Saturday, July 30, 2011

Thought for the Day:Plan B

It's no secret that publishing is a tough business. The path is nearly always littered with naysayers and rejection, with soul-crushing setback and seemingly-impossible obstacles. And that's just breaking in. Staying in the business can be even tougher.

I've watched a lot of people set out on their journeys with bright eyes, big dreams, and hearts brimming with hope. And I've watched a huge number turn away in despair, as I've been tempted to myself on more than one occasion.

It's the people who can't quit, the ones who always have a Plan B and then a C, a D, and so on, who get to experience the joy of the breakthroughs. Sometimes they live to hit it big, and other times they just live to fight another day.

In the end, you have to ask yourself if the fight is worth it to you, if the journey for the journey's sake is enough to slake your dreams. Because the success part's mostly out of your control. All you can do is keep putting in the sweat equity and letting the work fill the empty spaces a life without writing would leave.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Buy This Book x 2: "In Malice, Quite Close" by Brandi Lynn Ryder and "Mice" by Gordon Reece

Last week, Colleen mentioned being a bit fatigued by women-as-victim books, and I definitely inhaled the cure for that over the weekend with these two August releases from Viking.

In Malice, Quite Close is a complex and beautifully written debut novel by Brandi Lynn Ryder, a finalist for Amazon's 2009 Breakthrough Novel Award. The title comes from a poem by Rimbaud (yes, one of the ones that got him in trouble) and sets the perfect tone of vaguely perverse literary suspense. If you read the first chapter (which should be featured in a 400 level creative writing class called "How to Write Your Arse Off in Your First Chapter"), you'll be dragged kicking and screaming under the surface of this sophisticated mystery in which the lines between abduction and seduction are blurred, time and POV keep deftly shifting, and the authenticity of the soul-sick main characters is nothing less than chilling.

Tristan, a wealthy French dilettante, becomes fixated on disaffected all-American girl Karen, who is Lolita-teen-and-a-half and eager to escape her creepy hands-on father. "You make me a monster, Karen," Tristan tells her when she realizes she's a milk carton waiting to happen, "but I'll tell you a secret. You can make me anything you like." He lures her (or does she lure him?) into a life of hidden identities, tangled love quadrangles and secret passageways, where the only light is Nicola, the precocious 11-year-old daughter of Karen, who's now a grown woman known as Gisele, who sleeps with pretty much every guy in the book. Nicola may or may not be Tristan's daughter and either is or isn't becoming the next apple of his obsessive eye, so drama drama WHAT? drama NO! drama drama I did NOT see that coming drama ensues to literally the last page.

Candidly, the Gordian plot is going to be one toke over the line for some people, but if you love a lushly crafted novel and are willing to follow this talented author into the twisty turny catacomb, you'll come out, towel off and sit by the window waiting for her next book. (Note to Aspiring Writers: If nothing else, seriously, read that first chapter. That, my friends, is how it's done.)

On the total flip side stylistically is the more hard-boiled (or perhaps shirred, because it's Australian) Mice by Gordon Reece. Sixteen year old Shelley, the victim of a horrific act of school bully violence, moves with her mum to a cozy cottage in the country, where they quietly and mousishly sip hot chocolate and listen to Brahms until late one night when a crank-fiend burglar breaks into the house, ties them to a couple of chairs and acts quite boorishly in general. Shelley manages to free herself from both her ropes and her victim complex within about six minutes and opens up a can of whoopass on the guy, which believe me, no guy is prepared for, even if he's high on crank. What follows is more heist-comedy than horror flick. Shelley and Mum are still Shelley and Mum, even with blood on their crumpets, so caper caper WHAT? caper NO! caper caper I did NOT see that coming caper ensues to literally the last page.

Honestly, I hope this book is supposed to be funny, because I really laughed out loud, even during (especially during!) the most unfortunate turns of event. I kinda wish they'd packaged it with more of a Carl Hiaasen feel, because it's a fast, delicious little thriller that requires a sense of humor to facilitate suspension of disbelief, and the packaging had me expecting something much darker and Carrie-like.

The spare prose and off-the-rails but streamlined trajectory of the plot is the antithesis of what you get from In Malice, Quite Close, but that's exactly what made these two books such a pleasure to read back to back.

Visit Brandi Lynn Ryder's website for a sneak peek at the forthcoming sequel to IMQS. And check out Gordon's Reece's graphic novel featuring Count Oblonsky, Russia’s greatest detective (even Sherlock Holmes writes to him for advice!) assisted by Petrov, his trusty Cossack manservant, and Boris, the weight-challenged dachshund.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Buy This Book: Read "Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay before you see the movie

Can't wait to see this movie based on Tatiana de Rosnay's beautiful novel Sarah's Key. She's an amazing writer, and this is her 10th novel but (amazingly) the first one she's written in her native language, English.

Sarah's Key is a fiction take on actual WWII events in France. In 1942, thousands of Jewish families were rounded up, held at the Vélodrome d'Hiver, and transported to Auschwitz. In 2002, American journalist Julia Jarmond (married to philandering French jerk Bertrand) is assigned to write about the 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups. She discovers that Bertrand's family has a dark history connected to the events and becomes engrossed in a search for the little girls who once lived in their apartment. All the complications of tangled loyalties and twisted truth ensue. Totally gripping and beautifully written.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Killer Nashville--a writing conference for the whole community

One thing I think that it's important to have in life is community. The Internet has facilitated the building and shaping of many communities, but sometimes we all just need to sit down together face to face and say hello. For the writing community, conferences and trade shows provide one of the easiest ways to connect more personally, and I wanted to mention one I think highly of (full disclosure: I'm helping them to spread the word about this year's event). It's called Killer Nashville, and while it has an emphasis on mystery and thriller titles, what I most love about this show is that it has opened its doors to everyone--any writer, any genre. A children's book writer attended this conference and met her agent, for instance (actually, as young as the conference is, they have a remarkable track record for connecting writers with agents and/or publishers). The conference runs on five tracks, each track about a different aspect of the writing and reading life. There is a track about the writing process, another about marketing, one for fans, etc. The conference is run by very cool people who are themselves writers.

There are other wonderful conferences, of course (I will always love Bread Loaf!) But Killer Nashville is really about community in a way I myself have not seen or heard about elsewhere. There's a spirit I admire and an openness I find refreshing. The conference is held annually in August, this year from August 26-28th.

Thanks for letting me mention it. I hope y'all will consider joining us in the celebration of all we can be and are--hoping to publish, newly published, and published for awhile, but writers all.

Hip! Hip! Hooray! It's Another Bloody Awful Bulwer-Lyton Winner!

For me, one of summer's guiltiest pleasures has been in the announcement of the annual winner of the Bulwer-Lyton Award for the most godawful opening lines in creation. Named for the first Baron Lyton, he of the "dark and stormy night fame," the Bulwer-Lyton award inspires many to do their very worst each year.

Without further ado, I bring you this year's Grand Prize Winner from University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction (and part-time punster) Sue Fondrie.
Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

But wait, wait! There's more! Much more, in fact, if you'll just drop by the Bulwer-Lytton Awards site, you can check out this year's category winners, honorable and dishonorable mentions. After all, you wouldn't want to miss out on gems such as one of the latter, this howler from Basil McDonnell of Vancouver, British Columbia:

The victim was a short man, with a face full of contradictions: amalgam, composite, dental porcelain, with both precious and non-precious metals all competing for space in a mouth that was open, bloody, terrifying, gaping, exposing a clean set of asymptomatic impacted wisdom teeth, but clearly the object of some very comprehensive dental care, thought Dirk Graply, world-famous womanizer, tough guy, detective, and former dentist.


*Update link!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Buy This Book: Read the first four chapters of Colin Meloy's "Wildwood"

Anticipating a bombastic release for one of the most enticing books of the summer for children of all ages. Colin Meloy's bucolic YA adventure Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I arrives in bookstores in August.

Far be it from me to offer anyone a way to avoid work on a Monday morning, but Like the Wildwood Facebook page to unlock the first four chapters.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Remembering Rue McClanahan

Originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle June 4, 2010

Two weeks ago, I sat with Rue McClanahan at the slatted patio table in her sunny little backyard on Manhattan’s upper east side. A lifelong dancer, voracious reader, uninhibited artist and deliciously garrulous conversation maker, she’d been fighting hard to regain her mobility and speech since suffering a stroke in January. Her eyes were bright, full of things she wanted to say, but every syllable was an act of will. It took a long time to ask if I wanted lunch, even longer to fill me in on “all the drama.”

She thanked me for not jumping in to finish sentences. People kept doing that without knowing the specific word she was grappling with. They’d interject “lucky,” she told me, where she wanted to say “serendipitous,” and she forged that word — serendipitous — with the painstaking tenacity of a glassblower.

Words were important to Rue. The first day we met to work on her memoir, My First Five Husbands … and the Ones Who Got Away (Broadway Books/Random House 2007), we sat at that patio table until 2 a.m., drinking wine and parsing terms for our collaboration. I did more than edit the 600-page rough draft she’d written, but Rue hated the words “ghostwriter” and “book doctor.” (“My book is not sick!” she insisted. “It’s healthy. Like a Sumo wrestler.”) We settled on “memoir guru” alternated with “literary Sherpa.” But ultimately, we were friends.

Our main challenge: Rue never met a billboard, song lyric, stray dog, walnut shell, math problem, taxi driver or English muffin that didn’t have some hilariously epic story attached to it. Everything fascinated her. She read books about philosophy and physics — yes, Blanche fans, physics! — and history. A breast cancer survivor who spoke for many events benefiting Susan G. Komen for the Cure, she was keenly interested in all things chemotherapy, but also had strong opinions about the spiritual and psychological aspects of cancer.

After she suffered a stroke in January, even that devastating disconnect between her body and brain was something to be wondered at. She studied it. Even laughed at it on occasion. (She called me a couple months ago and said, “Helllooo, Joni. Thish ish Kirk Douglash.”) Two weeks ago in her garden, she said her rehab called on the same discipline and skills she’d learned through decades of dance and drama technique.

Rue took ballet from early childhood and studied at Jacob’s Pillow as a teen. She was a drama major at the University of Tulsa, then studied acting with Uta Hagen at the Berghof Studio in New York, where “we learned to communicate volumes with a eyelash.” She wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, but knew her greatest gift was that she was funny as hell — on stage, on camera and in real life.

Rue’s early hardscrabble gigs included everything from singing waitress to angsty film noir. One night in the early 1950s, she bent to light a gas stove and was blown back against a wall, horribly burned. Two days later, in searing pain, thick body makeup covering her peeling skin, she shot a semi-nude love scene for Walk the Angry Beach (later released as Hollywood After Dark.) In 1958, “pregnant as a giant ground sloth,” Rue followed her first husband to Houston, where he worked briefly as an actor at the Alley Theatre. When the marriage fell apart, Rue went home to Oklahoma and had the baby alone. She agonized over long periods away from her son, lived out of suitcases and closets, sacrificed anything and everything she had to, not to be rich or famous, but to practice her craft.

In 2007, when Rue’s memoir was published, there was at least one The Golden Girls rerun playing somewhere in the world every hour of every day. She embraced Blanche Devereaux, but it’s not how she wanted to be remembered. This book would be funny. A given. But Rue also wanted to say something meaningful about life and art. She hoped her son, Austin jazz guitarist Mark Bish, would read it and understand a few things about his own life as an artist.

Through trials and triumphs, Rue’s joy, generosity and capacity for love were childlike and unstoppable. After seeing her in an off-Broadway production of Dylan, playwright Tennessee Williams wrote, “Your work has that rare combination of earthiness and lapidary polish, that quality of being utterly common and utterly noble. Frippery combined with fierceness.”

“That’s how I want to be remembered,” she said. “I want my obit in the (New York) Times to say ‘Actress’ — not ‘Golden Girl.’ ”

Rue told me this in the context of a conversation about how she wanted her story to end.

Here’s what we came up with:

“The sun is streaming down on Manhattan’s East Side, and across my back fence a children’s tennis class is presently in progress. Every morning we find chartreuse balls hiding in the foliage like Easter eggs … I used to say I wanted to die onstage after the curtain goes down on a play that I’m in. Now I think I’d be just as pleased to check out right here in the garden, listening to those kids’ voices across the fence.

“A writer friend of mine says there’s no such thing as happy endings, only happy intervals and inevitable conclusions, and that an author must choose whether to follow a story to its inevitable conclusion or draw the curtain at a happy interval. And so, my dears, I’ll draw the curtain here. On days like today, there is no ending. Perhaps there never is. All I know is that at this moment, I am happy.”


New York Times bestselling author Joni Rodgers lives in Houston. Her freelance fee for this piece has been donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Visit her website at

#BuzzThisBook: The Mistress Contract by She and He

Coming to bookstores in October. I got a look at the galley and couldn't take my eyes off it. Apparently Rebecca Schinsky of The Book Lady's Blog felt the same way. (Look for her on our FeedMe bar under "Shakin' It Like a Polaroid".)

Pre-order and/or buzz accordingly.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Buy This Book: Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

I've been reading a lot about abducted women recently, from the gripping and creative Room:A Novel, by Emma Donoghue, to the unputdownable real-life story that I believe inspired it, Jaycee Lee Dugard's A Stolen Life.

So when I read the description of Chevy Stevens' Still Missing, which revolves around the abduction and year-long captivity of a young Realtor taken from a house showing, I have to admit I nearly passed, thinking I'd had enough of this type of dark, woman-as-victim story. But the book had just been named the International Thriller Writers' Best Thriller of the Year-First Book, so I decided to download the first chapter to see what had impressed Ms. Stevens' colleagues so mightily.

Told in the form of heroine Annie O'Sullivan's first-person narration to her psychologist after escaping, Still Missing grabbed me from the opening lines, deftly blending past and present to tell a gripping, harrowing, and brilliantly-crafted story, not only of survival but of complex characters (Annie O'Sullivan's about as far from passive victim as you can get, for instance) and the web of secrets that they spin. There's mystery, too, the kind that keeps you guessing but never for a minute feels like a cheat.

If you're going to try one new thriller this year, I very highly recommend that you start with Chevy Stevens' Still Missing. Then do what I'm doing and pick up her brand new one, Never Knowing.

Very highly recommended.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Earlier today, I was talking with one of my consulting clients about the book she was writing. She was talking about her lack of motivation to continue working on it, and saying that she had gotten to the point where she just had to decide either to move forward or "pack it in and forget about it." She was frustrated and bored, and trying to move from a head full of "shoulds" (I should write this book, I should write it this way, I should use this voice) back to a place of "want tos."

I told her that she was absolutely right to have this reality check with herself about why she was writing her book, and whether or not she wanted to continue. After all, the writing process is hard enough even if you do want to do the work. So I asked her what her reasoning was behind writing the book in the first place, and what was her motivation. She told me, and as we talked more and more, we realized she already has a lot of her book written--but in posts from her blog. For her, the key is going to be pulling all of these bits and pieces together and figuring out exactly how she can move forward.

Then I asked her if part of the problem was that she was so bogged down in the left-brain, editing side of things that she wasn't allowing herself to be creative. We identified that as a potential problem for her too, that doing all of that organizing and structuring and editing was resulting in boredom. But the real reason for her current resistance turned out to be a disconnect between her original motivations for writing and the needs of the audience she had given her book to for feedback. She originally conceived of the book to be for a general reader, but she'd been critiqued by a group of fellow experts who had their own, often contrary takes on the subject. The more we talked, the more obvious this disconnect became, until I finally asked her "Why are you doing this? And for whom are you doing it??"

For all of us, whether we write short or long, fiction or nonfiction, literary, genre, or commercial, the most important question we can ask ourselves is WHY? Why are we doing this??? The rest of our behaviors, goals, and intentions will follow from our answers to that question. Whether we self or traditionally publish may depend upon our answers as well. Is your primary goal to entertain? To challenge people? To do both? Are you writing mostly for yourself, or are you hoping for an eventual writing career? Do reviews by established critics matter to you, or are you more interested in the opinions of your faithful readers? What is it about writing that motivates you? What aligns with your deepest values? And is your audience the right audience for those values?

As I'm working on yet another round of revisions for my novel, it's been great to ask myself these questions. It would be easy enough to start querying right now, with the book almost ready to go, and not to take it through one last look. I've gotten so weary that it would be so easy to move on. But the reason that I don't is that I believe in this book, and ultimately, even if I can't find an agent or a publisher, I believe in it enough to make it the very best novel it can be. Even as I've tired physically and mentally, I've never tired imaginatively, and my passion for the book has not waned.

Also, I see revisions as a learning process, and I'm still learning so much, even with this latest draft. In the end, I have to believe everything I'm doing is worth it, even as my aims have changed. I started out wanting to write a psychological thriller that would hopefully spark a discussion about murder, mothers, and mental illness. What I'm ending up with is so much more. And it's every bit worth all the time I'm giving it.

But that's me. As usual with anything in this writing world, your mileage may vary, and in the end, you'll be fine. Just keep on asking yourself WHY.

Should indie authors pay for book reviews?

In the words of Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility." Indie authors are getting a taste of freedom, a taste of what it's like to call the shots, and (not quite as tasty) a taste of what it feels like to pay our own way. We're shelling out for editing, copy editing, cover design, trailer production and PR.

Now BlueInk Review invites self-pubbed authors to submit their books for review for a mere (brace yourself) $395 for a 7-9 week response or $495 if you want the review in 4-5 weeks (wryly observing that PW and Kirkus pay less than fifty bucks). You are promised an extremely well-qualified reviewer from a pool of folks who've written reviews for mainstream media outlets. What you are not promised is that the review will be favorable, and a glance at the first ten reviews listed today on the BlueInk site breaks down thusly:
Positive: 3
Negative: 5
Mixed (reviewer managed to hold nose): 2
A lot of word count was devoted to 6th grade book report synopsis type stuff. One included a lengthy quote from the book being unhappily parsed. Virtually every review complained of poor copy editing, and I do wish indie authors would take note and not scrimp on that. It's important. That said, I recently read a book from a Big 6 publisher that featured very shoddy copy editing, and I didn't see a complaint about it in any of the mainstream reviews.

Here's what the BlueInk site says about their philosophy:
When it comes to judging book quality and understanding the intricacies of the traditional book publishing and book review industries--well, we’ve walked those walks for an awfully long time.

...Our reviewers are fine writers and well-qualified because we know how to judge these skills. Our reviews are taken seriously by publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians because we understand their professional needs and constraints. We respect their time and they respect our opinions.
Respect for authors has never been a prerequisite for reviewers in the mainstream, and it doesn't appear BlueInk will be breaking with that tradition. I saw no mention of an attempt to match books with reviewers knowledgeable about or interested in a particular genre, nothing about reviewers respectful of or in touch with a specific (or mass audience) readership.

It's always struck me as impractical that book reviewers are predisposed to dislike books that the majority of readers love. Open-mindedness, a positive attitude toward books outside an extremely narrow mindset -- toward books and authors in general -- has never been valued in that arena, and I think that's why book reviews of this ilk have become less and less relevant.

Patti Thorn has more to say in "Making a Case for Fee-based Reviews of Self-published Books" on Publishing Perspectives, and indie authors should definitely check it out. She makes some good points. There's a lot to think about here.

I'm really loathe to talk smack about anyone in this space, and indie authors will have to decide for themselves if the risk of a negative review is worth $495. That's the great thing about going indie. You call the shots.

For me, this feels like I finally broke up with my abusive boyfriend, who's now inviting me to take him out on an expensive date. I'm supposed to hope for a kiss but be grateful for a punch in the face if he decides I deserve one.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Should indie authors pay for book reviews?

In the words of Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility." Indie authors are getting a taste of freedom, a taste of what it's like to call the shots, and (not quite as tasty) a taste of what it feels like to pay our own way. We're shelling out for editing, copy editing, cover design, trailer production and PR.

Now BlueInk Review invites self-pubbed authors to submit their books for review for a mere (brace yourself) $395 for a 7-9 week response or $495 if you want the review in 4-5 weeks (wryly observing that PW pays less than fifty bucks, and venerable Kirkus also lowballs writers with double digits while charging indie authors up to $575 for a review.) You are promised an extremely well-qualified reviewer from a pool of folks who've written reviews for mainstream media outlets. What you are not promised is that the review will be favorable, and a glance at the first ten reviews listed today on the BlueInk site breaks down thusly:
Positive: 3
Negative: 5
Mixed (reviewer managed to hold nose): 2
A lot of word count was devoted to 6th grade book report synopsis type stuff. One included a lengthy quote from the book being unhappily parsed. Virtually every review complained of poor copy editing, and I do wish indie authors would take note and not scrimp on that. It's important. That said, I recently read a book from a Big 6 publisher that featured very shoddy copy editing, and I didn't see a complaint about it in any of the mainstream reviews.

Here's what the BlueInk site says about their philosophy:
When it comes to judging book quality and understanding the intricacies of the traditional book publishing and book review industries--well, we’ve walked those walks for an awfully long time.

...Our reviewers are fine writers and well-qualified because we know how to judge these skills. Our reviews are taken seriously by publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians because we understand their professional needs and constraints. We respect their time and they respect our opinions.
Respect for authors has never been a prerequisite for reviewers in the mainstream, and it doesn't appear BlueInk will be breaking with that tradition. I saw no mention of an attempt to match books with reviewers knowledgeable about or interested in a particular genre, nothing about reviewers respectful of or in touch with a specific (or mass audience) readership. It's always struck me as impractical that book reviewers are predisposed to dislike books that the majority of readers love. Open-mindedness, a positive attitude toward books outside an extremely narrow mindset, has never been valued in that arena, and I think that's why book reviews have become less and less relevant.

Patti Thorn has more to say in "Making a Case for Fee-based Reviews of Self-published Books" on Publishing Perspectives, and indie authors should definitely check it out. She makes some good points. There's a lot to think about here.

I'm really loathe to talk smack about anyone in this space, and indie authors will have to decide for themselves if the risk of a negative review is worth $495. That's the great thing about going indie. But to me, it feels like I finally broke up with my abusive boyfriend, who's now inviting me to take him out on an expensive date. I'm supposed to hope for a kiss but be grateful for a punch in the face if he decides I deserve one.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lifehacker looks at the top 5 ebook sellers

Interesting article on Lifehacker discussing their favorite five ebook stores with results of their reader pole. Not surprisingly, here's how the numbers break down with over 3500 readers weighing in:

Kindle Store = 45.01%
Kobo store = 27.26%
Barnes & Noble = 12.41%
Project Gutenberg = 9.11%
Google ebooks = 6.22%

I was kind of stunned by the Kobo and B&N numbers, which may reflect their readership more than the general population. I really love Project Gutenberg, a go-to source for me for years, but I've downloaded four books since they started offering Kindle interface, and all of them had formatting problems that were pretty annoying/ distracting for my taste. Hopefully that will improve.

I think the lesson here for ebook publishers is that the venues are expanding.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The thinking man's storage unit: an adventure in literary dumpster diving

Originally posted on Boxing the Octopus, 4/2/08. This came to mind when I saw that reality TV has now taken on the art of Dumpster Diving.

Yesterday, I posted about Lily Koppel's discovery of a red leather diary that sparked her new book, and I promised to share my own less dramatic but still fruitful dumpster diving, which began a few months ago when Gary shared with me the startling news that if a storage unit is abandoned by the drug lord or dead person or illegal alien or otherwise tragic figure who leased it, the contents are auctioned off after a certain period, and any enterprising or morbidly curious individual who shows up can purchase the contents, usually for a relative pittance.

The catch is, you may not cross the threshold until you are declared the winning bidder, so you can look at the stacks and piles and stacks and more stacks from the doorway but not peek inside, behind, or under the actual stuff. It’s a grab bag gold mine for flea market moguls who see dollar signs on every forsaken kitchen chair and novelists who see a human head in every Rubbermaid bin. I was so there.

Gary and I quickly fell in with the interesting assortment of regulars. An eighty-nine-year old man who regaled me with stories of WWII as we walked the lot. A cadre of yard sale mavens we dubbed the Banger Sisters. A guy who reminds me of Indiana Jones, except he’s young and black and makes a better than good living (judging from his hot wheels) buying and selling the contents of storage units with an uncanny knack for guessing what’s inside the unmarked boxes.

“Ever stumble on anything bizarre?” I asked him as we followed the facility manager down the long row of padlocked steel doors.

“You don’t want to know,” he said.

I instantly wanted to know. “Dead bodies? Drug money?”

“Nothing that exciting. Cremains. You know. A cremated person. Like in a big jar or a plastic box from the funeral home. Some kinky stuff like – well, you know.” He brightened with the memory of a particularly delicious find. “Once I got a whole stack of construction grade windows. Turned them over for twenty-five hundred bucks.”

The manager raised the door on the next unit up for bid. It was empty except for a futon with a broken steel frame and spider-infested mattress and seven neatly stacked Rubbermaid bins.

“Five dollars,” someone volunteered.

“Gary,” I whispered, “if ever there was a human head in a storage unit, I am looking directly at it.”

He gave me a look I call “the big eyebrow” and said, “Do not bid ten.”

But curiosity killed me. “Ten dollars!”

“Fifteen,” called one of the Banger Sisters, and the original bidder upped it to twenty.

“What do you think?” I asked black Indie, who squinted at the bins for a long moment, divining.


“Twenty-five dollars!” I shouted.

The Banger Sisters gave me the stink eye, and Gary huffed something Ralph Cramden-esque, but who cares? The unit was declared mine! We spirited our treasure trove home to the garage, after guiltily unloading the wildlife riddled futon mattress in a dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant. (The other catch is that you have to take everything from the unit and leave it clean swept within twenty-four hours.) The first bin I opened yielded a disappointing selection of dusty candles, cheesy knickknacks, and pedestrian tchatchkes. The sort of suburban relics that travel from Dollar General to your Aunt Myrtle’s curio shelf to the church yard sale and so on until the Elmer’s glue gives way and the Littlest Angel’s head falls off and rolls under the sofa into the landfills of forever.

“Hey, next time, let’s light the twenty-five dollars on fire and drop it down a sewer grate,” Gary said helpfully. "Not as many venomous spiders involved.”

But just as Indie the Uncanny had predicted, the second bin – and the five that followed – were filled with books. Mostly hardcover. Lots of politico and satire. Hunter S. Thompson, PJ O'Rourke. Lots of terrific fiction. Thomas McGuane, Larry McMurtry’s older, better stuff. Bingo! A first edition hardcover Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of my all-time favorites which I had only in paperback. BAM! A first edition Cold Mountain! Yeah, baby!

Hardcover editions of Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and several other reference books to replace my dilapidated trade paper versions. I was a big ol' Banger Sister about it, efficiently parsing stacks for sale and keeps, but inevitably the story began to emerge. Tom Clancy told me this was a man's book shelf. A thinking man, Carlos Casteneda added. And as I sorted the reference books and classics, I realized that this man was -- or wanted to be -- a writer.

The fifth bin contained a less interesting assortment of Chicken Soupy inspirational and self-help books, including...huh-oh...The Anger Workbook for Women.

The last bin contained trade paperback literary fiction from a variety of small presses, and marking a place in one of the books was the last page of a letter from the man's mom, pledging whatever help and support she could offer "now that you're handling the boys on your own." A telling PS urged him to reconsider his choice to enroll one of his sons in a program for gifted students. "Sometimes it's better to fit in with the regular crowd than to try to stand out," said good ol' Mom. I cringed. Chicken Sap for the Soul.

At the bottom of the bin, there was a 1950s children's book about park rangers in Yellowstone, three editions of a high school literary quarterly circa 1971 to 1973, and a little book with a swirladelic orange and magenta cover: India Love Poems published in 1967 by Peter Pauper Press. I flipped through the dry pages of the high school lit mags, looking for the man's name and found his byline beneath a few heartfelt but uncompromisingly guy-like poems. The primary contributor to the quarterlies was a girl who appeared to be in a very Janis Ian state of mind and could have so totally been me at seventeen. It surprised me not at all to open the poetry book and find that she'd given it to him.

"Because it seems to me that you brim with love," the inscription said.

She urged him to pursue his dream, expressed certainty that he would someday write important books, and wished him a life filled with peace and joy. The binding of the little book had been gnawed by mice. It was the only volume in the entire collection that was in less than immaculate condition, the only one that showed signs of a long journey.

So I guess there was a human head in there after all. And a human heart. Nothing as exciting as drug money or as important as the diary of a 1920s New York socialite. Just the evidence of plain life. Lost hope. Love and wreckage. Abandonment and moving on. Why we keep things. Or don't. Or can't. It didn't even occur to me to try to track this man down. His life was his life and none of my business. If he's dead, it's not my tragedy, and if he's alive, it's not my place to Google him up and tell him "Here, take back these things you left behind."

But I couldn't help it. I fell in love with him a little. Sitting on my garage floor, holding his well-worn but reverently cared for copy of The Bushwhacked Piano, I cried for this Thinking Man. And I too wish him peace and joy.

Huge dose of kwitcherbitchin: "Souvenir D'enfance" played by pianist with no fingers on her right hand

Thanks to the fabulous Dr. Wendy Harpham for drawing my attention to this astonishing video of GuiGui Zheng playing Clayderman's "Souvenir D'enfance". You'll notice just a few moments into the video, GuiGui has no fingers on her right hand. Perspective, people. Perspective. Artists do their art, come what may.

A wonderfully creative, hardworking, undaunted work week to all!

Buy This Book: The Money Book for Freelancers

Per the PR:
We make our own hours, keep our own profits, chart our own way. We have things like gigs, contracts, clients, and assignments. All of us are working toward our dreams: doing our own work, on our own time, on our own terms. We have no real boss, no corporate nameplate, no cubicle of our very own. Unfortunately, we also have no 401(k)s and no one matching them, no benefits package, and no one collecting our taxes until April 15th.

It’s time to take stock of where you are and where you want to be. Ask yourself: Who is planning for your retirement? Who covers your expenses when clients flake out and checks are late? Who is setting money aside for your taxes? Who is responsible for your health insurance?

Take a good look in the mirror: You are.

The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed describes a completely new, comprehensive system for earning, spending, saving, and surviving as an independent worker. From interviews with financial experts to anecdotes from real-life freelancers, plus handy charts and graphs to help you visualize key concepts, you’ll learn about topics including:

• Managing Cash Flow When the Cash Isn’t Flowing Your Way
• Getting Real About What You’re Really Earning
• Tools for Getting Out of Debt and Into Financial Security
• Saving Consistently When You Earn Irregularly
• What To Do When a Client’s Check Doesn’t Come In
• Health Savings Accounts and How To Use Them
• Planning for Retirement, Taxes and Dreams—All On Your Own

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What NOT to Do While Waiting

Last week, I posted about the agony that is waiting for publishing news and what constructive, positive uses the writer can make to that (glacially-slow, interminable, torturous) time. Today, I thought I'd take a few moments to examine the flip side, so here's my list of wasteful or destructive things NOT to do while waiting. Recognize yourself here, anyone? :)

1. Check out the gushing reviews, glowing fan-mania, and/or awe-inspiring sales stats of an author you secretly consider less deserving. Especially not one who's a friend.

2. Chew out your own liver (with or without liquid support) over the fabulous publisher support of a debut author.

3. Allow yourself to think in terms of fairness or karma, neither of which have any damn place in publishing.

4. Try to make deals with Fortune, the Muse, God, or the Devil. None of whom give a rat's patootie about your little endeavor.

5. Drive your family and/or significant other either crazy or away with your alternating bouts of delusional optimism ("When I'm as successful as J.K. Rowling, I plan to *buy* the Queen of England.") and abject despair. ("I might as well slit my wrists this minute, because New York's silence clearly means that everyone I've queried is busy getting together to read excerpts aloud and laugh behind my back!")

6. Reread the submission you just sent off and start picking it to pieces. Or worse yet, send out three or four versions with increasingly-hysterical notes. ("Trash the last one! It really sucked! THIS is the one you want-no, this one!")

7. Loudly declare that this time is the last time, that you're through with all this publishing hoo-ha if this project doesn't sell. Because we all know you're a junkie, addicted to the chase.

8. Sit wild-eyed and drooling by the phone, computer, or your mailbox (in case you're dealing with some Luddite who's not down with technology) making scary, snarling noises if anyone else in the family dares approach.

9. Delete *any* document files from your hard drive.

10. Allow yourself to think, even for a single second, that any one publishing professional's tossed-off opinion is more important than the joy you find and the friends you meet in this excruciating, exhilarating pursuit that has gripped you like no other.

While we're having fun with this (or at least *I* am, what else would you add to the list?

By the way, thanks to Edward Munsch for the inspiration -- in case any of you were thinking this was a view from my webcam.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Media Overload

I just had coffee with a book editor I'm friendly with, and we talked about (among other subjects including driving in bad weather and our interest in birds) the sheer volume of media we are now keeping track of in our jobs. For publicists, the game has really changed since I started out. It was never easy to listen to all the shows or read the many magazines and newspapers that might matter for our books, but now the media has exploded with blogs and websites and twitter and FB. Some days, I just sit for hours and touch base with publications and blogs, catch up on conversations. The volume of material to absorb only grows, especially for a publicist who works in multiple genres. What to do? Well, first, breathe. Breathing helps. And then set aside time to stay on top of things. And realize, too, that it's impossible, really. So always check in before you pitch.

Buy This Book: Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum (and enjoy this helpful video on Book Party Shame)

"Repeatedly, I watch clips of Liza Minelli on YouTube. I want to see her humiliation. And I want to see her survive the grisly experience and turn it into glory," says Koestenbaum.

Per the PR: "Wayne Koestenbaum considers the meaning of humiliation in this eloquent work of cultural critique and personal reflection."

From John Waters: “This literary ‘topping from the bottom’ is the funniest, smartest, most heartbreaking yet powerful book I’ve read in a long time.”

No, really. Being hilarious doesn't make it not true. I notice Amazon "Vine" reviewers are hating on it, and that makes me want to read it even more. From the bit I've seen, it's very funny, and frankly, if everybody loves you, you're not doing anything interesting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

An Interview With Author Karen McQuestion Reveals a Bit of a Cinderella Story

Ebook publishing is a hotly debated subject these days with rhetoric pouring in from all sides. But that aside, the stories and the authors who write them remain the key. One author who has quietly found her charmed path along this heated trail is Karen McQuestion. Recently, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing for Boxocto her wonderful novel A Scattered Life. She has other work as well including essays that have appeared in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor and several an-

thologies. In addition to A Scattered Life, she is the author of three other novels, one children's book and one collection of humorous essays. But here’s the Cinderella part: She originally self-published A Scattered Life as an e-book for Amazon's Kindle. Then within a few weeks, the novel caught the attention of a L.A. based production company and became the first self-published Kindle book to be optioned for film. And on August 23rd, two of her titles, Easily Amused and A Scattered Life will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Today please welcome Karen who has graciously consented to answer a few questions and share her thoughts about her inspiring journey.

Karen, thank you so much for stopping by this morning. A few things I’m curious about . . .

If you were entering the ebook market today, would your approach be any different with regard to, say, pricing, marketing, tagging etc?
I was a knucklehead when I first started out. I can’t tell you what my reasoning was, but I priced my first two books at $1.49 and $1.79. They did sell, but I soon learned that those are odd amounts in the ebook world, and rounded both up to $1.99. If I was starting out today, I think I’d be tempted to price my books low for the first few months to get the ball rolling, and then increase them to $2.99 to take advantage of the 70% Amazon royalty that kicks in at that price.

I stumbled onto the importance of using the keywords and tagging allowed in the Amazon system early in the process. Each book is allowed umpteen tags and up to twenty keywords, so why not use them all for maximum search optimization? That’s my philosophy anyway.

My soft sell approach to marketing online has worked well for me. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it the same.

Also, there’s a lot of (often confusing) cyber talk these days about the unwarranted gold rush fever ebookdom has inspired and dire warnings about its negative impact on the world of traditional publishing abound. According to some this comes at the expense of good fiction. Among other things, they cite the dreadful mountain of ebook slush and the prevalence of piracy. Your experience and your success seem to run counter to these notions. Were you ever concerned about any of this controversy when you initiated the process of uploading your books? Are you now?

I think you give me way too much credit! When I first started uploading books in July 2009, I wasn’t speculating about the future of ebooks. My view was much smaller and more immediate. I wondered if anyone would even buy and read my books. At the time I entered the market, there was no Nook or iPad and most people, when I brought up the subject, said, “What’s a Kindle?” I had no idea this would get to be as big as it has. Without realizing it, my timing was perfect.

As to whether or not I’m concerned about the influx of ebooks, many of them not ready for prime time, the answer is no. Any book that’s out there is already competing with millions of titles. Now there’s more and a lot of them aren’t of the highest caliber? In the scheme of things, this is a small problem. I’d say the remedy is to write the best book I can and hope it compares well.

I so agree with that, writing the best book possible! Can you tell us, what are you working on now?

I have two projects in the works. The one I’ll complete first is an adult fiction. It’s a road trip novel with four characters thrown together under unlikely circumstances. When I’m finished with that, I’d like to return to another manuscript, a young adult novel. I tried working on both at the same time, but found it difficult, so the second one will have to wait its turn.

And one last bonus question: What are you reading now?

I’m reading Regarding Ducks and Universes by Neve Maslakovic. I met her when I went to the Book Expo in New York this past May and we hit it off. When I came home and read her bio, I discovered that she had her Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time because I would have been intimidated.

Her writing is so good and I’m really enjoying the book. I’d call it smart science fiction--very character driven. My dad was a big science fiction fan and I grew up in a house with bookcases full of Bradbury and Asimov and all the greats. I can see influences from those authors in this book, but it also reminds me a little of Time and Again by Jack Finney, one of my all time favorite books.

Thank you again for stopping by and for sharing all this great information. For more about Karen, visit her website

Morning Bell

The other day my local library was having a book sale, and I found a stack of Graham Greene books--light green paperbacks, as it happened, together thick as grass--and bought them all.  I haven't read much Greene in my life and have just begun Journey Without Maps.  I'll share with you the opening sentences, which speak to me both as a reader and as a writer:

"The tall black door in the narrow city remained closed.  I rang and knocked and rang again.  I could not hear the bell ringing; to ring it again and again was simply an act of faith or despair, and later sitting before a hut in French Guinea, where I never meant to find myself, I remembered this first going astray, the buses passing at the corner and the pale autumn sun."

Keep ringing, my friends.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Buy This Book: Ben Loory's strangely cool "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day"

Okay, I have no idea how to sum this up except to say that I stood on a kitchen chair for about an hour yesterday, watching a walking stick amble slowly along the angle where the wall meets the ceiling, and every once in a while he'd reach out and grab a little bug -- sometimes a bug too small for me to see -- and he'd devour it and amble on again. It was completely bizarre and beautiful and engrossing, and the experience of reading this book was pretty much just like that.

Here's a bit from the first story, "The Book":
The woman returns from the store with an armload of books. She reads them quickly, one by one, over the course of the next few weeks. But when she opens the last one, the woman frowns in surprise.

All the pages in the book are blank.

Every single one.

The woman takes the book back to the store, but the manager won’t let her return it.

Right there on the cover, the manager says, This book has no words and is non-returnable.

The woman is angry. She wouldn’t have bought the book if she’d known there were no words inside it. But the manager simply will not relent.

The woman leaves in a huff.

She throws the book in the trash.

A few days later, the woman sees a man reading the book on the subway. She gets mad; she screams across the crowded car--

There are no words inside, you can’t read it!

But the man is defensive.

You can pretend, he says. There’s no law against pretending.

I think there might be words if you look at it under a special light, says a woman sitting nearby.

This other woman is holding her own copy of the book.

That’s so stupid! the woman yells. Don’t you see how stupid that is? Don’t you see that’s crazy?

At the next station, a policeman is called and has to break up the fight.

A television crew arrives on the scene.

The woman is interviewed on the news.

She complains loudly about the book for some time.

The next day, the book appears on the bestseller lists, under both fiction and nonfiction...

Visit Ben Loory at The Nervous Breakdown to read the rest of this story, and yeah. Buy this book! It's just a little bit of crazy awesome. And then buy it for someone else and make them wonder about you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Leap into the Unknown: Laura Harrington on the unexpected twists and turns of the writing life

Last month, I posted a Buy This Book nudge for Laura Harrington's lovely debut novel Alice Bliss which grew out of her off-Broadway musical "Alice Unwrapped." We invited Laura to share some thoughts on the writing life, and here's what she had to say:

I went to grad school thinking I would write a novel. My first semester I took a playwriting class with Arthur Kopit for the electrifying reason that the class description, which said we would have to read each other’s work out loud, terrified me. That class changed my life. In the three dimensional world of the theatre, I found an art form that was built from language and image and often, music. The three loves of my life. I dropped my attachment to the novel like a hot potato even though I continued my lifelong habit of reading. In fact, I still read plays dutifully without enjoying them much, whereas I read books – both fiction and nonfiction – with intense, almost guilty pleasure.

For the next twenty-five years I wrote for the theatre: plays, operas, musicals, radio plays, screenplays and teleplays, librettos and lyrics. I was in love with theatre; the never-ending challenges were intoxicating. I was blessed with opportunities, with wonderful collaborators: composers, directors, designers, performers. My work was performed across the US, and in Canada and Europe.

As with every profession, there were also the negative experiences: controlling collaborators (the composer who refused to do any revising whatsoever because he’d decided the opera should have 666 measures. I can laugh about it now, at the time I wanted to strangle him), avid competition for scarce resources, snarky directors, bad reviews, the inevitable rejection letters. And, as the years flew by, playwright Robert Anderson’s famous comment: “You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living,” rang louder and louder.

And then in 2008 I was given this incredible award that changed my life again. The Kleban Award (funded by the estate of Edward Kleban, the lyricist for A Chorus Line) is given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” This was both a wonderful affirmation of my theatre career and a cash award that gave me two years of writing time. But when they handed me the check I didn’t think: Oh boy, I can’t wait to write my next musical. Instead I thought: I want to do something I‘ve never done before. I want to re-connect to the creative process. I want to be a beginner again.

I decided I wanted to try to write a novel. I wanted to write every day without worrying about selling tickets, or how large the cast was, or whether I could get a theatre producer interested in a story I was passionate about. It’s not that those are huge problems necessarily, just that there are already constraints in place before you even begin to write, and these constraints inevitably impact your imagination.

Being a beginner, tackling something you’ve never done before is a rare experience, especially as we get older. I remember feeling a mixture of excitement, elation, and fear. It was exciting to be standing on the edge of a new experience, to take a flying leap into the unknown. I was elated to feel so free, to clear my head and my mind and try to imagine writing in a completely new way. And I was full of fear. Not so much the fear of failure – I tend to view first drafts as experiments – but could I actually figure out how to write a book? Would any of my theatre skills apply? Or would they get in the way?

I was also haunted by a kind of identity crisis. Who was I? What was I? I wasn’t a novelist. Not yet. Was I still a playwright? Could I move back and forth between the genres? What would happen to my playwriting career that I’d spent so much time and love and energy on if I ignored it for a while?

I had to let go. It’s an illusion anyways that we’re in control of our lives or our careers, and I had to remind myself constantly to just trust and move forward. Trust and show up every day. Trust and listen to my characters. Trust and enjoy the process. Embrace the mystery and the unknown. Let it be fun. Let if be play. Be playful. Be foolish. No one’s watching. No one’s waiting. No one cares. This was the freedom of being a beginner. The freedom to re-write the rules, the freedom to discover, the freedom not to know the answers, not to know where I was going, and, finally, the freedom to trust the journey, wherever it might lead.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What to Do While Waiting

Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers truly had it right. The waiting really is the hardest part. Whether you're waiting to hear about a contest or submission or waiting to find out whether a new release is going to sink or swim, what I call Author Purgatory can be excruciating.

Since I'm in that particular spot at the moment, I thought I'd start a list of positive actions to keep from angsting yourself (and your poor, long-suffering family, friends, and/or agent) crazy. After all, if you've chose this career path, you're going to find yourself in limbo often. You might as well learn to handle it in the healthiest way possible.

While waiting you can...

1. Work on an exciting new and different writing project. Whether it's something you eventually hope to sell or what I call a "play project" in another form/genre, a shiny new toy offers an outstanding distraction.

2. Find a different modality to vent your creativity. Garden, draw, sculpt, decorate, play an instrument--most creative types have other talents. I find sketching relaxing. I'm decent at it, but not so good that I have any expectations attached.

3. Move your body. Go for a walk, take up swimming, play a rousing game of fetch with your pooch. Get out into the world and away from your office. It's as important to your mind as it is your body.

4. Fill the well. Experience beauty, whether it's in the form of a beach, ballet, museum, or a cross-country drive, replenish your brain's supply of fresh imagery. It'll do your writing, your body, and your soul a world of good.

5. Help somebody else. Volunteer to judge a contest. Review a fledgling author's book. (She'll fondly remember you forever.) Go to another author's signing. Teach someone something, and you put positive energy into the world.

Do you have any great anti-angsting tips to share? If so, I'd love to hear from you.

This just in! For even more tips, please check out my (rather tongue-in-cheek) follow-up, What NOT to to Do While Waiting.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Releasing Attachment to Results. Yeah, Right. Me, Neither.

One of the biggest issues I face as a writer is doing the work and then, as the Bhagavad Gita advises, releasing my attachment to results. As a philosophy, it makes a boatload of sense. If I could manage this, I could simply concentrate on doing the work and quit angsting over all the stuff that's out of my control, such as:

1. blowing the socks off some editor or other (or better yet, every single one of them. In the known world!)
2. making everyone at the publishing house so excited they not only make an offer, but get behind the book in a huge way
3. notching up sales, awards, royalties, etc.
4. meeting and exceeding my readers' expectations
5. earning the affection of every person on the planet (as if any author ever born has done that!)

The problem is, to successfully write a novel, you really, really have to care. You have to live it, breathe it, cry and bleed it. You have to plot and scheme and parse and anguish over every character, each chapter, every single sentence. And then you're supposed to suddenly cut the cord, turn your back on your progeny, and not even turn your head to check on its fate?

For most of us, it doesn't work that way. If we're pros, we go on to work on other projects to distract us. (Putting all your eggs is one basket is a recipe for disaster, and a having a shiny new story going really is the best inoculation against heartbreak.) If we're parents, we might think about the first time we handed our child over to daycare, kindergarten--or handed him the car keys. We were scared as hell, and a lot of us still pray each time we hear sirens. But we forced ourselves to let go. To let that child out into the world (eventually) to do his thing.

It doesn't make it easy. It doesn't make it hurt less. But if you want to be a pro (or raise a functional adult rather than a permanent basement dweller, come to think of it) you have to suck it up and do it nonetheless. And sometimes you have to willingly turn a blind eye to the stumbles along the way.

But that never, ever means that you don't care down to your bones.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Buy This Book: A Scattered Life

I so admire this for an opening sentence: Skyla’s earliest memory of Thomas was linked with the smell of beer and the taste of blood. This is how Karen McQuestion begins her novel, A Scattered Life. I was hooked from the start. Skyla ends up marrying Thomas and within a few years, they have a daughter Nora and settle into regular life. But life is never regular and neither are people and Skyla and Thomas are no exception. They watch with interest, and a good deal of consternation on Thomas’s part, as a new family, the Bears, Roxanne and Ted and their crew of five kids, moves in next door. Five boys, no less, and counting if Roxy has her way. She’s longing for a girl. Skyla has always been a bit reserved. Her life until Thomas was troubled--scattered, is how her mother-in-law, Audrey, describes it--her upbringing uncertain. Skyla has never experienced anything like the freewheeling lifestyle the Bears engage in and she’s drawn to it. Roxanne’s raucous laughter, her near-bawdy ways, the constant churning motion that five children can generate. Skyla and Roxanne are so different and yet they find a warm and loving friendship in each other. Audrey couldn’t disapprove more.

But Audrey is unhappy in any case. Her job as a full-time mother is done for the most part and she is at loose ends with too much time to worry about other people’s business. If Skyla would only allow it, Audrey would step in and run Skyla’s household, raise Skyla’s daughter. She would fold Skyla’s bed linen just so and rearrange her kitchen cabinets, etc. and do it all with such precision and authority. Audrey can’t imagine why a motherless girl like Skyla isn’t more welcoming of her interference. It’s so confusing that Skyla prefers Roxanne’s company and when Skyla finds work in a shop where a psychic gives readings, Audrey is incensed. No one else in the family realizes it, that their lives are unraveling, that something has to be done. And oh, boy, what Audrey does . . . well, as I said earlier, on the surface, A Scattered Life appears to be a story about ordinary people, people as regular as your next door neighbors, say. But life is seldom so predictable.

Sometimes a terrible and sad thing can happen and regular takes a sharp detour into calamity. Sometimes our gravest flaws turn out to be our saving grace. Another gift of this story is the ending, the way it unfolds out of who the characters are. It isn’t a pat ending or a necessarily happy one. It’s human. Like life, which is at times messy and unpredictable. And that’s what makes it satisfying. A Scattered Life was an altogether warm and thoughtful read.

On August 23rd, A Scattered Life will be released from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm sure I can't be the only one who will love this cover!

Visit Karen's website for the blog entry about the release. It will make you smile. And visit her website to learn more about her and her other books and a bit about her amazing journey that began with e-novels.

Monday, July 04, 2011

An Author’s Declaration of Independence (Me and Jefferson on One Author's Decision to Indie Pub)

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for craftspeople to dissolve the business models which have connected them with the marketplace and to assume the separate and equal station to which the Nature of Art and Nature’s Creator entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all writers are not created equal. Talent is innate and a matter of opinion. Craft skill is hard-earned and subject to interpretation. Artistic integrity is a personal choice.

That writers are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. And that among these are a Publishing Life, Creative Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Publishers are instituted, deriving their powers from the supply of writers and the demand of readers.

That whenever any Publishing Model becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the Writers to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Publishing Model, founded on principles and distributing powers in a form most conducive to the Income of Writers and the Happiness of Readers.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Publishers long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. History hath shewn that Writers are willing to suffer, while evils are sufferable, rather than grow a pair, take responsibility for their own creative choices and champion their work in the marketplace. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to humiliate, disempower and pauperize them, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Publishing Model, and to take Responsibility for their future security.

The history of the present Publishing Model is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations. In every stage of these Oppressions — the inefficacy of the broken Query system, the specious calculation and inequity of Advances, the vagary and abuse of anonymous Reviews, the steady drift of commitment from Art to Celebrity — We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

I, therefore, the Representative of Myself as an Artist, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of my intentions, do solemnly publish and declare, that I am, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent.

That I am Absolved from all Allegiance to the Old School Publishing Model. That all the fear, prejudice and inertia that held me back is and ought to be totally dissolved.

That as a Free and Independent Artist, I have full Power to create my own Books, contract Alliances with other Artists, establish Commerce, and do all other Acts and Things which Independent Publishers may of right do.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, I pledge to the practice of this craft my Life, my Fortune and my sacred Honor.

Joni Rodgers (with Thomas Jefferson)
July 2011

Buy This Book: Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

I'll admit, when I first received an unsolicited copy of this very slim hardcover for possible review on the blog, I was less than thrilled. Written by Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby (a website that has since sold for millions), Anything You Want, appeared to be a business book--not something I would normally read. But it was published by Seth Godin's upstart The Domino Project, and I'd so liked their last offering, Stephen Pressfield's Do the Work, that I thought I'd go ahead and give it a few pages...

An hour later, I had wolfed down the book. (Did I'm mention its thinness?) I came away inspired by Sivers' grounded, happiness-first approach to his business, enlightened by the lessons he had learned (including those arising from his biggest blunders), and genuinely impressed by his smart and grounded approach to life.

An accomplished, working musician, Derek describes how he accidentally fell into his business by recognizing and responding to his own unmet need. Though he was making a good living at his craft, music distribution was such a racket in the Nineties that independent artists had no shot of getting their CDs into the hands of customers wanting to buy them. Frustrating, Derek picked up a few books on coding and wrote his own html, then set up a website where people could buy his stuff. (This was pre-Paypal, so it was a huge hassle.) Soon, friends were asking him to put up their CDs as well--so many that he began charging a small fee for his time. As word spread, the site grew exponentially, but through it all, I had to admire how Sivers kept his head, stuck to his values, and very literally, put his money where his mouth is.

So many of the lessons in this story are applicable to writers, along with anyone else valuing quality of life above blind material/financial gain. Here are a few of my favorite examples from the book:
1. Never do anything just for the money.
2. Don't pursue business just for your own gain. Only answer the calls for help.
3. Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently promoting what's not working.
4. Your business plan is moot. You don't know what people really want until you start doing it.
5. You can't please everyone, so proudly exclude people.
6. The real point of doing anything is to be happy, so do only what makes you happy.

I enjoyed the book so much, I quickly passed it on to my son, who is finishing college and about to start out in the world. The two of us agreed that Derek Sivers' vision is refreshing, slightly subversive (in as much as being an idealist in the business world is an act of defiance), and entirely likable. This is a guy who understands what makes him tick and quietly but steadfastly resists societal pressure to conform. I guess maybe that make Sivers some sort of rebel after all.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Modifying an E-reader for an Older or Low Vision Reader

To surprise my mother-in-law for her 91st birthday, I decided to make an attempt to return to her the gift of reading, which has become difficult due to macular degeneration issues. The first part was simple enough, since you can change the font size of any popular e-reader and/or change the orientation to landscape to get the maximum amount of words per line while still making the text comfortable to read.

The buttons on the e-reader itself were another issue because of their small print size and low contrast. I tackled this by taking a white Kindle 2 (which has larger buttons than the newer model and comes in white) and color-coding the keys as seen on the photo. (Sorry for the fuzziness. Speaking of low vision, my cell phone camera's a bit myopic!) Using fluorescent file folder labels cut into quarters and a bit of bright red nail polish for the top of the toggle switch, I settled on green for Next Page, yellow for Home, and orange for the Prev Page key. What I was looking for it higher contrast and something as simple and intuitive as possible.

Next, I created a large print simplified, single directions page, which I color-coded using highlighters, laminated, and gave to her caregiver, who will help her with anything more complex than turning pages. (Remember, my m-i-l is in her nineties!) Here's the text of that page, with my name and phone number omitted:

Using Your Kindle
1. To turn on and off, slide and release switch on top.
2. There will be a picture on the screen when it is turned off.
3. To select a book or choose a new book, press the yellow HOME button. Push the red toggle switch up or down to underline the title of the book you want to read. Then push on toggle switch to select.
4. While reading a book, use the green NEXT PAGE button to advance the page.
5. If you need to go back a page, press the orange PREV PAGE button.
6. I have set text for large print. To adjust or turn on Text-to-Speech (which makes the Kindle read aloud to you, if desired), press the Aa button. Then use toggle switch to choose (push up and down) and select (push).
7. Call C______ at XXX-XXX-XXXX if you need help or would like a new book added to your library.
8. Plug into wall will charger about once a week.

Since this Kindle is registered to me and uses 3G, I will be able to purchase new books for her and talk her caregiver through loading them to her Kindle. Or I can simply do it during visits.

By making this experience as simple and easy as possible, I hope to conquer my m-i-l's extreme resistance to any new technology. Since her caregiver is also tech-adverse, it was an interesting challenge. I'm not certain whether my gift will be a hit or a miss, or whether a more expensive but larger-screened Kindle DX would have been a better choice, but it occurred to me that many other folks who have aging parents or loved ones with visual impairments might be interested in my methods.

I'll let you know how it goes over!


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