Thursday, June 30, 2011

Literati on the Beach

Just in time for July 4th -- thank you Shelf Awareness.

We love Flavorwire's gallery of Literary Greats in Their Bathing Suits but can't decide which is sexier: Sylvia Plath's two-piece or Truman Capote's Speedo.... You, on the other hand, may be transfixed by Virginia Woolf's ankle-length striped swim jammies or Papa Hemingway's manly trunks. Too bad there isn't a comparable gallery of contemporary authors; we'd love to see the beachwear choices of Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion and Jennifer Egan, among many others.

Who gives a F#@% about an Oxford comma? (Vampire Weekend tribute to J'ru's grammar final)

Jerusha's been taking a killer grammar course this summer with a brilliant professor who's made it everything a parsing of language particulars should be: fascinating, hilarious and memorable. She's been on fire for the grammar, I tell ya, and it made me hungry for refresher, which I found in this handy dandy punctuation toolkit.

Incidentally, the Oxford comma (aka serial comma) is officially off style per The Oxford Style Manual:
As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’: They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.
Good luck on your final today, J'ru!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Missing RWA National Conference? It's Twitter to the Rescue!

As a long-time Romance Writers of America national conference junkie, I've been worried about skipping my first one in eleven years. And it's in New York City, which makes missing out even more painful.

While I still hate notseeing my agents, editors, and many pals and supporting my Golden Heart and RITA finalist buddies, I'm gathering valuable intel by following (or go to and search "#RWA11".)

Here's what I've gleaned so far:

1. Last night's literacy signing was super crowded and successful.

2. Madeline Hunter gave a wonderful, inspiring keynote earlier today. But that's no surprise. She's brilliant and always worth listening to.

3. Avon's new Impulse line for romance e-books has the same editorial input as its traditional print line. They're getting the books our more quickly and interested in the following: contemporary romance (especially with humor, according to a tweet from Senior Editor Erika Tsang), Western historical, romantic suspense, and medieval, among others. Open to all sorts of niche subgenres...and reprints.

4. Harlequin's Carina line for romance e-books is interested in the same. Plus, they're especially welcoming of science fiction romance. Carina will be sending 70% of titles to Audible for audio books, to the Harlequin book clubs, and they may also be translated and reprinted as foreign editions.

5. According to an unnamed agent, most of the publishers (including print) are now looking for straight contemporary romance. Apparently, it's back from the dead. (Yea!)

I'll be monitoring Facebook, Twitter and various blogs and posting more industry news throughout the week. If anyone has more to add, please post to the comments section.

Had enough Angry Birds? (Penguin just came out with a cool classics app)

For sixty-five years, Penguin Classics has been the leading publisher of literature in the English-speaking world, providing readers with a global bookshelf of great works in all genres. The free Penguin Classics app is a fun way to put the complete list of Penguin Classics in the palm of your hand.

Not sure what you want to read? The “Discover the Classics” section lets you pick a Classic based on your interests. Or give your iPhone a shake and let the app pick a title for you. Browse over 1,500 Penguin Classics titles, test your Penguin Classics knowledge with a Classics quiz, bookmark titles, keep a scorecard of which Classics you've read, and of course, be all in your Facebook about it.

The app will be continually updated with news, new quizzes and lists, events info, and the latest Penguin Classics titles. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Buy This Book: Adam Mitzner's "A Conflict of Interest"

Nearing the top of my TBR pile is Adam Mitzner's debut novel, A Conflict of Interest. Talking about his journey to publication on his website, Mitzner says, "I have always been interested in writing, and yet, oddly enough, never took any courses in college (or after) and actually never seriously tried to write until a few years ago. I showed a first draft of my work to a friend whose brother is an agent for cookbooks, and he suggested I retain a private editor, Ed Stackler. Meeting Ed was the turning point. He was the first person who thought I had publishable talent, and working with him was like taking every creative writing course I missed in college. Of equal importance, when my first novel was finished, Ed hooked me up with my agent, Scott Miller of Trident Publishing."

Mitzner's first novel was close but no cigar with a few publishers, but didn't sell. There was interest among a few houses, but no offers.

So, back to the drawing board. For my next work I decided to try something different from a legal thriller, and I wrote a political one, focusing on the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice. Mitzner misfired with a second novel and was advised by his agent to stick with New York City legal dramas.

"Fast forward another eighteen months (but it actually didn't go by that quickly) and I finished A Conflict of Interest," says Mitzner.

The book sold to S&S imprint Gallery Books and scored a starred review in PW when it was released last month. (Cue the bangin' pull quote!) "Mitzner's assured debut...compares favorably to Presumed Innocent.... Mitzner tosses in a number of twists, but his strength lies in his characters and his unflinching depiction of relationships in crisis. This gifted writer should have a long and successful career ahead of him."

Per the PR:
Alex Miller is a criminal defense attorney and, at thirty-five, the youngest partner in one of the most powerful law firms in New York City. He's a man at the top of his game with the life he's always dreamed of. Then, at his father's funeral, Alex meets a mysterious and nearly mythic figure in Miller family history—who presents Alex with a surprising request: to represent him in a high-profile criminal investigation. As Alex gets involved and the facts come out, shocking secrets are revealed that threaten everything Alex believes in—about the law, his family, and himself...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Cemetery Road" author Gar Anthony Haywood joins Murderati blog crew

The unkillable Gar Anthony Haywood, author of Cemetery Road (and a boatload of other books), talks about the ups and downs of his long publishing career in his first post as a Murderati contributor...
The mid-list crunch was on throughout the industry and my sales numbers made me an easy target for dismissal... What followed, in 2004, was a crater in the ol' career path not unlike the one that asteroid in Armageddon might have left on the face of the earth had Bruce Willis and company not blown it to smithereens. No one wanted to touch the proposal I'd written for a third standalone and any conversation about a new book in either of my two series was a non-starter. Oh, and that burning smell I was gradually beginning to notice turned out to be my agent's disappointment grinding his faith in me as a saleable commodity down to a smoldering nub.
Read the rest here, and when you have a minute, scroll down the FeedMe bar on the right. We follow Murderati and a lot of other great blogs that dish publishing and book talk.

Friday, June 24, 2011

J.K. Rowling's Newest Venture

If you're one of those Harry Potter fans who never wants J.K. Rowling's epic, formative work to end, and you can't afford the ticket to the theme park in Orlando (I've heard it's fabulous!) the author has a digital surprise for you. Check out her latest announcement of Potterworld, an interactive experience based on the books. Sounds like great fun... and a wonderful reminder of how far the oft-rejected product of one woman's imagination can go.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Smashwords founder says PLR is "one of the worst threats to ebooks today."

If you're an author delving into the world of ebook publishing, don't miss this excellent Guardian article about spam ebook infestation that has some of the largest distributors justifiably concerned.
The ease with which you can license content and repackage it to sell as an ebook has created a growing problem for Amazon and other resellers – spam ebooks. Distributors are worried...

A key starting point of the problem is Private Label Rights content (PLR), which allows anyone to buy prewritten content in bulk that they can then make into ebooks or website content. PLR seller Ronnie Nijmeh of describes it as "royalty-free content, which means, when you pay for a licence, you get the rights to use the content without royalty in nearly any way you please".

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, an ebook distributor, sees PLR as "one of the worst threats to ebooks today...idiots fall prey to the PLR schemes and pay their $24.95 a month or whatever to access vast databases of generic content, and they have the ability to mix and match this content and republish it as an ebook in their own name."
Read the rest here. It's becoming clear that legit authors - particularly those of us who are not (yet) household names - need to find ways to set ourselves apart from the spam and swamp fodder.

Buy This Book: "The Secret Sisters" (aka "The Dirty Dirty Dildo Sex Book") is now on Kindle

The Secret Sisters was my fifth book, originally pubbed in hardcover by HarperCollins in 2005 and now available on Kindle with added bonus content, including reading recommendations from my own fabulous sisters. It's a bit of a departure from my previous work. I've always been a happy and optimistic person by nature - and I still am - but this novel definitely leans more toward tragedy than comedy. It's darker, more erotic, and more message-driven than anything else I've ever written.

An agoraphobic (Pia) is taken by a con artist. A party girl (Lily) goes to jail for vehicular homicide. A bereaved mother (Beth) is forced to confront the fact that her cherubic child was actually a little pain in the patootie. Each of the sisters has constructed a private prison for herself. They each serve hard time searching for redemption.

My prime directive is always to tell a great story, but deeply saddened by what I saw happening in the world after 9-11, I wanted to tell a deeper, more thought-provoking tale. Pia's story is a parable about what we sacrifice when we embrace fear as a lifestyle. It's about the art of manipulation, the craft of seduction, and the blissful but dangerous state of denial, but this book is also about empowerment and accountability.

Every character in every novel I write is on a quest for peace, and I'm humbly grateful to all the readers who've opened their hearts and minds, engaged the page, and journeyed with me. This book taught me not to take that good will for granted. A lot of people found The Secret Sisters offensive, partly because of the lefty politics, but more because of the graphic sexual content. (Note to self: When using sex as a metaphor, prepare to be horsewhipped, and refer to this post on sex as a literary device. And when feeling low, refer to this lovely review from Armchair Interviews.)

My original title for this book was The Prodigal Wife. I wish I'd been stronger when pressured to change it. Or maybe I should have gone with Gary's title suggestion: The Dirty Dirty Dildo Sex Book. A lot of people couldn't see any further than that. And knowing what I now know as a writer, I understand why. The book says exactly what I wanted to say, but it made a lot of people uncomfortable. (Personally, I'm uncomfortable with unnecessary wars and the torture of illegally held prisoners. Guess we all have our little hangups, huh.)

Do I regret it? No. Would I do it again? Given the chance, absolutely. But in the publishing industry, you don't always get another chance. That was a tough lesson to learn.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fighting the Wrong Fight?

I've been quiet on the blog for the past week, away from home and most Internet access enjoying family, cooler weather, small-town life, and the Jersey shore. Just before leaving yesterday, I came across this crime blotter news item in the Vineland Daily Journal:

A turkey set off an alarm at a business on Wolf Road just after midnight Saturday. An officer found a turkey pecking at the glass on the front door. It appeared to be fighting its own reflection.

Reintroduced to Southern New Jersey a couple of decades back, wild turkeys have proliferated to the point where you see them everywhere, pecking in the weeds, scratching at the dirt, and fiercely protecting their young. They're alert parents and large enough to open a can of whoop-ass on any dog, stray cat, or fox who dares to venture too close to their brood.

Yet, as seen above, they're not exactly Rhodes scholars about figuring out the difference between a real threat and their own reflections. They've been seen attacking shiny hubcaps, flinging themselves against windows, and scratching the heck out of the side of freshly-washed cars. Such frantic, self-defeating activity tires and distracts the birds...not to mention taking their attention from the real threats creeping up.

As you work to achieve your writing goals, you need to ask yourself, am I worrying myself silly about things I can't control, things that ultimately don't matter? Am I expending my time and energy pecking at glass doors instead of producing the kind of meaningful work that has the potential to excite an agent, an editor, and (with the right luck, timing, and effort) a large, receptive audience?

The uncomfortable truth is that there's not time to do everything, be everything, follow every possible path. We can only choose priorities to keep from fluttering about like turkeys attempting to do everything at once.

What's your priority this week?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Buy This Book: The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz

The Commoner: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)There are few worlds as shrouded in mystery as that of Japan’s imperial family. It is generally thought of as cloistered, as beautiful and exotic but few real details regarding the day-to-day lives of the ruling monarchy are known. That is what makes The Commoner, John Burnham Schwarzt’s fourth, wonderfully-researched novel, so fascinating. We are led into that very private world by Haruko, a commoner from a well-placed Japanese family, who in 1959 marries the crown prince and afterward very nearly disappears from public view. It is through her soft but completely compelling voice that we learn of the hardships of that life--think bird in a gilded cage. Think Cinderella without the godmother and without the opportunity to flee. For one, Haruko is cruelly separated from her parents and friends. Not only are they not permitted to attend her wedding as other than members of the crowd of spectators that clog the streets on the day of the ceremony, but after, it is almost as if she is dead to them. In a real sense, as the weeks pass, she becomes dead to herself. She is fed and clothed by ladies-in-waiting who take their orders from the crown prince’s mother whom you might describe as the mother-in-law from hell. But she is merely acting from the requirements of her position, a centuries old tradition of obligation, of subservience in a society that reveres its male leaders to the point of idolatry and worship. In fact, it would appear that a woman’s presence is only useful for providing an heir to the monarchy, a male heir.

Imagine it, you cannot speak your mind. You cannot go out of doors or run to the market or have coffee with your mom and dad. As for a girl’s night out, forget it. Your world is full of cannots. Even speaking openly to your husband can be fraught with danger. Haruko finally fulfills her obligation, producing the requisite male heir only to be parted from him. The child is given into the hands of others who are better qualified to care for him. Haruko loses what little happiness was left to her. She is so beaten down, she loses her voice. She doesn’t speak. Not for weeks and weeks. This time is poignantly rendered in language that holds such pathos and grace, your heart aches for her. There is only one possibility for her emotional survival and that is for her to accept her fate, which she eventually does with quiet dignity. And her son grows into a man. But when he then weds a rising star in the foreign ministry--yet another commoner--the consequences are tragic and Haruko’s response is as courageous as it is astonishing. You want to stand and applaud. It is here that the story gains an urgency that keeps pace until the very end. The Commoner is a rare and captivating look into a little-known world and an altogether gorgeous and engrossing read.

For more about the author visit John Burnham Schwartz's website.

Buy This Book: Jojo Moyes' beautiful heartbreaker "The Last Letter From Your Lover"

I've become a fan of Pamela Dorman Books, a Viking imprint that dependably delivers unique, well-written novels I'd classify as "accessible literary fiction." Meaning the writing is gorgeous, the characters talk like real people, and the stories engage from front cover to back.

The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes (arriving in bookstores right after the holiday weekend and available for pre-order now) weaves together two love stories (and then some) with all the chic of the Mad Men era and all the complications of love in the time of text messages.

Per the PR:
It is 1960. When Jennifer Stirling wakes up in the hospital, she can remember nothing-not the tragic car accident that put her there, not her husband, not even who she is. She feels like a stranger in her own life until she stumbles upon an impassioned letter, signed simply "B", asking her to leave her husband.

Years later, in 2003, a journalist named Ellie discovers the same enigmatic letter in a forgotten file in her newspaper's archives. She becomes obsessed by the story and hopeful that it can resurrect her faltering career. Perhaps if these lovers had a happy ending she will find one to her own complicated love life, too. Ellie's search will rewrite history and help her see the truth about her own modern romance.

Moyes seamlessly navigates complex shifts in time, place, and perspectives. The writing is simply lovely when it's about love and heartbreaking when it's about heartbreak. Poetry at times. The unabashed sentiment is delivered with the necessary wit and mitigated by plenty of messy reality.

I have agonizingly little time for fiction reading right now, but I made time for this book, and I'm so glad I did. Rich writing, textured story, and a fully satisfying end that never dips to the sappy. The Last Letter from Your Lover is a delicious summer book and a terrific book club selection. If you don't need Kleenex, you need a heart transplant.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Seen on the scene: Promise Me fragrance ties in with Nancy Brinker's bestselling memoir about sisterhood in action

Colleen just flipped me a smart phone photo she snapped on her way into an east coast department store. The Promise Me fragrance is fresh out, a perfect tie-in with Nancy's NYT bestselling memoir, Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.

Nancy and Suzy were impeccably classy young women of the Mad Men era. I love the chapters about their adventures and misadventures. It's well known now that Suzy died of breast cancer at age 36, and her little sister Nancy went on to create the world's largest grassroots organization, Susan G. Komen For the Cure. In her memoir, Nancy wanted to share more about Suzy's life and her joyful, free-spirited style, along with the story of this world-changing legacy of love.

Perfumer Jean Claude Delville says, "A fragrance is a message in a bottle. In Promise Me, I was inspired to capture a long-lasting emotion of positive energy, hope and love. I wanted to create something empowering, something that would speak to all women." All of which perfectly captures what Nan and I set out to accomplish in this book.

More about the Promise Me fragrance, benefiting Susan G. Komen For the Cure.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Buy This Book: Liane Moriarty delivers on an intriguing premise in "What Alice Forgot"

With bright, engaging style and smart plot choices, Liane Moriarty makes the most of a genius idea in What Alice Forgot, fresh in bookstores this month from Amy Einhorn. (Is it impossibly nerdy than I am the groupie of certain imprints?)

Per the PR:
What would happen if you were visited by your younger self, and got a chance for a do-over?

Alice Love is twenty-nine years old, madly in love with her husband, and pregnant with their first child. So imagine her surprise when, after a fall, she comes to on the floor of a gym (a gym! she HATES the gym!) and discovers that she's actually thirty-nine, has three children, and is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce.

A knock on the head has misplaced ten years of her life, and Alice isn't sure she likes who she's become. It turns out, though, that forgetting might be the most memorable thing that has ever happened to Alice.
As she did with her debut novel, Three Wishes, Moriarty brings a welcome bite that takes her books beyond the usual chick lit. It's hipper than most women's fiction, however, so I guess I'd call it...chicktion?

Check her out.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A letter any writer would love to receive

A friend of mine just directed me to this letter from Michael Powell to Martin Scorsese, from Letters of Note. What strikes me most is the way Powell balances his perceptive suggestions for the script's improvement with his obvious admiration of the script and specific praise. This letter should be required reading for anyone who attempts to give a critique.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Salman Rushdie writing a series for Showtime

According to the Guardian, Salman Rushdie says TV drama series have taken the place of novels, and he's working on a series called "The Next People" for Showtime. The pilot has been commissioned and written with "an almost feature-film budget" and a plot revolving around politics, religion, science, technology and sexuality.

Saith Rushdie:
"It's a sort of paranoid science-fiction series, people disappearing and being replaced by other people. ...They said to me that what I should really think about is a TV series, because what has happened in America is that the quality – or the writing quality – of movies has gone down the plughole."
Read the Guardian article.

Great Tony Award moment: Andrew Rannels sings "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon

"I believe that God has a plan for all of us. And I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet!"

Apply to your writing life as you see fit, have a productive work week, and believe!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dreaming It Up

Last night, I fell asleep trying to untangle a seriously knotty plot issue. I often set my brain to work on these issues before bedtime, and every now and then it pays off and I'm awakened by my subconscious at 3 AM with the answer.

Sometimes, it's one of those answers that only seems brilliant at 3 AM. Other times, it's exactly what's needed (including lines of dialogue or fabulously-crafted bits of narrative that I take down and use verbatim.) Last night, my brain's response came in the form of one seriously bizarre, convoluted, and colorful dream where I was simultaneously my story's heroine, myself (as the story's author), and a mysterious third party who was witnessing and directing the twisty action. And getting increasingly frustrated when the characters (who included members of my critique group) refused to stay on script and do what I wanted.

Gee, that's not so different from my everyday writing life.

Still, as I lay in bed this morning, I found there were some intriguing elements in that strange dream, snippets of creativity tossed up from the depths. I'll explore them in the coming days, seining for the best and tossing back all the others to grow into keepers for another night.

How about the rest of you? Do you ever dream about your works in progress? Are you one of those lucky folks who dream the entire plot from start to finish, or is is all just a bunch of churned up gumbo? Do you believe that dreams can help enhance a creative work?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Let’s talk about sex: The Mistress Contract, great conversation starter and dangerous projectile

Last week I read a book that literally set my brain on fire. My brain. Was firing. Neurons. Axons. Claxons. I’m talking about intellectual orgasm. And I suspect I’m not the only one. BEA goers rapidly snapped up the entire supply of The Mistress Contract advance galley copies, which were cleverly presented in plain brown bags. (The book is due out in October, but I was able to beg a PDF from the publisher.)

I’ll admit it, curiosity — prurient interest even — kicked it straight to the top of my TBR pile. I inhaled it, stumbled gobsmacked around the grocery store for an hour, then returned home and inhaled it again.

The book opens with the document which we're told the anonymous author actually sent to her wealthy lover in the 1980s. A single page generated on an old-school typewriter, it pitches a straightforward deal: He will provide adequate accommodations for her and cover her living expenses. She will provide 1) all housekeeping duties and 2) “all sexual acts as requested, with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers.” For the duration of the agreement, She will be his “sexual property.” Party the second, we’re told, promptly telephoned to accept the proposal.

What follows is part performance art, part character study, part Socratic dialogue. We’re told that we’re reading the transcribed conversations of He and She, recorded while they were in the car, at restaurants, and yes, in bed. He and She are fully aware that the reader is in bed with them. (The recording device takes on the personality of something purchased from Even when the conversation is about literature, politics, power, and other far flung topics, the context of the talk and the electric connection between He and She creates a deeply sexy environment in which disbelief and political correctness are quickly suspended.

What shocks in The Mistress Contract is the discourse, not the intercourse. The Foucault, not the f#@king. As He and She go at it with the brainy chemistry of Beatrice and Benedick, the naked opinions expressed about men, women, and feminism are challenging, frequently infuriating, thought-provoking and just plain provoking, witty, poignant, and astonishingly progressive, considering the context of the recordings. (Think “telex” as opposed to email.)

I was warned and I agree that this book is going to make people want to throw things — most notably the book itself — and it sparked heated dialogue between me and my husband, between me and my daughter, between me and the guy sitting next to me for three hours at the drivers license office. This will be the brave selection that turns book club to Fight Club. Most important, it ignited heated dialogue with myself, made me ask unsettling questions and struggle with unexpected answers as a woman and an artist. If this book doesn't make you think - and rethink - darling, candidly, you need to get laid, preferably by a smart person.

The anonymous author (I have my theory) and publisher (Unbridled Books) definitely get an A for audacity. I have my thoughts about various ideological particulars and some opinions about the origins of the book, but I’ll reserve these until The Mistress Contract comes out in October, at which time I hope you’ll all buy the heck out of it, read it cover to cover in one sitting, and fling it at someone you love.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Buy This Book: Alice Bliss is a lovely summer read

Back in March, I issued a buzz alert for 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.)

Alice Bliss is now in bookstores, book clubs and beach bags everywhere. Harrington's writing is simply beautiful. Fluid, page-turning, paced exactly right. The story flows, the protagonist grows, secondary characters blossom fully. It's the quintessential multi-Kleenex summer house read.

Per the PR:
When Alice Bliss learns that her father, Matt, is being deployed to Iraq, she's heartbroken. Alice idolizes her father, loves working beside him in their garden, accompanying him on the occasional roofing job, playing baseball. When he ships out, Alice is faced with finding a way to fill the emptiness he has left behind.

Matt will miss seeing his daughter blossom from a tomboy into a full-blown teenager. Alice will learn to drive, join the track team, go to her first dance, and fall in love, all while trying to be strong for her mother, Angie, and take care of her precocious little sister, Ellie. But the smell of Matt is starting to fade from his blue shirt that Alice wears everyday, and the phone calls are never long enough.

Alice Bliss is a profoundly moving coming-of-age novel about love and its many variations--the support of a small town looking after its own; love between an absent father and his daughter; the complicated love between an adolescent girl and her mother; and an exploration of new love with the boy-next-door. These characters' struggles amidst uncertain times echo our own, lending the novel an immediacy and poignancy that is both relevant and real. At once universal and very personal, Alice Bliss is a transforming story about those who are left at home during wartime, and a teenage girl bravely facing the future.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Enter laughing: "Weiner like me" is the most hilarious and painfully true op ed in NYT history

The brilliant columnist, essayist, and proud Weiner (long may it wave!) writes about the fraught connotations of his family name, which has not advanced in cool points with the recent media fixation on a "scandal" (it's so tepid and silly, I wish I could give it air quotes here instead of actually wasting a perfectly good pair of quotation marks on it) involving lewd (yawn) photos sent by Representative Anthony D. Weiner, a congressman from New York.

From "Weiner like me" in the NYT yesterday:
With all due respect to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name just isn’t the same. We look in the mirror and see not a generic person but a very specific one. We see Ted, and Sarah, and José, and yes, sometimes we see a Weiner. Names don’t merely describe. They impugn meaning. The river of semantics flows in both directions. Call someone a nincompoop often enough and long enough and they start to believe it. There is no such thing as “mere semantics.” Names matter.

Some friends suggest that “Weinergate” is good for me and my writing career. I’m not so sure. Indeed, I believe it’s time we re-think that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity. I suspect Anthony would agree. No, Weinergate is not good for us Weiners any more than Watergate was good for water.
Please do read the whole thing, then click to buy the guy's book. At the very least, check out a Kindle sample of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World or the terrifically readable (I'm reading it right now for research on a ghost book) What Goes Up: The Uncensored History of Modern Wall Street as Told by the Bankers, Brokers, CEOs, and Scoundrels Who Made It Happen.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Cutting to the Chase: Writing the Category Novel

For years, I've written long books containing complex webs of characters and convoluted plots. My historical romances (written as Gwyneth Atlee and Colleen Easton) started out at about 120,000 words, but thanks to the rising cost of ink and paper, word counts gradually dropped. Even so, it was rare for me to turn in a book of less than 100,000 words for my single-title romantic suspense novels.

I love writing the big book and building the world and complexities that go with it. But my brand new release, the Romantic Times Top Pick Capturing the Commando was written for Harlequin's Intrigue line, which has a carved-in-stone word count of 55-60,000 words. Since I sold this book off of a brief proposal, I was a little nervous about how I would handle the challenge of "waltzing in a phone booth," as I've heard the writing of the category or series novel (shorter, numbered books, usually some flavor of romance) described. How would I boil down the story to its essential elements without sacrificing an enjoyable reading/writing experience?

Here are a few things I've learned along the way:

• Figure out which elements are bringing readers to the type of books you're writing. This means reading lots of representative samples by popular writers in the line you're targeting. But read debut books, too, to see what's recently made the cut.
• Immediately get the foundation for the critical elements on the page. For example, Harlequin Intrigue readers love action, law enforcement scenarios, formidable Alpha heroes, and smart, capable heroines, who don't fall apart when the going gets tough. And they want to see a heightened connection between these characters unfolding in the heat of a crisis.
• Keep the cast of characters as small as possible, doubling-up character roles whenever you can.
• If at all possible, limit the point of view to the heroine and hero. Generally, these books begin with the heroine's viewpoint, then alternate throughout the book. (I did include a third POV in Commando in a few very brief scenes, because there was no other way to impart what I considered crucial information.
• Severely reduce/eliminate subplots, backstory, and large chunks of exposition.
• Live by this mantra: If it doesn't move the plot forward, it doesn't need to be there.
• Tuck brief, telling descriptive details into dialogue or action, but only as many as you absolutely need.
• Get right to "the good stuff," or, as Elmore Leonard puts it, "Leave out the parts that people don't read."

I was happy to find that writing the category novel is a blast. Since I've only written two (the new release and this September's Phantom of the French Quarter, along with the novella "Lethal Lessons," in the 2-in-1 Silhouette Romantic Suspense edition, Deadlier Than the Male) I don't consider myself an expert, but I'm having a great time bringing quick, entertaining tales to readers in a hurry and hope to get the chance to do more.

Just for fun, and to illustrate what I mean by cutting to the chase, I'll leave you with the opening paragraphs of Capturing the Commando. Hope you enjoy!

He had her dead to rights.
Maybe dead in fact, too, Shannon Brandt realized as a deep voice warned, “Don’t move,” and something hard jammed into her back. The barrel of a handgun? All from a passerby she’d barely noticed as she hurried to the corner breakfast joint where the rest of her team was already positioned, ready to make the grab. The tall white male, face mostly hidden by the brim of a goofy tourist ball cap, had been looking down, apparently engrossed in a brochure for the kitschy mermaid park nearby. He’d seemed harmlessly distracted, with a diaper bag tucked guy-style, like a football, beneath one arm. Waiting for his wife, she thought, and paying no heed to anyone else.
Or so it had seemed until the moment she’d passed and he was out of sight.
Her stomach plummeted when he ground out, “Into the car. Now. We’ll have our little talk there, Special Agent.”
Giving her a slight push, he propelled her not toward the nondescript stolen vehicle she might have expected but to a cherry-red Cadillac the size of the Queen Mary. The gas-sucking seventies engine rumbled, and she saw a sweaty-looking pale man with dark, reflective glasses slouched low behind the wheel.
Though shaded by a floppy beach hat, the driver’s weak chin gave him away as one Garrett Smith, she realized, her heart constricting with the knowledge that that meant the man behind her, the fake dad with the weapon, was well prepared to use it—that he was the very fugitive she’d been so certain she had fooled into walking into their trap.
She blanched, wondering how long it had taken him to figure out she was FBI. And whether he meant to retaliate for her online masquerade and efforts to entrap him.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Plotters, Pantsers, and Underpantsers: Taking Mythic Structures into the prison

I just finished my first day back with my prison students after a three-week break, and, as usual, I'm totally psyched. Never do the hours fly by faster than there, and I always leave jazzed and happy. Today was especially interesting, because I'm trying something new, something which, to my knowledge, has not been done. I'm taking several different theories of dramatic structure, holding them up alongside several theories of story structure, and carrying all of it into the prison. Throughout the nine-week course, I'm hoping that the students will see that there are many different structures available for planning a long work like a screenplay or a novel. For the less linear, pantser types, I'm doing a lot of freewriting and intuitive exercises, too, ultimately trying to tap into both sides of the brain. From what I've learned so far with my own writing, long projects involve both, and both the planning and revision stages are, at best, a dance between the right and left side of the brain.

So today, the first day, I introduced the basic concept of the course, along with the vocabulary of plotter vs. pantser. I told them how I'd always been a pantser, but I'm really trying to become a plotter, or at least something somewhere in between. When I finish the novel I'm working on now, I'm going to use the curriculum that I'm developing for this class myself to write the next one, hoping that I can forestall some of the major structural overhauling I ended up having to do with this one. I realize that having a plan won't mean that my first draft won't have problems, but I do think that many deep structural issues can be identified early on, in the outline or synopsis stages. At any rate, it's something I'd like to try, both for myself and for my students.

Ironically, when I talked about the plotter vs. pantser approaches, the class sharply divided into two camps. In one of those beautiful learning moments that no teacher can predict, there were two guys who argued--respectfully, of course, over the pros and cons of plotting. They asked each other questions, said things like "but I can't imagine letting my characters take over the story that way" and "but I can't imagine reigning in my characters that way." It was fascinating to watch the conversation unfold, until one shy guy in the corner spoke up.

"I'm an underpantser," he said. The whole room went silent, unsure of what they heard. He said it again, and everyone burst out laughing. Then he explained that prior to the class, he'd always only written for school, and that he usually finished writing his first drafts on the way into the classroom to turn in the paper, if not sitting in the desk while the other students came into the room. He said he felt like he wasn't even flying by the seat of his pants, but by the seat of his underpants. Everyone laughed again, and then he told us that he always had ideas, but just never could commit to writing them down. I told him this class might be good for him, because he could use it to test out whether his ideas were viable, whether they were ideas other people were interested in, but most importantly, whether they would continue to interest him. "A novel is a long commitment," I said, "and you want to be sure that the idea itself is worth it." After getting a little more ribbing from his classmates about that comment, he grinned and nodded.

I don't know what he'll go back to his cell thinking, and I have no idea how much he'll plot, pants, or plan. But I hope he does start putting down his ideas on paper, because it seems like he, like all these guys, has an awful lot to say. And so many of them, given the space, time, and structure in which to write, can tell the most harrowing and interesting of stories.

As I drove back through the winding, coastal Texas roads, thunder clouds gathered above the cornfields and lightning spiked the darkening sky. I came to the place where the road widens, where, if you look off to the left, you can see a building that says 1-800-SKYDIVE. The skydivers weren't out in the thunderclouds and the sputtering rain, but I remembered the times I've seen them, lingering in the air, only five miles from the prison. They leap out, arms outstretched, face forward, meeting the air--and then they glide.


Check out Aubrey Hirsch on the bravery it takes to write a first novel:

"When the despair sets in it reminds me of of being on airplane. I’ve always been a nervous flyer. I analyze every bump and whir. I hesitate to make plans when vacationing, as I never expect to make it to my destination alive. Every time I force myself down the jet-way, I am absolutely positive that I will die."

And yet she keeps flying.

Here's to our firsts.  Keep at it, my friends.


Handling Warp Speed

Today on twitter someone described the pace of change in the publishing industry as “blistering.” It’s a good adjective – and spot on. With the pace and the pressure in the book world today, it’s easy, I think, to get wrapped up in the speed, the new vocabulary, the rush to try the newest platform/gadget/software. But for me, in times like this, I actually settle in to myself, simply, literally, put my feet back on the ground. I don’t worry about the latest gadget. I try to avoid the rush and hum. In the midst of the noise, you see, there are always the stories. And stories connect us. It’s not that I’m disinterested in how the industry is developing. I’m keenly interested in the changes. It’s simply that I don’t want to flap and puff about it. Right now everything is shifting. It’s an adventure in books. It’s scary, liberating, challenging, and exciting. Recently I discovered a writer whose novel is a riot—a smart, funny, well written tale that is only coming to me because ebooks allow it. Five years ago, my chances of finding this author would have been nil (more about him later!)

And that’s what I keep my focus on right now, as the publishing world moves in to warp speed: the stories are there, in abundance. Good stories by talented voices.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Buy This Book: Jane Bradley's dark and compelling heartbreaker "You Believers"

Of all the books burning up my TBR pile the last few months, Jane Bradley's You Believers is the one I was dreading most -- for the same reason I dreaded but felt compelled to read Masha Hamilton's 31 Hours. Being the parent of young adults in this world is just flat terrifying. Books about the worst that can happen are not my fave, but when a book is just too beautifully written to resist, well, you know it's going to leave a scar, but you read it anyway.

Oddly enough, this author came to my attention in the context of a text book, Screenwriting 101: Starting Small While Thinking Big (which is terrific but quite expensive, if you're into that), and a bit of the ol' google took me to her short story collection, Are We Lucky Yet?. (Bradley's earlier short story collection, Power Lines and Other Stories was cited as a NYT notable book.) She's an amazing writer, and in her capable hands, a story that could have gone very Nancy Grace ends up being about humanity rather than inhumanity.

Per the PR:
A young woman goes missing, and her mother uproots her life to find her daughter. But it is not just the heartbreak or the deep mystery of the hunt for lost loved ones that Bradley so convincingly explores. Rather, with the help of an amazingly dedicated searcher, family and friends somehow learn to move past unspeakable horror and celebrate the tenacity of the human spirit. ...Part Southern gothic, part crime, part haunting suspense story, You Believers takes us on an infinitely harrowing journey that rewards the reader with insight into how we might endure horrible events with faith, strength, and grace even while it reveals the ripple effects of random violence.

Based on a real crime to which Bradley has a personal tangent, You Believers is a mystery in which there's a murder. We know what happened and who did it early on. The suspense is in agonizing through the experience from various POV's, wondering how anyone can survive, recover, go on, or draw any kind of breath after life takes such a heart-sickening twist.

Quoth Jodi Picoult, the diva of all such stories:
"You Believers examines the anatomy of a horrific crime from every angle. ... Several perfectly pitched Southern narratives weave together to form a strong song of love, loss, and human resilience. A gripping, intense read."

Yeah. What she said.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Active Birds and Quiet Domesticity: Yvonne Murphy reads from Aviaries

When I first got to UH, there were a few young women who were my SHEROS. Brave and talented, these women were smart, savvy teachers and writers and battled gender stereotypes every day. In particular, I resonated with the work and personality of Yvonne Murphy, a poet who also taught for Writers in the Schools. When the WITS staff tapped her as my mentor, I was more than delighted, and went along to the elementary school where she was working with the children on literary techniques like rhyme and onomatopoeia. There's a lot of attention to sound in Yvonne's work, and she was giving those children the gift of that attention. I watched as she taught them to hear the music in other people's poetry and, more importantly, to find the hums and rhythms within themselves.

If you have time today, I hope you can listen to the music of Yvonne's own words, as she reads from her new poetry collection, Aviaries. It's longish (23 minutes, roughly), so you might want to wait until you have the space in your schedule to do it. But if the well is at all dry, I encourage you to dip in and experience Yvonne, the person and the work.

50 nifty state stereotypes in 2 minutes! Hilarious trailer for "States of Confusion" by Paul Jury

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Using Radio Interviews to Promote Your Book

Recently, I was asked to stop by Pitch University (an amazing free resource for writers) to talk about using radio to pitch your novel to listeners. Since I'd just completed an interview with host Rowena Cherry and fellow guest Paula Graves on Passionate Radio's "Crazy Tuesdays" show, the timing was great.

Follow the link to see what I had to say about doing a phone interview, or to listen to the podcast of my most recent outing.

Buy This Book: Your Voice in My Head, A Memoir by Emma Forrest

Living is a haphazard sometimes painful, sometimes joy-shot experience. There’s the uncertainty, there are setbacks, pressures and bouts with loss of confidence. That’s under normal conditions, whatever “normal” is, but what happens when conditions aren’t normal, when behavior exceeds even the least confining definition of that word? In her compelling memoir, Your Voice in My Head, screenwriter and novelist, Emma Forrest, opens a writerly vein to show what it’s like to live in your own personal little house of horrors. Her story is heart rending and brilliant. It is difficult and uplifting. She was troubled in her teens. Most teens are, but her trouble overlooked a sharper edge, a seemingly never ending, black abyss. She was in constant danger of falling, of losing herself. She battled with her will to live treating it to a smorgasbord of self destructive acts and then, finally, in her twenties, while healing from the effects of yet another near fatal suicide attempt, she experienced what was a searing and brave flash of insight for someone so young and knew she had to reach out, to find help. And she did come under the gentle guidance of a psychiatrist, a doctor who became her anchor, her cardinal north.

But then one day when she called, he wasn’t there and she learned he had died suddenly, right when she was beginning to trust herself, just when she had finally decided she might be worth rescuing after all. The tale from here sketches her faltering steps; there is risk, breath is held. But remember that searing flash of insight? That was out of pure courage, a quality that Emma Forrest has in spades. Self awareness and the ability to face one’s demons is difficult enough in middle age, in old age, but in one so young as she was, it is remarkable, nothing short of fearless. Her memoir may strike some as dark, and it is, but it is also a story of unflinching illumination and the indomitability of the human spirit. In language that is at once spare and wry, as filled with pathos as it is with humor, Your Voice in My Head chronicles a journey of heartbreak and healing, of hope and resolve.

Your Brain Stores Words. But, Like, Seriously...

I'm taking English Grammar this summer and have come to the conclusion that our language is entirely too confusing, but I love it.

Today we were discussing the functions of verbs and nouns and my professor told us that we actually house them in our brain. The front, left side of the brain is its language center and it is subdivided even further. When observing brain activity during conversations with stroke patients, doctors noticed that different spots within the language centerr would light up when people used verbs bersus nouns. We biologically separate them. How freakin' cool is that? It transcends languages and dialect. It goes in the face of the idea that language is something that we learn. The interaction of our brains with language is so incredible.

Other cool things about brains and language development I've learned from random English classes:

No matter how many languages you speak or how long you've spoken them, when you are in an extremely heightened state of emotion, have an extremely high fever, or are otherwise greatly compromised, you revert to the first language you spoke.

"Wolf Children," or people who grow up without and real human interaction, (depressing as it is, they do exist) can't develop language as fully as those who are around it when they are young. The implication of this is that language structure and vocabulary are things that you gain when you are very young and there is, in fact, an age at which you become physically unable to acquire the language.

I don't know if anyone else has noticed this or if it's just me, but I feel like my brain is sectioned off into "English" and "Not English." When I speak a foreign language, it often comes out as a mix of several different ones. It drives my French professor crazy that my minor is French, but I constantly say things in Spanish and even a bit of German. I was surprised to discover how much more I knew when I stopped trying to think just in the terms of one language. I wonder if there's a subdivision similar to the noun/verb one at work...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

"But Am I A Real Writer?" The Number One Most Self-Defeating Question a Writer Can Ask

I don't know where she is or what's happened to her, but I'll never forget my first fiction writing professor, Mary Milgram. It was the last semester of my senior year, and I was anxiously waiting to hear back from the creative writing programs I'd applied to. I'd taken Ms. Milgram's fiction class sort of as an afterthought--at that point, I wanted to be a playwright, and was hoping to get an MFA in Theatre. But I'd always had an interest in writing fiction, and in some ways felt it was my first calling, so I enrolled in Ms. Milgram's class. About halfway though the semester, I started hearing back from the programs to which I'd applied, most of which did not have good news. Then came the heartbreaker, a glowing letter from Ohio University, saying I was one of two students they were admitting into their playwriting program that year, but that, because of budget restrictions, there would be little financial aid available.

I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but Ms. Milgram somehow bumped into me on my way to class, when I was holding the letter and bawling my eyes out, realizing there was no way I could afford to go. The tuition alone was $15000 a year, paltry by today's standards, but back then, there was no way I was in a position to afford that, even with student loans. Ms. Milgram asked me what was wrong and I showed her the letter.

"But Kathryn, this is great news!" She said, and I explained the situation. I can't remember all of what she said then, but the one thing I do remember is that she told me I was a "real writer," and that she had every faith that if I went to school that it would be worth the investment. And somehow, after class that day, she took me into her office, and made a couple of phone calls, and I ended up on the phone with the director of the English Department at the University of Cincinnati. Playwriting was located within the English Department there, Ms. Milgram had said, so it would be possible for me to do both fiction and playwriting. Then she reiterated to the director her assessment that I was a "real writer," and I ended up being offered the chance to apply--well after the deadline. I did apply, and to my astonishment, was offered a full ride, and, at the ripe old age of 21, a teaching assistantship!

I didn't know then how very rare that was. I know it now, and I will be eternally grateful to Ms. Milgram for what she did. She did not have to put herself out there like that, but she did. And most importantly, her belief in me and my talent bolstered me through many years of study. But somewhere along the way, all the negative and mean-spirited criticism in workshop eroded that belief, eroded that vote of confidence--probably because it was her vote of confidence, and I'd never really had time to develop confidence in myself. I began to be obsessed with the question of whether I really was a "real writer," since I could never get my plays produced or my short stories published. Never mind that people like Edward Albee and Francine Prose liked my work--in my mind, none of that counted, because all I got was rejection letters from places like Story Magazine, Zoetrope, and The Missouri Review. (Yeah, I realize the problem now).

Then I got into the PhD program at UH, and that naggy little voice of doubt started screaming. "Look at your PhD cohort and where they've published, and you haven't had a single publication!" "Look at how smart they are and where they've been to school--they're all Ivy league and they're so much better than you." "Listen to that girl who says you shouldn't have gotten into the program, that you don't know how to create character and that your plots are 'bizarre' and 'convoluted.'" "How can you possibly call yourself a writer, when there are all these people out there smarter, faster, more accomplished, and harder working?"

This was the point, that, despite being at one of the most prestigious writing programs in the world, I stopped writing. Complete stop, for well over a year. Part of that was that I was in the middle of PhD comprehensives, but more of it was the fact that I just didn't believe anymore in the vote of confidence Mary Milgram had in me. I didn't believe anymore that my professors at Cincinnati were right, or, at best, I thought "well, I'm one of those people who had a white hot talent that burned out before it developed. I'm one of those people whose talent has fizzled."

I was barely 30, and I thought my talent had fizzled! I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn't yet have a Pulitzer Prize! How ridiculous is that, in retrospect! How ridiculous, but yet how pervasive the attitude among students in competitive programs, who will list five writers they like and then immediately proceed to rank them in terms of various technical attributes (no kidding--I watched this happen at AWP). And how stifling the aesthetic that says that no genre beyond literary fiction can matter. But, even more stifling, is that question itself, that question that hangs there, somewhere near but just out of focus, in the corners of our eyes.

"Am I a real writer?" It taunts us. "Am I a real writer?" It chatters in our dreams. It kept at me and at me until finally, one day when I was walking through my neighborhood and looking at the shadows of the trees, I just stopped right in the middle of the street and said "Screw you! I may not be a real writer, but I'm still going to write, damn it! And if you have a problem with that then get out of my head!" Actually, I said it with a lot more cursing, and a lot more anger, and it probably scared the crap out of my neighbors.

Flash forward a year or so later, to when I taught my first "real" (there's that word again) graduate level playwriting class. One of the students came into my office, a middle-aged, wisecracking individualist with purple hair. She worked for Boeing in a male-dominated environment and wanted to write a play about the Space program. She walked in, sat down spread eagled in front of me, and fingered her skinny, purple braid.

"What's up?" I said, detecting a little attitude.
"Be honest with me." She said. "Do I have talent?" And then she popped her gum.

I thought about what to say, rifled through all the possibilities, until finally, I said what I wish someone had said to me long ago. The thing I wish Mary Milgram had told me along with her assessment that I was a "real writer."

"Yes, you have talent. But talent is not what matters. What really matters is what you do with that talent, where you go with it, how you use it, and that you keep working. That you keep growing. The question of whether or not you have talent is really a pernicious question. It's like trying to get a leg up on the opposition because of some inherent characteristic. It's like you want to know that so that you can somehow take a shortcut to writing success. But the reality is that there's no guarantee of writing success, either to the talented or the untalented. And all of us have to make our way. It's like Noel Coward said. 'Thousands of people have talent. I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head. The one and only thing that counts is, do you have staying power?'"

I don't know if the student was satisfied. I don't know if, at 21, I would have been. But what I do know is that I wasted so much time looking towards external assessments of my own abilities rather than working to develop my talents myself.

Are you a real writer? Are you? No, don't ask it. Be it.


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