Wednesday, August 31, 2011

BuyThisBook: Barbara Taylor Sissel's The Ninth Step


Barbara Taylor Sissel crafts a sure-handed, beautiful garden of a novel on ground tilled by Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve. Firmly confronting issues of human frailty, redemption, and letting go, The Ninth Step is a story about what is, but it aches with the stories of what might have been as one man's quest for forgiveness leads him to the impossible task of forgiving himself, and the lives of the people he's wronged are drawn into a shattering spiral of events.

Barbara Taylor Sissel's vibrant voice, rich characters, and deft plotting draw the reader in and keep pages turning to the gripping, unexpected end.

Respecting the Reader

I hear a lot of novelists talking about writing to entertain themselves. While I agree that the author herself is the first audience and you can't write a good story if you're getting no enjoyment from it, I also believe that the end consumer, the readers most likely to plunk down their hard-earned money and invest their valuable time, should be the writer's most important consideration.

Yes, that sometimes means putting their tastes ahead of your own personal preferences. Sometimes, it may mean back-burnering your personal point of view on controversial topics so as not to jerk the readers out of the story and alienate them--or at least not clobbering them over the head with your agenda when you're writing the kind of story people pick up to entertain them. Always, it means being aware of the reader's emotional investment in the characters and story and not abusing it.

All of this, of course, depends on the audience you're dealing with. When I'm working on a book that's closer to a mainstream thriller than a romance, I know (from reading tons of books in the genre, along with lots of reviews, online chatter, and communications from readers themselves) that the reader expects to be kept in suspense, surprised--sometimes even horrified or challenged. It's all part of the experience, though you're generally going to hack off much of your audience if you cross certain lines (the killing of a viewpoint character the reader identifies with, a lovable/helpless pet, or child, or the use of offensive stereotypes as short-cuts.) When I'm writing for an audience that's going to be more invested in the romance or is looking for a shorter, more escapist read, I heap on the action-adventure and keep the suspense quick, punchy, and a whole lot less bloody, since these readers want and expect a quicker release from their tension. I'm also careful to quickly force the romantic leads together and keep them together, because their interaction and the tension between them is what keeps these readers coming back for more.

In my opinion, it's a matter of respect. Respect your reader, respect her time and preferences, and never, ever talk down to her--because a reader can smell condescension miles away. If you write with her in mind, she will definitely reward you...by going out and purchasing your backlist, along with the next book that you write.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mrs. Martineau's babies (an excerpt from The Hurricane Lover)


As part of my research for The Hurricane Lover, I slogged through thousands of emails to and from Michael Brown, who was head of FEMA at the time. ("Heck of a job, Brownie!" Yeah. That guy.) A prominent figure in those pages is Craig Fugate, who was appointed by President Obama to take over FEMA in 2009. Fugate, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management at the time, was one of the unsung heroes of Katrina. It wasn't his responsibility, but he understood the magnitude of what was happening, and more important, he cared, and he seriously stepped up. Brownie... not so much. He'd already planned to tender his resignation after the Labor day weekend.

The day after Katrina, while Fugate frantically scrambled to get ice and body bags, Brown and his secretary exchanged the following email, which was later made public through the Freedom of Information Act. This was one of many exchanges that literally brought tears to my eyes. My goal in this particular chapter was to place it in a more personal context. The character Ms. Martineau was inspired by an elderly lady I sat and talked with at a shelter in Houston.

From The Hurricane Lover:
..................................
Tuesday afternoon August 30
From: James, Tillie
To: Brown, Michael D
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:43:17 2005
Subject: U ok?
..................................
From: Brown, Michael D
To: James, Tillie
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:52:18 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

I’m not answering that question, but do have a question. Do you know of anyone who dog-sits? Bethany has backed out and Tamara is looking. If you know of any responsible kids, let me know. They can have the house to themselves Th-Su.
..................................
From: James, Tillie
To: Brown, Michael D
Sent: Wed Aug 31 05:49:23 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

No I don’t know anyone. Want me to see if my son is in town and can do it? D---- was looking for someone recently too. Maybe he knows someone.

Don’t answer my question then. Still working on project today from home. It’s crazy I hear in the office.
..............................................
From: Brown, Michael D
To: James, Tillie
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:52:18 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

Sure, if he likes dogs. Check with David, too.

I should have done my announcement a week early.
..............................................
“I know folks think I’m outside my mind, but I won’t ever leave the house for a hurricane. I can’t leave my babies.” The old woman in Shay’s viewfinder thoughtfully stroked the little French bulldog in her lap. “If the Lord wants me home, he calls me home, and I’ll be glad to see him. I never got afraid. Not when I was a child and not last night. Was it last night?”

“Yesterday morning, Ms. Martineau,” said Shay.

“Oh, yes. Yes, the darkness makes it like black night.” The old woman nodded with her whole body. “Like a great wild animal swallowed up the sun.”

Shay was afraid to breathe, the shot was so perfect, the old woman so unbearably beautiful. From the little balcony outside the second floor bedroom, she was able to frame Ms. Martineau with a trace of wrought iron railing behind her and the massive river of slow-moving trash and branches traveling past in the shady street below. It was only ten or twelve inches deep, but in the shade of the broken oaks, it appeared as dense and unknowable as the Mississippi.

“You were saying…you weren’t afraid…” Shay prompted gently.

“Oh, no. I don’t get afraid. I always know that my mama is praying for me.”

Shay blinked back the sting that came up behind her eyes. “Me too.”

“If you see my granddaughter,” said the old woman, “you tell her I’m all right. This house is a good house. Never takes water above that third step right down there.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Shay.

“Oh, longer than I been alive. I baked my bread and had my babies in this house. My nephew—he’s passed now—he put in the new water heater…oh, three years ago. Was it three years? Maybe it was seven. I wasn’t driving anymore. I know that. We enjoy sitting out here when the mosquitoes aren’t too bad. My great-grandchildren have a sandbox down there.”

She pointed a knobby finger toward the surface of the water that had crawled from the curb to the porch steps in the short time Shay had been sitting with her.

“I’ll stop talking now,” said Ms Martineau. “I get dry and these new teeth, they rub.”

“Thank you so much for visiting with me, ma’am. Do you have water set aside in the house, Ms. Martineau? It’s hot. You have to drink lots of water.”

“Yes, my nephew put in the new water heater last year.”

“Here, drink this.” Shay handed the old lady a water bottle she’d been hoarding all day, along with the last MRE. “I want you to stay up here and eat this tonight. Don’t go downstairs to your kitchen.”

“Well, you’re too sweet,” said Ms. Martineau. “Did you bake this yourself?”

Shay packed her camera in her tote bag, then took off the white shirt from Corbin’s closet and tied one sleeve to a scrolled frou-frou at the corner of the balcony rail.

“I’m putting this here so they’ll know someone needs help, all right, Ms. Martineau? Don’t take this down. Somebody will come along in a boat and see it. The National Guard or the police.” Shay tried not to think about the possibility that the white flag might be under water by morning. “If someone comes for you with a boat, you go with them. They’ll take you somewhere safe. Your granddaughter will know to look for you there.”

“Oh, no, honey child, I have the dogs. I can’t leave my babies.”

“Ms. Martineau…” Shay bit her bottom lip. “I’ll come back and check on the dogs.”

“Oh, would you, dear? And feed them?”

“Sure. Of course,” Shay lied, caught in one of those horrible Chinese finger puzzles where anything you say is wrong. “You stay upstairs until the boat comes. Promise?”

“All right, dear. So long as I know my babies are in good hands. If you see my granddaughter, you tell her I’m all right.”

The two exchanged a warm embrace, and as Shay made her way down through an angled stairway tiled with family photos to the front parlor that was everyone’s grandmother’s parlor in some respect, she made the conscious decision to take this sort of story with her when she left the sunshine gig. The intensely beautiful faces and voices of folks who were no one in that they were everyone. The hard core news was only a fraction of the story without Ms. Martineau’s face, soft as onion paper, alive with history.

Shay made another slow, deliberate trip up and down the stairs, with the camera on this time, knowing this history in faces, in button shoes, in old timey clothes and funeral portraits would be lost to the water within a matter of hours. The voices would last only as long as Ms. Martineau’s memory, and that was fading with the light.

The Hurricane Lover will be available on Kindle and Nook 11/11/11.

Hurricane Katrina August 29, 2005 (an excerpt from The Hurricane Lover)


As Hurricane Irene moved up the coast last week, I blogged about my forthcoming novel, The Hurricane Lover, which is set during the epic hurricane season of 2005. Six years ago today, Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, killing almost 2000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

As part of my research for the book, I slogged through thousands of emails to and from Michael Brown, who was head of FEMA at the time. ("Heck of a job, Brownie!" Yeah. That guy.) A prominent figure in those pages is Craig Fugate, appointed by President Obama to take over FEMA in 2009 and getting a lot of face time last week with his calmly knowledgeable presence. Fugate, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management at the time, was one of the unsung heroes of Katrina. It wasn't his responsibility, but he understood the magnitude of what was happening, and more important, he cared, and he seriously stepped up. Brownie... not so much. He'd already planned to tender his resignation after the Labor day weekend.

The day after Katrina, while Fugate frantically hustled everything from ice to body bags, Brown and his secretary exchanged the following email, which was later made public through the Freedom of Information Act. This was one of many exchanges that literally brought tears to my eyes. My goal in this particular chapter was to place it in a more personal context. The character Ms. Martineau was inspired by an elderly lady I sat and talked with at a shelter in Houston.

An excerpt from The Hurricane Lover:

Tuesday afternoon August 30

From: James, Tillie
To: Brown, Michael D
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:43:17 2005
Subject: U ok?
..................................

From: Brown, Michael D
To: James, Tillie
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:52:18 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

I’m not answering that question, but do have a question. Do you know of anyone who dog-sits? Bethany has backed out and Tamara is looking. If you know of any responsible kids, let me know. They can have the house to themselves Th-Su.
..................................

From: James, Tillie
To: Brown, Michael D
Sent: Wed Aug 31 05:49:23 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

No I don’t know anyone. Want me to see if my son is in town and can do it? D---- was looking for someone recently too. Maybe he knows someone.

Don’t answer my question then. Still working on project today from home. It’s crazy I hear in the office.
..............................................

From: Brown, Michael D
To: James, Tillie
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:52:18 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

Sure, if he likes dogs. Check with David, too.

I should have done my announcement a week early.
..............................................

“I know folks think I’m outside my mind, but I won’t ever leave the house for a hurricane. I can’t leave my babies.” The old woman in Shay’s viewfinder thoughtfully stroked the little French bulldog in her lap. “If the Lord wants me home, he calls me home, and I’ll be glad to see him. I never got afraid. Not when I was a child and not last night. Was it last night?”

“Yesterday morning, Ms. Martineau,” said Shay.

“Oh, yes. Yes, the darkness makes it like black night.” The old woman nodded with her whole body. “Like a great wild animal swallowed up the sun.”

Shay was afraid to breathe, the shot was so perfect, the old woman so unbearably beautiful. From the little balcony outside the second floor bedroom, she was able to frame Ms. Martineau with a trace of wrought iron railing behind her and the massive river of slow-moving trash and branches traveling past in the shady street below. It was only ten or twelve inches deep, but in the shade of the broken oaks, it appeared as dense and unknowable as the Mississippi.

“You were saying…you weren’t afraid…” Shay prompted gently.

“Oh, no. I don’t get afraid. I always know that my mama is praying for me.”

Shay blinked back the sting that came up behind her eyes. “Me too.”

“If you see my granddaughter,” said the old woman, “you tell her I’m all right. This house is a good house. Never takes water above that third step right down there.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Shay.

“Oh, longer than I been alive. I baked my bread and had my babies in this house. My nephew—he’s passed now—he put in the new water heater…oh, three years ago. Was it three years? Maybe it was seven. I wasn’t driving anymore. I know that. We enjoy sitting out here when the mosquitoes aren’t too bad. My great-grandchildren have a sandbox down there.”

She pointed a knobby finger toward the surface of the water that had crawled from the curb to the porch steps in the short time Shay had been sitting with her.

“I’ll stop talking now,” said Ms Martineau. “I get dry and these new teeth, they rub.”

“Thank you so much for visiting with me, ma’am. Do you have water set aside in the house, Ms. Martineau? It’s hot. You have to drink lots of water.”

“Yes, my nephew put in the new water heater last year.”

“Here, drink this.” Shay handed the old lady a water bottle she’d been hoarding all day, along with the last MRE. “I want you to stay up here and eat this tonight. Don’t go downstairs to your kitchen.”

“Well, you’re too sweet,” said Ms. Martineau. “Did you bake this yourself?”

Shay packed her camera in her tote bag, then took off the white shirt from Corbin’s closet and tied one sleeve to a scrolled frou-frou at the corner of the balcony rail.

“I’m putting this here so they’ll know someone needs help, all right, Ms. Martineau? Don’t take this down. Somebody will come along in a boat and see it. The National Guard or the police.” Shay tried not to think about the possibility that the white flag might be under water by morning. “If someone comes for you with a boat, you go with them. They’ll take you somewhere safe. Your granddaughter will know to look for you there.”

“Oh, no, honey child, I have the dogs. I can’t leave my babies.”

“Ms. Martineau…” Shay bit her bottom lip. “I’ll come back and check on the dogs.”

“Oh, would you, dear? And feed them?”

“Sure. Of course,” Shay lied, caught in one of those horrible Chinese finger puzzles where anything you say is wrong. “You stay upstairs until the boat comes. Promise?”

“All right, dear. So long as I know my babies are in good hands. If you see my granddaughter, you tell her I’m all right.”

The two exchanged a warm embrace, and as Shay made her way down through an angled stairway tiled with family photos to the front parlor that was everyone’s grandmother’s parlor in some respect, she made the conscious decision to take this sort of story with her when she left the sunshine gig. The intensely beautiful faces and voices of folks who were no one in that they were everyone. The hard core news was only a fraction of the story without Ms. Martineau’s face, soft as onion paper, alive with history.

Shay made another slow, deliberate trip up and down the stairs, with the camera on this time, knowing this history in faces, in button shoes, in old timey clothes and funeral portraits would be lost to the water within a matter of hours. The voices would last only as long as Ms. Martineau’s memory, and that was fading with the light.

From The Hurricane Lover by Joni Rodgers
Coming this fall

The Beauty or the Book? Vintage Dell paperback ad breaks it down


Sunday, August 28, 2011

What's Your Story's Conflict Quotient?

Most everyone would agree that a good story starts with good conflict. This week, as I've been working on a newly-contracted (yea!) tale of romantic suspense, I've been giving a lot of thought to the fact that a truly dynamic opening--one strong enough to carry a whole novel--consists of not just a single conflict, but a layered raft of obstacles our intrepid (or not-so-intrepid) protagonist(s) must face. In the case of a dual-viewpoint (typically hero and heroine) romance, the author is doubly challenged by the necessity of setting up the all-important romantic conflict between the leads in addition to developing a workable external plot.

As I write my books' openings, I often have to go back and layer in different opportunities for conflict. You don't necessarily want to hit the reader over the head with all of them at once, but you do want to slip in hints of potential trouble on the horizon. And here's a radical thought: You don't have to actually have all of the secondary conflict threads nailed down in your mind (or synopsis) from the outset. Try throwing in a few intriguing clues and then trust you subconscious to come up with something awesome later. Most of the time, it will come through for you like a champ. (If not, this is one of those occasions brainstorming sessions with writing pals and margaritas were invented for!*)

Once you've written, edited, and back-filled by going back and layering in more good stuff your opening chapters--you will generally have to have written at least several chapters before you get to this point--I recommend looking back to your beginning and asking yourself if the following are in place:

1. An immediate, dynamic source of external conflict: This is the sea change that instigate's the lead character's journey, that immediately challenges him/her to act. Surprisingly, the first source of conflict encountered in the story is often just a prelude to the true story problem--a red herring, if you will, that misdirects the reader, then allows you to whack her over the head with a surprising, larger issue. For example, a harried single mom, upset about her boss making her late again, is rushing to pick up her child from school, feeling guilty about being the last parent to arrive (again), and vowing to do something about it, no matter what the consequences. Then, bam -- a cruel carjacker turns her whole world (and the book's plot) on its ear.

2. Character's internal conflict:
In the previous example, the protagonist's struggle between work/daily survival and her need to be a good mom hint at issues to be explored (and exploited) throughout the story. As he is introduced, the hero's thoughts, too, reveal that not all is right in his world, that he is dealing with internal conflicts related to his transition from the military to civilian world. These thoughts--no more than hints as to a redefining moment in his recent past, since this is part of the story that's still percolating on my mind's back burner--are quickly interrupted as the protagonists' two worlds intersect. Or violently collide, I should say, which brings us to the next point on my checklist.

3. Inter-character conflict: If you're writing a romance, there has to be some "repelling force" keeping these two characters from getting all too cozy all too quickly. It needs to be both strong and believable, seemingly an insurmountable issue, while (in the case of a romance) still allowing the reader to see through to--or at least get a tiny glimpse of--each character's core goodness/worthiness of love. To have the emotional depth and resonance for a truly first-class story, the issue separating the two protagonists must be sufficiently serious that it could never be resolved by something so simple as a twenty-minute conversation, so sitcom-style misunderstandings need not apply! Initially, however, the writer may very well begin with the characters' attraction or even slight irritation before leading to the reasons this relationship could never. Possibly. Work. (Even though the experienced romance reader knows it eventually will, it's the how of it that keeps her reading.)

For those of you not writing romance, inter-character conflict is still equally important to set up. If the members of team working together to solve a crime or commit a caper or work toward whatever story goal is necessitated by the plot all get along perfectly and are never challenged by each other's personalities, you'll have a flat, lifeless, and ultimately unrealistic story. Think about any workplace, a sports team, even a family working together to support a common goal. There are always going to be internal pressures. If there weren't, we wouldn't be human, after all. And we sure as heck would not be interesting.

Conflict may be only one of the elements you have to balance carefully in your story's opening, but it is certainly among the most crucial. Does anyone else have any tips, comments, or questions on the layering of conflict to share?


*Yes, I do realize I have (gasp) ended the sentence with a preposition to keep it from sounding stilted. If this troubles you, please apply additional margaritas until you get over it. You may be wrapped a little too tightly to allow any great plotting ideas to sneak in. There. I did it again. Just because (wait for it) I wanted to.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Perhaps this is a good time to announce my forthcoming novel: The Hurricane Lover


Hunker down, East Coast! We on the Gulf Coast feel your pain. A hurricane is an incredible experience. Scary, fascinating, beautiful, terrible and (pardon the pun) mind-blowing.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, my husband and I were among the volunteers who helped care for evacuees arriving at mass shelters in Houston. As I carried water to the long lines, a weary New Orleans police officer said to me, "This is a great day for news people and con artists." I was instantly smacked by the story hammer, and that initial inspiration evolved as I wrote, revised and did serious deep-dive research between ghost projects over the next five years.

Set on the Gulf Coast during the epic hurricane season of 2005, The Hurricane Lover is a tale of two cities, two families, and two people who find each other in a storm. A firebrand environmentalist from New Orleans and the whip-smart, self-determined daughter of a Houston oil baron come together to track a con artist who's using hurricanes as a cover for identity theft and murder. Hurricane Katrina is the perfect storm for the perfect crime. In her wake are twisted sisters Ophelia and Rita. The summer goes down in history for its mega-storms, oppressive heat, disaster management goat screw and polarized politics. The stormy relationship and complicated Southern families at the heart of The Hurricane Lover make it personal.

I set out to write a fast-paced, character-driven story with a strong atmosphere (think Lisa Unger/ Michael Crichton love child raised on the Gulf Coast by James Sallis) woven with the fascinating science of these real life mega-storms, along with actual email (made public through the US Freedom of Information Act) to and from FEMA director Michael "Heck of a job, Brownie!" Brown, President George Bush and others involved in the abysmal government response to Hurricane Katrina. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Hurricane Ike decimated Galveston and Houston in 2008. At the height of the storm, I couldn't resist; I had to go outside. It's nothing I could have imagined - or written about - without experiencing it.

The Hurricane Lover is a grand experiment for me. After three novels and several nonfiction bestsellers with Big 6 publishers, I'm doing this novel as an indie ebook that will transition to a traditional print deal. I'm convinced that hybrid publishing is the way forward for career authors, with upsides for us, our agents, publishers and - most important - readers.

Now, if I could just decide on which of these two covers to use! (Let me know what you think.)

Look for The Hurricane Lover on Nook and Kindle November 1, 2011.

Perhaps this is a good time to announce my forthcoming novel: The Hurricane Lover


Hunker down, East Coast! We on the Gulf Coast feel your pain. A hurricane is an incredible experience. Scary, fascinating, beautiful, terrible and (pardon the pun) mind-blowing.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, my husband and I were among the volunteers who helped care for evacuees arriving at mass shelters in Houston. As I carried water to the long lines, a weary New Orleans police officer said to me, "This is a great day for news people and con artists." I was instantly smacked by the story hammer, and that initial inspiration evolved as I wrote, revised and did serious deep-dive research between ghost projects over the next five years.

Set on the Gulf Coast during the epic hurricane season of 2005, The Hurricane Lover is a tale of two cities, two families, and two people who find each other in a storm. A firebrand environmentalist from New Orleans and the whip-smart, self-determined daughter of a Houston oil baron come together to track a con artist who's using hurricanes as a cover for identity theft and murder. Hurricane Katrina is the perfect storm for the perfect crime. In her wake are twisted sisters Ophelia and Rita. The summer goes down in history for its mega-storms, oppressive heat, disaster management goat screw and polarized politics. The stormy relationship and complicated Southern families at the heart of The Hurricane Lover make it personal.

I set out to write a fast-paced, character-driven story with a strong atmosphere (think Lisa Unger/ Michael Crichton love child raised on the Gulf Coast by James Sallis) woven with the fascinating science of these real life mega-storms, along with actual email (made public through the US Freedom of Information Act) to and from FEMA director Michael "Heck of a job, Brownie!" Brown, President George Bush and others involved in the abysmal government response to Hurricane Katrina. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Hurricane Ike decimated Galveston and Houston in 2008. At the height of the storm, I couldn't resist; I had to go outside. It's nothing I could have imagined - or written about - without experiencing it.

The Hurricane Lover is a grand experiment for me. After three novels and several nonfiction bestsellers with Big 6 publishers, I'm doing this novel as an indie ebook that will transition to a traditional print deal. I'm convinced that hybrid publishing is the way forward for career authors, with upsides for us, our agents, publishers and - most important - readers.

Now, if I could just decide on which of these two covers to use! (Let me know what you think.)

Look for The Hurricane Lover on Nook and Kindle November 1, 2011.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Secret Sisters (aka "The Dirty Dirty Dildo Sex Book")


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.

New and improved Red Room could be a great opportunity for midlist authors going indie

I love the idea of Red Room, and I've tried to participate as both reader and writer over the years, but candidly, I've been frustrated (as both a reader and writer) by the cumbersome site and opposite-of-user-friendly blogging platform.

This week Red Room announced their first redesign since the launch of the site, which promises a "much better-looking, more secure, faster, and easier to use" Red Room, and I'm eager to give it a try. Founder Ivory Madison did an astonishing thing creating all this out of thin air, and if the redesign lives up to her vision, it could be a fantastic opportunity for midlist authors going indie. Plus I instantly want to have coffee with a woman who lists "radical feminist politico and torch singer at the Plush Room" on her CV.

Check out the new Red Room via this crash course from senior editor Huntington Sharp.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Buy (the Heck Out of) This Book: Christie Craig's Don't Mess With Texas



One of the nicest, most supportive, and outright funniest writers I know is Christie Craig, who's become a go-to author for those looking for a fast paced, frothy, sexy romance that will leave you laughing off the day's stresses. If you're in the mood for a romp and have enjoyed authors such as Janet Evanovich, Jennifer Cruisie, and Rachel Gibson, I highly recommend my good friend Christie's latest, Don't Mess with Texas (Grand Central, $5.99).

Or if you need a better reason, do it to support an author whose state government has zero sense of fun. You see, TX DOT, the Texas Department of Transportation, which turns out to have trademarked the phrase "Don't Mess with Texas" for an anti-litter slogan years back, has filed suit against Ms. Craig, Hatchette Publishing, and even Barnes and Noble, because they fear the (oh, the horror!) naughty bits will weaken their brand. Interestingly, I've learned there are dozens of songs (not only country, but--cue another gasp--rap), books, and products that have also made use of this phrase, which most would agree has become more of a Texas pride thing than anything to do with trash collection (or "trashy" romance, for that matter. But apparently, in this case, TXDot's felt compelled to send a message by filing suit on the book's release date (rather than, say, sending a cease and desist letter earlier or making note of the fact that book and song titles are not normally held to infringe by the courts.)



I want to send a message myself. That you don't mess with Texas romance authors, especially one of the nicest in the business. That you don't let numerous male artists and authors slide, then go after a woman writing books for women. That you don't use prudery as an excuse when you're really exploiting the sexiness quotient of this story to get out the message that you're serious about defending against trademark infringements.

Those are just a few of the reasons I'm buying myself a copy of Christie Craig's Don't Mess with Texas. But mostly I'm buying it 'cause I'm in the mood for a fun read!

To read about the lawsuit, check out this eye-rolling coverage from HoustonPress.com. And the comments are pretty interesting, too!

Update: Great news! A Texas judge rules sales of Christie Craig's #DON'TMESSWITHTEXAS can't be blocked. bit.ly/nDYgic

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Drought Busting Writer

Here in hot, hot Texas, there's been a lot of talk lately about the critical drought that's devastating the area. We sit here stewing over dying yards and crops, horrendous power and water bills, and the unhappy knowledge that there's not a damned thing that we can do about it.

It's horrible feeling so helpless, as any writer who's ever faced a publishing drought can tell you. Watching your carefully-tended career wither as you listen to what sometimes feels like an endless stream of accomplishments from others (as people tend to celebrate their successes and bury their disappointments) can lead to envy and depression, not to mention a serious bout of career re-examination as savings dwindle down to debt.

Yet over and over again, I've seen writers (present company definitely not excluded!) revive their seemingly-desiccated careers after months or years, even a decade or more--long after the point at which most "rational" human beings (a.k.a. those not incurably addicted to this roller coaster thrill ride) have moved on to more reasonable career paths.) Amazingly, many of these once-shunned writers suddenly find themselves the proverbial belles of the ball, their long dammed up creativity bursting from the floodgates.

What, pray tell, are their secrets? Here are a few commonalities I've seen:

1. Refusing to give in to the soul-crushing temptation to equate their value with their luck.
Not that (I assure you) periods of bleak hopelessness won't happen, but the successful drought buster will find solace in her writing, rather than turning her back on a process she once loved.

2. Reaching out for the support of fellow writers. It's only natural to want to hole up when you're feeling wounded, but the successful drought buster forces herself to keep right on networking, often investing some of her down time in volunteering to help others in the form of mentoring, judging contest, leading workshops, and taking on leadership roles in writing groups. Letting other writers know you're hungry (notice I didn't say desperate) for new opportunities can lead to some amazing connections. I've made a pair of sales in recent years thanks to helpful and generous recommendations by my own fellow writers. These boons aren't acts of pity; they still must be earned through hard work and good writing, but when someone turns you on to a possibility, don't be too proud to act on it...and remember them later when you have the chance to do another deserving writer a good turn.

3. Keeping a sharp eye on the marketplace and one's nose in a book.
When things are feeling lean, I study recent deals and bestseller trends most carefully. I read what's hot and hopping, in a variety of genres. Trends tend to cross genre lines, and every now and then you'll be surprised to find one that jump starts your imagination and gets you thinking in directions you otherwise would not have dreamed of.

4. Giving yourself permission to take risks. Sometimes, feeling as though you have absolutely nothing to lose frees you to take intelligent risks with your writing that you never would have if you'd felt pressured to "stay the course" and keep your previous fan base/publisher happy. By intelligent, I mean those that capitalize on your strengths or allow you to develop surprising new muscles. You might try your hand at non-fiction or experiment with a new form (poetry? playwriting? screenwriting? How freeing new possibilities can be!) or genre. You might choose to take your work directly to the audience via self or independent online publication.

You might remember how to play again, and find your work, your passion in the process. You might even open up the spillways and rain down resurrection on a career less persistent souls would have given up for dead.




Photo: Resurrection fern from Florida Forest Plants.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Laura Harrington: Why Read?

Laura Harrington is tracking copies of her debut novel Alice Bliss via an ingenious summer promotion, Where's Alice Bliss? (more on that below), but she took a moment from her busy schedule to answer the question at the heart of what we do: Why read?

On the first day of every playwriting class I have ever taught I tell my students that I will share the secret of how to be a good writer. They sit forward in their seats. Read, I tell them. Read like your writing depends on it.

We have all heard this before. Many of us have said this before. But this week I’ve read two books that illustrated this point for me in a delightful way.

I read A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano and so loved the writing, the story, the depth and ambition of this book that I didn’t want it to end. When it did, I craved more good writing. The next book of brand new fiction on the pile was going to be interesting, even fun, but did not promise that kind of depth.

So I picked up Fools of Fortune by William Trevor, a book that shattered me in two hundred and seven pages. A book so finely wrought that I will immediately turn back to page one and begin again for both the pleasure of the writing and the desire to discover the mystery of the “how” of Trevor’s writing. How did he do what he did so beautifully and compellingly, so simply and so succinctly? I’m not sure there is a wasted syllable in this book.

Francine Prose wrote an exceptional introduction to the little Penguin volume I have in my hands. An introduction so exquisite in and of itself that I have read it twice already, and will probably give it another go before I have unpacked all of its insights.

Why read? Because if we’re lucky one writer will lead us to another writer and another as our desire for and understanding of good, even great writing grows and deepens. Why read? For the magic of holding a universe in our hands, between the covers of a book; a fictional world so real it can break our hearts, a world so compelling that we do not want to leave it.

Francine Prose quotes Trevor in her introduction, from an interview that appeared in the Paris Review in 1989. I will leave you with Trevor’s words and thoughts about time. You will need to read Fools of Fortune to experience his unparallelled skill with time and memory. In the meantime, William Trevor has inspired me, intrigued me, and given me much to aspire to.

“A huge amount of what I write about is internal, a drifting back into childhood based on a small event or moment. By isolating an encounter and then isolating an incident in the past you try to build up an actual life, and you cannot build up a life without using time in that sense … [Time] both heals and destroys, depending on the nature of the wound; it actually reveals the character. There is either bitterness or recovery: neither can take place without time. Time is the most interesting thing to write about besides people – everything I write about has to do with it. Time is like air; it is there always, changing people and forming character. Memory also forms character—the way you remember things makes you who you are.”

Where’s Alice Bliss? is a campaign to send copies of the novel Alice Bliss to as many countries and U.S. states as possible. Through bookcrossing.com, copies of Alice Bliss will be registered and tracked as they travel around the world, passing from one reader to the next.

Keep up with Laura Harrington and follow Alice's adventures via the Where's Alice Bliss blog and on twitter.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Poet in the House

Friends, I want to share with you a lovely blog post by the poet Jessica Garratt, a former student of mine as well as a fellow Fellow at the McCullers Center in Columbus, Georgia (don't you love it when those we root for root and bloom?).  Jessica is the first poet to have been selected for a residency at the McCullers House, the childhood home of Carson McCullers and the birthplace of some of her best work, including The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding.  Jessica writes eloquently about the latter novel, as well as shedding some light on what it feels like to take up a residency that is both solitary and surrounded:

When I wrote each day, I opted not to sit at the big desk in my office, or at the smaller desk in my bedroom, but out on the front porch, where I set up a small collapsible card table and rolled out a desk chair.  There I felt like I was withdrawn from the world enough to concentrate, but still, in a way, part of the life of the street and neighborhood.  Sometimes I was happy to see people strolling by or doing yard work, and other times, when I was particularly absorbed, I felt irrationally invaded when they would look up toward the porch at me – as though a stranger had just peered into my living room windows. But I liked that tension of simultaneous connection and disconnection from the world. And, in a way, this tension is very similar to the one I feel animates poems, which are really more about desire for connection than actually finding it. We never know, after all, in the midst of writing a poem, whether there will be an audience or an individual person who is intimately reached by what we have written. All we can experience is the wish for that union of common understanding.

You can read the rest of her post here. For more information about the writing residency itself, and to apply, visit the McCullers Center website.  Never applied for a writing residency before?  Don't be shy.  The process is simple; the potential result, as Jessica shows us, is complex, unexpected, and wonderful.

--MD

Define What You Want to Be

Just stumbled upon this list I made 12 years ago in response to my first literary agent telling me: "You need to clearly define on paper what you want to be." I hope it will someday multi-task as my epitaph.
What I Want To Be

thoroughly loved
deliciously laid
consistently working
handsomely paid
smart in my business
true in my art
wise at the finish
brave at the start
occasionally humbled
appropriately proud
prone to be quiet
allowed to be loud
wholly welcome
sorely missed
predominantly peaceful
righteously pissed
rich without bitching
famous with reason
restful on Sabbath
productive in season
aware of my weakness
in awe of my power
profoundly grateful
alive every hour
An interesting meditative exercise. Give it a whirl and post in the comment section, if you feel so inclined. (It doesn't have to rhyme.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Buy This Book: Bent Road by Lori Roy

Part Southern gothic, part family mystery and haunting suspense, Bent Road, Lori Roy’s emotionally evocative, 1960’s era, debut novel takes your breath from the first page and I mean that literally. Painted against the beautiful but often brutal backdrop of rural Kansas, the setting might have been rendered by Norman Rockwell himself, but a Rockwell idyll wouldn’t include the troubling presence of a red pick up truck crawling the road’s curves at the edge of evening. It wouldn’t show a man running, the vapor of his breath trailing after him in the inky dark. But was he really there? It isn’t clear. At least not as clear as the fear on folks’ faces when a child in this remote community goes missing. Celia Scott had qualms about moving with her husband, Arthur, and their three children back to his family’s farm in Kansas even before she left Detroit and learning on their arrival that a child is missing, that there is a possible kidnapper in the area, only serves to deepen her distress. There is mystery enough in her husband’s family. For one, there is the sister whose untimely death Arthur refuses to explain. Celia senses whatever the tragedy was, it caused him to abandon his childhood home. But no one will say. She’s treated to silence. With her white gloves and stylish hats, her city airs, she’s given the feeling that she doesn’t belong. While Celia’s husband and oldest daughter seem to settle comfortably into country life, Celia’s two younger children struggle like Celia to find their way. It is one of the lovely aspects of this novel, the carefully illustrated characters. Each one, complex and fully formed, is real and warm and alive. They are people you would know, people that by the end of the story you feel you do know. You want to spend time with them, to know more about them. They draw you through each page.

And there’s that red truck, too, and the man running, and the suspicion. All the small town rumor and gossip and innuendo. It is an atmosphere unlike anything Celia has ever known. And her children, the two youngest especially, face pressures that are foreign to her. She feels helpless to help them. Her youngest daughter, a little girl the same age as the child who is missing, dresses in her dead aunt’s clothes and wishes she were bigger. Celia’s son eyes his daddy’s rifle in the gun cabinet and wishes for the chance to show he is a man. Celia’s marriage to Arthur is strong, but what happens when that union is subjected to forces outside her control, pressures beyond her understanding? Resentment simmers and along with it is Celia’s determination to fix what is wrong, to make her family work according to the ideal of the day: that iconic Norman Rockwell image. The juxtaposition of this image with the twisting vine of family secrets and lies . . . it’s like the snake in the beautiful garden. And there, just under the surface the red truck is on the prowl, the man is running, the child dresses in her dead aunt’s clothes, the boy ogles the gun in the cabinet. And now something falls against the house, the moon flees, a shot rings out. . . .

Bent Road is wonderfully written, believable and eerie, and so precisely paced, a rising heartbeat like the one Edgar Allan Poe wrote about in The Tell-Tale Heart. The ending is not what you might expect, but then nothing in this story is exactly as it seems. It is that very note of discordance that makes it so intriguing, that sets in motion that buzz in your brain. You’ll think about it even after you’ve finished. It’s just that compelling.

For more about the author, Lori Roy, visit her website.

Doris Lessing Puts It All into Perspective

Thought I'd share this brilliant item from "Along Publisher's Row," the wonderful odds & ends column featured in each issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin:

Before she became a Nobel Laureate, Doris Lessing wrote, "And it does no harm to repeat, as often as you can, 'Without me the literary industry would not exist: the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the sub-sub-agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the departments of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages--all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronized, put-down and underpaid person."

Well, out hat's off to you today, Doris Lessing, for putting it all into perspective. Nicely said!


Apropos of overworking a manuscript?



Okay, I know, but it's Saturday, right?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Vote for Neal Pollack's SXSW panel "Self-Publishing: A Revolution For Midlist Authors?"

A while back, the NY Times featured a piece by Neal Pollack, who shared some thoughts on why he decided to indie pub his forthcoming novel, Jewball. Pollack has organized an interesting panel discussion for SXSW, Self-Publishing: A Revolution For Midlist Authors?, and I think it's going to be packed with substantial discussion that will benefit both established authors and those beginning careers in the brave new biz.

The panel, moderated by Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times, features Neal, yours truly, Marty Beckerman (whose indie pubbed The Heming Way was recently optioned for film) and Joshua Tallent of Ebook Architects.

Per the PR:
Self-publishing's moment has arrived. Authors both famous and obscure are releasing their own ebooks,cutting out the middleman, bypassing the gatekeepers of a notoriously hard-to-break-into industry, and sometimes making huge profits. But it's midlist authors, established but not bestselling, who stand to benefit the most from the self-publishing boom. This panel, comprised of already-published authors who are either trying to or intending to self-publish, will examine the benefits, pitfalls, and potential of self-publishing, and will point the way toward a new self-reliant digital future for book writers.

Visit the SXSW Panel Picker to vote for Team Pollack!

Footnote: HarperCollins is currently offering Pollack's Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude for 99 cents on Kindle.

The Daily Show's take on Border's closing

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Into Your Dreams Contest Winner~

Two weeks ago, I posted a wonderful interview and Q&A with Dr. Janece O. Hudson on Into Your Dreams, her amazing new book on dream interpretation. What I failed to do was announce the winner of the drawing for a free signed copy. Sorry about my absentmindedness, and congratulations, April Kilhstrom! I've sent and e-mail to your privately regarding mailing information.

For those in the Houston area, this Saturday, Dr. Hudson will be signing copies of Into Your Dreams at Barnes and Noble Champions Village on FM 1960 from 2:00-4:00 PM on Saturday, 8/20. Please stop by and meet her! She's an amazing resource and a wonderful writer.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On the topic of author headshots

Yesterday, Dr. KatPat raised some interesting questions about marketing oneself. Here's my two cents on the subtopic of author headshots:

First, while it may sound trite, be yourself. Middle-year mom, aging punker, chippy college girl, thirty-something preppy striver - whatever. Rock it. If that's who you are, it's a waste of time trying to market yourself as something else. Second, author headshots should be individualistic portraits as opposed to generic corporate photos or the malleable blank canvas you try to achieve with an actor's headshot. You're trying to look like an authentic human being, not a JC Penney catalog model. It's not an image that says "hire me"; it's an image that says "date me."

Consider these photos of Stephen King. First there's the Manager of the Month photo:

King might be able to get away with that, but for the rest of us, a stiffly staged author photo does not bode well for what readers hope will be welcoming, accessible, relatable prose to come. So you want to avoid anything quite as topsytastic as this:

But something like this, I think, is cool and character-driven:

And this is engaging and personal:

Here's Anita Shreve looking like she wants to be cast in an infomercial for a colon bacteria balancing supplement:

Here's Anita Shreve looking like someone who's inviting me to sit on her porch and enjoy a cup of tea and a great story:

One author who has consistently gorgeous photos: Jodi Picoult. This is a gorgeous woman, and she consistently has gorgeous author photos in which she comes off as warm, intelligent, witty and personable, which is exactly what her books are. It's about rockin' who you are, and she is Jodi mo'fo'ing Picoult, gorgeous chick and blockbusting author, and she appears to be enjoying herself.

As my wise daughter has told me many times: "You do you."

For some great nuts and bolts advice on getting a great headshot, check out Danielle LaPorte's White Hot Truth article on how to look hot in a photo.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Revisiting the decisions that successfully transformed my writing strategy for 2010

My dad always said, "Plan your work, work your plan." We in the business of reeling and writhing - I mean reading and writing - especially need the structure of a yearly business plan and five-year vision plan. My policy is to get that sucker on paper by the last day of December so I can get up January 1st, load the Christmas tree out the door and hit the ground running. I mean writing.

Last year, I saw an item in Scott Jeffrey's Enlightened Business blog that blew my mind a little. "5 Powerful Decisions to Transform Your Business" radically changed my 2010 business plan. Scott's original post makes great sense for any company, but I tweaked it for writing, applying the same principles to the soul proprietorship that is the corporate body for most working authors.

When I posted it on the blog here, I optimistically said, "These transformative rules have seriously adjusted my thought process and just might make 2010 my best year ever." As it turns out, 2010 was the most successful year of my career thus far. So maybe the advice bears repeating...

#1 Decide to focus on your best customers.
This is that "laser like focus" Colleen talks about, and it goes beyond cultivating a readership. It also speaks to the relationships we build with our publishers, agents and fellow writers. I think we have to broaden the meaning here to focus on how our time and energy is most productively spent.

#2 Decide to focus on building a highly functional team.
Three essential teammates for writers: A smart, aggressive, like-minded agent. A smart, supportive, collegial critique group. Domestic allies who understand what you do. Team-building begins with letting those key people know how deeply and sincerely grateful we are for their support.

#3 Decide to grow from within.
Scott's post talks about a "corporate culture" that aligns core values. For a company of one, that means being the industry you want to work in. Organized. Optimistic. Perseverant. That's not what you do; that's who you are. Seriously consider your artistic philosophy, then embrace and embody it without apology or compromise. To thine own self be true. All other ground is quicksand.

#4 Decide to be the best at something.
"This decision requires sacrifice and focus," says Jeffreys. Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that you're the master of a craft after 10,000 hours. You've really got to LOVE what you do to rack up that kind of mileage. What is it about this work that gives you that chill on the back of your neck? Dialogue? Sense of place? Untying a Gordian knot of a plot? I think that frisson of yes becomes an affinity at about 3,000 hours. After 6,000 hours, the affinity becomes a knack. Somewhere around 9,000 hours, the knack becomes a strength. And once you've mastered your craft, that strength becomes your brand.

#5 Decide on a more compelling future for your organization to rally around.
The publishing industry has undergone a seismic shift. We're in the wild, wild west, my darlings. Anything is possible, so why not envision something wonderful? What is the essence - the high concept, if you will - of what you want out of this industry? (For me, it's "fair pay for good art".) Envision that future and earn it.

We live by decision. It's that simple. Large and small choices shape an office environment, a day, a career, and ultimately a life. That's the terrifying, thrilling possibility for transformation in every moment.

Women, Writing, and Self Promotion--Or How Do I Market Myself Without Feeling Like I'm Selling Leptoprin?

I knew it would happen someday. I'd just hoped it wouldn't be yesterday. But sure enough, there it was, an email from my new boss asking for a headshot of me that looked "more corporate." "It should be in color," she said, and I should wear "a dress shirt."

Of course none of that should have been a problem. I have tons of "dress shirts" and even suit jackets and I wear them to teach all the time. But for some reason the email sent me into a tailspin, bringing up all those old, familiar feelings of "I'm not ready" and "I'm not good enough" and "but I'd wanted to lose 10, 15--okay 30--pounds before I got professional headshots." I'm perfectly fine dealing with people in person, in writing, and over the phone, but with all of this skype and twitter and globalization, I actually have to consider my image??? My physical boobs and hips and hair and lips and not so white anymore teeth?

Glasses on or glasses off? Shirt buttoned all the way up or top button undone? Hair fluffed to the side or off my face? Standing in front of the plant or beside it? Showing the white board behind me or the calendar? In front of books or not, and if so, which books? American lit, or should I have a copy of Poets & Writers in the background?

"This is good for you," Mark said, getting the digital camera. "And I'll actually get to get your picture." Grrrrrrr.

Almost a hundred shots later, we had four that were potentially acceptable headshots. No, they weren't taken by a professional, but at least they'll work for now. But by the end, Mark was frustrated and I was drenched in sweat. As I peeled off my now wet jacket and the blouse underneath, I thought about why all of this is so hard for me. Why is it so hard for me to market myself, my writing, my other professional work? And how can I market myself without feeling like the woman on the Leptoprin commercial?



Isn't it enough that I've worked so hard? Isn't it enough that my book/my class/my coaching/my knowledge/my editorial insight is so good? Doesn't quality matter?

And of course, the answer is no--and yes. Yes, quality matters, but unfortunately, in this big, bad image-driven global world, quality and hard work aren't all that counts. They go a long way, surely, but they don't go all the way. So for those of us who have an allergy to all things image and all things marketing? Well, we're just going to have to swallow a big, bitter dollop of get over it. As Lee Skallerup Bessette says in this fabulous post, we have to be willing to "take chances," to "be patient and persistent," to "be open and have thick skin," and not ever to let that "little voice" inside of ourselves win.

Come on, women. Let's do it, let's make it, let's own it, even if we can't yet be it. Even if we can't yet see what we already are.

The Writer Editor Relationship

I’m working with Barry Burnett on his novel, HOW TO LIVE FOREVER (A Very Fictional Guide), and in talking with him about why he chose to self-publish and to pursue an original ebook only, he made a point I found fascinating. I had asked him what advice or thoughts he’d pass on to other writers who want to self-publish, and among his observations was the following:
There’s a reason editors exist. And why, perhaps, they should not be working directly for you. I’ve tried it…but I’m too foolishly enamored with my own style, and could too easily say ‘Nope’. Friends and reading groups help, but time turned out to be my editor – cutting out the stuff that turns stupid in a week or a month. Still limited by your own ear, but that may be part of what makes indie authors interesting.
There has been much said about the importance of editors in publishing, and Barry’s comment caught me off guard. Editors most certainly have their place and play an important role. They help bring good books to the marketplace and they help writers to refine their stories.

But Barry has a point. Sometimes, some writers are their own best editors. I’ve seen in writing workshops that colleagues’ replies can flatten an original voice, and it does seem that some wonderful writing is not finding the support it deserves from the editorial gatekeepers in traditional publishing and therefore, until the rise of self-publishing, not reaching readers.

Barry’s latest novel, How To Live Forever (A Very Fictional Guide), is a romp of a read about a young family practice doctor in Boulder, Colorado who, against his better judgment, opens a longevity clinic that offers patients HGH (human growth hormone) to lengthen their lives. This is a comedy with a heart, with a dash of romance, a definite bad guy and a thriller-like chase, a moral conundrum, and the most perfect ending. In sum, it defies categories and would make traditional publishers nervous. Especially since it includes subtle reminders about how to take care of ourselves. (Another category!)

Barry’s writing and this novel are what’s great about the new possibilities in publishing. He’s offering free downloads through August in a variety of formats. If you want, find them here: www.howtoliveforever.com

What do you think? Do writers always need editors? Or, is it more a question of when one should work with an editor? Or, is it a matter of finding the right editor?

Monday kickstart: Marilyn Manson "The Fight Song"



Apply to your publishing week as needed: "I'm not a slave to a God [self-imposed deadline/ outmoded query guideline] who doesn't exist. I'm not a slave to a world [imaginary mass audience] that doesn't give a s#*t. Fight! Fight! Fight!"

GOFIGHTWIN AUTHORS!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why Real-World Alliances Still Matter

Yesterday, I attended a meeting of the West Houston Romance Writers of America, a fabulous group that continually reminds me of why, in the days of long-distance Internet networking and (alas) way too much electronic book and self pimpage, real-world relationships are what matter most.

After dispensing with the business stuff as quickly as possible, the group moves onto the first component of its real business: introductions. Newbies are encouraged to share their names, what they're writing (or just thinking about writing, since we come to the table at every level of experience), and are welcomed to the group with not only applause but a small stack of beribboned books written by members. Afterward, we each have a moment to state out names and any writing news we might have have that month. In a business with so many negatives, the group's collective positives remind us of the good that can and does happen when we persevere. Among this month's announcements were contest wins and finals, several new sales (including my latest to Harlequin Intrigue and Harlequin Romantic Suspense-yea!), a number of new or upcoming releases, white-knuckle deadlines, and, the icing on the cake, Amanda Steven's deal with ABC TV for the development of The Restorer from her marvelous new Graveyard Queens series.

Such is the stuff that dreams and hopes are fed on. And every step is celebrated, from a writer getting up the nerve to show up to her first meeting to another completing her first novel-length manuscript to someone sending out that first submission to an editor or agent. (How many would-be authors are stopped in their tracks by those steps?) Here, a personal, handwritten note on a rejection or helpful contest feedback (even on a non-finalling entry) is seen as what it is: a sign of forward motion.

Before the speakers step up to share the educational portion of the meeting, we take a break for snacks, restrooms, book signings of new releases, and (mostly) visiting. Here is where we get to know each other, where we learn to trust enough to commiserate over the dropping of a series, the departure of an editor, or maybe a rejection that cut us to the core. We buoy each other through the hard times, sharing stuff you'd never want to commit to e-mail or announce to strangers. Here, we forge alliances on acts of amazing generosity.

Yesterday, our speakers, bestselling authors Nina Bangs and Gerry Bartlett, demonstrated one of the best examples of such an alliance. Critique partners for more than twenty years, each is the other's greatest champion, bolstering her friend through the tough times and cheering her through the good. Hearing about what the two had learned along the way was fascinating, for each of us has a different journey, and we learn as much (probably more) from brave and honest stories of mistakes, even disasters, than we do from the inspiring stories of successes.

We realize that if our glamorous, successful friends overcame such tribulations and went on to prosper, maybe we, too, can muscle through the tough times and be up front, speaking wisely of our experiences later, from the vantage of bestsellerdom.

Or maybe we'll just grow wise and gather a bunch of great friends who not only understand but truly share our dreams. But it seems to me, that's not such a bad goal either.

It's also why I continue to believe that showing up in person really matters.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The art of defining what you want to be

Recently stumbled upon this list I made 12 years ago in response to my first literary agent telling me: "You need to clearly define on paper what you want to be." I hope it will someday multi-task as my epitaph.
What I Want To Be

thoroughly loved
deliciously laid
consistently working
handsomely paid
smart in my business
true in my art
wise at the finish
brave at the start
occasionally humbled
appropriately proud
prone to be quiet
allowed to be loud
wholly welcome
sorely missed
predominantly peaceful
righteously pissed
rich without bitching
famous with reason
restful on Sabbath
productive in season
aware of my weakness
in awe of my power
profoundly grateful
alive every hour

An interesting meditative exercise. Give it a whirl. (It doesn't have to rhyme.)

Join me and Topo Gigio wishing Colleen a Happy Birthday (and buy her book while you're at it!)



Bust out the sopapilla cheesecake and the guitarron, it's Colleen's birthday! May I recommend giving yourself a present? If you scurry, you can get a copy of Colleen's fantasy epic The Night Holds the Moon (written with buddy Parke Roberts) on Kindle for just $1.99 this weekend. TNHTM is a story-telling, world-building tour de force. Magic flute! Wayward maiden in the opposite of distress! Dark Highlander Count just begging for a serious kick in the kilt!

Happy Birthday, Colleen, and a delicious reading weekend to all!

Buy This Book: "News of the World" by freshly anointed US Poet Laureate Philip Levine


The Library of Congress announced yesterday that 83-year-old Philip Levine will succeed W.S. Merwin as US Poet Laureate this fall. Levine won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth.

After WWII, Levine worked the graveyard shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory in Detroit and wrote during the day. "I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life — or at least the part my work played in it — I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life."

Read the work of past PoLaus in The Poets Laureate Anthology and click on NAPOMO in the label cloud (below left) to revisit Jerusha's National Poetry Month series on the Poet Laureates Greatest Hits.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Buy This Book: "Milkshake" is a smart, funny fiction debut for Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss

What makes me happy as a reader: a book that makes me think, a book that makes me laugh, a book that makes me care. Milkshake, the refreshing, thoroughly enjoyable debut novel from Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss did all three. It's takes balls to write a satiric novel about breastfeeding, and when I heard the high concept, I think I was smiling one of those frozen, vaguely baffled smiles that basically says, "Gahfwah?" I couldn't wait to get my hands on the manuscript to see if Weiss actually pulled it off, and I'm delighted to report that she did.

Milkshake strongly reminded me of two of my all time favorite sass-in-a-box books: Jane Smiley's brilliant academia send-up Moo and My Year of Meats, Ruth L. Ozeki's hilarious spoof on reality TV and the meat-packing industry. Plus a smattering of Primary Colors.

Like all of the above, Milkshake satisfies with bright wit, fast-paced story, zingalicious dialogue and engaging characters. For those of us who tend to take ourselves a little too seriously when it comes to personal choices and political stands, it's a friendly but incisive calling out. For those of us who'd rather not see the man behind the political curtain, it's a gentle nudge with an electric cattle prod.

When an innocent wardrobe malfunction places mild-mannered mom Lauren Bruce in the middle of a political flap about breastfeeding in public, gubernatorial hopeful Candace Calloway and her savvy campaign machine latch on. Now, in addition to coping with all the usual issues of new motherhood, Lauren is being pursued by the media and shoved into the political fray, which we get to follow from the POV of pragmatic Maisy, Candace's war-weary campaign manager, a delicious voice of cynicism and sanity.

One of the growing legion of established writers opting to indy publish, Weiss is a great example of how to do it right. Milkshake is well-written and properly edited with a quirktastic cover design by artist Wendy Wahman.

Read more about Joanna's indy pub journey on author Jenna Blum's blog, The Writer's Life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Have You Ever Imagined...

Ever fantasized about how it would feel to have your novel optioned for TV or the big screen? Thanks to author and RWA chaptermate Amanda Stevens, whose wonderfully spooky Gothic tale, THE RESTORER, has just been picked up by ABC TV for series development (by the writers of OFF THE MAP and PUSHING DAISIES, no less), you, too can have a hilariously-illustrated picture.

So go ahead, check out her LOL blog and say congratulations. Or better yet, read a book I've been highly recommending to my friends for months.

Way to go, Amanda, and thanks so much for sharing your experience!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

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

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

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

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

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