Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Your Own Worst Enemy: Are you using psychological warfare…on yourself? | The Kaizen Plan: Small Steps to Big Change

If you read nothing else this week, check out this post on self-defeating behavior from the blog The Kaizen Plan:Small Steps to Big Change! The career you save may be your own!

Week 21: Are you using psychological warfare…on yourself? | The Kaizen Plan: Small Steps to Big Change

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Go with God, Gil Scott-Heron)

According to the NYT obit: "Gil Scott-Heron, the poet and recording artist whose syncopated spoken style and mordant critiques of politics, racism and mass media in pieces like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” made him a notable voice of black protest culture in the 1970s and an important early influence on hip-hop, died on Friday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 62 and had been a longtime resident of Harlem."

His death was announced in a Twitter message. The revolution continues.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Summer They Bridged the Gap

It's hot as hell in Texas this week. It's hell in Afghanistan this decade. So what's new? Clayton James Goss is what's new.

Our country has been at war since he was 10 years old. He's grown up thinking the middle east was an impossible place to go unless you had camo and a big gun. He's grown up being taught that things there can only be fixed militarily. He's grown up knowing that Afghanistan is a thousand worlds away and ten lifetimes back.

Clayton never joined the army or ventured to fight anyone. He talks. A lot. In fact, he's the International Public Debate Association's national champion. Finding solutions and selling them like cool water on a hot day is what he does best. This summer, he joined a cadre of other debaters from our circuit to make history. They've rejected everything they've grown up with and been taught. They chose to create their own path and find a new way to bring our countries a little closer together. They've joined forces with one of the universities in Kabul to teach their students IPDA debate.

At 4:24am our time, a battle was won. Clayton ran the first IPDA debate round in the history of Afghanistan. As the nation around us rallied behind war as the only solution, five young debaters went to a war-torn country to teach students to accomplish change through argument. Armed with pens, flow pads, and sharp suits, they carved out a little piece of history for themselves and the US. They fought back against stereotypes of college kids, young adults, and Afghanistan. They built a bridge across an expanse that no one else saw.

Today we honor the soldiers who have died throughout history and fought to the end for each other, for their country, and for the American dream. But, today I'm also honoring those five debaters who shoot words like bullets and drop smiles like bombs. They, too, are forging ahead into the unknown.

"Pioneers! O Pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, Pioneers! O pioneers!"
- Pioneers! O Pioneers! by Walt Whitman

Dr. Kat's Top Ten Motivational Songs for Writers

Bouncing off Colleen's post from earlier, I thought I'd explain the "playlist" I'm talking about in the comments. It changes from week to week, but generally, this is my list of go-to songs for working out, for picking me up when I'm down, and for when, as I am now, close to deadline.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Uprising, Muse
2. Firework, Katy Perry
3. Under Pressure, David Bowie and Queen
4. Eye of the Tiger, Survivor
5. I'm Coming Out, Diana Ross
6. Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield
7. King of Anything, Sara Bareiles
8. You Think You're Cooler than Me, Michael Posner
9. Independence Day, Mel C
10. Written in the Stars, Tempah/Turner

There are others, but these are the ones I tend to find myself listening to lately. And if you can stomach Lady GaGa, some of her dance tunes are deliciously motivational. And now, to start off our weeks on a victorious note:

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sara Bareilles' Awesome Musical Response to Know It Alls

Ever wanted the perfect musical response to a blistering rejection, scathing review, or soul-destroying editorial letter?

Thanks to Sara Bareilles, now we have one. "Who died and made you king of anything?" indeed!

Check out my go-to attitude adjustment, Colleen's-got-her-sass-back theme song! Or better yet, share your own.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Working in a Coal Mine (Lee Dorsey and friends make me feel a little less sorry for myself)

First can I get a AMEN for M's post yesterday? I'm a tragically poor blogmate right now, slogging through the massive overhaul on a novel that's had me up early and late 16 hours a day for several weeks now. I'm mentally and physically exhausted, but loving what it feels like when fiction goes on fire. I'll be rejoining the real world soon. (But not as real as these guys.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Marriage and Dancing As Fast As You Can

Dear Friends, I thought you all might get a kick out of this: PopEater (AOL's pop culture site) yesterday published my story "How Dancing With The Stars Almost Ruined My Marriage" to coincide with the season finale of Dancing With The Stars.  My husband and I are devotees of the show for all sorts of reasons (some of you might remember I'm a former dancer), not the least of which is that it takes two people who have no idea what it means to move in exact synchronization, chest-to-chest, and teaches them not only how to survive the encounter, but fly.  Music and a good instructor can do that for you.  Even sometimes, in my husband's and my case, after something has gone terribly wrong between you:

Here's the thing: You can be married to someone for two decades and still completely screw up. Make mistakes so profound it's like you've never even met before . . . But Alejandro taught us how to walk, side by side. Then he taught us how to walk facing each other. He taught us how to stretch, how to glide our legs a little more, so that we were walking a little farther, a little more powerfully than we thought we could . . . All we had to do was hold each other, and listen . . .

I hope you enjoy not only the story of our salvaged tango, but the chances you get, with your partner, to laugh, cry, fail, fume, recover, and finally, if you're lucky, step out.

The floor waits.  Grab someone you love, and find the beat!


Monday, May 23, 2011

For the Love of Classics, Buy This Book: Anne of Green Gables

I was in the garden thinking about garden fairies (From the photo you can see why!) when I  remembered Anne Shirley and her love of fairies and her unshakable belief in them, how she would not be dissuaded. Not even by Marilla, who had been so certain that adopting Anne was a mistake, who cautioned Anne time and again that she was too talkative, too imaginative. But then, over time, Marilla fell in love with Anne. She became secretly pleased with her, this slim girl who had hair as flaming red as her flights of fancy. I tried to recall when my own conviction that fairies were true and real took root and decided that day, working in my garden, that I came into this world with that understanding, the same way Anne believed she did. I remembered that as a girl of around the same age as Anne, eleven or so when I read the children’s classic Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery for the first time, I felt vindicated in my belief. I felt reassured. But not only because Anne stood up for the existence of fairies. In so many other ways too she was like most young girls, hunting a way to fit in, to belong, to be loved.

I was led from that day in the garden to get our copy of Anne of Green Gables from my sister (copyright 1935). It belonged to my mother and her sister before us and loving the story is a family tradition. Reading it again, it has not lost its luster. The themes are timeless. Where does the child exist who does not waver in confidence? Who is not uncertain about their looks, whether or not they will belong, fit in? If they will have friends, a certain, particular friend, a bosom friend, a kindred spirit as Anne calls it. Who, no matter at any age, doesn’t long for understanding, a sympathetic ear? Where is the child who does not imagine at times they are somehow larger than the life they are living?

Anne questions why she must pray on her knees and why she must pray a certain arrangement of words. She speaks of praying out of doors, “in a great big field all alone”. She would there “just feel a prayer”. I loved that in her, that she felt so certain in her lack of convention about all things societal and religious, and yet she was so spiritually connected to earth and sky and to people. She was my kindred spirit, too, in her love of the garden and growing, blooming things and in her irrepressible joy regardless of her circumstances. She speaks of the “romance” of life. It seems lovely to speak of life in such terms, as a romance, as if you are in love with the mere fact and breath of living.

Re-reading Anne of Green Gables reminded me of the solace and delight I have always found in books, of the assurance that my own differences might be an asset. I found the reflection of my joy in life in her story and it has not diminished with time. The book is beautifully written and although it is of another era and possibly for some considered old fashioned, it is not. The wisdom is as true now as then and as truth will ever be. Always true.

Persistence Pays Off: Jenny Milchman's Happy Ending

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to get to know then-aspiring author Jenny Milchman through her comments on this blog. We've e-mailed back and forth a bit, and I learned she had a good agent for her own suspense novel, but in the way of marketing efforts, things were proceeding more slowly than expected.

On her blog, Suspense Her Disbelief, (which I am sharing with permission) Jenny shared that she'd survived the excruciated ups and downs of 11 years, 3 agents, 5 novels, and 14 almost offers, and not surprisingly, this was beginning to get old. Old to the point where she'd about decided she'd had enough of playing by the traditional rules and was going to take the alternate route expressway, as so many other authors have done of late (some with amazing success, others not so much.)

Enter award-winning mystery novelist/fabulous person Nancy Pickard, who was touched by Jenny's story when she wrote to ask for her advice. Nancy did something authors almost never do (for reasons involving both time and legality) and asked Jenny to send her manuscript, COVER OF SNOW. After reading and absolutely loving it, Nancy recommended the manuscript to her editor, the highly-regarded Linda Marrow at Ballantine.

As rare and generous as personal recommendations are (I've made a few myself over the years), what happened next is far, far rarer. Linda Marrow loved the manuscript, it survived the myriad hoops that new acquisitions all must jump through, and was contracted for hardcover publication by Ballantine and in trade paper, with world rights, to follow via Random House. Can I hear a HUUUUGGGGEEEE hallelujah out there, BtO readers! Congratulations, Jenny! I'm looking forward to sharing more about COVER OF SNOW before its release.

What Jenny Did Right:

1. Had a talent, a dream and a belief in the stories she has to offer that enabled her survive the many ups and downs inherent in the journey.

2. Had the mental/emotional strength to keep writing and improving despite many setbacks. (Anyone who's had an agent and editor love a manuscript, only to see it die in committee, can tell you it's its own special level of Hell. Been there, done that, on more than a few harrowing occasions.)

3. Had the humility, self-confidence and professionalism to enable her to reach out and build a support group of more experienced (published) authors. Asked politely for advice rather than demanding or feeling entitled to special favors.

4. Approached the publishing dilemma as a large but solvable problem, one to be tackled by breaking it down into measurable steps.

5. Never, ever gave up.

Again, congratulations, Jenny Milchman on the sale of your debut novel, COVER OF SNOW. We wish you all the success in the world with your suspense!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Beta Readers

Before sending a manuscript to an editor or a proposal to my agent, I always try to chase down a couple of insightful reader/writer friends to look over the pages. Time and time again, my beta-readers have saved me embarrassment--and in some cases, almost certain rejection--by ferreting out confusing or overwritten prose, unmotivated character actions, lame dialogue, or slow stretches.

I've just finished reading Jon Ronson's fascinating and highly-entertaining new book, The Psychopath Test: a Journey Through the Madness Industry and loved what he had to say on the subject in his book's Acknowledgments.

"Being my first reader can, I think, be quite a stressful experience, as I have a tendency to hand over the manuscript and then just stand there exuding a silent mix of defiance and despair."

I can definitely attest that a writer is never more vulnerable or more hopeful than in the hands of that first reader. Going over and over the same chapters blinds us to our work's flaws, and sometimes, to its charms as well. Still, we cling to the mad hope that *this* will be the story that catapults us to the next level, that this will be the one that glides effortlessly through the submission and editorial process.

It takes a really good first reader to gently let us down and alert us to the work that still, inevitably, needs to happen before the project's ready to go out into the world. I can't thank my critique partners, particularly blog pals Barbara Sissel and Joni Rodgers, enough for fulfilling their duties so expertly and compassionately, and putting up with my outbreaks of "defiance and despair."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Neal Pollack (and agent) on JEWBALL and why it pays for some established authors (like me) to self-pub

Don't miss Michael Cader's excellent PL article Neal Pollack On Self-Publishing His Next Novel--And Keeping His Agent.

Says Pollack:
For a writer like me, which is to say, most working writers — midcareer, midlist, middle-aged, more or less middlebrow, and somewhat Internet savvy — self-publishing seems to make a lot of sense at this point.

Pollack's agent, Daniel Greenberg, says:
We have and will work closely thinking about editorial, packaging, selling foreign and other subsidiary rights, and strategizing online and traditional publicity and marketing. ...Though we are not doing a deal with a traditional publisher, large pieces of my job are the same.

I'm a huge fan of Neal Pollack's work and already downloaded the Jewball Teaser Chapter. (It's free! C'mon! Hit the link!) From the JEWBALL cyberflap:
From the bestselling satirist and memoirist Neal Pollack comes a funny, gritty noir portrait of a people on the brink and of a great American game coming into its own. 1937. As the world prepares for war and the Jews of Europe feel the tightening noose of Nazi oppression, tensions simmer in America. While thousands of homegrown Nazis gather in groups like the German-American Bund, American Jews organize against this scourge, resisting any way they can. Meanwhile, the game of basketball grows in popularity, and Jews rule the court. In Philadelphia, the greatest Jewish basketball team of all prepares to confront the Bund, fists cocked. Here, the Jews write the rules. This is war. This is sports. This is...Jewball.

Several years ago, Neal and I both contributed to The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales, a personal essay anthology pubbed by HarperCollins (I'd done a memoir and a novel there), and I'm exactly where Neal is now: "midcareer, midlist, middle-aged, more or less middlebrow." I've written several bestsellers as a ghostwriter, and my agent will continue to rep me on those projects, but starting later this year, I'll begin pubbing my fiction on my own imprint, Stella Link Books. If print deals ensue, my agent will handle the segue to a brick publisher. I have no idea where the endeavor will go, but I'm thrilled at the idea of doing fiction over which I have total creative and financial control.

GOFIGHTWIN author empowerment!

Footnote: The first title out from Stella Link will be the memoir I did at HarperCollins, Bald in the Land of Big Hair: A True Story, which will launch the imprint this summer. The HC paperback is (astonishingly) still in print, and my editor there has been enthusiastically supportive of my epress venture. The smart publishers know it's to their own advantage to keep authors like Neal and me alive in the marketplace.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Today is a better day, or Scarlett O'Hara got it right

As some of you may have guessed from my lengthy comments on Colleen's last post, yesterday was NOT a good day for me. I was having one of those is-it-all-worth-it/I question my very existence moments. Part of that was that I was just exhausted; since turning in grades last week, I've been working hardcore on the novel, putting in an average of 9-10 hours a day. I've reached the point where the book is in endgame, and all I want to do is work on it. That point actually came for me before the end of the semester, which was interesting, because I couldn't quite give into the flow like I wanted. So when grades were in, I took a night off and watched old Bones episodes, and then dove back into the revision. For a few days, it was great. Then exhaustion started creeping in, and I started forgetting important things, like eating, and Mark started to worry about me, as he does at these times, when I get close to the end of projects and don't want to do anything else.

So Monday night, after nine hours of working on a chapter that is supposed to show the beginning of the mental breakdown of my antagonist-turned-antihero character, I decided to take a bit of a break--and to show Mark some of my most recent work. I wanted to be sure that the chapter was really showing the disarray of Isobel's thoughts, but in a way that wouldn't confuse readers. Mark has read the novel in its various incarnations, but it's probably been more than a year since he's read that particular chunk, so I thought he'd be a good reader. I asked if he minded and he said no--it's been awhile since I've showed him anything. But because I wasn't sure that chapter would be the best place for him to enter back into the story, I threw in the chapter before it, too, the chapter I hadn't revised much because it was already working.

Imagine my surprise then, when several nervous minutes later, Mark returned to tell me that the Isobel chapter was "brilliant," but the chapter I thought was "working so well" needed more work. "I just don't understand Diana's decision at the end," he said. "I feel like her motivation is missing."

"Okay," I said. "That's really bad. Because that's a very pivotal chapter."
"Really?" he said. "How is it pivotal?" And I went on to explain it to him, and then he sort of sighed and said "well, I don't get that at all. I mean, I did enjoy that chapter, but that's not at all how I read it."

Of course, by the time he said that, I was starting to feel very unsure about everything, and my new found writer confidence was starting to erode. On the one hand, it was great that he was so complimentary to the chapter I'd just slaved over, but on the other hand, how am I ever supposed to develop a sense of what I can let go/stop working on if I have that much of a disconnect between what I think and what he sees? Granted, he's but one reader, and not exactly my target audience, but the more he explained his reading to me, the more I realized he was right. And I hate to admit it, but I went into the bedroom and lay down and cried. Mark came in after me, perplexed.

"But I don't understand why you're so upset," he said. "The ideas are there and they're great! It's just all the words that are the problem."

At that point, I didn't know whether to cry or laugh. I think I did a bit of both. I went to bed that night frustrated with the chapter, mad at myself, and unsure of what to work on next. When I finally got up the next morning, I dragged myself to the chair and started trying things. I had not planned to spend any more time on that "pivotal" chapter, but the conversation had convinced me that I really needed to make a few things more clear. So I worked, and I worked, and I was in such a funk that I had almost decided not to go to a volunteer meeting that night or out to dinner with two of my friends from the group afterwards.

"You should go," Mark said. "You need a break."
"I don't deserve a break."

But by the time 4 p.m. rolled around, I'd figured out what the problem was with the chapter, and that it wouldn't actually take that long to fix. So by 5:30, I was ready to head out to the meeting and dinner, although still skeptical that I would have any fun. But I did go, and guess what? I did have fun! And more importantly, attending that meeting and going out with those women--brave, beautiful women who have a heart for something larger than themselves, reminded me of my greater purpose. It's the thing that keeps me going when the writing is difficult. It's the thing that keeps me going when the work is not at all "fun." I know I'm meant to do this, and if not with this book, then with another, although I still have a gut feeling about this one. Call it stubbornness, call it delusion, but I've been fighting this fight for awhile now, and both I and the book are getting stronger. I can withstand rejection and criticism and just plain bile, because the fight itself is worth it. And yes, I can even make a chapter pivot, dammit, even when it wasn't quite pivoting before.

That--and sometimes the next day is better because we've taken a break. And sometimes, it's better just because it's another day, and we can always hope Miss Scarlett was right.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Veronica Roth on Success

A very young writer, Veronica Roth has scored an amazing success with her fabulous Dystopian young adult debut, Divergent, which I found as brilliant as it was entertaining. More amazing yet is how much wisdom she has going for her. Wish I'd been so very together in my early twenties. Could have saved me a lot of aggravation.

From Ms. Roth's interview on Amazon.com:

Q: What advice would you offer to young aspiring writers, who long to live a success story like your own?

Roth: One piece of advice I have is: Want something else more than success. Success is a lovely thing, but your desire to say something, your worth, and your identity shouldn’t rely on it, because it’s not guaranteed and it’s not permanent and it’s not sufficient. So work hard, fall in love with the writing—the characters, the story, the words, the themes—and make sure that you are who you are regardless of your life circumstances. That way, when the good things come, they don’t warp you, and when the bad things hit you, you don’t fall apart.

Follow the buying link about to read more, and by all means, check out Divergent, too. It's one exciting read!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sam Klemke's character arc in reverse

I've heard that proofreading is more effective if you work backwards through the manuscript. The same dynamic applies here.

Soren Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Muse vs. Marketplace

I've been teaching an online class this week, and today one of the students asked a great question about how to write something that will appeal to readers in the marketplace while still being true to your muse. Thought I'd share my response here, since it's a question that often comes up.

I think the key to writing a manuscript that sells to a traditional publisher and the book buyers responsible for getting your masterpiece in stores involves a balance between knowing/loving/richly imagining your characters and story and studying the market segment you want to target. Absorbing and understanding reader expectations for each area makes a lot of difference.

I'll give you an example. After writing a number of American historical romances, I was faced with the hard truth that that segment of the market was in severe decline. My reading taste had changed as well; I was glomming gobs of romantic suspense, straight suspense, and mystery novels and loving them. Rather than trying my hand at British Isles historicals, which I like reading well enough but don't have the right voice for, I went with my interests and my penchant for writing dark. Then I made a concerted effort to figure out the differences between the sometimes-overlapping genres of thriller, mystery, suspense, romantic suspense, and contemporary romance with suspense elements. I just read and read as I played around with my own plot and character ideas, until I decided that the stories I wanted to tell were a pretty balanced blend of romance and suspense, with a strong mystery element.

Once I zeroed in on romantic suspense, I focused my reading on newer books by newer authors in the subgenre and asked myself, what do they have in common and what new element does each author bring to the table? I also asked myself what I found dissatisfying as a reader about many of them, what "lack" would I try to address in my story. For me, the balance of romance and suspense seemed off in many, with the romance feeling forced/rushed at the book's end, so while writing, I paid particular attention to smoothing out the characters' emotional development (internal conflict) while keeping the mystery/suspense pot moving forward (external conflict.) Plus, I brought my love of Texas--particularly the West Texas desert-mountain region, and added that to the mix.

All that sounds pretty clinical, but in real life there was a lot of floundering around as I felt my way forward. Fortunately, because of my track record writing historicals, I was able to sell my first romantic suspense off of a proposal (which I'd rewritten three times since the first chapter initially bombed in contests) and the editor gave me some solid input on the emphasis she wanted. That part was just plain lucky (and the result of having a good agent.) Most of the time, you have to figure out the story you want to tell on your own and write a full manuscript when changing genres or trying making a first sale.

An analogy I like to use for the balance between targeting your market and being true to your story and characters is that of an artist who wants to create a beautiful painting that she can also sell. If it's a paint by number, it's not going to feel like art. However, you still need to try to keep your work within the frame. Yes, some subgenres have way more rigid expectations (anything to do with Regency England, for example) but a really talented writer can get away with shattering them, provided she knows she's doing so and has a good reason and a strong enough voice.

How do you balance the demands of the muse with the demands of the marketplace? Does anyone have a favorite technique to share?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Quick Update

Friends, two of my three published novels are now available on Nook.  I'm a Kindle gal myself, but it's nice to see the words spread around.

Link to my Nook titles is here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" Turned Down 60 Times Before Becoming a Bestseller

That's right.  Sixty times.  Five years of writing.  Three and a half years to find an agent.  She.  Never.  Gave.  Up.

I opened my 40th rejection: “There is no market for this kind of tiring writing.” That one finally made me cry. “You have so much resolve, Kathryn,” a friend said to me. “How do you keep yourself from feeling like this has been just a huge waste of your time?” That was a hard weekend. I spent it in pajamas, slothing around that racetrack of self-pity—you know the one, from sofa to chair to bed to refrigerator, starting over again on the sofa. But I couldn’t let go of The Help. Call it tenacity, call it resolve or call it what my husband calls it: stubbornness.

Read more at More.

Buy This Book: Sometimes Mine by Martha Moody

There’s a very interesting question posed in Martha Moody’s third novel, Sometimes Mine. What happens in mid life if the man you’ve loved for eleven years, the one with whom you have made a quasi-retirement plan, a plan that means you’ll have someone to grow old with, falls seriously ill? And what if you aren’t the wife of this man, but his mistress about whom his wife knows nothing? At least not yet. As you might imagine, these are very fine ingredients for a delicious fiction stew. Especially given Martha Moody’s gift for developing perspective. Genie Toledo is the ‘other woman’, a highly successful, articulate, often wryly funny cardiologist, the divorced single parent of a grown daughter who has maintained an eleven-year affair with an equally successful college basketball coach, Mick Crabb. Genie and Mick meet routinely every Thursday at the same hotel. Some might find it odd, but a weekly date and the nebulous notion of an idyllic future together in later life, after Mick’s kids are grown, are enough for Genie. She’s that good at compartmentalizing and dissociating, that good, as well, at keeping a distance between herself and her emotions and those whom she cares for. Her daughter and best friend, for instance. She’s that good at maintaining control of the circumstances of her life and she believes that she’s relatively content, too, with all that she’s created--until Mick falls ill and then everything, including Genie’s faith in herself and how she has chosen to live her life, goes out the window.

In the aftermath of Mick’s diagnosis, Genie can’t any longer pretend the fantasy world she has constructed will withstand the harsher demand of reality. Not even Genie can avoid the ineluctability of truth. So what can be made of this new world, when it’s no longer up to you when or even if you meet the one you love? And what of love? Can it be true that it isn’t necessary to schedule it, limit it, confine it? Sometimes Mine is a deeply thoughtful story where everything that occurs isn’t on the surface and endings might not quite tie up into a nice, neat bow. For more on Martha and her other (excellent) books visit her website.

Buy This Book: Open Road restores lost passages in new "From Here to Eternity" ebook

Available on Kindle today! James Jones’s classic tale of army life in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor is being released with scenes and dialogue that were considered obscene back in the 1950s and rare photos from the author’s estate.

What I love about this: I'm revisiting a book I loved in my teens, and I'm inspired about the neverending story now possible with the advent of ebooks.

NPR did a great story about the book release.

Monday, May 09, 2011


So the other day I go rock climbing with Dan and Megan.  This is how it came about: I had helped them with their manuscript--they are writing their first novel, a young adult fantasy/adventure about dreams that aren't only dreams but as real as stone--and in return and thanks they offered to take me up the side of a sheer cliff.  Seemed fair enough.  I hadn't climbed in over ten years, but that morning--it was a beautiful, perfect day--I liked the symmetry of what we were about to do: Dan and Megan had felt ungainly writing their book, and needed my help; now it was my turn to be the ungainly one, looking up in awe and watching them climb elegantly, dancers on a vertical stage.

If you've never been climbing, here is what it feels like; if you've ever written, you'll recognize it:

First, you have to grab onto something.  What to grab onto can be quite a puzzle.  There aren't always obvious handholds.  If there are, they don't necessarily lead in the direction you want to go.  But you take a breath, and hop on.  Now you are in mid-air.  The feeling is both exhilarating and pee-inducing.  A rope has you--you are not, after all, really going to kill yourself--but it feels as though you will.  In spite of all evidence to the contrary, you believe you are completely unhinged.  The choice is: up or off.

Now it is time to move.  Balance is important, but more so trust.  You have to believe that, by leaning into a thing that seems virtually unclimbable, you can push yourself up and forward.  You must trust not only yourself, but obvious things, like gravity and pressure; you must trust what is underneath you.  That little knob right there.  If you push on it, can you stand?  Really?  But oh, what a leap to trust a little knob!  Do I do dare?  Do you?  Here we go.  Push.  Stand.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.

Now you come to an impasse.  A big chunk of slick.  You reach and reach, blindly, but can't find anything to curl your fingers into.  You're stuck now, man.  You hang on the wall, splayed like a kite (or coiled into the stony curl of a barnacle).  You have another choice:  You can give up, or, as Dan likes to say, "get scrappy."  Getting scrappy means trying anything you can, experimenting, twisting, straining, groping, ass over edge, not fading.  If scrappiness fails, you can also ask for help from the person who knows and is holding the rope (that day, with Dan and Megan, I did both).

Okay, but when the scrappiness works, you take a deep breath, trust your muscle, your resolve and--ah!  Wow!  Up.  Up.  Up.  Over the obstacle!  What a feeling. Nothing, nothing like it.  Now you're in the groove (or crack).  You're feelin' it, man.  It's like you've done it all your life.  You've got the hang of it now.  Climb climb climb.  Look up.  There is the anchor!  Almost there.  Reach out.  Don't look down.  Reach out, reach out, touch it.  Ring it.  Like a silver bell.

The view.  Look at the view.


It's Monday.

Your chair is harness, support, safety strap.  Your thighs fit neatly into it, note.  Your fingers reach for the little knobs.  Do you trust them?  Your will is the knot.  The adventure is yours.  The screen is sheer and straight and waiting.

Hop on?


Sunday, May 08, 2011

Win a Free Copy of The Restorer: Interview with Amanda Stevens

Every so often I read a book so great I just have to crow about it. Amanda Stevens' latest, The Restorer, is a Southern gothic-styled mystery so eerie and compelling, it kept me reading late into the night. From its creep-tacular Charleston setting, cemetery lore, and first-class mystery to its lushly sensual writing style, this novel gripped me from the opening pages and didn't let go…

Today, please welcome Amanda Stevens to Boxing the Octopus, where she's answering our standard three questions and giving away a free, autographed copy of The Restorer to one lucky commenter. (Note to our readers: Please include your e-mail address in your comment, written out like such to fool the spambots: myname at gmail dot com)

BtO: Hi, Amanda. We're delighted to have you here on the blog today. As I gushed in my e-mail to you, I just loved The Restorer, whose protagonist, Amelia Grey, is a cemetery restorer who's always dropping cool bits of info about funereal symbology, customs, and occult beliefs I've never even heard of. (Which is really something, as I recently finished researching and writing on an upcoming book whose heroine is a New Orleans cemetery tour guide.)

What gave you the idea of writing about this particular profession? You know, beside morbid curiosity (although that's always worked for me!)

AS: Thanks so much for having me!

You know, I wish I could tell you the book was inspired by a visit to a creepy old cemetery or some spooky paranormal event, but truth be told, I Googled ‘unusual jobs’ and up popped cemetery restorer. I’d just finished reading Charlaine Harris’s Harper Connolly series and I wanted to create a protagonist with a strange occupation and/or ability. My mouth literally dropped open when I saw cemetery restorer on the screen because I knew it would be perfect for the kind of series I wanted to write—a lush, modern-day Gothic set in my beloved South.

BtO: In The Restorer's powerful opening, when nine-year-old Amelia Gray sees her first ghost, her cemetery caretaker father is quick to give her a set of rules that she must live by at all cost. Can you share a little about these rules?

AS: Her father presents the rules as a way to protect her from the ghosts. Netherworld parasites, I call them because they devour human warmth and energy much the same way a vampire feeds on blood. And those who can see them—like Amelia—are in particular peril because the thing the ghosts want more than anything is to be a part of our world again. Hence, Rule #1—never acknowledge the dead. However, as the series moves along, Amelia will discover another purpose to these rules…but that’s all I can say for now.

BtO: I still get chills thinking about that scene! Next, can you tell us a little about the free, related e-book, The Abandoned, along with what's next for Amelia Gray?

AS: The Abandoned is called a prequel, but really it’s a stand-alone story that introduces Amelia through the eyes of the POV character, Ree Hutchins, a grad student who volunteers at a creepy mental hospital in Charleston (inspired by the old Jefferson Davis Hospital here in Houston). One night something follows Ree home.

The Abandoned is also a mystery so readers will catches glimpses of Detective John Devlin, Amelia’s love interest, and learn a bit more about the history of the abandoned cemetery featured in The Restorer.

Next up for Amelia is The Kingdom, where she travels to an isolated town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a strange, withering place where she’s never before set foot but is inexplicably drawn to. Think hex symbols, vortexes, and a cemetery at the bottom of a murky lake. Think Twin Peaks.

BtO: I've already downloaded The Abandoned and can't wait for The Kingdom! Before you leave us, Amanda, I'm sneaking in the standard BtO bonus question. What are you reading these days?

AS: I just picked up Michael Koryta’s The Cypress House about a man who can foretell deaths. It came highly, highly recommended and I can’t wait to really dig into it.

BtO: Thanks again for stopping by, and don't forget, readers, we'll be drawing to give away an autographed copy of The Restorer to one lucky commenter. Contest ends on Wed., May 11th at noon (Central Daylight Time) so don't forget to enter!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Saturday Matinee: Gotta see Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"!

Last night while I was at critique group, Gary saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's amazing 3D movie about Paleolithic art in Chauvet, a cave in southern France. Discovered in 1994, the walls of Chauvet are covered with rhinos, mammoths, bison, lions, horses and handprints painted from 20 to 30,000 years ago.

Chauvet is zealously protected (as it should be), so not open to public view, but there are many other similar sites in southern France. Gary and I went on a Paleolithic art spelunking trip several years ago. Looking at these rich images, knowing what it took to survive the day in that era, the necessity of art is profoundly evident. It made me look at my own artistic existence with an entirely new heart. The creative energy and spirit of the caves has never left me.

Thursday, May 05, 2011


Like a lot of other working writers, I'm often juggling multiple creative projects at the same time. I may be researching one, writing another, and editing a third. Or, like today, I may be attempting to assuage the jittery nervefest of waiting for agent feedback on one book proposal by completing another oft-interrupted proposal.

This week, I'm having trouble with it. Though I'm very near the end of synopsis for Project B, Project A keeps distracting me with worry, second-guessing, and additional, very cool ideas. Like a jealous lover, Project B seizes on my wandering mind, points a finger, and yells, "Busted!" Then it slams the front door on its way out of my head.

(((Drat! More spam e-mail and not one from my agent!)))

Okay. Regrouping here. Because project B is right. It has the potential to be a great book, and it really does deserve my *full* attention. So for the rest of the day, I mean to woo it, to treat it as if it's the only project in the world for me. To move past this particular brand of resistance and totally pull my act together to...

(((Darn it! That ringing telephone's from a carpet-cleaning service, not my agent!)))

Now what was I saying? I'm a little distracted here this week...

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Bookalanche! For My BoxOcto pals (and in honor of a silly cat)

During my morning writing session, Mali, our fearless little Burmese, figured out that books on shelves make great forts. She also realized that when the big boy cats come (one of whom is twice her size), she can hide behind the books and push them out onto them, rapid fire, until she creates an avalanche of books.

The kicker: This is the shelf where I have my BoxOcto books and books by other writers I admire. Note Colleen's Touch of Evil on the floor there next to that giant picture of Amy Tan, and if you squint, you can see the corner of Joni's Crazy for Trying peeking out two books back from Kathryn Stockett's The Help. A friend of mine on facebook pointed out how clearly she could see the word "help" in this picture.

Even better? That book that's precariously positioned between standing and falling?

Sophie's Choice.

Oh, and busted:

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Read This: The Urgent Matter of Books

Check out Lidia Yuknavitch on The Rumpus, reminding us what books are: "Portable brain defibrillators."

Books, like all art, breed in us desire. In times of crisis and fear and misrepresentation we need desire, or else we shut down and hide out in our houses, succumbing to infotainment and the ease of an available latte, turning off our brains and emotions. Books breed desire.

What I'm (re)reading now:

A Spirit of Openness

There are so many qualities that are important to the career writer, but one of the most critical may be the spirit of openness.

Unless you're self-publishing, the process of bringing a book to fruition is far more of a collaborative venture than you might imagine. The term "submission" is apt, for when you start submitting your project, whether it's to an agent you hope will represent it or an editor you want to champion and acquire it, you're in a position of stepping back from your own words and listening to other points of view, based on the professional's experience.

Some of what these folks have to say will smack hard against the wall of your resistance. Whether it's because the suggestion contradicts your original vision or because your subconscious is screeching that making the requested changes will be a heck of a lot of work, this reaction (I call it the "This editor's a complete moron!" moment) is a predictable, even instinctive part of the revision process. And whether or not you'll make it in the publishing world depends a great deal on how you find a way to deal with it.

Early in my writing journey, I had a huge problem with taking direction. Ego-involved with the work as I was, I was terribly myopic when it came to any perceived criticism. This only began to change for me when I started rereading contest judges' feedback many months after I originally received it. Shockingly, I realized that in a lot of (though not all) instances, the judge was right on target, or at least that his/her suggestions pointed out a deficiency I might correct by some other means. Attempting to learn from this, I started to allow myself to react, however negatively I needed to, to disappointments to get my ego out of the way, and then re-reading comments a few weeks or months later to glean whatever wisdom I could from the suggestions.

Cue forward a few years, and lucky me! I'd sold to a New York publishing house, where I didn't often have the luxury of weeks or (especially) months to shove my ego out of the way. At that point, I was receiving my most significant editorial input via phone, where it is frowned upon (to put it mildly) to throw a tantrum and call the person on the other end of the conversation an idiot. So I began taking careful notes, promising to consider or try out all suggestions, and then getting off the phone to wail and gnash my teeth or call a long-suffering friend to gripe about how my agent/editor "didn't get it." I put a strict five-minute limit on the bitching portion of those calls.

And then I moved directly to the discovery stage, where I realized that, for the most part, the person who'd given me this advice really did have some great insights into what readers want to see. This isn't to say that I went with every suggestion. I didn't and still don't. But I do take time to think through every one, and often, I'll "test drive" the idea and see how it works out. Just this past week, I've done so, even though this particular opinion utterly conflicted with my initial instincts.

I did promise to try it out on the first chapter, however, and darn it all, I could almost immediately see that it was a great suggestion, even though it cost me dozens of hours of extra work. Will my agent and others ultimately agree it was a good choice? I have no idea, but I know that in making those changes, I also improved other story elements that I'm 100% certain made this proposal more viable. If I'd been unwilling to risk trying something different, I would never have found my way to these new elements.

There's something else to be gained as well, from opening yourself up to the spirit of colleagiality. In doing so, you make the publishing pro part of the team, someone with even more of a vested interest (other than the obvious financial aspects) in fighting for your book's success. Since we're all on the same team anyway, The Team of Creating, Producing, and Marketing a Successful Book, it's a great thing, not a failure, to get as many people on board with it as possible.

That myth you might have stuck in your head about the misanthropic lone writer in the ivory tower? That's rarely the way things work out in real life. Most successful writers understand they're only one factor in the formula and they'd better darned well listen to their peeps.

So how about the rest of you? Can you think of any changes you initially resisted that turned out to be a great help? How do you put your ego aside to deal with criticism?

Monday, May 02, 2011

End of an Era: Go with God, Rev. George Harper (inoculating #OBL fever with a shot of love)

Everyone in the world today is reacting to the death of Osama bin Laden, and while I will admit to an initial Snoopy dance, by midnight I was feeling kind of uncomfortable about laughing when John Fugelsang tweeted, "I hope no one sits with bin Laden in Hell's cafeteria tomorrow." I appreciated our president's appropriate response. Another great speech goes down in history. People are talking about the end of an era. I don't think bin Laden deserves that much credit. But I'll tell you who does.

Reverend George Harper, who also died last night, had a much quieter but no less profound influence on the world. He was basically the polar opposite of a man whose religion was fueled by hate. His words were always strong, but always about love, from the first time Gary and I attended St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Helena back in 1985, through the baptism of both our kids in '87 and '89, to this sermon George gave at St. Paul's last summer.

From "Walking Temples":
"Between Tea Parties and Beer Parties and oil slicks and lack of jobs our country is in a mess. And everybody, on the political right and left, are shouting that something has to be done. Listen to them...you think that all fairy tales begin "Once upon a time?" No. Many of them start: "if elected, I promise..."

I think the real question everywhere is whether our world is going to be patched up and restored to what it used to be, or whether we are going forward into a new and different kind of life.

I think the time has come in our country when something more than mere repair and restoration of the old is necessary. The old must die and the new must come forth. And we can start by changing what we call "religion."

...Who will be the greatest in this new world? The one who serves. People who serve are walking temples of God, who is Love.

Christ is not waiting for an Armageddon event to come again into human existence; He never left us. As God's Holy Spirit of Love, He is with us now, and always will be, as He promised He would. We touch Him as we serve any person in need. What we do (good or bad) to any one of them, we do to Him, He said.

This is the one universal religion the world needs, any new world that has real human beings in it."
Read the entire text of "Walking Temples" on the St. Paul's website.

Go with God, George. You will be greatly missed and always hugely loved.


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