Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Getting the Words Out Quickly: 3 Qs for YA writer Hannah Moskowitz

As I mentioned yesterday, Young Adult author Hannah Moskowitz was gracious enough to take time out to visit with BtO and answer our famous 3 questions. She also dishes at the end about her process finding an agent, and her amazing one-night revision (kids, don't try this at home). A warm, smart young woman, Hannah's off to a great start, both as a human being and as a writer, and the fact that she calls her Twitter followers "magic gay fish" makes me almost want to sign up for Twitter. Get to know Hannah, and get to know her novel Break. If you like edgy YA in the style of Laurie Halse Anderson, I can almost guarantee you'll fall in love.

I came across you because of your fabulous blog post about male characters and YA. Can you elaborate on that a bit here? How has it been writing from a male point of view, and why do you think you've chosen it? Or did it choose you? Did you just start hearing the voice?

Writing from a female point of view honestly never occurred to me. My favorite books have always been from male points of view. I actually just recently started reading a lot of female POV (and I've loved it!) and I'm planning my first female POV manuscript for this fall.

Writing boys always made for sense to me, and I've noticed the only people who are surprised by it are people who don't know me; I don't think my friends would have expected anything else!

I think there need to be more books from male POVs, because they've become somewhat scarce lately. But what I really think we need are more books with three-dimensional male characters, regardless of the POV character.

BREAK reminds me a little of SPEAK, WINTERGIRLS, and other work by Laurie Halse Anderson. Is she an influence of yours? What are your other influences?

I love you entirely for saying that. I am a huge, huge Laurie Halse Anderson fan--until recently, she was one of the few female-centric writers I read--and I think she's definitely a big influence for me. I would love to have a career like hers, and whenever I feel a little lost, I'll admit to doing a little bit of "What would LHA do?"

Some of my other big influences are Garret Freymann-Weyr, Chuck Palahniuk, Chris Lynch, John Green, Ned Vizzini, Adam Rapp, and John Irving.

What's your process like as a writer, and how has it been affected by your recent enrollment at Brown?

I write first drafts very very quickly--usually in under a week--and then spend a few weeks revising after that. So my general process is just to get the words out as quickly as possible, before I start second-guessing myself.

I'm not at Brown anymore--I transferred to University of Maryland--but being in college hasn't affected my writing too strongly. I have more free time than I did in high school, after all.

Okay, extra dish question: Is it true that you revised BREAK in a night after receiving a request from an agent for a full manuscript? What's the scoop on how you got an agent?

Heehee, yes. It's not as bad at it sounds; I had two drafts of the book finished but was halfway through draft 3 when I started querying. I knew I could finish in a few hours if I got a full request, and I did.

The short answer for how I got an agent is that I went through it the traditional way. I queried for a year and FINALLY got an offer. The long answer is I'm on my third agent now, and I'm doing a series of posts on my blog about it if you want the full story!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Buy This Book: Break, by Hannah Moskowitz

I came across Hannah Moskowitz's writing quite by accident, when looking up blogs about YA male characters. Tune in tomorrow, when I'll dish with Hannah about this and other subjects, but first I want to introduce you to her and her novel Break, which debuted last year.

Break is in the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson--edgy but lyrical, intense but nuanced, fast-paced but psychologically ripe. In chapter one, we're introduced to protagonist Jonah, who breaks his wrist in the second sentence. Intentionally. Yes, that's right, Jonah's goal is to break as many bones as he can, and he has his friend Naomi to document it. As usual with a premise like this, the track of the novel is as much about the psychological interworkings and pathology of the central character as it is about the arc of the story, and Moskowitz handles this balance beautifully.

She takes what could have been a melodramatic or emotionally difficult story and carries us through the trauma with biting dark comedy. From Naomi, who would "probably shake hands on her deathbed," to Jonah's brother Jesse, who is allergic to everything, the characters come alive through Jonah's sarcastic and intelligent voice. Moskowitz is a careful observer of human nature, and gets so many things excruciatingly right. Jonah describes his parents as having "home-from-the-ER faces," even though his mother "stayed home and bounced the baby." The dialogue leaps off the page, and the parents, although a little thinner and less consistently drawn, have the ring of truth. The whole novel has that ring, and if you're not impressed enough already, just wait until Tuesday when you'll get to hear from Hannah, who, by the way, got the contract for Break when she was just sixteen.

What an amazing gift this young woman has. Get acquainted with her now, and watch her develop. I'm beginning to sense a superstar.

Are you ready to soft rock? (Apply this lesson to your writing week as you see fit.)

Think story, structure, soul, and practice, practice, practice. Have a great work week, everyone!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Choosing Your Battles

Into every writer's life come edits. Revisions, copy-edits, and finally page proofs (sometimes known as galleys) have a way of showing up when we're at our busiest with other projects (day jobs and personal life included) but that doesn't make them any less important. On the contrary, we drop everything to take care of them because these are our last chances to straighten our literary's offspring's collar, brush the crumbs from his mouth, and send him out into the world to make a good impression.

As in the case of some over-eager parents, an author can get too controlling, too fixated on her vision for the book to listen to anybody else's well-meant guidance. And just as this hypothetical control freak parent can drive her child crazy (and eventually away with such behavior, so can the hyper-anal author drive her editors nuts (and eventually away) by donning full battle gear over every dash and colon or whether the publishing house's style guide dictates the use of "'til" or "till" in dialogue.

As you might need to remind yourself when your teenager comes home with blue hair, a lip piercing, or an oozing new tattoo, it's most important to keep in mind the big picture. Hair coloring grows out, piercings can be allowed to grow closed, tattoos have become more mainstream... And your reader is going to fall in love with your characters and their journeys rather than the choice of the word "effusive" rather than "fulsome" or your comma usage. (I've found copyeditors lean toward a cleaner looking page, sometimes removing my more formally correctly commas.)

By choosing your battles carefully, reserving them for those big-picture issues where the author really does know best, you avoid exhausting everyone and ensure that editors don't tune out your truly critical points - points that make the project stronger.

Important note: This balance isn't so hard to achieve when it concerns books. When you're dealing with teenagers, you all are on your own!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"I have a dream." (And today's confederacy of dunces can't turn it to a nightmare.)

On August 28, 1963, Ursula Bird King Rodgers fought her way through the traffic, heat, and hoards of people to the Lincoln Memorial. She felt strongly that a great moment in history was about to take place, and she wanted her 11-yr-old son Gary to see it. Forty-seven years later, my husband remembers everything about the day. It meant a lot to him, and he was sickened to hear about Glenn Beck's rally taking place at the Lincoln Memorial today. For me, it's in the bucket with both the mosque and the strip club adjacent to Ground Zero: the freedoms we cherish sometimes translate to another person's right to be incredibly tacky.

With breathtaking hubris and disrespect, Beck called out his faithful and preached to his choir. Stephen Colbert describes the message as "crank up the crazy and rip off the nob." Gary succinctly describes Beck as "a master of huxterism" and wrote this to the Houston Chronicle today:
This pudgy blowhard has conscripted a day in the social fabric of our nation that he has no depth or wisdom to appreciate. His rants of anger and hatred, his philosophy of exclusion are anathema to the very precepts spoken to and of by Dr. King these many years ago. I was there, and it shaped my life. Today there will be Beck and Palin...and the weight and influence of the entire right-wing media making this a circus celebrating...what? Hope and vision? No, war and military and exclusion. Beck himself is an expert on the later and has read at least one book on the military.
But enough about Beck and the rest of the blatherati. What matters today is the message that resonates through decades, not the squawking hate yak that blips the airwaves and fades with whatever was on the shelf last week at WalMart.

These are the words that opened a little boy's mind and shaped a man's life:

Reining Your Horses: Writing and Social Media

Hot on the heels of Colleen's announcement that she will now become a superhero in order to complete her next book on deadline (go GIRL) and our discussion of time and its limitations, I rise this morning to find yet another friend of mine has abandoned social media (Twitter and Facebook, in this case).  "I just don't have time to interact," he wrote.  Interaction is of course the hallmark of truly engaged social-media use.  It isn't enough to tweet or read a few tweets now and then; you must converse (so the mantra goes), and in a natural and unforced way, with people you are taking the time (slowly) to build a relationship.  I've done this and made some lovely friends on Twitter and Facebook, writers I would not otherwise have known, artists, photographers, even a woman who rescues horses.  But all of this comes at a price, which is of course less time to write, and even when one writes, less energy.  The decision to pull out of the social media experience can be a wise one and necessary.  There are only so many hooves you can keep in the air all at once.  There is only so much hero in the saddle.

Still: I question the conventional wisdom that dabbling in Twitter and Facebook is getting little out of these sites, and that our social-media use needs to be full-bore or nothing.  These experiences are ours; we have full control over them and how we use them.  I've had no trouble at all reining in when I need to.  Friends have not abandoned me (at least not any worthy of the name) when my stream has gone silent; they've been kind enough to still click and read when all I have a minute to do is post some quick news about my work; they've let me back into their lives, warmly, when I have had time to sit down and "interact," which is just a cold way of saying "stretch our fingers out to touch each other's hides."  I feel sad that my friend has left Twitter; I liked seeing him there, and though we've exchanged email addresses to stay in touch, emails take even more time--which was one reason social media were invented.  Sadly, I know we will now meet less often.  Yet I respect and understand his decision fully.

For myself, I'll keep riding out in company when the weather is clear and I can.  And feel no qualm when it is time again for me to ride alone.

Like my Twitter and Facebook friend Colleen.

Fly, my friend.  Fly.

The danger of a single story: Chimamanda Adichie speaks at TED

Friday, August 27, 2010

Taking care of Business

He shoots! She scores! Or at least that's what I thought about my latest -- my twentieth (yea!) book sale Monday, of my second Harlequin Intrigue, Capturing the Commando.

And then my agent broke the news about the deadline. The book is due November 15th, a day on which I agreed to deliver for a variety of sensible reasons. At 55,000 words, this novel will be far shorter than my usual work. Still, this is one daunting challenge, especially considering that I still have a few chapters of another book to finish before I can get started.

So how will I take care of business? By taking care of myself.

Tuesday morning, I made the following changes to my lifestyle:

1. Early to bed, early to rise.
2. Minimum of eight hours sleep.
3. Walking every morning.
4. Fresh, healthy, nutritious meals at regular intervals.
5. Minimum page targets daily and weekly.
6. Finish work day by five o'clock.
7. Be kind to my hands. If this sounds, I'm using a dictation program for this blog post and many e-mails. This saves my tired joints for the writing of the novel, which is difficult for me to dictate.

Yesterday, I worked through a horrible headache that would have stopped me last week. I've written more pages over the last two days that I normally write in a week. In other words, I'm redefining my limitations in the harsh light of necessity.

Because what it all boils down to is how badly you want it? Are you treating your writing goals as your job or a hobby?

I'll keep you posted on how things are working out. For now, I'm off to work. Wish me luck!

Just in case you're sense of wonder is flagging...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why won't Amazon release Kindle sales figure? (Jeff Bertolucci of PCWorld enlightens us)

From an interesting article by Jeff Bertolucci of PCWorld this morning on the Kindle marketing strategy and why Amazon has been less than forthcoming about exactly how many Kindle devices have been sold:
Amazon's Kindle strategy is to distribute digital content (e.g., e-books) to a wide range of devices from multiple vendors and on multiple platforms, including Apple's iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, Android smartphones and (very soon) tablets, and Mac and Windows PCs...Perhaps Kindle hardware sales stats aren't all that relevant, particularly since Amazon's e-book strategy appears to be working. Still, it'd be nice to see some numbers alongside those "fastest-selling ever" claims.
Read the rest here.

Buy This Book: The Elements of Style Illustrated

Another nod to back-to-school week. Jerusha and I stopped into a local bookstore on our way up to the university today and grabbed this wonderful illustrated edition of the classic "little book" we all know and love. It's even more knowable and lovable with the whimsically instructive illustrations of artist, author, designer Maira Kalman. You'll recognize the style if you're a regular reader of the New Yorker or an Cheerios-in-your-hair consumer of children's books. Ms. Kalman's include Swami on Rye: Max in India and What Pete Ate from A to Z. She's also designed fabric for Isaac Mizrahi, accessories for Kate Spade, and accessory and gifts items for the Museum of Modern Art.

This is the perfect edition of S&W for Jerusha, who is both hip chick and writerly type, and I'm not the least bit embarrassed that I was a teary eyed nerd mommy handing it to her. I've owned and worn ragged one copy after another since I was in 4th grade, and each one carried a story. It's the -- make that THE -- most important reference book for any writer's bookshelf.

From Strunk's introduction to the original 1918 edition:
It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.
(Far be it from me to point out the unclarified antecedent in that paragraph.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Gift for the Reader: The Embers by Hyatt Bass

Some gifts, like some books, are harder to love than others, and not as the result of the quality of the writing. In fact in The Embers, Hyatt Bass’s debut novel, she writes in eloquent, if at times dense, detail about the Ascher family, Joe, Laura, and Emily, a family that is broken one day in late winter when one makes a careless mistake that costs the life of another. That in itself is so hard to live with through the pages and what little is said about this tragedy between the members of the Ascher family afterward only serves to drive them farther apart. But then some years later, there’s an opportunity for a reunion; the occasion is a wedding, to be held at the very site where the tragedy occurred, where a beloved son and brother lost his life. You might want to put this story down given the nature of the calamity, the tangle of blame, the frustration of missed communication, but you can’t. You’re going to have to find out about that wedding. How will it work out? How can this family that lost so much possibly come back together at what must be for them the hardest place on earth? There is potential for a tidy, convenient ending, but matters of forgiveness, of the human heart, are seldom tidy. The Embers is a good read, as honest to the very end as it is unflinching in its portrayal of human nature in all its welter of contradiction and striving for love and connection.

Ron Charles (your totally hip video book reviewer!) on Mona Simpson's 'My Hollywood'

Hey...didn't I have a nerd crush on this guy back when I sat next to him in 10th grade English class? Click here to buy Mona Simpson's My Hollywood.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Franzen's "Freedom" and the Future of Literary Fiction

Fiction is healthy, Lorin Stein writes in the Atlantic, even if the business isn't:

"The critics, from the New York Times Book Review to Esquire, hail Freedom as a throwback to the former greatness of the novel. What makes it former? Just how great does a novel have to be, just how many great novels does a contemporary author have to write, before we admit that the lameness of the publishing business has failed to snuff the spark of greatness, or turn serious readers off?"

Read the rest of the article here.

Never was a cornflake girl (Tori Amos sets the stride for a blazingly uninhibited work week)

Be brave, fellow artists, and have a wonderfully productive, soul-feeding, word-bangin' Monday.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Doctor Em Speaks On Noticing Small Things . . .

On noticing small things: If you haven't done this lately, do it.  The world is an astonishment, a golden coin always jingling in your pocket: whenever you want you can take it out and marvel at its richness.

 And you are a part of it.  You are of the same value. There is the elaborate beadwork of your own skin, there is the perfect array of your eyelashes (bat your eyes, feel them), there are the textures of the things your eyes fall on, some of them as fine as your own skin, even finer, and some as broad as the hull of a ship. There are tiny things that move and crawl, and the way water washes in a gutter, sometimes in long straws, and there is the rather brilliant design of the piece of furniture you might be sitting on, to say nothing of the grass or sand that never complains when we sit there, what resilience, what beauty, what fineness. When was the last time you looked at a cloud, a shadow, the fold in your elbow, the perfect roundness of a dinner plate, a clever, clever cardboard box, the shapes of words themselves?  Them selves. Oh it's delicious, it's funny, it's charming!  And there is the way rust grows and even garbage lies, waiting to become something else.  And sounds.  Not just one, most of them come in layers.  And your ear can hear.  Have you listened?  Have you tried to separate the sounds?  Take your hand and feel whatever is near you.  Lick your lips and notice the taste.  Close your eyes and watch color turn down, as though it had volume, were also a sound.

Smell the air.  What is it?

Extraordinary.  Take time.  Count the riches.  Brush off the earth as happily as you would the roughest diamond.

Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Quick Tips from a Tightrope

The other day, I posted this sobering message on my Facebook and Twitter feeds:

New writers don't want to hear it, but staying published is the hard part. Like trying to walk a tightrope in lard-slathered socks.

The publishing biz had just given me another such reminder, with my former publisher (and holder of my entire in-print backlist) deciding to go all digital, at least in the near future and whittling down its editorial staff to nearly nil in response to dwindling sales. But even in the best of economic times, it's a huge challenge to keep one's career alive long enough to build an audience and prosper, especially for the grand majority of authors, who survive on the mid-list. (Big-time bestsellerdom has its own perils, but that's another post.)

Yet somehow, I remain if not wildly optimistic, perpetually hopeful. Over the years, I've seen some very talented authors crash and burn with the fortunes of lousy covers, a line's or publisher's demise, or an editor's departure. In the eleven years since I began publishing, I've survived each one of these, and I've seen a good number of authors not only squeak out of bruising, white-knuckled escapes but come out of the debacle far more successful than when they started.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you're in a career crisis.

1. Sh*t happens. To nearly everybody, in the long run. You don't get an exemption due to luck or smarts or talent or because you're a good girl who always makes her deadlines, and disaster doesn't make you a bad person or a talentless hack. Get past blaming yourself or blaming others, and move on as quickly as you possibly can.

2. Survivors adapt and prosper. Those who remain entrenched perish. Publishing is forever giving authors second chances. But not if they insist on continuing to do the same thing that wasn't working. Look to the market, look to your strengths, and pay attention to where they potentially intersect. Sometimes, you'll find yourself astonished at the new scenery that opens up before you.

3. Stow your pride and polish off your work ethic. If you insist you're "above" any honest writing work, or worse yet take it on reluctantly and give it only a half-assed effort, you're marking yourself as a malcontent, a prima donna, and possibly a hack. If you agree to do something, honor it, give it the very best you have to offer, and watch your commitment earn you both respect and greater opportunities. If you stick your nose up at writing work you feel beneath you, well, it was nice knowing you.

4. Understand that any change has a learning curve and an unknowable timeline. While some writers very quickly land on their feet (a good agent can certainly help) the majority go through a period of struggle as they learn what works and what doesn't in a brand new market. I've seen writers lay fallow for many years before breaking out in a very big way. I've seen others decide the struggle isn't fun any more and turn their energies to less frustrating or more rewarding endeavors. There's no shame in that choice because life's too short to spend a large chunk of it unhappy. But if you're a fighter who has something to say to the world, stay true to your course. Even unrealized, the struggle has its rewards.

I hope these quick tips from my eleven years-plus on the tightrope prove helpful. If you don't need them at the moment, you might want to bank them. Because chances are you could face some of the same issues in the future.

Does anyone else wish to share some tips for long-term career survival?

Show me the money (Forbes reports the 10 highest paid authors)

Who's making bank writing books? This article in Forbes reports the top ten literary green grossers in the 12 months ending June 1, 2010 and adds some insight to the hard data.

First, the list:
1) James Patterson $70 million
2) Stephanie Meyer $40 million
3) Stephen King $34 million
4) Danielle Steel $32 million
5) Ken Follet $20 million
6) Dean Koontz $18 million
7) Janet Evanovich $16 million
8) John Grisham $15 million
9) Nicholas Sparks $14 million
10) JK Rowling $10 million (the world's first billionaire author has fallen on hard times since the end of the Harry Potter series, but she seems grateful and philosophical as always. I don't anticipate an Authors Guild telethon for her or anything.)

So what might we learn from them and apply (albeit in microcosm) to our own writing careers?

These writers work incredibly hard, but it's also about branding. The article reminds us that Patterson's latest book deal "involves penning a carpal tunnel-risking 17 books by the end of 2012 for an estimated $100 million." It goes on to say that JP "writes all his novels in longhand" but doesn't mention that the hand is attached to someone else's arm. Patterson's enormous income is largely based on a franchise business model; if you loved a Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast in New Caney, Texas, you know you can get the same thing in Holmen, Wisconsin, so rather than risk $6.99 on the mom and pop place down the street, consumers most often go for that known quantity. Different cooks, same menu. Patterson employs a posse of co-authors. I hope he's sharing the wealth equitably.

Another key aspect to thriving as a writer is diversified income sources. Book advances are just one component. Movie rights are huge for everyone on the Forbes list. Backlist love will keep King's heirs raking it in for generations to come. The article also notes that King is "prolific, and not just in books: A recent profile noted that over the course of a few weeks this year he had a story published in the New Yorker, a review of a Raymond Carver biography in the New York Review of Books, an article in the horror magazine Fangoria and a poem in Playboy."

There's foreign sales, TV series spin-offs, action figures. Steele's income included a large settlement from a former assistant who'd embezzled from her. The vagaries of the marketplace, blind luck, serendipity, and the unknowable chemistry of God and mass audience account for the rest. I'm slightly encouraged by the fact that the list is only 60% male, saddened by the fact that it's 100% white.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that each of these writers broke the mold in some way. Each of them started out doing exactly what s/he wanted to do, and success wasn't instant or easy for any of them. That's really the only thing we can extrapolate: To thine own self be true. Because there are no secrets to success, no formulas, no golden tickets. We have to write what we feel called to write, knowing that money is just one of many yardsticks that measure success. There is no list for Top 10 Most Thrilled By the Perfect Word...Top 10 Most Grateful For First Book Deal...Top 10 Most Loved By Their Kids...Top 10 Office Window Bird Feeding Stations...Top 10 Mid-Day Home Office Conjugal Visits...all of which could be cross-compiled into a list of the Top 10 Happiest Writers.

Click here to read the rest of the Forbes article.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What's in a Proposal (for Your Novel, That Is)

From time to time, I'll be discussing proposals or proposal packages and the aspiring author on the other end of the conversation will give me a blank look. So let's take a moment to talk about what goes into a book proposal, aside from blood, sweat, and wee bits of brain matter.

First off, though, you're generally going to have to open the conversation with a publishing professional via the use of a query letter (or e-mail nowadays, as likely as not).

Often, a positive response (or the option clause of a book contract) will ask you to send in a proposal. In the case of a novel, this consists of the manuscript's first three chapters or so. (I like to send between forty and sixty pages to give the agent/editor a representative chunk.) It should go without saying that these pages should be polished within an inch of their lives and gather momentum like an elephant on roller blades zipping down Mt. St. Lard. By all means, choose a stopping point that will (with any luck) leave the reader dying to spend more time with these characters and find out what happens to them. Never end mid-sentence (as I've seen done far too often in contest entries) but at the end of a scene or chapter.

Tragically, however, you're also going to need to include a synopsis. I say tragically since nearly everyone hates writing them and absolutely no one thinks their own are any good. (Okay, maybe some author, somewhere believes she rocks the synopsis, but I have never met her. And probably wouldn't like her all that much.)

The good news is, your synopsis doesn't have to be an absolutely brilliant work of art to get the job done. It does have to convey that you have some sense of what makes up a reasonably compelling character, can create a logical chain of events that's not too heavy on the cliches, understand reader expectations for the type of story you're telling, and have a handle on the basic plot points of any genre you might be writing. The sample chapters are the part where you really show off the freshness of your voice, clever twistiness of your writing, etc., etc. The synopsis is where you try to convince the reader you can be trusted not to muck up a perfectly brilliant beginning with a disastrous ending that needs tons of time-consuming and often-fruitless editorial work.

Things that can be helpful but aren't mandatory in a successful proposal:

1. A list of your "connections" with somebody famous-and-ready-to-endorse-your-novel (Oprah Winfrey, for example) or influential in the business

2. A Hollywood-like mashup comparison ("It's CATCHER IN THE RYE meets ANNE OF GREEN GABLES!") Unless it's honestly-reflective of the story and makes sense.

3. A one-or-two line high concept that makes everyone who reads it rabid to see more.

You get the idea. But just in case you're unclear, check out SlushPile Hell's list of things to leave out! (Be sure to click through the link to the uber-gruesome toad-skinned purse. Ha!)

One last disclaimer: This post discusses the novel proposal. Nonfiction proposals are a horse of a different color and often including a list of comparative titles, non-sequential sample chapters, and a chapter-by-chapter book outline rather than the novel's present tense, short story-like synopsis.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Buy This Book: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

My daughter is spending the summer literally lost in Mark Z. Danielewski's masterpiece of "ergodic literature" -- a book structured to create a visual and physical experience that involves the reader beyond the level of story. PW called it an "eccentric and sometimes brilliant debut" weaving two stories and an almost unfathomable catacomb of footnotes, typefaces with flipped, tipped, and tangled text. At first blush, it seems to be a horror story. Blind recluse Zampano dies, leaving a script for a film called The Navidson Report. In the Report, Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Will Navidson and his girlfriend move with their two children to a house in Virginia and discover that the interior of the house measures more than its exterior. A closet appears, then a hallway. Explorer Holloway Roberts is called in to mount an expedition with a two-man crew, and they discover a vast stairway and countless hallways leading into a terrifying psychological darkness. Come for the thriller, stay for the elegant prose, and don't feel the need to attempt it in one sitting -- or one summer.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Quote of the Day:Stephen King, On Writing

"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair 0the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page."

Stephen King (1947 - ), On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 2000

Monday, August 16, 2010

Seth Godin on the high cost of butt-covering

Gotta love what goes on in the shiny little head of Seth Godin. Writers are (make no mistake about this) entrepreneurs, and the "fear tax" Godin talks about in his blog today seriously burdens the publishing industry right now. Saith Seth:
A lot of entrepreneurs get an MBA because they are afraid to go out into world without one. They are seeking the reassurance a credential will bring them, even though the cost is huge and there's no data to indicate that they'll be more successful as an entrepreneur as a result.

We pay the fear tax every time we spend time or money seeking reassurance. We pay it twice when the act of seeking that reassurance actually makes us more anxious, not less.

We pay the tax when we cover our butt instead of doing the right thing, and we pay the tax when we take away someone's dignity because we're afraid.
Click here to read the rest and follow Seth Godin's blog in the Authors section of our FeedMe bar.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My recent Kindle samples

Josh Bazell's brash debut novel about a hit man in the witness protection program, working through his internship at a grungy NY hospital and trying to steer clear of trouble, which of course, is easier said than done. Hardboiled storytelling meets that cleverati prose style being turned out by current creative writing programs -- which doesn't generally work for me, but in this case, the author's unique talent rises above his 20-something.
Verdict: Purchased for $9.99

Jonathan Weiner earned a starred review in PW for his exploration of the history and science of immortality. As far as I can tell from the sample, it's a big geeked-out feast of weird science and history written in accessible, enjoyable prose. Definitely will appeal to my fellow fans of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The real question is if immortality is...well, is it healthy? I think death is an integral part of evolution.
Verdict: Um...not in the mood right now. But I purchased anyway. I'll be into it when I can get into it.

Colum McCann's novel about Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers and the chain of events it set in motion. I think I read this when it came out last summer, but I wasn't in a place to really give it the go it deserved. Of course, the writing is grand, and the sample makes it pretty much irresistible. Frank McCourt generously blurbs, "No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper. Trust me, this is the sort of book that you will take off your shelf over and over again as the years go along. It’s a story of the early 1970s, but it’s also the story of our present times. And it is, in many ways, a story of a moment of lasting redemption even in the face of all the evidence."
Verdict: Purchased for $6.75

Rhoda Janzen's memoir about making peace with her stringent religious past and her literal and figurative car wreck present. (She gets seriously messed up in a car accident right after her husband dumps her for a guy he met on the Internet and leaves her with a burdensome mortgage and other financial woes.) The opening chapter in the sample reads funny, kind, wise, and true. I figured this was going to be my kind of memoir. Plus I just wanted to support this terrifically talented author.
Verdict: Purchased for $9.99

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Top 5 Creepy Reads for Friday the 13th

If you're staying home to avoid bad luck this weekend, you should have a few good books on hand. And please chime in with your Creepy Top 5 in the comment section!

#5 The Shining by Stephen King
The book is so much scarier than the movie! Why? Because the characters are so real, the dialogue so dang familiar, you really go there and get sucked into the madness.

#4 The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
I read it under my desk in 6th grade -- parochial school, no less, where we were taught to live in fear of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. I was terrified for weeks, and 30something years later, I still haven't found the courage to see the movie or revisit the book.

#3 Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The Grandmama of all Gothics. Spine-tingling, beautifully written, intricately plotted, and an education for writers. Time, place, storytelling, world-building, characters -- it's all there.

#2 Wuthering Heights (Norton Critical Editions) by Emily Bronte
My first Bronte, and it scared the living you-know-what out of me the first time I read it. Unfortunately for my sister Jas, this was when we were still sharing a room, and I woke up screaming more than once. (We had lilacs outside our bedroom window, and -- well, it could have easily been a wraith! C'mon!) This Norton Critical Edition traces changes in the text since the book was originally published in 1847. Fascinating for writerly readers. And the chick clawing at the window is still dead scary.

#1 In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Nothing terrifies me more than the human capacity for cruelty. This book is psycho-thriller, slasher flick, true crime, campy irony, and gut-wrenching human drama all in one. As Truman Capote himself predicted, it changed the way books are written -- both fiction and nonfiction. This masterwork is both an education and a cautionary tale for writers. Prepare to sleep with the lights on.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Cover Love: Deadlier Than the Male

Indulge me for a moment, will you? I'm always excited to receive a new cover, and this one is a landmark for me. First book for a new company. First novella in an anthology (though there are only two novellas here), and a wonderful opportunity to work with my good friend Sharon Sala, an author whose stories I have so long admired.

This duo was pitched as a way to bring to the forefront "everyday" women working in traditionally female roles, who are forced by extraordinary circumstance to find their untapped strength and courage. (And yes, we each include an epigraph from Rudyard Kipling's "The Female of the Species." My contribution, "Lethal Lessons" features the Gothic-styled tale of a young-woman who moves across country to the (fictional) town of Red Rock, Arizona, seeking a fresh start with a new teaching position.... something I did myself (to my parents' horror) right after college. Only I never encountered the kind of hair-raising adventures (or gorgeous former crush, devoted single dad... and suspected murderer) as does Mara Stillwell.

And since I *was* a teacher for so many years, I had a blast with the wickedest PTO mom-from-you-know-where ever put to paper. Not that 99% of them aren't wonderful, but there's always that one that stands out in memory. A few of you may have encountered her in organizing class parties yourselves! :)

The book will be in stores everywhere on November 1st, or you can preorder it here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Supportive Spouses and Talking Computers

Yesterday, after a tough day writing and gearing up for the fall semester at school, I came home to my office to find the following note in an open Word file on my computer:

Hello. This is Dell, your computer.

I have added some spacing after the bullets in your Writing 3037 documents. I did this because I thought it looked better that way. The documents are on the Desktop next to this window, on the left from your point of view (my right, of course, as I look out at you).

I think they look pretty good now. But if you would like more space, you can edit Style1 to add it. To do this, open them, then right click on Style1 in the Styles section of the header bar (right above the ruler at the top of the window). Select Modify. Click on Format, then select Paragraph. In the Spacing section, set After to whatever you think best.

Best of luck this semester. By the way, I like what you've been writing on me lately. Philip is really coming alive. Good job!



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