step held be back for a long time (I wanted to be about art, not filthy lucre!) but two resources that got me over the hump with Richard Curtis's How to Be Your Own Literary Agent (read it, even if you already have or plan to get an agent, so you can intelligently discuss important issues with him/her) and agent Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, which is now available as a free PDF download from Mr. Maass's website.

6. The Stubbornness of a Mule, the Hide of a Rhino, and (Insert Your Own Cliche Involving Persistence)
For the vast majority, the quest for publication is no sprint but a mega-marathon. Chat with any group of traditionally-published novelists, and you'll generally hear stories of those who wrote three, four, even six or more full manuscripts before selling. With each effort, something new was learned.

As Calvin Coolidge reminds us:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

So there, in a nutshell, are a few ways professional writers, and those with the potential to go pro, recognize others who have what it takes. Look at the list and think about areas you may need shoring up.

Then go find yourself some other guns and make some art.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

All Writers Invited:Sam Havens and Patricia Kay Speak in Houston

I'm a passionate advocate for writers getting out of their hermit huts and connecting, and I've never met a group of writers as friendly and welcoming as the women (and men, too!) of West Houston Romance Writers of America. Once a year, we host an all-day Emily Awards workshop, where we bring in great speakers and invite folks from the wider world of writing. No matter which form, genre, or age level you're targeting, we'd be happy to have you come and join us for a great program on February 13, 2010. (Follow the link for more information.)

Both Sam Havens and Pat Kay are well-respected expert speakers on the craft of writing, and the energy of the Emily Awards is always so inspiring.

West Houston Romance Writers of AmericaEmily Awards Meeting
Morning Session:

How Characters Happen

Creating objective-driven characters. How to establish and payoff arcs, contrasts, flaws and back story. How to write dialogue in character.

Sam Havens

Sam Havens is Professor Emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. Havens founded the Drama Department at the University where he teaches playwriting and screenwriting.

Havens has written over fifteen plays with productions in the USA, Canada and Australia. His plays have been selected for showcase productions in New York City, Westport, Connecticut; Amherst, Massachusetts; and East Hampton, New York. He has received playwriting grants from the Ford Foundation and from the Texas Commission on Arts and Humanities. Three of Havens' plays are published.

Havens taught playwriting and screenwriting for ten years for Rice University's School of Continuing Studies.

In addition to writing and teaching, Havens performs voice-over narration for radio and TV commercials and industrial films. He is also an abstract artist and a consultant in presentation skills.

Sam Havens and wife Gretchen live in Houston.

The Emotional Connection

Great books are about more than good plotting, likable characters, lots of conflict, and skillful writing. For a book to really grab a reader, the author must make an emotional connection with that reader. Otherwise, even though the reader may enjoy the book, it won't be one he'll remember. It won't be one he'll talk about. And it won't be one he'll recommend to others. In this session, we'll learn various techniques for stirring the reader's feelings and engaging him emotionally.

Patricia Kay

Patricia Kay is the USA Today bestselling author of more than 49 novels of contemporary romance and women's fiction. She is also an acclaimed teacher who formerly taught fiction writing at The University of Houston and now teaches exclusively online. Pat has been a member of WHRWA since 1986.

Schedule for February 13th
8:15-9:00: Coffee/sign in
9:00-9:30: Business meeting
9:30-11:30: Speaker: Sam Havens "Characterization"
11:30-12:00: Emily Awards Presentation
12:00-1:30: Lunch and book signing
1:30-3:30: Speaker: Patricia Kay "Emotional Connection"


WHRWA Members: $20
RWA Members: $45
Non-RWA Members: $60

To register, please visit

WHRWA meets the second Saturday of the month at:
Memorial Drive Christian Church
11750 Memorial Drive
Houston, TX 77024

Visit for directions and a map.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Write, Don't Think: Lessons From Finding Forrester

As I've been getting back to the third draft of my book, the thing that most surprises me is the need to, even at this point, add scenes. When I wrote short fiction, revision was really revision, and editing was "just" editing. But this novel animal is so very different. In developing the subplots, I am going back to the beginning again, at least with these particular characters. So it strikes me that while I'm working on the third draft of my novel, I'm really working on the first draft of these particular scenes. And as such, I can't expect myself to get those right the first time. I have to give myself the permission to fail on the page, or else I will never move forward. It reminds me of this scene in Finding Forrester (2000):

You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think.

--Finding Forrester
For those of us struggling with drafting and redrafting and revision, this is good advice to heed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Choreographing the narrative (3 Questions for our new blogmate, author/creativity guru Mylene Dressler)

I'm so delighted to introduce the next new member of our expanding blog crew, the lovely and lyrical Mylene Dressler.

Mylene (pronounced Milan, like the Italian city) was born in The Hague, the Netherlands, and began her multi-faceted career in the creative arts as a professional ballet dancer. She studied lit at the University of San Francisco and wrote her first novel, The Medusa Tree, as a doctoral student at Rice. Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler described it as "haunting and splendid." Mylene followed up with The Deadwood Beetle (Christian Science Monitor 'Best Books of 2001' list) and then The Floodmakers, a comic play/novel hybrid.

Mylene's traveled all over the world (as have her books, which have been translated into French, Dutch, and Turkish) teaching the craft of writing and inspiring the spirit of creativity. And she's lived in Carson McCuller's house. That alone is pretty cool, but it's just a small part of why Mylene Dressler is one of the most fabulous women I know.

Welcome, Mylene! We're so glad you're here. The Medusa Tree is one of those books that stayed with me for years after I read it. And it made me love you. How are you feeling about your firstborn a decade plus after its publication?
It's funny you should ask; I've been thinking a lot about that book lately and how much I learned, and still learn, from having written it. Like many first novels it's quite inward-looking, and yet I'm surprised by how it still manages to reach out, particularly in those passages about looking for the still center in life, finding that "blood-red light"--this is an image taken from the world of ballet--that keeps you steady. I posted one of those sections of the novel recently on another blog, and couldn't believe the response I got. So that makes me feel good. The images are holding up; the story and the ideas in it still seem to have the power to move. That's what I'm after. Not some transient reference point, but something that hums for a while. How nice of you to let me know the book stayed with you. As far as I'm concerned, that is the greatest compliment anyone can give a writer. And the book and its characters and images work that way for me, too. The Medusa Tree is still a part of me. I don't repudiate or pooh-pooh any part of it. I'm very proud of my firstborn.

I've tried and failed on several occasions to explain why your writing feels like dancing. Help me out?
Probably you get that sense because rhythm, cadence and narrative choreography mean so much to me. Early on, lyricism was a big part of what I strived for, too, although that's a bit less noticeable in my work these days. I like a slightly harder edge. But my essential biases are intact. I love writing that pays attention to rhythm and sound and the music of a sentence or a paragraph. I don't like wasted movement in dance or in language, so my writing also has a "tight" feel to it--not in the sense of being constricted, I hope, but in the sense that I'm not going to make you, the reader, wade through a lot of unnecessary words just to pad a chapter or make a book thicker so it will cost you more. The great choreographer Balanchine once told his successor, Peter Martins, that when you choreograph you need only so many gestures, and you have to know when enough is enough. Then the question simply becomes the arrangement of those movements. I've tended to cleave to that approach all my life. Make every move count. Waste no breath. It's probably one reason my novels are fairly compact. It's hard to keep that up for five hundred pages. But for the kinds of novels I like to write and the stories I try to tell, it seems to work well.

I'm determined to catch at least one of your workshops this year, and I hope we'll be hearing a lot about them here on BoxOcto. What do you hope participating writers take away from those experiences?
That's a great question. I'm leading workshops both in writing and, more generally, in creativity these days, and I think my hope is always the same. It is above all that you come away inspired. There is a great deal we have to teach each other, and so much that we can learn from each other, but none of it matters a hoot if it's presented in such a way that it seems like work and not like joy--and I mean sustaining joy. Succeeding in a creative field can be so challenging that I see one of my primary responsibilities as a teacher as firing people up, larding them with stamina, giving them the energy and will to persist. "A might will," Henry James has written. "That's all there is!" So the key for me is helping writers see not simply the value of a given exercise, but the part it plays in the overall wonder that is the pursuit of craft. As in, "It's not do this and you will learn this, but do this and you will learn this, but more important you will understand process and how to really grasp it with both hands." Because process is everything. If you can't learn to create an ongoing workshop inside your head, how to inspire yourself day after day to keep going, you won't keep going, and you won't learn the essential things no teacher can teach you. What is my voice? What is my subject matter? What is it I'm trying to discover by undertaking my story? I always hope people leave my workshops thinking, "Not only did I gain one or two useful tools here, but I can really see that devoting myself to this kind of work is stupendous. It's magic. It's tough. It's beautiful. It makes me feel awake. Alive. I'm going to go go go." I hope this because we need good storytellers. Humankind has this need, for people with the patience to figure out what moves us and what matters to us and how to structure it in such a way that we'll remember and that it will mean to us. So we get together in workshops, as we do here on this blog, to make sure there will always be plenty of good storytellers around. My hope, always, is to enlarge the tribe.--MD

Characterizing From the Inside Out: Why I Heart Laurie Halse Anderson

I have a confession to make. I get literary crushes. When I fall in love with a book, I will read it over and over again and take it to bed with me, sometimes sleep with it under my pillow. At some point, usually between the first and second readings, I will go online and look up the author. And then I will stare and gawk. Just look at those sensitive eyes. Look at that knowing smile. And if it's really bad, I'll go on facebook and try to "friend" the author, knowing full well I'm just one of many fans, and there will be no real interpersonal contact.

My current literary crush is Laurie Halse Anderson, bestselling author of the Young Adult novel Speak. I don't write YA, but I've learned more about characterizing from her than from most literary fiction. What I most admire in Anderson's work is the ability to use her teenage protagonists to evoke an entire world, from what could be a narrow point of view. She does this through interior monologues that show the teenager grappling with the adult world, with often surprising insight. Through the character's inner world, we get not only a clear picture of who she is, but who the adults around her are too. As we see her misjudge and mischaracterize, we learn her failings and blindsides as well as theirs.

Take this passage from Wintergirls, Anderson's novel about an anorexic:

Last time I was locked up, the hospital shrink had me draw a life-sized outline of my body. I chose a fat crayon the color of elephant skin or a rainy sidewalk. He unrolled the paper on the floor, butcher's paper that crinkled when I leaned on it. I wanted to draw my thighs, each the size of a couch, on his carpet. The rolls on my butt and gut would rumble over the floor and splash up against the walls; my boobs, beach balls; my arms, tubes of cookie dough oozing at the seams.

The doc would have been horrified. All his work, gone, in the endless loop of snot-gray crayon. He would have called my parents and there would be more consultations (meter running, thousands of insurance dollars ticking away), and he would have adjusted my meds again, one pill to make my self-of-steam larger, another to make my craziness small.

It's passages like this that reach in and get me, keep me up reading late at night and continue to haunt. Anderson's work is filled with them. If you're interested in learning how to deeply characterize, particularly if you're dealing with teenage characters, check out Anderson's fiction.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Aspiring and graceful female novelists this way! (A lovely moment in "A Room of One's Own")

From A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

...Now is the time, she would say to herself at a certain moment, when without doing anything violent I can show the meaning of all this. And she would begin--how unmistakable that quickening is!--beckoning and summoning, and there would rise up in memory, half forgotten, perhaps quite trivial things in other chapters dropped by the way. And she would make their presence felt while someone sewed or smoked a pipe as naturally as possible, and one would feel, as she went on writing, as if one had gone to the top of the world and seen it laid out, very majestically, beneath.

At any rate, she was making the attempt. And as I watched her lengthening out for the test, I saw, but hoped that she did not see, the bishops and the deans, the doctors and the professors, the patriarchs and the pedagogues all at her shouting warning and advice. You can't do this and you shan't do that! Fellows and scholars only allowed on the grass! Ladies not admitted without a letter of introduction! Aspiring and graceful female novelists this way! So they kept at her like the crowd at a fence on the racecourse, and it was her trial to take her fence without looking to right or to left. If you stop to curse you are lost, I said to her; equally, if you stop to laugh. Hesitate or fumble and you are done for. Think only of the jump, I implored her, as if I had put the whole of my money on her back; and she went over it like a bird. But there was a fence beyond that and a fence beyond that. Whether she had the staying power I was doubtful, for the clapping and the crying were fraying to the nerves. But she did her best. Considering that Mary Carmichael was no genius, but an unknown girl writing her first novel in a bed-sitting-room, without enough of those desirable things, time, money and idleness, she did not do so badly, I thought.

Give her another hundred years, I concluded, reading the last chapter--people's noses and bare shoulders showed naked against a starry sky, for someone had twitched the curtain in the drawing-room--give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days. She will be a poet, I said, putting LIFE'S ADVENTURE, by Mary Carmichael, at the end of the shelf, in another hundred years' time.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Calling All Writers: How Do YOU Cope with the Grief that Is Revision?

Hi, everyone,
As a result of one of my recent posts, "Good Grief! Revision in Five Stages!," I've received an assignment to write an article on the topic for the June issue of the Romance Writer's Report. But I'm going to need help from any writers out there (published or not) in the form of a few brilliant and concise quotes regarding how you deal with any of the following stages when it comes to revision:

1. Denial (Ever wondered, even for a moment, if your editor went on a bender and sent you some other poor, talentless sap's revision letter?)
2. Anger (She. Clearly. Doesn't. Get. Me! Philistine!)
3. Bargaining (Maybe if I just do X, I can keep Y.)
4. Depression (It's hopeless. I'm really just a poser after all.)
5. (and how you finally make it through to) Acceptance (What do you know? She was right all along!)

If you're able to send me a brief quote for possible inclusion, I'd love it. In
return, I'll be happy to mention your most recent (or upcoming) release, if you have one scheduled. And you need not be a romance reader to contribute.

I hope to receive lots of wisdom to share but can't guarantee, due to space
limitations and possible repetition, any particular tip will be used. However,
you'll have my undying gratitude for helping (and we all know how much that's worth!)

Thanks so much!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Coming Attractions and Burning Questions: What Do You Want to Hear?

Since I'm new to the blog, I thought I'd turn the tables and ask what you're struggling with about writing. What are some questions you have? Today I sat and brainstormed possible topics for my part of the blog, and thought I'd let you help me narrow them down. Here are just a few titles of possible blogs. Which ones would you be most interested in? And what else are you grappling with right now?

Possible Blogs:

On Craft:

Characterizing from the inside out: Why I heart Laurie Halse Anderson

3 Things genre writers can learn from literary fiction (and vice-versa)

First Chapters: What We Risk When We Put it All Up Front

Why Violence Can Be Boring--and How to Handle it So it's Not

On The Writing Life:

Balance and the Writer's Life: Is it Possible to be a writer and remain sane, social and healthy?

What We Give Up to Write--and What We Shouldn't

Best day (or night) jobs for writers

If I ever make it, I still want to be nice

"A Clean, Well-lighted Place:" Why a writer's work space matters

"I'm just a girl who can't say no:" Why Saying "no" is hard for writers, and what to do about it

On MFA Programs and Formal Training:

What you'll learn from an MFA program

What an MFA won't teach you

What admissions committees look for when choosing applicants

5 things I wish I'd known before I started my program

For a young friend starting chemo today...

Got book? "The Love Song of Monkey" is a trippy weekend read.

Last summer, while researching primate behavior, I accidentally ordered The Love Song of Monkey, a strange little novel by neuroscientist Michael S.A. Graziano. It sat on my desk until a rainy Saturday and then turned into one of those memorable books that serendipitously drops into your reading life.

Jonathan, a young man dying of AIDS, consults a physicist who's constructed a machine in which terminally ill patients undergo a complete molecular rearrangement and emerge invincible. The process is hideously painful (accounting for its marked lack of popularity), but Jonathan endures it, motivated by love for his wife, Kitty. The results of the procedure are less than hoped for, but the story exceeds expectations.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Cost of Commitment

This morning I had a call from the parent of a young student I work with telling me that in the coming weeks her first grader would be working on Time and Money.

Afterward, I started thinking, maybe that's where the problem begins, way back in the early years, when we're taught to think of those as two entirely different things.

Because of our unpredictable (and all-too-often miniscule) flow of funds and infrequent paydays, longterm professional writers quickly become savvy about budgeting their money. We have to, or we can't long survive in our chosen profession.

Unfortunately, most of us are slower at learning how to budget time, which is strange, since all of us are allotted the same number of hours per day as everyone else. The trick is, remembering that our time has the same value as people who work on the clock, that everything we choose to do with that time costs a percentage of our day... and our lives.

So the next time you feel pressured to build an online social networking presence, hang around on readers' board and "casually" namedrop your book, write "web extras" for a microscopic percentage of your fans to access, speak or do blog tours, or drive around introducing yourself to booksellers and signing stock, resist the impulse to answer the request on the spot.

Then, spend just a little time on a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the realistic potential impact of your labor against the time taken away from a deadline, a spec project, your family, or (dare I say it?) much-needed R&R?

Make a habit of waiting a day or two, thinking about the totality of your commitments, and then making a conscious choice, and I guarantee you you'll feel more in control of your life - and far happier about those projects to which you say yes.

Question for the day: How do you choose your commitments? Any time management techniques to share?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Trustworthy donation links for earthquake relief in Haiti

Thanks to all who sent links and suggestions. Here's where I sent money today:

The American Red Cross International Response Fund
You always know they'll be among the first ones on the ground. If I could give blood, I'd be doing that too.

Habitat For Humanity International
They need funds now so they can go in with immediate temporary shelters and mobilize rebuilding to come. Today I heard the staggering fact that less than 50% of the people had access to clean water BEFORE the earthquake. Virtually all rebuilding resources will have to come from outside the country.

UMCOR - United Methodist Committee on Relief
Gofightwin United Methodists! Good for more than casserole! My friend Rev. Kristin tells me 100% of your donation goes to relief efforts; they get administrative funding elsewhere.

Another young friend turned me on to Wyclef Jean's grassroots movement that funds programs in education, sports, the arts in Haiti. Wyclef Jean tweeted earlier today: "Haiti needs your help text YELE to 501501 and $5 will go toward earthquake relief." I wasn't able to get a rating on Yele through CharityWatch or CharityNavigator, but on the donation page it says 100% of your donation will go to earthquake relief. (I figured, hey, Wyclef Jean, five bucks, c'mon. I sent the text, but I do need to see that rating before I donate real money online.)

The U.S. Department of State website suggests texting HAITI to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts. (The $10 will be charged to your cell phone bill.)

And lit agent Nathan Bransford just reminded me: Doctors Without Borders, already on the ground and rendering aid.

Exploring the Great Possible: 3 Questions for our new blog buddy, Dr. Kathryn Paterson

For years, I kept trying to work out a coffee date with Kathryn Paterson. No more. Now, I'm trying to find a coffee op with Dr. Kathryn Paterson. An aspiring author and student at the University of Houston, she first connected with me when I was doing the "BookWoman" blog for the Houston Chronicle. It's been a delight hearing from her over the years as she moved into the PhD program, produced her first novel, and took the first steps toward publication.

Colleen and I have been planning a major redesign and expansion of Boxing the Octopus, starting with the addition of a few new voices. Eventually, our team will include a wide range of industry perspectives, a variety of genres and POVs -- all of us up to our necks in writing, publishing, and selling books. It occurred to me that we should have a token newbie -- and how nice it would be if she had a fresh PhD from one of the most prestigious Creative Writing programs in the country! In her coming posts, Kathryn will be bringing a combination of serious writing chops, high wattage personality, and unjaded faith in the art and craft of writing.

Welcome, Kathryn! We're delighted to have you. First question: What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Didn't you know you were supposed to grow up and be something normal?
Ha ha ha. Normal is a relative word. But seriously, I have known I wanted to write ever since I was 5. I opened my closet door as I was telling a story to one of my stuffed animals, and heard a voice say "Write it down." I looked up, put my hand on my hip, and said "But I'm 5! I can't write yet!" But the voice didn't budge, and neither have I. I do struggle with it from time to time, though, because there are times I question whether or not I truly "love" writing. I guess writing is one of those passions that arouses all the emotions, everything from excitement to elation to anxiety to fear to out and out frustration and despair. And there is nothing better to me than to finish a piece of work and come back to it later, sometimes years later, and think "wow, that was actually pretty good." For instance, right now I'm recording a few pieces I wrote in my early twenties for a "voice only literature competition" and I actually think they are just as good as anything I'm writing now. It's exciting to go back to the person I was then and realize that among all that drivel, there were a few real gems. It's exciting and it gives me hope.

The U of H Creative Writing program is one of the best in the US. What do you feel you learned there that you might not have learned elsewhere?
In a word, humility. I came to UH fresh out of the University of Cincinnati's playwriting program, where I had ended up doing very well in fiction. At U.C., I won several awards. Then I get to U of H and feel like I am the absolute worst writer in the room, and have my first professor come in a few weeks into the semester and say, very gruffly, "None of you are writing stories." That was a rude awakening, but ultimately very good.

Okay. You've got that PhD in your hot little hands (congratulations, by the way!) and you've got a solid manuscript to shop. What's the action plan?
"Hot little hands." Really, Joni? :) Actually, the plan right now is to get the manuscript even more solid. One of the things that came up during the discussion of the book in my dissertation defense was that while the main plot is working very well, there are a couple of subplots that need developing. And of course there are always tons and tons of other little things that you can do to polish a manuscript. Something that is hard for me is letting go of that level of perfection that we learn to have when writing short fiction. It is simply not possible, or at least I don't think it's possible, to have that same high level of quality consistently throughout a novel that people come to expect from a short story. A short story is more like a poem, where each word counts, and while I would love to have that in my novel too, I just don't know that it's possible, or at least it may not be possible yet for me.

After this third draft, though, I do plan to start sending out, and I can't tell you how nervous that makes me! So far two agents have asked for the full manuscript, by a complete and utter fluke, and I plan to send the book to one of those two first. If he says no, then it's back to the drawing board for me, most likely, because I didn't really feel a connection with the other agent. At that point, I will start querying and synopsizing and doing all the rest of the things all "normal" writers do. There's that word normal again, hmmm. Back to the beginning.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What worked last decade just doesn't work anymore. And that's okay.

No party on for me and the Griz this New Year's Eve. We'd planned to be in Paris, but I ended up having to ask for an extension on my deadline and was stuck here at home, pounding the keyboard. Between chapters, I got up to take a couple of Tylenol to tide me over till dinner and realized we'd slipped into the next decade. Something I already know about the coming years: I'm going to be working harder. Beyond that, I'm open to all possibilities.

Critical Mass has been doing an interesting series, The Next Decade in Book Culture, in which guests were invited to share their thoughts on what might be in store for us as we leave the double-Os behind and adjust to the pre-teens.

One of my favorite responses so far comes from poet Hans Ostrum:
Imagine being alive when the Gutenberg Revolution swept Europe, when printing-technology had made pamphlets, novels, tracts, and anthologies not just possible but commonplace. Obviously, we're in a parallel situation with digital media, except our cultures and technologies change exponentially more quickly than those in the 15th through the 19th centuries. I don't know precisely what will happen to "the book," "the novel," read, literature, and writing. No one does, but everyone guesses. Hence the despair and fear. But if we keep the Gutenberg Revolution in mind and consider how it changed cultures, arguably, for the better, we may be more likely to enjoy the uncertainty and adapt to the changes.

If you can find 30 minutes to spare this week, take a skim. There's a little Kindlephobia, but it's balanced by a lot of let's-just-get-on-with-it. As I've kept my eye on the series for the last few weeks, I've bowed my head more than once, softly praying, "Please, Baby Jesus, comfort and strengthen whomever is seated next to this person at a dinner party." But for the most part, I've been pleasantly reminded that bookish people are overwhelmingly kind, intelligent, funny, and brave.

What comes through loud and clear in the series as a whole is that what worked in the recently laid down decade of publishing is not going to work in the coming decade. Those who welcome change will prosper; those who doggedly cling to what worked in the Oh-Ohs, trying to pretend that they can tweak that to work in the Oh-Teens are destined to meet with a painful learning experience.

This is a time for reinvention -- of books, of book contracts, of methodology, of process -- and it's thrilling. It's healthy. Stagnation is the natural enemy of art. Whatever the specifics of our diverse strategies for the coming decade, we're all going to roll with some changes. But change is scary for a lot of people, especially where the ol' paycheck is involved.

May I urge compassion, friends? Let's be gentle with each other. Let's build up and not tear down. "Let the law of kindness be in your mouth." And in your SEND-clicking finger. Kindness, intelligence, humor, and courage. Every phase of my new five-year business plan will be sifted, tested, and committed to these.

In the spirit of "leave the gun, take the cannoli," I'm going to kiss off the old design concept, but take the attitude with me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Go with God, Miep Gies.

Just saw this on my BBC news feed:
Miep Gies, the last surviving member of the group who helped protect Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis, has died in the Netherlands aged 100. She and other employees of Anne Frank's father Otto supplied food to the family as they hid in a secret annex above the business premises in Amsterdam...

It was Mrs Gies who collected up Anne's papers and locked them away, hoping that one day she would be able to give them back to the girl. In the event, she returned them to Otto Frank, who survived the war, and helped him compile them into a diary that was published in 1947.

Five Paths to Perspective: Self-Editing Tricks & Tips

Focus is a great and necessary thing. But when you've been mired in a project for month upon month with your nose pressed to the page and your brain fully immersed, you become a little myopic to its flaws. Blind to the suckitude, is another way I'd put it.

When I'm "too close," I fail to see not only line editing type troubles, from missing words to misspellings and poor diction, but I can also miss more serious problems involving lapses in character motivations, hokey dialogue, "lazy" genre shortcuts (I write genre, so I'm not knocking it, but the whip must be cracked when the usual cliches rear their ugly heads), and predictability. To counter these problems and become my own editor, I look for ways to distance myself from and regain perspective on my pages.

Here are just a few that have worked for me in the past.

1. Take a break from the project to work on something else and then come back to it. Time works wonders to dispel the glamor. A writer on deadline may not have the luxury, however, so back-up strategies are needed.

2. Read the work in a different format. If you've been working off the screen, print the thing and physical write notes in the margin. Or put it on your electronic reader if you have one and pretend it's someone else's book you're reading and reviewing or critiquing.

3. Listen to your pages read aloud. When I write short pieces, such as articles, I often read them aloud myself, but for longer projects, I tend to, chapter by chapter, ask my computer to read it aloud to me. There are a couple of great programs for this purpose, TextAloud (free trial and then $29.95) and Microsoft Reader (free) available for download online. I use the latter, with a fairly expressionless, canned voice that is totally unforgiving that frequently makes me wince as it highlights and reads word after word. For some reason, though, it helps me focus on the sound of each sentence, and I consider it an essential editing tools.

4. Cast yourself as your agent/editor/critique partner and try reading from their perspective. In an especially persnickety mood. I swear, as I read, I sometimes hear Joni's voice in my head saying "You can do better" or "This way to the exposition." It's as if anyone whose ever critiqued you has taken up residence in your brain. (Though I recommend you reserve "the troops" for the editing process and keep them far from the writing process, where you don't want anything stifling your creativity.)

5. Change the venue. I edit galleys and such but never write at one big table in my house. So when I print out pages and take them there to read, it puts my brain in "seek and destroy" mode. Also, going to work at the library or a coffee joint -- anywhere different from where you normally work -- cues your brain that you're doing different work that day.

Though none of these tips and tricks for regaining perspective takes the place of feedback from others, they can help you to produce a much cleaner, more focused manuscript in the first place. Have any of your own techniques to share?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Symphony of Science "The Unbroken Thread"

Attenborough, Goodall, and Sagan on why we are all one and why "each of us is a multitude." Probably all the cellular biology research I've been doing for my WIP, but this makes me so happy.

"Every cell is a triumph..."

Visit Symphony of Science for more mind-blowing science smashups.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Buzzation on Elizabeth Gilbert's "Committed"

Interesting mix of responses to Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. I'm wondering if Elizabeth recorded this amiable interview for the NYT Book Review before or after Janet Maslin trashed the book with a spiny wrecking ball.

I'm downloading a sample to Kindle now, but I gotta say -- the brutality of that review will probably make me purchase purely out of solidarity with this terrific author. There's book reviews and there's value judgments. And then there's just junkyard dog meanness. I'll let you decide for yourself where the review lands on that spectrum.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth's website offers this interesting Q&A.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Tales from the Orphanage: Surviving Publishing Changes

Once upon a time, I had this dream. In it, I was consistently writing bestsellers my agent, editor, and millions of fan were clamoring to get their hands on. I frequently hung out in Manhattan, where I shopped with my agent of 20 years, lunched with my editor of about the same length, and was invariably assured, within hours of handing off each manuscript, that this one was my best yet and was sure to be a hit.

Oh, wait. That wasn't a dream. I think it was the plot from Romancing the Stone. But that makes sense, because what aspiring genre writer didn't fantasize about becoming a real-to-life Joan Wilder?

The truth is, the modern publishing world has changed, shifting dramatically from our fantasies and fictional renditions. Bestsellers still happen, of course (yea!), but long relationships with one's professional partners have become increasingly rare. Agents leave the business, editors move on to other houses (or jump the aisle to become agents), lines fold, publishing houses merge or disappear. Things change at breakneck speed, and as a result, security (for all the players) is in very short supply.

Certainly, this is now true in a lot of segments of the modern economy, but it's especially pernicious in the always-precarious world of authordom. So how's a writer to cope when he or she is suddenly "orphaned" by a change?

Since I've been there a number of times, I thought I'd share a few survival tips.

1. Grieve the change. The loss of the status quo is real, it's stressful, and nobody loves forced change.
2. Keep writing. Write something everyday to remind yourself you are (not were), first and foremost, a writer. This action can help keep you sane during the transition.
3. Evaluate your strengths. What do you have to offer that others don't? Talent, accomplishments, and experience are still worth something, even in an industry forever hungry for shiny-new debut authors.
4. Evaluate and address your weaknesses. Now is the time to take a hard look at your writing and career up to this point and consider making changes to make yourself a stronger, more attractive asset.
5. If necessary, ask yourself what other genre/forms of writing would be a great match for your skill set. In some cases, a lateral move may be possible, but in others, only a larger change will do. If you can get behind it heart and soul and put in the sweat equity, a complete career do-over is possible, though it may require a name change to accomplish.
6. Make a plan and take the necessary steps to carry it out. Though you can't control industry changes, it's reassuring to see the evidence that your own actions remain within your sphere of influence.
7. Take special care of your physical and psychological health. Take long walks regularly. Seek the support of friends and family rather than withdrawing. Do a kindness for someone in need. Remind yourself daily that your working life is only one facet of your life and not the only place where you have value as a person.

If you're in this business long enough, you'll most likely be confronted by an unexpected change. Do you have any coping strategies to add?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

(What) You Don't Show: The Fine Art of the Tease

As I work on beginning a new project, I begin with a scenario in mind, a scenario with such an intense conflict and harrowing backstory, I can hardly wait to put it on the page.

Though I absolutely know better -- knew while I was writing it that I was going to be forced to cut or rewrite -- I couldn't help myself. I started with a delectable chunk of flashback, so I could capture with crucial event that serves as a catalyst for my story.

For a few days, I even deluded myself with the thought that the flashback was dramatic and compelling. Surely readers wouldn't mind if just this once I started...

Many of them wouldn't, but the truth is, the backstory is so emotionally strong that leaping ahead into the "real time" of the story would dramatically lessen the book's tension. And having so quickly given up the goods of its most dynamic secrets, the story might lose the interest of its readers before it once more gathers steam.

Definitely, I thought, imagining a strip tease artist too quickly revealing all her goodies.

Darn it, I thought, demurely tucking the bare flesh of backstory into my outtakes folder. Afterward, I restarted the story, beginning with the heroine whose entire life has been profoundly affected by the backstory. Setting her up quickly and, I hope, relatably (broke single mom trying to get home on a snowy Christmas morning after a night shift), I raise question after question as she responds to the escalating, immediate conflict tossed into her path. (Any character who finds herself in the opening of one of my books had better darned well brace for impact.)

And all the while, I flash the plot's shoulder here, a hint of leg there, tiny clues something's a little off about the heroine's situation and her reaction to the first character she encounters. The reader is teased with snippets of dialogue and internal thought meant to intrigue rather than to lay bare the mystery... at least enough to force my story's audience to keep turning pages to satisfy mounting curiosity.

Of course, you'll have to increasingly reveal more, satisfying at least some questions, or the reader will stomp off, taking his/her frustrations elsewhere. But if you give up too much, too quickly, you certainly risk losing not only the reader's, but your own interest before you finally bare it all.

Pictured: Demi Moore in Striptease (1996)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Going West (super cool short film from New Zealand Book Council)

So tomorrow we start the first work week of the new year. Time to set aside all the angst of the oughts and embrace the adventure of Publishing 2010. Go West, baby!

Monday, January 04, 2010

3 Key Questions to Get Your Story Off the Ground

Ever find yourself struggling as you launch a new project? For me, getting the story off the ground offers a daunting challenge, at least until I figure out the answers to these questions. Keep answering with each new story, chapter, and scene, and eventually, you'll have yourself a book -- or at least an engaging, complete manuscript, ripe for shaping and editing.

1. Is the person telling the story sufficiently compelling? Will the reader emotionally relate to and quickly bond with this character? Or does the character elicit a strong reaction, whether it be curiosity, fascination, or even horror? Interchangeable, "generic" characters need not apply, even for supporting roles. When working to answer this question, ask yourself if the scene would be stronger or more interesting from another player's point of view? Don't hesitate to try writing the same scene from a different POV to find out which works best.

2. Does the character's trouble matter enough? Stories typically begin with a compelling character in a monumental jam of some sort. (If yours doesn't, you may have begun in the wrong spot.) Ask yourself, is this a humdrum, everyday sort of issue that anyone with a handful of working brain cells could solve? Ask yourself as a reader, why should I care enough to waste my time worrying about whether the character comes up with a solution. Then brainstorm ways to make the issue matter more.

3. What could happen to make the trouble far worse? Ask yourself, who would be the worst possible person to show up? What would heap even more stress on the character? What would complicate matters so horrendously that even you can't figure out (for hundreds of pages and thousands of hours, at least) how the character's issues can finally be resolved?

These are just a few of the important questions I ask myself repeatedly as I work to give a story wings. Are there any you would add to this collection?

Note on the art: An old French poster on future flight, from Wikimedia commons. Cool, huh?

Anti-Bella (Twilight spoof promos Critics Choice Awards)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Upular (an awesome tribute to the art of editing)

I'm buried this week, so expect gimme posts. I'll try to make them entertaining and encourage you to tune in on alternate days for content of substance from Colleen. Let's pretend this one is related to writing via the art of editing. Or just use it as a four-minute stretch/bust-a-move break. Up on your feet!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Back on the Horse

Today was supposed to be the day where we de-Christmased the house and I rewrote my first scene, since I finally know enough about this story to be dead certain I began in the wrong spot.

Life had other plans, in the form of a long search for our little Houdini, Zippy, who capitalized on an unguarded moment and an unlocked back gate someone had left ajar in the back yard and vanished into thin air. Eventually (while we were all frantically out looking) the little squirt came home on her own no worse for wear.

Then, while dealing with what should have been a minor issue in the attic, we ruptured a hose containing gallons of disgusting, goopy black water, which soaked my husband, me, a wall, and the carpet beneath the attic hatch.

No fun, any of it, but life comes along every now and then and knocks you the heck off your horse. Sometimes, it repeatedly comes charging forth, and you get darned sick of picking yourself back up.

But if you're a writer, that's what you do. As many times as it takes. Whether you're hit with personal or family illness, a child's issues, career set-back, or any other mayhem, you climb back to your feet the next day and say, "I'm doing this."

So here's hoping for a calmer tomorrow, and that I'll never reach the point when I say, "You know what. To heck with this."

Hope you all are having a much smoother Saturday!

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy Twenty-Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night--
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new--,
Ring happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land--
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


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