Saturday, February 27, 2010
The good news: I made lots of progress today on the replotting of the first part of my novel. The bad news: Mark sneaked up behind me and FILMED it. Here's a snippet. This is what he calls my "Italian side" coming out, which is pretty funny, because as far as I know, I have no Italian heritage. The other irony is that I was so into what I was doing I didn't even hear him, and he was right there!
Now you tell me: am I the only person who talks to her computer this way? :)
Today, I'm taking a few minutes to focus on the last facet, that of "wait time," in the art of storytelling.
To keep the reader flipping pages, the writer strives to quickly raise compelling questions by giving incomplete information in the form of intriguing dialogue or narrative. There's no shortage of advice on how to set hooks that appeal to reader curiosity.
To look at one example, here's a quick snippet from the opening of one of my recent romantic thrillers, Beneath Bone Lake (Lovespell, May 2009):
The boatman’s paddle dug deep beneath the moss-green surface, biting and twisting like a switchblade’s killing thrust. Pulse thrummed and muscles burned as he dragged the canoe forward, threading through a swamp-dank maze of pale trees, the ghost sentries of a forest flooded years before. Above, the skeletal branches reached skyward into silver, their bony fingers veiled in Spanish moss and predawn mist.
A harsh cry heralded a white egret’s low flap over water, and a higher-pitched, more melodic twitter warned the sun was close to rising. With a glance down at his watch, he swore, then flipped away the cigarette he had been smoking. He had to get moving, get the hell out of here because cold or not, the damned bass fisherman would be out at first light. He couldn’t take the chance that the silent incursion of an electric trolling motor would bring one close enough to notice that he carried no tackle — close enough to hear the splash as his loathsome cargo slipped over the canoe’s side.
By this point, the reader is (I hope) wondering who is this guy, why doesn't he want to be spotted, and (most importantly) what -- or who -- is the "loathsome cargo" he's on the water dumping?
After growing curious about these important questions, the reader might be mildly engaged if they were quickly answered. But tension is heightened with a "jump cut" (quick switch to a totally different scene) where Ruby Monroe, flying into Dallas after a year-long civilian work stint in Iraq, is extremely excited about the prospect of reuniting with her little girl and Ruby's sister, who's been caring for her. A new set of questions is raised, including the airport theft of an important item along with Ruby's family's failure to appear.
Now, with any luck, the reader should be caught up in Ruby's anticipation, worried that the body from Scene One isn't one of the heroine's family members, and compelled to keep flipping pages (with mounting dread) to find out what's really going on.
Rather than offering a quick pay-off, however, the story then forces readers to follow a chain of discoveries, revelations, dubious allies, and tantalizing possibilities to get to the questions' answers, the most important of which are delayed, delayed, delayed until the final pages.
But it's a balancing act, and no easy task, to keep the reader from becoming confused and/or giving up in frustration. To prevent these pitfalls, it's important that the author also raise lesser questions, which are answered at varying intervals. By satisfying reader curiosity on those counts and doing so in a fresh, novel, or unpredictable way, the author sets out the trail of breadcrumbs that will eventually lead the audience to a satisfying intellectual and emotional payoff.
Achieve this ideal balance, and you've effectively "bookmark-proofed" one page-turner of a read.
Question for the day: What was the name of the last "page turner" you read? How did the author make it "unputdownable?"
Friday, February 26, 2010
"Writing, my friends, is a forgiving process."
I looked up from the screen. I tried to conjure the incredulous faces of the undergraduates in Malloy 020. I tried to guess at their thoughts. (Is the woman mad? Has she seen all the red ink on my last assignment? Does she know anything about grades? Expectations? Standards? Honors? Does she know how hard writing is for me? Does she have any idea how I beat myself up over it--or how sometimes I just give up and don't care? Does she actually get paid for saying stuff like this? Should I forgive her?)
I reached for the keys.
"I marvel at it. At how forgiving writing is. Look at how you can take a pass at a sentence. And then another and another and another. Each time trying to bring it closer to what it is you are quietly, or urgently, trying to say. And writing allows you to do that.
"Writing is forgiving. Writing is forgiving. Time is not. Deadlines are not. Deadlines are stone. The trouble is, at various points in our lives, we're invited to confuse and conflate the two. School is one of those places where this can happen.
"But writing is not stone. Writing is range. Writing is luxury. It is not miserly. It is never stingy. We may experience miserliness in relation to writing--deadlines--what we call writer's block--sometimes it's the impulse simply to grunt toward the bare minimum, and see if we can get away with it--but as a medium written text is never miserly. It is ever, ever generous. It forgives you. It forgives you even that.
"Never doubt that writing is there for you. That it places at your disposal an incredibly successful, finely tuned, intensely tested technology we've all been sailing with for over three thousand years now. The rudder may fight you at times. But it is in your hands. It was made, in fact, for your hands."
"Try to remember this."
Photo Credit: Bruce Barone
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Check it out, and thanks, Laura, for sharing some absolutely true observations about what really keeps readers turning pages.
"Kathryn, report to the literary agent's office immediately," says my principal, over a loudspeaker.
"NOW?" I say, looking up at the speaker with fear. The speaker doesn't answer. I get up, my whole body shaking, and pick up my manuscript. Then I walk. Down a long hallway that seems to get longer and longer the more I walk, and then finally outside, to a sidewalk that never ends. I walk past bushes and rainbows and marigolds, until I finally see it in the distance. The old trailer I used to have my Spanish class in in high school, complete with a dancing Senora Pickeral.
I blink. She beckons me to come closer. I do, and the door opens. There is a bright, glimmering light, and then I'm inside, with the literary agent I want to send the book to.
Except--he's in a bathrobe, and I am completely embarrassed. I turn around and run. He calls me back.
"You're not ready!" I say. "I'M not ready!" I freak. He tries to take the manuscript out of my hands, I finally relent, and he starts to read. I can't look at him. I won't look at him.
He looks up and says, "I like it. Keep working on it." And the colors go psychedelic. Senora Pickeral does her funky dance. The earth moves.
And then I'm back on the path. Except now the path is covered with vines, and the marigolds are thorns. Everywhere I step, there are branches, grabbing me, scratching me, pulling my pigtails. I run, run, run as fast as I can, clutching onto the manuscript, but there are now hundreds--no, thousands--of lavender goats trying to butt me. I run anyway.
I make it back to school, clothes torn, hair a mess. Manuscript intact. I walk back down the now telescoping, collapsing hall, back to my English class, past my senior year English teacher, and sit back down.
I take out a pen and write.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Sheriff Justine Wofford's personal failures have left her alone raising her nine-year-old, autistic son, Noah. She also finds herself under investigation by Texas Rangers when financial problems prompt her to accept without question extraneous funds that appear in her late husband's bank account. Too late does she realize the good `ole boy network of business men in Dogwood, Texas expect a return on their investment in the form of awarded county budget contracts and her "looking the other way" when necessary.
She's even blown the only good thing to come into her life recently, Dr. Ross Bollinger, an emergency room doctor who won Noah's trust and Justine's heart. But he broke it off with her after a torrid, six-week affair, leaving her once again alone.
A rash of hangings at Bone Lake, which appear to be suicides, leaves Justine with little time to focus on anything but her job, which includes butting heads with her red-necked deputies who believe the sheriff should be a man.
Ross Bollinger has been away for several months, incapacitated with a heart virus, and is shocked to find that his young cousin Laney has not only lost her boyfriend, but is the only surviving member of her zydeco band, the others all dreadfully dead by their own hand. When Laney is threatened, and Justine is attacked, Ross must again deal with his feelings for the town's sheriff, a woman who refused to give him anything but hot sex when he wanted so much more.
Justine doesn't believe the hangings are suicides, and will not close the files. Instead, she broadens her investigation, checking for similar deaths in the state, looking for any signs of foul play. When a deputy is shot, and her young son is threatened, the sheriff will risk all to solve the crime, including life and love.
Colleen Thompson has written the quintessential romantic suspense novel, filled with mystery and intrigue, situations that shimmer with ambiguity, only to come into clear focus when explained, and a romance filled with impossible conflicts overcome by the intensity, heat and emotion of true love. This is an exciting page-turner, with a stomach clenching climax and a sigh-of-relief ending.
Click here to buy.
GOFIGHTWIN Colleeny book! (And thanks, Jo Anne, for letting me multi-task the sweet write up!)
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
This isn't meant to be expert or in-depth advice, just a few quick tips to get you do-it-yourselfers started. I also don't mean to hold up my book video skills as a super-fabulous example but as an illustration of some of the techniques I describe. (And if you're inspired to rush out and buy my new book, so much the better. I'll cop to that.)
1. If you're running Windows XP or higher (I'm presuming it's still on Vista and Win7), you should have a program on board called Windows Movie Maker. Here's a link from Microsoft to help you get started. Or if you want something more basic, try Wendy Russell's About.com post here.
Or if you're like me and hate reading instructions, open the program and start playing with it, then look up the questions that come up as you're floundering through the process.
2. Come up with a very brief, provocative way to share your story's hook. Looking at movie trailers, TV listings, and other book preview videos (there are tons on Youtube) will give you an idea what you should be after. Hint: Words are not your friend here. Get rid of every one you can.
3. Think about what images will best get across your message. Then legally obtain them. It's fine for you to use your book's cover art to promote your book. That's the way it's licensed. What's not cool is lifting material without permission and using it in your video. There are many places to find stock photos online, from istockphoto to Getty Images to many, many more. Prices vary widely, so be sure to shop around - and don't get carried away with too many images. Instead, focus on a very few to improve their impact. (You can use Moviemaker's special effects to add interest, as I've done here by using color shifts and zoom.
4. Find and purchase the right to use a piece of music that conveys the mood/tone you want in a compelling way. I recommend Productiontrax.com but there are many others out there. Just type royalty free music or royalty free production music into your favorite search engine. And don't confuse "royalty free" with "free." You will need to pay a set fee (varies from about $9.99 to $99.99 or more, depending on your choice) to avoid paying a royalty each time the file is accessed.
5. Remember, keep your "commercial" short. You just want to entice viewers with a taste, not risk losing their attention. And simple's best, too, or you risk losing your message with too many fancy tricks.
6. Check, recheck, and check some more with your friends (beta-testers.) Tweak as necessary before posting the file to your website, blog, favorite online bookseller, publishers, social networking site, and/or Youtube.
Though you can save money and have fun (if you enjoy this sort of thing, as I do) there are many compelling reasons to hire the pros to create a book preview video for you. (One of the best I know of, Circle of Seven Productions, has packages at many different price points, starting at $350. Check 'em out.) If you do decide to do your own, take extra care to avoid a cheesy look with 1. too much telling, 2. badly-handled use of images/effects, 3. self-aggrandizing over-selling 4. excessive length, and you can find your book video preview one more great tool for introducing readers to your book.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Pants on fire. Never. Good. Thing. (Can Cameron movie option survive implosion of Pellegrino's Hiroshima book?)
Last Train From Hiroshima, out from Henry Holt in January, is Charles Pellegrino's deep dive into the personal stories behind this pivotal moment in history, including gut-wrenching stories from survivors and eyewitness accounts from those who flew the mission. From the article that appeared in the NYT Saturday:
Mr. Fuoco, who died in 2008 at age 84 and lived in Westbury, N.Y., never flew on the bombing run, and he never substituted for James R. Corliss, the plane’s regular flight engineer, Mr. Corliss’s family says. They, along with angry ranks of scientists, historians and veterans, are denouncing the book and calling Mr. Fuoco an impostor.But that's a lot easier said than done. I can't speculate on strain to Pellegrino's relationship with Cameron (he served as sci advisor on Cameron's current smash Avatar), but they seem to go back quite a way, and frankly, Cameron must know that when you do interview-based research, you never know if that great story you're being told is platinum mine or tar pit.
Facing a national outcry and the Corliss family’s evidence, the author, Charles Pellegrino, now concedes that he was probably duped. In an interview on Friday, he said he would rewrite sections of the book for paperback and foreign editions.
“I’m stunned,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “I liked and admired the guy. He had loads and loads of papers, and photographs of everything.”
The public record has to be repaired, he added. “You can’t have wrong history going out,” he said. “It’s got to be corrected.”
As a memoir guru, I lecture my clients within an inch of their lives about the importance of telling the truth and the futility of thinking one can get away with lying. All oral history is subjective and, to a certain extent, malleable, but I think everybody's mama taught them the blatant difference between being on an airplane over Hiroshima and not being on an airplane over Hiroshima. Obviously, we have to work hard to back everything up with vigilant research, but I'm not sure what an author can do to protect him/herself from someone who'd go so far as to fake documentation.
Meanwhile, I hate the doubt cast on all oral histories every time this happens. At best, I guess it's another cautionary tale.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Deborah Noyes's 2006 debut novel, Angel and Apostle, got big critical love, including a PW review that ends: "Noyes engages with atmospheric charms of time and place...she delivers an ending revelation that would surprise Hawthorne himself." (Read an excerpt here.)
This month, romance novelist Paula Reed makes her hardcover historical fiction debut with Hester: The Missing Years of the The Scarlet Letter: A Novel. (Hey, nobody told me we're allowed more than one colon per title!) Reed is a high school English teacher, who works through The Scarlet Letter every year in class and says she always finds something new to love about the book. Quoth PW: "A few romantic trysts spice up the story and result in some un-Puritan-like scenarios...Reed has created an entertaining and unlikely sequel." (Here's an excerpt.)
Last week, Gordon Hauptfleisch at Blogcritics reviewed the two side by side, and Reed doesn't do too well in the comparison. (I suspect she'll be able to comfort herself with sales numbers that are likely to kick the other book's patootie.) Hauptfleisch is such a good writer himself, the item is fun to read, but it's redolent of genre bigotry, which doesn't leave room for the idea that these are two different literary perspectives from two different authors who dared to do what they do the way they do it.
Maybe it's too much coffee in the Hawthorne mug, but I'm thinking about a Pride/Prej/Zombies take on it, possibly titled "F#@kin' A!"...
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Here's a quote I just had to share, from Karl Iglesia's brilliant book,Writing for Emotional Impact.
Because life is often frustrating, illogical, and chaotic, we turn to stories for meaning and structure. We look for answers and for universal values because we want to know how to lead our lives -- how to treat one another, how to love, how to triumph over obstacles. We also turn to stories because they explain the world emotionally rather than analytically. One can say, then, that stories are our metaphors for life, our blueprints for living...
If you haven't read Iglesia's book, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's one of those extremely rare books on writing I've been actively highlighting, marking up with copious notes, and telling every writer I know they ought to have a copy. I own shelves of books on craft, but this is one I'm certain I'll be referring back to often.
And by the way, I paid full retail for my copy after author Pat Kay recommended it. So THERE, FTC. My motives are pure!
Friday, February 19, 2010
Dear friends, just a quick post to announce I'll be leading a creativity workshop in Galveston, Texas this weekend--Galveston, that hardy community that is busy re-creating itself after the ravages of Hurricane Ike. The energy, the resolve, the will on that island is wonderful to behold and be a part of. Our workshop--I say "our" because this afternoon is something we'll all be creating together--will bring together local citizens as well as out-of-towners. My thanks to those of you in Galveston and Houston who have already signed up, and my thanks for spreading the word to your friends in south Texas.
But what is a creativity workshop, you may ask? It can be many things, but in all cases it is a quest to open our minds, re-ignite and recharge our spirits, build new creative energy and spark new ideas in the fellowship of others. Creativity so often strives and is experienced in solitude: yet it needs encouragement, thrives on recognition, warms in company, delights in concert!
More details from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Galveston, sponsor of this event:
"Moving the Spirit: A Creativity Workshop," led by author and creativity guru "Dr. Em" (award-winning novelist Mylène Dressler), invites you to take part in a lively afternoon of memory work, movement, word play, free-drawing and improvised sound and rhythm, all designed to spark new creativity and unexpected flights of imagination lying deep within our creative spirits. You need have no prior "arts" experience of any kind to attend and enjoy this fun workshop. Simply bring your hands, your heart and your love of play. This workshop is free to members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Galveston; a $10 donation is requested of non-members. Time: Sunday, February 21, 1-3 pm. Location: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Galveston, 502 Church St., Galveston, TX 77550 (409) 765-8330
Your are most welcome to join in, my friends, as we dream, write, trace, listen to and move mind, body, and soul.
Photo credit: Bruce Barone
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear my good friend, Patricia Kay present an outstanding workshop on "The Emotional Connection." Pat's definitely a long-hauler in this business -- just this week she made her fiftieth (you read that right - 50th!) book sale. (Congratulations, Pat!)
I've learned so much from talking to, critiquing with, and watching Pat over the years that I thought I'd share a few of my favorite lessons.
1. The more you give, the more you get. Pat's given countless hours to teaching and mentoring young (both chronologically and in terms of experience) writers. She's taken time to read the work of aspiring and transitioning authors (this one included) and given honest, solid advice. Avoiding the temptation to turn into one those guru/divas who feels she infallibly knows all, she's instead turned the experience into a celebration of mutual discovery. In seeking out new books on craft or techniques, she enriches her own work.
2. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and we can recover from our stumbles. Without perspective, authors can be crushed by a rejected option book, failed submission, bad review (even by random strangers on Amazon), or disappointing sales. But long-haul winners climb back to their feet, their gaze already locked on the fascinating glimmer of another tale on the horizon. When the going gets tough -- and I can guarantee you it will at times -- the big girls lick their wounds, then shake it off, then gear up for the next round, and the next.
3. Stagnation's not an option. Unless you're continually learning, growing, and evolving as a writer, you'll end up bored, burned out, and permanently sidelined. A fascination with the challenges of publishing and a lifelong learner's attitude are essential ingredients.
4. It's all about the storytelling. Bestseller lists and awards are great (and Pat's seen plenty of both) but in the long run, the competitive trappings of success have to take a back seat to the joy of taking your readers on the journey to discovering your characters. If not, you'll spend your writing life obsessing over sparklies and perpetually jealous and dissatisfied.
Thanks, Pat, for sharing your wisdom and example. You've been a great role model.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Publishers say the physical costs of a book—paper, printing, warehousing, shipping and handling returns—account for only about 10 percent of the total. Digital distribution does not erase the need to spend on author advances, editing, marketing, and other functions.Maneker goes on to break it down to the dollar, and the real deal might surprise you. Check it out.
Yes, Virginia, that can be true. Strictly defined, those costs are probably close to 10 percent of the retail price of the book. As astonishing as that may seem to nonpublishers, I'm not so sure the numbers support the publishers' case for higher book prices. So I did a little math for Jack. And I tried to show my work.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The great twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, insisting that she was a poet plain and simple, rather than a “woman poet.” She wrote that “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”Click here -- no, really, do it -- to read the rest of this excellent article.
...Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men. It’s a known fact that among children, girls will happily read stories with male protagonists, but boys refuse to read stories with female protagonists. J.K. Rowling was aware of this: if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter, none of us would know about her.
And we don’t change our spots when we grow up. Last year, I was one of nine judges awarding an international literary prize for a writer’s body of work. Each of us nominated a candidate, and five of us were women; but only one of our nominees—only one out of nine—was female. (I myself enthusiastically nominated a man.) Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all.
Monday, February 15, 2010
"Writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, [the writer's] wounded innocence turns into irony . . . silliness into wit . . . guilt into judgment . . . oddness into originality . . . perverseness into his stinger."
Or, as Shapiro reminds us: "Every single piece of writing I have ever completed -- whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review -- has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess."
Such is the stuff lawsuits are made of.
The truth, however, is more complicated. Early in my career, someone told me (wish I could recall who) that when a great idea comes into the world, it does not come to you alone. And since ideas can't be copyrighted, only their physical expression, the best defense is to create, polish, and submit your version with all due speed and diligence.
But if you keep your thoughts jealously to yourself, you could be missing a valuable resource. If you're lucky enough to have a few trusted compatriots, it can help to hash out an idea as you're writing. Discerning colleagues can point out and help you shore up weaknesses before they become rejections. They can help you make your way through knotty problems and suggest solutions that suggest their own, even better solutions. (I refer to what happens in these brainstorming sessions as "spring-boarding" or "piggybacking" since each new idea supports deeper thinking that leads to more viable ideas.)
I was fortunate enough last night to have a conversation with romantic suspense author Christie Craig that turned into a terrific plotting session. I had a premise, characters, and a whole bunch of interesting possibilities, but I hadn't yet defined the story's central conflicts. Christie, who by all rights I might view as a competitor, offered to help, then dove right into the soup and helped me seine out the good stuff.
Do I worry that she'll "steal" my ideas? Heck, no. For one thing, even if we were to write about the exact same plot elements, our voices and styles are so different, the outcomes would bear very little resemblance to each other. For another, both of us have been writing long enough to understand that even novelists, who are by nature less collaborative than many other types of writers, breathe in the same inspiration that floats on the collective ether.
So don't be afraid to seek out help when you need it, to talk through a tangled problem, or invite a supportive fellow writer (no defeatists, naysayers, or saboteurs allowed!) to help you identify and correct any weaknesses before you send off your submission. Expose your idea to the light, then stand back and watch it grow.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Friday, February 12, 2010
In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity... I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.
Of course there are some very bad books written -- many of them -- and, as Chandler noted, more of these slip through the cracks and find their way to publication in the popular realm since far more examples of this type of book is printed. Even so, gems exist among the many mystery, Western, science fiction, fantasy, horror, or romance novels published annually. And from time to time, the best of these cross over to become enduring classics.
Can you tell for certain which will make the cut? Shakespeare's colleagues couldn't any more than Dickens', or any number of authors who aspired to entertain the masses.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Myth #1: An MFA provides a paid, uninterrupted time to write. Sometimes this is true, but most often it is not, at least not without going into significant financial debt. It's true that most programs try to get their students Teaching Assistantships, but at many schools, that TA is only enough to foot the tuition bill. And the TA itself may end up taking 20 or more hours out of each week, so keep that in mind as well. Teaching is very time and energy consuming. When I decided to go to graduate school, one of my personal rules was that I would not go into debt to do it. I almost made that work, but I sometimes had to piece together three and four part-time jobs in order to make it happen. That was in addition to the classes and the teaching, which actually left very little time for writing. This is why I tell my students to research the program they are applying to and make sure they know what they're in for. Find out the percentage of students getting financial aid and what kind of aid they're getting. If what you want is time to write, then make sure you choose a program that gives you that, over one with a big reputation.
Myth #2: An MFA will provide you a supportive community in which to explore your art. Again, this depends, especially on what you're writing. If you're writing straight literary fiction, then yes, this is probably true. But if you're writing mystery, sci-fi, or the next great romantic suspense novel, then be careful. First of all, you might not even get in, and secondly, once you're there, you might be looked down upon. There are programs that are more commercially focused, some that are craft focused, and some that are intellectually focused. I chose UH because it was intellectually focused, and at the time, that's what I wanted in a program. As my writing style shifted, I became more and more mainstream, and this caused some clashes in aesthetics. I'm glad in the end to have had this experience, because I got a lot out of those challenges, but I don't think it would be good for the average writer going in wanting to write genre.
If genre is your thing, find a program that allows for that. You may even want to ask straight up how genre is handled in workshop. If it's not handled at all, then you'll probably find out quickly. Also, keep in mind that even if you are writing literary fiction, or even if your program does allow for genre, students can still sometimes be competitive with one another. There are many flaws with the workshop model, and one of them is the idea that everyone must say something uniquely critical in order to get a grade. What I find is this often focuses the discussion in the wrong direction, rather than getting to the heart of the piece and seeing if the idea itself is viable.
Myth #3: You get to sit at the feet of the masters, and you get a lot of one on one mentoring. Again, there is some truth to this, but it's a bit more complex than that. Many programs will advertise that big name writers teach for them, or come in and do short-term residencies. What you need to find out is what that means. Does that mean that you'll get to spend the whole semester with that person, or just the afternoon? Does that mean the famous writer will be reading your work, or do they just come and give a talk? And do you care about this? Personally, I cared more about what I was writing and what I was learning than who it was who was teaching me.
Often I find the writers with the biggest names aren't necessarily the ones who are the best teachers, and part of that is the issue of time. It takes time to read a long manuscript all the way through and make comments (I just did it for one of my own grad students and it took 15 hours). Famous, productive writers seldom have that kind of time. So before you commit to a program, talk to some of the current students and find out who is there and who is actually doing the mentoring. That said, it was exciting to take a playwriting class with Edward Albee (!) and to get to introduce National Book Award winner Richard Powers at a craft talk. My few minutes with Powers before we went on were ones I will cherish the rest of my life, and it is a bit surreal to be face to face with that much greatness.
Myth #4: MFA programs teach you about the business, set you up for a cushy teaching career, and introduce you to editors and agents. Um, no. Sorry, but no. If this is your main reason for going (and you'd be surprised at for how many people it is!), then you'll be in for a very rude awakening. While some tip-top MFA programs do try to get their students an agent if they think they are ready for one, most don't even address this aspect of the business. The entire time I was in graduate school, not once did I hear the word synopsis or query letter. This is because most MFA programs are still heavily slanted towards short fiction, and for short fiction, getting published in literary magazines is the typical track. I think this may be changing; with so many lit mags going out of business, I have a feeling profs are going to have to address this at some point, but most of the traditional programs I know of are still very rooted in that short-fiction, literary, workshop model. And part of that again is time constraints.
That said, UH did bring out agents and editors to meet us a few years ago, and both of my agent meetings went exceedingly well. So good stuff does happen--but you can't count on it, and it can't be your reason for going!
Let me know if you have any other questions for me. I hope this addresses at least some. And I'm sorry if I burst any bubbles, but I get tired of hearing these romanticized accounts of MFA programs, as if every one of them is like the Breadloaf Writers conference, and people are all going to ride around in the back of trucks filled with hay.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Today on Boxing the Octopus's "Three Questions" series, we welcome author Bev Vincent, whose book The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, has been nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award.
When I first met Bev, he was the president of the Woodlands Writers' Guild, and I could tell right away he was a man with serious plans for going pro. And sure enough, he's made good on many of them. From his website:
Bev Vincent is the Bram Stoker Award nominated author of The Road to the Dark Tower, an authorized companion to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He is a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine and has published over fifty short stories, including appearance in the Bram Stoker Award winning From the Borderlands anthology, the MWA anthology The Blue Religion edited by Michael Connelly, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Doctor Who: Destination Prague and All Hallows. Visit his online store for links to anthologies and books.
BtO: Congratulations on the Edgar nomination, Bev! Can you tell us a little about how your admiration for the work of Stephen King grew into your two books focusing on his work? We'd love to hear, too, any details you can share on what it was like working with King on these two projects.
BV: Thanks! I’m thrilled and delighted to be considered in the same category as the likes of PD James and to have my work recognized by the Mystery Writers of America.
Back in the 1990s, in the burgeoning years of the Internet, I was a member of a USENET newsgroup called alt.books.stephen-king, where we discussed King’s works. I’m the sort of person who, when someone asks a question, I’ll look up the answer if I don’t know it off the top of my head. Because I had good reference books at hand, I gained a reputation as something of a know-it-all.
Though I never expected it, that reputation encouraged publishers, publicists and others to supply me with behind the scenes information. Apparently I had an authoritative disposition, so I became a credible and reliable source of King news, and the reputation grew.
In 2001, Rich Chizmar asked if I would be interested in writing the King news, reviews and commentary column for his Cemetery Dance magazine. Since that was an extension of what I was already doing for fun, I agreed—and I’ve been writing News from the Dead Zone for the better part of a decade. That affiliation has opened up a lot of doors for me. A few years ago, for example, I got to spend two days on the set of Frank Darabont’s movie The Mist, which was filming in Shreveport, Louisiana.
BtO: What fun!
BV: Over the years, people asked me when I was going to write a book about King, but I always deflected them. I knew he wasn’t fond of biographies—he’d rather people focus on his work than on the details of his life—and he’s so prolific that to write anything meaningful about his vast literary career would be a daunting project, to say the least.
However, when I heard that he had finished the first drafts of the final three books of his magnum opus—his Dark Tower series—an idea occurred to me. Since the writing of these books spanned most of his publishing career, and since the novels crossed over into most of his non-series books, an exploration of the Dark Tower series could be a manageable way to look at the bigger picture.
I pitched the idea to King, saying that if he hated it I would drop it immediately. Instead he said he was flattered that someone wanted to take his work seriously. He reads Cemetery Dance (he’s published fiction in that magazine), so he was familiar with my style and approach to his work, which helped, I think.
The second thing I said in that pitch—which was uncharacteristically forward of me—was that in my wildest dreams, the Fed-Ex truck would pull up in front of the house with the manuscripts for those last three books (which weren’t scheduled to be published for another two years) so I could start working right away on what would become The Road to the Dark Tower. The next day I heard from his administrative assistant: the manuscripts were on the way. The day after that I had 2500 manuscript pages sitting in front of me.
BtO: Wow! That's amazing. And amazingly generous of King.
BV: That endorsement—that magnanimous display of trust—gave me the ammunition I needed to attract the interest of NAL (a division of Penguin) and to get a literary agent. It also allowed me to have my book ready for publication at the same time as the seventh book in his series instead of a year or two later.
I tried not to bug him too much during the writing process. He’s an incredibly busy guy. I did fire questions off to him by e-mail every now and then. When I was done, he read the manuscript to fact check but requested no changes. Then he supplied a very complimentary blurb for the front cover.
The Stephen King Illustrated Companion came about because of The Road to the Dark Tower. When Barnes & Noble decided they wanted to publish a King readers’ companion, I was contacted to see if I would be interested in writing the text. When I saw their previous books on Poe and Jane Austen, I was sold. Their books are informative, but also beautiful and fun.
Knowing King’s aversion to biography I did my best to put a literary analysis spin on the book—it is biography through the lens of his fiction. How did what was going on in his life at the time bubble through into what he was writing?
For this book, I didn’t interact with King at all. He granted the publisher access to his literary archives at the University of Maine and to family photo albums. The documents expert from becker&mayer! (the book packager who produced the book for Barnes & Noble’s imprint, Fall River Press) went to Maine and visited the university and King’s office to find material that complemented my text. King had veto power, but he didn’t exercise it. His cooperation, though, turned the book into something that collectors, fans and casual readers alike have enjoyed. You can spend hours opening all the little envelopes and exploring the reproduced documents. Most of the enclosed material has never been seen before.
BtO: As a King fan, I'm definitely intrigued! So how has studying King's work influenced your own fiction?
BV: I’ve often said that if King decided to write romance novels, I’d still read them because it is his ability to create believable, charismatic, sympathetic characters that attracts me to his work. [Gratuitous note from Colleen: Believable, charismatic, sympathetic characters are what romance is all about! :)] That’s his biggest influence on my own fiction—the way he regularly demonstrates that everything arises from characterization. I used to plunge into writing stories driven purely by plot without much regard for the characters who were populating the story and how they were affected by what was going on. Now I don’t start a story until I know the main characters and understand what they want.
I don’t believe that my style or subject matter is strongly influenced by King, or any other individual writer. I was probably imitative of some writers in my early days. We probably all go through that phase. I hope that my style is the sum of everyone I’ve ever read plus a unique ingredient that comes from me. One of the greatest compliments a member of an online critique group paid to me was his claim that he could recognize a story as being mine because of the voice. The fact that someone else thought I had a distinctive voice was gratifying.
BtO: What's next for you? Are you interested in continuing to work with both fiction and nonfiction in the future?
BV: My primary focus for 2010 is going to be on revising the first draft of a novel that my agent thinks has promise. It’s a daunting process, ripping it apart and rebuilding it from the ground up, but I like the book a lot and I think it will be worth the effort. I would love to get a novel published, and then another and then another after that!
However, if another fascinating non-fiction project came along, I would certainly be open to considering it.
Thanks for being with us, Bev. Again, congratulations on the latest award nomination and best of luck as you reimagine and revise your novel! I hope you'll stop back by to field any questions from our readers.
Tuesday, February 09, 2010
Monday, February 08, 2010
--Original, previously unpublished work. Length: 500-1,000 words
--Non-fiction (i.e. "true" stories)
--Stories that focus on a recent ("NOW") event, conversation or encounter here in America
--Stories that focus not on the writer, but rather on another person (or people).
The charge is to develop ourselves, both as writers and human beings, as people who listen closely and generously to the narratives of others. Interested? You can send your story in the body of an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at that address. I do try to read and review stories as quickly as possible, and to post them within a few weeks after acceptance.
Happy listening, happy writing!
Sunday, February 07, 2010
By now you will have dried your tears, and I hope will hear me when I tell you that that was one of the most lucid analyses of one's own work I have every read. It takes talent not just to write, but to know when something isn't good enough. It takes courage not to let it slide. It takes heart for it to mean so much to you that you weep in the quest for mastery. It takes insight to parse the problem and grope toward the solution. You have all of these. You are almost there.
Remember that the frustration you are feeling right now is not ordinary, and that is why it is intense. It is what the choreographer Martha Graham calls "divine dissatisfaction." You are trying to make something that is fit and meet--something that refuses to be pedestrian. This connects you and your struggle to all the angels of better creation. It would be easier just to let those chapters stumble inadequately along. But you refuse to. And therein lies your gift.
This thought doesn't necessarily make it any easier while you're struggling, I know. But whenever I reach the same kind of impasse, I remember Graham. I may feel lost, groveling, lowly. But this is an error in my perception. I am dancing. I am burning with the same hectic fire as the stars. And eventually will burn my way through.
Saturday, February 06, 2010
They're annoying me because they are very near what is now the beginning of the novel, and they do set a lot of very important things up. The problem is that there are too many threads and they aren't weaving together. They do later, but they aren't coming together right then. The result ends up being several tight, tense scenes back to back, followed by a few more leisurely background scenes, also back to back--and therein lies my problem.
I see that. I have seen that. I want to fix it. But for the life of me, I can't figure out how. I can't figure out how to organize that material, and I can't figure out which parts of the subplots to develop, and how to develop them without detracting from the main plot. Today I sat with what I think could be a gem of a manuscript, but there's just that one big flaw. There are other smaller problems throughout, of course, but that's the major problem. 5 out of 33 chapters. That's it--but because it's near the beginning of the novel, it's everything!
Tomorrow after church, I will come back and get the index cards. I will read and comment to student fiction and work yet again on my own. I will do what I've done before, so many times--I will map this out, and I will be ruthless.
That's what I will do tomorrow. But tonight I am in tears.
Whew. For a lot of reasons.
"She was soon to learn that when it comes to the harsher lessons of this life, beauty is not going to get you very far!"
Really not much I can add to that. Sleep tight?
Friday, February 05, 2010
Agreed, my friends? Or is there some small piece missing, here, something of the joy of writing, the sense of being enslaved to something that flies as well as plods?
I do highly recommend The Creationists. A nice set of essays, although I bemoan the fact that there is only one woman among the many creative writers whose work Doctorow explores.
Wimping out happens when you shy away from a scene with real emotional impact and rob the story (and by extension, yourself) of an opportunity to connect with the reader at a visceral level.
Here are some warning signs that you may have wimped out when writing a scene and some tips to pump up the punch:
1. You've put the most powerful, memorable lines in the mouths of a secondary or throwaway character rather than allowing your protagonist to star.
Possible solutions: Is there a way to give your protagonist a terrific comeback, wry or insightful observation, or show him/her driving the events/outcome? Readers love an active character with impact in his/her own life rather than a "dust mote" buffeted by every breeze.
2. You've failed to show a crucial turning point by "cleverly" alluding to it in subsequent scenes. Or maybe you have a character remember or flash back to a strong scene, especially one the reader was anticipating.
Possible solutions: Rewrite the power scene in the "real time" of the story to avoid distancing the reader from the action and emotion. (I swear, I have to relearn this particular lesson with each book!)
3. You're stalling on the tough stuff by writing scenes detailing the characters' routine activities. Zzzz...
Possible solutions: Try a "jump cut," leaping into the next power scene, then very briefly alluding to the critical details that made it happen (a bread crumb trail of necessary backstory.) In other words, as Elmore Leonard advises, "I just leave out the stuff that people don't read anyway." Same goes for boring, routine "how are you/I am fine" type dialogue. Kill it before it breeds a boring, routine and ultimately unreadable manuscript.
Do you ever find yourself using any of these techniques to avoid writing an emotional scene? Do you have any additional solutions to add to my list?
Thursday, February 04, 2010
A Whisper to the Living by Stuart M. Kaminsky (Forge, Jan 2010) Click link to buy from Powell's.
Per the flap:
A Whisper to the Living continues the adventures (some would say trials and tribulations) of Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, an honest policeman in a very dishonest post-Soviet Union. Rostnikov is one of the most engaging and relevant characters in crime fiction, a sharp and caring policeman as well as the perfect tour guide to a changing Russia.
Rostnikov and his team are searching for a serial killer who has claimed at least 40 victims. And then there is the problem of protecting a visiting British journalist who is working on a story about a Moscow prostitution ring...and in doing so Rostnikov and his team uncover a chain of murders that lead to a source too high to be held accountable if the police want to keep their jobs. Or their lives.
I am sorry I have been silent since Saturday. We have been in constant discussions with Amazon since then. Things have moved far enough that hopefully this is the last time I will be writing to you on this subject.
Over the last few years we have been deeply concerned about the pricing of electronic books. That pricing, combined with the traditional business model we were using, was creating a market that we believe was fundamentally unbalanced. In the last three weeks, from a standing start we have moved to a new business model. We will make less money on the sale of e books, but we will have a stable and rational market. To repeat myself from last Sunday's letter, we will now have a business model that will ensure our intellectual property will be available digitally through many channels, at a price that is both fair to the consumer and that allows those who create and publish it to be fairly compensated.
We have also started discussions with all our other partners in the digital book world. While there is still lots of work to be done, they have all agreed to move to the agency model.
And now on to royalties. Three or four weeks ago, we began discussions with the Author's Guild on their concerns about our new royalty terms. We indicated then that we would be flexible and that we were prepared to move to a higher rate for digital books. In ongoing discussions with our major agents at the beginning of this week, we began informing them of our new terms. The change to an agency model will bring about yet another round of discussion on royalties, and we look forward to solving this next step in the puzzle with you.
A word about Amazon. This has been a very difficult time. Many of you are wondering what has taken so long for Amazon and Macmillan to reach a conclusion. I want to assure you that Amazon has been working very, very hard and always in good faith to find a way forward with us. Though we do not always agree, I remain full of admiration and respect for them. Both of us look forward to being back in business as usual.
And a salute to the bricks and mortar retailers who sell your books in their stores and on their related websites. Their support for you, and us, has been remarkable over the last week. From large chains to small independents, they committed to working harder than ever to help your books find your readers.
Lastly, my deepest thanks to you, our authors and illustrators. Macmillan and Amazon as corporations had our differences that needed to be resolved. You are the ones whose books lost their buy buttons. And yet you have continued to be terrifically supportive of us and of what we are trying to accomplish. It is a great joy to be your publisher.
I cannot tell you when we will resume business as usual with Amazon, and needless to say I can promise nothing on the buy buttons. You can tell by the tone of this letter though that I feel the time is getting near to hand.
(I'm curious to know how comforting this is for authors who had book releases in Jan and Feb. I can't believe they won't restore the print editions of all Macmillan imprints since this is a squabble over ebook sales. Hard to see the forest for the trees, I guess, especially when you're busy razing the forest to the ground in order to erect a strip mall.)
If you'd rather laugh than cry about it (at least for today), I highly recommend you click your way over to Hugo-nominated, New York Times bestselling science fiction author John Scalzi's Whatever Blog to read Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon: A Deeply Slanted Play in Three Acts.
You, Mr. Scalzi, clearly rock. And Mrs. Scalzi, I'm sending you a cyber-high five for that appearance in the Third Act.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
My friends, when you are feeling small and inconsequent, or worry that your work may be small and inconsequent, please undertake the following exercise.
Imagine lifting your own weight over your head. Do this deliberately, and in this way: Imagine that you are standing in front of yourself. Imagine you are bending at the knees--say, like a circus performer--and holding your upturned hands out toward yourself. Now: imagine your heels stepping forward and into your hands. Imagine you are slowly straightening and lifing your entire body, your own feet, in fact the weight of your complete being, from the ground up--right over your head.
Feel the heft of you? Feel the substance?
No small thing.
This is what we do every day. We carry ourselves through the world. And our work.
We flag, at times. No wonder. We feel small and baffled. Why, we ask ourselves, do we bother at all? Here is where the error lies: in thinking, because we sometimes tire and buckle, that we don't amount to much.
Take a moment today. Feel your substance.
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
How about it people? If you're a Mac author out in the cold, please post a B&N buy link to your book in the comments below, and anyone else who's willing to put money where mouth is, please join me and post a shout out: Hey, Amazon! I just bought a Mac author from B & N!
The Murderer's Daughters is the debut novel of Randy Susan Meyers, who spent eight years as assistant director of Common Purpose, a batterer intervention program where she worked with both batterers and domestic violence victims. She's also worked with at-risk youth and currently teaches fiction-writing seminars at the Grub Street Writers’ Center in Boston.
From the flap:
Mama was “no macaroni-necklace-wearing kind of mother.” She was a lipstick and perfume-wearing mother, a flirt whose estranged husband still hungered for her. After Mama threw him out, she warned the girls to never let Daddy in the house...PW says it's "solid" and "psychologically complex." Sounds promising.
It's a monumental bit of bad luck to have your debut novel emerge in the middle of a s#*t-storm. (Says the girl whose book came out just before 9/11.) It can be a career changer, and it stinks. So here's one for you, Randy Susan. I'm turning off my Kindle and looking forward to diving into your good old full price hardcover.
Update: Authors Guild statement on the pi$$ing contest.
Not surprisingly, the majority of agents, like the majority of authors, have come down on the publishers' side and against Amazon's bizarre and heavy-handed decision to remove buy buttons from all Macmillan books in any format.
I know a lot of readers (many of whom imagine that JK Rowling, Danielle Steele, and fictional-mystery author Richard Castle represent the typical author, in terms of earnings and lifestyle) don't believe this, but book publishers survive on razor-thin profit margins, and the majority of authors get by on Ramen noodles, coupons, and/or spouses with benefits. With the economy slumping, countless editors and other publishing personnel have found themselves jobless and even more midlist authors are seeing their royalties slashed and options declined. So believe me, we're not insensitive to the readers who want and need to save a buck wherever possible.
But when one retailer sells a product as a long-term loss leader (in order to sell, say, its $259 Kindle) it puts downward pressure on the commodity and eventually guts the very industry -- the book biz -- that is its lifeblood. Although I've found lots to love about Amazon (and have spent a fortune there in the last few years), I'm really disappointed in the Big Brother tactics and hope that everybody can make nice again soon.
Monday, February 01, 2010
Over the past couple of weeks, we've been talking about the distinction between literary and commercial fiction, and speculating about why lit fic is losing so much ground. Of course, this phenomenon is not new, and neither is the two-way snobbism. In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne famously attacked that "damned mob of scribbling women" for selling hundreds of thousands of copies of books, while he and other more "serious" writers struggled to hold their own in the marketplace. "Dollars damn me," wrote Melville at age 30 in 1851, deep in debt and headed towards financial ruin. And yet he and Hawthorne continued to write and continued their famous correspondence, even as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin went from its serialized publication in an antislavery magazine to a wildly popular book and oft performed play.
Yet who do we read now? Who is most often assigned in high school and college classrooms? The answer is less straightforward than you might think, and leads me to my biggest question: Why do we assume that what is now considered "literary" will be the literature of the future? Why do we assume that someone who wins a Pulitzer prize or the Booker award in 2010 will be read 300 years from now? How do we know what tastes those people will share? How do we know their aesthetics? And why, for that matter, do we make such a distinction between "serious" literature and commercial? Isn't it possible to write "genre" fiction that is high quality? Isn't it possible to write "literary" fiction that is just downright bad?
I have a growing unease with the increasing polarization of literary and commercial fiction, in part because I still believe that it is possible to tell a good story, maybe even a great story, and tell it well. Perhaps I am naive, but I believe readers are hungry for quality even in genre, and I know many intelligent people who don't even know what "literary" fiction is. I think literary fiction writers need to see what they can learn from commercial writers, and I think writers of commercial fiction need to see what they can learn from the literati.
We all have to get over this "you suck/you don't sell" divide and realize that when we sit down with our notebooks or in front of our computer screens, we are engaging in the same basic practice. Good literary writers struggle over plot points too, and good genre writers struggle over characterization. Perhaps the genre writer does not have the luxury of time to worry about every little detail, but perhaps the literary writer could learn from the genre writer's work ethic, discipline, and pressure to connect with readers. And maybe commercial writers can learn from literary writers how to avoid cliche and pat, convenient formulas, even while staying true to the conventions of their genres.
Finally, we all need to realize that to some degree, there is still a gender bias at play. Chic lit is still dismissed as frivolous, even when "guy lit" (think Hemingway) of earlier eras is still lauded. J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer may have become phenomena, but critics have largely ignored them. Alice Sebold was herself considered "literary" until a certain book of hers became the biggest American debut since Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Had The Lovely Bones sold only a few thousand copies, how would she have been received?
I still don't know where I'll end up as a writer, but I'm hoping to keep my options open. In the meantime, I'd rather dwell among the "scribbling women" than be the one who damns them.
One in three people will be diagnosed with cancer during his or her lifetime. We are firm believers that knowledge is one of our most powerful allies when it comes to the battle against cancer. That’s why Community Medical Center sponsors this event each year. We invite you to take part in this free event including panel presentations with a variety of medical experts and survivors as they discuss treatment, beating cancer and what it means to be a survivor.Then it's back to Helena, where I'll do a couple workshops and keynote for the Rocky Mountain Theatre Festival at Carroll College, Feb 12-13, an amazing event hosted by Helena's Grandstreet Theatre.
Looking forward to seeing many old friends and connecting with a host of creative types!
We welcome payola in the form of pies, cakes, neatly folded laundry and free books!