Monday, February 28, 2011

Claudia Sternbach's path to publication, Chapter 5: The dreaded Kirkus review and missing Dad

Here's the next installment in Claudia Sternbach's continuing adventure from brainstorm to bookshelf with her forthcoming book Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses. Click here to start at Chapter One.

I am sorry my father will never read my book. I had assumed he would live forever. As his health began to fail and there seemed to be fewer and fewer options for him, I still did not grasp the fact that he was mortal. As inconsistent as his presence in my life had always been, I couldn't imagine him not being out there somewhere. Six months have passed and I am still struck by his complete and total absence. I have spent my whole life thinking of him as having left. Of being gone. But this leaving was so profoundly different. A final chapter. Book closed. And time keeps moving forward.

Over this past half year advanced reader copies of Reading Lips have been sent out for review. I have been invited to write guest blogs on websites I had never known about. I have met, via the Internet, the Sweet Potato Queen and learned about her devoted followers and all of their enthusiasm for reading, kicking up their heels and celebrating life in a most colorful way. I have become familiar with the popular website Boxing The Octopus, a great place for all things literary. And one morning I choked on my oatmeal chocolate chip cookie (with cranberries for good health), when I found in my email a note from my publisher, Unbridled Books with "Kirkus Review" in the subject line.


Now I realize that my publisher believes me to be an adult. A grown woman who can handle what life tosses. From cow pies, to gold rings, kitchen knives to beanbags. I'm also sure that they feel they must share all news with me, good or bad. But the thought that:
A. Kirkus had read Reading Lips
B. They decided to tell the literary world what they thought of it, frankly made me want to start my day with a bang out of the cannon.

I debated with myself for a while before reading the missive. A shot of bourbon in my coffee to be enjoyed while still in my flannels seemed like a very writerly way to go. It could even lead to writing a memoir about substance abuse and then getting sober. I could check myself into a rehab. I could write about the people I met there. I could tell in graphic detail about having my teeth pulled without drugs. I could…go on Oprah!

Damn you James Frey. Beating me to the punch.

I ate a second cookie. Then opened the email. And it was good news. Now, other than to celebrate, I have no reason to pour a kick into my coffee. And since it wouldn't lead to another big book deal and a visit with Oprah (thanks so much James), there really is no point in trying to adopt new habits at this time in my life.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me with about one month until Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses, hits the store shelves. It leaves me wondering if other reviewers will be as kind.

It leaves me wondering what my dad would have thought about it all.

Buy This Book: Peter Bognanni's wonderfully funny House of Tomorrow is fresh out in trade paperback

I have one request for Peter Bognanni: Write another novel. Soon. I absolutely loved The House of Tomorrow when it came out in hardcover last year and made it a point to search out some of his short form work. (I hated myself for laughing at Volleyball is an Awesome Sport and Your Mother and I Are Getting a Divorce, but I read it again anyway.) The House of Tomorrow is one of the books that turned me on to one of my current favorite imprints, Putnam's Amy Einhorn Books.

From the starred review in PW:
"Sebastian Prendergast, the teenage narrator of Bognanni's funny and unique debut, lives in Iowa's first geodesic dome with his grandmother, a devout follower of futurist philosopher Buckminster R. Fuller. But when Nana has a stroke, Sebastian is thrown together with Janice and teenage Jared Whitcomb, who were touring the home when Nana was stricken. Soon, Sebastian and Jared form an unlikely bond via the great teenage tradition of punk rock, starting their own band despite the objections of everyone around them and Sebastian's lack of musical ability. honest, noisy, and raucous look at friendship and how loud music can make almost everything better.
According to the Boston Globe:
"A good punk song is one that entangles itself with your pulse, mirrors the syntax of your body, and leaves your bones humming like train tracks when it passes. A really good novel does the same thing. At its best Peter Bognanni's 'House of Tomorrow' is tight and quick enough to pull you into its rhythm. It draws its audience in the way a steady bass line does — to the waxing and waning of the story's tides."
Visit Bognanni's website to view video trailer and link to essays and stories.

"The King's Other Speech": Shake off the Oscarfail with a hilarious bit from McSweeney's

Lord, I love to laugh on Monday. Check out The King's Other Speech on McSweeney's Internet Tendencies...
Hello. Again. England. Sorry. About. The dramatic. Pauses. Geoffrey. Rush. Is. Staring. Into. One's. Microphone.

One year into the German onslaught, one is gratified to say that one's country is still pulling together rather onesomely. One's wife is thanked warmly by the majority of Londoners as she tiptoes through the rubble bestowing toffees upon them. A few rotters in the East End apparently took offense at that marvelous woman's finery, and caused a scene. Steady on, fellows! One doesn't pass judgment on your rags even though Lord Hawsley from the Unflappably Chipper Office says the Germans are leading on the sartorial front. (But not to worry!) One would accompany one's wife on these "appearances" only one finds the whole thing positively loathsome and demeaning. Cheering crowds are all very well for the PM but an English monarch prefers the company of animals.
Read the rest on McSweeney's.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ethan Coen on True Grit

Interesting item in LA Timed Jacket Copy re the Coen brothers and how they approached Charles Portis' True Grit:
"We both saw the movie as kids when it first came out, but we don't really remember it very well, honestly," Coen said. "I read the book to my kid, out loud, a few years ago and then we started talking about taking our experience of the book and what we liked about the book and making a movie out of that. It's an unusual western story, a novel that's very funny and touching and compelling in many, many different ways."
Read the rest here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Fabulously Naked Noggin of Margaret Baker

If you happened to pass by a newsstand last week, you saw this attention grabbing cover art. The pristine and plugged in head of the immortal "man" belongs to Margaret H. Baker, whose head also appears on the cool cover done by Chip Kidd for my memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair: A True Story (HarperCollins 2001).

And there's a lot going on inside that head.

Her career has included all sorts of freaky-deaky modeling jobs - with and without wigs - movies, TV, opera, theatre, writing, and a whole lot of unique Margfabness. Her stage musical, My Life As a Bald Soprano, explores the desperate quest of a little girl who just wanted to fit in but comes to realize her shiny head is part of what makes her...shine. She's currently developing a one-woman show with HBO's Peter Bunche.

As an international spokesperson for CAP (Children's Alopecia Project), Marg reaches out to kids facing the daunting prospect of being different in a world that loves same.

Margaret doesn't suffer from alopecia totalis; she features it. Instead of trying to cover or cure the fact that she has nary a hair, she's embraced her total baldness as part (but only a small part) of what makes her unique. A lesson that takes many artists a lifetime to learn. (I can't wait to see what her head does next!)

BtO Cheap Laugh of the Week

What with Borders Books filing for bankruptcy and the publishing world shifting beneath our feet, I thought you all could use a cheap 15-second laugh this morning. As well as reinforcement for the fact that spelling really is still relevant!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Free from WD University: "The Borders Dilemma: What the New World Order of Bookselling Means for Writers"

Writer's Digest is hosting a free webinar to educate writers on what to expect as the dust settles around the Borders bankruptcy, what's changes shall be wrought in the industry and how authors will be effected by it.

When: Friday, February 25, 1-2:00 PM eastern
Where: GoToWebinar
Who: Jon Ackerman, Sales Director of Adams Media, formerly in sales and marketing at Candlewick Press, Simon & Schuster, and Random House. And Phil Sexton, Publisher and Community Leader of Writer's Digest.

Per the PR, they'll cover:
What changes are happening at Borders and how will they impact writers?
If you've never been published, how will this change affect your chances of getting into print?
If you're already published, how will it affect sales of your current books?
What questions should you be asking your publisher?
What can writers do to help overcome these challenges?

Live event limited to the first 1,000 registrants, but you can sign up to receive a free recording.

Click here to register.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Claudia Lonow's hilarious bookling shows Kindle Singles "How To Not Succeed"

Waiting for my flight to take off yesterday, I was scouting for a quick read to download on my Kindle and decided to try one of their new Kindle Singles: How To Not Succeed In Show Business By Really Trying, Claudia Lonow's shocking and

I don't know what to call it. Bookling? Embryo? I laughed out loud and really loved her writing, but this isn't a book. And it's not a short story. It's a clever, funny word zygote that starts to tell a story, then lurches to an abrupt halt just when the reader has become fully engaged.

Billed as a "teeny tiny show biz memoir", How To Not Succeed... rambles a bit about her childhood, including a few mortifying anecdotes about her wannabe actor parents, then talks a little about her acting career without really saying anything, then takes us on a misadventure at a sex club. Lonow is smart and funny a la Chelsea Handler, but the truncated format and almost insights make the piece, as well written as it is, about as satisfying as a mouthful of uncooked chicken.

I'm open to giving other Kindle Singles a try, but for my taste, this one realizes my worst fear about *quick and easy* e-pubbing: the fatally premature birth of what could have been a great book. I truly hope Lonow is able to spin this thing into a book deal and that she can sustain the pace and creativity she started with. If I'd downloaded this as a Kindle sample, I would have clicked through to buy the book. It wasn't the buck-ninety-nine that matters; I was in the mood for and expected something complete and fully crafted. A memoir, no matter how teeny tiny, needs a beginning, middle and end.

Not just a begi

I feel like the author was done an injustice here. She's very talented, very funny, and willing to go way out there. She somehow manages to make some extremely unfunny aspects of her life absolutely side-splitting. But instead of offering some form of redemption or enlightenment, a sense of completion or that sense of future that makes for a satisfying read, this just sort of drove off a cliff.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Interview with Jill Elaine Hughes, Part Two: It's Not Just About Sex, Baby

Today BtO welcomes back romance and erotic fiction writer Jill Elaine Hughes for the second half of her interview. On Saturday, she talked about the rise of Ebooks and how she balances her fiction and freelance writing roles; today she discusses the line between erotica and porn, and how she got started writing erotic fiction.

In one of your various writing roles, you write erotic fiction. How did you get involved in this, and what are your tips for would-be erotica writers? And I know it's an old question, but what's your take on the divide between erotica and porn?

To me, there is no divide between erotica and porn. I don’t consider porn to be “bad.” But if you want me to give a definition of what constitutes good erotic writing, it is the combination of a good storyline and complex characters who are primarily developed through their sexual selves and relationships. Too many people think writing erotica is easy because “it’s just about sex.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s one of the most difficult genres to write, because----like horror----it’s one of the only genres that is designed to evoke a physical reaction in the reader. If somebody is reading my erotic fiction and doesn’t get aroused, then I haven’t done my job. But turning people on is only a small part of it. Like with any kind of fiction, my goal with erotic fiction is primarily to entertain, and to keep the reader obsessively turning my pages until the very end of the book. That’s not so easy to do, believe me.

I actually got into writing erotica and erotic romance entirely by accident. Though I had read both (and romance in general) for years, I spent quite a long time trying to get published as a horror/fantasy/science fiction author, with limited success. I also tried my hand at chick lit (also without success.) But I almost always found that no matter what genre I was writing in, there was always a lot of sexual tension and sexual subplots going on in my stories. One editor who rejected a story of mine sent me a nice note saying how much she enjoyed reading my story’s sex scenes, and had I ever considered writing erotica? I took her suggestion to heart and started writing erotic fiction----and soon found that I was very good at it. My first published novel, MARKET FOR LOVE (written under my Jamaica Layne pen name), published by Virgin/Random House in 2008, was eventually the result of that---and I never looked back.

Standard BtO bonus question: What are you currently reading?

I’m usually reading several books at once, and now is no exception. I’m a big history buff, especially women’s history, and right now I’m looking at several history-related titles. I’m reading Women in The Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies, as well as Anna Whitelock’s recent biography of Mary Tudor (Queen Mary I of England). I’m also perusing some academic history texts on medieval women’s issues as part of a research project I’m doing. (I write a lot of historical fiction, and I also do historical reenactment as a hobby, so I’m always reading something historical.) My to-be-read pile currently includes some Jodi Picoult novels as well as several contemporary and historical romances. Some of my favorite contemporary authors include Alexander McCall Smith, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, Jodi Picoult (see above), Sara Gruen, Alison Weir (historical nonfiction), Phillipa Gregory, and Sherrilyn Kenyon.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Buy This Book: Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Shadow of the Wind" captures the soul of a book

My daughter Jerusha says she knew I was going to get weepy over this passage from The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and I do every time I return to it.
"This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though. When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody's best friend."
I'm printing it out right now to post on my Wall of Need to Know.

A huge bestseller in Spain, The Shadow of the Wind was translated and published in the US several years ago. It's kind of Gothic, kind of literary, with a delicious dollop of magical realism. The young protagonist, Daniel Sempere, is entrusted with the safekeeping of a rare book and soon becomes embroiled in the mysterious circumstances surrounding the author's death. The body of writer Julian Carax was dumped in an alley in 1936, and now someone is methodically tracking down and burning every remaining copy of his novel. The cast of rich characters, wry dialogue, and labyrinth of plot twists defy synopsis, but the book is about books and storytelling more than anything else. The writing is unabashed, lush, over the top. It made me simultaneously salute the translator and wish I could read Spanish so I could see the original.

Most extraordinary was the way I started the book thinking he wrote this book for writers and finished it thinking he wrote this book for me.

Borders and the Indies

From the good folks at Shelf Awareness:

This week it seems as if every local and national media outlet has been on the lookout for independent booksellers to share their opinions on the Borders bankruptcy situation.

"It's not good overall for the book industry when such a giant chain goes down," Dana Brigham, co-owner of the Brookline Booksmith, told the Boston Herald. "There are fewer places to buy books and that's a concern (for authors and publishers)."

Added Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association: "While we represent independent booksellers, we are not gleeful over this news. Our hope is that some of the closed locations will be taken over by independents."


In Santa Cruz, Calif., where the opening of Borders in 2000 just two blocks from Bookshop Santa Cruz prompted a public response that included "Books Without Borders" bumper stickers and protests, the Patch reported that the closing of the Pacific Avenue location will not be a cause for mourning as far as owner Casey Coonerty Protti is concerned: "Borders's opening had a big impact on Bookshop. Luckily, we do business in Santa Cruz, which is incredibly supportive of locally owned business, so we were able to weather challenges of Borders being down the street.... We're looking forward to reinvesting in the business in a way we haven't been able to do in the last two years so that we will be a strong bookstore for the community."

Protti added, "We understand that losing a business downtown is a hard thing, and we feel sorry for that situation... but for Santa Cruz, where we really were taking away from each other, it's exciting to be able to think forward and run the business we've been wanting to.... Mostly I've been thinking about how incredibly grateful I am for our customers, who saved us once during the earthquake in '89, and now they've saved the store again, by getting us through this 10 years."


The Sacramento Bee reported that some "area independent bookstore owners are hoping to reap a benefit" from the developments, even though none of the five Borders stores in the Sacramento area will be among the 35 California stores scheduled to be closed.

Stan Forbes of the Avid Reader at the Tower, Sacramento, said the closures "will impact (national) book buyers psychologically and make them inclined to be supportive of their independent bookstores." The bankruptcy filing "is the cost of (consumers) buying digital books. If you want to have bookstores, you have to buy books there and not online."

At the Avid Reader, Davis, Alzeda Knickerbocker sees the Borders dilemma as "a recalibration of the market (based on) the fact that there simply isn't enough business to support two large chains anymore." She noted that there could be an opportunity for indies: "As the book market downsizes, smaller bookstores in niche markets should find a place and fulfill smaller needs. It's an opportunity for (readers) to discover what a good job the independents do."


John Netzer, general manager of the Concord Bookshop, Concord, Mass., said, "They were rescued a couple of years ago. I'm not surprised, and I'm not disappointed." He told the Concord Patch "it's the nature of the book business. Online businesses and chains have all been hurt as much as independent bookstores."


In an e-mail letter to her customers, Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., responded to the Borders bankruptcy and other changes in the industry by suggesting that "it may be time for us to have a series of conversations, in person and online, on how we can remain vital to you. What new service might be helpful? What educational courses? What on-line capability? What merchandise? Or is it all about price, ease of delivery, etc?" Coady invited anyone interested to "join me for tea on Friday February 25th at 3:30, or wine and cheese on March 7th at 7pm, for us to begin the dialogue."


The Wisconsin State Journal reported that although Sandi Torkildson's A Room of One's Own Books, Madison, isn't in the dire situation that faces Borders, which plans to close its University Avenue store, she "still wouldn't mind some assurances about her bookstore's future. That's why A Room of One's Own has asked its customers to pledge to buy at least five more books this year compared with last year. Then, the store's owners will gauge the response to help decide whether to renew the lease in 18 months."

"It's not that we're in trouble," said Torkildson. "It's just a reminder.... We have good customers. We think it will be successful."

When the Story Chooses You

For years, I've been a proponent of the sensible, rational approach to writing, the idea of keeping your focus trained in one area, of maximizing your output by targeting proposals (if you have the track record to allow it) and not getting so attached to any particular idea that you can't let it go if it doesn't sell.

But that's not the kind of writing that swept me headlong into the love of the art. It's not the kind of commitment-phobic attitude that tossed me over its shoulder and ran away with me (carting me far from any hope of a "safe" and "sensible" career with sick days, health bennies, and a secure retirement.) And recently, I've discovered that it's not the kind of author that I always want to be.

How nice it's been, to find out that all these years later, that initial passion for a story can rekindle into mad love. How delicious it feels to open up myself when the story chooses me, and not the other way around.

Not in my usual genre, this particular project's currently claiming a great deal of my attention. And for now, I'm content to enjoy the ride without worrying about the destination.

When was the last time you let the romance of a new story run away with you? Though it's not always practical or even possible (i.e. you're working on a deadline to complete a contracted project) it can provide the spark the keeps you fresh in every facet of your work.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Growth of Ebooks and Multiple Hats: 3 Questions for romance and erotica writer Jill Elaine Hughes

Years ago, when I was at the University of Cincinnati, I had a fun job tutoring undergraduate students at the English Department writing center. While I was there, I got to know several of the other tutors, including a promising young fiction writer named Jill Hughes. I remember talking with Jill about the differences between literary and commercial fiction, and discussing some of the more literary works of Stephen King. Then I got into UH, she went to the University of Chicago, and poof! We never saw each other again--until she made a post on Sara Gruen's facebook page. I immediately sent the friend request and was quite delighted to hear how her writing had evolved throughout the years, into a hot (in more ways than one) career in romance and erotic fiction. Jill's answers for this interview were so fantastic that I'm splitting the interview into two parts. For this part, we'll address Jill's multiple writing hats and her views on ebooks, and for the next, she'll dish about how she got into writing erotica (hint--an editor tipped her off!) and her views on the line between erotica and porn.

You do freelance work for magazines, you write plays, and you publish novels under two names. How have all these different "hats" influenced your writing? How do they feed each other?

I’ve always worn several different “hats” as a writer. Early in my career, I worked “day jobs”----as an editor, admin assistant, librarian, corporate copywriter, etc.----to pay the bills while doing creative writing at night. I also took freelance journalism assignments on the side. So I’m very accustomed to compartmentalizing my writing. In the early days, doing that was both a means of financial survival (in the case of both the day jobs and freelance assignments) as well as a way for me to maintain my sanity. Some of my day jobs were grueling, low-paying, and involved long hours, and could be creatively and emotionally draining. Knowing I could work on writing a play or short story manuscript when I got home at night often got me through hard workdays. It also taught me self-discipline (a must for freelance writers), as well as the ability to develop my writing style in a lot of different areas.

Right now I find that I’m most productive when I’m working on multiple projects at once. If I ever get “stuck” on one writing project, I just switch to the other for a while, and that helps me avoid getting the dreaded writer’s block. I also have to juggle a lot of tight deadlines as a freelance journalist, and I wouldn’t have built up the self-discipline to do that if I hadn’t spent so many years as a staff writer in corporate environments.

We've all been talking here lately about the advent of epublishing. What's your take on it, and where do you think publishing in general is going? And how has this changed your work habits?

I’m really glad you asked this question. The vast majority of my novels have been primarily published as ebooks. It’s a sizable and growing segment of the market, especially for romance and erotica, both of which I write. It’s also the only segment of publishing that is growing right now, and it’s growing by huge margins (sales are increasing about 200%-300% every year----really!).

Just like the rest of the media world has gone almost entirely digital, so too will publishing. It’s already happened for newspapers and magazines, and books will follow. Indeed, they already have. Granted, it’s taken a long time for it to happen---ebooks have been around for about 15 years now, and we’re just now reaching a tipping point----but with the recent advent of practical e-reader devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, the ebook sales are really snowballing, and more people are reading ebooks than ever before.

Print books will never go away completely, but ebooks have already replaced large segments of the print market. The “pulp fiction” of the old days is now published almost entirely online as ebooks. Mass-market paperbacks are also starting to disappear, and several large commercial publishing houses (such as Dorchester, Harlequin, and Simon & Schuster) have started ebook-only imprints. Ebooks have the advantage of not having associated printing, shipping, and storage costs, and in theory, that means more money for the author. And if you work with some of the ebook-focused publishers like Ellora’s Cave, Samhain, Ravenous, and others, you will earn a much higher royalty percentage per copy sold than you would in traditional print.

But some of the “big” publishers are trying to keep all those extra profits for themselves and not matching the smaller houses’ royalty rates. That strategy has backfired somewhat, and now there are some New York Times-bestselling authors bypassing publishers entirely and self-publishing their own ebooks via Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing services-----and keeping all the sales dollars for themselves! Top-selling authors from J.A. Konrath to Stephen King are selling ebook-only titles, and making large sums of money. (Stephen King recently wrote a column about how he made $80,000 in 2 weeks from a single short story ebook on Kindle he would have happily sold to a print magazine for $1000 just a few years ago). The ebook earnings potential for authors is huge----but so is the competition.

For a long time, romance and erotica dominated ebooks, but now there seems to be a shift towards publishing horror in ebook almost exclusively. Many of the big horror imprints (like Dorchester) have gone ebook-only. Samhain recently launched a horror ebook imprint as well. And there are also several small science fiction and fantasy ebook presses, many of which also do print.

Another great thing about epublishing is, it’s allowing a lot of new authors whose work wouldn’t be noticed by the big print publishers a chance to break in. As an example, my current novel release TENDER IS THE KNIGHT (currently available from Decadent Publishing, is what you’d call a “niche” book----it’s a romance novel set in the Renaissance Faire/Medieval Reenactment world. A lot of the big print publishers liked this book, but thought it was targeted at too small an audience. But this type of book is perfect for the smaller epublishers, who don’t need to sell as many copies as Random House in order to make a profit. A lot of writers who first made strong showings in ebooks (like Lora Leigh, Stacia Kane, Maya Banks, and others) have gone on to become nationally bestselling authors with the big print houses.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jill. And stay tuned, everyone, for that last question, where Jill will erase the line between erotica and porn and teach us all how to write really good sex.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday afternoon groove: The Decemberists "Rise to Me" at the Portland Music Festival (and how I knew Colin Meloy when)

Long before he was the uber-hip frontman for the Decemberists, Colin Meloy was a lanky kid in one of my summer classes at Grandstreet Theatre School in Helena, Montana. That particular summer, I was struggling. (I didn't know it yet, but lymphoma was already raging through my neck and chest.) I had two weeks to put together a full-on show with my K-2nd grade students, plus a 10 minute musical with kids from 3rd-11th grade. I think Colin was fifteen or so, and the first day of rehearsal for the ten-minute musical, he was kind of surly--probably because I'd drafted him into my cast of mostly 8-to-10-year-olds. I asked him what he thought we should do, and he said, "Something other than the usual stupid little kid scene." I ceremoniously dropped my script (admittedly the usual stupid little kid scene) into the trash, and sat back as he and the other kids brainstormed a script ultimately titled "Z". He probably doesn't remember me, but I remember him as a really terrific, creative kid. And I loved the Decemberists before I knew he was in the band. So that's kind of cool. Even if it makes me feel like I'm too old to listen to the Decemberists.

(Colin's sister is writer/critical darling/literatti hottie Maile Meloy, author of the gorgeous story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Colin will make his literary debut later this year with Wildwood, which has already generated more buzz than a bucket of Bacardi. More on that later.)

So clearly the moral of this story is: Send your kid to Grandstreet Theatre School.

3 Questions With… Diane Holmes of Pitch University (Part Two)

Yesterday's post introduced Diane Holmes, founder of Pitch University, a free website devoted to helping writers sharpen their verbal pitches. Today, she returns to elaborate on improving the content of your face-to-face presentation.

BtO: I well remember my very first pitch session, with an editor at Harlequin. Desperately nervous and, well, just plain desperate, I blundered through pitching a type of book Harlequin didn’t even publish and came perilously close to puking on the editor’s shoes in the process.

Ironically, years later, this was the same editor who bought and published my first novel (when she was working for another house and I was writing in another genre). Probably only because she failed to associate my name with that pea-green nitwit she met outside of Houston. ;)

But I digress. Third question: Aside from the problems caused by nervousness, what particular problems do you see with the actual content of writers’ pitches?

DH: Oh, you have my sympathy! And I love that this experience didn’t stop you. Be resilient. That should be our motto! Okay, let’s talk content. Here’s my list of Top 3 Content Derailments:
1) They’re confusing.

This often occurs because you’re speaking the “pitch paragraphs” that you used in your query letter. We just don’t listen the way we read. Imagine trying to make sense of a verbal pitch that opens with, “When thrown from a horse while fleeing for her life…” only to find out later that the rider is a present-day 16-year-old girl who has time-traveled to 1916, and she running for her life because of a battle in WW1.

2) They’re misleading.

When I’m helping writers with their pitches, I listen to the pitch, then ask them fill me in on book. Often the pitch is totally misleading. The author has narrowed the story down to a few elements not realizing those elements imply a whole world in the listener’s mind.

For example, if you mention that the protagonist finds a body, I’ll assume we’re now talking about a mystery. Dead body = Mystery. Mention a famous person, and I’ll assume your characters spend the entire book interacting with this person. Talk about a child who has polio, and I’ll think this is a book about the child’s experience with polio, and not just a colorful complication.

When you choose which elements to highlight in your pitch, remember that the listener gives a great deal of weight to those elements and believes that “this” is what will fill up your pages and form the structure of your story.

3) They’re all over the place.

My dear friend Laura Gompertz told me the secret to pitching, and I share it now with you (come closer so I can whisper it in your ear): give your very brief pitch, then shut up. ☺

All the things you’ve learned about synopsis writing and query letters don’t directly translate to a pitch. Pitching isn’t a summary of your plot, including character internal conflicts and plot points. It’s more about setting an expectation, implying elements, and giving the shape or experience of reading your book. (It’s not the formula for Listerine, it’s the wonderful experience of using Listerine.)

This may be quite different from what some of you have been taught, so I understand if you’re shaking your head at me! But I’ve seen this work. And I’ve also seen “pitches that explain” fail.

Once you shut up, your pitch appointment turns into a conversation, and you learn if the person you’re talking to has questions (about plot points and internal conflict) or is the right match for your book.

And if you get a yes, stop! All you have to say at that point is say, “Thank you!”

BtO: Thanks for the tips, Diane, and I hope that many of our readers will stop by Pitch University and read the excellent advice you’ve collected from the generous agents and publicists who have shared their wisdom. But before you leave us, we always like to ask our visitors one last question. What have you been reading lately, and what was the last book that knocked your socks off?

DH: Well, Pitch University has taken over my reading as well as my life. I’m currently reading POP!: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything by Sam Horn, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye by Literary Agent Katharine Sands, and Who Dares Wins: The Green Beret Way to Conquer Fear and Succeed by Bob Mayer. (I remember fiction, and I miss it so….)

As for socks being knocked off…. You’re going to laugh at me, but it was a contest entry I judged. So flipping good I actually wrote a letter of referral to an agent on her behalf.

Colleen, thank you so much for inviting me over to your many-tentacled blog. It’s been an honor.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

3 Questions With… Diane Holmes of Pitch University (Part One)

A few years ago, I first met the indomitable force of nature known as Diane Holmes. Diane’s not only a writer, she’s an amazing resource-builder for all writers, and during the time I’ve known her, I’ve seen her pour countless hours into a writing group’s annual contest, single-handedly organize retreats with publishing and creativity professionals from all over the country, and most recently launch a brand-new absolutely FREE project known as Pitch University, where writers can not only learn about the art of pitching, but can also create video pitches viewed by acquiring agents. Wowza! Wish that had been around when I was looking for my first agent!

Thank you, Diane, for stopping by Boxing the Octopus to answer a few questions.

DH: It’s nice to be part of the jolly crew! Thanks for inviting me.

BtO: Writers are often called upon to put together brief descriptions in order to sell projects, something that might be done in an e-mail or query letter. What made you feel the need to focus on the art of verbal pitching?

DH: Well, the number one reason is that I suck at it, which has always frustrated me! After all, my Dad was in sales, and I grew up immersed in it. Plus I have a degree in Marketing, for Pete sake. And, no, the problem is not public speaking, because I founded two writers groups and have given lectures, workshops, and writing retreats.

But when it comes to pitching… the problem is me pitching my own book. It matters too much, if you know what I mean. And I have no perspective!

The second reason is that while there are a number of quality e-resources focusing on writing query letters, there wasn’t any long-term resource focusing on hands-on learning (your book, your mouth!) for verbal pitching. And now, there is!

I found myself in the unique position of understanding that pitching is a type of sales career for many people, and we could learn how to pitch our books from these experts who make their living at it. And I understand why, as a writer, it’s so very, very hard.

BtO: What are some of the things you’ve noticed that can go wrong with authors’ verbal pitches?

DH: There’re really only two things that go wrong in a pitch: presentation or content. You may laugh at that, because it sounds so rudimentary, but pitching feels so overwhelming it helps to simplify the experience. Most writers experience stress over both areas, intensified by the perceived high stakes (a.k.a. “my career is over unless I get a yes.”)

The presentation piece is easy to “get.” Of course it’s difficult. We’re writers (behind the scenes) vs. actors (out on stage). And it doesn’t matter if we’re extraverted or introverted writers. Our strength is the written word and things that happen inside our own heads. Suddenly, none of that expertise matters. And we tend to realize this right about the time we’re sitting down at an agent appointment

The content piece is murkier. Agents and editors truly believe no one knows our books better than we do. (And that somehow this knowledge will translate into being able to generate a good pitch.) But, in a way, that’s like saying the makers of Listerine know their product better than anyone else. Who needs an advertising department? We’ll have the chemists do the advertising.

So, we authors know our stories, but we don’t necessarily know how to sell them. And to make matters worse, what sounds good to us may not be effective.

These are the types of topics we’ll be exploring at Pitch University. Our focus is on becoming effective and developing real skills that work.

BtO: Tomorrow, I'll be posting the second half of Diane's interview, where Diane gives some great tips on improving the focus of your pitch's content!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Buy This Book: PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt

Mental anxiety can create a kind of fog and as with the real thing, you can make up almost any sort of reality from it. You can create any kind of illusion. See a thing that isn’t there or not see a thing that is. Drive yourself insane. Drive yourself straight into a horrible, head-on collision with someone else, another woman, who is in the same state of panic as you, someone who is running as hard and fast as you. This is the scenario that Caroline Leavitt begins with in her latest novel, Pictures of You. And when the horrible wrenching sounds of the accident have fallen silent, only one woman is still alive. One woman, Isabelle, and one child, nine-year-old Sam. April, Sam’s mother, is dead. Isabelle is inconsolable. She remembers driving through the fog; she remembers seeing April’s car--stopped dead in the center of the road. Wasn’t that how it happened? The police agree. There was nothing Isabelle could have done. No one knows why April stopped. Sam swears he doesn’t know. The single consolation for Isabelle and for April’s husband, Charlie, is that Sam survived with little injury. But if he knows why his mother acted as she did, he isn’t telling, not yet. An even greater mystery, though, is what April was doing on that road in the first place. Three hours from home with a packed suitcase. She was leaving, obviously, but why? Charlie is desperate to know and even more desperate to protect Sam who is delicate, afflicted with acute asthma, and yet so brave, so determined to survive, to be well.

Sam is desperate too, to talk to his mother just once more and Isabelle is desperate to make it up to both Charlie and Sam, but how can she? It is from all this desperation that the most inexplicable of relationships develops between the three survivors each one of whom is in such dire straits, in such need of understanding and forgiveness and healing. When Sam, either by accident or design, finds books in the library about the possibility that angels might be counted on to arrange the meeting with his mother he so longs for, when he mixes up in his mind, Isabelle’s presence at the scene of the accident with that of an angelic visitation, the search for the truth of what happened and why on that foggy stretch of rural country road takes on elements of magical realism that are a child’s natural ground. I loved how this thread was woven into a story that is as much a tale of mystery and suspense as it is an exploration of the nature of human relationships and the often questionable road to forgiveness both of one’s self and of others. Is it possible? Is the job ever finished? And the nature of love is explored as well, its sometimes incongruous appearance in the most unlikely of circumstances, but somehow it lights as gently as a whisper in exactly the place where it is most needed.

Using language that simply unspools in the loveliest, most effortless fashion, Caroline Leavitt has created a cast of characters who are warm and relatable and a story that is as charming as it is, at times, heartbreaking. The ending is not what you might expect and even now, although I wish it might have been otherwise, I know it was exactly right.

Ask the Publicist: Sharing the Best Ideas for Promoting A Book

After reading the comments and responses to Ask the Publicist, one thing became very clear -- this is a community with a wealth of eminently sensible/quirky/outrageously inventive ideas about promoting books; about what works and what doesn't.

So let's share. What have you done that's increased sales or gotten your first book off to a great start? What's been a huge waste of time or money?

Let me start with one from Allison Brennan on giveaways:

I've given away over 2,000 books since I've been published. I order extra stock from Author Author (at a steep discount), especially the first book in each trilogy. I send 3-15 books to every writers conference/readers luncheon I hear about (15 is max in a flat rate P.O. box) and I give away copies on FB and Twitter and my newsletter. Another thing I do is win two copies--one for the reader, one for a friend! Then I send to the friend. It costs a bit in postage, but I personally think the best way to find readers is to give them a free book--if they like it, not only will they buy your backlist/future books, but they'll tell their friends. Word of mouth is still the #1 way to sell books, and the one thing you can't buy, but you can help!

Ask the Publicist: How Can I Get Marketing Dollars From My Publisher

How do you get a marketing and PR budget from your publisher? Does getting blood from a stone ring a bell? While publishers who believe that each book merits their best efforts still exist, they are an endangered species. So unless you are one of the very very lucky few, your "marketing" budget will consist of nothing more than a review mailing ......even if your book begins to sell.

The harsh reality for most authors is that the minute your beloved book hits pub date, you'll be tossed overboard to make room for the next author who will soon find themselves heaved over the side. Which begs the question: is there another business that routinely produces product it has no intention of marketing? Insane.

So what's an author to do? Obviously, hiring a publicist is the first option, but that's not viable for everyone nor is it a wise choice for every book. Which brings me to sharing .... and my next post. So read on.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Love/Hate Relationships and the shifting state of the biz: 3 Qs for author James Lepore

Attorney/author James Lepore's latest novel, Blood of My Brother, is about revenge and redemption. His forthcoming Sons and Princes traps a mafia heir between two worlds. I was sensing a dichotomy theme...

James, thanks for joining us. The publishing industry has certainly been a rollercoaster ride since you got into it with your first novel, A World I Never Made. What's your take on where we go from here?
I have the feeling that 2010 will be seen as the moment of transition from the old to the new—and ever evolving—model, of book publishing. The e-reader will, I believe, from now on, be accepted as the way to receive their daily bread by readers of both fiction and non-fiction. Packaging is nice, but in the end it’s content, not packaging, that sustains a reader’s soul. Most of us have at least two or three balls in the air at one time, all the time. Reader’s will always love to read, but in today’s very hectic world (and very scary economy), I believe they will be willing to sacrifice packaging in exchange for the great pricing and the tremendous simplicity and ease of purchase and delivery that comes with an e-reader.

This is not to say that print books will go away. They will, I believe, fall into a different, and more exalted category of acquisition, that of the prized possession. Remember, I said daily bread, not gourmet meal. There will be readers—many, many of them—who will love a book so much that they will have to own it as an artifact, an icon of their experience of reading it. This desire for the physical thing may arise after reading an e-book, or by simply knowing that certain books have to be on your shelf near the fireplace, Jane Austen, for example, or Hemingway or Steinbeck, or Stieg Larrson. Publishers may respond by printing limited special editions, beautifully bound, perhaps signed by the author. Treasures to be cared for, handed down, read aloud to the children.

As this new model expands, traditional print publishers are going to have to rethink their missions, while at the same time self-publishing and other models—most of them not even thought of at the moment—will have more room to position themselves than ever dreamed possible. I can see five writers getting together, for example, to form their own e-publishing company. I say go for it. Keep all the profits!

So what does this mean for bookstores?
I think the big ones are great, but I believe they are going to have to reshape themselves—likely a painful process—in order to survive. The small ones, the indies, will, I believe, be the winners in this brave new publishing world. They will be the places where the special editions of loved books, new and old, can be purchased, where people can browse and feel books in their hands that—since it is not an every day occurrence—they will be willing to pay a premium for. Your readers will not miss the irony of this, hi-tech takes the indies full circle, from esteemed local businesses, to despair, to triumph in a new paradigm.

In five years, God willing, I’ll write anoher piece for you, Joni, and talk about how near to, or far from, the mark I came.

I always ask everybody what they're reading, but I'm curious to know: what books have you particularly loved/hated since you started writing?
I find it interesting that you gave me two starkly opposed ratings categories: Loved/Hated. Here goes: The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, Stieg Larsson. Loved it and hated it. Hated the long explanatory passges, all that telling. Loved Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who lives life completely on her own terms, and who deals with the blows received from others in a very straightforward way: she gets revenge. The plot is of course a winner too.

The Raymond Chandler Ominbus. (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Wndow, The Lady in the Lake). Loved it. Rereading Chandler gives me faith that a great voice can be heard through all the distracting noises of the universe.

The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott. Loved it These were four of he best novels I’ve ever read. Are you interested in any of the following subjects: the dehumanizing effects of colonialization on both sides of the equation; the corrosive power of racial bigotry and religiuos fanaticism on the human heart; the end of the British Raj in India;. love aross brutally drawn race lines? Then read these beautifully written novels.

The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly. Loved it I wish I had dreamt up Mickey Haller, his Lincoln Town Cars and his great trial skills.

Homage To Catalonia, George Orwell. Loved it. Non-fiction, but it’s Orwell, whose clarity is incomparable, which is especilly needed on the subject of the Spanish Civil War, one of the most remarkable, and, I believe, least understood, episodes of the twentieth century.

Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene. Loved it. Not one of Greene’s best, but he’s so intelligent that you soon realize you are at the feet of a master story teller.

Visit James Lepore's website
Read an excerpt from Blood of My Brother

Monday, February 14, 2011

Literary Valentine: Open Road authors ponder the wonders of love

Authors Dalma Heyn, Natalie Goldberg and David Richo share perspectives toward love and relationships.

Borders days were numbered long ago (Shelf Awareness translates the handwriting on the wall)

Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin: "God has numbered your days. You have been weighed and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided, given to the Medes and Persians." The handwriting on the wall at Borders was looking similarly ominous long before recent rumors (and head slapping) about their imminent bankruptcy. Today Shelf Awareness examines the last 20 years of Borders corporate culture and ponders how this giant freight train went off the rails...
The purchase of Borders by Kmart in 1992 was not so bad in and of itself, but Kmart's decision to merge Borders with Waldenbooks, which Kmart had bought in 1984, was disastrous. From computers to company culture to focuses on different types of readers, Borders and Walden were a bad fit, and hobbled each other. ...For many years, Borders, which was spun off by Kmart and went public in 1995, had several CEOs from outside the business--for some reason, two came from food retailing, notably Hickory Farms and Jewel-Osco, and hired many other top executives from outside the book business. While having some people from nonbook industries could provide fresh air and helpful new perspectives, this tendency seemed to have a corrosive effect on a company that in its early years was famous for its knowledgeable booksellers and solid, deep selection. One minor measure: it's been years since anyone has mentioned the once-legendary book quiz given to prospective Borders staffers. Likely most of the people running the company in the past few years wouldn't pass it.
Read the rest of the sad story on Shelf Awareness. What I find comforting: this article illustrates that the downfall of Borders isn't about the death of books; it's about a company that was badly run.

Perry Como and the 1958 All Americans "Love Makes the World Go Round" (yeah, yeah, yeah)

Happy Valentines Day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday quote-Churchill on Writing a Book

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”
- Winston Churchill

I think I've reached the "master" point with my current secret writing project, which is waking me up at all hours and chasing me to the keyboard. But maybe that's just the secret lover phase, because I absolutely can't wait to wrap myself back in imagination's arm.

At what stage are you in your current writing process? "Dating an idea," as Joni likes to call it, or in a death match to see which of the two of your survives the process?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Don't confuse the rise of ebooks with the death of books

In a great overview of the new Kindle app, The Book is Dead, Long Live the Kindle App, Vince Font says:
I'll admit, I'm a latecomer to eReaders, and I came to their appreciation grudgingly. I'm a reader of books, and I always have been. I'm a fan of good binding... of colorful dust jackets… of awesome cover art… and I think that the smell of a freshly cracked book comes second only to the "new car smell" in the great olfactory list of aromas. So I only begrudgingly endorsed something as blasphemous as an eReader – or, in this case, an application that only serves to further strengthen the already booming eBook market...I really tried to find fault in the Kindle app, because I just figured "It's free. How good could it possibly be?" The answer, as it turns out, is: pretty darn good.
He goes on to discuss the sweet price tag (free!), syncability, and general handy-dandiness of the app.

Last week over coffee, Colleen showed me how to sync my Kindle to my snazzy new Motorola Droid. I started out saying, "I'll never read on my phone." But that ended up going the way of "I'd never read on a Kindle." In the 14 months since I got the Kindle, I've read more books than I read in the previous three years combined. The adjustable print size makes it possible for my eyesight-of-a-certain-age to read without getting sleepy. (The optometrist told me that's actually the brain signalling "close your eyes" in response to eye strain.) The classics are available cheap or free, so my Kindle is loaded with them. I take advantage of freebies (like the recent Blue Boy offer) and impulse buy when I get a recommendation from a friend or see an intriguing review. I travel a lot, and while I used to pack the books I felt I should read instead of the books I wanted to read, now I have my whole library tucked in my purse, and I end up reading more of both.

This is where I take issue with, if nothing else, the title of Font's article. My Kindle has given books a whole new life for me. I read more, read faster, and I read better. The only thing missing is the paper. All the stories, characters, dialogue, sense of place, soaring emotion - everything that's drawn me into a life of books - is alive and well.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A little Friday Laugh: Jane Austen's Fight Club

Funniest thing I've seen in--ever? Enjoy! And happy Friday!

Lessons from Casablanca: The magic's in the rewriting

Last night I spent some quality time watching perhaps my all-time favorite movie, the famous 1942 flick Casablanca (picked up as a steal of a deal from Amazon) which is widely recognized as having one of the best screenplays ever.
All over again, I was blown away by the performances -- a depth of amazing talent that went far beyond Bogie, Bergman, and Claude Rains -- the unforgettable atmosphere, and so many classic lines that it seemed the script must have floated down from heaven in its pristine, perfect form.

Not so, I discovered after watching the documentary at the end. To my surprise, Casablanca was essentially written by committee, a screenplay adapted from an unproduced play called Everybody Goes to Rick's, by Murray Burnet and Joan Allison. The original script had a lot going for it, enough that it was picked up by Warner Brothers for $20,000 (the most ever, at that time, for an unproduced play) and given over to the adaption process, which was instructed to beef up the rather static script with action, more romance, and a more uplifting ending.

Despite what the studio had paid for the rights to the play, no one saw the future movie (whose title was changed to Casablanca to capitalize on the success of the exotic film, Algiers) as anything all that special, just one of more than 50 per year churned out by each major studio at that time. As a result, writers were pulled on and off it, with twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein adding many of the funny zingers and great dialogue, Howard Koch coming in later and working on the political and melodramatic aspects, and the uncredited Casey Robinson brought in for a few weeks for rewrites and the addition of several scenes where Rick and Ilsa meet at Rick's. And still, they couldn't get the ending. The movie people thought the audience would prefer to see Ilsa and Rick get their happily ever after, logic dictated that Ilsa remain with Victor, and nobody wanted Rick to end up dead or in a concentration camp or prison.

But the clock kept ticking and the director kept shooting, with new script pages and changes in direction coming in daily, none of the actors (including Ingrid Bergman, who was really getting worried) having any idea who Ilsa would end up with and what looked like chaos unfolding all around them.

At last the Epstein twins came back onto the project (they'd been called away to work on another film) and in a flash of inspiration during a car ride, they supposedly simultaneously blurted the famous line, "Round up the usual suspects" that made the ending crystal clear. Still, even after shooting this scene, producer Hal B. Wallis wasn't satisfied, so he added the final scene which makes both Rick's and Captain Louis Renault's redemption and sacrifice for the greater good so very clear and leaves the viewer with the emotional resonance that's made the film such an enduring classic.

All those writers. All those changes. All the vacillating and the struggle that finally comes together as a single, seamless whole. It made me feel so much better about the sausage-making-like mess of constructing a finished novel and made me quit kicking myself for never getting things right in my first misdirected, typo-ridden drafts. Because in the end, the reader doesn't care if my critique partners ripped it into tiny shreds and gave it back to me to totally restructure. She doesn't know that my agent hated the clumsy device propping up the plot and had me cut the legs from under it and start anew. She doesn't mind that not one but two different editors plus a copy editor pointed out inconsistencies and had me beef up a weak romance.

Nothing matters but having the persistence and the faith in my own original vision, however imperfect, to see the project through to the end.

Justice Brandeis once said, "There is no great writing, only great rewriting." And today I'm adding to it by insisting that it's no crime accepting help. What's criminal is the failure to listen to the salient points and smart suggestions of trusted readers and failing to make your story the very best that it can be.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Buy This Book: Touch, by Alexi Zentner

One of the more magical moments for me at AWP was meeting debut novelists Tea Obreht and Alexi Zentner. Since Lucinda wrote about the possibilities and caveats of book trailers, I thought I'd post the trailer for Zentner's novel, Touch. Stay tuned for an interview soon with Alexi, where he'll discuss the excitement booksellers have had for his book--and its trailer.

Path to Publication: Claudia Sternbach's (mis)adventure continues

Claudia Sternbach is out of pocket this week, so I'm posting the fourth installment of her continuing adventure from brainstorm to bookshelf with her forthcoming book Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses. Click here to read Chapter One.

Chapter 4

It is funny thinking about all of the things that can and did happen over the past few months while waiting for the book to come out. As my friends and family began to hear about the "tell all" each had comments and/or advice. Everyone felt I should go on Oprah. And that advice was given as easily as say, you should put on a jacket if it is snowing out.

I know that to slip into my black puffy parka I just need to grab it from the hall closet and pull it on. I haven't a clue how to end up on Oprah. But I do know I wouldn't wear that fat jacket.

Many felt that the book should come out on Valentine's Day. The title, Reading Lips, a memoir of kisses, seemed to go perfectly with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and red roses by the dozens. But, I told them, not all of the kisses in life are romantic. I have kissed my dog and had no lust in my heart whatsoever.

Eventually the advice died down. After all, how many months can go by with nothing happening and still find folks interested in the publishing process. New topics of conversation cropped up at dinner parties and holiday gatherings. I was off their radar. But deep in the night when I could not sleep I held the truth close. A book, small as it was, was on the way. I had a new job I loved as an editor of a literary journal, I had my position as a newspaper columnist that I found fulfilling, I was still finding a moment here and there to work on a novel. Life was good.

But I could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. I am sixty years old and am much more used to the snags and glitches and pot holes and black holes in life.

So when, one evening late in the summer, my phone rang and it was a new features editor at the paper calling to say that after more than fifteen years I was no longer needed as of that very moment I began to feel a bit more like myself. And when the next day a writer friend sent me a letter filled with angry denunciations, not the least of which was calling me an idiot, I thought, yes this is more like it. And when the following afternoon while making my way through New York's JFK Jet Blue terminal and getting ready to check in for a flight to California I heard my cell phone ring and was able to answer it while my carry on was being scanned only to have my sister tell me that our father had died just moments ago, I thought, ah ha. My life is back on track.

I settled in to my aisle seat. Tried to stay composed. But when one of the flight attendants noticed my tense expression, my clenched jaw, my blank stare, he kindly asked if I was alright. Which caused me to cry. Which caused him to bring me a cocktail. Which I appreciated so much I wanted to kiss him.

Nancy Pearl's Revised 'Rule of 50'

Nancy Pearl's Revised 'Rule of 50'

"On the spur of the moment, with no particular psychological or literary theory in mind to justify it, I developed my Rule of 50: Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you're really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you're not, then put it down and look for another....

"This rule of 50 worked exceedingly well until I entered my own 50s. As I wended my way toward 60, and beyond, I could no longer avoid the realization that, while the reading time remaining in my life was growing shorter, the world of books that I wanted to read was, if anything, growing larger. In a flash of, if I do say so myself, brilliance, I realized that my Rule of 50 was incomplete. It needed an addendum. And here it is: When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book. As the saying goes, 'Age has its privileges.' And the ultimate privilege of age, of course, is that when you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover."

--Nancy Pearl (librarian, author and action figure) in the Toronto Globe &

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Ask the Publicist: Book Trailers

Does anyone know if book trailers drive sales? Maybe. And maybe not. Some publishers now have their own You Tube channels, so it certainly is the nifty new marketing idea. My best advice -- if your publisher is footing the bill, I think a trailer is a flat out fabulous idea. If you have to produce and pay for it, I'd make certain that this is going to be the best use of your publicity dollars.

Who's had experience with a trailer and did you feel it led to book sales?

OK Go: Because overthinking is the enemy (and because Colleen will love it)

Ask the Publicist: Making the "Connection" with Readers

Some authors are magic. They walk into a room or a studio and everyone falls in love. It's a gift. The rest of us have to work our butts off trying to find a way to connect with readers that will actually result in book sales. So here's some basic advice from a cynical middle-aged publicist:

1. Whether it's a reading, a book signing or an interview, you are there to give a performance. This does not mean turning yourself into some smarmy version of The Author, it simply means that it's not enough to just show up and rely on your considerable charms to sell books. You need an "act."

2. All good acts demand rehearsal, so road test what you're going to read from and say about your book. Use friends as a focus group, schedule a talk at the local library or bookstore. Find out what people are actually interested in -- and trust me, it's not always what you (or your publicist) thought it would be. What's the audience asking questions about and what could they care less about? Do their eyes light up when you read certain passages and glaze over during others? Video your road tests and honestly critique your performance. Find out what truly engages an audience before you take your act on the road.

3. The old cliche about being passionate is true. And I mean genuine passion that shows in your eyes and even your gestures. Ever find yourself watching a PBS special on something like the secret lives of snails simply because the scientist/narrator was almost bouncing up and down with excitement about his work? Same principle applies. Passion is contagious.

You tell me: What panels do you want to hear about from AWP?

Here are some of the panels I attended at AWP. Let me know which ones you're interested in, and I'll blog about those first. There were so many great ones, it's hard to zero in on just one.

1. Narrative Structure: The Episodic and the Epiphanic

Four writers questioned the nature of the epiphany in short stories and asked whether the postmodern movement away from truth is moving fiction more towards the episode than the revelatory moment.

2. Agents and Editors: Best Practices for Securing Your Publishing Partners

Mary Gannon, Julie Barer, Robert Lasner, Corrina Barsan, and Greg Michalson discussed their various roles within the literary market. They gave quite a bit of dos and don'ts and general counsel about how to approach publishing professionals.

3. Why Don’t They List Agents on Demystifying the Author/Agent Relationship

Britta Coleman, Matt Bondurant, Alex Glass, Marcy Posner, Jenny Bent, and Ann Cummins used wit and humor to describe the relationship between authors and agents, and gave tips on "finding the right agent, snagging the right agent, and living happily ever after."

4. Love at First Query: Agents and Authors Share Strategies for Falling in Literary Love.

Catherine Cortese, Bret Anthony Johnston, Paige Wheeler, Matthew Gavin Frank, Gordon Warnock, and Michelle Brower gave advice about what questions authors should ask of potential agents and how to relate to agents once you have one. They also talked about when to discontinue the relationship and how to recognize when it's not working.

5. What to Expect When You're Expecting Your First Book

Alexi Zentner, Jill Bialosky, Téa Obreht, Noah Eaker, Peter Mountford, and Adrienne Brodeur explained "what an author can expect, and more importantly, what an author should do, between the period of selling his or her book and the publication date." They talked about dos and don'ts, ideal scenarios, and the importance of getting early buzz for books.

6. The Road Less Traveled: How to be a Writer Without a Full-time Academic Gig.

In this lively panel, authors Cheryl Strayed, Steve Almond, Amy Holman, Ru Freeman, and Christian TeBordo gave a very frank discussion about their writing lives off the tenure-track teaching path that has become the ultimate default goal for most poets and literary fiction writers. They talked about how they'd pieced together a living or worked full-time outside of academia in order to support their artistic writing, and some talked about using the writing itself to support the writing. A great discussion about a subject that has been one of the elephants in the room at most university writing programs.

What do you think? See any of these you'd like to know more about? I took plenty of notes.

AWP: Turning Pro and Cutting Through the Haze

I just got back Sunday night from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C. I'm still recovering from the sleep deprivation and the rush of information, but my first report is that it was a healing and transformational experience. I've been on the verge of a big life change, and the conference overwhelmingly confirmed my direction. Over and over again, my instincts were confirmed. My own panel went well, although we had only seven people in the audience (it was at 9 a.m. the morning after the big readings and parties). That could have been disheartening, but it was actually great, because it took the pressure off and gave me a chance to practice my controversial presentation. A couple of people even told me that I should publish the paper!

The biggest confirmation I had, though, was in the direction of my writing and in my imminent plans to query. I had a strange moment, sitting at a publishing panel and listening to the authors talk about how they'd found their agents. I realized that I know exactly who I want to be my agent, if he offers representation. While I have a list of other agents to query, I just have a feeling about this one, a hunch. So much so that I almost got out of line to meet with some of the other agents. It's strange, and I know I shouldn't put my eggs in one basket, but sometimes there is inner clarity. I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much, and want to have my query and back up list all ready to go if agent #1 says no. And I did force myself to stay in that line and at least get some cards from people, but it was a madhouse and all the agents were swamped. I was lucky even to get the cards.

I also came back with a revived and pressing determination to finish the book already and get it ready to send. During the semester, progress is always slow, because I've made a pact with myself not to shaft my students. But I keep closing in, and I really don't know how close I am. I've now given myself a deadline--by July 31, the manuscript must be ready to send, no matter what. Hold me to that, everyone.

I somehow also managed to lose three more pounds, despite two panini's, a late night bruschetta, and seven instances of wine. And in addition to the aforementioned agent panel, I went to several other panels that were chock full of good information. Some of it I'd heard before, but much of it I hadn't, and I'll be sharing it with you in my coming posts. Thanks to those of you who encouraged me to speak my mind at the presentation, and in general to this community for your continuing support and cheerleading. It means a lot.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Buy This Book: UNDERWATER by Elizabeth Diamond

What happens when you lose someone precious in your childhood? And you don’t know what happened to them? Someone like a sibling, say, who was your center, the calm eye of the storm of hard feelings, fear and misery that was your family? And there’s no closure, only half-truths and secrets, the tricks of your memory. You live with this absence. Live over it. Do the best you can. In UNDERWATER, Elizabeth Diamond's second novel, Jane does this. She lives over the loss of her brother. Makes a life, marries, has a child. And with all of this she has in effect “fixed” the past. But the sore mystery of her brother’s whereabouts never leaves her; the wound his absence has left in her heart never heals. Still, Jane might have managed keeping all of what happened inside and all of herself together, if not for the accident that befalls her own child, the accident that renders her son, whom she adores, less than perfect. Now, like falling dominoes, her life comes apart.

The darker themes of this story are sometimes overwhelming, but as a character, Jane is exceptionally well drawn and the emotional tenor of the drama, while it is a lot of drama, rings true. As in Elizabeth Diamond’s first novel, An Accidental Light, what compels the reader is the beauty of the writing, the ever-so-delicate unfoldment of Jane’s private heart and her private pain through her relationships with her husband and son and with her mother who didn’t ever favor Jane, but doted on the brother.

UNDERWATER is an unflinching examination of the nature of our disappointment in ourselves in circumstances where we wish, even pray, to be better human beings and yet continue to fail. It is inevitable that Jane will finally be forced to search for her lost brother. It is only in finding him that she will have the answer and possible healing and closure. Does he remember the way she does? The terrible truth that has sat burning like a hot coal at the center of her being her entire life? She knows what it has cost her--nearly everything. But what has it cost him?


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