Wednesday, June 30, 2010

True Fiction


I am way too slow witted to respond immediately to something as insightful and complex and true as Laurie Anderson’s new album, Homeland. I picked it up only yesterday. And I’ve listened to it only twice.

But I have this to say:

I’ve often wondered about how applicable to our lives and our collective worldview is the familiar (practical) assertion that the way for a corporation (or a political party or a human) to get on successfully is to get control over “the narrative.” In the minds of pundits, this isn’t a question of honesty or truth or of art or of writing or even of storytelling really. It's just a matter of being-in-the-mediated-world (or at least of controlling perceptions in that world).
What gets me, is that this assertion is repeated constantly in a world where constructed narratives are so often otherwise dismissed for being untrue.

In the liner notes to the remarkable set of narratives that is Homeland, Laurie Anderson has this to say:

[Stories are] illusions. You can make them up. You can get a lot of people to believe them…. I mean you can actually start wars with stories. That’s how magic they really are.
Yeah. What we need is new stories—the ones that are true. Listening to Homeland, I’m reminded that this is what I care about, true fictions that make a difference.

Buy This Book: Captivity by Deborah Noyes

This wonderfully prescient book is so evocative, well written, and full of questions that beg bookclub discussion. I've been fighting for months to find time to write a proper review of it, but having failed that, I'm going to do a "yes! what she said!" and pass along this terrific review from Library Journal:
In this new work of historical fiction, Noyes (Angels and Apostles) effectively offers two separate stories, both taking place in mid-19th-century America and England. First, there is the story of Clara Gill, a reclusive illustrator spinster shut away from the world at large in her father's home in Rochester, NY. Clara's sternness and acute observations often intimidate the few people with whom she does interact, and as she is no longer young, her prospects in life are diminished. The second narrative focuses on the strange circumstances concerning two young sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, whose lives takes a decidedly notorious turn when it is believed that they are able to communicate with the dead. When Clara, her father, and the Fox family become intertwined, Clara finds in Maggie something of a friend, which prompts her to begin to examine her own earlier life in London. Never knowing whether Maggie and Katie are charlatans, Clara nevertheless admires the girls' tenacity in warding off skeptics and continuing to offer seances to interested people. VERDICT: A novel of beguiling characters that probes both belief and the veracity of emotion, this endlessly fascinating work should be considered by all fiction readers.
Yes! What Library Journal said. And then some.

Though it is definitely a slice of feminist history brought to life, the emotional and idealogical beef in this book never overrun the telling of a deeply chilling tale. I've been fascinated by the true story of the Fox sisters since I was a kid, and Deborah Noyes imaginatively, skillfully twists that thread into a literary cat's cradle. You come away with the realization that the living are far more mysterious (and sometimes scarier) than the dead. I'd love to see this book embraced not just by bookclubs, but by high school and college English classes, where students would be drawn in by the supernatural hook and end up thinking about the cultural realities.

So that's all I can do today, but--yeah. Buy this book. Read. Absorb. Then let's all meet up in an airport bar somewhere and discuss. Meanwhile, click here for an excerpt and more info.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hooray! It's the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

This year's winner in my favorite annual bad writing contest is Molly Ringle of Seattle for this brilliant bit of deathless prose:

"For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil."


Ye, gads! That's so hilariously awful, my eyes are limpid pools of admiration.

Can't get enough? Check out the complete results, including runners up and fabulous category winners of the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Climbing into Bed with Strangers

The other day over on Facebook, I was involved in a brief discussion with an author who, as part of a novel proposal package, was writing her synopsis before working on the sample chapters.

Yikes, I responded, though I've done it myself upon occasion. To me that always feels as if I'm climbing into bed with strangers. I like moseying through my opening chapters first: a snippet here, a deletion there, a rewrite coming from another angle. It's how I get to know the characters so I'm comfortable enough with predicting what they'll do to put together an outline of their journey in the synopsis. In the opening pages, the story's themes and tone gradually reveal themselves to me as well.

It's not the way I always write, and as I've previously discussed on the blog, I rely on an ever-evolving number of prewriting strategies to focus my energies on the characters and their relationships. None of these methods, or anyone's methods (including starting off with a synopsis) is the perfect, inviolable, correct way, any more than any one of them is wrong.

Instead, it's all about making the process work for you, in the service of fleshing out the most compelling characters and the most engaging story possible.

So how do you get to know your characters? Or do you prefer "jumping into bed with strangers" and letting all the arms and legs sort themselves out? ;)

Monday, June 28, 2010

On Bugs, Favorites, and Faith

Dear friends, it's with joy I can announce my novel The Deadwood Beetle is now available in a Kindle edition.  The story of Dr. Tristan Martens, an entomologist who is forced to emerge from the cocoon of his specialized research and confront the secrets of his family’s terrible past, it's been reviewed as "splendid" by the New York Times, “elegantly imagined” by the Miami Herald and as "a compelling read from start to finish” by the Bloomsbury Review.  My warmest thanks for checking it out, and for slipping it into your Kindle and into your lives, if you do.  As I discussed in this earlier post, this book, for and about my father, means a great deal to me.

I also must, must take a moment to thank our fellow BoxOcto blogmate, publisher and editor Fred Ramey, and his partner, Greg Michalson, the two readers who first found this book and believed in it and helped it, at Blue Hen/Putnam, to take flight as the polished, finished thing it now is.  I am forever in your debt, Fred and Greg.  I hope you are still proud of our creature, our joint creation.

Now, with plug and thanks accomplished, I'm going to use this occasion to think about something I don't think I've ever discussed on this blog before.

Favorites.

As a writer and creator, I tend to be in love with whatever I happen to be working on at the moment.  (You too?)  The past is prologue; everything I've done before (I tend to tell myself) is old news, probably vastly inferior to the Great Work I Am Now Trying To Accomplish.  If you happen to ask me, when I'm at work on a new book, which of my books is my favorite, I will hem and haw a bit, and then talk fondly about each one like an individual child, naming the strengths of each ("oh, that one is my precious first-born," "oh, that one is my funniest")--all the while thinking that what still lies inside of me will be, without question, Better Than Anything I Have Yet Attempted, And On Several Levels.

Part of me, of course, knows this may not be the case. Years ago, a good writer friend and I had an intense conversation about how, realistically, some of our books were going to be better than others, and that we would just have to learn to ride the ups and downs of a writing career and of the creative process in general.  I also know that in some ways the New Work That Will Be Better Than Anything One Has Yet Attempted is a (necessary) fiction, because (I don't know about you) I can't get up every morning and go and sit down to create something if I am saying to myself, Possibly I Will Create Today That Which Falls Significantly Short of Things I Have Created Before.  Even if it's true, I don't want to know it.

I would go mad.

I have to believe, each and every time that I sit down, that in every day and in every way I am getting better and better.  I may know, in the deepest part of myself, that creative pursuits aren't like that; that sometimes lightning strikes, and sometimes it doesn't.  But it doesn't matter to me.  I choose to believe in the perfection of self, and the perfection of art.  If today's chapter isn't as good as yesterday's, well, it isn't for lack of trying.  And that is what matters.  The striving to make something good and real.  The blind belief, that if you try, you can do it.  Again and again.

This is my faith.

For the record, I believe that I have yet to write anything as good as my second novel, The Deadwood Beetle.  It is my favorite.  My first book may have passages of writing that are far superior; my third is better-paced and in some ways more accessible.  But Beetle, to my mind, is the finest work I have done so far, the most accomplished, the most fully realized.  And I am extremely proud of it.

But it is done.  It is finished.  Today, my job is to make something new.  Always and always, to make something new.  Believing I have everything in me, the very best I have, still to come, still to share.

The day is getting on.  Do.

--MD

Or start the week laughing till you cry: Ephron spoofs Larsson in "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut"

This one's for you, Colleeny. From Nora Ephron's hysterical Stieg Larsson send up in the New Yorker:
There was a tap at the door at five in the morning. She woke up. Shit. Now what? She’d fallen asleep with her Palm Tungsten T3 in her hand. It would take only a moment to smash it against the wall and shove the battery up the nose of whoever was out there annoying her. She went to the door.

“I know you’re home,” he said.

Kalle fucking Blomkvist.

She tried to remember whether she was speaking to him or not. Probably not. She tried to remember why. No one knew why. It was undoubtedly because she’d been in a bad mood at some point. Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father...
Click here to read the rest before you dive into your day. I promise your writing week will be better for it.

Monday jump start: Natasha Bedingfield "Unwritten" (Today is where your book begins)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Listening to the Deep Know:" Three Questions for Ronlyn Domingue

Today I'm so proud to have at BtO Ronlyn Domingue, the author of The Mercy of Thin Air (see description in the post below), which was published in 2005 and chosen as a Costco pick of the month for January 2010. The book received excellent reviews upon its initial publication and was both a 2005 Booksense pick as well as a finalist for the Borders Original Voices award. Jodi Piccoult called it "that rarest of first novels--a truly original voice, and a truly original story." But beyond the book, what fascinates me most is Ronlyn's process, and her concept of "listening to the deep know," which she elaborates on here. If this doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will.

1. It's been five years since the publication of Mercy, yet the novel continues to exist and draw new readers. (One of your fans even recently started a Facebook page for it!) How do you account for the continued success, and what is that like for you? Is it incredibly motivating, or does it make it a little hard to move on?


I can’t explain its success other than the mystery of luck. When I met my publisher in person in February 2005, I actually asked her why she chose my novel. “The timing is right,” she said. As it turns out, she was right because it was acquired by 11 other countries within a year and has continued to attract readers ever since.

Luck plays into the word-of-mouth support that’s been MERCY’s lifeblood from the beginning. Sure, I love this novel, and I believe it’s beautiful and has something to say about love, friendship, grief, even redemption. But at the same time, I recognize there are greater forces at work which have guided MERCY’s journey. There’s no way to rationally explain why reader after reader recommends this book, rather than millions of others, to friends.

Moving on isn’t the struggle. It’s the confrontation with expectation—my own and what I perceive from readers. Sometimes I find myself wondering if I can pull off in the second novel whatever magic MERCY had. Can I write a work that speaks to people like that again? And then I wonder about timing…what if I miss the slipstream? But that’s all ego. Deep down, I know I have to finish this work. I can steward but cannot control what happens after it gets published.

2. In the advice to writers section on your website, you talk about "listening to the Deep Know." Could you speak briefly about that here? What do you mean when you say that? And how did that play into your passion for Mercy?

A Deep Know is a moment in one’s life when there’s absolute clarity about what one needs to do. Often, it makes no rational sense. Intuition becomes the purest form of logic. Some people call it gut instinct or an ah-ha moment. In an article I wrote on the subject, I state that I knew I was meant to share my life with a friend before I was even in love with him. We’ll celebrate our 22nd anniversary in August. I also mention that one morning I woke up with the realization that I had to get my master’s degree in creative writing. The Mercy of Thin Air was my master’s thesis.

I knew since I was eight years old I was going to be a writer. However, our world is structured for the practical, the expected, the ordinary. I knew that, too. The latter filled me with excuses why I shouldn’t bother to write fiction or try to get published. But my dreams told me I needed to be writing, and an odd experience—or perhaps a sign—now and then pointed out the same. Eventually, I had to give in. I had to give it a try. Yes, it disturbed the balance with my partner when I began to spend a few hours each week, often at night, writing instead of hanging out with him. Yes, it unsettled me to think I might fail, I might never “make it” as a writer. Even though I did well in graduate school and had encouragement from several professors, I had some doubts.

At the same time, I “knew” my novel was important. There was so much energy in Razi the narrator, in the story. I couldn’t deny that I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. If I’m totally honest, I “knew” MERCY would be published and do well, even though I couldn’t define what that meant. So I kept going. I trusted that my deepest Deep Know—I am a writer—would fulfill itself in a tangible way. It did.

No matter what your calling is, you will have to deal with fear of failure and fear of judgment. Not everyone will be supportive of you. That’s life. It’s corny, but if you truly believe in yourself and keep your eyes open for others who can help, there’s a good chance you’ll get what you wish for.

3. I know your new book won't "let" you "talk about it," but is there anything at all you can say? Can you talk a little about your process with Mercy and how different or similar the writing of this novel has been?

My process involves long incubation periods with little or no prose writing. Characters and the story come in flashes, such as an image in which I “know” its meaning or a line of dialogue. Nothing is linear. Very little seems rational. It’s a highly intuitive experience, even in the research. Sometimes, I’ll feel compelled to learn more about a subject with no clue at the time why it’s so important. Then, once enough of the story has revealed itself and I have the majority of the plot, I begin to write. I went through four cycles of incubation and writing with MERCY.

Novel #2 hasn’t been so tidy. There have been fierce feast and famine periods. The writing has been sporadic up to this point. I’m dealing with a book far more intricate and profound than MERCY, also one that’s more dark and troubled—and painfully beautiful.

The experience of working on a novel isn’t easy for me. I go deep into their realms, as far as they allow or drag me. When the shift happens and I connect with them and their story, I feel split between my world and theirs. When something happens to interfere with the connection, I get impatient and frustrated. But I’m on their time, reliant on their sequence of revelation. That’s why I can’t force a novel into being. I’m one of many components of the creative act. My will is almost inconsequential.

Bonus question: What are you currently reading?
The Ecstatic Journey: Walking the Mystical Path in Everyday Life by Sophy Burnham

Buy This Book: Ronlyn Domingue's The Mercy of Thin Air

In late 2008, I stumbled onto Ronlyn Domingue and her beautiful, ethereal novel The Mercy of Thin Air. Part literary, part women's lit, and part supernatural love story, the novel dances between genres the way its main character slips between death and life. Raziela, also known as Razi, drowns in July 1929, but continues to remain "between," as she wonders what has happened to her lover. The novel moves back and forth between Razi's 1920s past and the lives of the young, married couple she haunts 70 years later. There are fascinating characters in both time periods, as well as those who have spent decades and even centuries between, and the entire effect of the book is like falling asleep on a summer afternoon and having a hallucinogenic dream.

Beyond the high concept and the carefully crafted characters, though, the real treat here is Domingue's flawless, graceful prose. Each sentence is like a poem, and yet not so precious that we don't want to move on to the next. Readers will find themselves caught between wanting to savor the novel's language as well as wanting to turn its pages. There's so much more that I could say about this lovely, haunting novel, but I will stop to let you hear from Ronlyn herself, who took out time to talk to us about her fascinating process. Look at the next post for her inspiring answers to our three questions.

Strategy Session: Edward Albee on Developing Characters


Friday, June 25, 2010

Pushing

For a week or two now, I've been taking a break from writing fiction, resting, writing other things, doing other things--I took the puppy to the lake, where he learned to swim--is there any greater joy than watching something you dearly love, something shaky and timid and excited and awkward take his first great flying leap into the deep?--all of this while waiting for a friend of mine to read over some of a very rough manuscript I've been working on.

"You're pushing your characters around," she told me yesterday, flatly.

My pup came back to me, flailing madly, struggling to hold his head up with the float in his mouth, wide-eyed, wild-eyed, delighted by what he'd learned.

This proud old dog took him home and sat down with her manuscript again.

And saw I was pushing my characters around.

***

It's a mistake I make often in early drafts. I love my story, I need certain things to happen for it to have depth and wave and heft, I'm overexcited . . . some things never change . . . and rather than waiting for the characters to put muscle on their bones and learn to move and think and act and breathe for themselves, I drag them around, I hurl them, I make them say and do things that are required by the plot and have nothing to do with the way their limbs are put together or their little brains, still only half-wired, half-finished, not yet full of the complexity they are going to have, are actually capable of thinking.

I do to my poor characters what I wouldn't do to anything else I love. I dunk them.

It's been interesting, these past weeks, watching the pup. At first, he wouldn't go into the water at all. Leading him did no good. Then he could put one paw in, then two, then four. A few more weeks, and he was up to his stomach. A sudden forgetfulness one day, and he jumped in as deep as his chest. Shocked.

It's something else entirely to let go of earth. A creature has to be ready for it. The bottom, once trusted, must be abandoned. The heart must be strong. The soul must be willing.

Signs that your characters may be unwilling:

illogical shifts in dialogue (they are saying what you want them to say)

inexplicable shifts in personality (they are doing what you want them to do)

inability to connect in more than inexplicable ways to the other characters around them (they are only feeling what you want them to feel)

separation, stiffness, rigidity in relation to the many moving parts around them (they don't really inhabit the element you've created for them).

Remedy: Stand on the shore and wait.

I move too fast, often, as I writer. I love my story. I want my characters to succeed in the ways I want them to succeed, or fail in the ways I want them to fail. I shove them in, surround them with bizarre devices, plastics, to keep them going. I let the story tell them, and not the other way around.

This isn't swimming.

Now I must stand by the shore a while. And wait. And watch.

Then wade.

Then go slowly deeper.

--MD

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Can an Author Be Too Accessible?

Like most other authors, I love hearing from my readers. Nearly all of the folks who take the time to write are doing so to say how much they've enjoyed one or more of my books -- and what's not to like about that? With only the rarest of exceptions (a few of whom were clearly off their meds) the disgruntled feel no need to share that I dinged their pet peeve meter or that my work just didn't do it for them, for whatever reason. (Happens to the best of us. Don't believe me? Check out Amazon reviews on the last three books you've loved. I guarantee you, someone, somewhere hated them. Especially if they've been sufficiently popular to warrant notice.)

If readers want to communicate with me, they don't have to work very hard to do it. My e-mail address is printed in my books, or they can click a link off of my website. (I did recently close my P.O. box because nearly all of my fan communications have been online for several years, but non-connected readers are still welcome to write in care of the publisher.) And I try very hard to respond to everything, with the exception of the occasional incomprehensible or potentially dangerous-sounding rant-o-gram.

Over the years, however, I've seen some authors smacked hard when they've become too much a fixture on reader message boards or responded to stinging website or Amazon reviews. Some of these authors have been villified, their careers badly damaged because they've dared to offer an unpopular opinion or defend/explain their book too stridently. (WAAAYYY too stridently, in some cases!)

Some lessons I've taken from this:

1. A writer's posts can be far too ubiquitous online, so much so that familiarity breeds contempt - especially from Internet "trolls," who live to knock what they perceive as public figures down a peg or three.

2. Treat negative reviews or comments like farts in church. Ignore them, and very soon, the stink will disipate. Call attention to them, and you're likely to create a far longer-lasting stench.

3. You can't talk haters out of hating, because it's what they live for.

4. The truly crazy will use any engagement as an excuse to escalate, and the time it takes to deal with it could be put to better use. Say, writing another book for all the readers (from whom, by and large, you'll never hear) eager to purchase your next offering. Why would you want to ignore the latter group, your bread and butter, to mess with a lost cause anyway?

5. Yes, authors have opinions like everybody else, but be careful about alienating a significant percentage of your base by posting highly-charged and controversial rants online. I don't know about you, but I have trouble watching a movie featuring certain actors who behave like idiots in real life, whereas if they kept it to themselves, I'd probably enjoy their work.

As a reader or writer, what do you think? Can authors be too accessible, or do you feel that the networking benefits of putting themselves out there more than make up for the risks?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Our "hideous progeny": A Prisoner's Take on Frankenstein

Yesterday in the Gothic class, we started our unit on Frankenstein. I gave a little background information on the period, and then we began talking about the idea of monstrosity and how it relates to creation. As a writer, I'm always particularly interested in Mary Shelley's reference to her book as her own "hideous progeny," as well as the tale that the first draft of Frankenstein was composed in a mere weekend. One of the prison students surprised me, though, with his take on not only the novel, but the whole concept of "the monsters we create." He argued that the media creates monsters every day by vilifying criminals and by giving criminal attributes to whoever opposes societal norms.

Another student picked up on this and mentioned the oil spill in the Gulf, and how "monster" language was being used both by BP and the government, and still another mentioned terrorism and 9/11. Then a fourth student brought us back to the text and pointed out that Victor Frankenstein's "real problem" was not so much his creation of the monster, but his utter avoidance of it once he did create it. And then he looked at me with a desperate, haunted expression, and said, "Dr. Paterson, don't you think we're like Frankenstein's monster? Society creates us, decides to punish us, but then locks us away and never looks at us again. They just don't want to think of us."

As usual, I walked out of those gates yesterday having learned so much more than I taught.

The Writer Who Couldn't Read

After seeing this very short NPR film by way of Huffington post, I was fascinating by what it has to tell us about the mysterious wiring of the human brain - and one man's will to keep telling his stories.

You have to see this to believe it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Cialis Warning for Writers: Don't make it harder than it has to be.

This is going to be one of my apt but slightly off color publishing allegories, so for those who are put off by such things, please, step away from the blog.

Whenever I see those Cialis commercials in which they warn "If you experience an erection lasting longer than four hours, call your doctor," I'm compelled to tell Gary, "Hey, baby, if that ever happens to you, forget the doctor--call me!" But formulaic humor aside, in practical reality, too much of a good thing is just as bad, if not worse, than not enough. Priapism (won't-go-away erection) is a harmful, painful medical emergency that can lead to ischemia and even gangrene in extreme cases. Yeah. Seriously not good.

Dragging out the manuscript process to ridiculous lengths is similarly unhealthy and ultimately unsatisfying. Meticulous is great until it becomes masochistic. Rewriting is good craftsmanship until it becomes obsessive rehashing. Artistic integrity is laudable until it becomes a smokescreen for an author's fear of the marketplace.

"Write with an erection," Tom Robbins famously said. "Even if you're a woman." He was talking about giving ourselves to the madly infatuated glory of process, and he's absolutely right, but prolonging process at the expense of fulfillment can damage and even kill a book. A satisfying publishing experience becomes less and less likely after grinding months or even years of psyching yourself out about it.

This month, I find myself involved in a delicious little work for hire project with a big fun factor and absolutely no literary heft. The deadline is insanely short. I've set a 4,000 words/day schedule to allow a few days at the front for research and a week at the end for rewrites. Last week, as we forged the contract with the publisher, I was pondering all sorts of parlor tricks and storytelling shenanigans that would elevate this project beyond the musical little trifle I'm being commissioned to write, and my agent sternly told me, "Don't make it harder than it has to be."

The creative exercise for me here is to reign in my tendency to write for my own enjoyment at the expense of the reader's--a brand of discipline my fiction has always lacked. Writing novels, I go where I want to go at the pace I like to travel with all sorts of tangents and bantering and envelope-pushing. I get luxuriously lost in the process I love. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you'd like to make a living writing, in which case, everyone this side of Infinite Jest has to give at least a modicum of consideration to the peanut gallery. The writer who fails to consider the reader is as tragically deluded as a man who thinks the quality of lovemaking begins and ends with his erection.

In this case, a fast, funny, straightforward, technically well executed story is what the publisher wants to publish and what the target readers want to read. It's the book equivalent of a quickie. There's fun there. And satisfaction. But it is what it is. Get in, get off, get out. Save the tantric gymnastics for the right partner and be honest with yourself about how long you really need it to last.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Call to My Father

Dear friends, today I am going to try to do something I don't know that I can do in the context of a blog, though I very much want to. I am going to try to write about my father.

I lost my dad on June 20, 1995, when he was fifty-five years old, and I was thirty-two. For years he had suffered from heart disease. A week before he died, knowing only that he wasn't doing very well, I went out to North Carolina to see him; I asked his doctor the prognosis, and was told my father had six months to live. My dad and I spent a wonderful week together, talking. Then I went home to check on things, telling him I would be back very soon. As soon as I got home to Texas I began looking into the possibility of a heart transplant for my father, something he had never wanted to do ("What if I get the heart of a bad person?") but was now, at long last, beginning to consider. I called him to tell him what I'd found out, and this is what we said to each other:

"Daddy, what are you doing?"

"I've been working."

"Daddy, why are you working? You need to rest. You work too hard."

"But if I don't work, I start thinking . . . about . . ."

"Daddy, Daddy, listen to me, I don't want you to go. I want you to stay. Please, I want you to stay. You have to fight to stay. You have to fight."

"I know, I know, but I don't know how."

"You need a new heart. Daddy, I would give you my heart if I could. Do you hear me? I would give you my heart."

At this point we both started crying, and my mom had to take the phone away.

I have to stop here now, for a minute.

***

We were able to get back on the line together, and talk about a transplant. He had been looking into this, too (this was all so much harder in those days before the internet). The last words we said to each other were, "I love you." Twenty hours later my father went into cardiac arrest. I flew to North Carolina, and fell into my mother's arms, telling her I should have stayed, my last words to my father shouldn't have been over a telephone. No, she told me. You know how he loved to talk on the phone. You know how it was easier for him to talk on the phone than to say anything face to face. You know you would never, never have had that conversation any other way.

And she was right.

***

My dad loved phones. Before he died, every Wednesday afternoon he would call me. Every Wednesday he would phone me to see how my writing was going, and every Wednesday I would tell him how hard it was, how I was struggling, trying to find the right words and sentences, trying to make the story come alive. My father, being a businessman in the shipping and transportation industry, didn't quite understand why I couldn't just slap the words down, box the pages up and send them out into the world. But still, every Wednesday he called, to see how my work was going . . .

My father died before any of my books were published. Before he left us, I didn't know, I didn't feel how real life was, how much it meant, and what it was: brief, exact, vivid. When he died, I wrote his eulogy, and it was the first piece of exact writing I'd ever composed. It was the first time I understood that a writer's responsibility is not just to make pleasing shapes and sounds and tales, but to capture with blunt honesty the life of a human being. Within six months of my father's death I finished my first novel. Within twelve it was accepted for publication. My mother gave me my creativity, my love of stories, my joy in people and my thirsty imagination. But my father, who till the end got up every time he was knocked down, knew how to go it alone when he had to and knew what it was to stare at the absolute, made me a writer.

***

When it came time to write my second novel, I wrote it for and about my dad. This is something I've never talked about publicly, until now.

My father didn't live to see me published--but he never had any doubt that I would be. That last week we spent together before he died, he told me story after story, and I made sure he saw me write them down, so that he would know: I will try to see that your stories will not be forgotten, that they will not disappear. He told me about hiding under a table and secretly scrawling a sentence into the wood. He told me how during the war, he had wandered the ruins of Rotterdam, and found a bloody shoe. He told me how his father, a Nazi collaborator, was later caught, and how the entire family was punished, including my small father, only six years old. He told me how, as a fifty-year-old businessman, he was invited one day to lunch at a Rotterdam hotel--and didn't realize until he got there that it was his childhood prison, renovated. He told me he ate lunch in a daze, unable to speak of it with his colleague.

But when The Deadwood Beetle was published six years after my father's death, and dedicated For Carl, only those closest to me knew it was for and about my father. Because I was unable to speak of it. Six years after his death I still couldn't talk about him; I knew that if I tried, I would have to be led from the stage, or the bookstore, or the university hall, a wreck. And so I told no one. The stories were what mattered then. The telling of them. The recording. But I will say it now. The Deadwood Beetle is for and about my father.

My mom told me that once my dad said, frustrated, "She wants to be a writer so badly. And there's no way I can help her."

But you did, Daddy. You did.

***

As my father lay in the hospital on a breathing machine at the very end, his heartbeat fading away, we "talked" by phone one last time. As I raced to an airplane I stopped and sent him a fax--there was no internet, no email, no texting, then--and my mother, because the nurse said he might still be able to hear, read my words into his ear. I want to shout them out now:

"I am so proud of you, Daddy. And I am so proud of my love for you."

To fathers everywhere: you make us, even when you don't know that you do.

Thank you. Thank you. Daddy.

Six Simple Steps to Writing an Effective Query

I'd like to direct your attention to the funniest thing I've read in ages, Slushpile Hell, where "a grumpy literary agent wades through query fails."

The site's quotes are definitely great examples of how not to write a query. But I'm often asked about the right way, so I thought I'd devote a brief post to the topic.

A solid query letter (or e-mail, as often as not, these days) does the following:

1. Conveys that you have done your homework, checking in the most recent edition of the Writer's Market or, better yet, the agent's or publisher's website (for more up-to-date information) to find out if this submission is appropriate for this publishing pro and if he/she is accepting unsolicited queries. If you can't do even that much research, you're wasting everybody's time.

2. Quickly lets the recipient know what it is you're shopping. For example: "I'm seeking representation (or a publisher) for Sparrows in the Storm, a 90,000-word historical romance" or "an 80,000-word novel in the tradition of Jodi Piccoult and (name another remotely similar author the publishing pro's likely to have heard of and hasn't been dead or out of fashion for decades.) The second approach is helpful to let the person know what type of reader would enjoy your book, and (more importantly, from a sales standpoint) how it might be marketed.

3. Encapsulates the book's marketing hook in one to three sentences.
For example: "As a hurricane builds in the Gulf of Mexico in 1821, the beautiful mixed-race mistress of a powerful New Orleans merchant runs away with a handsome British sea captain -- a decision that endangers both their lives and changes the face of the region's slave trade forever." (I'm making this up as I go along, so don't read too much into my storyline.)

The description above not only cues the reader that as a historical romance, this story has all its fingers and toes (attractive, star-crossed lovers and a powerful adversary) but how it's different from other historical romances on the market. (Unusual setting and a story that crosses racial boundaries and isn't afraid to take on the slave trade, which has been almost a taboo subject in commercial romance for quite some time. The agent/editor might be curious about how you handled such a topic, or it could scare her off, but at least it will get her attention.)

Do not attempt to summarize the entire synopsis in the query. If the marketing hook is sufficiently intriguing, you'll get the opportunity to send chapters and/or a synopsis.

4. Provides any pertinent information about you. In the above example, it would be relevant for the agent/editor to know if you happen to be a professor of Southern history at Tulane University in New Orleans, or if you are a New York Times bestselling novelist or a major award winner. A publishing track record (with publishers the pro will recognize) would be good to know as well. But these folks generally don't care about your day job, your hobbies, your family (unless maybe your sister's JK Rowling, and she's promised an endorsement) or your fourteen polydactyl cats. For the most part, your story should speak for itself.

5. Is no longer than one, single-spaced page, in standard business-letter format. (This is relaxed for e-mail, but let's not get too chummy or start with the emoticons.)

6. Is professional and appropriately confident. Groveling is poor form, and boasting's even more off-putting. You're a professional with (you believe) a commercially viable product, and you're looking to enter a mutually advantageous business relationship. Acting as if you're the Eighth Wonder of the World who's destined to make everyone a fortune because your mother loved your story just makes you look like an idiot - and a delusional prima donna to the person you are querying.

Querying publishing professionals can be a time-consuming, stressful process. But by following these common sense tips, you're at least assured of not ending up on some agent's "query-fail" site! And you have a good, fighting chance of finding a partner that can take your career to the next level and put your book in readers' hands.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Cross-Blogging

Dear friends, I have a new post up at American Stories NOW called "Tango"--sometimes I'm so moved by the simple stories people tell me, and that I get to write down. An excerpt:

"At the beginning of every school year," Becky says, "I ask my students what they would like their goal for that year to be. What they want to accomplish. What they would like me to help them with. And Ellis, he raised his hand, and he said,

"'I want to walk.'"

If you have a story you'd like to share, please let me know. I'd be delighted to post it.

--MD

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Meet IRA, the Imaginary Reader Anomaly

Author Cynthia Reese has a fun and handy post offering up a secret decoder ring of jargon and acronyms romance writers commonly use when critiquing and discussing their work. I loved reading these and even learned some new ones, such as RUE (resist urge to explain) -- which could save many a writer from a multitude of backstory sins. (Do we really need to know about the heroine's traumatic seventh birthday party, when none of the invitees showed up?)

Years ago, I came up with another concept I found handy: IRA, the Imaginary Reader Anomaly. Good old IRA has long helped me to distance myself from the work by imagining myself seeing it from the point of view of some future reader.

I like to assume IRA is a bright, well-read person, never so stupid that he (not that IRA has a specific gender, but roll with me on the pronoun this time, will you?) needs every little thing spelled out or endlesslessly repeated. But IRA's not omniscient, either. He can't read anything into the prose that isn't actually there, whether or not I meant to write it, plan to write it, or thought about it once. (I could really use IRA's help while editing my latest synopsis.)

Like everyone else, IRA is a busy person, with many distractions, like a litter of yapping, nipping puppies at his ankles. So you have to grab his attention quickly and mercilessly and do your best to hold onto it. But as with most readers, IRA, once hooked, truly wants to believe, so unless you jerk his head out of the story with some jarring factual error or ridiculous motivation, he's right there beside you, along for the ride and willingly suspending disbelief.

As writers, it's important to be able to compartmentalize, to consider the possible responses of others to the work. Thanks to years of experience, I have a whole cast of characters residing in my head, including the voices of several picky but brilliant critique partners (you know who you are!), jaded but eternally-hopeful agents, and exacting editors.

In a way, these imagined readers are characters, but these ones can follow and help guide you through everything you write. And it's not really any stranger than the idea of a muse, is it? So if you find the concept handy, feel free to take out IRA for a spin.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spinning wildly and loving it: 3Qs for Holly LeCraw, author of The Swimming Pool


Holly LeCraw's debut novel The Swimming Pool is the story of an unsolved murder, a forbidden affair, and a summer that pretty much blows everyone out of the water. We caught up with Holly and managed to wedge 3Qs into her busy book tour schedule.

Holly, thanks for joining us. How are you, dear girl? It took you a while to get here. Now that the book is launched, has it been everything you expected it to be? Or is your head spinning with the debut novel rollercoaster ride?
Definitely the latter. Spinning wildly. Which I did not expect. It is very, very odd to go from being a completely private person to an even slightly public one. I have been toiling in suburban-mom-disguised obscurity for a while and so this is a big change—complete and total strangers have opinions about my book! My book that I wrote all alone in my study! Of course that’s how it’s supposed to work. But it’s still weird. You lose control over this thing that’s been only yours for so long.

Also, promoting a book is essentially the task of an extrovert. And while I am finding I quite like the performance aspect while it’s happening, I am an introvert, like most writers. I recharge by being alone. So at the moment, after touring and all of that, I am craving solitude even more than usual. (Of course this is just as school is ending for my kids. Oh well.)

Publishing a book was a dream for so long. Sometimes it feels unreal—but more often it feels inevitable. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. But I had to train myself to believe that it would happen, because I needed that faith in order to keep going. So, on one level, I think, “Well, of course you did it; that’s what you always intended to do. So get your jaw off the ground and go work on your next one.”

How do you feel about the word "cougar"--in general and as it's inevitably being applied to Marcella?
First of all, I am much more fond of the word that was in the AARP Magazine review (!!!!)—“elderbabe.” I am so using that. When I’m older. Anyway, those are two very different questions. That word was not part of the zeitgeist when I started the book, by the way; and I think its sudden ascendance reflects the fact that there are just a lot more older women, in terms of sheer numbers—those pesky baby boomers—and they’re unwilling to abandon their sexuality. Maybe that’s threatening to some people. And so they get lampooned as animals of prey. So what do we call men, at all stages of life? Tyrannasauri reges? (Yes, I just looked up the plural.) I don’t know.

But in terms of Marcella—having an affair with Jed is not something she sets out to do. “Cougar” implies scheming and plotting. Stalking. But with Jed and Marcella, they let themselves fall into the affair as a part of their grief. It’s taboo, and yet it leads to healing. It’s complicated. It is a much more oedipal scenario. I read a review online recently where a reader was disturbed by their relationship and said something like, “It was even sort of oedipal!” Well, yeah.

I always felt I had the best of both worlds as a mom making a living as a writer. How are you handling the balancing act, and how do the two roles inform each other?
People always ask how I manage it, and I say that basically I’m a working mother, and there are lots of working moms, so I am hesitant to claim any special status. I agree with you—in many ways it’s the best of both worlds. It’s been a luxury to be able to pursue my art and stay home with my kids. But as you know, it can also be tough. When they were younger, there were days when I longed for an office and a boss who was setting deadlines for me, so it didn’t all have to be self-generated, and so I could work off-site! It’s very very nice, now, having a contract for the next book. It helps that I am accountable to someone. You know, I’ll get in trouble if I don’t do it. Always a motivator for a closet good little girl.

As far as the internal balance—I think in the case of a writer, or any artist, the main thing that is hard to come by is mental space. You crave the time to obsess over your project. I work when my kids are at school, but often it’s hard to only work from nine to two. It’s hard to stop. Which my husband understands, and so I periodically escape for a long weekend. I fantasize about a month at a colony or something. But I wouldn’t take that sort of time away. As the kids get older they are more self-sufficient, and yet parenting gets much more emotionally complicated—and also more interesting, frankly. You just need to be there. And, you know, probably the time pressure probably doesn’t hurt so much in the end. It just forces discipline.

I do think parenting deeply affects my work, although I’m not always aware of it. The Swimming Pool was obviously influenced by having small children at home. I was thinking about the overwhelming aspects of being a new mother—the physicality of it, the almost obsessive love. In my new book, part of what I’m looking at is how character is formed—how much of it is innate? How much is environment, and how much can we ourselves influence it? What is the role of the will? And probably that stems from having older kids who are on the road to adulthood.

Bonus question, if I might: What are you reading?
I always have several books going at once. I am reading later this month at my hometown field, Newtonville Books, with Jennifer Egan, which is just a huge privilege, and at the moment I am reading The Keep. I hope I’ll get a chance soon to dip into Goon Squad. I also read with Brady Udall at Square Books in Oxford in May, and I’m about a hundred pages into The Lonely Polygamist. They are both fabulous. I’m also finishing up The Infinities by John Banville; I am so intrigued by the structure of that one—the overarching first-person narration, by the god Hermes, which, by virtue of him being a god, is also omniscient. It’s having your cake and eating it too.

And I’m reading the poet Mary O’Donoghue’s debut novel, Before the House Burns. Gorgeous. You have to order it from Ireland but I got mine in two days! I hope it gets published here. It should. I also just finished The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, for the dozenth time. I bought the Everyman Library edition at Lemuria Books while I was on tour and the introductions are excellent. That one is also all about voice. And I am still making my way slowly through How Fiction Works, by James Wood, underlining as I go. He is really sui generis as a critic, these days. A brilliant generalist, old school like Trilling or Kazin, and yet fresh. We need more of those. That book is like Aspects of the Novel for the twenty-first century. I am learning so much. The joyous thing about being a writer is that, hopefully, the learning curve never flattens out.

Click here to read chapter one of The Swimming Pool or skip directly to IndieBound and buy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Writer Tries to Rest

Okay, folks, I am going to try not to write (by which I mean work on a novel--blogging is allowed) for a little while. I really need to rest.

But oh, I find rest so hard to do.

It's helped that my family has been visiting for the past week. That's kept me away from the computer, and broken the grip of routine a bit. It's forced me to engage with other human beings, cook a few decent meals, go out and look at things I haven't looked at in a while. We went to see the ruins at Hovenweep; I looked at the tiny stones inserted by an ancient mason between the great big ones, and knew exactly how he felt. What an effort it takes to make something as square as stone, curve.

But surely the mason must have rested?

My trouble is that I don't know how. I am a complete writing addict. I feel lost without the characters and story, like the world has no walls. Everything is too open. What do I do? Where am I? What light is this?

I do things that need to be done. The house needs cleaning. Mail needs answering. Trees need to be pruned. I wander around doing things. It's like swimming in a vague jelly.

What a terrible thing to say about a place and people you love!

If I can hang on just a bit longer, I think the world will become real again, and I'll be able to stay in it for a while. I do want to. I would like a vacation from the imaginary, please. I would like to relax and not fret over rhythms only I hear. I would like to hear other music. There is so much outside myself.

I would like to look at a ruin and see it as a ruin and not a metaphor.

If I can hold on . . . take today . . . and maybe tomorrow . . . I'm sure the trouble is that the brain lays down patterns, and these can be hard to dismantle . . . But bit by bit, I will try . . .

I will take a walk. I'll watch a movie. I will try not to think: "I'm sorry, but structurally speaking, that scene went on just a hair too long."

Dither, dither, dawdle, be shapeless, loose. A stone is only temporarily a stone, anyway.

Oh for god's sake just REST!

Buy This Book: The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw

If you're looking for a steamy summer read, dive into The Swimming Pool (Doubleday hardcover), a powerful debut novel by Pushcart winner Holly LeCraw. An unsolved murder, an explosive affair, and all the dicey dynamics that are inevitable when a woman of a certain age enters into forbidden territory. As the story moves assuredly toward the deep end, moments of pristinely beautiful writing catch the light. She kept me reading even when I kinda wanted to slap certain characters upside the head.

From the flap:
Seven summers ago, Marcella Atkinson fell in love with Cecil McClatchey, a married father of two. But on the same night their romance abruptly ended, Cecil's wife was found murdered—and their lives changed forever. The case was never solved, and Cecil died soon after, an uncharged suspect.

Now divorced and estranged from her only daughter, Marcella lives alone, mired in grief and guilt. Meanwhile, Cecil's grown son, Jed, returns to the Cape with his sister for the first time in years. One day he finds a woman's bathing suit buried in a closet—a relic, unbeknownst to him, of his father's affair—and, on a hunch, confronts Marcella. When they fall into an affair of their own, their passion temporarily masks the pain of the past, but also leads to crises and revelations they never could have imagined.

Click here to buy from IndieBound, and tune in tomorrow for 3Qs with author Holly LeCraw.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Writer Gets Over Self - With a Little Help from Loved Ones

When I give talks or signings or make appearances at book clubs, I'm almost invariably asked some version of this question, usually by someone with a slightly awestruck expression: "So, are your relatives excited to have an author in the family?"

Thanks to a recent conversation with my mother, I now have a terrific new story to help answer to this question.

On the phone yesterday, she was complaining that there's nothing good on TV and she doesn't like to watch as much in the summer.

"You could always pick up one of those books of mine you've been collecting," I teased, since my mom has never been a reader (and often makes unintentionally hilarious excuses trying to explain herself.)

She then launches into a story about how I might enjoy reading but she's never...(loses train of her thought, before launching into:) "It reminds me of when my sisters once convinced me I'd just LOVE buying a kit and making my own hook rug. I loathed every minute of it. It was torture! Sheer torture."

Then it hit me. She was comparing the odious task of reading one of my books to what I remember as her years-long struggle to finish the single ugliest rust-and-floral shag hook ever to come out of the 70's.

Better yet, she had no idea why I broke up laughing and thanked her for the brilliant anecdote!

To be fair, both of my parents love to brag on me, just as they're very proud of my brother the electrician and my sister the RN. In turn, I adore my family, including my husband and son, and think it's probably healthier that to them that my career is simply one small facet of who I am to them and not the focal point.

Besides, over the years, their many "flattering" comments have helped me keep my sense of perspective -- and my sense of humor.

If there's a lesson to be drawn from this, maybe it's that you can choose to collect a bag of bitter hurts, or laugh and take things in stride. You have very little control over anything your family members say about your writing, but all the control in the world over how you choose to perceive it.

So what's the "best" comment a family member's ever made about your writing?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Plastic Bag


Take 20 to watch this awesome short film by Ramin Bahrani and visit FutureStates for more of the same.

Friday, June 11, 2010

"Send Us Your Best Work:" But What Does That Really Mean?

Last night, Mark and I went another round in the battle of what he calls "Kathryn Paterson's existential writing angst." I was frustrated after a hard day of revision, the kind where I was splicing together the best of two chapters in order to tighten my rising action and make the early part of the story move. I had literally taken both chapters and used three different colors of highlighters to try to figure out which pieces of the chapters I actually needed. The sentences that absolutely had to be in the story I marked in orange, the ones that I liked the spirit of, but not the execution went in pink, and stuff I liked but didn't really think I needed went in blue. The stuff I knew for sure I didn't need I didn't mark at all.

The idea behind this was for me to start seeing the skeleton of those chapters a little better, and to help me reorganize. But it was hard, because there were sentences that I thought might seem dull to readers that people who have not lived with this novel for 4.5 years have actually found fascinating, so I wasn't sure. And yet I am conscious of wanting to move the story along and pace this first part in a way that absolutely demands the reader turn the page.

When I flopped, bleary-eyed on the sofa, Mark asked how the work had gone, and I burst into tears. "I'm just so blind now," I said. "I just don't know if what I'm doing is making the book any better."

"Well, maybe it's time you just sent the book to that agent," he said. I shook my head.
"I know it's not good enough for that yet. From chapter 3-5 there's no narrative drive."
"Okay, so what you're saying is that out of an almost 300 paged book, there is a small section that doesn't have narrative drive?"
"Yes. But that's important."

Mark didn't get it. His fear is that thirty years from now, I'm still going to be working on this book. He thinks it's good now and just wants me to send it. I told him I'm not sending it until it is my best work, but then he asked me what that really meant. And he has a point. I know editors and agents say that, but what does that mean?

Does it mean get it to where you're happy with it? Because for a perfectionist like me, that's never going to happen. I will always see the flaws. Does it mean get it to a point where you can't figure out what to do next and need agent eyes on it? Okay, well, then I think I'm a couple of months off that. Does it mean get it to where I can stand confidently by the story I've written, and know that, for now, at least, I've done my best? Yes, perhaps I can get there too.

Sometimes I wonder if the best books (not necessarily mine!) never get published because their writers are never done with them. And while agents and editors will say on their blogs that they get nervous when a writer says s/he knows the book needs another edit, they can't possibly expect perfection, can they? Because the "perfect" novel doesn't exist. And as Mark said to me last night, there's a fallacy in the "best work" concept, because if it's really the "best" I can do, then why would I need an agent or an editor to make it better? Won't they bring out in me a new best?

I see a lot of work out there that is really rough. Some of it is published and some of it is not. I know my work is better than that, or at least more polished. But until I can make sure the arc of the story is working well, I see no reason to send it out. And yet I am conscious of not wanting to take too long, and also not wanting to overpolish. But since I am a perfectionist, am I just going to have to let go before I'm ready?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What's Your Alternate Writing Reality?

I just love killing people. In fiction, that is. In real life, I'm so wimpy, I'm seriously afraid of clowns and have been known to faint at the sight of blood. But I'm fearless in my fiction and love crafting suspenseful mysteries with the added emotional umph of romance.

That doesn't stop me from daydreaming about an alternate reality in which I pursue another type of writing altogether. Science fiction.

I love a good science fiction novel, TV show (still in mourning over the end of the recent Battlestar Gallactica series) or movie, and I miss the intelligent social commentary and high-stakes action of the pulp SF I read in my youth. But like any other type of writing, the crafting of great SF requires dedication and commitment - the kind of laser-like focus I've often referred to in my posts.

That doesn't keep me from -- or lessen the enjoyment of -- imagining that career path now and again or tinkering idly with this or that idea I've had for a science fiction novel. It's a form of mental play, a forbidden flirtation I have no intention of acting on at this time.

So what's your alternate writing reality? If you weren't concentrating where you're currently working, what do you like to imagine yourself writing?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Beasts, balls and bromance: 3 Qs for comic horror author Jeff Strand

On a recent flight back to Houston, I was abruptly shushed by the Gare Bear, who was deeply engrossed in a bizarre book about a boy named Toby and his pal...killer humanoid beast monster, Owen. Bram Stoker nom Jeff Strand's Dweller is part Sendak, part Lassie, part Fangoria. Bromance meets bloodbath. It's gotten glowing reviews from publications like Hellnotes, CultureGeek and Dread Central. I had to ask.

Jeff, thanks for joining us. So where in the demented mind of Jeff Strand did Dweller come from? Allegory much?
Oh, I’m all about the allegory. (There’s an Amazon review for Dweller that calls it “very DEEP and SYMBOLIC” and when I first read it I thought the guy was being sarcastic!) There really isn’t a fascinating story about the origin of the idea. I was basically just brainstorming a bunch of ideas for my next book, and trying to figure out what twists I could put on standard horror tropes. “Lonely kid feeds bullies to pet monster” has been done before, but I’d never seen it done with an epic timeframe, and that idea very quickly evolved into Dweller.

Try as I might, I can't begin to envision how you pitched this book. Do you usually sell on a full manuscript or a proposal?
All of my books after The Sinister Mr. Corpse in 2007 were sold on proposal, which is good for a slacker like me who needs a deadline to get anything done. The pitch for Dweller was pretty straightforward: kid becomes best friends with a monster, and the book follows them for their entire lifetime, from childhood to old age. Leisure had no problems with the “best friends with a monster” part, but they were hesitant about the idea that the story took place over five or six decades. That to me was the whole selling point, but it’s also a difficult trick to pull off—it’s not a concept where you go “Wow! That’ll practically write itself!” So I did a full outline, went back and forth a few times with my editor, and he unleashed me to write it.

Okay, I'm fairly certain I'm going to regret asking this, but...Two Twisted Nuts: A Chapbook of Testicular Terror. Whaa...?
This cautionary tale goes back to 2005. Nick Cato, editor of The Horror Fiction Review, really liked my work and wrote horror/comedy stuff himself, so he said that someday we should do a joint collection of short stories called Two Twisted Nuts. What he meant was “two wacky guys,” but I e-mailed him back and said “What is that? A chapbook of testicular terror?”

A few weeks later, Nick sent me his short story “Ball Breaker” and said that Two Twisted Nuts: A Chapbook of Testicular Terror was going to be the debut publication of his new company, Novello Publishers...with or without me! So I wrote my own balls-themed tale, “Mr. Sensitive,” and literary history was made. I should probably be a little embarrassed by the project now, but I can’t help but love that shamelessly silly yet moderately disturbing book.

Bonus Q, if I might: What are you reading?
Cosmic Forces by Greg Lamberson.

Click here to visit Jeff's Gleefully Macabre blog.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Back to Prison (with students who sneak out for literature)

Yesterday I went back to prison for the first time in nine months. It was the first day of the Gothic lit class I teach there, and, as usual, the semester got off to a slightly bumpy start. For one thing, the count didn't clear, so the students were stuck in their cells. At the official start of class, I was there in an empty classroom, organizing my handouts and waiting to see if we would have class at all.

While I was waiting, an inmate from one of the GED classes slipped across the hall. I didn't know him and he didn't know me, but he heard I "taught college." He wanted to know what I taught, who I taught it for, and what I'd gotten my degree in. Then he nodded his head and said "Writing and literature, I need some of that. I want to win the Pulitzer prize."

I didn't know what to say, other than to encourage him. I told him to remain true to his voice, that that would carry him far further than anything else he could do. And read. I told him to read. But as I was saying all this, I felt the prick of guilt, because the last thing I wanted to do was give him false hope. And at the same time, perhaps hope and ambition are all he has, and he would do well to hold onto them. Having never seen his writing, who knows? Maybe he could win. I never want to say never, especially not to these guys.

Our conversation was cut short because the guard "needed" him, which was I'm sure her code for "you're not supposed to be alone with a teacher in that room." Grateful as I was for the interruption, I also felt a familiar pang of empathy, for him and all the other men in that prison. They're so hungry for interaction with someone outside of the prison system, people like me and other professionals who come in, who represent a life they've never had or the one they've left behind. I remember one day last summer when one of the guys lingered in the hallway, talking about one of the texts. When we both went through the steel door into the main unit, he turned to me with an almost desperate look in his eyes. "Now I have to go back to not being human," he said, and the steel door closed.

Perhaps this is why, out of the twelve men signed up for the Gothic, seven of them managed to "sneak" over to the education department, despite the fact that they were not allowed to leave. At 4 p.m., over an hour after the class's official start, they finally made it over and settled into their desks. "We had to use our penitentiary skills," one said. Rather than chastise them, I gave them the handouts and began the lecture, abbreviated as it was. Even though our class was cut short, I could do what I could to give them the stories, check out their books, and let them reclaim their humanity, one word at a time.

Slate messes with minds...and discovers minds are pretty messy to begin with

Fascinating article in Slate about the wobbly nature of human memory and the work of experimental psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who specializes in the study of false memories.

From "The Memory Doctor":
In 1984, George Orwell told the story of Winston Smith, an employee in the propaganda office of a totalitarian regime. Smith's job at the fictional Ministry of Truth was to destroy photographs and alter documents, remaking the past to fit the needs of the present. But 1984 came and went, along with Soviet communism. In the age of the Internet, nobody could tamper with the past that way. Could they?

Yes, we can. In fact, last week, Slate did.
The results of their experiment are predictably disturbing. Read the rest here.

Interesting word of caution to anyone writing a memoir. In my work as a ghostwriter, I exhaustively research the stories people tell me. I also come into the interview process with ironclad memory anchors--verifiable dates from which to backdate events, photos, journals, letters. It's natural to rewrite our own histories in a way that takes us forward in life, and one of the healing aspects of doing a memoir is setting the record straight in one's own mind in order to make peace with what really happened.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

On the road with too much technology



It seems I was on the road too long. Five days in New York — did I tell you about my problems with the booth? Okay, the show was great for us, absolutely invigorating—and I ended up quoted in The Dallas Morning News, which would have made my in-laws proud, except that by the time it appeared they were all in Houston, meeting me and Ms. E for a graduation-related reunion. (period) And that was the second part of the trip—Eating in Texas. I’d talk about the joy of being in Corsicana the last night of the trip, but that’s another subject.

Anyway, for a week and a half, I was trying to stay attached to the (widespread) office of Unbridled Books via the small screen of my Blackberry. Which is my point here.

The sales reports were tiny—I mean the typeface was. I could increase the focus/print size, but that only meant that what I saw was even more fragmented—pieces of reports. The ad proofs were illegible. The flash ads boiled down to a single opening frame.

I had trouble focusing on the map to Louis I. Kahn’s building in Fort Worth (the Kimbell Art Museum—my new favorite building (see photo). But the GPS app we downloaded was steady on; my complaint here is not—I say not—about technology.

My thoughts circle how fragmented my connections were to the world larger than my sweet immediate surround, most especially my connections to the written word. (An aside: Kahn’s conversations with Rice University students is available online.)

I did finish a fascinating manuscript on my e-reader. But that wasn’t enough. There was so little time to re-read Larry Levis's The Widening Spell of the Leaves, which I had in my satchel. When we got back, I picked up my copy of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, just to hold a book in my hand and return to immersive reading….

And then Ms. E asked me, “Where’s that book you were reading out loud to me on the Santa Fe trip?”

There is something to being lost in time and space. My digitized word-life on the road just doesn’t . . . quite . . . take me there.

Buy This Book: Nurses on the Run: Why They Come, Why They Stay

In Nurses on the Run: Why They Come, Why They Stay, editor Karen Buley, RN, BSN, presents the personal stories of 25 women and men who've devoted their lives to caring for us as we get born, grow up, give birth, crash, burn, break, and -- if we're lucky -- get old. The collection of essays is an examination of what calls people to this emotionally and physically demanding profession and why they stay with it while so many feel the need to walk away. Both joys and frustrations are many.

Each story is gripping and surprising in its own way. The stories come from obstetrics, hospice, oncology--everything from pediatrics to geriatrics--but have in common the generous spirit and humor necessary to survive the job. (In her essay "Nursing in the Big House", prison nurse Sara Stassen writes, "Walking back to the control bubble, I felt like a nurse in the Wild West...a gun-slinging sheriff walking though town after killing an outlaw.")

A nurse for 31 years (and a regular contributor to various publications including Family Circle and American Nurse), Karen Buley concludes with a call to action to combat the current nursing shortage. A portion of proceeds will fund nurse educator scholarships.


Personal PS: This is my beautiful aunt, Ethel Lonnquist Tanner, a great nurse and tremendous lioness of a woman, whose full life ended last week at age 88. My dad's big sis was an amazing caregiver, quilter, musician, and mom.

The Construction and Care of the Writing Habit

Yesterday was a heck of a stressfest. My husband and I are dealing with the logistical challenges of an elderly family member's care (with its incumbent extended separations and myriad phone calls) and my son's routine car maintenance turned into Automotive Armageddon. I was fried by day's end, and I hadn't written one word.

But I'd checked in on a writer friend who's dealing with her own health issues and is one of the busiest folks I know. We talked a while before she said, "I have to go and get my 100 words in before I go out this evening."

It reminded me of one of the best strategies I've ever come across for building up the writing habit. Some years ago, a group of writers chatted about research that indicated it takes 100 consecutive days to fully establish a habit. They also decided that, as helpful as things like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) can be for some folks, it's not realistically sustainable and the giant goal of crashing out a draft in a mere month scares off many people. So these writers formed a challenge e-mail loop to encourage each other to write at least 100 words per day (that's all!) for at least 100 days straight. At the end of each day, they checked in to report their success (and weren't allowed to brag about any quantity of words they wrote over 100, so as not to make the group competitive.)

Remembering all this (and that I'd been a member of such a group for a while) I hauled my weary self to the computer and said, "If she can crank out a hundred words this afternoon, so the heck can I. Then I can hang it up, veg on the couch, and watch an episode of BREAKING BAD."

Now here's the cool part. I didn't write just 100 words. I entered the slipstream of the story and did about five times that. It was still only a measly two pages, not much to show for a professional. But it's two pages more than I would've had if I'd given into my fatigue. Plus it was a great start on a scene I'm eager to flesh out today.

One of the gifts of giving oneself such a bite-sized goal is it tricks the writer's way past psychological resistance. For many of us (raising hand here) sitting down and getting started is the toughest part of the day.

But, as Newton teaches, once we overcome inertia, it's not so difficult to keep a body (and mind) in motion after all.

If you really want to write, this is something you can manage. Consider forming your own challenge group, or do what I've done and mark out each day's number of words on a calendar. (You can brag there all you want!) What you'll see is that over time, these lovely little successes lead to loftier achievements, and the creation of a habit that you won't want to give up!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Joni's Tribute to Rue McClanahan


Today, the Houston Chronicle published our own Joni Rodger's moving tribute to her recently-departed friend and client, Rue McClanahan.


I was touched to see that Joni donated her fee from the piece to Susan G. Komen, for the Cure. A breast cancer survivor and speaker for the cause, Rue would have been pleased.

Rue McClanahan was much more than just a Golden Girl. I hope you'll check out the link to find out more.

From Breaking Bad to Walking Dead (How did AMC get so cool?)

Just got the heads up from AMC that they're launching a new series this fall: The Walking Dead, based on the graphic novels of Robert Kirkman. More later about the creative forces involved. But this is Saturday morning.

Intrigued? Follow The Walking Dead on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Spelling "Revolooshunaries" Protest

This week, according to the all-seeing AP, angry (okay, they're mostly only mildly peeved) geeks picketed the Scripps Spelling Bee to protest of the illogical, often frustrating English lexicon.

It's always fun to see the nerds out exercising their dander. Especially word nerds, since I count myself a card-carrying member of the club.

Maybe it's because spelling comes fairly easily for me (although my typos don't always prove the point) but I appreciate English for its huge vocabulary and nonsensical spellings. Both are the result of a long history of mongrelization with words introduced by various invaders of the British Isles. (Words are notoriously indiscriminate in their mating habits!) Romans, Saxons, Vikings -- all of these rich cultures are represented. And who knows? Maybe all this blending accounts for the "hybrid vigor" of what is arguably the richest language and definitely one of the most commonly spoken (after Mandarin Chinese and possibly, depending who you ask, Spanish) in the world.

So bring in on, American Literary Council and London Spelling Society. We enjoy your antics, but don't expect thousands of years of history, millions of appalled English teachers, and general laziness to step out of the way of logic!

Now, would somebody please pass the crowbar so I can pry my tongue out of my cheek?

Seth Godin: "Write nothing instead. It's shorter."

I love what Seth Godin's take on writing really good words without saying anything:
Most people work hard to find artful ways to say very little. Instead of polishing that turd, why not work harder to think of something remarkable or important to say in the first place?
This is so key to editing. Instead of asking "Can I cut this?", come at it from the question "Do I need this?"

Read the rest here and follow Seth's blog on our FeedMe bar.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Buy This Book: My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away by Rue McClanahan

If you want to know the real Rue, you have to read My First Five Husbands..And the Ones Who Got Away, her delightfully over-the-top memoir of her deliciously over-the-top life and loves. But what really shines through the pages is...well, Rue. She was an artist from her first day to her last. Her creative spirit and joie de vivre were contagious. She accepted every tom cat and stray dog that came her way and loved people with an openness that was irresistible. And she was hilarious. On stage and off. As columnist Liz Smith said, "This book is a riot."

Rue McClanahan

My darling friend, Rue McClanahan, died early this morning. There's so much to celebrate about this wonderful, magical being. But right now, I just want to share this from the final pages of Rue's memoir, My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away:
Even as a child I had a strong feeling that life is good. I had a passion for work, an openness to love, and a penchant for joy. In a word, I had hope.

I still have it.

Go with God, Roo Boo.

Peanuts vs. Caviar

"Those big-shot writers ... could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar."
-- Mickey Spillane, from The Making of a Bestseller: From Author to Reader by Arthur T. Vanderbilt

I stumbled across this quote last night on Twitter, and it got me to thinking once again about the longstanding rivalry between writers who perceive themselves on opposite sides of the dividing line between art and commerce. To my mind, it's a ridiculous distinction, steeped more in the human desire to feel superior to someone else than anything worth fussing over. And I'm very aware that the antipathy (whether it's snobbism or reverse-snobbism) runs in both direction.

If you're growing peanuts (I was going to say "writing for peanuts," but alas, that's all too common in both literary and commercial fiction camps) and you've put time and love and thoughtful effort into raising, harvesting, and roasting the very best goobers you can, no one should be dissing you because people love them so much, they often gobble without tasting.

Likewise, if you have a taste for caviar and enjoy bringing it to an appreciative group of palates, what possible business do the peanut farmers have telling you that you're doing things all wrong?

We writers have bigger issues, don't we? Modern book piracy and e-royalty rates, shrinking shelf space for all but the biggest mega-sellers and increased competition from entertainment alternatives. Every one of these poses a challenge we can impact if we work together instead of pulling ourselves apart.

So here's to both the peanuts and caviar of the writing world. They may not really go together, but both offer food for thought.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

On self-publishing, poetry, and courage: 3Qs for author Hilary Thayer Hamann

Yesterday, I offered my two cents worth on Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann's debut novel, self-pubbed in 2003 and revamped for release last week by Spiegel & Gau, which has been eliciting critical superlatives and comparisons to everything yumcious from crack to Salinger. Today, we have a word with the author.

Hilary, thanks for taking time to visit. On the topic of self-publishing, you've said, "I wanted to work with something really organic, the whole way through. I wanted to make that art my own." Does the novel feel any less your own now that you've reworked it within the traditional publishing process?
The self-publishing process was definitely organic! It was like working with a living entity that required constant consideration and care. And it demanded a different application of strength and intelligence than I've had to exercise as a writer exclusively. So though it was liberating, and I evolved in ways I never could have anticipated, it was not without its pressures—economic, professional, and social. Lately, I’ve been able to write more or less exclusively, and that’s been a pleasure.

I’m proud of the product that grew out of that time. It was raw and dense and in need of an edit, but it was also poetic and courageous—-an endeavor of the heart and mind. Though I didn’t expect this when I embarked, I think my writing style—my voice, I guess—-was given the chance to develop in a type of untended isolation. And I feel especially fortunate to have gotten direct feedback from readers on that voice, and on the overall endeavor. Anthropology is not the usual take on American women. There is an effort to confront stereotype to study the ways we fall victim to it.

Of course, developing in isolation is not always reasonable, nor is it necessarily the best thing for the product—or the readers. The new edition is much stronger and more accessible. Cindy Spiegel, my editor and publisher, cleared away much of the density of the previous version so that the story could lift off the page. In the process my original vision became clearer to me as well.

So in response to the question, both works feel like my own, but in different ways.

Considering how dramatically the world has changed--and how dramatically you yourself probably changed--over the last seven years, I'm curious about how the characters and heart of the novel were transformed (or not) as the manuscript was reshaped. Did the original Evie stay the same and provide an anchor or did she evolve while other elements in the novel provided a stable platform?
Quite honestly, Eveline hasn’t changed at all. I don’t think she could have. The entire book is her internal point of view, so any alterations that were made occurred more or less as adjustments in her memory. Certain details dropped back and broader messages and themes moved forward. In fact, none of the characters changed from the original. If anything, they were given space to breathe as the book was edited, and their intentions became more evident.

At the time I originally wrote the novel, I was conscious of describing a pre-digital world in which random and serendipitous connections were possible—not only possible, but they were actually the engine of social survival. Your destiny was totally influenced by your approach to living. Were you the sort of person who was out and about, at home, at clubs? I mean, people used to have to sit by a phone and wait for a call, or sit by a window and wait for a car to pass! There are a few points in the book at which Eveline retreats from the social landscape to take time to think, or wait for things beyond her skin to settle down, and she is able to do that, to take that time for herself. If such a personal retreat would have been unlikely when I first released the book, it would be impossible now. It’s very hard to cultivate a private world for oneself anymore. It’s like there’s no alternative to the public path you are on.

We recently featured an interview with your agent, Kirby Kim at William Morris Endeavor. How did you connect with him? And where will you go from here?
Kirby has been an integral part of all this. He’s intelligent, collected, knowledgeable, and professional. I sent the paperback to a handful of agents in July 2007, and Kirby was the first to read the book and get back to me. He then sent it out to a handful of publishers, and by September I was sitting with him and Cindy Spiegel talking about her vision for the project. That was a really nice moment for me. Being in that room with those two on a rainy autumn afternoon, having a strong intuition that the book was in the right hands, that I’d done the right thing, and that I could let go, even just a little, of all that I’d been managing on my own for so long. I felt like I was with friends, and I guess that was the case.

Read Chapter One of Anthropology of an American Girl, or just dive in and buy from IndieBound.

THANK YOU

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