Friday, December 31, 2010

Revisiting the decisions that successfully transformed my writing strategy for 2010

My dad always said, "Plan your work, work your plan." We in the business of reeling and writhing - I mean reading and writing - especially need the structure of a yearly business plan and five-year vision plan. My policy is to get that sucker on paper by the last day of December so I can get up January 1st, load the Christmas tree out the door and hit the ground running. I mean writing.

Last year, I saw an item in Scott Jeffrey's Enlightened Business blog that blew my mind a little. "5 Powerful Decisions to Transform Your Business" radically changed my 2010 business plan. Scott's original post makes great sense for any company, but I tweaked it for writing, applying the same principles to the soul proprietorship that is the corporate body for most working authors.

When I posted it on the blog here, I optimistically said, "These transformative rules have seriously adjusted my thought process and just might make 2010 my best year ever." As it turns out, 2010 was the most successful year of my career thus far. So maybe the advice bears repeating...

#1 Decide to focus on your best customers.
This is that "laser like focus" Colleen talks about, and it goes beyond cultivating a readership. It also speaks to the relationships we build with our publishers, agents and fellow writers. I think we have to broaden the meaning here to focus on how our time and energy is most productively spent.

#2 Decide to focus on building a highly functional team.
Three essential teammates for writers: A smart, aggressive, like-minded agent. A smart, supportive, collegial critique group. Domestic allies who understand what you do. Team-building begins with letting those key people know how deeply and sincerely grateful we are for their support.

#3 Decide to grow from within.
Scott's post talks about a "corporate culture" that aligns core values. For a company of one, that means being the industry you want to work in. Organized. Optimistic. Perseverant. That's not what you do; that's who you are. Seriously consider your artistic philosophy, then embrace and embody it without apology or compromise. To thine own self be true. All other ground is quicksand.

#4 Decide to be the best at something.
"This decision requires sacrifice and focus," says Jeffreys. Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that you're the master of a craft after 10,000 hours. You've really got to LOVE what you do to rack up that kind of mileage. What is it about this work that gives you that chill on the back of your neck? Dialogue? Sense of place? Untying a Gordian knot of a plot? I think that frisson of yes becomes an affinity at about 3,000 hours. After 6,000 hours, the affinity becomes a knack. Somewhere around 9,000 hours, the knack becomes a strength. And once you've mastered your craft, that strength becomes your brand.

#5 Decide on a more compelling future for your organization to rally around.
The publishing industry has undergone a seismic shift. We're in the wild, wild west, my darlings. Anything is possible, so why not envision something wonderful? What is the essence - the high concept, if you will - of what you want out of this industry? (For me, it's "fair pay for good art".) Envision that future and earn it.

We live by decision. It's that simple. Large and small choices shape an office environment, a day, a career, and ultimately a life. That's the terrifying, thrilling possibility for transformation in every moment.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

You Can Now Lend Kindle Books

. . . and here's the link that tells you how.

Thanks, by the way to all of you who are using your gift cards to buy my books (and the books of all BoxOcto writers) on Kindle.  At least, I imagine that's what's accounting for the uptick!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Buy This Book: Poets for Haiti

I seem, at the end of the year, to be on a bit of a buy-books-for-a-cause tear.  Poets for Haiti is a collection now available from Yileen Press. From the publisher: "Six weeks after the city of Port-au-Prince was brought to its knees by one of the most destructive earthquakes on record - 18 remarkable writers including Robert Pinksy, Rosanna Warren, and Gail Mazur, joined together at Harvard University campus and demonstrated the power of the spoken word. That benefit reading was a vital and galvanizing event, and this anthology has been created to capture some of the magic that was sparked that night. With stunning artwork by some of Haiti's most prominent visual artists, the volume is itself a work of art. All proceeds from the sale of this anthology will go to Partners in Health to benefit the people of Haiti."

Monday, December 27, 2010

Silencing the Noise

The carols fall quiet. The merrymaking crowds disperse. The batteries are all inserted and the devices charged.

I switch off every one of them and vanish into creamy pages. (This year's choice, Jim Gorant's THE LOST DOGS: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption was an outstanding choice, fascinating and involving on many levels. The kind of book that serves up an education in irresistibly-engaging nuggets. And, thank goodness, a dog book whose ending didn't leave me weeping.)

Late in the night, I close the cover. I feel the rhythm of my breaths, the strong thump of my heartbeat, the quiet space opening inside me.

It is the space that in the coming days, will fill slowly with my own words, with a story only I can tell, characters I will introduce to others.

Though the computer is my virtual notebook, that space remains unplugged today as the writer in me reclaims her space, her time, her balance.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


On a snowy morning two weeks ago, I went down to the Matheson Nature Preserve to take part in the annual Christmas Bird Count.  Marcy and Mary were waiting for me, coated, as I was, in shiny materials; the snow glanced off our shoulders in flakes that thinned and thickened and then thinned again.  A clumsy stagehand seemed to be in the clouds, that morning.  He couldn't get the amount right.  "I don't know if it's going to get heavier or not," Marcy said.  "But let's go on in."  We ducked into the brush, binoculars bouncing off our chests.

How we do love to count things and balance them out, at the end of a year. I have a friend who counts all her blessings.  Literally.  Writes them all down, with numerals to the left and periods to the right:

1) Health.
2) House.
3) Car still runs.

How we love to make lists--the best films, the best books, who's the hottest, who's the richest, how many mallards are on the water (three), how many harriers in the tree (two, the Northern), how many goldfinches in the bush (one, the Lesser; none in the hand).

I know writers who count how many words they've written.  Other friends tally up how many pounds they've lost, or gained.  My husband does this.  I don't like scales.  I use the mirror as a thermometer, stand naked, see where the blood pools.

Businesses count their sales.  AIDS, heart disease, cancer counts its losses.  Today, Miguel, hiking above the Preserve as I was, said there had been hardly any geese around this year, but he could remember when they were as dense in the air as the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

"I guess I have sort of a weird way of tallying things," he said apologetically.  "It's the way my imagination works."

Not at all.  I knew exactly how many he meant.

I used to count my dolls, when I was a girl, adding in the ones Christmas had added.  My satisfaction was like a farmer's looking over stored seed.  My husband counted his marbles.  My grandmother, who starved during the Second World War, reduced to eating boiled grass, counted the cans of peas and carrots in her garage.  I can't count how many times we had peas and carrots.  I have friends who won't buy any gifts until after Christmas; they need the discounts.

I asked Marcy how many times she'd done the Christmas Bird Count.  Ten years and ten times, she told me, and five times as the leader, responsible for all the counting teams in Grand County.

This was only my second time on her team.  Last year, we'd seen a bald eagle together.  But that day it had been sunny and clear.  This year, things were eerily quiet.  The snow stopped, not on a dime but down a long ramp, then turned to freezing rain.  A dozen Eurasian collared doves squatted in a cottonwood, puffed and silent.  I recorded their number in our waterproof journal.  After a while, we noted an overabundance of magpies and robins.  Nothing against them, you know, but you always hope to see something extravagant.  Over the sloughs a tide of starlings rose.

"200?" I asked

"300?" Mary asked.

"500," Marcy said.

The more familiar you are with a thing, the better you are at counting it.  Astronomers are a wonder with stars; a baby can't count its toes.  It's all so overwhelming, at first.

"Are those," Mary pointed high along the ridge line, "the same three mallards we saw on the water?"

"Let's say yes."

"Have we counted those magpies already?"

"Let's say no."

I asked Marcy if there was something she'd always been dying to see in the Preserve, but never had; she told me every year she hoped for a pygmy owl.  It was just dark enough, in this bad weather, she said, that owls might be out.  Nearly crepuscular.  (Google has a new website that counts how many times a word has been used in print between the years 1800 and 2000.  "Crepuscular" is on the decline.)

No sooner had Marcy said this than I started imagining I was hearing hoots.  It's a problem writers have.  We imagine pygmies where there aren't any.

At noon we started getting hungry and needed a break.  We turned around.  You don't count the birds on the way back unless you see a new species; they're probably the same ones you've counted already.  We saw the same robins, or anyway decided they were; instead of owls, we came across a family of big-eyed, big-eared mule deer.  A female, two young 'uns, and across the trail from them, rutting, a six-pointed buck.  All four froze and stared at us.  We froze and stared back.  One of the youngsters, not knowing any better, drew closer.  In the buck's eyes I imagined I read:

How many?

What species?

Greater or Lesser?

Barbara Walters annually tallies up The Ten Most Fascinating People of the Year.  I always hope for something extravagant, but am generally disappointed.

Lesser, I answer.  Though doing the best we can.

A buck can't even count the points over its own head.

But he can feel the weight, I hope, and knows, as time passes, he is more than he was.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Chop Wood, Carry Water

I read Dorian Karchmar’s advice and then Joni’s and Colleen’s year-in-review entries and it struck me how their experiences so clearly embody that advice. So much of what is worthwhile in any undertaking, whether it is writing or cooking, gardening, whatever, is how willing we are to do the grunt work, put in the sweat equity. That Zen saying comes to mind, the one that goes something like: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Substitute finding representation and/or publication for enlightenment and, to me, it's the same. Like the moments of epiphany, the moments of stellar success are cast across a broad and hopefully serviceable and sturdy fabric woven from hours of labor some of which may never bear obvious fruit as both Colleen's and Joni's year-end reviews reveal. Admiration, respect and esteem is due to them both and to my other critique partners, Wanda and TJ, and to any one of us and all of us who have put in this time out of love and the determination to climb the mountain that we might better shine and share our creative light. Combined it becomes a force of joy and encouragement that energizes and nourishes each of us. That’s why it’s important that we do it.

The gifts received from the work, from the support of each other through the process may not be as showy, as celebrated as landing that agent or that book contract, but they are as valuable and perhaps even more enduring. The found treasure, or pay-off, if you will, is in the work, in the quieter turning over of the days, in the building of the words, sentences and paragraphs into something that resembles the heart’s vision and this in spite of, or maybe because of the naysaying “New York gatekeepers” and the rest who lack faith, who discount the value of individual expression. So hats off to all of us and here’s to all of us that in 2011 we may find the success we desire and also the reward that is folded into the simple act of showing up and inviting our muse. Here’s to keeping the lamps lit and the fires burning!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Magic and Music and the Sacrifice of Christmas

Before I started working on this little thing called a novel, I was a church musician. From choral oratorios to operettas to Native American chants to plainsong to black gospel to Contemporary Christian, I sang it. At one point I was spending more than 20 hours a week singing, serving as both a soloist for a Sunday morning traditional service and the worship leader in a heavily electronic praise band (We used to do a Christian cover of Van Halen's "Jump" that knocked off everyone's socks--and maybe their eardrums, too.)

And every Christmas and Easter I'd do no less than three services (sometimes five). Normally, right about now on Christmas Eve, I'd be well into the first of three candlelight Christmas Eve services, singing hymns and gospel and beautiful pieces of music like this and this .

But for the past three years, I've had a new tradition on Christmas Eve. Yes, I still go to one service. And I still sing happily and heartily from somewhere near the back pews. But I don't sing in choir anymore, or sing solos, because, when I started getting serious about my writing, my music was something I had to give up. It was hard for me to, and some days I still grieve it. And I hope that at some point, I can figure out a way to sneak music (and theatre and art, sigh) back into my life. But for now, the book reigns supreme, and most of my discretionary time is spent writing.

So instead of spending the day getting ready to sing in several services and running around all nervous and excited and dressed in musician-standard black, now I make sure to put in at least four hours on the book on Christmas Eve. I pray before and afterwards, and I allow God to recenter me on my project, my writing, and on His call for my life. And then I go visit people, or sometimes drop by a friend's annual Christmas party, and then end the day by finding a church that's new to me and dropping in to sing. This way there's no pressure, no "where have you been?" or "Hey Kathryn, quick, let's get you a choir robe!" It's strange. It's a little lonely. But it's beautiful. And I'm coming to cherish this quieter, more hermit-like existence, even though it's not what I'm used to. It seems to resonate with the deepest chords of me.

Anything that's important, anything that's worth doing requires sacrifice. Whether that's allowing your voice to be shaped by and blended with others, writing a novel that may never see the light of day but doing it anyway because you know you have to, washing the flies off and feeding a homeless man, or sending your Son to save the world.

Peace. And Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

View from the Trenches:A Look Back at 2010

Like my good friend Joni, I've had a 2010 filled with lots of great reading, a whirlwind of writing activity, and high points enough to balance out the low.

This year has seen two new releases for me, a single title romantic suspense I was very proud of, Touch of Evil, and "Lethal Lessons" in Deadlier Than the Male, my first novella and offering with a new-to-me publisher, which was written with the very talented Sharon Sala. That book marked my first appearance on the Waldenbooks/Borders Group bestseller list, and an older book of mine, Triple Exposure, surprised me by zooming to the #1 spot on the Kindle bestseller list for several glorious days. (And yes, I was excited/nerdy enough to save a screen shot of my book perched atop Stieg Larsson's trilogy for that brief moment in time.)

In addition, I've sold two more books and look forward to publishing Capturing the Commando, my debut with the Harlequin Intrigue line, in June 2012, followed by Shadowed Dawn (Harlequin Intrigue Shivers) in September 2012. I've also produced other proposals, which are currently being shopped.

Along with a daunting writing load, I have just completed my second and final year as VP of the West Houston Romance Writers of America, where I thoroughly enjoyed selecting and booking speakers for the group's meetings. I did quite a few of my own speaking gigs as well this year, including presentations to RWA groups in San Diego, Orlando, Dallas, and Austin. And with an out-of-town relative ill, I've spent far too much time on the road, leaving me less time for reading, recreation, family, and friends than I've had in the past.

Though I'm happiest when busy, I hope to find a better balance in 2011. I also hope to sell a Labor of Love suspense project I've invested heart and soul and countless hours creating and complete a companion project to go with it. I don't kid myself. It's a daunting proposition in a rapidly-shifting publishing environment. With my former single title publisher moving to an electronic-only format, I am looking to make a change -- something that can be challenging at the best of times.

But I remain infused with hope, in love with storytelling, and invested in continuing to mine my words for my sustenance to the best of my ability. I'm certain that this coming year, like 2010, will bring both challenges and high points, and that I will continue to count the friendships I've developed (some of which began right here at Boxing the Octopus) among the latter.

Though this year in publishing has been especially treacherous, with its rapidly-shifting currents, this business has never been a business for sissies. One has to possess not only the dream, the talent, and the persistance, but the tolerance for risk and change (and/or a lifetime supply of Tums) to go with it. If you're looking for stress-free, if you're looking for security, you've bought into the wrong ambition, as my 2010 has definitely proven. But if you're looking for the ride of a lifetime and a shot at sharing your vision in words, Boxing the Octopus may just be the life for you.

May your 2010 have been filled with more highs than lows and your outlook for the next year be merrier than ever.

Merry Querying

Check out writer JM Tohline's EXTENSIVE blog post on The Biggest Mistakes a Writer Makes When Querying Literary Agents in which 50 agents respond to the question: "What is the single biggest mistake writers make when querying you?" Tohline notes that most agents began their response with: "'Only one? How about several!"

Tohline writes, "Yes, reading this will take up a bit of your time (20-30 minutes, to give you a fair projection), but…how important is the success of your novel to you? You've (presumably) spent hundreds of hours planning, writing, editing, and perfecting your manuscript. Now, it is time to treat your query with the same respect."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

#BuyThisBook: Last minute gift idea for 20something guys who are (let's face it) impossible to figure out

Go with a graphic novel. There are some brilliant ones out there. Last year I gave my son David Mazzucchelli's mind-expanding Asterios Polyp. This year he's getting Carnet De Voyage (Travel Journal), Craig Thompson's travel sketchbook which chronicles his wanderings in Africa and Europe.

"They say 'Wherever you go, there you are....' I thought with Morocco, I'd be setting out on some exotic adventure, but it turns out I'm just a simple, quiet fellow."

#BuyThisBook: Last minute gift idea for the woman you're kinda sorta dating but not sure where it's going

Here you go: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. It's romantic but not overtly sexual. Classic but accessible, which says, "I respect your intelligence, but I still hope to get lucky with you." And you know Dickinson. Something for every mood swing. This book has a good physical heft, is easy to wrap, and not so expensive that you'll feel awkward when she hands you the Netflix gift card. Happy holidays!

Oil and Water . . . a Fundraiser for the Gulf Coast

Friends, if you're looking for a gift with a bit of heart this season, or simply want to support recovery from the BP spill, or simply like good collections of creative nonfiction/essays, I hope you'll check this out.  I'm very pleased to have my essay, "Butterfly," included in this anthology.  From LL Publications:

Members of the Southern Writers group She Writes, Zetta Brown and Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson Brown, gathered submissions and created an anthology of stories, poems, and recollections in response to the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf. Oil and Water...and Other Things That Don’t Mix features 27 authors, women and men all dealing with the theme: “Conflict...Resolution Optional.”

All proceeds from Oil and Water...and Other Things That Don’t Mix will go to directly benefit MOBILE BAYKEEPER, and BAY AREA FOOD BANK, two charities helping to combat the effects of the spill and help the communities affected.

Authors included in the collection are Jenne’ R. Andrews, Shonell Bacon, Lissa Brown, Mollie Cox Bryan, Maureen E. Doallas, Mylène Dressler, Nicole Easterwood, Angela Elson, Melanie Eversley, Kimeko Farrar, L B Gschwandtner, John Klawitter, Mary Larkin, Linda Lou, Kelly Martineau, Patricia Anne McGoldrick, Ginger McKnight-Chavers, Carl Palmer, Karen Pickell, Dania Rajendra, Cherie Reich, Jarvis Slacks, Tynia Thomassie, Amy Wise, Dallas Woodburn, and contributing editors Zetta Brown and Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson Brown.

Retailers who wish to stock the Oil and Water anthology can contact the publisher directly: editor(at)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Buy This Book! SLOW LOVE, How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas and Found Happiness

People show up for things, their jobs, their marriages and families. They make routines, make a good life and then something terrible happens, rudely, abruptly. Without warning, the spouse leaves, or the job is gone, or you lose your house or your health, whatever. Now what? Dominique Browning’s memoir SLOW LOVE, How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas & Found Happiness is a contemplation of this dark place. It is a purely honest and courageous record of her journey through and from the place where she lost her job of thirteen years and then a long-term relationship and then sold her house, (she was already divorced years before) and relocated hours away. Oh, and her children grew up and left too so there was the empty nest thing to contend with (and even that isn’t all). It isn’t a straight-out journey for her either, but fraught with setbacks, doubts, fears and sorrow, yet reading about it is rather like sitting with a very dear friend and having a lovely conversation, one that is rewarding and heartfelt, where you laugh and cry and see yourself in the mirror of each other’s experience. Slow Love is a remedy, a gentle balm to any reader, but most especially to those who have experienced or who are experiencing a dark night.

In another of Dominique Browning’s memoirs, Paths of Desire, The Passions of A Suburban Gardener, (Scribner, February 1, 2005) I fell in love with her house and especially the garden, the one she has now sold, and in reading Slow Love, I felt the loss of it, too, until the end of Slow Love where she writes so eloquently and with such joy of her new life and home that my own heart soared to imagine her there. I loved this memoir. And her website is worth a visit too:

2010: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Joni's year in writing, reading, and publishing)

Colleen and I have a tradition of posting our Good, Bad, Ugly every December, so I hope to see breakdowns from our new blogmates as well. (Not nervous breakdowns, the other kind.) No complaints here. I fought the good fight and was well rewarded for my efforts. Took it on the chin a few times, but came away wiser.

The Good
I've been learning addicted since my dad's stint selling World Book Encyclopedias back in the early '70s. Research is my favorite part of this job, and I did a LOT of it in 2010. I started the year immersed in the strange and fascinating history of breast cancer, segued into the over-the-top drama of pop music, then moved on to the intense dynamics of death row politics, and finished up with a deep-dive into the emotional economics of palliative care. Such is the life of the ghostwriter.

This fall I wrapped up a 17-month writing/rewriting marathon with three book releases - two memoirs and a YA mini-mem - plus a few magazine articles. Between May '09 and August '10, I never took a full day off, and most work days blazed from 6 AM to midnight. I kept bags of peas in the freezer to ice my typing muscles at noon and dinnertime. It was heaven. But I was glad to take a break this month.

Final tallies:
Total words published (not counting this blog): 226K
Bestsellers: 2 NYT, 1 national
Cover credits: 1 (I usually prefer to remain invisible but was incredibly proud to be included on the cover of Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.)

In the course of doing biz, I hobnobbed with a lot of wonderful publishing folks in the US and abroad as well as some very articulate and cool celebs, ranging from Usher to Dita von Teese to the delightful Dawn Wells, who played Marianne on "Gilligan's Island". I finally found an opportunity to travel to Sicily where I met the quirky and delicious Janet Little, author and illustrator of my daughter's all-time favorite children's book Hecate the Bandicoot.

We had a lot of fantastic authors visit the blog, and I was buried in ARCs from publishers - an embarrassment of riches - too many to read, all of which I tried to at least taste-test, several that I LOVED. More on that this week.

Favorite moments of 2010:
1) Working on "Promise Me" edits in the downstairs apartment at my parents home in Montana with Mom and Dad upstairs singing and jamming on guitar and mandolin.
2) Playing chess in a bar in Montmartre with the Gare Bear, blues music and animated working class French conversation swirling around the room. Happiness Is.

Books I most enjoyed:
So Cold the River by Michael Koryta
The Woman Who Named God: Abraham's Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths by Charlotte Gordon
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
The Wilding: A Novel by Benjamin Percy
The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (Blast from the past. It holds up.)
The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel
The Prestige by Christopher Priest (I don't care if you saw the movie, you need to read it.)
The forthcoming Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses by Claudia Sternbach (Watch this space. Over the next few months, Claudia will be chronicling her journey to publication here on BoxOcto.)

The Bad
While working on a Broadway adaptation of her memoir, My First Five Husbands, my dear friend Rue McClanahan suffered a stroke and subsequently died. I wrote this article about our collaboration for the Houston Chronicle. Rue was the personification of Shaw's "spark of divine fire". I miss her terribly, and I'm heartbroken that she didn't get to blow the doors off Broadway one last time.

My professional low point this year (lest you think, as I once did, that once you get published or once you can plug "bestselling author" in front of your name or once you [insert imaginary milestone here], then you've arrived and everything's smooth sailing from there): a proposal on which I worked long and hard bit the dust. This was a project of the heart. I was paid nothing for the 200+ hours I put into it. I've entertained various theories on why it didn't sell, none of which change the reality that it didn't. A serious punch in the face on several levels. But I knew the risks going in. I learned a lot from the research, and I never consider time spent writing to be time wasted. If nothing else, it makes you a better writer. I still firmly believe that every rejection, no matter how painful, is a stepping stone to where I'm supposed to be. (I don't always like it, but I do believe it.)

It's not circumspect for me to say anything more about that or other challenging issues in this space, so I'll sum up, in the words of Jerry McGuire: "This job is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about."

The Ugly
There's a lot of doomsaying about the book biz right now, but there's always a lot of doomsaying about the book biz. I got used to being in the optimistic minority about ten years ago. For my taste, the most disturbing thing about the tectonic shift in the industry (and in our culture) is the oil slick of self-promotion and oversharing that people seem to think is necessary to survive. The stench of neediness is utterly soul-choking at times. I love the potential for networking on Facebook and Twitter, but for the most part, it's a time-hoovering vomitorium of people gossiping about themselves.

In forming my business plan for 2011, I tried to quantify what I was getting out of the various ways I spend my time, and frankly, I got a lot more benefit from 200+ hours working on a doomed proposal than I did wading through online BS and blather. I don't reap any financial benefit from this blog, but I definitely get a lot more joy out of promoting the work of other authors than I would get out of constantly waving my hand in the pick me! pick me! mosh pit and obsessively checking to see if it that tweet about my macaroni and cheese had any effect on my Amazon ranking.

I've heard this little parable in various versions - rabbi, priest, monk, generic seeker - and I think it translates well to the publishing industry:
A monk asked God to show him heaven and hell. First, God showed him hell: a banquet table laden with a great feast. But the people at the table were shrunken and famished, wailing in frustration. They had spoons melded to their fists, and the handles on the spoons were longer than their arms, so they couldn't put the food in their mouths.

Then God showed him heaven: an identical table with an identical banquet and the same spoons with impossibly long handles. But the people assembled were healthy and strong, laughing and feasting, having learned to feed each other.
I look forward to featuring more author interviews and book reviews on BoxOcto in 2011, tweeting accordingly, and staying true to my hippie-dippy ambition to be a purveyor of shalom for my ghost clients and industry colleagues.

Happy holidays and a joyful, prosperous New Year to all!

Stellar advice from literary agent Dorian Karchmar of William Morris

Stumbled upon this fantastic interview on the Guide to Literary Agents: Editor's Blog, which includes the following spot-on advice for writers:
Don’t give in to internal and external pressures to try to find an agent before you’ve matured as a writer. The book business is very difficult and not getting any easier; most books that are published don’t sell well, and many careers end practically before they start.

Write a book that only you could write, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Be more patient and more honest with yourself than you ever thought you could be.

Find a couple of writers who you think are better than you are, ingratiate yourself with them, and start reading and workshopping each other. And ask them—beg them—to be merciless. Be humble and quiet while they give you feedback. Be prepared to cut, delete, throw away, put in a drawer.

Only when you’ve got your best possible work—something that can stand up there with the best of whatever genre you’re working in—should you start looking for the right agent to represent you. If you’ve got a terrific book, you should end up with plenty of good agents from which to choose, so don’t jump at the first person who says “yes.”

Put the good of the work before the good of your ego as much as you can.
Can I get a amen? Read the rest here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Buy This Book: Gotta have a nice old school "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"

Ellen Rogers' memoir, Kasey to the Rescue: The Remarkable Story of a Monkey and a Miracle, tells the story of her family's difficult journey after her son Ned was left paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident. (The surprising superhero in the book is Kasey, a 25 year old capuchin monkey trained by Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.) A few weeks ago, we featured this excerpt, about the Rogers family's traditional reading of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. Grab a box of Kleenex and check it out.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Buy This Book

"I well remember the 4,000-word day . . . the splendid joy of it--I went and ran, just raced along the country road, for sheer triumph."

This year saw the release of Cynthia Davis' new biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, trailblazing woman writer, author of "The Yellow Wallpaper" and all-around brave soul.  If you're not familiar with her work and life, snatch this one up (also available on Kindle), or go to your library and grab the older To Herland and Beyond.  Spend some time with a woman in full.


This time of year, there are so many things vying for attention. Presents to be wrapped, family duties calling, the lure of holiday ritual.

Each one is important. Each one has its place. Still, unless I make a commitment to my writing, it will be lost in the December hubbub, shunted aside and left for me to rush through later, since I have a revision due in New York early in January.

Right now, however, I have a more immediate commitment to myself, to actually get some words onto the paper. Since I'm so distracted now, however, I'm not the best boss of me, so I've made a commitment forcing more immediate accountability. I cannot face my critique group tomorrow evening without at least six new pages in hand. While my buddies probably won't horsewhip me if I fall down in my effort, they will recognize my explanations as the excuses they are. The threat of letting them down will help keep me from letting myself down with the well-worn rationalization that since I'm too busy to do much, it's okay to do nothing.

This holiday season, what is your commitment to your writing? What is your commitment to yourself? Can you write a sentence, a paragraph, a page? Even the tiniest of steps can break through writing inertia, can start the forward motion that quickly picks up speed.

#BuyThisBook: "Resilience" by Elizabeth Edwards (plus The Rose founder Dorothy Gibbons on the importance of early breast cancer detection)

If anyone in recent history has personified the idiom "grace under pressure", it's Elizabeth Edwards. I agree with the Los Angeles Times assessment of this book: “Short but surprisingly deep…It's a small book but a powerful one."

Elizabeth's death last weekend should also be a jolting reminder to all women of a certain age. She told an interviewer last year that she was too busy to get a mammogram. With the amazing advances in imaging and treatment, breast cancer detected at its earliest stage is 95% curable.

The Rose is a wonderful organization that provides breast cancer screening and treatment to women regardless of their ability to pay. Founder and CEO Dorothy Westin Gibbons talks about the Rose, the realities of the mammogram, and the importance of early detection:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Join "Reading Lips" author Claudia Sternbach on her journey to publication

I recently read and loved Claudia Sternbach's Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses, which will be published in April 2011 by Unbridled Books. Starting today (scroll down an inch or two for the first installment), Claudia will joining BoxOcto so we can ride along with her on the bumpy road to publication.

Reading Lips

Claudia Sternbach

The Story of Reading Lips

Chapter 1

Waiting for a book to be published is not, no matter what one may have heard, like waiting to give birth. At least not as far as I am concerned. When I was trying to get pregnant I was fully aware of the fact. Each romp in the bedroom was, I was hoping, going to lead to growing fat and round and swollen and then to the big Ta Da!

When I was writing the personal essays that would eventually become a collection to be released by Unbridled Books in April, 2011, I had no idea I was actually nurturing a seed which would grow and grow and become more than just nattering for my own personal pleasure. Each romp at my computer was simply for fun. Not for procreating. I was not imagining celebrations for a newborn or attempting to come up with a name. And yet, here I am, a book on the way. Unplanned to say the least. But a welcome surprise. And perhaps more fun as I wasn't trying at all. I felt no pressure from anyone. No one even knew I was working on this. No friends or family members called on a weekly basis to ask if anything was new. Unlike when I was trying to get knocked up. I had opened my big mouth and soon everyone wanted to know what was new.

The other evening a couple of writer friends were over and we were well into a bottle of wine, which if I were pregnant with a baby I would not be able to enjoy but when waiting for a book to come out is almost mandatory. One of them asked me about my “process.” How my writing came to feel, in his opinion, so honest and so relaxed even when dipping into the very personal. The secret, I told him, was that when working on this soon-to-be-released book, I never, ever, imagined anyone reading it. I was free to move about the cabin without a care in the world. No seat belts to restrain me. I just sat down at my desk one afternoon and listened to a voice in my head and stepped back into my past and wrote. I wrote about a boy named Teddy and how much I loved him. And in the blink of an eye I was in fifth grade and it was the end of the school year and rumor had it that Teddy was planning on kissing me. And as I sat writing I could remember every moment leading up to that last day of school. I could hear the kids in the yard. I could taste the tuna sandwich my mother had packed me for lunch. I was off and running.

For months and months I would set aside my real work, my newspaper columns and magazine stories and play around in the past. When in New York City, where I am lucky enough to be able to spend months at a time apartment sitting for friends, I would treat myself to time at the computer at any time of the day or night. If words began to buzz in my head at three in the morning I got up and made myself a cup of tea and sat at the desk and played. And as the essays continued to come, not in any particular order, I began to save them so I might print them when I returned home. And eventually I began to share them with my husband, Michael. He was my first listener. And he was encouraging. He made me feel as if they were good enough to at least place them in a drawer where they would not get lost. And there they stayed. For a very, very, long time.

So how did they get from my cluttered drawer to Unbridled Books Spring 2011 Catalog? And were there any bumps in the road? Sink holes narrowly avoided?

I'll have to get back to you on that.

Buy This Book: Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

“I just wonder why no one has done this before. The truth is that this book will allow writers to do the one thing we tend to strive for most: build a bridge between ourselves and our readers. It will connect us, fiercely, with the people who love to read, and those who dream about writing as they work at their own jobs…” Rick Bragg, author of All Over but the Shoutin’ and former sledgehammer operator

It is a wonder no one had thought of it before and if weren’t for a flat tire which led to cheeseburgers at the Bulldog in Jackson, Mississippi ….. you’ll have to read the book for the full story ….. Sonny Brewer might have kept on writing a memoir instead of convincing his writer friends (a veritable who’s who Southern literature) to be part of this remarkable anthology. It should be noted that Sonny knew a fair bit about day jobs — before he sold The Poet of Tolstoy Park to Random House, he was an electronics technician in the US Navy, a six-night-a-week singer in a honky tonk band, owned a tire store, helped to found a weekly newspaper, managed a coffee house and owned a bookstore.

Like Sonny, his friends have toiled at a remarkable variety of jobs — many of them dark, dispiriting and dangerous. They’ve worked on the railroad, fought fires, wiped tables, soldiered and carpentered, delivered pizzas, sold underwear and driven garbage trucks. And they all made the transition to what William Gay (Provinces of Night) has dubbed “clocking in at the culture factory.” A sneak peek:

“The best part of working for the P.O. was I could think about my first novel all day long. Sometimes I composed entire scenes between runs of mailboxes. One of my mail routes was about 80 miles long and one day I finished it with absolutely no recollection of delivering my mail because I was so caught up in thinking about an intense chapter of Clay’s Quilt, my first novel. But, as far as I know, none of the mail was delivered incorrectly that day.”
Silas House, author of four novels, two plays and winner of the Appalachian Writer of the Year Award.

“ Those of us who write for a living want the rest of the world to think it’s real, real hard. We invent myths about it, to make it seem like man’s work. I have always loved the stories about fighting writers, carousing writers, whiskey-drinking, bull-fighting, foxhole-diving, swordfish-catching, señorita-romancing, big game-hunting, husband-defying writers, and tell myself that is where I belong, not with the fretting, pencil-neck writers who need to see their therapist twice a week to connect with their inner child. But the toughest writer I ever met, I ever heard of, would have lasted about a week on my Uncle Ed’s crew.”
Rick Bragg, author of Ava’s Man and The Prince of Frogtown.

“I was out of money and wound up taking a job for a dollar an hour putting up shelves at a plant that made canvas tarpaulins. What I learned from that job was that if you are tall, like I am, you will always be told to put up the highest shelf. Top shelf or not, it was a hell of a comedown from being an officer in the United States Army commanding men in combat in Vietnam.”
Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump

“I am kept by one Wendel R. Owens of Truman, Arkansas, who is also my husband of thirty years, and takes a lot of pride in the fact that his wife is educated and free to pursue a life of arty leisure …. We were introduced over a pew, and when we shook hands, it was a magical moment. I looked at him, he looked at my chest, and it was a done deal. It was Cracker kismet.”
Janis Owens, author of My Brother Michael, Myra Sims, The Schooling of Claybird Catts and The Cracker Kitchen.

And William Gay writes of a horrific job at a boat paddle plant where “you got high on the miasmic fumes rolling from the heated vat. Drunker as the night progressed. Not just gently high but drunk as a lord, drunk as a bicycle, drunk as a fiddler’s bitch, sleeping it off in the gutter drunk.” When he decided to quit, his friend Curtis had asked what he would do. “… I wondered that myself. I would find some way to make a living and I would write at night. I had no words for the way the snow looked drifting down in the streetlights and I wanted those words. If they were anywhere I would find them.”

Happy Birthday to Us! (Gratefully celebrating 4 years of Boxing the Octopus)

This blog was born out of many hours of writerly conversation, countless cups of coffee, a shared love of reading, and mutual dedication to writing. In one of those conversations, I referred to the writing life as "boxing the octopus", and Colleen instantly clapped on: "That's the name of our blog." A few days later -- four years ago today -- she posted the first entry, Welcome to Boxing the Octopus: Your Guide to the World of Commercial Fiction:
We're glad you stopped by and hope you'll pop by often as Boxing the Octopus takes on your questions about the world of spinning lies -- we mean fiction -- for fun and profit. In the coming weeks, we'll be introducing ourselves, organizing helpful material, and giving you our take on staying sane and solvent as a novelist.
We two Founding Mothers eventually came up with this mission statement:
To encourage and inform emerging writers, support books and authors we love, dialogue with peers in the publishing biz, and reflect on a life and living made of books.
I think BoxOcto has made good progress toward these goals in the last four years -- and I might add, we've both managed to stay sane and solvent as the book biz went totally off the rails. We've added some terrific blog crewmates over the last year or so, and God bless them, but I want to take this opportunity to thank Colleen Thompson, my dear kindred spirit and respected colleague, for sharing this journey with me from the beginning. The day we met, Colleeny was doing a table signing at Border's. I was officing in the upstairs coffee shop because my plumbing was being repaired. It was one of the luckiest days of my life, professionally and personally.

Tomorrow and Friday, watch this space for BoxOcto's greatest hits. (And more holiday book recomendations!)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wonderful Poet Dean Young Needs a Heart Transplant

. . . and needs your help.  Please follow this link to learn more.

Dear Friend by Dean Young

What will be served for our reception
in the devastation? Finger food, of course
and white wine, something printed on the napkins.

We were not children together
but we are now. Every bird knows
only two notes constantly rearranged.

That’s called forever so we wear pajamas
to the practice funeral, buckeroos
to the end. We make paper hats
of headlines and float them away.

My home made of smoke,
tiny spider made of punctuation,
my favorite poem is cinder
scratched into a sidewalk.

My friend’s becoming the simplest man,
he sees a lesson in everything,
in missing his train,
in his son hollering from the first branch,
Dad, guess where I am.

I was with him for my first magpies,
governmental and acting like hell.
And the new nickel
with Washington hard to recognize.

We’d driven by a Rabbit flattened
by an upset truck, jars of Miracle Whip
broken over the toll road in heavy snow.

We watched an old lady
eat a hot dog in a bun
with a knife and fork.

A few emeralds winged off
a fruit leaf.

What happens when your head splits open
and the bird flies out, its two notes deranged?
You got better, I got better,
wildflowers rimmed the crater,
glitter glitter glitter.

We knew someone whose father died
then we knew ourselves.
Astronomer, gladiator,
thief, a tombstone salesman.

All our vacations went to the sea
that breathed two times a day
without a machine.
We got in trouble with a raft
doing what we promised not to.

Further out to be brought further back.

There’s my friend in his squashed hat
trying to determine if a dot
is a living thing and do no harm.

He’s having trouble remembering street names
but there’s still plenty of Thoreau.

All that a human is made of is gold,
very very little gold.

#BuyThisBook: Lauren Willig schools us on must-reads for historical romance lovers on your list

The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation ChristmasEarlier this month, we chatted up Lauren Willig about her latest release, The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation Christmas, and the historical romance course she's teaching at Yale. If you're shaking the tree for gift ideas for the romance reader you love, here's a recap and buy links for a few of the books in Willig's syllabus:

Northanger Abbey"We opened the class with Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which tackles the seminal question of the relationship between novel and reader," Willig said. It's one of Austen's earliest works, but it wasn't published until after her death. Crumbling castles, cryptic messages, paternal tyranny, and a wry send-up of literary fops of the day.

The Flame and the FlowerAfter due respect to the mother of the Regency romance, Georgette Heyer, the class moved on to Kathleen E Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. The moment Willig mentioned it, I found myself up in the mulberry tree in our front yard in Wisconsin, circa 1974. I clearly remember seeing this book on a turning wire rack near the front door of the Onalaska Public Library. I consumed it like I was on a desert island with a chocolate cake and returned the next day for The Wolf and the Dove. It was my transition summer to "grown up books" and formed a concept of what romance novels are in my mind.

Lord of Scoundrels"Using Woodiwiss as our bridge to the American romance tradition, we examined 'old school' writers McNaught and Lindsey before moving on to Kleypas, Quinn, James, and the more outré takes on the genre, including Regency gothic, Regency vampires, and Chick Lit," said Willig. "We had papers ranging from the Christological imagery in Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels to boxing as metaphor in Heyer’s Regency Buck. Their ingenuity and insights forever changed the way I look at several well-known texts."

Read the rest of our interview with Lauren Willig.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Afghan Women's Writing Project

“I was never ready to share my personal life, but now life has brought me in a crossroad with no option and no hope,” writes the anonymous author of a posting to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. “I don’t want anyone to know this is me. If anybody knows, it means that will be my last day of life. My family and uncles will kill me. It is not just a word that comes out of my mouth. They would surely kill me.”

The idea that simply writing about your day and then sharing those thoughts might literally cost your life is, for us, unthinkable. But for many of the women in Afghanistan, it is a brutal truth. But thanks to the efforts of the extraordinary Afghan Women’s Writing Project, the essays, poems and stories written by these courageous women are now being read by people around the world.

An online magazine dedicated to empowering and nurturing the voices of Afghan women, the AWWP pairs volunteer women novelists, teachers, poets, journalists and screenwriters here in the United States with young women in Afghanistan. Writing workshops are taught in three secure online classrooms and the women’s work is then posted on the AWWP web site -- allowing them to have a direct voice in the world, not one filtered through male relatives. The AWWP was founded by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton, herself no stranger to life in dangerous places. Hamilton worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press in the Middle East, where she covered the intefadeh, the peace process and the partial Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. She then spent five years in Moscow and covered the collapse of Communism as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and NBC/Mutual Radio. Now living with her family in New York City, Hamilton’s novels have won wide critical acclaim. Her most recent, 31 Hours, was selected by the Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009.

Masha, how did you move from a journalist reporting from Afghanistan to the creation of the AWWP
When I first visited Afghanistan in 2004, I was able to talk to women in prison in Kabul and Kandahar, child brides, the matriarchs of families that grow opium. Returning in November of 2008, I found a changed country. Due to kidnapping concerns, I was not able to travel as I had before. A lot of the optimism was gone from Kabul and as the women discussed the Afghan government’s plan to open negotiations with the Taliban, there were sharp fears. Few ruled out the possibility of a return to conservative Islam and I began to fear we could lose access to the voices of Afghan women if we didn’t act soon. I’d been wanting for some time to teach an online writing class to women in Afghanistan and it seemed imperative to set it up immediately. I began by teaching an online workshop myself, but quickly understood the demand would outstrip my ability to meet it and reached out to set up the AWWP. Today, we have more than seventy gifted volunteer mentors who teach on rotating basis.

In so many instances, it requires an act of extraordinary courage for a woman to simply send her work to the AWWP. I’ll always remember the story you shared with me of a woman who walked four hours through Taliban controlled territory to post a single poem. How do you protect the safety of your writers?
Most of the writers participate in the project partially or entirely in secret from friends and family, so we use their first names only and cut out identifying details, such as names of other family members or specific locators. On very rare occasions, we also publish a piece anonymously because we feel the security concerns are so high -- that the woman's life might actually be in danger if a relative or neighbor were to discover what she had written. This October, the AWWP opened the Women's Writing Hut. It’s located in a small apartment building in one of Kabul’s safer neighborhoods, unmarked from the outside, and a building guard lives on the premises. It has laptops and books as well as Internet service and offers the women who come an opportunity to not only post their work but to spend time with other writers. We hope it will be the prototype for what will eventually be Afghanistan’s first women-only Internet café.

Are there any limitations on what contributors may write?
We encourage the women to write about their deepest concerns, but also their history, what makes them laugh, what they believe in or feel passionately about. These are average women and they have a variety of viewpoints. They share sad hard stories about life in a Taliban held province, but also stories that are funny and poignant. We believe that once a woman begins to write about her life, she begins to gather the intention and will to change her life where needed. I also firmly believe that change to Afghanistan is going to come from within, not from outside pressures, and that women are going to be crucial to that change.

Reports say romance is the hottest e-book market (but the big news is that some people are surprised)

According to this article in the New York Times...
If the e-reader is the digital equivalent of the brown-paper wrapper, the romance reader is a little like the Asian carp: insatiable and unstoppable. Together, it turns out, they are a perfect couple. Romance is now the fastest-growing segment of the e-reading market, ahead of general fiction, mystery and science fiction, according to data from Bowker, a research organization for the publishing industry.
And this article in World News Media Headlines corroborates with data from Bowker...
Romance is currently the fastest growing segment in the market of e-reading, ahead of other categories such as mystery, general fiction, and science fiction. ...All Romance, an online retailer of e-books, reported that sales have increased twofold, with the raciest books being the most sought after.

#BuyThisBook: "Safe from the Sea" by Peter Geye

Wracking your pine cone and egg nog addled brain for gift ideas? We asked our publishing peers and peeps to help us recommend a book every day from Black Friday to Christmas Eve!

Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye
Recommended by Caitlin Hamilton Summie, book publicist and marketer
Perfect for Dads, sons, daughters, sailors, Midwesterners, boat and sailing fiends, avid readers

"Set against the dramatic landscape of the Minnesota north shore, this is the story of an estranged father and son reconnecting thirty-five years after the father survived the tragic wreck of a Great Lakes ore boat."

“Give this book to readers of David Guterson and Robert Olmstead...” ~ Booklist

“Inspiring, wise, and enthusiastically recommended for all readers.” ~ Library Journal

Buy from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from IndieBound

Sunday, December 12, 2010

#BuyThisBook: "First of State" by Robert Greer

Wracking your tinsel and sugar plum addled brain for gift ideas? We asked our publishing peers and peeps to help us recommend a book every day from Black Friday to Christmas Eve!

First of State by Robert Greer
Recommended by Caitlin Hamilton Summie, book publicist and marketer
Perfect for mystery buffs, fans of African-American fiction, and people who love to read about the West.

"A prequel to the popular CJ Floyd mystery series. Equally a white-knuckle-ride murder mystery and a tale of a traumatized young Vietnam veteran coming to terms with his past, First of State features the kind of fresh characters, street-smart dialogue, and ingenious plot twists that have made this series a critical and commercial success."

Buy from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from IndieBound

Bad Writing: the movie (Vernon Lott's documentary bravely asks authors why his own writing sucks)

Can't wait to see this! Lott sets out on a quest to find out exactly why his bad poetry is so bad, and gets logical, hilarious, insightful answers from George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Miles Corwin, Nick Flynn, Aimee Bender, D.A. Powell, Lee Gutkind, Steve Almond and David Sedaris.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

So you've discovered that you're a fictional character . . .

In one of my facebook breaks between writing and grading papers, I found this article from the fabulous people at Too funny, way too funny. Check it out:

Realizing you're a character in a work of fiction can be startling. At the moment, you probably feel like you're trapped in an elevator that's in freefall, and your mind has somehow hit the ground before the rest of your body.

What you're going through is completely natural for someone in your uniquely regrettable situation. Believe it or not there's a lighter side to be found in all the existential blackness you're feeling at the moment.

Read the rest here. And while you're at it, you tell me: what fictional universe do you think you're trapped in?? Who is your author?

Buy This Book: "The Witch of Portobello" by Paulo Coelho (Perfect for nieces and other magical beings)

Spent some quality time with my fabulous niece Jenny last week, and Paulo Coelho's wonderful book The Witch of Portobellocame up in conversation. It's been a while since I read it, but it's one of those books that swept through book clubs a few years ago. I immediately hopped online and ordered a copy for Jenny to read on the flight home, and I highly recommend it for the Christmas stocking of the open-minded, free-spirited reader in your life.

From Margaret Flanagan's Booklist review:
Best-selling fabulist Coelho continues to transform his trademark combination of mysticism and storytelling into spellbinding examinations of the human soul. In this deceptively simple novel, a bereaved lover attempts to chronicle, dissect, and comprehend the often-twisted path followed by Athena, otherwise known as the Witch of Portobello Road. An orphaned Romanian gypsy, adopted as an infant by adoring Lebanese parents, Athena recognized and struggled with the power of her magical gifts at an early age. Spurred on by truths and passions inaccessible to most of her contemporaries, she traipsed around Europe and the Middle East in search of acceptance, enlightenment, and a truer path...
Be intrigued. Be very intrigued...


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