Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Happens When You Don't Write

Dear friends, I've been away from the Octopus for a bit, and have not, as it happens, been writing (here on this blog or anywhere else).  Nothing drastic has caused me to stop tapping at the keys . . . I've had talks and speeches to give . . . and some family matters to take care of . . . and am traveling . . . and just decided to take a rest, for a while.  At first I felt badly about it.  When I'm not writing I feel that I should be, and all sorts of bugbears nip and tear.  Is there something I am missing out on because I'm not sending my words out into the world?  Some connection or insight?  Will I lose the habit, the thread, the meaning of writing, if I stay away from it for a week, or a month, or more?  Will I forget how?  Am I not really a writer if I am not writing every day, if I actually get tired sometimes, and don't want to do it--is it a sign, the beginning of the end, the turning point marking my inevitable decent into catatonia and endless viewings of Seinfeld reruns?  Do I not have an idea left in my head, blood left in my heart or will left in my soul?

If I can get past a few days of self-torture of this kind, I actually do get to a place where I can take a break for a while, and not feel as if I'm sinning against the self.  And then an interesting thing starts to happen.  I start to notice what happens when I'm not writing.  Cases in point:

When I am not writing, I

--spend more time with other human beings, and can actually listen to them
--read more, and read all sorts of things I normally wouldn't
--feel all sorts of random ideas flitting through my head, and discover that some of them are curious and unexpected
--remember I have a body, and that I should care for it
--feel the well slowly filling, not with words, but with energy . . . good, blank energy
--have time to do favors for people
--have time to help my fellow writers
--notice the sky
--feel younger
--feel a little scared
--feel the world bigger than the size of my computer screen

At some point something will tell me it's been enough.  I have rested.  Something will brim and breach again, some idea will stick; I'll take a breath from some deep part of myself that's grown impatient, and I'll know I'm ready again.

But sometimes you have to stop and hear the whales sing.

I'm on my way to the Pacific Coast.

If you find you need to take a break, don't beat yourself up.  That's your soul sounding.


Inspiration (sort of) from me and David Rakoff

In his collection of essays Half Empty, David Rakoff has this to say, regarding writing vs. other tasks:
One progresses from novice to adept with a soothing reliability. Except for writing. Well into adulthood, writing has never gotten easier. It still only ever begins badly, and there are no guarantees that this is not the day when the jig is finally up.
And this:
Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one’s least attractive, that sometimes it’s easier not to do anything. Writing — I can really only speak to writing here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever)
This is why, I think, so many writers give up. Because unlike so many talents, writing takes years to develop, and even then, the first draft is still going to be so imperfect. It's frustrating, and you do hope that you get better, draft after draft, year after year, but part of being a writer is waking up and realizing that no matter how smart you are, no matter how hard you work, or how talented, that you still have to wake up every day and face the blank page, or worse--you have to wake up every day and face the bad pages that you created days, weeks or even years before, and then do something with them.

I have friends who think writing is just putting down their initial thoughts on paper, and many of my aspiring student writers think this too. And sometimes they are just genius enough that the first draft is actually quite good. But for most of us, that kind of writing just doesn't happen. It takes work. Skill. Commitment. And the willingness to scrap a sizable chunk of working material in order to better the whole.

I'll never forget the day I scrapped a whole 60 pages of my novel. It was the first draft, and there was a big, huge sagging part in the middle. I decided I needed some of that material, but that it would be easier just to ditch the 60 pages and write the scenes over from scratch knowing what I know. I did that for draft 2, and it was so much better. Now in my current draft, I find that yet again I come to a place where I may need to rewrite a scene rather than tweak. It's getting frustrating, and I am so ready to be done. So many times I get frustrated and announce to Mark, "that's it, I'm just going to mail that agent the dissertation draft; I can't take this anymore," and then Mark not so kindly points out "if you were really going to do that, you'd have done it already. There's a reason you're working this hard, and you just have to see it through."

But it is hard. It's so damn hard. And if I didn't think it was meant to be, if I didn't believe in these characters, in this story, and in my writer's calling, I'd probably just quit and send an early draft, and almost hope for rejection. Isn't that strange? Hoping for rejection? I must be nuts! And yet I understand why I think this way, because if I'm rejected, I can tell myself to walk away. If I'm rejected, I can tell myself "this isn't working; I'll just write something new." But deep down, I know it will work, and that if it works, it will be something beautiful. Something worth all this pain and trouble and effort, and all the sacrifices I've made.

And the truth is, even if it doesn't work, it's worth it. If we really want to write, it's worth it. It has to be. It may not grow our bank accounts, but it will grow our souls.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Your Second Weekly Woof: A Small Furry Prayer by Steven Kotler

After reading Joni's comments yesterday on YOU HAD ME AT WOOF - a book I immediately ordered - I couldn't resist adding my own review of a recent read, A SMALL, FURRY PRAYER: DOG RESCUE AND THE MEANING OF LIFE.

Steven Kotler's tale of his move, with the woman he loved, from LA to the beautifully-wild but impoverished Chimayo, New Mexico, to give their rescue dogs the space they needed worked beautifully for me on several levels: as a memoir describing a man looking for authentic meaning in his life, as the compassionately-told story of the abused, abandoned, and unwanted dogs he and his wife have worked with, and as a thought-provoking call to re-examine our relationship with not only dogs but with animals in general. Kotler uses the story of his journey to explore a variety of fascinating topics from whether animals laugh to how both animal and mixed-species groups enter a state of flow to the use of hallucinogens by and homosexuality in the animal kingdom. There's a great deal to be learned from this fascinating and deeply-compassionate book.

I have to say, I didn't warm up to this book instantly. Though I love dogs and have adopted many rescues over the years, the couple's initial plan seemed so doomed, it was tough for me to relate to their decision to make the move. I was soon won over by the couple's courage and wisdom - and of course the dogs themselves.

Although I thought Kotler occasionally wandered off too far on the odd tangent, I nonetheless highly recommend this for anyone interested in a thought-provoking and moving exploration of the relationship between animals and humans. And there are a whole lot of truly amazing dog stories in there, too.

Happy reading!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Buy This Book: You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness by Julie Klam

As the proud owner of a brassy little Boston terrier (actually, make that "the not completely unwilling financeer of a completely self-actualized Boston terrier"), I couldn't resist Julie Klam's new book, You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, fresh as a newly minted Milkbone in bookstores this week. The wonderfully funny author of Please Excuse My Daughter, a memoir of her privileged upbringing and stormy young adulthood, Klam scored a starred review from PW for this chronicle of her life with a succession of rescued Boston terriers. (Living with Manny the Uncanny has taught me why Bostons often need rescuing...from people who want to throttle them.) Actually, I should have started this with "As someone who loves a Boston terrier..." because that's ultimately what saves the day (and Manny's neck), in my office and in Julie Klam's book. These little guys with their futzy tuxedos and Jimmy Cagney mugs are completely incorrigible and utterly irresistible.

From the flap:
Julie Klam was thirty, single, and working as a part-time clerk in an insurance company, wondering if she would ever meet the man she could spend the rest of her life with. And then it happened. She met the irresistible Otto, her first in a long line of Boston terriers, and fell instantly in love. You Had Me at Woof is the often hilarious and always sincere story of how one woman discovered life's most important lessons from her relationships with her canine companions. From Otto, Julie realized what it might feel like to find "the one." She learned to share her home, her heart, and her limited resources with another, and she found an authentic friend in the process. But that was just the beginning. Over the years her brood has grown to one husband, one daughter, and several Boston terriers. And although she had much to learn about how to care for them--walks at 2 a.m., vet visits, behavior problems--she was surprised and delighted to find that her dogs had more wisdom to convey to her than she had ever dreamed. And caring for them has made her a better person-and completely and utterly opened her heart. Riotously funny and unexpectedly poignant, You Had Me at Woof recounts the hidden surprises, pleasures, and revelations of letting any mutt, beagle, terrier, or bulldog go charging through your world.
Visit Julie's website here and check out the star power in this fun book trailer...

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Relationship between Vulnerability and Wholeheartedness: A "researcher storyteller" speaks

I love many parts of this talk by Brene Brown, but one of my favorite moments is right at the beginning, when she tells a story about being invited to speak and being called a "storyteller." Her reaction is priceless. Also wonderful is what she's found about the relationship between shame, vulnerability and wholeheartedness. In a nutshell, she found that the most "wholehearted" people are able to lean into their discomfort, to embrace and operate from their vulnerability. And isn't that what we do, every day, as writers?

Like most of the TED talks, it's 20 minutes, but it's worth it.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim

Finishing the Hat hits bookstores tomorrow. I've been counting the days since Jerusha and I saw Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams in Sondheim on Sondheim in NY a few months ago. Amazing show, amazing artist, and (not a doubt in my mind) an amazing book. According to early reviews, there's plenty of behind the scenes dish, but it's more theatre history than backstage snark. Sondheim has been a huge musical presence in my life since I was a kid (and even more so as I evolved into a Gleekish theatre major in college), but I came away from the Broadway show appreciating the artistry on a totally different level, wanting to explore further, and loving the guy more than ever.

From the flap:
Stephen Sondheim has won seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. His career has spanned more than half a century, his lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture, and in Finishing the Hat—titled after perhaps his most autobiographical song, from Sunday in the Park with George—Sondheim has not only collected his lyrics for the first time, he is giving readers a rare personal look into his life as well as his remarkable productions.

Along with the lyrics for all of his musicals from 1954 to 1981—including West Side Story, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd—Sondheim treats us to never-before-published songs from each show, songs that were cut or discarded before seeing the light of day. He discusses his relationship with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and his collaborations with extraordinary talents such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince and a panoply of others. The anecdotes—filled with history, pointed observations and intimate details—transport us back to a time when theater was a major pillar of American culture...

Penetrating and surprising, poignant, funny and sometimes provocative, Finishing the Hat is not only an informative look at the art and craft of lyric writing, it is a history of the theater that belongs on the same literary shelf as Moss Hart’s Act One and Arthur Miller’s Timebends.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Too cool for the toolbox: Email postcards in your own handwriting font

Okay, this is ridiculously cool. Pilot is offering a relatively quick and easy way to create your own handwriting font and email faux handwritten postcards.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Buy This Book: Mapp & Lucia by E.F. Benson

Per Kirkus: "The six Lucia novels form a kind of epic portrait of striving gone mad, and it's good to have them appearing once again."

This is book #4 in the delicious series that sends up the overblown manners and impenetrable pecking order of Tilling, a tiny town that you will wish truly existed in England. Lucia rents a summer place in Tilling at the home of Miss Elizabeth Mapp, who reigns supreme over Tilling and does not appreciate having her power grid blipped by this interloper. Bad Italian, grotesque art projects, and interminable musicales ensue. Think Jane Austen/PG Wodehouse love child with a twist of Monty Python.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Thoughtful Gift for the Reader - Little Bee by Chris Cleave

You might presume that the only thing an African girl, a Nigerian refugee named Little Bee could have in common with a 4-year old boy, Charlie, who thinks he's Batman, his anguished father and his 9-fingered, mother Sarah, would be something political, something tied to the off-the-grid machinations that surround the international oil market. Or perhaps you’d think it’s a story that gives a view of the unimaginable gulf that exists between first and third world countries, or maybe, you’d think it was something to do with the precarious plight of refugees. And the story of Little Bee does pull in threads from each of these compelling issues. But there’s also that missing finger. And then Sarah loses something else, her husband, in fact, who is also Charlie’s anguished father, to suicide. A mere two years after they have vacationed, in of all places, Nigeria. It was there that they met Little Bee, when they were accosted by mercenaries on a beach where they had no real business being. They were attempting to save their marriage, to find out whether it was even worth saving. Instead in the brutal reflected glare of sun struck blue water, they are forced into a horrible moral quandary; they are called on to act heroically before witnesses. A line is drawn and there is nothing to do but cross it and it can’t ever again be recrossed. It is edge of the seat reading at this point. And the situation is so vividly, so poignantly rendered.

There are glints of humor sprinkled throughout the pages, small gifts that surprise and delight. Moments that are sly, droll. You can’t help but smile. Take the opening line for instance: “Most days I wish I was a British pound instead of an African girl.”

Chris Cleave has written an altogether lovely book, a book that haunts, a book that leaves a question: Will it ever be possible, for all of our sakes, to forget what makes us different and to see only what we share as human beings, a longing for home, a place where we can live free and be safe.

Got prologue? (Why writers might need it even if readers don't)

Author/editor Ray Rhamey in Prologues: Yes or No over at Writer Unboxed today:
As an editor, I have never liked prologues. As a writer, I’ve never written one. As a reader, I skip them. Yet they keep appearing on my Flogging the Quill blog for criticism. I post the opening lines of the prologue plus the opening lines of the first chapter. Just about all the time, the chapter opening works best.
Rhamey polled a cross section of agents and got a pretty resounding thumbs down on the prologue. Most agents find them unnecessary at best and at worst, lazy and distracting. There's some excellent advice on reality checking the necessity factor. Kindly pragmatist Nathan Bransford gently suggests "the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if your book still makes sense." Less patient Miss Snark is quoted: "Signs your prologue sucks: it’s about a dream, it’s about the weather, it’s about someone who is dead, it’s about someone who never appears again in the book. The first sign you are not the exception to this rule is if you think you ARE."

I don't disagree with any of that, but like 99.9999% of craft discussions on the great writer time suck that is the interweb, this discussion is about what agents need from writers, not what writers need from writing. In my humble opinion, agents not liking prologues is not a good reason for writers to avoid writing a prologue; it's just a good reason for not showing your prologue to agents. The underlying philosophy is that anything you write that doesn't get published is a waste of time, and that's absolutely untrue.

Not everything needed by the writer for the writing is needed by the reader for the reading, but the first thing the reader needs is a writer who fully understands the book. It's another use for the great airplane safety lecture metaphor: put your own mask on first, then render assistance.

I've sworn off starting books with prologues for all the excellent reasons stated in the post, but I always start the writing process by writing a prologue. A wise editor once told me that a prologue is "the journey of the book in microcosm." There are things I need to figure out up front, and a prologue -- even though it never makes it into the finished manuscript -- helps me gather my thoughts and anchor my vision. A tone is set. Imagery is called out of the mist. Characters make themselves known. A steering mechanism is fixed. As I work through the ms, I cherry pick passages from the prologue and weave the essential stuff into the story. The nonessential stuff remains forever in a big bucket of outtakes with a lot of other stuff I needed to explore for my own benefit.

That said, in structuring a recent book, I realized I did want to keep the prologue intact. So I changed the word "Prologue" to "Chapter One." Problem solved. (So often the simplest solution is the most elegantly efficacious.)

Some sweet TV news coverage love for Bald in the Land of Big Hair one woman show

Nice to come home from Paris and be greeted with Channel 2's sweet coverage love of Lisa Hamilton's one woman show based on my memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair. Actress Lisa Hamilton did a fantastic job adapting the script, which stays quite faithful to the book. The tour benefits The Rose, Houston's organization that provides breast cancer screening, diagnostics, and access to care for women (regardless of their ability to pay) and offers outreach, support, and education. Check out the Rose calendar to find out how you can get involved.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Magic, Hope and Children's Fiction: An Interview with Novelist Jenny Moss

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working with novelist Jenny Moss at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Jenny and I were in neighboring offices, and at one point discovered we were both writers. I remember late evening chats between afternoon and night classes, stolen in the hallways and at the xerox machine. And then Jenny was gone, and I never knew what happened to her--until one day I saw her tucked away in the corner of a cafe with her laptop and asked her how she was. "Writing," she said, and went on to tell me about her upcoming novel, the delightful WINNIE'S WAR. A middle-grades historical novel, it introduces students to the 1918 influenza pandemic, and fictionalizes the real events of League City, Texas.

Since then, she's published another, and just received the advanced reading copies for the third. While all three are quite different in their writing styles and target audiences, Jenny has done a great deal of research and world building for each. She's come a long way from those days in the halls, and I'm very proud to introduce her to all of you.

1. When you visited my fiction writing class, you talked about the differences between WINNIE'S WAR and SHADOW. How hard was it to change genres, and how did that come about? How different was the world-building process for the two books?

I jumped back & forth between writing WINNIE’S WAR and SHADOW for a couple of years. I didn’t plan to write two very different books simultaneously. I always have stories rattling around in my head, and they are all over the place in terms of time period or place or genre or even readership. The loudest story – the one I think about the most – is the one that gets written. In this case, there were two.

The biggest challenge probably had less to do with genre than it did with the ability to drop one story and set of characters and pick up another one and immerse myself back in it, remembering all the details of characters’ personalities and interactions, and the development of themes and subplots and all the things that go into creating a book!

WINNIE’S WAR is historical fiction set in a small town in Texas during the 1918 influenza pandemic. I based my fictional town of Coward Creek on the real town of League City. SHADOW is a traditional fantasy set in a fictional world I created, but (very) loosely based on medieval England. The major difference in the writing process for the two books is that one required more research into the history and the other, more imaginative world-building. I enjoyed doing both.

2. You've commented before about how surprisingly welcoming you find the Young Adult writing community. Could you elaborate on that? Why do you think YA is thriving now, as opposed to so many other genres?

I think there are two things here to comment on: the first is the children’s and YA book community, all the writers, librarians, teachers, bloggers, agents, and editors and their co-workers, and the second is the appeal of the stories.

In regards to the former, I can’t compare this community to the adult publishing world, but I think there is a bond within the children’s and YA book community because we all love and value these books so much, for what they do for children, for tweens, for teens, and also for us, and we are ecstatic to find others who love these books as much as we do. And it’s also a relatively small world, once you become involved in it, especially with the connections we all make over the Internet, which increases the closeness, I think.

As to why these stories appeal to so many people, and even adult readers are now turning to YA books, I think there’s a special, wistful, magical, and even hopeful feeling about childhood that’s part of the experience up until we leave home as young adults, and picture books, chapter books, and middle grade and young adult novels have the opportunity to try and capture a little of that magic. And when writers are successful at that, not only children but adults too want to read these books and experience that magic and hope.

3. You just received the Advanced Reading Copies for your upcoming book, TAKING OFF. What can you tell us about it? I noticed that it has a section where writers talk about their inspiring teachers--was that information fun to collect?

TAKING OFF is about a teen who meets Christa McAuliffe before the Challenger disaster in 1986. Annie lives in a very science-oriented NASA town, but wants to be a poet. She’s about to graduate from high school and is getting pressure from her boyfriend to not go to college and pressure from her mom to go to college and she’s conflicted. I worked at NASA as an engineer for many years and was there during Challenger. I wove some of my memories of that difficult time into the story.

I asked my editor if we could add the inspirational teacher section, and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed asking other writers to contribute to it, and they were excited about having the opportunity to thank their teachers. One of the themes in TAKING OFF is how one person can change another’s life, and I believe in that strongly. Teachers can, and do, have a profound and lasting impact on their students. Many of us carry the memories and the words of a teacher in our hearts for years after we’ve already lost contact with her or him.

Although I was working at the space center when Christa McAuliffe was in training there, I didn’t get a chance to meet her. After researching her life for this novel, I realized what I’d missed out on by not meeting her. She was an extraordinary person, and it was a pleasure to write about her.

Thank you, Jenny! And finally, our standard bonus question: What are you reading right now?

I just finished this wonderful YA trilogy CHAOS WALKING. My favorite (although they were all great) was the first one, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fun With John Le Carré

This morning, I stick in the word "writing" and "writer" wherever I please, and come up with this, from Le Carré's A Most Wanted Man:

The staple of your writer's life . . . was not, as one might reasonably expect, cash . . .  It was cock-up.  It was the persistent, he would go so far as to say the permanent sound, not to put too fine an edge on it, of excrement hitting your proverbial fan.  So, if you don't happen to like living in a state of unremitting siege, the odds were that writing wasn't for you.

Tee hee.

The words I replaced "writing" with?

"Private banking."

But isn't that what writing is?

Have fun this week squirreling your work into every nook and cranny.


Are You Stubborn Enough? (Yeah, Baby!)

Here's a quick quote I need to print out and hang on my office wall. Love it!

"When you're out of willpower, you can call on stubbornness."
- Henri Matisse

For your viewing pleasure (and because we can never have enough scantily-clad artwork here at BtO) I'm sharing Matisse's Le bonheur de Vivre. Have a fabulous, stubbornly-ambitious week!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why Writers Wish we Had Han Solos--and Why it's Probably Good we Don't

Sometimes, as a writer, don't you wish you had a Han Solo at your back? "You're all clear, kid. Now let's blow this thing and go home!" The thing is, in our artist journeys, we have to be both the hero and the sidekick, both the Luke and the Han. We can help each other out, but in the end, there's no one but us who can shoot those bad boys down. Still--it's sometimes nice to dream . . .

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Friends, let me share with you one of the quotes I've been using lately in my talks and lectures:

My passport photo is one of the most remarkable photographs I have ever seen--no retouching, no shadows, no flattery--just stark me.   Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I love this one.  The simplicity of it.  And yet the bravura.  The willingness to redraw--in part through words--the map of the self.  The basic understanding that the story that we tell about ourselves to ourselves matters.

Ah, life.  It isn't just made out of the words that are handed to you, the words that you are expected to use ("God I hate that picture of me").  It is made out of the words with which you choose to design your self and what you do.

Not just your work.


I'd love to hear more words that show the way.

Do share!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Freebie Friday: Fade the Heat

For a very limited time, Borders (via Kobo ebooks) is offering my romantic thriller, FADE THE HEAT, for absolutely free as a Mobile/eBook platform download! (Like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Borders offers a free downloadable app so you can read eBooks on your Mac or PC Desktop, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android, or Blackberry device. It's easy to install! Check it out here.)

But I digress. Here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say about FADE THE HEAT:

Starred Review. RITA finalist Thompson takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride full of surprising twists and turns in this exceptional novel of romantic suspense. Dr. Jack Montoya becomes the unwilling flash point for two opposing radical groups attempting to influence the Houston mayoral race after someone leaks his habit of falsifying patient records to allow the treatment of illegal immigrant children. Back into his life stumbles a childhood friend, beautiful but troubled firefighter Reagan Hurley, who seeks his help to control and hide the asthma that threatens her career. When an arsonist torches Jack's apartment and Reagan's captain dies, her association with Jack stirs her team's suspicion. The heat intensifies throughout the story, which balances extreme tension with a scorchingly honest relationship between the protagonists. Married to a firefighter in real life, Thompson (Fatal Error) conveys the details of fire fighting and emergency medicine with authenticity and finely crafted prose. She more than holds her own in territory blazed by Tami Hoag and Tess Gerritsen.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Want to read it on Kindle instead? You can get it here on Amazon for $4.79. Rather purchase a paper copy? Since those are temporarily unavailable, check with your local library or used book vendor.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Strong Female Characters--A Flow Chart

I've been sick this whole week with a nasty mix of bronchitis, pharyngitis, and laryngitis (Mark says the house is eerily quiet), but at some point in the mix, I found this post about strong female characters, complete with flowchart. I was overjoyed to see that both my main two made the "strong" character cut! What about yours? And do you see any of your favorite types there?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How Badly Do You Want It?

It's so easy to put other things first. The bills that must be paid, the home that must be tended, the loved ones who strive to squeeze from us every last drop of attention.

Every one of these is worthy, every one of them important. But if you sincerely, desperately want to make it as a writer, if your soul is starving to share your stories with the greater world, you're going to have to look at your priorities. You're going to have to make your writing the rock in the stream, the one immovable object around which the rest of life must flow.

Half-hearted efforts will not serve you, nor will constantly looking over your shoulder for permission or approval. You have to want it more than that. Have to need it to be fully realized as a person. And you have to have the courage to claim it for yourself.

Does that scare you? Maybe it should. Are you up for it? It's your choice. No one else will make it for you. No one ever can.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

From Nancy Brinker's "Promise Me" guest blog on Kindle Daily Post

From Nancy Brinker's guest blog today on Kindle Daily Post:
Looking at my life and the breathtaking scope of the work done by Susan G. Komen for the Cure in this broader context, I’m humbled and elated. All around me every day, stories pour down like rain, bringing fresh life to everything we do. When I sit down with friends and strangers in all corners of the world, I still start by saying, “Let me tell you about Suzy.”
Read the rest., seriously. (Justin Bieber's memoir hits bookstores today)

With the release of Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever today, one of my pet peeves comes urbling to the surface of the blogosphere. Without addressing the literary quality in young Bieber's book (I'm sure enough people will be trashing it without reading it, but that's an entirely separate pet peeve), what irks me is all the people saying, "Isn't he too young to write a memoir?"

Memoir and autobiography are two very different forms. An autobiography is the chronicle of a full life span, typically written in a person's later years; a memoir is a slice of an extraordinary life. A talented ghostwriter could do a memoir with a baby. (I'd actually love to try that!) The story could take place over a month, a day, an hour. Why not Memoir of a Minute? (Hmm. I'd love to try that, too.)

I wrote a memoir in my mid 30s. (Which reminds me: Buy my memoir!) I ghostwrite memoirs for people young and old. (Buy this one too. And this one!) Hilary Liftin wrote her first memoir, Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean with her Yale roommate and followed up with the delicious Candy and Me: A Girl's Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar before ghosting memoirs for Tori Spelling, Miley Cyrus, and Terri Hatcher. Then there's Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, written with Sally Jenkins. And hey, while I cringe to mention Lindbergh's Pulitzer winner in the same paragraph as Tori Spellling, The Spirit of St. Louis, anyone?

Memoirist/writing coach Virginia Lloyd, author of The Young Widow's Book of Home Improvement: a True Story of Love and Renovation says this about that:
All memoirs are about personal journeys, which often involve change and transformation. They are quite different from autobiographies, which endeavour to remember everything noteworthy that happened, in chronological order, during the author’s lifetime. Memoirs are much more selective, focused on a particular period of time in a defined place, or a series of related experiences. The strongest memoirs arise from the fact that the writer undergoes some kind of change due to specific experiences, and he or she now has the necessary perspective, analytical distance, and emotional courage to write about them.
She wisely advises: "It should go without saying that if you are not already reading memoirs then you should not be attempting to write one." (Or you should hire a talented ghostwriter.)

Take a moment to read the rest of Virginia Lloyd's excellent Write Stuff article. There's some terrific procedural advice for anyone with a memoir on the brain or in progress.

By the way, Bieber's book features photographs by the brilliant Robert Caplin. Check out his "Love and Cartagena" piece for the New York Times.

And for those immune to Bieber fever, here's a quiet moment from before he was famous, just somebody's kid who is undeniably talented and a little harder to hate.

BtO Contest:Guerrilla Book Promotion Gets Hairy

New authors are often encouraged to engage in "guerrilla book promotion," doing whatever they must to get their books in the hands of readers. In Pennsylvania Sunday, one of those ("over exuberant," according to a Secret Service spokesman) authors apparently got a bit carried away, hurling his paperback at the president in a desperate bid for attention.

Well, at least he got a chance to meet the Secret Service up close and personal. His punishment for the stunt? Neither the author's name nor the name of his book was released to the media. Better luck next time, champ!

I think we should hold a contest here at BtO to ask, what's the most outrageous book promotion activity you can think of? (Example: Sending a copy of your latest, Romancing the Flyboy, up, up, and away with Balloon Boy!"

Your "prize," if selected? Deathless fame in the form of inclusion in BtO's list of the Top Ten List of Uber-Awesome Ways to Get Your Book in Headlines!

Contest ends Sunday, so please hurry!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Monday motivation "Mad Men" style

Peggy: "So there's nothing we can do?"

Don Draper: "Sure there is. We're going to sit at our desks and keep typing while the walls fall down around us, because we're creative: the least important most important thing there is."

Go forth and conquer!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Author Rakesh Satyal offers free download of "Blue Boy" in response to recent LGBT teen suicides

The recent suicide of an 8th grade boy here in Houston absolutely broke my heart. It is SO time for us to change this dynamic in our culture. I met Rakesh Satyal, an incredibly smart, thoughtful editor in NY a few months ago. Promptly went and bought, read and loved his beautiful debut novel. In response to the recent rash of suicides among LGBT youth, Rakesh is offering Blue Boy free on Kindle.

Satyal, who won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction this year, tells “I really wanted to kind of put together this untold story, a gay Indian-American boy, but at the same time I wanted it to be universal in its pains. I think we’ve seen especially recently this sense that kids can feel isolated when they’re different in any way is one of the most persistent things about being a kid. The idea was to tell a particular story but make it universal and show, ‘Here is a resilience in kids that gives them a way of dealing with the harder things in life much more effectively in some cases than adults.’”

Twelve-year-old Kiran Sharma is into ballet...and his mom's makeup. And he believes he's the 10th reincarnation of Krishnaji, the blue-skinned Hindu deity and plans to announce this at the Martin Van Buren Elementary School talent show. As he's preparing his elaborate costume, flute solo and dance moves (with Whitney Houston backup), Kiran's skin begins to turn blue.

According to PW: "Satyal writes with a graceful ease, finding new humor in common awkward pre-teen moments and giving readers a delightful and lively young protagonist." And Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk says, "The best fiction reminds us that humanity is much, much larger than our personal world, our own little reality. Blue Boy shows us a world too funny and sad and sweet to bebased on anything but the truth."

Click here for the free Kindle download.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The secret to Paolo Bacigalupi's success: "The willingness to write four novels and f#@k them all up"

Don't miss this terrific interview with science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi on Techland, talking about his journey to publication:
I wrote four novels that I never sold before I wrote The Windup Girl. So I've been writing for, now, it's been about 15 years. I guess it was 13 when I sold The Windup Girl. I wrote a science fiction novel that did get a low-ball offer that I ultimately passed on, on the advice of my agent. Thinking, well, my first novel got an offer, I can write another, and that one's gonna be a sky's-the-limit type of thing.

I wrote that second novel, but I actually pushed over to historical fiction. That one treaded closer to what we'd call mainstream fiction, as opposed to genre fiction. And then the next one after that was straight out literary fiction. You know, love of landscape. This thing about the rural west. I don't know. It was what it was. And then after that I wrote a mystery-slash-western sort of novel. A modern western, a postmodern western, really. And then I started writing short stories and science fiction again.

...When I went to college I could write essays and all that stuff—really tight, clean stuff. And having the raw was meaningless, ultimately. It was the willingness to write four novels and fuck them all up and keep going that was the definer. It wasn't the ability at all. Yeah, the willingness to accept failure and not let it stop you, and to not let that define you.
Read the rest of "This is What it Takes to Write a Novel.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Buy This Book: What We Have by Amy Boesky

Saw the many raves Amy Boesky is getting for her memoir and had to grab it. My mistake was reading the first page at 11:30 PM, because I did not want to stop. She's an amazing writer, and I plan to drag her over here to answer 3Qs as soon as I can pry her away from her 17th century British lit students at Boston College.

Meanwhile, from the flap:
At thirty-two, Amy Boesky thought she had it all figured out: a wonderful new man in her life, a great job, and the (nearly) perfect home. For once, she was almost able to shake the terrible fear that had gripped her for as long as she could remember. Women in her family had always died young-from cancer-and she and her sisters had grown up in time's shadow. It colored every choice they made and was beginning to come to a head now that each of them approached thirty-five-the deadline their doctors prescribed for having preventive surgery with the hope they could thwart their family's medical curse. But Amy didn't want to dwell on that now. She wanted to plan for a new baby, live her life. And with the appreciation for life's smallest pleasures, she did just that. In What We Have, Amy shares a deeply transformative year in her family's life and invites readers to join in their joy, laughter, and grief. In a true story as compelling as the best in women's fiction, written with the sagacity of Joan Didion and the elegance of Amy Bloom, Amy Boesky's journey celebrates the promise of a full life, even in the face of uncertainty.

What We Have scored this glowing pullquote from O Magazine: "With bite and humor (and lighthearted allusions to 17th century metaphysics), Boesky turns a would-be "disease memoir" into a moving account. Perfect planning goes awry, and yet Boesky's loving, unsentimental portrait of these endearing women never does."

I can tell already this is one of those books that will make me a better writer. Check it out.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Don't miss Fred's guest shot on Three Guys One Book: "Why We Love What We Do"

I'm still choked up about Fred's post on the circle of publishing life and the death of novelist Cathryn Alpert, author of Rocket City, which was completely weird and wonderful. I still agree with Entertainment Weekly that she came up with one of the best opening lines ever: "Three melons and a dwarf sat in the front seat of Marilee’s ’72 Dodge, but the cop was not amused."

Read the rest and remember why you love what you do.

Monday, October 04, 2010

A Way of Seeing

Last week, I signed a debut novel in which the narrating main character is blind.

(I'd name it for you, but it has only a working title.)

We’ll publish the novel in the fall of 2011 and will be describing it fully to the world in the weeks before publication. But there's something to be said even this early: The reader of this novel can see what is happening, page by page, turn by turn, even though the main character cannot.

The narrative moves beautifully, unfailingly and fascinatingly forward, and the means by which this writer portrays the world he leads us through are unfailingly clever. The story, which is heartfelt and pressing, is also perfectly visual. In fact, it’s a road story. As I first read it, I could see the path of the car and the crowded back seat. I could see the scenes of the hurricane and the flood, the roadside confrontations, the drug dens, the shakedowns, the flirtations and seductions, the characters’ leaning into one another, the stumbling protagonist’s becoming lost on mean streets.

The agent made a special effort to reassure me about this before I requested the manuscript, a special effort to reassure me that the novel runs on its images, its rich descriptions, even though the protagonist cannot see.

But without having read the book, you already know this.

When you come to the book next year, it will take only a few pages before you recognize that this is what all good novelists do, what they must do. This is, in fact, the art of storytelling. It is the richest depth of language. A novelist is a singer of tales. And what we’re talking about here is the visual reward of reading.

Yes, the novelist allows us to live lives we could not otherwise. We say this all the time. We also all know that the novelist lets us feel what we should feel when we connect with another human consciousness, however fictional. It is empathy, ours and the author's, that makes a novel worth reading.

But on a more fundamental, or more practical, level than this, without a canvas and without a screen, the novelist makes us see.

To read a good novel (or to hear a tale well sung) is to see through words.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

To All Those Who Plan to Write Their Book Someday When They Get Time

Um, you might want to get a jump on that and start NOW because the writing, revising, and sale of a book (that you didn't pay to publish) is precisely THIS complex.

Thanks to OK Go for the outstanding Rube Goldberg-style illustration! You really have to see this amazing video to believe it!

The (Literary) Establishment Strikes Back, Andrew Shaffer Style

Author Andrew Shaffer's parody of a Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner smackdown had me howling. If you'd ever scratched your head over why some authors seem to get all the literary love/establishment respect, you, too, could find yourself seriously amused.

Unless, of course, you are Jonathan Franzen. Then maybe not so much.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Read, Write, Hope!

Read, Write, Hope!
In an entry on her blog, (July 7, 2010 - The Road to Publication: Persistence Counts) Michelle Hoover, author of the lovely debut novel, THE QUICKENING, (see earlier review - this blog - September 14, 2010) has created a gift of hope for anyone who has ever struggled to grow an idea from a handful of words or pages into a full-blown novel. She began the story when she was 23, and only now, when she is 38, is it published. She stopped and started. She wrote other things; she also teaches writing, but all the while her original idea was simmering in her mind. And when she finally returned to it, the story went through many incarnations, gained and lost characters and narrators. But ultimately she persisted; she wrote and rewrote in faith and, perhaps at times, in doubt, but here and now, after all the years of work, she has captured the book sale and growing success. The story is beautifully told; her own journey writing it is inspiring. As she herself so aptly puts it: “Creative exhaustion and completion are not equivalent.”

Some stories just refuse to remain on a shelf.

For more on Michelle’s story, visit her website at


To subscribe to BtO, click "Subcribe to: Posts" at the bottom of the page and then "Subscribe to this feed."

Want to borrow a cup of content? Feel free to share our link or a brief quote with your friends. But please e-mail for permission to reprint or repost our work elsewhere, and always add an attribution and a link back to our site.

We welcome your feedback. Feel free to post comments. PR and outreach from publishers and published authors should be sent to:

Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.

We welcome payola in the form of pies, cakes, neatly folded laundry and free books!

In accordance with FTC regulations, we're required to inform readers that we receive books from publishers, authors, and PR folk for review. We'd like to receive money via an offshore bank account, but that hasn't happened yet. When my dad was in radio back in the '50s, a local baker used to sneak over in the dead of night and fill the back seat of his car with bread and pastries. We would NOT object to this. Please review our review policy here. And let us know if we should leave the car outside the garage tonight.

Peace, love, and statutory compliance ~