Monday, May 31, 2010

Writing to Change the World: Why Do Stories Matter?


A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark and a couple of other books that are my go-to books when my batteries are depleted and in need of recharge. This past week, I found another. I've been meaning to order Mary Pipher's Writing to Change the World ever since it came out in 2006, but for some reason just never did, despite that inner voice that said I should. And now I know why.

Pipher isn't writing to writers who want to be especially literary, nor is she writing to those of us who want our novels to sell. She's writing to those few, brave souls who are stubborn enough, visionaries enough, and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that something we write may have an impact on the world. Granted, she is talking more of activist writing than writing novels, and even says as much in her introduction. But as I read, I found myself nodding along and realizing that I am one who writes for a greater purpose, because of a calling that comes from outside myself. In my writings about the place of the mentally ill in society, though I want to haunt, spook, and entertain, I also hope to start a broader sweep of change that just might begin with the controversy I and others like me will spark with our books.

It takes a really bold voice to make such a statement, and to be honest, these last few weeks I've wondered if I have it. And, more importantly, I have wondered if I'm prepared for the reactions that such a work will spark. In the past, I've tended to polarize people in workshops, live audiences, and the editors of literary magazines. I've had pages of a play I wrote thrown down on the floor and stomped upon, and my former Sunday School teacher once concluded I was under the spell of a witch. But if my writing gets out there, I will have to contend with these same responses from complete strangers, strangers who may not understand what I'm trying to do and conclude that I, like my main character, need "an adjustment in the head."

But then I read Pipher, and felt like someone was speaking my language. Among her many gems in this book, I found the following, which really spoke to me. I hope it speaks to some of you.
I do not believe in fairy tales, and I don't think it's helpful to encourage others to believe in them either. As a species, we are self-destructing, and we are taking the rest of the world with us. I do believe in grace. If we open ourselves to the despair and pain of the world, and if, brokenhearted, we can still love the world, then we can become part of the medicine for the world.
I am broken now. Use me.

From "The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane

He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life--of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire. In visions he had seen himself in many struggles. He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess. But awake he had regarded battles as crimson blotches on the pages of the past. He had put them as things of the bygone with his thought-images of heavy crowns and high castles. There was a portion of the world's history which he had regarded as the time of wars, but it, he thought, had been long gone over the horizon and had disappeared forever.

From his home his youthful eyes had looked upon the war in his own country with distrust. It must be some sort of a play affair. He had long despaired of witnessing a Greeklike struggle. Such would be no more, he had said. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions.

He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.

But his mother had discouraged him. She had affected to look with some contempt upon the quality of his war ardor and patriotism. She could calmly seat herself and with no apparent difficulty give him many hundreds of reasons why he was of vastly more importance on the farm than on the field of battle. She had had certain ways of expression that told him that her statements on the subject came from a deep conviction. Moreover, on her side, was his belief that her ethical motive in the argument was impregnable.

At last, however, he had made firm rebellion against this yellow light thrown upon the color of his ambitions. The newspapers, the gossip of the village, his own picturings, had aroused him to an uncheckable degree. They were in truth fighting finely down there. Almost every day the newspaper printed accounts of a decisive victory.

One night, as he lay in bed, the winds had carried to him the clangoring of the church bell as some enthusiast jerked the rope frantically to tell the twisted news of a great battle. This voice of the people rejoicing in the night had made him shiver in a prolonged ecstasy of excitement. Later, he had gone down to his mother's room and had spoken thus: "Ma, I'm going to enlist."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oy, what a week!

BEA week has come and gone. We kept an eye on things with headlines and a few relevant twitter feeds at the top of our FeedMe bar, but kept the big picture in view.

Sunday
Colleen pondered the joys of literary larceny.

Monday
Nate's Sparrow Rock got some big love from Dark Scribe.

BEA Director of Education Mark Dressler wrangled with the future.

Mike Bender and Doug Chernack's Awkward Family Photos still cracks me up.

Tuesday
Parnell Hall sang us a booksigning ballad.

We got BEAlicious with the opening of BEA.

Mylene contemplated the bruises left by the best stories.

Nancy's Theory of Style looks good coming and going.

Wednesday
CEOs speak up and editors bust out the buzz at BEA.

Author Marta Acosta discusses genre-hopping as Grace Coopersmith.

Thursday
Springfield, monkey sex, giant typewriter--what's not to love about BEA10?

Author Christie Craig pops in to discuss her new novel, Shut Up and Kiss Me.

Friday
Dorchester authors share writing advice and books.

PBS Newshour wrapped BEA with Scott Turow, Tattered Cover's Cathy Langer, and FSG's Jonathan Galaszzzzzzzzzzz.

Joni waxed rhapsodic about Elise Blackwell's An Unfinished Score.

Saturday
Dennis Hopper leaves us with Rudyard Kipling's "If".

Curmudgeons at The Chronicle

Two great finds in today's Houston Chronicle, which I love browsing through especially on Sundays:

Leon Hale, saying, "Writing a book is nothing. Selling it is hell." Why's that? In case you haven't guessed, click here for his essay on the topic.

Here's another note of interest, since I recently finished laughing my head off over Justin Halper's hilarious Sh*t My Dad Says.
William Shatner is quoted as saying he's done the show's pilot! Best. Casting. Ever.

Happy Sunday to you, too!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Buy This Book: An Unfinished Score by Elise Blackwell

I recently subscribed to Unbridled Books (great reads delivered to your doorstep just like fruit of the month club!) My first shipment arrived as I was dashing out the door to the airport last week: Elise Blackwell's An Unfinished Score plus the bonus book I chose, Marc Estrin's nerdtastic The Annotated Nose. I just got around to opening the package today while I was cleaning my office. Several hours later, my office is not clean, my dog is nosing my knee because I'm weeping, and I remember why I love Elise Blackwell's novels. She's an amazing writer, and this is a melodic, intricate, beautifully woven work. It's not for the impatient reader; it's for the reader who's still willing to sink into a book the way you sink into music when you lay on the floor and listen in the dark. You're not skimming ahead, you're letting it all flow to you--the notes, the structure, the adventurism. (I hate it that I read so few books that way these days, and I suspect book critics skim even worse than I do.)

I appreciate classical music, but I don't know much about it, so some of the technical stuff went over my head, but I loved the way the author brought in seemingly tangential this and that about the lives of composers. It was interesting and flowed seamlessly as I read, and as the big picture unfolded, I realized these stories weren't tangential at all. They go straight to the beating heart of the book, which is--for me anyway--an examination of what it means to be an artist. There's so much emotional muscle in the novel, I'm certain it won't speak this theme to everyone. It'll speak about love, loss, anger, regret, how human beings are in concert with each other. Maybe it says something about An Unfinished Score that I'm sitting here blathering about my experience of the book as opposed to telling you about the book itself.

From the flap:
As she prepares dinner for her husband and their extended family, Suzanne hears on the radio that a jetliner has crashed and her lover is dead. Alex Elling was a renowned orchestra conductor. Suzanne is a concert violist, long unsatisfied with her marriage to a composer whose music turns emotion into thought. Now, more alone than she’s ever been, she must grieve secretly. But as complex as that effort is, it pales with the arrival of Alex’s widow, who blackmails her into completing the score for Alex’s unfinished viola concerto.

As Suzanne struggles to keep her double life a secret from her husband, from her best friend, and from the other members of her quartet, she is consumed by memories of a rich love affair saturated with music. Increasingly manipulated by her lover’s widow and tormented by the concerto’s many layers, Suzanne realizes she may lose everything she’s spent her life working for. A story of love, loss, sex, class, and betrayal, this psychologically compelling novel explores the ways that artists’ lives and work interact, the nature of relationships among women as friends and competitors, and what it means to make a life of art.
So, yes, buy this book. Then close the door, lie on the floor, and read it.

PBS Newshour BEA wrap with Scott Turow, FSG's Jonathan Galassi, and Cathy Langer of Tattered Cover

Dorchester Authors Share Their Writing Inspiration - And Their Books

Just wanted to post a link over to Musetracks, where 16 Dorchester authors (including Christie Craig, who stopped by yesterday) share their writing inspirations - and their books!

Win a bundle of autographed copies with a comment at Musetracks.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shut Up & Read Me: 3 Questions with Author Christie Craig


Steamy and hilarious as ever, Christie Craig is back with a new romantic suspense romp, Shut Up and Kiss Me. Today, we caught up with her for three quick questions.

BtO: First of all, Christie, happy release day to you and best of luck with the new book. Can you tell us a little of the backstory on SHUT UP?

CC: Thank you so much for having me here. Colleen is forever my go-to person when I need something, whether it’s about questions about a publishing contract, writing decisions or just sharing my good news or asking where to hide the body of that Weight Watchers attendant who told me I’d gained three pounds the last time I attended a WW meeting, and I really appreciate having a good friend in the business like that.

Now, about the backstory on Shut Up and Kiss Me. Writers get their ideas from all kinds of places. I always joke that I find mine at the clearance rack down at Wal-Mart but I have to say that with Shut Up, it was a little different. Now, I don’t think I’ve shared this with anyone and it is kind of a funny story. Years ago, before I sold my first humorous romantic suspense to Dorchester, I decided to try branching out into some more marketable sub-genres of romance. Erotic romances were really hot then, so I figured, hey, what not give it a try. I started a book called Under the Precious Sky about a Native American police chief, a photojournalist hired by the town’s mayor to promote local tourism, and the power of soul mates. I entered it in some contests and I think I even finaled but everybody told me the same thing – namely, that I had too much story in there for an erotic romance. So, I reluctantly abandoned the book but after I started making sales to Dorchester, I pulled out that proposal, redid the pages and, well, it became Shut Up and Kiss Me. And I have to say that out of all of my humorous romantic suspense novels, I think I love this one most of all.

Of course, isn’t that what a writer says about every new book?

BtO: Definitely!

I've known you for a long time -- in fact, you were one of the authors who encouraged me when I was first getting started -- but many might not realize the obstacles you faced when first breaking into print, and then breaking back into the business a second time with the kind of quirky humor, heartfelt emotion, and nonstop (sexy) action you've become known for. Care to elaborate on how you overcame rejection?

CC: Oh, boy. As anyone who has seen me do my “Rejection Dump” in workshops will tell you, I’ve been rejected a lot, especially when you add all the rejections for photojournalism assignments, freelance non-fiction to my fiction rejections. And, yep, each and every one of those little suckers stung but I didn’t let them keep me from trying again.

If I had to give two pieces of advice about overcoming rejection it would be this:
1. Dreams aren’t milk--they shouldn’t come with an expiration date. By that, I mean, it doesn’t matter how many rejections you get, they should never be enough to make you give up your dream. So what if you book got rejected by every publisher in the business? Put it lovingly on the shelf and then start a new project. Keep going, keep writing, keep submitting, keep pursuing that dream.

2. Either embrace rejection or kick its ass, nothing in between will do. Now, like I said, rejections sting, whether it’s your first or your hundredth, but how you deal with those rejections, well, that is what separates the people who achieve their dreams from those who don’t.

When I was trying to break into a new market as a freelance author, or break into romance, I did the same thing. I studied the markets and then I studied my rejections, looking for a kernel of knowledge that could make me be a better writer. Well, sometimes I found something and that is where the embracing part comes in . . . but other times, when it was just a half-page “Not for us” type of rejection, I just had to kick rejection’s ass.


BtO: Hah! Speaking of kicking rejection's tail, I used to have a special "I'll show them!" file. And I've head about one now-bestselling author who once wallpapered a bathroom with rejections - although I'm not sure I'd want to be surrounded by them at my most vulnerable!

Love your suggestions!

Can you tell us a little about your alter-ego, C.C. Hunter, and what's next for you?

CC: Yep, I’m now writing a YA paranormal series called Shadow Falls for St. Martin’s Press as C.C. Hunter. I’m really excited about the books, too. Born at Midnight is the first book and it will be released in February of 2011. The series is set at a summer camp for supernatural teenagers, and I’m having such a great time doing the books. It’s been racking up some big foreign sales for me, and I’m working on Book 2 in the series right now.

This is the first pseudonym I’ve used but it’s not the first time I’ve had an “alter ego” in writing. I mean, for years I’ve written my freelance non-fiction as Christie Craig. Right now, I’m a features writer for Houston Lifestyles and Homes and I do articles on interior design. Sometimes when I’m out in a bookstore – yes, I’m checking to see how many copies of my books they have on the shelves, I admit it. LOL – I’ll start talking with people. One woman recognized my name and said she just loved my work. I thought she meant my books but, nope, she was talking about an article I did on choosing new toilets. LOL.

I also write non-fiction books with Faye Hughes. We did The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance, which was out in 2008. In a few weeks, our next project, Wild, Wicked and Wanton: 101 Ways to Love Like You’re in a Romance Novel, will be released. I loved doing that book – it’s a humorous self-help book about what a real woman can learn about love and men from reading romance novels.

BtO: If I had a fourth question, I'd ask when do you sleep? Whew!

Thanks again for dropping by!

For our readers, here's a blurb for Christie Craig's new release. I highly recommend you check it out!


WELCOME TO PRECIOUS, TEXAS
…where fistfights serve as dinner theater and fire ants rain from the sky. The locals are usually very friendly, if a bit eccentric. No pictures please, or you may find yourself a guest of the county morgue.

Photojournalist Shala Winters already had her hands full bringing tourism to this backward, podunk little town, but her job just got tougher. Pictures can say a thousand words, and one of Shala’s is screaming bloody murder. Now she has to entrust a macho, infuriating lawman with her life—but she’ll never trust him with her heart.
Trusted or not, Sky Gomez isn’t about to let a killer get his hands on Shala’s Nikon—or any of her more comely assets, for that matter. Her mouth might move faster than a Piney Woods roadrunner, but all he can think about is how good it must taste…and how she’ll never escape true love.


CC: Thanks again, Colleen, for having me here. It’s been great.

General vibe is positive at BEA (Rick Springfield, monkey sex, giant typewriter--what's not to love?)

According to this morning's report from Rachel Deahl and Lynn Andriani:
Overall, people thought traffic on Wednesday was strong. And booksellers, despite some grumbling, embraced the shift to midweek. Workman’s group publisher, Bob Miller, called the mood “rocking,” noting, “It feels busier and more energetic than it has in the past five to six years.” Will Weisser, v-p, associate publisher, marketing director of Portfolio/Sentinel, said, “People seem happier about the midweek. It’s certainly more convenient for New York publishers.” And both Miller and Weisser noted that attendees seemed less focused on the economy this year.
I'm just bummed I missed "Esther Newberg and Scott Turow engaged in a pissing match”. That alone had to be worth the price of admission, plus the cost of heel blister ampules.

Happenings today include Book and Author Breakfast and Luncheon and "Big Ideas at BEA" Conference Sessions. Click here for the full schedule.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dark roots, inappropriate ensemble and all (3 Qs for genre-jumping author Grace Coopersmith)

I'm not sure if San Francisco author Marta Acosta is moonlighting with her campy Casa Dracula series (pubbed by Pocket) or daylighting with her new single title release Nancy's Theory of Style  (S&S Gallery) writing as Grace Coopersmith. Either way, she seems to be having a lot of fun with it.

Grace, thanks for popping by. This is a dramatic leap in career direction -- from undead to high life. You're a publishing pro by now, but does this book make you feel like a virgin, touched for the very first time?
Yes, dark roots, inappropriate ensemble, and all! No, it's actually very different because I've built up so many relationships over the years. At first I was going to rely on my new Grace Coopersmith persona, but I realized that many of my online pals were happy to help me get the word out about my book.

I'm digging this author photo with the tutu! Call upon your powers as a recovering drama student and sample for us a bit of dialogue between Tutu Girl and Author Grace Coopersmith.
Tutu Girl: Did I ever get to wear toe-shoes and dance lead?
Grace: You earned your toe-shoes, but you were assigned to the back row, where you always should have been. Stop crying, dear. The world needs clumsy back-up performers because they make the real stars, like me, look fabulous by comparison.

The event planning theme begs a question about your fantasy dinner party, but I'm more interested in your fantasy book club. Who's invited and what's on the reading menu?
I'd rather answer the question about the dinner party, because I work very hard to make mine seem effortless! Hmm, my fantasy book club would have to include people who are snarky, smart, and interesting. Jane Austen, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, Reese Witherspoon (who also went to Stanford and got her English degree), Craig Ferguson... If I could have a fictional character, she'd be Sophie Kinsella's Becky Bloomwood, because she's so dang funny. We would be reading Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing aloud and laughing and drinking margaritas. You would be invited, too, so long as you brought pie. Key Lime would go with margaritas. We could sneak Jane aside and ask her if she finished any manuscripts that no one else knows about.

Visit Grace Coopersmith's website for more about the book. And the tutu.

BEA Editor's Buzz Panel: Seriously, did anybody think they'd get copy above the monkey-on-girl sex book?

From PW's take on the BEA Editor's Buzz panel yesterday:
One of the six buzz books flogged has a three-page sex scene between a talking monkey and a woman. “It’s not bestiality,” said Cary Goldstein, the book’s editor at Twelve, “It’s love.”

The book is The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Benjamin Hale’s debut, and Goldstein said he loves the story, that of a chimpanzee who learns to talk, falls in love with a primatologist and eventually becomes a murderer. Why not? “It’s big, loud, abrasive, witty, earnest, and accomplished,” Goldstein said.
Queued up in line to be ignored in favor of monkey sex:
Emma Donoghue’s Room (Little Brown), about a boy who's grown up as a captive in a room with his mother, who was kidnapped years before.

Bad Science (FSG), already a U.K. bestseller from author-physician Ben Goldacre, about a South African vitamin entrepreneur who was selling vitamins to treat AIDS.

The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer (Scribner), Siddhartha Mukherjee's epic history of the disease and view toward the future of treatment.

Read the rest here.

BEA: CEOs Speak Up

From Shelf Awareness article BEA: CEOs Speak Up, a few soundbites from yesterday's Opening Plenary: CEOs on the Value of a Book:

Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux:
"Who has time for enhanced e-books? With links you could be there forever...No author will want to have books only online. Every author wants to give his mother a copy of his book."

Scott Turow, author and incoming president of the Authors Guild (on how musicians' reliance on concerts to make up for a drop in music sales won't work for writers):
"I'm not sure as many people will show up to hear me read as they would to watch Beyonce...Why did publishers let the e-book be available at the same time as the hardcover?"

David Shanks, CEO, Penguin Group:
"More than 90% of our business still is in paper."

Esther Newberg, executive v-p, International Creative Management (on fair author compensation in the digital age):
"One of the big six publishers told me that in five years 60% of all business will be e-books...How are you justifying not giving us 50% of e-book revenues?"

Bob Miller, group publisher, Workman:
"I can imagine that at the time of Gutenberg, people were saying, 'This thing will be a real time suck.'"

Read the rest here and watch our FeedMe bar for more BEA updates.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Buy This Book: Nancy’s Theory of Style by Grace Coopersmith

I admit it. It was the cover of Nancy's Theory of Style that caught my attention. It's...evocative, right?

"I have mixed feelings," says author Grace Coopersmith. "I think it's cool, especially with the back cover, but then I go, Agh! I've got toilet paper on the cover of my novel! I have no idea what most people will think."

I'm fairly certain a lot of people will laugh out loud, and all but a few will be curious at least. Right away, the front cover tells us that this is going to visit the smallest room in the metaphorical house, but in the most genteel, least scatological sense. And then the back cover reminds us that life frequently defies the most proficient attempts at orchestration.

From the flap:
Lively, pretty young socialite Nancy Carrington-Chambers has always believed that an excellent sense of style and strict attention to detail are what it takes to achieve a perfectly chic life. Now, however, her own haute couture marriage is starting to resemble a clearance rack, as husband Todd manifests more and more symptoms of a dread disease—incurable tackiness. Seriously concerned, Nancy flees their vulgar McMansion for an apartment in San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights. She’s determined to make her event planning company, Froth, a real winner, but her new prize assignment—reinventing the turgid Barbary Coast Historical Museum fundraiser—must be spectacular in every way. Luckily, Nancy now has the perfect assistant. Derek Cathcart is British, impeccably dressed, gorgeous, and clearly gay—so why does Nancy find him so attractive?

Before Nancy can unravel her feelings for Derek, her irresponsible cousin Birdie abandons her four-year-old daughter at Nancy’s and takes off to parts unknown. Nancy, Derek, and little Eugenia make an unlikely “family,” but strangely it all seems incredibly right. Nancy’s parents are pressuring her to return to Todd, however, and she still has to pull off the party of the year. For someone who has always prided herself on knowing exactly where she is going, Nancy is sailing into dangerously uncharted waters.

Irresistibly funny, romantic, and heartwarming, Nancy’s Theory of Style shows that happiness and love—just like fashion—have never been about playing it safe.
Click here to buy from IndieBound and tune in tomorrow for 3 Qs with Grace Coopersmith.

Bruises

Over the weekend I attended a workshop led by Brooke Williams, author of the lovely memoir Halflives and my neighbor here in the beautiful southern Utah wilderness. Brooke is now at work on the story of one of his Mormon ancestors. Or possibly at work on more than one story about more than one ancestor. Brooke isn't sure. Dead people keep talking to him.

"Let's just be still and listen for a while," Brooke said, "and see if anyone comes to us, and just start writing and see what we find."

There were ten of us around the table. None of us regarded Brooke's request as an unreasonable one. Most of us were already in the habit of spending time with invisible people. Most of us knew that the job of the writer is to make the unseen seen.

I closed my eyes and waited. It wasn't long before a dead man came to me, a relation I'd been aware of but never thought--or wanted to think--much about, a violinist and teacher of violin who'd lived a long and (I hoped) productive life before being exterminated at the Sobibor concentration camp. His showing up surprised me; we'd never chatted before. (I really hadn't wanted to think about him.) But there he was. I was able to write a bit about how I knew about him, a few pages of stiff, self-conscious writing of the kind you do when you feel someone's right at your back. Then we took a break and went out for lunch, and then we came in again and sat down to write some more.

The afternoon was better; I wrote about how, when I was young, I didn't want to play the voilin because it would leave black marks on my neck. How I chose the flute instead, which ended up being a disaster because, not only did the instrument not touch me, it didn't suit me at all.

I thought about how, only recently, I'd picked up a friend's violin and how strangely familiar it and the bow had seemed.

You see, the voice said behind me, you need to play what fits naturally to your hand, even if it bruises you.

The work I do often comes painfully to me. I'm often tempted to play something else, something shiny instead of strung with gut. Then, when I do . . .

You find you don't have the mouth for it.

Right.

Ah. So then you know.

Yes.

It was time to put our pens down and talk about what we'd written. Brooke had been chatting with a man on a train traveling West from Denver. Monette had a woman lead her down into a well and tell her to sit there. Diana didn't want to think about the dead anymore and wrote about a tree. Riley's grandfather, a World War II pilot, had killed himself and she didn't know why. Nancy had a woman tell her, "You can never speak all the love inside you."

"When you get to the core of things," Brooke said, "you end up writing a story that you think is not your story. But it is your story. Because it's everybody's story. Everybody lives there."

Andante.

--MD

BEAlicious: BookExpo America starts today

Our FeedMe bar will be back to normal next week, but this week, we're featuring PW's BEA updates and twitter feeds from BEA and a few attendees who I know will be getting a lot out of it, including Yen Cheong of the Book Publicity Blog, our own Fred Ramey, and anyone else who catches my attention at the moment.

Today's main attractions: International rights fair and Barbara Streisand's opening keynote. Click here for full schedule of events.

Parnell Hall's Hilarious Take on Book Signings



You know you're an author if you

1. wince while laughing at this.

2. have PTSD-induced flashbacks.

3. feel intense (if guilty) relief that you're not the only one who's experienced a lousy table signing.

4. have downgraded your hopes for signings from a Nora Roberts-worthy line of admirers to just enough to save you from Certain Humiliation.

5. have alienated friends by humbly imploring them to show up (at repeated signings, even!) to save you from the aforementioned Certain Humiliation.

You know you're an author's very best friend in the wide world (and building awesome karma) if you

1. show up.

2. bring a friend or two

3. talk to her so she won't feel lonely/pathetic.

4. have ever bought a second or even third copy to give away.

5. Go and check out Parnell Hall's funny, clever Puzzle Lady series. I've heard great things about these mysteries!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Awkward Family Photos (Because your Monday afternoon demands a little sophomoric LOL)

Jennifer Weiner on Awkward Family Photos, the painfully hilarious compilation from Mike Bender and Doug Chernack:
Samuel Butler once said "Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself."

If that’s true, than God help Mike Bender and Doug Chernack, who waded into the toxic slurry of bad mullets, spiral perms, skin conditions, leg warmers, wet pants, creepy Moms, funny uncles, and truly disturbing Santas, and came back with this hilarious collection of awkward family photos. Awkward Family Photos reminds anyone with a dusty shoebox full of snapshots of unfortunate fashion choices, band trips, braces, bad bridesmaids’ dresses and that one time you got talked into dressing up and going to the Renaissance Faire, that you are not alone. This isn’t just a book, it’s a public service on the page, a living, breathing, laugh-out-loud reminder that no matter how badly you dressed, how oddly you posed, and how weird Uncle Dave who lived in the basement was, somebody out there had it worse. Particularly the girl on page 77.
Colleen, this one's for you. Because a) you know families can be awkward, b) we share a sometimes inappropriate sense of humor, and c) because I thought you could use a hoot right now.

I know this makes me a terrible person and a bad mother, but when I saw this shot from the Awkward Hall of Fame, I laughed till I cried and immediately ordered the book.

Click here to buy from IndieBound.

Wrangling with the future: 3 Qs for Mark Dressler, BEA Director of Education

BEA week is here. Whatever that means this year. We caught up with Mark Dressler, BEA Director of Education as he sprinted by.

Mark, thanks for taking a moment to join us. What were some of the primary goals in planning programs for BEA this year?
Number one was meaningful author involvement. Second to that, practical and edifying content for trade professionals.

How has the scope and tone of BEA changed in response to the tectonic shifts in the industry?
We've reduced the number of show days while increasing the storyline for a greater number of books and authors. With respect to ed programs, we'll be addressing the issues publishers and channel partners are, and will be wrangling with in the near future. Hopefully, we're doing this in a way that helps decision makers eliminate some hurdles and obtain solutions.

What are you looking to get out of BEA on a personal level this year? Is there one particular event you won't miss?
Good question! Too many really good programs to narrow-down to one. It's most gratifying when industry professionals, whom I really respect, offer kudos about their experience at the show.

Visit the Book Expo America website for more.

I think this is love

Every once in a while, a review comes along that really nails what you were trying to create when writing a novel, and you get the sense that the reviewer was there with you, looking over your shoulder and nodding with each careful characterization and plot twist. It's that same feeling you get when you meet someone new, and you're sitting over a cup of coffee talking about something important to you, and that person is smiling and nodding and finishing your sentences with excitement as if they feel exactly the same way. It's what we writers live for, that sense that someone else out there "gets it--" whatever "it" might be.

This is one of those. And I'm pretty darn happy about it. :)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Snatched Seconds & Stolen Prose


This week, I've made a joyful discovery. I've remembered the art of stealing prose from snatched seconds and borrowed minutes when a hour or a day's an unimagined luxury.

I had this skill when I was younger and juggling grad school, a colicky infant, and (most often) full-time teaching. Still needing to write fiction, I'd store the raw ingredients the way a squirrel stores nuts. Then, whenever I had time to kill stuck in a waiting room or the little guy at last conked out, I'd pull out my pen or little notepad, and all the fluttering, trapped words would explode from my hand like a flock of penned birds desperate to escape.

Even a few minutes yielded pages, and because finding time was so darned difficult, I often found myself imagining the story, working through characters and complications in my head. As a result, when I did snag a few minutes, I was never, ever at a loss for words, as I so often am when I have hours a-plenty to write ideas that still require "think time."

Once my child became more independent and I left the day job behind, I was certainly able to accomplish a great deal more on the writing front. But I also became spoiled, unable to write unless I had large blocks of time without the threat of interruption. I practically went into a writerly swoon at every small demand on my time. You'd think my muse had somehow evolved into the colicky infant!

Recently, however, a family situation involving a seriously-ill relative has thrown my rarefied schedule into chaos. I've been spending large blocks of time living from a suitcase, trapped in a dark hospital room, and never know what my schedule will be for more than a few days at a time (if that), and am constantly interrupted by calls from or visits with all sorts of medical, social service, and other professionals.

And ever so slowly, my writing's learning to fit itself inside small spaces, to ignore the therapy session going on in the same cramped room (which usually reeks of whatever unidentifiable glop the kitchen staff has inflicted on the old, sick people that day), to right my train of thought even after a conversation about sputum studies (what fun!) has derailed it. I'm learning that my writing not really a hothouse orchid after all, but instead a vibrant dandelion, to spring up anyplace, in any circumstance, even when the Fates come gunning with their Round Up.

It's a welcome gift, this image. So this week, let me blow a single seed of it to you.

Oy, what a week we had!

Here's what happened on BoxOcto this week:
Sunday
Crown's For My Sister campaign: preorder Pomise Me by Nancy Brinker with Joni Rodgers and get a free signed copy for a fabulous woman you love.

Monday
Robert McCrum makes a plea for difficult over cool.

Jorge Amado's Gabriella, Clove, and Cinnamon is all about love, politics, and Brazilian food.

Tuesday
Dr. KatPat continues her valiant quest through query and rewrite hell.

Fred reflects on story as the basis of our sense of self.

Colleen critiques for a cause and teams up with bestselling author Sharon Sala to raise money for diabetes research.

Michael Harvey's intriguing The Third Rail plots like a runaway train.

Wednesday
Michael Harvey talks about classic influence on hardboiled detective fiction (and his beefy reading list.)

Nate invokes Graham Joyce and ponders the beginning in the end.

Mylene invokes Phillip Roth and ponders turning the sentence around...again.

Thursday
Dr. KatPat waxes suspicious in small town Texas.

Stephen Sondheim's "I Read" offers an escapist fiction manifesto.

Q&A: Is an MFA in fiction writing worth the effort?

Friday
Colleen directs our attention to not s'much moments in literature: Dante's Impala, Breakfast Burrito at Tiffany's. (To which Mylene added Gone With the Area of Low Pressure and Nate threw in The Post-It Notes of Anne Frank.)

The Red Room shows Mylene some backlist love, featuring The Floodmakers (freshly out on Kindle) as Book of the Day.

Lee Child has a Q&A-hole moment.

Saturday
Joni ponders the quest for the perfect word.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The quest for the perfect word

In New York this week, I spent time with a friend who had a stroke a few months ago. This woman is a lifelong dancer, voracious reader, talented writer, uninhibited artist, and deliciously garrulous conversation maker. It was hard to see her bright mind and vibrant spirit weighted with lymphedema and frustration. The formation of each word was an arduous task. She said people keep finishing her sentences for her because they can't bear to see her struggle, but she didn't want that because they didn't know the specific word she was grappling with. They might say "lucky," and she's the type to say "serendipitous." They might say "sky" where she would say "heavens."

I understand their discomfort in that situation, but I also understand the perfect specificity of vocabulary, the thrill of writing the right word. It can be a struggle to get our hands around it. It was good for me to be reminded how important it is to push through the impatience, wait for a rhythm and a meaning to form syllables, then find that winding path from the back of the brain to the tip of the fingers.

I watched my friend's eyes as she forged the word "serendipitous," and it made me think of a glassblower we saw in Gibraltar years ago. This effort was just as concerted and careful. The thing being formed was precious and imperiled to the very last moment. The crafting of it was a triumph that gave its beauty new meaning.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Q&A-holes (Good writers behaving badly)

Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, on Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bestsellers and Blockbusters, responding to a question about rivalry between authors of genre fiction and authors of literary fiction:
I think this is a serious point actually, that the rivalry does not come from us. Why would I care about Ian McEwan? The rivalry comes from them, and it is not necessarily about the sales, it’s about something else, it’s about this: that they know in their heart that we could write their books but they cannot write our books. That’s what it’s about...In the paper in Britain last week, I deliberately said — I was trying to start a fight about it — I said, “Oh, I could write a Martin Amis book. It would take me about three weeks, it would sell three thousand copies like he sells.” And that’s what it is. They know they can’t do what we do and they are jealous of that skill.
And then Joe Konrath, whose self-promotion skills are second only to his self-esteem, asks himself questions to answer on his decision to release his next book via AmazonEncore:
Q: Aren't you going to piss off traditional publishers?

A: Traditional publishers had a chance to buy Shaken last year. They passed on it. Their loss. Their big loss. Their big, huge, monumental, epic fail.
Tether these two inflated heads to a drill team from Schenectady, and they could be featured in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Let's use our inside voices, boys.

Book of the Day at Red Room


Hey ya'll, my novel THE FLOODMAKERS (just released on Kindle) is Book of the Day over at Red Room, that fab site for readers and writers! My thanks to Huntington Sharp and all the great people who keep the Room such a hopping place. I'm pleased and touched.

And Now for Something Lighter...

A little light humor on a Friday morning: tweeting famous book titles, in slightly "lesser" form...what would they suggest for my own novels, I wonder? Anyone?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An MFA versus the Real World: Answering Katja Zurcher's Questions

A friend of mine connected me with the lovely Katja Zurcher (remember that name for the future), a smart, talented junior at Rhodes College in Tennessee. Katja has already accomplished much with her writing, and is now in that familiar place many young writers find themselves, deciding whether or not to go on for an MFA. I told my friend I'd be glad to answer whatever questions Katja had, partly because I did go straight after college, at least the first time. I don't think anything I've done has been a mistake for me, but it really makes me feel for these younger writers. And when Katja sent her questions, I thought they were so astute and so pertinent that they had to be answered on the blog. If anyone else has direct questions about either the MFA or PhD in fiction experience, I'll be happy to answer. Just post them in the comments section below. And if you missed it, you might want to read an earlier, extended post I did on this. You can also take a look at novelist Ronlyn Domingue's take (just scroll down to where that question is asked). And most importantly, good luck!

1. What do you think are the benefits of taking some time off to work between undergraduate and grad school? Any cons?


I think there are only benefits. Working for even one or two years will test your commitment to your writing. If you can work a 40+ hour a week job and still make time for your writing, then it probably means it's very important to you, and that an MFA would do you well in the future. It will also give you and your writing more time to mature, and help you develop and polish writing samples. I used to tell my students "don't go into academia at all unless you can't bear to do anything else," but the problem with that advice is that if you're 21 or 22, all you know is school. So you really don't know what you can and cannot bear. The only con I can think of is that if you find a job you love, you may decide you don't want to go back to school, but as long as you're happy and you're writing, that's not much of a con, is it?

2. Do students work closely with an advisor/mentor, or is it more of an individual experience?

This depends very much on the program. In general, the larger the program, the less individual attention you will get from professors and mentors. If/when you decide to go, make sure you find out what the mentoring experience is like from current and former students. But keep in mind that MFA programs often change faculty like Sarah Jessica Parker changes clothes, so do your homework on that, too. Some turnover is healthy and good. But if the place is run by famous visiting faculty, that's not so good. That said, I have had some fantastic mentors in my life, including the late Dan Stern, who actually took the time to call me one semester when I ended up in the hospital.

3. Are there formal/informal seminars on publishing and the business of writing?

This is the point I found weak at most places I've visited and been. Most programs focus on the art and craft first, and really, this is the right way around. After all, what is most likely to get you published is good, mature writing. However, it wouldn't hurt for you to know a little about the writing business before you went to graduate school, or even while you were there. You would be surprised at how different the "real world" of publishing is from the "literary world" of most programs. Good writing is always good writing, but most MFA programs are going to push you literary. If that's what you want to write, great, but if you are at all interested in coming out and writing for a more mainstream audience, you might want to get your publishing advice somewhere else. There are also many seminars and writers' conferences out there that have absolutely nothing to do with academia. If you worked for awhile first, you could also go to some of those.

4. Do you have any advice on choosing writing samples?

Definitely. Choose a short story, not an excerpt from a novel, unless the program says otherwise. Unless the excerpt is extremely strong, it will be much less likely to stand a chance against a polished, completed short story. For one thing, it's hard to see how a writer will control the arc of the story from only a section of a novel, and for another, the kind of polish and pacing you will demonstrate in a story will almost always be chosen. Now that I've seen this from the other side of the desk, I feel even more strongly about it. You also want to choose your very best work, not something rough or experimental, and you want to choose something that showcases your unique voice. Most programs take students who already have a strong voice, or at least the promise of it. Also, many programs won't accept someone writing genre fiction, so make sure your sample is strong, literary fiction. If you want to write genre, find out the programs that don't frown on that (there are some), and send to those.

5. Do you have any advice for prospective students?

An MFA can be a wonderful experience, but what you learn there, you can learn elsewhere, if you have the right kind of discipline and a good critique group. MFAs are best for students who already know they are writers and have already found their own voices, not for someone just starting out. On the other hand, my first MA (which was a creative M.A. at the University of Cincinnati) was very nurturing and supportive and seemed a little more open to writers with less experience. I do feel it shaped me, and almost all for the good. Those professors have moved on now to other programs, but I can't imagine having started out without them. If you can get good funding (and some programs have it), it's a great way to spend three years of your life immersed in learning about the craft. You will sow seeds for later, even if later turns out to be 15-20 years.

I do not read to think (Stephen Sondheim's escapist fiction manifesto)

Last night, Jerusha and I saw the legend herself, Barbara Cook, in the Broadway show Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54. (Yes, they've taken down the cocaine spoon.) In this ingeniously staged review of Sondheim's hits, flops, and almosts, Barbara sang "I Read" from Passion, which so perfectly captures the intellectual reasons for turning to books that are pure escapist pleasure trips.
I do not read to think. I do not read to learn.
I do not read to search for truth
I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need.
I read to dream.
I read to live. In other people's lives.
I read about the joys, the world
Dispenses to the fortunate,
And listen for the echoes.

I read to live,
To get away from life...

I read to fly, to skim -
I do not read to swim.

Suspicious Person in Small-Town Texas: Or Why A Writer Shouldn't Marry An Aerospace Engineer

I've always joked with my friends that Mark and I are a lot like the couple on Medium. He's the algorithm-wielding logical thinker, and I'm that strange person with the sixth sense. While I've never actually seen a ghost, I do get "intuitions," and while my book isn't horror per se, there are some downright creepy things in it. Tonight, after working on it for a while, I needed to go for a walk to clear my head. Since it was dark, I decided to stick to the blocks closest to mine, and be careful to avoid my neighbors' barking dogs.

A block or so from my house, I was standing at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to go on. Just when I decided to, all the streetlights on that block went out, then all the lights in the houses on the block, then the floodlights in a neighboring yard. Being me and not Mark, my immediate thought was "There's some weird mojo on this street." But because I was intrigued, I decided to keep on walking. I know, I know. I won't do it again. Especially not after what happened next.

I continued down the dark, leafy street and saw a strange, red light spilling out from inside a barn-shaped shed. Definitely weird mojo. As I walked on, staring at it, a dog began barking, and a car turned on its headlights and started up behind me. Now thoroughly creeped out, I turned and started running in the other direction. Just as I was passing the house with the red light, a white shape came slowly out on to the porch. It could have been a woman nine months pregnant, but I was not about to stay around and find out. I started running, bad back and all, and, looking over my shoulder, saw someone with a flashlight chasing. I ran the rest of the way home, noticing that as soon as I turned the corner, all the lights came back on. I came inside, breathless, and told Mark about this "bad mojo," and his reaction was "so?"

Me: But what are the odds of all of those lights going off at the same time??
Him: They're on a timer.
Me: And the ones in the yard outside the house???
Him: They have a motion sensor.
Me: All five houses at once? And what about the red light? You have to admit there is something really weird about that red light.
Him: It's unusual. But there's nothing illegal about having a red light.
Me: No, but it's really freaky!

"Freaky" was apparently my word of the evening. I don't think I convinced him, but it did remind me of some advice given to me by one of my professors at UH: to embrace the mixed genre of my novel, and to tune into the eeriness of everyday events. Maybe I took that advice too far, but that's the way our writing affects us, isn't it? It doesn't stay on paper. Living with a novel world changes the way we live and think in the real world, and vice versa.

And in the town newspaper tomorrow, you can bet there will be a new line on the police beat: "Suspicious person reported. Be wary."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Turning and Turning

I confess to loving it when writers confess that sometimes we can't explain how or why it is that we do what we do. That some of our best work is the result not of grand theory, premeditated strategies or any profound understanding of our own process, but of simple trial and error.

"Let's put," Norman Mailer said, "the thingamajig before the whoosits . . . is how I usually state the deepest literary problems to myself."

"I turn sentences around. That's my life," the writer Lonoff says in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. "I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I read the two sentences over and I turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning."

*

Yesterday I was thinning apricots from my trees, pulling as many of the small green ones off as I could so the remaining fruit would be stronger and so the branches wouldn't be weighed down so bulbously this summer they snapped. After I was done with a branch, it rose up light, airy again.

"Oh," said a voice in my head, "this is just like writing."

"No," another voice said in my head, "it is not."

*

Things I will never write about on this blog, because I don't know how to:

Why one idea for a story stays with me, but another one dies on the vine even after it's staked.

Why too many of my characters are too much like me, now that I look back on them. (I probably know the answer to this one. I just don't want to think about it.)

Why it doesn't bother me, why in fact it feels good, killing young, green fruit.

Why I feel absolutely worthless if I'm not turning sentences around. ("I ask myself," says Lonoff, "Why is there no way but this for me to fill my hours?")

*

Phrases and sentences I got to use in my writing yesterday that I've never used before:

"fog signal building"

"I stayed clear of the children, so they wouldn't warm to me."

"as if air had turned to water"

"So they wouldn't warm to me, I stayed clear of the children."

"The strongest do what you describe."

Oh I hope I get to keep them. I hope I do.

--MD

"The End" is Only the Beginning

I've had a lot of people ask me lately about how I celebrate finishing a novel. "It must be such a wonderful feeling when it's done!" they say, and then they sit eagerly forward with their little shining faces tilted upward, waiting for me to tell them about the wrap parties and caviar and trips to exotic places where I sip champagne on the beach and take calls from Hollywood.

I don't have the heart to tell them it's NEVER finished: that no matter how much I want to feel accomplished and happy, I never am, and that more often than not I'm pretty convinced that the entire thing is worthless. Want to know a dirty little secret of us writers? Most of the real work in writing a novel happens after that first draft. After all the cutting and rearranging I get to a point where I'm happy enough to send it off into the world, but the feeling that I've never quite captured what I wanted to do is probably what makes me keep trying to write another one. Writing the perfect novel is like trying to grab smoke; it just keeps slipping through your fingers.

On that note, Graham Joyce has a brilliant post up on his blog about what it's really like for us writers to type "the end." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Classic hardboiled: 3Qs for Michael Harvey, author of The Third Rail

Yesterday, I waxed fangirlish about Michael Harvey's terrific novel, The Third Rail. Today, the author stops by to answer three quick questions.

Michael, welcome. The Third Rail is our third fix of Kelly (not to mention your third starred review from PW.) Avoiding spoilers, of course, can you talk about how the character has evolved? How important is it for readers to start with The Chicago Way, then move on to read The Fifth Floor and The Third Rail in the order they were written?
The first three can be read in any order. Probably better if you start with the first, but not critical. My next book will be a sequel to The Third Rail, so those two have be read in the proper order.

Kelly is getting darker. As I dig into his character....and especially his childhood...I find more things from his past that are following him around. Along with the usual assortment of bad guys, shady clients and dead bodies!

I'm a Chandler/Hammett devotee, and your Michael Kelly books -- first person POV, tight sentence structure, turns of phrase like "a soft frat boy and his softer girlfriend" -- give me that same great hardboiled kick. Were you writing like this before you moved to Chicago or did something about the city bring about that voice?
Raymond Chandler once said (and I paraphrase here) a classical education is a perfect background for writing novels in the hardboiled-vernacular, because it knocks all the pretense out of your writing...which is exactly what most modern fiction is too full of. I agree with Chandler and his overall premise. Why not? It’s a good camp to be in.

What Chandler is getting at (I think) is that Latin and Greek are beautiful, elegant and, most importantly, economical languages. Aeschylus can say in a sentence what it takes us a page and a half to say in English And he says it a whole lot better.

I have a background in classical languages (B.A. from Holy Cross, ten years total of Latin and six of Greek) and find it to be invaluable. Maybe we are all just trying to justify all those years of sweating out Homer, but I think it’s helped me to be a tougher, more physical and more concise writer.

Well, then I have to cut right to the chase and ask, what are you reading?
A Cormac McCarthy marathon....No Country For Old Men, Blood Meridian, The Road. Yikes... seriously good. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst. Rereads...Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Plague. Speed the Plow (Wonderful play by David Mamet).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Buy This Book: The Third Rail by Michael Harvey

Here's a trailer that tells you exactly nothing and everything about Michael Harvey's The Third Rail:



Michael Connelly calls Michael Harvey "a major new voice," but it's his old school style that keeps me coming back for more Mike Kelly. A while back, I read Harvey's debut novel, The Chicago Way, after The Big Sleep launched me into a major hardboiled binge. I wanted more. Harvey gave it to me. Made me want to slump into a seat on the el train, light up a cigarette, and change my name to Stella.

From the flap:
A woman is shot as she waits for her train to work. An hour later, a second woman is gunned down as she rides an elevated train through the Loop. Two hours after that, a church becomes the target of a chemical weapons attack. The city of Chicago is under siege, and Michael Kelly, cynical cop turned private investigator, just happens to be on the scene when all hell breaks loose.

Kelly is initially drawn into the case by the killers themselves, then tasked by Chicago’s mayor and the FBI to hunt down the bad guys and, all things being equal, put a bullet in them. Kelly, of course, has other ideas. As he gets closer to the truth, his instincts lead him to a retired cop, a shady train company, and an unnerving link to his own past. Meanwhile, Kelly’s girlfriend, Rachel Swenson, becomes a pawn in a much larger game, while a weapon that could kill millions ticks away quietly in the very belly of the city.
The Third Rail is Mike Kelly's third outing, and it's darker than the first two, but it doesn't feel like Harvey is pushing the envelope or trying to give us something we haven't seen on Law & Order. It's more about intensity, atmospherics, and the depth of this evolving character.

Tune in tomorrow. Michael Harvey stops by to answer 3Qs. And the answers will surprise you.

Click here to buy from IndieBound.

BtO Special: Critiquing for a Cause

Every year, New York Times bestselling romantic suspense author Brenda Novak hosts an auction extravaganza to benefit diabetes research, a cause that's near and dear to my own heart, too.

That's why I've donated a critique of an unpublished manuscript's opening salvo (up to 30 pages.) As my critique partners, published authors all, will tell you, my slicing and dicing does not include evisceration, but as many helpful tips as I can think of. If you'd like to bid, please click the link. If you're the winning bidder and mention that you're a BtO reader, I'll make it 40 pages - or 30 plus your synopsis.

For those planning to attend the Romance Writers of America national conference in Orlando in late July, I've also teamed up with bestselling author Sharon Sala to offer a breakfast with the two of us, along with autographed copies of our latest releases.

But wait! There's much, much more. All manner of autographed goodies, jewelry, trips, and other terrific donated items are up for grabs. Check out the main auction site and find something wonderful for a great cause.

Picture this:


This weekend, our daughter visited us. While she was here she let us watch the rough cut of a short film she’s producing. And then she and I talked about how much effect on a film the editor has, how much each decision an editor makes affects the final work.

But I drew no parallel with the process of editing written narrative. Really, I didn’t. We were talking about movies. And I don’t want to draw that false parallel here either.

The more interesting part of the conversation, I think, was about the relationship between character and story—a discussion we all took part in. Our daughter listened as we described what we knew of the characters in her short film from the little things they had done on screen during those ten rough-cut minutes. And we talked of what we understood the backstory to be from what we knew of the characters. I realized we were projecting forward and backward from what we saw in the simple present of the film.

This led our daughter to thoughts about another project. She asked me about character motivation within a script she has already commissioned. And I gave her my thoughts on whom I thought the characters in that other story would likely be, given what she said they would do within the story. (Yeah, I know, what do I know?)

Later, I watched her quickly map out a sequence of events and an ensemble of characters for a project that came to her, it seems, only on Sunday.

It was a weekend of narratives — visual narratives.

Somewhere along the way, I thought that all those years of movie watching (she was addicted to Hollywoodland movies before she could talk — I’m not kidding) — all those years had powerfully formulated for our daughter a useful sense of the plot-character relationship even as they made her into a visual thinker.

(I should say that through her teen years she was also a devoted reader of 19th Century novels.)

Before she got on the plane, the three of us also talked long about what comes next — for her, for us, for her older brother. And I realized that we all look at our lives with an eye toward constructing feasible scenarios and defensible histories.

So often have I argued that narrative is hardwired into the human brain. But this weekend I had a second thought — that story is the basis of our sense of self.

For a certain kind of character, realizing this while driving his grown daughter to the airport can be a great deal like the sensation he has finding his own face in a photograph from a time when he was as young as she is now.

When All Else Fails, Go to the Source


Yesterday I had one of those amazing days in a writers' life--the day it all makes sense. In our world, eureka moments are few, but they do happen, and sometimes, in a few rare precious instances, we even brush up against the Divine.

Ever since I turned in my semester grades, I've been kvetching over the novel. That's why you haven't seen me for a few days; I've been in both query and structure hell. The query hell started when I saw Nathan Bransford's post on the one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitch, and realized I had a lot of trouble doing those. Last Wednesday I was totally freaking out, telling Mark I was doomed because "there is no way I can sum up this novel in one pithy sentence." I have done it before--did it when I met the two agents who came to UH, but I never felt that sentence really expressed the true pulse of the book. And one paragraph? Two paragraphs? How could I do that when there are three point of view characters?

But the more I looked at Nathan's post, the more I realized he was right. The reason I was having a problem is that in the first part of the book, the characters' motivations are a little fuzzy. Sure, I had tried to impose a "hero's quest" on Draft 2, and it even sort of worked, but it felt grafted onto the novel. It didn't arise from the material that was actually there.

That was it. That was the problem with the story. But how could I make the motivations clear and still keep the characters sympathetic and believable? I'm taking a big risk in this novel by telling part of it from the point of view of a woman who is so addicted to sympathy that she is willing to harm both her daughter and herself. If I have her drive the first part of the story as I now want to, I worry I will vilify her. And in some ways, she is the villain. But I also want the daughter to have agency too, and not be just a victim. And then there's the problem of how to get the third POV character into the novel, the young, newbie Lutheran pastor, who ends up caught up in the others' web.

I sat and sat and could not figure it out. After several days of this, I decided to take a break and go to Galveston. For the first time since my injury in March, I've been able to drive longer than a few minutes, and I took advantage of it to go back to the Galveston graveyard, the source of inspiration for the novel.

I wish I could say I parked my car and got out and walked among those yellow wildflowers, but as soon as I started to drive in, the ideas started flooding, and I ended up driving straight through. I drove and drove until I ended up in a little cafe at a table with a view of the beach. I ordered some coffee, yanked out my notebook, and scribbled the new structure. I have no idea where it came from. Like the original idea for the novel, it just came. And it's not that different from what I had before--will mostly require the addition of and deletion of short scenes. But only one brand new chapter and a bit of distancing of point of view. And it has the added bonus of developing all the subplots and solving a couple of huge holes in the plot later on.

In the end, I was surprised the solution was so simple. But the answer has been there, beneath and between the lines. I knew it was. I just had to find the pulse and track it back to its beating heart.

Photo credit: Jim Semonik

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