Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blood sport! Blacklisting! Sex with sheep! It's the wild and crazy world of the American Poets Laureate!


National Poetry Month starts Friday, and Jerusha has been deeply engrossed (occasional emphasis on "gross") in The Poets Laureate Anthology, preparing a daily dollop of wild wordplay and elbow-patched mayhem! (Not kidding about the sheep.) Watch this space every morning, and by the end of April, you will have inhaled a terrific (and completely painless) overview of the American Poets Laureate.

If you don't have a copy of The Poets Laureate Anthology on your reference shelf, buy one!

(It's a busy month for J'ru; she's also captain of Sam Houston State University's Relay For Life team at Starbuck's. Help a gal out and support the amazing work done by the American Cancer Society!)

Which States Are Having a Love Affair with E-Books?

Shelf Awareness posted these intriguing stats compiled by Indie Book Distributor Smashwords.

"Have you ever wondered where the most voracious e-book readers live?" asked Mark Coker of Smashwords, who crunched his company's data to see how "the states stack up against one another" and found that the "numbers are surprising, especially when you look at per capita consumption."

Coker used the 20,000 e-books Smashwords distributes to Barnes & Noble, whose reports break down sales by state. Looking at the numbers for December through February, he then employed population data from the recent U.S. census to determine "the final, coolest numbers of them all, a normalized measure of per capita e-book consumption for each state."

His top five states for per capita e-book consumption:

Alaska
North Dakota
Utah
Wyoming
Virginia

Go Ahead, I Dare You: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Part science fiction, part murder mystery, part social commentary, seasoned with a fascinating coming-of-age romance, Across the Universe grabbed me from the first lines, which Amazon.com makes annoyingly easy to click onto.

Go ahead, I dare you, and click through and read the sample chapter, where Amy and her parents are prepped for the cryogenic process meant to freeze them for a 300-year pioneering mission. Harrowing and emotional, it's unforgettable. And I can almost guarantee you'll order this if you take that first precipitous step.

And for the record, I'm not recommending this because I know the author (I don't) or somebody sent me a free copy for review (I plunked down my own $). I'm recommending because I friend sent me to read that sample chapter, and I absolutely couldn't rest until I had the book (wow! in hardcover for only $10.59) in my hot little hands and finished it the same night it arrived.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Buy This Book: "The Sky is Everywhere" by Jandy Nelson


Jandy Nelson's beautiful YA novel is out in paperback. Sisterhood, loss, music, the hot new guy in town and a teenage girl's fascination with Wuthering Heights. Perfect for fans of Francesca Lia Block. Bring Kleenex.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Buzz Alert: Playwright Laura Harrington's debut novel "Alice Bliss" coming this summer

Tuck this in your back pocket for the all-important Summer Reading List: Alice Bliss, the debut novel of playwright Laura Harrington. The book grew out of Harrington's off-Broadway musical "Alice Unwrapped". Expanding the one-woman show to a book gave Harrington an opportunity to explore the the idea of war as seen from the homefront, including the loss of a father. (Harrington cites the post-war PTSD of her father, a WWII navigator/ bombardier, as one of the greatest mysteries and inspirations of her life.)

I love Harrington's work in theatre and can't wait to see what she does with this book. Advance review copy is on the way, and I'm working out so I can armwrestle Bobbi for it. We'll keep you posted.

Per the PR:
Alice Bliss is fifteen and is heartbroken when she learns her father is being deployed to Iraq. He’s leaving just as his daughter blossoms into a full-blown teenager. She will learn to drive, shop for a dress for her first dance, and fall in love all while trying to be strong for her mother and take care of her younger sister.

Alice wears her dad’s shirt every day; even though the scent of him is fading and his phone calls are never long enough. Life continues without him, but nothing can prepare Alice for the day two uniformed officers arrive at their door with news.

Faced with life without him, Alice must learn to get through each day until it no longer hurts to smile; until she can see she still has a family, and she’s still surrounded by love. A profoundly moving, uplifting novel ALICE BLISS is a story about those who are left at home during wartime and a teenage girl bravely facing the future.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Too Much of A Good Thing? Best and Worst Advice for Writers

I was fumbling around on twitter and came across this blog post by Paul Bassett Davies, which made me laugh out loud. What I like about his post is the acknowledgment that the best thing for writers is often failure, that we learn more from talking with people who don't get our work than talking with those who do. I also agree with his tongue-in-cheek comments about self help for writers. It seems like more and more websites now claim to "help" writers, in addition to writing programs and conferences and critique groups. While some of this advice is a good thing, listening to too much of it can have its consequences, one of which is that we end up reading a lot about writing rather than reading in our genres or ahem, actually writing. Some of that's necessary for new writers, struggling to get a handle on the business of writing as well as the craft, but some of it can be unhelpful and misleading, possibly even damaging.

So in the spirit of Paul Bassett Davies (or against that spirit, depending on how you read his post), I'd like to ask you a couple of questions:

(1) What's the worst advice you've ever received about your writing or a particular piece of writing, and how did you handle it?

(2) Where do you go to get sound advice about the writing and publishing business? Whose views do you trust? What are your favorite blogs for writers?

(3) When do you find yourself most trolling writing/publishing blogs? When you're taking a break from writing, when you're warming up (maybe not such a good idea!), or when you're trying to avoid doing the work entirely?

Would love to get a conversation going here, especially since it's a Sunday and we're heading into the week--unless, of course, you're too busy writing. What do you think? Is all this advice too much of a good thing?

Sunday Groove: Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins "Sleepwalk"



One of those songs that's an ever-fixed mark in my childhood memories. Now whenever I'm feeling low, I long for Mom's cool hand on my forehead and Chet Atkins on the gigantic console stereo.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Erica Jong: "Do you want me to tell you something really subversive?"



"Do you want me to tell you something really subversive? Love is everything it's cracked up to be. That's why people are so cynical about it. It really is worth fighting for, being brave for, risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don't risk anything, you risk even more."

This includes the love of writing.

Happy Birthday, Erica Jong!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Observations from a Big Box Bookstore

Like so many other people, my book buying habits have changed over the past few years. From home morphed into shopping from home, and Amazon made it so very easy. The gift of a Kindle 2 in December of 2009 didn't completely stop my paper book habit, but it's made impulse purchases oh, so easy and limited those purchases (about half of my total book purchases of late) to Amazon.com.

Yet somehow, I expected my favorite bookstores to still be there, and remain unchanged, when I wanted them because there's absolutely nothing like walking through aisles of attractively-arranged books all vying for my attention. I love the simple joy of exploring whatever title or cover grabs my attention, of plucking a book off the shelf and reading the first few lines to see if it's for me.

Yesterday, I had about forty minutes to kill when I stepped into a suburban Barnes and Noble, my fingers already tingling with delicious anticipation even though I have a stack of reading awaiting me at home and very little anticipated reading time in the coming weeks. But yesterday, for the first time I can remember, I left a bookstore empty-handed. I also left it struck by the ways book-buying habits have changed the stores themselves.

There are far, far fewer books, with none of the depth and backlist mass market shelving I've always appreciated in the larger bookstores. Numerous formerly hot-selling authors of my acquaintance, authors who used to be able to count on shelf space for their backlists were entirely absent, and the sections for romance, mystery, and science fiction/fantasy have been pared down to the bone. The one book I picked up thinking to buy, a fantasy omnibus of three connected novels, was done in such tiny print and on such cheap, grayish paper stock, that I reluctantly put it back down, knowing my computer-strained eyes couldn't hack all 700 pages of it. :(

There did seem to be a lot more emphasis on hardcover fiction, often with beautiful covers and lovely, thick pages. (I adore the feel of those deckle-edged editions, don't you?) For teens and young-at-heart readers, there was a nice Manga section (which appears to have grown) and a much larger teen fiction section than I remember. (And lets hear it for the publishers of young adult novels for making hardcovers a lot more affordable.) But what really surprised me was the amount of space given over to the Nook, the coffee shop, and especially to non-book products, right up to a large section for Legos and other toys.

Compared to the crowded, backlist-heavy shelves of the independent bookstores I've visited lately (all of which carry both new and used titles) this store seemed very sparse and open. Sadly so.

While I understand the big-box, high-rent chain bookstores are struggling to find a sustainable model in the shifting market, I can't help mourning the loss of the stores that I remember. But since, after my dinner meeting, I came home to order yet another title (a surprisingly affordable hardcover off of Amazon, where I could read the first chapter and a boatload of great reviews from the comfort of my own bed) I realize that I have only myself to blame.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Publishing: 'Not Like Any Other Business'


"When people say publishing is a business--actually it's not quite a business. It's part gambling and part arts and crafts, with a business component. It's not like any other business, and that's why when standard businessmen go into publishing and think, 'Right, I'm going to clean this up, rationalize it and make it work like a real business,' two years later you find they're bald because they've torn out all their hair. And then you say to them, 'It's not like selling beer. It's not like selling a case of this and a case of that and doing a campaign that works for all of the beer.' You're selling one book--not even one author any more. Those days are gone, when you sold, let's say, 'Graham Greene' almost like a brand. You're selling one book, and each copy of that book has to be bought by one reader and each reading of that book is by one unique individual. It's very specific."

--Margaret Atwood in an interview with the Globe & Mail.

One Lucky Elephant

Three things that absolutely entrance me: life stories, love stories, and elephants. (Seriously. I still have my 1960s vintage copy of The Travels of Babar.) Can't wait to see One Lucky Elephant directed by Lisa Leeman, currently playing film festivals and scheduled to air on Oprah's new Network.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Draft: The Journal of Process

Draft, a great new journal, focuses on the revision process, featuring previously published stories and their evolution in stages.  Also includes craft essays, author interviews and a link to their process blog.  Check it out!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Margaret Atwood on the essential love triangle that is publishing

Fantastic interview with the brilliant Margaret Atwood in The Globe and Mail last week. Her comment on the evolution of ebooks:
"The intention is the same: that is, to get stuff from here to there, and from then to now. The author communicates with the book; the book communicates with the reader, and e-books are another connection between them. Whether the technology is printing a text on a Xerox machine or reading it in a book or writing it on a wall, there is always a triangle: writer, text, reader.

...Every time there is a new medium, people get hypnotized by it: the printing press, radio, television, the Internet. It’s certainly a change in the world, which then somehow adapts. A whole section of society was very upset when zippers came in because they made it easier to seduce people in automobiles."
Read the rest here and have a great week!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Claudia Sternbach's path to publication continues with Chapter 6: Out the Door

Another installment of Claudia Sternbach's continuing adventure from brainstorm to bookshelf with her forthcoming book Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses. Click here to read Chapter One.

Well. I didn't see that coming. For almost eighteen months I have known that the release date for my book, Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses, was April 5th, 2011. This is what my contract from Unbridled Books stated. So, when during the first week of March I received an email from one of my sisters telling me how excited she was that she had received notification that her copy of my book had been shipped, I was surprised. After all, my copy had not been shipped. And wouldn't be for quite a while.

I emailed my publisher and politely asked, “WTF?”

“Amazon,” he replied. “Once a book lands in Amazon's big old storeroom they begin shipping. Filling orders before the official date of publication.”

“But,” said my publisher, “I will overnight one to you so your sister won't get the book before you—the person who wrote the book—do.”

I was happy. Except for the fact that I thought I had a few weeks before I would actually hear what my sisters thought of what I had written. I fully realized this would happen at some point, but it felt like the time I popped in to the doctor to discuss a possible surgery and within the hour was wearing an open-in-the-back cotton gown and being wheeled on a gurney down a hospital corridor.

Perhaps it is better this way. Just grab the corner of the band-aid and let her rip.

There is something rather surreal about opening a package and finding a book inside written by yourself. I had been working at my desk when I heard a knock on the door. I ignored it as I was not in "receiving company" dress. It was, after all, only a bit before noon and any self-respecting writer is still in her pajamas at that hour.

After waiting long enough to hear what sounded like a UPS truck drive up the hill I opened the front door just a crack. There was a small package lying on the Welcome mat. I reached out with one flannel-covered arm, snatched it up, and closed the door. Then sat on the floor staring at it.

This is the second time a UPS driver has delivered a book I have written. The last time I happened to be dressed—it must have been late in the day—and I answered the door. A uniformed deliveryman stood there with a carton in his arms. Recognizing the return address I began to bubble over with excitement, certain I was scaring the guy dressed in brown from head to toe. I suggested he wait right there on the porch while I opened said box. Then I pulled a book from the carton, held it up proudly and said, “I wrote this!”

There was a photo on the cover of a naked breast, not mine but how could he know, and he turned a lovely shade of red. Rather like Friday-night lipstick worn by women deeply interested in being noticed across a smoky room.

I asked his name and signed a copy for him. Gifting him whether he wanted to be gifted or not. About an hour later my husband, Michael, called me from the tractor dealership where he works to tell me that a UPS driver had just stopped in with a case of tractor parts and told him about the crazy woman with the naked-breast book.

“That's no woman, that's my wife,” said Michael. Small world.

So, I sat quietly on the floor. Then opened the package and there it was. The shiny new book. My book. And just a few days later an entire box of them arrived. The driver, I assume hoping to avoid embarrassment, just delivered, knocked and ran.

And both of my sisters have weighed in. It's all good. I have not been voted off the family island.

Buy This Book: The Night Holds the Moon by Colleen Thompson and Parke Roberts


This week our own Colleen Thompson steps out of genre but stays totally in character with her latest release, The Night Holds the Moon, a fantasy epic written in tandem with Parke Roberts.

Per the PR:
An ancient instrument of unspeakable power, Lhant's legendary Saireflute is meant to be played only as a ceremonial reminder of the Queen's might, and to be handled only by a docile, well-trained virgin. When an accident of fate --or magic-- instead places it in the hands of a disgraced and disreputable young lady-in-waiting, Elzin sees her miraculous ascent as her escape from a flogging, the furious Queen sees it as the motive for a murder...

And the mysterious Highlander Count Caldan Val Torska recognizes it as one last, desperate chance for his proud but subjugated people, no matter what--or who--he must sacrifice to save them.

It's been a trip watching this project evolve, so I bugged Colleen to sit still and answer our requisite 3 Qs...

Collen, congratulations on the bouncing baby book! A lot of people are going to be surprised to see you hop genres. Where is this coming from?
While most readers know me as an author of romantic mystery/suspense or historical romance (something I wrote under the name Gwyneth Atlee a few years back), I've long nurtured a fascination for the kind of big, imaginative epic fantasies I cut my teeth on as a young reader. From Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY to Terry Brooks' SHANNARA series to Stephen R. Donaldson's CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER and so many more, I was inspired to create a world and characters of my own, which I did with the help of the amazingly talented Parke Roberts. THE NIGHT HOLDS THE MOON, is part of an amazing journey years in the making. I absolutely love this story and its characters and hope that you will, too.

Does this mean you're done with romantic suspense genre?
Not at all. The trade paperback edition of The Salt Maiden was just released a few weeks ago, and Capturing the Commando, my first release for HARLEQUIN INTRIGUE, will be on the shelves on June 11th. (An Army Ranger goes AWOL to avenge his murdered little sister and rescue the infant stolen from her, and Special Agent Shannon Brandt will stop at nothing to bring him in to save her own career. But who will save the agent when the unstoppable force that is Rafe Lyons captures her-- body, heart, and soul!)

Care to share what you've learned on your first venture into Ebook World?
That's another blog post!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Buy This Book: Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! by Fannie Flagg


My baby girl turns 22 today, so this seems like an appropriate choice. I recently reread Fannie Flagg's terrific follow up to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and it holds up beautifully. The story deftly travels from small town Missouri to the dog-eat-dog world of national news broadcasting. Dena Nordstrom, star of America's most popular morning news show, is on emotional autopilot until the stress of her job (and not-so-nice coworkers) gives her a hemorrhaging ulcer. She goes home to unearth the scandal that drove her mother from her hometown and discover the truth about the war hero father she never knew. The cast of colorful (but not overly cute) characters, including Tennessee Williams, keep laughter and tears close to the surface. (It's Fannie Flagg. That says it all.) Published right at the cultural crossroads where we veered away from Walter Cronkite to embrace infotainment as a substitute for being well informed, this book actually weighs quite prescient a decade later.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A new twist on the workshop concept ;)

Because it's that time of the week where we could all use a laugh.

Buy These Books: The Borrowers by Mary Norton & The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This spring when I haven’t been writing, I’ve been in the process of making a new garden, a fairy garden. A garden in miniature because one day something could happen and I might be only 3 inches tall like Homily or Pod or Arriety from The Borrowers by Mary Norton and I’ll be in need of a cozy place to live. The thing is I got to a certain place with this little garden . . . I had the tiny cottage and a miniature gas lamp, a pond that does double duty as a birdbath and a winding path to the door. There is even a bench to rest on and dream, but then I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to flow the miniature garden into the surrounding larger, big person-sized garden. But here’s what’s funny . . . usually the garden is where I go when I’m stuck on some aspect of writing. Since I work organically (I mean green without a synopsis!) I sometimes can’t feel where I’m being led and need a space between me and the story to sort of let things breathe, preferably a green space, a space where I can stick my hands in the dirt or my nose in a flower or finger a bumblebee. I count on this activity to loosen my mind. As Ben Weatherstaff explained to Mary in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett “In th’ flower gardens out there things will be stirrin’ down below in th’ dark.” It’s as if he is talking about my subconscious. When I garden, I know things are getting stirred on levels I am unaware of.

I imagined this approach would always work for me and as I neared the end of the current novel, when I hit a snag and couldn’t quite see how it should come together, I went outdoors to my tiny new garden and found I was just as stuck there. It has never happened before, that I am circling the last ten or so pages of a project and circling a corresponding ten feet of earth in the garden! Thankfully, there’s been a breakthrough on both projects and really all was not lost because when the writing hit a dead end and the garden hit a dead end, I curled up on my gigantic-person bench in the delicate shade of a newly-leafed oak tree with two of my all-time favorite books: The Secret Garden and The Borrowers and I think it was something in rereading those stories for the hundredth time along with something in the spring breeze and in the delighted song of all the birds that hang out with me here . . . something in all that magic, in all that exuberance, is what loosened the knot in my head. I think my love of reading and writing, gardening and creating was born with the love of these books and others like them. I just want to suggest, if you haven’t looked at them in a while, try to make the time. I can nearly guarantee you’ll be richer for it. They’re gold for the soul!

Oil and Water

Friends, this is cross-posted at Oil and Water, the blog for a recent anthology to raise money for the victims, human and otherwise, of the BP oil spill.  Thanks for sharing.

I've spent many years along the Gulf Coast, writing one of my novels in an old house that withstood the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, another in a weathered loft overlooking the island and the easy-backed water.  A third was set on the water itself, in a beach house.  I know the smells of the Gulf.  I know its gray and green waves, the birds that crash or tiptoe into it, the mullet that leap out of it, the tiny half-moon clams that burrow into the sand like ears going deep to listen.  I know the people who live along the water, who choose to be there because they like it, or because they work there, or because the salt simply gets into their blood.

And I know the oil rigs.  You can see the closest ones easily: they're black insects stuck on pins poised over the water.

I wrote "Butterfly" to express my dismay over the carelessness, the heedlessness that marks our species.  Taking something away from all the good things we do, we are neverendingly stupid and simple, greed tattooed onto the genome.  In "Butterfly," far away from the Gulf and yet still in Texas, a state attached to it, a vandal descends into one of the most beautiful caverns on earth to try to steal a creature millions of years in the making.  The parallels struck me as I wrote: the hunger for something to sell, the rashness of the cut, the speed, sloppiness, the willing accomplices, irreparable damage, running off.  Forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness.

Sometimes we do our damage in a cave.  Sometimes we do it out in the great wide open.  Either way, how quickly the echoes fade.

In "Butterfly," a nurse brings light down into the darkness.  That's the good part.  The side of us that heals, or tries to.  The side that can't undo but can tell the tale.  The storyteller.  I have a penchant for storytellers, as you might imagine.  The ones who don't forget, who'll repeat the same thing over and over again.  Here is where it happened.  Here.  Here.  Here.  The storyteller in "Butterfly" is a young tour guide and nursing student who took me down to see the one wing left of something beautiful.  She was no cool, literary observer, however.  When it came to the bastard who broke the back of beauty, she expressed a strong preference for breaking his legs.

Storytelling isn't passive.  It is one of the ways we have of tripping things up.

I hope you'll enjoy the storyteller of "Butterfly."  I can still see her, shining in anger, in mourning, deep in the earth, unbowed.

--MD

When a Part of You Goes Missing: Twin: A Memoir, by Allen Shawn

Like so many singletons, I've long wondered what it might mean to share the bonds of twinship. I've been equally fascinated by the workings of the autistic mind (especially since seeing last year's fantastic HBO first-person biopic, TEMPLE GRANDIN,about a woman who would be nine kinds of amazing, even if she hadn't found a way to articulate her perceptual differences to the rest of us.) Thanks to those two interests, I jumped to snag a review copy of Allen Shawn's new memoir, TWIN, which describes the impact in his life, growing up in the 1950's, of the removal of his eight-year-old autistic twin, Mary, from his family, where she would never again live.

Though in appearance heartbreakingly "normal," Mary always lagged behind her articulate (and musically gifted, as it turned out) brother. The children of a New Yorker editor and his equally high-strung wife, the siblings were quickly separated, and Allen soon learned to think of Mary less as a twin than as a very "different" (and frequently very difficult) sister. In accordance with the wisdom of the day, the Shawns were advised by doctors to focus on their two sons and the future of their marriage by sending Mary to a setting where she could be cared for by experts.

It had to have been a heartbreaking choice, as I'm sure it was for many other families given similar advice regarding their disabled children, and I can't imagine how terrifying and confusing it must have been for little Mary to be uprooted from the only home she'd ever known. For better or worse, however, the book's focus remains on Allen Shaw (after all, it is his memoir) and the lasting effects of an absence he was encouraged to suppress on his rocky adolescence.

Well written and chock full of interesting tidbits on twin development, autism, treatment of the disabled in the Fifties, and the Shawns' non-traditional family arrangement, TWIN: A MEMOIR makes for an absorbing read. As with his previous memoir, WISH I COULD BE THERE, in which composer, music professor, and skilled pianist Allen Shawn examined the origins of his often-crippling anxieties, the author proves himself adept at exploring the factors that have made him the man he is.

A great choice for book clubs or the curious reader, Allen Shawn's TWIN comes highly recommended.Check out this terrific New York Times interview with Shawn on the factors that convinced him to write the book.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

2 dogs, 2 identities, and 3 Qs for author Ethan Cross

This week, Ethen Cross (the freshly minted identity of a midwestern thriller writer) base jumps to a new genre with his novel The Shepherd.

Per the PR:
Marcus Williams and Francis Ackerman Jr. both have a talent for hurting people. Marcus, a former New York City homicide detective, uses his abilities to protect others, while Ackerman uses his gifts to inflict pain and suffering. When both men become unwilling pawns in a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of our government, Marcus finds himself in a deadly game of cat and mouse trapped between a twisted psychopath and a vigilante with seemingly unlimited resources. Aided by a rogue FBI agent and the vigilante's beautiful daughter -a woman with whom he's quickly falling in love- Marcus must expose the deadly political conspiracy and confront his past while hunting down one of the most cunning and ruthless killers in the world.
Thanks for taking time to visit, Ethan. How are you? Is launching a book in the current publishing climate turning your brain to patty melt or are you having a great ride?
Hmm, great ride or patty melt… A little bit of both, I suppose. It’s been a wild ride filled with a lot of ups and downs. And it’s amazing how much work goes into the promotion of a book and how easy it can be to fall down the promotion rabbit hole. I think the hardest part of it all has been trying to manage all of the promotion work that needs to be done along with writing. There are only so many hours in the day, and I have yet to shake the shackles of the day job (the darn kids keep crying out for their food and shelter…).

In that case, let's get down to business and plug the book. Brian S. Wheeler's description ("Silence of the Lambs meets The Bourne Identity") was enough to make me take notice, but my TBR pile is tall. Tell me why I should move The Shepherd to the top of the heap.
Without quoting another blurb or running through the standard book description, I would say that my goal with The Shepherd was to write a book that I would want to read. And I love books that are fast-paced with a lot of action. I tried to take the serial killer genre but put a slightly different spin on it (and the book also revolves around a larger conspiracy in which the killer plays a part). There are a lot of books out there that feature the hunt for serial killers; after all, these men are like aliens among us. They think and act in ways that most of us cannot begin to comprehend, which in turn makes them fascinating. But while most novels of this type take the police procedural approach and the following of clues to find the killer (and my book does have some of this), The Shepherd is designed to get the reader into the killer’s head and wonder how the other characters are going to escape. In other words, it’s not a “follow the clues to unmask the killer” type of book. It’s more a “oh my God, he’s in the next room…and he’s got a shotgun” type of book.

Your bio says, "Ethan Cross is the pen name of a thriller author living and writing in Illinois with his wife, two daughters, and two Shih Tzus." Why two? (Identities, I mean, not Shih Tzus.) And what's different about style and creative process between the two?
Why use a pen name? Well, the easiest answer is that my agent told me to. But in truth, I always knew that I would have to use pen names. This is because the publishing industry wants authors to be established as a brand just like any other product. They want people to be able to pick up any Ethan Cross novel and know what to expect. It's a sound business principle. It's kind of like the concept of Pepsi versus Mountain Dew. If you opened up a Pepsi and it tasted like Mountain Dew, you would probably be shocked and disappointed. You may even like Mountain Dew, but you sat down expecting a Pepsi since that's what you bought. It's the same idea with an author. I want readers to pick up an Ethan Cross novel and be able to count on a breathless, fast-paced suspense thriller. I do plan, however, on writing books in several different genres including action/adventure, science fiction, literary fiction, horror, fantasy, or whatever good idea comes along. I love all types of books and stories and have ideas that don't fit into one type of box. But those ideas will fit into a box because they will be under different names. So nobody will buy an Ethan Cross book and get a bad taste in their mouth expecting Pepsi but receiving Mountain Dew instead.

Bonus Q: What are you reading?
I pretty much enjoy any book that’s action-packed, regardless of genre. There are also those rare books that are a slow burn but are still completely enthralling for a variety of reasons, but those are few and far between. I love David Morrell, James Rollins, F. Paul Wilson, Dean Koontz, Jeffery Deaver, James Patterson, Douglas Preston, Clive Cussler, and many, many more. Currently, I’m reading The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (on audiobook) and The Dragon Factory by Jonathan Maberry. But I just finished reading First Blood by David Morrell (the book that the first Rambo film was based upon) and Hostage Zero by John Gilstrap.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Back to Basics

As I've mentioned previously, I've been banging my head against the brick wall of a synopsis that just doesn't want to be written. While I can often rough out a synopsis within hours (mind you, I generally spend days or even weeks refining afterward) this book's new territory for me and simply won't be rushed.

My first reaction was, Well, be that way. I'll just go ahead and write the full manuscript. But that's left me with the same issues I was facing in the synopsis. While I have what I thing are terrific characters and an awesome set-up with all manner of complications and plenty of ideas about where I want to go with this, what I don't have is crystallized plot line. Not yet, anyway.

So far, I'm tried many of my usual tricks for getting unstuck, including long walks, vacuuming (a true measure of my desperation), even distracting myself with another proposal and other unrelated chores. But while I sense the threads of the story lengthening, they're still stubbornly refusing to knit themselves into a cohesive whole. As I mentioned last week, I pulled out old friend reference, The Writer's Journey, by Chris Vogler, and it has helped, but only to a point. (The sticking point, dagnabbit.)

Still, I refuse to give up and have now moved on to one of the most basic of building block, GMC. For anyone not familiar with the initials, that would be Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Placing different character goals as much in opposition to each other as possible can be terrific for generating the story's external conflict. As I once heard it said, if a dog wants a bone, it's not a story, but if there are two dogs and only one bone, then, you've got a story.

Today's task. Figure out what the bone is and work backward from there. I sense that webbing, a giant sheet of paper, and some pretty color markers may be involved.

Wish me luck, and if anyone else has great plotting hints to share, I'm all ears!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Help Japan: Text the Red Cross

As in the Haiti earthquake aftermath, the Red Cross is taking texting donations again for earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan. See the link for details. And anyone else have ideas for how we can help?

"The Adjustment Team": Philip K. Dick's short story is available for 99 cents on Kindle


Saw the stylish romance/suspense/scifi hybrid movie "The Adjustment Bureau" yesterday, and I loved the way it looks. Great New York locations and sharp-dressed men abounding. The movie was spun from Philip K. Dick's short story "The Adjustment Team", originally published in Orbit Science Fiction's Sept/Oct issue in 1954. (Hence the Mad Men hats.)

Read it on Kindle for 99 cents.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Crane Flies, Ladybugs, and Cracks of Light Between the Trees


Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day that is not only a big day for Christians around the globe, but figures prominently into my novel. Of all the Christian holy days, I have a special fondness for the darker ones--perhaps it's those Gothic qualities creeping in and speaking to my soul. There's something I love about Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and All Souls Day, and the Mexican celebration of El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. Sure, Christmas and Easter are great too, but all those other days are what give the celebrations meaning, the days when we are reminded that we came from dust, and to dust we shall return.

I've been thinking about mortality a lot lately, not just because of the time of year, and not just because of my novel. This semester has been tough for me and my colleagues at UHCL, as we've lost not only the convenor of our Literature program, but also one of our beloved graduate students. Both died suddenly, due to acute illness, and without warning. Both were young. In the case of my student, who was in her early thirties, the death really hit home. The student was in my fiction class two years ago, and was in my American Drama class this semester. She was a fantastic writer, and wrote quite possibly the best short story I've ever read in my life. Over the past two years, I kept urging her to send it out. She never did; she "never had much time to polish it," she said, as a grad student and busy mother of four. And when I found out she was dead, one of the first thoughts I had, after her husband and daughters, was of her writing and that story.

I came home that night, after hearing the news, and curled up on the couch and wept. I wept for the story that was so perfect but still not sent out, and for all the other stories she wouldn't be able to write. I wept for her fragile body and for her beautiful spirit, rising up and away from her family. "It just sucks," I told Mark, as I poured a glass of wine. "It took my grandmother 14 damned days to starve to death and then this one ends her life so young."

Even as I said it, I knew it didn't matter. Death doesn't care how old we are--I learned that lesson when I lost my first love to a car accident at age 16. It doesn't care what shape we're in. It can happen any time, to anyone, at any place. And yet knowing that doesn't make it hurt any less when we lose someone we love.

But like Ash Wednesday, what that knowledge does do is give us a reminder, a persistent pressure, like a tug upon the sleeve. It makes us reevaluate, and examine how we're living. And for me, losing that student made me remember all over again why I write and why I teach and why I teach writing. It made me recommit to all of it in a way I can't explain. And the next day, when our bathroom renovations disturbed several hives of ladybugs, I thought about the symbolism as they landed in my hair. I thought of the crane flies that cling to our windowpanes with their brief lives and their narrow, fragile legs.

Later, as I drove back home from my class at the prison, I noticed the cracks of light between the limbs of the trees. I thought of my student, and how she would have appreciated that image, and how because of her, I can appreciate it even more. I thought of how she would have viewed the ladybugs, as a sign of hope and rebirth and fortune. I thought of what she would say to me, still here, on this earth and breathing. And the next day, in honor of her, I began again to confront that chapter--those chapters--about Ash Wednesday, and Holy Saturday, and the darker days of life. As long as I'm here, I have to do what I came here to do, what God called me to at five. I have to work it, I have to revise, it and I have to doggone it SEND it, because time is short and the days are evil, and I have to do what she can no longer. I must do what she cannot.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sharon Sala wins RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award


Per Publisher's Lunch today: The Romance Writers of America announced the winners of a number of awards, which will officially be given out during their annual convention taking place in New York between June 28 and July 1. Sharon Sala will receive the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award.

She's had a busy year (as usual) including a bestseller with our Colleen.

Grandmothers' Story

This week, a dear friend of mine lost her grandmother.

I lost my grandmother ten years ago.

My husband lost his grandmother ten years before that.

Grandmother Number One was named Marguerite.
Grandmother Number Two was named Anna.
Grandmother Number Three was named Cecilia.

One grandmother lived to be one-hundred-and-two.  She spent that last year of her life curled in a fetal position, blind.

Another grandmother lived to be eighty-six.  She spent the last year of her life not knowing where she was, a feeding tube slurping what looked like sand into her stomach.

Another grandmother died shouting at the nursing home attendants, the place where her right leg should have been the place where they set the dinner tray, instead.

"When you die you got to die!" she shouted.

The grandmother who was blind grew up in a bordello.

The grandmother who lost her leg chased "the colored" off her property with a hoe.

The grandmother who didn't know where she was traveled halfway around the world to be with the woman she loved.

Two of them died without a wrinkle on their faces. (Beauty is the nurse who comes when you don't need her anymore.)

One of them was married to a wildcatter.

One of them, the racist, was hired to replace a first, dead wife with the same name.  (The children hated her.)

One--the one who traveled halfway around the world to be with the woman she loved--died on the morning of that woman's funeral.

She was also my grandmother.

They fill the ground, like stars.

--MD

A broad canvas and the mess that makes it real: 3 Qs for Jasper Fforde, author of the Thursday Next series

With a fresh Thursday Next book available in stores and online this week, Jasper Fforde stops by to answer 3Qs...

Jasper, thanks so much for taking time to visit. I've been hooked on Thursday Next since I listened to The Eyre Affair while driving across Montana. At the time you wrote it, did you see the series continuing indefinitely or did you start with a specific number of books and a full story arc in mind?
The Eyre Affair was originally intended as a standalone book, and indeed, when I wrote it in 1996, that's all it was. I wrote another two and a half unpublished books before it was accepted for publication in 2000, and I was then asked if it could have a sequel. I said 'Yes' because I wasn't going to say 'no' given that I had waited ten years and seven and a half books to be published!

I think they were expecting a similar tale where Thursday fixes up a problem in another classic, but I rarely like to do what is expected and instead expanded on the idea of a 'Bookworld' on the other side of the written page, with Jurisfiction, a Policing Agency, to look after it. I'm very glad I did as it has created a very broad canvas into which I can fit almost any idea I want.

This series is such a natural place for evolving Harry Potter fans to go as they grow up. (As a nerdy, Bronte-addicted teen with a horrible attitude, I would have adored Thursday Next!) Do you find yourself wanting to speak to smart young readers about their complicated world or do you abide by the "if you want to send a message, use Western Union" credo?
I am here primarily as an entertainer. Someone to make waiting times in airports disappear. If a reader enjoys my books and even laughs out loud - I'm happy. But if you're the sort of reader who wants something to think about, then that is there too - there are serious threads running through the books, from comments on the human condition to political satire. I think multi layered books are more enjoyable, and add extra depth to the reading experience.

A literary agent suggested this series to me as an example of brilliant world-building, and I've passed that suggestion to other writers. What advice do you have for authors attempting to create an alternate world that feels this rich and real?
It's all in the detail. Large and expansive set pieces are all very well, but its the mess and clutter that make it real. Hovercars and Rayguns are fun of course, but I'd concentrate more on the drains. Much of our lives is spent with the everyday mundanities of life, not the exciting bits. Okay, so we've got to repel an attack by the seven-headed Zook of Zargon, but where the hell did I put my keys? And shall I drop in the dry cleaning on the way?

Jasper, thanks again for your time. I'm already looking forward to the next Next! Bonus Q, if you're so inclined: What are you reading?
Right now? An autobiography of Roger Moore, that iconic non-acting actor that I remember so well from my childhood. He's a very engaging writer, and an easy read.

Visit Jasper Fforde's website for Toad News, Fforum, and much more (including a pointed message from Jasper's Mum.)

NYT on Kindle Singles (and my own reKindled love affair with books)

It's interesting that people who never thought they'd like Kindle come from both sides of the technochasm. There are those (like me) who had to be dragged away from the physical artifact - hardcover, endpapers, deckled edges - that are undoubtedly part of the book experience. Then there are those who have come of age in a computerized world, who think "chatting" happens when you hit ENTER and are entertained instead of mind-numbed by Angry Birds. They get their news, their friends and their written words on screens that get progressively smaller. In the middle of those two mindsets is Kindle. It's arguably the lowest tech ereader, which is why (IMHO) it continues to be the most successful.

As I've said in this space, I found myself reading less and less as my eyesight aged, stressed by long hours in front of the computer. Audio books and large print offered far less selections at a far higher price. When I got a Kindle, I was immediately taken back to the reading habits of my youth, consuming fiction like a woodchipper devours underbrush. The thing I most wanted was to read more. The thing I least wanted was more hours in front of a computer, and surprisingly, that's what a lot of web-saturated youthies want too.

Virginia Heffernan of the NYT says in her excellent article on Kindle Singles:
The Kindle in particular brought me the first moment of peace from Web noise that I’d had in a long time. True, I thought I loved the Web noise when the only alternative was to recede into analog culture — but I have adored the silence I’ve found on the Kindle. I never thought I’d back off the Web, but I have.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Buy This Book: Jasper Fforde's next Next book "One of Our Thursdays Is Missing"


I got hooked on Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books several years ago on a trip to Montana. My literary agent had recommended I read the first book in the series, The Eyre Affair, as a crash course in world-building. I listened to it while I was driving from Seattle to Billings for a series of speaking and book events, and at every book store I visited, I talked up Fforde's ingenious premise, which is pretty much like crack for book nerds.

Thursday Next works for Jurisfiction, a British government agency in charge of literary crimes and capers. (In The Eyre Affair, Next pursues the villain through the Bronte landscape after the abduction of Jane Eyre.) Art imitates life in the recent installment, as all hell is breaking loose in BookWorld. No one will find this book more hilarious or more painful than writers. (And yes, my agent was spot on with her advice. The world-building is phenomenal. This is definitely one of those writers you read to become a better writer.)

Per the PR:
All-out Genre war is rumbling, and the BookWorld desperately needs a heroine like Thursday Next. But with the real Thursday apparently retired to the Realworld, the Council of Genres turns to the written Thursday.

The Council wants her to pretend to be the real Thursday and travel as a peacekeeping emissary to the warring factions. A trip up the mighty Metaphoric River beckons-a trip that will reveal a fiendish plot that threatens the very fabric of the BookWorld itself.
Tomorrow Jasper Fforde stops by to talk about the longevity of this wonderfully brainy and unique series, the art of world-building, and what's next for Next.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Avon Jumps Into the Digital Age

From Publisher's Lunch comes word of another "legacy publisher's" new e-book-only romance imprint:

Yesterday Avon announced its digital-first imprint, Avon Impulse, which will feature ebook novels and novellas (with POD editions also available) by current Avon authors and aims to "seek new talent to nurture in an e-book marketplace that finds romance experiencing expansive growth." The first title will be Katherine Ashe's enovella, "A Lady's Wish," released next week, with plans to publish at least one new title every week going forward. Authors will not receive an advance, but will get 25 percent net royalties for the first 10,000 copies sold, and 50 percent thereafter. Unlike Harlequin's digital imprint Carina Press, Avon Impulse will use DRM, just like all of the traditional Harper imprints.

Authors can submit using an easy online form. Check it out by clicking through to the Avon Impulse website.

So what does an author gain by going with Avon Impulse or Carina Press rather than self-publishing to, say, Kindle, which offers a 70% royalty? Editing, for starters, along with net galleys, cover art and marketing support, plus whatever the prestige factor's worth to you. For many writers, I think this is a perfectly viable choice, especially since the current publishing environment (particularly in mass market original) is making it so tough to break into print.

Does anyone else want to weigh in on the pros and cons of the route?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Cool Idea of the Day from Shelf Awareness

Cool Idea of the Day: Algonquin Book Club

Algonquin Books has launched the Algonquin Book Club, which will hold four literary events a year at which an Algonquin author will be interviewed by a notable author. The events will be webcast live, and webcast viewers will be able to chat with other viewers. At the first book club event, which takes place on March 21 at Books & Books, Coral Gables, Fla., Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I'm Dying, will interview Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of Butterflies.

For this first reading, the Algonquin Book Club site offers an original essay by Alvarez about the novel, a description of the book, bios of the author and interviewer, a reading group guide, book club tips and some culinary treats--wine and recipe pairings related to the book, some recipes from Alvarez and recipe favorites of characters in the book.

In addition, Algonquin is giving away signed copies of In the Time of Butterflies and Algonquin Book Club tote books--readers may enter the contest for these by leaving a comment on book club blog posts, by tweeting about it using #AlgBookClub or by posting on the discussion section of Algonquin's Facebook page. Anyone with questions for Alvarez can post them on any of those places and they may be asked during the event.

The other three events for this year have been scheduled. On April 26, Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, interviews Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants. (The movie based on the book opens on April 22.) On August 18, Terry McMillan, author of Getting to Happy, gets to interview Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. And on October 20, Patricia Cornwell, author of Port Mortuary, interviews Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife.

Kurt Vonnegut's Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story

Thought this would go nicely with Kathryn's post on the current short fiction competition over at The Texas Observer: 

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

From his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.

Tools for Plotting: Chris Vogler on The Hero's Journey



For the past few weeks, I've been bashing my head against the wall, struggling to shape an amorphous blob of a "big idea" into what I hope will become a satisfying story, an epic journey for both the story's heroine and its readers. Recently, I came across a mention of Chris Vogler's wonderful The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which is based on the work of Joseph Campbell,
and I was flooded with relief. Although there are plenty of other ways to tell a story, I've always loved reading, watching, and writing the classic hero's journey-styled tale. For the writer, the conscious examination of the unconscious structure we're all programmed to recognize can help to shore up structure in a way nothing else can.

This week, I'm going to try sketching out my heroine's journey by pulling this favorite from my personal toolbox. If you, too, could use a reminder (or an intro) check out this quick video with of screenwriting story consultant Chris Vogler speaking on the stages. The accompanying screen shots from The Matrix are extremely helpful, too.

And if you don't have the book, consider clicking through the link and picking up a copy. This is one of a handful of go-to resources I've used again and again throughout the years.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Calling all Writers of Short Fiction . . .


This contest, sponsored by The Texas Observer, could be a great opportunity. Limit is 2500 words, guest judge is none other than Larry McMurtry. Deadline: May 1. Entry Fee: $25. (For an extra $10, you can get your story critiqued by fiction editor David Duhr)

Good luck! (And why does the mere mention of McMurtry's name make me want to go back and reread Lonesome Dove?)

Brilliantly hilarious "Let's Panic About Babies" book trailer (Did I mention it's brilliant?)



I am buying Let's Panic About Babies!: How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain, and Finally Turn You into a Worthwhile Human Being by Alice Bradley and Eden M. Kennedy as a reward for this brilliant trailer, if nothing else.

Per the PR:
Babies. Some of us want one. Some of us already have one. And some of us even were one.

But what are “babies,” exactly? Are they really tiny people? How did they get inside larger people? How will they get out? And if you’ve got one, what do you do with it? Our most cutting-edge scientific researchers have, to date, only mumbled theories and then distracted us all with shadow puppets and obscene limericks.

But no more! Because Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy are here to shed light on this heretofore un-light-sheddable topic. In their comprehensive, no-facts-are-too-disgusting guide LET’S PANIC ABOUT BABIES!, the authors answer age-old baby-related questions, as well as newer ones they made up. Herein you can find answers to such queries as “How can I be sure I’m pregnant?” (torso swells gradually until baby falls out into underpants), “Why am I so uncomfortable?” (uterine goblins exacting karmic revenge) and “Did I just pee myself?” (yes). And because they realize that the baby will continue to present challenges even after its birth, the authors tacked on more chapters specifically written to soak up all the tears you'll shed during your baby’s first year! So if you’re wondering how to use phrenology to make ensure that your child won’t be some sort of mercenary or television executive, or whether your obsessive vacuuming indicates postpartum depression or merely a vacuuming fetish, wonder no more. Or, rather, continue to wonder up until the moment that you read LET’S PANIC ABOUT BABIES! Then and only then can you stop wondering, for you will have the answers, and all your wondering will just start to annoy people.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Buy This Book: 3 Excellent Reasons to Lay Hands on the Library of Congress Poets Laureate Anthology


In October, the Library of Congress (in congress with W.W. Norton) released a new anthology that includes a brief bio and several works from each of the 43 poets who've held the position of Poet Laureate. It's an eclectic bunch, beginning with Joseph Auslander, our first Poet Laureate in 1937, best remembered for his collection "The Unconquerables", a stirring shout out to the Nazi-occupied cities in Europe. Later came Robert Pinsky, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, and more recently, Louise Glück and W. S. Merwin. If you were to read all these poems one after another, it would be like walking through the Louvre; after a while, you get a bit numb. It's just too much greatness in your face. You need time and a knowledgeable guide. Seeing each of the Poets Laureate in their place on the timeline and reading their work in the context of modern American history breathes an entirely new life into the poetry we usually see in scattered fragments under the unforgiving eye of an English pop quiz. What we have here is the story of modern American poetry, which in turn tells the story of modern America. You'll also enjoy the wise and witty insights many of the PLs share about how the position affected them. (“All this fame and honor is a nice thing," says Howard Nemerov, "as long as you don’t believe it.”)

3 Reasons to Buy This Book Today:
1) No home reference shelf should be without it. Boom. Winning. (Sorry, I couldn't stop myself.)

2) Wherever you are, there is going to be a long rainy day or inexplicably sleepless night in the not distant future when you will be happier if you have this book.

3) National Poetry Month is just around the corner! We're celebrating NaPoMo with a delicious daily dose of US Poet Laureate every day in April. Reading the brief snippet alone would be like one potato chip. You'll want to have the tome handy so you can devour the whole poem. By the end of April, you will have inhaled a terrific (and completely painless) overview of the American Poets Laureate, thus making yourself a better writer, more rounded reader, and extra scintillating conversationalist at those upcoming summer cocktail parties!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Buy This Book: Lonely Planet's "Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World

Last year my daughter Jerusha made a life-changing voyage to Cambodia. She traveled by herself (she's 21) but joined up with Habitat For Humanity in Phnom Penh and worked with a team of people from around the world to create an entire neighborhood. They worked side by side with a number of families who'd been living in a garbage dump. Jerusha was humbled by how much they'd endured, how hard they were working to improved life for their children, and how grateful they were for her willingness to come from the other side of the world to help them.

We're not wealthy (by American standards), but Jerusha's life has been pretty comfy for the most part. She started working at Starbucks as a teen and is an industrious sort by nature, but I think she amazed herself with what she was capable of on this journey. She laid bricks, built walls, climbed over obstacles and reached across language barriers. What she gave in time, resources and sweat was returned to her a thousandfold in one of the richest experiences of her life. This excursion combined the two most empowering opportunities possible: travel and helping someone else.

As a huge fan of Lonely Planet, I was delighted to see Lonely Planet Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around (General Reference), and I highly recommend it as a graduation or birthday gift for teens and 20somethings and not a bad idea for retirees, frankly. (It's also available on Kindle.) It's a comprehensive guide to planning short or long-term volunteer excursions all over the world – from monitoring sea turtles in Greece to building community centers in Guatemala!

Features include:
Unique, user-friendly structure arranged by type of volunteering program
Over 170 organizations listed and reviewed
Dozens of seasoned volunteers share their experiences and top tips
Written by passionate, well-travelled Lonely Planet authors advised by a team of experts in the field
Fully illustrated with color photographs of volunteers in action
Something I love and admire about Europeans is the way they encourage their kids to travel independently from their families. American youthies would benefit greatly from more independent, less consumer-oriented travel. The great thing about most of these volunteer trips is that there's a structure and a community, and they're (hopefully) working so hard, they don't have much time or energy for partying.

I also love that this guide has options for a wide variety of...let's be nice and say "fitness levels." I may not be able to keep up with a 21-year-old ballet-dancing, brick-laying babe, but I firmly believe I'm still capable of amazing myself with the right challenge.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

"I'm pretty well adjusted for a writer." 3 Qs for Tawni O'Dell, author of "Fragile Beasts"

Tawni O'Dell's Fragile Beasts is fresh out in paperback this week. Yesterday, we gave you a peek inside the PR kit and steered you toward Tawni's excellent op ed on gender bias in literary fiction. Today, as promised, she takes a moment today to answer 3 Qs.

Tawni, thanks for your time. I know a lot has happened since the hardcover release last year, including the making of a Back Roads movie. How have readers reacted to Fragile Beasts?
I’m happy and relieved to say that my readers seem to love it. I’ve been hearing a lot of, “it’s your best book so far,” which is something you want to hear as an author because you want to grow and improve with each novel but there’s also that part of you that wants to defend your others. It’s sort of the way you feel when someone compliments one of your children and you feel obliged to point out that your other child is equally impressive. But I agree with them. I don’t like the use of vague superlatives like “best,” but I think it’s my most mature and ambitious novel yet and I’m happy with it.

I think the major appeal of the book comes from the contrasts between the dual narratives of the two very different main characters - Candace Jack, a wealthy woman in her seventies, and Kyle Hayes, a deprived boy in his teens - and the two very different settings of modern-day Pennsylvania coal country (my usual setting) and the bullfighting world of Spain in the 1950s.

PW loved the dialogue in Fragile Beasts (as did I), and I know you're screenwriting as well. What are some of the elements key to writing delicious, credible dialogue?
Dialogue comes very naturally to me. It’s the easiest element of novel writing for me and like all things that come easily and naturally to me I don’t like to stop and ask myself how I do it for fear of screwing it up.

I will say that in order to write good dialogue you have to know how people really talk. You can’t write how you “think” people talk or how you “want” them to talk. And in order to do that you have to get out there in the world and be around a lot of different people and be a good listener. I grew up in a family of talkers who were great storytellers, and I was a born observer and mental note-taker. I decided early on to sit back and listen and learn.
You also have to be able to let your characters completely inhabit you. That way when you speak for them you can’t help but sound authentic.

Candace is a complicated character to love - and to write. How did she get into your head? And how did you get into hers?
Candace - like all my characters – just appeared in my head one day. This doesn’t mean I was instantly able to write a novel around her. It took me almost two years of thinking about her before I knew her and her story well enough to put it down on paper.

I don’t go looking for my characters; they find me. I don’t intentionally try to write about a particular type of person and I never base my characters on real people; I find that creatively restrictive. But like all writers, the people and places and experiences of my own life shape my material.

One of the most important people in my life and one of my greatest role models was my grandmother, Naomi, who passed away this summer at the age of 95. Candace began to form in my mind at a time when Grandma’s health began to deteriorate and she had to move into an assisted living facility. In hindsight, I’m sure my preoccupation with her during those years led to a desire in me to create a strong, compelling older female character.

It’s also not surprising to me that part of Candace’s story takes place in Spain. My husband has a home in Mallorca and my children and I have spent our past nine summers with him there as well as doing a lot of traveling throughout the rest of Spain. The country has had a powerful effect on me, and I knew it would end up in my writing someday.

Bonus Q: What are you reading?
I’ve been immersed in rereading all the H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson I can get my hands on because the novel I’m currently writing, Company Town, is partially a ghost story, and they’re both masters at terror. They’re two of my favorite authors in general but my absolute favorites in the genre. I also just finished reading Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever which – like most biographies of authors I’ve read - made me feel like I’m pretty well-adjusted for a writer. I keep telling my family this. They’re still not convinced.

Visit Tawni O'Dell's website for more.

Eating the Elephant

I've lost count of the number of times non-writers entertaining the fantasy of becoming (wildly successful, famous, Oprah-lauded) authors have asked how I can possibly write a book. Although the notion of having written is attractive, the non-writers can't wrap their heads around the enormity of the task.

It's a problem I share, many books later, especially when faced with a looming deadline. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the totality. And it's not only the writing of a draft that can cause the onset of this panic. It can be anything from a task as "small" as working one's way through a set of edits (something I found myself choking on this past week) to the larger challenge of managing a career in publishing.

So how does one eat an elephant? The old joke says one spoonful at a time. There's wisdom in that, but to it I'll add this: with a willing, willful blindness.

When the task is huge and the timeline short, that's when you break it down, down, down, all the way to tiny, sub-atomic particles. If I can't deal with the edits on the manuscript, I can deal with this one page. As I do, without looking ahead or visualizing the totality. Because one page leads to another, then a few more. One page is manageable, bite-sized.

The same goes with the writing itself. Maybe it's a bad day. The baby's fussing, the dishwasher's overflowing, the day job's calling, and your spouse is demanding your attention. So, you can't write the ten pages you had planned on. But you can write one sentence. You can write one hundred words.

It's not the work that stops the dreamers from realizing their goals, and it's very often not the lack of will or talent. It's the getting started. If you can find some way, any way to breach that barrier, to breach it stubbornly and repeatedly, you will be astonished at what you can achieve.

So today, let's pick up that spoon, writers. Let's purposefully close our eyes to big picture and enjoy the flavor of each word.

THANK YOU

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