Last day to grab the best book bargain of the summer!

Monday, October 31, 2011

I'll have to do something else between . . .


Mark and I just got back from a much needed trip to Virginia, where we took night time walks under a clear, dark sky, and I stood in the middle of the street behind my parents' house, trying to drink in the air. I wish I could bottle it up, that East coast fall, and smuggle it back to Texas. My mother didn't quite understand why I grabbed the blankets from the couch and took them outside, so that we could lay down on our backs on the cold, wet grass and look up. Unlike the light-polluted skies around the Houston area, my parents' sky looks three-dimensional; you can actually tell which stars are nearest. Laying back and looking up, you can almost feel their orbit, it gives such a different perspective.

Likewise does reading stacks and stacks of old diaries, going back as far as the 6th grade. My mother practically forced me to go through "all that stuff," as she calls it, and I was dreading it. Winding through bits and pieces of old stories and parts of novels from my childhood and teen years was a little like being on a "This is Your Life" episode. Old friends, lining up to greet me, old friends, whom I'd romanticized until I read them again and collapsed into mortified laughter. There was the little green diary I kept at 13, where I dutifully recorded my struggles with my grades, as well as the ongoing saga of my first crush, complete with the number of words he and I said to each other, and whether we said them in French, Spanish, or English. Then there was the "novel" that my friend Kelly and I wrote, a scintillating mystery story about two female FBI agents that bore just a little too much resemblance to Nancy Drew. And there was one of my mother's diaries somehow mixed in there too--from 1959, when she was all but sixteen and writing letters to "Hector."

"Who's Hector?" I asked, and my mother laughed.
"My Spanish pen pal." She said, and I admit I was a bit disappointed. I was hoping to discover some long forgotten romance, some juicy story that would set my mother apart and color in her another dimension. But the letter was written for her Spanish class, all those years ago, and apparently vetted by the teacher.

And then somewhere in the middle of an old plastic crate, I found that 6th grade diary. Pink, floral, with the words "Memories are Forever" written in fancy lettering beside a little girl holding a friendly raccoon. I opened it and laughed at how simple I was, how the smallest things meant so much back then, and how I was "in an awful state" because "everyone is yelling at me, even at school." Then I turned the page and saw, on the 11th of April, 1983, the following declaration:

I have decided what I want to be when I grow up. I'll have to do something else between, but I want to be an author. I have written a bunch of short stories, and Kelly and I are writing a sequal to our first book, The Haunted Hotel (a mystery book). I am very imaginative, I think!

April 11, 1983. Nearly thirty years ago now, and yet I've never given up on that dream. And even though I just turned forty and am still yet to be published, I am not sorry for following it. I've listened to God and my heart and bent my ear to the wind, and I have always recorded the whispers. That "something else between" sometimes takes over my life, and I struggle to find a balance, but I keep on. I keep on for the little girl I was then and the young woman I was a decade ago, and all the women I am and will continue to be. I keep filling the pages and leaning into the wind in the hopes that it will land on the page in spite of me, and that somehow I can capture those things that aren't tangible, like the turn of a leaf of a Virginia tree or the way the air feels when it dampens my cheek.

And maybe somewhere in that I'll find me.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sugarland is out of the vault!



I wrote my second novel, Sugarland, while I was in chemotherapy. My first novel, Crazy For Trying, was in the process of collecting rejections, but I couldn't be dragged down by that. I was on fire (creatively, I mean, though sometimes the chemo made it feel like that literally) and thinking about publishing would have been the worst thing I could have done at that moment. I wrote.

Sugarland was picked up shortly after CFT, so both books were in the pipeline at different publishers at the same time. The women at this tiny lesbian press really knew what they were doing, and they did it fantastically well. It was a robust launch; the book got excellent reviews, book clubs ate it up, and I landed my first literary agent and a subsequent book deal with HarperCollins for my memoir and next novel.

Sugarland is essentially a modern retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth, set in a southeast Texas trailer park. And yes, there is a tornado.

The book's been out of print for several years, of course, so I'm thrilled that the ebook revolution has made it possible for me to put it out into the world again.

Sunday Quote:Gretzky, Being Surprisingly Relevant to the Writing Life

"You miss 100% of the shots you never take."
--Wayne Gretzky


So what chances will you take this week? What shots will you venture?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Trailer for Sugarland (my sophomore novel, out of the vault ebook reincarnation)



Sugarland is essentially a modern retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth, set in a southeast Texas trailer park. And yes, there is a tornado.

I wrote Sugarland, my second novel, while I was in chemotherapy. My first novel, Crazy For Trying, was in the process of collecting rejections, but I couldn't be dragged down by that. I was on fire (creatively, I mean, though sometimes chemo made it feel like that literally) and thinking about publishing would have been the worst thing I could have done at that moment. I wrote.

Sugarland was picked up shortly after CFT, so both books were in the pipeline at different publishers at the same time. The women at this tiny lesbian press really knew what they were doing, and they did it fantastically well. It was a robust launch; the book got excellent reviews, book clubs ate it up, and I landed my first literary agent and a subsequent book deal with HarperCollins for my memoir and next novel.

The book's been out of print for several years, of course, so I'm thrilled that the ebook revolution has made it possible for me to put it out into the world again. I learned so much from this book. It'll always have a special place in my heart.

Saturday comics: The point at which editorial input ceases to be a good thing.

New trailer for THE HURRICANE LOVER



I love this music. "Lippy Children" by Band of the Eye.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Novelists: Stop Trying to Brand Yourself

Check out this terrific post from agent Rachelle Gardner telling us that, hey, just maybe, this whole branding thing is something novelists don't have to worry about so very much.

I especially love what she has to say about focusing on who your readers are. If you get to know them and figure out how to deliver the kind of reading experience they crave, you will become the brand they're looking for, rather than having to create and forcibly impose your brand on them.

Novelists: Stop Trying to Brand Yourself

Dave Brubeck Quartet "Take Five"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Please Don't Make Me Tweet!


When I mention to clients with a book about to come out that they will now be taking on a second job as a blogger/Facebook entrepreneur/Tweeter, I get a variety of reactions -- panic, resignation, defiance and sheer terror. I can't say I blame them. When my editor mentioned setting up a blog for my last book, I bombarded her with a dozen reasons I couldn't possibly take it on. Being an author these days is tough duty.

To try and help out several of my clients faced with the daunting prospect of having to Tweet for the very first time, I put together some Very Basic Twitter Facts. And I'd be really interested in hearing what's worked for you in the land of those annoying little blue birds.

1. Think of Twitter as a party being held at your house. Naturally, everyone will be interested in the latest news about your book, but as the host you’ll also want to introduce guests who have interests in common, start lively discussions and make sure everyone hears about big doings in the lives of their fellow partygoers.

2. Simply put, Twitter is not all about you. 20% of tweets is plenty for all-about-me book news.

3. One easy way to get an idea of what makes for a successful “author building a following” tweet is to check out those who have already mastered the art. You’ll see there is a nice balance between book promotion and a variety of things the author thinks will be of interest to their followers. Check out authors who write in your genre or currently have books on the bestseller lists. Laura Harrington is a client of mine who’s having great success with her tweets being passed along.

4. Spend time searching on Twitter for old college roommates, friendly ex-girl/boyfriends, former co-workers, editors you’ve worked with or written for, all your Facebook friends -- anyone who can expand your tweeting circle.

5. Follow a wide variety of people, not just those in your world or the world of your book. Not only will this get the word out to an ever-increasing number of people, it should also give you material to re-tweet.

6. Tweet every day. If at all possible, start with five times a day. And remember, Twitter is like a garden -- once you plant it, you have to tend it. No long vacations.

7. Ask questions that will elicit a response -- what’s the best movie ever made from a 19th century novel?

8. When someone becomes a follower, send them a thank-you. If someone re-tweets you, send them a “thanks for the RT.”

9. Think before you use #Hash #Tags. Two many ## in a tweet makes it hard to read.

10. Join in #followfriday. It’s one of the most popular hash tags and is used to suggest people your followers might enjoy following. Make sure you briefly say why and don’t just put up a list of @names. Ideally, if you recommend someone, they will return the favor and recommend you to their followers.

So How Are You Doing?

Want to see which of your tweets was effective? Sign up for Tweet Effective.

Once you’ve Tweeted 200 times, check out Timely, a service that can show you when your followers are re-tweeting and when they’re not. It will also tell you the optimal (as in gain more followers) times for you to tweet

Tweet Reach will show you how many people your tweets reach.

Bufferapp. As you create Tweets and add them to your "Buffer," it will schedule them for the best time of day for your followers. Nifty. And check out the "Suggest an Update" option.





Tuesday, October 25, 2011

As much as I love Joan Didion, I don't think I can read Blue Nights.


Christopher Hitchens' words with an Annie Liebovitz photo create a stunning portrait of Joan Didion in the October issue of Vanity Fair. Included is this compelling moment from Blue Nights, Didion's forthcoming book about the death of her daughter:
Vanish.

Pass into nothingness: the Keats line that frightened her.

Fade as the blue nights fade, go as the brightness goes.

Go back into the blue.

I myself placed her ashes in the wall.

I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six.

I know what it is I am now experiencing.

I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.

The fear is not for what is lost.

What is lost is already in the wall.

What is lost is already behind the locked doors.

The fear is for what is still to be lost.

You may see nothing still to be lost.

Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.
I loved The Year of Magical Thinking for one reason: reading it made me a better writer. The craft and soul of Joan Didion's writing is a legitimate superpower. It's X-ray vision. The ability to fly. Leap tall buildings. Spin Earth backwards on its axis.

Weirdly, what's healing in that book is the lack of cowtowing to the expectation that some healing element should be included in a book about grief. It's a book that honors the humbling enormity of grief and never insults that by hinting at any mechanism for coping with it. So I'm worried that Blue Nights is going to be that cubed. I just don't think I can have that superpower unleashed on me when it's pointed directly at a fear so deeply, terrifyingly visceral I can't even name it.

When my kids were little, I did the "Now I lay me down to sleep" thing with them every night, but I left out the part about "if I should die before I wake..." I have no fear of my own death. I feel certain my soul will live on. I'm not at all certain my soul would survive what Didion has experienced, and I don't have it in me right now to go there vicariously or even as a voyeur. This is like grief porn. It's unbearably graphic.

Maybe later. I pre-ordered, so it'll be sent to my Nook on the release date. I might do the entirely chickenshit thing and read it backwards so I get the benefit of the craft skill without taking the blunt force body slam of the narrative. More likely, I'll look away, look at my beautiful daughter and focus on life, and if that makes me a wimpy Pollyanna, hey man, tra la la.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Resuming my quest to read all the Pulitzer-winning novels before I turn 50

First, I resolved to do it before I turned 20, and I almost got there. Then I said before I turned 30, but I ended up reading a lot of Rolling Stone and Dr. Seuss that decade. Then I said 40, but I was busy writing books and reading in the contemporary market I was trying to learn about. For the last several years, my excuse is research reading. I have very little time for purely recreational fiction, and I just can't cram that other Rabbit book into my eyeballs and call it recreational. So I have a little over three months to get this done. Wish me luck!

Here's the list, striking what I've read so far:
2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Alfred A.. Knopf)
2010 Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press)
2009 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
2008 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books)
2007 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf)
2006 March by Geraldine Brooks (Viking)
2005 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar)
2004 The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Amistad/ HarperCollins)
2003 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar)
2002 Empire Falls by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf)
2001 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (Random House)
2000 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin)
1999 The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
1998 American Pastoral by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)
1997 Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser (Crown)
1996 Independence Day by Richard Ford (Alfred A. Knopf)
1995 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Viking)
1994 The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (Charles Scribner's Sons)
1993 A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (Henry Holt)
1992 A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf)
1991 Rabbit At Rest by John Updike (Alfred A. Knopf)
1990 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (Farrar)
1989 Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (Alfred A. Knopf)
1988 Beloved by Toni Morrison (Alfred A. Knopf)
1987 A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (Alfred A. Knopf)
1986 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster)
1985 Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie (Random House)
1984 Ironweed by William Kennedy (Viking)
1983 The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Harcourt Brace)
1982 Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike (Knopf)
1981 A Confederacy of Dunces by the late John Kennedy Toole (a posthumous publication) (Louisiana State U. Press)
1980 The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer (Little)
1979 The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever (Knopf)
1978 Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson (Atlantic Monthly Press)
1977 (No Award) Woo hoo! Freebie!
1976 Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow (Viking)
1975 The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (McKay)
1974 (No Award)
1973 The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty (Random)
1972 Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (Doubleday)
1971 (No Award)
1970 Collected Stories by Jean Stafford (Farrar)
1969 House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (Harper)
1968 The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (Random)
1967 The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (Farrar)
1966 Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter (Harcourt)
1965 The Keepers Of The House by Shirley Ann Grau (Random)
1964 (No Award)
1963 The Reivers by William Faulkner (Random)
1962 The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor (Little)
1961 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Lippincott)
1960 Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (Doubleday)
1959 The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor (Doubleday)
1958 A Death In The Family by the late James Agee (a posthumous publication) (McDowell, Obolensky)
1957 (No Award)
1956 Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor (World)
1955 A Fable by William Faulkner (Random)
1954 (No Award)
1953 The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner)
1952 The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (Doubleday)
1951 The Town by Conrad Richter (Knopf)
1950 The Way West by A. B. Guthrie (Sloane)
1949 Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens (Harcourt)
1948 Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener (Macmillan)

Monday Morning Goal Update

I'd meant to be triumphantly reporting that I've met my goal from last Monday and completed the draft of the manuscript that's due in only a few short weeks.

But despite countless hours of sweat equity, what will be Book #20 threw me a curve ball, demanding changes, changes, changes as I began finessing the scenes for a complicated climax into place. Since I'd rather have the book done right than simply have it finished, I haven't yet reached the end. Still, I'm getting closer each and every day.

Yes, this means I'm occasionally breathing into the little paper bag I keep by my computer over the daily panic attacks this struggle is inducing. So wish me luck as I do the white-knuckle slide into the home stretch. I WILL have this draft finished by next Monday. I'm absolutely determined!

Hope you'll let me know how you're doing on your weekly goals. Any successes, failures, or readjustments (c'mon, gang! make me feel better, will you?) to report?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sabbath music moment: "Pink Moon"



Just folks music videos on YouTube and the varying degrees of self-pubbing. Discuss amongst yourselves.

I'm So Effing 50!

Diagnosed with blood cancer at 32, I was told it was unlikely I'd live more than five years. My goal was my 40th birthday. I just wanted my kids (then 5 and 7) to be old enough to remember me, and I wanted to get one book published.

In 120 days, I'll turn 50. My kids are grown, and I've had over a dozen books published. God is good. Life is amazing. And I'm celebrating my advent to the Power Decade by rebooting everything about my body -- fitness, fashion, inner beauty (as depicted in a mammogram), facial regime -- with the philosophy that this is a spa-fest of self care, not a bootcamp blast of self-improvement. So let the Fiftyness begin!

I'm posting videos on my solo blog The Girl With the Shakespeare Tattoo. Here's my first day with personal trainer Bill Rushforth.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Art and Economics of Ghostwriting

Originally appeared on AOL Daily Finance and AOL homepage Nov 2010.

Among this week's nonfiction bestsellers, you'll see a former U.S. president, a Rolling Stone, an actress with food issues, two political pundits and someone known as "Baba Booey." What you won't see is at least six ghostwriters who make their living actually writing the books "authored" by celebrities and politicos. If you're wondering, George W. Bush's Decision Points was coauthored by his loyal aide and speechwriter Christopher Michel. Life, the Keith Richards memoir, was written by James Fox, a British journalist who devoted five years to the project.

Writing someone else's book is actually a good way for a writer to earn a living these days. You may have heard the saying "everyone has a book in them." I say everyone has a spleen in them, too. In both cases, it takes a particular skill set to get it out.

Obviously, baseline writing talent and solid knowledge of the craft are required for this job, but a good ghostwriter is also a good listener, meticulous researcher and all-purpose book nanny, with the ability to keep the client's secrets, build a bridge between the client and publisher, and completely set ego aside. Ghostwriting is a personality type as much as it is a skill set. Natural nurturers are in like Flynn; control freaks need not apply.

With the rise in self-publishing and the popularity of celebrity books, demand for ghostwriters has increased dramatically. And with the downturn in the publishing industry, many talented, experienced writers are turning to ghostwriting to make ends meet. Truth is, there's risk and reward on both sides of a collaboration. Here's a primer on the ghostwriting gig:

What does a ghostwriter do?

Ewan McGregor summed it up quite succinctly in the movie Ghostwriter: "I interview you and turn your answers into prose." Every gig is different, but they all begin with a long conversation about what the client wants to say.

When I worked with Rue McClanahan on her memoir, My First Five Husbands, she was very hands-on. She presented me with 600 pages of material she'd written, and I helped her figure out what to keep, how to structure it and what was missing. I wrote some additional material, wove that in and we worked through revisions together.

At the other end of the spectrum, I had a client who had a great story but no writing ability or interest. I spent time getting to know her so I could capture her voice on paper, then went home to write. Three months later, I came back and read the entire book to her while she floated on a chaise in her swimming pool. I'm comfortable being co-pilot or chauffeur. Most gigs fall somewhere between.

How do the client and ghostwriter find each other?

My first ghostwriting gig came out of the blue. My memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair, tells the story of how I wrote my first two novels and got them published while going through chemotherapy for lymphoma. A celebrity with a connection to the cancer community read it and asked my agent if I'd help her do a book about her life. I initially said no. I didn't know how to go about it, and candidly, a lot of people in the writing world look down on ghostwriting as a whorish way to use one's talents.

But I had lunch with the client, and we clicked. She had a great story to tell, and I'm a storyteller. I discovered I loved the collaborative process. And as for what others think -- well, that's up to them. Artistic integrity isn't something a project gives you -- you bring artistic integrity to the project.

If you're looking to hire a ghostwriter, survey books similar to the one you want to do. If a co-author isn't credited on the cover, check the acknowledgments to see if anyone is thanked "for helping me bring this story to life," or something like that. If you're looking to be a ghostwriter, do the same. Find the name of the writer's agent with the "Who Represents" feature on www.PublishersMarketplace.com.

How much does a ghostwriter get paid?

This is always the big question, and there's no simple answer. It varies widely and depends on a variety of factors: How much experience does the ghostwriter have? What's the length of the manuscript? Is there a publisher in place or will a proposal be needed? How much research is involved? Will the ghostwriter have cover credit, be listed in the acknowledgments or remain completely invisible?

I'm frequently asked to do proposals "on spec" -- which really means "free" -- with the expectation of getting paid when (or if) the book is picked up by a publisher. The answer is NO. I strongly discourage any aspiring ghostwriter from doing proposals, sample chapters or anything else without being paid.

Every deal is different, but there are basically two models: a flat fee "work for hire" agreement or a contingency arrangement splitting the proceeds from the book.

Early in my career, I did a book for a noncelebrity client with a compelling story. My agent asked $10K for the proposal and a flat fee of $60K for writing the book. The client's husband was a corporate type who played hardball: He offered a modest proposal fee and 40% of the book's proceeds. I was just getting started, so I took the deal.

The exec should have had more faith in his wife. The proposal resulted in a solid six-figure advance, and the movie rights sold for even more, which made my cut about five times the flat fee we'd asked for. (Gotta watch those hardballs. Sometimes they bounce.)

Reaping benefits beyond the paycheck

I'm fairly certain I took home more than my client did on the recent New York Times bestseller Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer by Nancy G. Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Nancy gave the lion's share of her book proceeds (as she's given most of her life) to the foundation that carries the name of her sister Suzy, who died of breast cancer in 1980.

I was blown away by the integrity, humor and style of this fabulous woman. Nancy's personal story is beyond compelling, and woven between the chapters about her life is the strange and fascinating history of breast cancer going all the way back to ancient Egypt.

The paycheck is the least valuable thing I gained from working with Nancy Brinker. I came away from the project educated and inspired with a dear friend for life.

The need to build in "bus stops"

Occasionally, a publisher hires me to do a book, but usually, it's the client who hires and pays the ghostwriter. Ideally, it's a love match, and the collaborators are able to see the journey through to publication together. But it's not unheard of for a client to work with two or three ghostwriters over the course of a project. The collaboration agreement should protect both the ghostwriter and the client by building in bus stops where the two can amicably part company if things aren't working out.

Once (only once!) I accepted a gig where I was the fifth writer on board. Predictably, I was the fifth writer fired, and the client's book was subsequently canceled by the publisher. Fortunately, my agent had structured a deal where I was paid a nonrefundable amount on signing and another payment when I delivered the first three chapters. I was able to keep that money, but not entitled to any further compensation for additional chapters I'd written.

Bottom line: I love my job with all its frustrations and joys. I work incredibly hard and go many extra miles to accommodate my clients, but I also get to hang out with extraordinary people and immerse myself in fascinating research. And I make a better-than-good living. Best of all, I don't have to participate in my least favorite part of the process. When it's time for the book tour, I'm happy to do what ghosts do best: disappear.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Buy This Book: The Volunteer by Barbara Taylor Sissel

Barbara Taylor Sissel released her second (of many, I hope) book on Kindle and Nook this week. The Volunteer is a compelling novel about a psychologist who's been sought out by the family of a death row inmate after he declares his wish to be voluntarily executed. Playing out alongside the heartrending plight of his wife and children is the search for the ancient Mayan artifact for which this guy was apparently willing to commit murder and the dark private history of the psychologist herself.

The author does an amazing job of first making us care about these people, pinging curiosity just enough with the mystery surrounding the codex, then pretty much tearing our hearts out with the beautifully written final chapters. She weaves the story from fine, unexpected threads. Characters are complex and thoughtful. Places are fragrant and real. Conversations ring true and meaningful. Plots unfold with startling but graceful turns. She's a terrific author I want everyone to discover -- especially readers who love issues-oriented, character driven fiction by authors like Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve.

THE VOLUNTEER is a satisfying read, and that's enough in itself, but I think book clubs will find a whole additional dimension for discussion. Beyond the big questions that gray the core topic of capital punishment, there's the complicated realm of family relationships, the definition of "the honorable thing" and whether or not it's even possible to redeem oneself by living or dying for a private cause.

This is the kind of indie fiction I'm thrilled to see: a beautifully crafted book by a creative, accomplished author. I've known Barbara for a long time and been inspired by her artistic integrity and uncompromising dedication to her craft. She's taken on the indie adventure with a profoundly healthy energy, and other indie authors would do well to follow her example.

Buy the book from B&N

Buy the book from Amazon

Read "The Volunteer" (Barbara Taylor Sissel is an indie author who's doing it right)

Barbara Taylor Sissel released her second (of many, I hope) book on Kindle and Nook this week. The Volunteer is a compelling novel about a psychologist who's been sought out by the family of a death row inmate after he declares his wish to be voluntarily executed. Playing out alongside the heartrending plight of his wife and children is the search for the ancient Mayan artifact for which this guy was apparently willing to commit murder and the dark private history of the psychologist herself.

The author does an amazing job of first making us care about these people, pinging curiosity just enough with the mystery surrounding the codex, then pretty much tearing our hearts out with the beautifully written final chapters. She weaves the story from fine, unexpected threads. Characters are complex and thoughtful. Places are fragrant and real. Conversations ring true and meaningful. Plots unfold with startling but graceful turns. She's a terrific author I want everyone to discover -- especially readers who love issues-oriented, character driven fiction by authors like Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve.

THE VOLUNTEER is a satisfying read, and that's enough in itself, but I think book clubs will find a whole additional dimension for discussion. Beyond the big questions that gray the core topic of capital punishment, there's the complicated realm of family relationships, the definition of "the honorable thing" and whether or not it's even possible to redeem oneself by living or dying for a private cause.

This is the kind of indie fiction I'm thrilled to see: a beautifully crafted book by a creative, accomplished author. Accessible literary fiction of quiet depth -- that's a tough sell in the present market. Midlist authors are always in the first wave of casualties when the publishing industry gets into economic funk, which is why midlist fiction -- from the readers' standpoint -- is such a Gobi desert right now. Indie ebooks by established midlist authors are a treasure trove for intelligent readers who aren't interested in the Real Housewives of Devil Wore Snooki Vampire.

I'm sad to say I don't love this cover -- I fear it won't appeal to male readers and doesn't capture the intense, clock-ticking quality of the book -- but it does fit well stylistically with other books on her web shelf. I have a lot of admiration for the decision-making process that went into it. No short cuts were taken here. BTS worked hand in hand with an artist who created a painting of a crystalized moment from the book.

This is the sort of subjective issues indie authors have to take by the horns. I've known Barbara for a long time and been inspired by her artistic integrity and uncompromising dedication to her craft. She's taken on the indie adventure with a profoundly healthy energy, and other indie authors would do well to follow her example.

Buy the book from B&N

The Girl With the Shakespeare Tattoo (finally launching my solo blog)


Finally got it together to launch the solo blog I've been working on. I'll still be blogging here at BoxOcto, but I've got a lot of stuff coming up and didn't want to be a blog hog about it.

The Girl With the Shakespeare Tattoo will feature some of the same stuff I post here -- books I love as a reader, thoughts on writing -- but more about my growing indie publishing endeavor and non sequitur artsy this and that.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The backstory on my Shakespeare tatt

As my kids were growing up, I subjected them repeatedly to the great Hamlet monologue, in which Polonius basically does a parenting core dump on his son Laertes. I know that feeling. The kid is on his way out the door. Whatever you feel wobbly about, get it in there now! Truly, it covers everything from doing your laundry on a regular basis to avoiding pre-approved credit cards.

Over the years, my son Malachi and daughter Jerusha got used to the shorthand version: "Be true." That's what I said to them as they went out to the yard to play, over to the pool on bikes, off to college in cars, onward to live their lives.

When Jerusha was eighteen, she had the entire upper third of her back bedazzled with a tattoo of a mechanical bird and an elaborately enscripted "To thine ownself be true." Not exactly where I thought we were going with the sentiment, but it's part of her now, therefore I love it.

When Jerusha left home that fall, I was working on a particularly fractious ghostwriting gig and really struggling with the choice between writing fiction for starving artist wages or ghostwriting for big bucks. She challenged me to do both. We had a long talk about the fact that artistic integrity is not something a project confers upon you, but something you must bring to every project, because it's part of you, as an artist.

She also challenges me to declare my credo in ink, as she had done, so that I could never leave it behind, but the bard would always have my back. I went for significantly smaller acreage and a less familiar image as a template. Frankly, it's not the greatest tattoo art I've ever seen, but I love the primitive Sailor Jerry style, and the artist did a nice job incorporating a small scar and birthmarks. I acknowledge that mother/daughter tatts -- well, it just doesn't get any more trailer-park-fabulous than that, but it's part of me now, as is my imperfect parenting and my inconvenient art, therefore the people who love me love it.

A quick refresher on Polonius' speech to Laertes:
Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

The girl with the Shakespeare tattoo

As my kids were growing up, I subjected them repeatedly to the great Hamlet monologue, in which Polonius basically does a parenting core dump on his son Laertes. I know that feeling. The kid is on his way out the door. Whatever you feel wobbly about, get it in there now! Truly, it covers everything from doing your laundry on a regular basis to avoiding pre-approved credit cards.

Over the years, my son Malachi and daughter Jerusha got used to the shorthand version: "Be true." That's what I said to them as they went out to the yard to play, over to the pool on bikes, off to college in cars, onward to live their lives.

When Jerusha was eighteen, she had the entire upper third of her back bedazzled with a tattoo of a mechanical bird and an elaborately enscripted "To thine ownself be true." Not exactly where I thought we were going with the sentiment, but it's part of her now, therefore I love it.

When Jerusha left home that fall, I was working on a particularly fractious ghostwriting gig and really struggling with the choice between writing fiction for starving artist wages or ghostwriting for big bucks. She challenged me to do both. We had a long talk about the fact that artistic integrity is not something a project confers upon you, but something you must bring to every project, because it's part of you, as an artist.

She also challenged me to declare my credo in ink, as she had done, so the bard would always have my back. I went for significantly smaller acreage and a less familiar image as a template. I love the primitive Sailor Jerry style, and the artist did a nice job incorporating a small scar and birthmarks. I acknowledge that mother/daughter tatts -- well, it just doesn't get any more trailer-park-fabulous than that, but it's part of me now, as is my imperfect parenting and my inconvenient art, so the people who love me love it.

A quick refresher on Polonius' speech to Laertes:
Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Note from Font de Gaume (a 16,000 year old lesson in publishing technology)

Cleaning out my office this week, I came upon a travel journal from a trip Gary and I made in 2004 to see cave paintings in southern France. I made a lot of notes the day we visited Font de Gaume, a remarkable cave filled with Magdalenian engravings and paintings from around 14 000 BC. Chisels, flints, scrapers, blades, and other items found in the cave indicate occupation since the age of the Neanderthals.

The young woman who guided the cave tour capably  chatted with the small group in French, English and German. She was incredibly knowledgeable about every inch of the cave, pointing out the transition over the centuries from crudely etched line figures and symbols to fully fleshed scenes which had been essentially airbrushed with blowpipes. Eventually there was perspective, shading, character and movement.

The tour guide said something amazingly profound, which I wrote down word for word and have never forgotten: "When Picasso comes to Font de Gaume, he is to say, 'I never did invented Cubism!' In art, there is no change in ability. Only in technology. In art, there is no evolution. Only choices."

I scrawled this down in an Oxford graph-lined notebook. Now I have a notebook computer that's roughly the same size. The tools of our trade have radically changed in the last ten years, but my reasons for writing are the same. I'm trying to make the best use of all the gadgetry without letting it distract me from the cave artist within.

Author Sherry Jones reads from her forthcoming novel "Four Sisters, All Queens"

Story time! Below, the fabulous Sherry Jones reads from her forthcoming novel, Four Sisters, All Queens, which promises to be another well told, impeccably researched story.

From the flap:
From the award-winning author of the controversial international bestseller The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel that chronicles the lives of four sisters, all daughters of Beatrice of Provence — all of whom became queens in medieval Europe. When Beatrice of Savoy, countess of Provence, sends her four beautiful, accomplished daughters to become queens, she admonishes them: Family comes first. As a result, the daughters — Marguerite, queen of France; Eleanor, queen of England; Sanchia, queen of Germany; and Beatrice, queen of Sicily — work not only to expand their husbands’ empires and broker peace between nations, but also to bring the House of Savoy to greater power and influence than before. Their father’s death, however, tears the sisters apart, pitting them against one another for the legacy each believes rightfully hers — Provence itself.

Told from alternating points of view of all four queens, and set in the tumultuous thirteenth century, this is a tale of greed, lust, ambition, and sibling rivalry on a royal scale, exploring the meaning of true power and bringing to life four of the most celebrated women of their time—each of whom had an impact on the history of Europe.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is it time for writers to rethink attitudes about agents? (And, dare I suggest, agents rethink writers?)

I laughed a lot when I saw this photo from last week's Frankfurt Book Fair. With 7,300 exhibitors and almost 300K attendees at more than 3,000 events, I understand the need for organization, and I don't know if there was a special segregated potty for writers... but I doubt it. In any case (without even addressing the fact that the agent is assumed to be a man) the sign makes a pretty potent icon for the industry dynamic that's arisen in the last few decades.

When the advent of the home computer made the physical process of writing a book infinitely more achievable, a tsunami of aspiring writers started pursuing literary representation, which cast authors as beggars and agents as choosers, bringing about a massive shift in the power balance. I think indie publishing is now shifting power back toward authors - if authors are willing to grow a pair and do their own dirty work.

True or False?

Agents should champion books based on literary quality, not income potential.
True, in that perfect world where lions lie down with lambs and ice cream is an excellent source of calcium. I mean, yeah, but reality check that. Agents are supporting their families, just as writers are. And overall commercial success makes it possible for them to devote time to occasional windmill-tilting.

False, when it gets to the point that easy-selling crap completely trumps literary quality and gluts the market to the exclusion of the low to moderate (read "midlist") moneymakers, and that is the direction a lot of agents are going as the industry sphincter continues to tighten.

Agents are the best gatekeepers/tastemakers.
True, in that agents are (for the most part) educated, intelligent, bookish folk who do have insight into what readers want and what publishers will pay for.

False, in that marketability has become the primary (if not sole) criterion, not only for taking on new authors, but for strongly influencing the revision of manuscripts, and too many supplicant authors are willing to turn their backs on their own artistic vision in a desperate attempt to win that agency contract. ("What doth a man profit," Jesus asked, "if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?") In a biz as capricious as publishing, you need intelligent guidance, but shared craft values and a common vision for the author's work are imperative.

Agents know more than authors about how to write books.
True, when the author is an amateur, in which case the author does not need an agent, the author needs a good critique group.

False, the rest of the time. A terrific agent excels in the art and craft of sales. A terrific author excels in the art and craft of writing. In that perfect lion-lays-down-with-ice-cream world, the two come together with mutual respect in an equal partnership that is peaceful and prosperous for all concerned.

Must end with my favorite Mitchell and Webb bit, which should be required viewing for any author before s/he rewrites based on agent input. (I know I've shown you this before, but it bears repeating. Or don't! Yeah?)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Can Stories Heal Us?


One of the things I have enjoyed about working with novelist Barry Burnett is the way in which his novel, HOW TO LIVE FOREVER, makes me think about all different kinds of things. For instance, in an earlier post, I discussed Barry's thoughts on editors and editing, and there was some compelling discussion about the editor's role in shaping a book.

Recently I was pondering the concept of how books help us to connect with one another and better understand one another. I was also pondering my long held belief that laughter heals, and wondering why I think so. So I asked Barry, who in addition to being a writer is a family practice doctor. I wanted to know what a physician felt about whether books help us connect, and yes, whether laughter heals. Here is Barry's take on those subjects.

1. Do you think stories have healing effects or properties, as in “stories help us connect,” etc.?

Of course, as a doc and a writer I’d want to believe that, but I actually do. Where I start is with the notion that fiction helps us live, however briefly, alternate lives, and live them in a purposefully imaginary way that is usually not psychologically destabilizing. I figure that helps the reader understand ‘alternate people’ — that is, everyone else — which could certainly lay the groundwork for connection. Is that related to that Forster advice to “Only connect”? I think so: writer to book to reader, reader to book to life.

On a flakier level, I also believe that the music of language is primal and can motivate us in wonderful and not-so-wonderful ways. I’ve certainly had the experience of being trapped, like Fforde’s Tuesday Next, in a bummer of a book, and I’m taken by, say, Cormac McCarthy’s skill and obsession down a road I would not choose and so struggle to escape. Does that mean writers have the responsibility to write positive, healing stories? No way — too close control will destroy the magic, and then there’s the value of fantasy, of any kind of release. But as an optimist with a health message it can be a struggle, first to write something that fits the moment of the scene, then to twist it, just a bit, to your own external and non-dramatic agenda.

2. This book is a comedy. Was that planned? Is comedy hard to write?

I wanted to write a lighter book, and a few non-Boulder friends, on hearing I was trying to put together a Boulder serial, pitched for something satiric and harsh, a total take-down on cults, affluence, and pretensions. I encouraged them to fire up Scrivener and go for it, but felt I lacked a set of knives that sharp. Or rather knew that that sort of carving, no matter what evil fun, would preclude the attachment (there’s ‘connection’ again) I can’t help feeling for even the worst of my characters.

Still… I did have some slightly-evil fun. And most of the comedy just happened; I can sometimes snap off a good line, but usually watch jokes grow slowly. A few years ago I heard Nelson DeMille mention how readers are surprised he isn’t a brilliant come-back artist like his heroes, explaining that he’s got all afternoon to work on an ‘instant’ reply. Finally, the characters in How To Live Forever sort of frame the comedy, and luckily they’re funny folks.

3. Do you believe laughter heals?

Yes. To egregiously misquote, it knits up the wounds of all those slings and arrows, and that’s got to be good. Excluding, possibly, the harshest sarcasm, humor seems the very nature of lightness and resilience, a few of the ‘good-attitude’ qualities that seem to keep people going through all sorts of shit, medical and otherwise. Now, is there something in addition, like psychoneuroimmuniology, in which a state of mind creates a state of body (more resistant, with better bad-cell screening and internal defenses) by a known and identified pathway? Sounds good to me, but that pathway remains debatable. It would be nice to have a firm rationale to shore up the impressions, but regardless, my impression is that laughter improves life in manifold ways, and duration may be one of them.

4. Why write a novel that also offers a healthy living philosophy instead of writing a guide or self-help title?

I’m a reader as well as a writer, and when I lay back to read at the end of the day, self-help books can make my eyes simply glaze over. Not that they don’t work, but for me they’ve only worked in a sit-up, pencil-in-your-teeth, underlining kind of way. That is, when they really ARE work.

Now, that was harsh, and from the supposedly non-harsh guy. Let me try again. I think we learn better by observing — best, by participating, as in connecting — than by being told. Fiction totally fits the bill. At least for fiction types like me. For example, I live in the West, where water rights matter, and I never would have tracked that ongoing debate if I hadn’t been grounded in the information that so sneakily seeped out of Jose Mondragon’s flooded fields and into my brain while reading The Milagro Beanfield War.

5. Is writing really therapeutic and what makes it so?

Writing can definitely be a comfort, and one that takes unexpected turns, and those turns, with a few exceptions, won’t land you in jail. Comfortable, lively, not too dangerous — like a great journey in itself. Going places, spiritual places, places of the heart and mind. There’s also the pleasure (and pain) of polishing, and the joy of discovering new things about yourself and, thank you Wikipedia, the world. No wonder I’m hooked.

Weekly Goals: They're Not Just for NaNoWriMo

With my deadline looming, it's time to put the hammer down on an ambitious goal: finish the draft before next Monday.

I've always been a big proponent of breaking down huge, overwhelming tasks into manageable chunks with monthly, weekly, and at times daily goals. These goals needn't be back-breakers--indeed, if you want writing to be a sustainable lifestyle and no just an annual National Novel Writing Month binge that leaves you with bleeding eyeballs, carpal tunnel, and an aversion to writing for the remainder of the year, you'll need to come up with a plan that you can live with longterm.

Once I've finished the early, exploratory work on a book and am getting down to completion mode, I try to tack on just a little bit more than the lazy side of my brain thinks it can do for my goal-setting. Then I write down the projected page or word count goals (Since my current publisher uses computer word counts rather than page counts, I've recently switched over to daily word count goals to keep myself from "cheating" with a lot of chapter breaks and other white space) on my handy-dandy, low-tech calendar. In ink. (Gasp!)

Blowing a daily goal bugs me, but it's bound to happen sometimes. Blowing a weekly goal calls for a serious course correction (i.e. giving up evening relaxation time or weekends) when I'm on a tight deadline. When the deadline's not quite so daunting, it's the monthly goals that I adhere to most closely.

I know other writers who procrastinate 'til the last possible moment, then blaze through the draft in a period of weeks (or even days.) This is the only way that works for them. Goal-setting is the only way that works for me.

So what's your goal for this week? And do you use goal-setting as a regular strategy?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Storms, science, and breathing life into the written man

Back in 2006, when I started researching Hurricane Katrina media coverage for The Hurricane Lover, hurricane specialist Dr. Jack Beven started showing up a lot. A calm, knowledgeable voice in the storm of hurricane hype. I searched out his home page, was intrigued, and whipped him an email. He graciously agreed to spend time on the phone with me, reality checking my science, educating me on the lingo and logistics, and bolstering my portrayal of my protagonist, a meteorologist whose specialty is storm behavior.

Of course, my character is what you’d expect a fictional character to be: brilliant, kind, good-humored, and slightly too sexy to be a geek — all of which Dr. Beven seems to be, but in real guy terms, which means he's educated, well-spoken, basically cool, and way too busy for the sort of adventures my character gets drawn into. Dr. Beven is also a Dr. Who enthusiast, which made me laugh out loud, because in the book, the meteorologist's lover collects Dr. Who memorabilia.

I kept trying to gently goad him off topic, just so I could hear him talk. I was listening for jargon, cadence, motivation; looking for the psychology of the storm. But Dr. Jack Beven was not easily goaded off topic. He remained imperturbably focused on one thing: the science of the storm. If I knew if I made that singular focus foundational to my character’s character, he would be invested with the one thing that makes a written man breathe, the quality that makes Dr. Beven such a compelling and charming character himself: authenticity.

Like that George Burns zinger: “The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Friday, October 14, 2011

"You Must Be SO Disciplined"

I get this comment all the time from people whose fantasy is working in their sparkling, perfectly-organized home on their own schedule. They love to imagine a life with no boss to crack the whip, no rude, annoying, or distracting co-workers, lunch out with friends whenever they feel like it, and the chance to take the day off when the mood strikes.

But they have a lot more trouble imagining the part where you actually put your patootie in the chair and write for hours on end. Day after day, with nobody there to tell you when you have to. So they build me up to be some paragon of self-discipline.

Which is really pretty funny, since I'm definitely not. I'm frequently disorganized (you should see my office), always behind on housework, and have very little willpower when it comes to exercise or ice cream. Because having the neatest house, the most uncluttered junk drawer, and the most toned body out there don't matter so much to me.

But other things do. A lot. And among that small constellation (which includes family, friends, my animals, and reading) is writing. Crafting the best stories I can, with the most memorable characters. Emotionally connecting with my readers on some level. Meeting my deadlines (because when I give my word, that matters, too) and being able to honestly tell my editor, my fans, and especially myself at the end of the day, "I really loved this story."

It's not discipline (though I'll be working through the weekend again, and I've been putting in some long hours). It's a choice. And just saying that it's your choice will never be enough.

Instead, you have to prove it with your time and sweat and sacrifice. You have to act, not just dream.

But that's not really discipline; it's love.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"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 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.

Author Laura Harrington on Anna Karenina and the seductive wonderland of social media

Novelist/playwright Laura Harrington, author of the lovely Alice Bliss stops by with some thoughts on "How re-reading Anna Karenina – and a vacation – brought me back to writing and helped put the seductive wonderland of social media in perspective", as part of her continuing ponder: Why read?

I’ve just returned from my vacation. A real vacation. Two weeks in my favorite foreign country. Where we chose to have no phone, no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no media or media devices of any kind. The one hotel where we found a TV in our room we unplugged it and turned its face to the wall.

Why did I need to take such extreme measures?

A little background: My debut novel launched on June 2nd. My publisher encouraged me to get in the game with Twitter and Facebook. I knew so little about either that they might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I gathered my courage and asked a few writers what they had done that was useful during their book launch. The lovely Beth Hoffman not only sat me down and told me, yes, you have to use Twitter, but she was kind enough to tell me how to get started and introduced me to some other writers. So round about May 1st I started to impersonate an extrovert and began to learn how to use both Twitter and Facebook.

From May 1st to September 3rd when I left on vacation, I felt like I was taking several self-directed graduate level courses on social media. I found wonderful teachers in the blogosphere, I read every how-to list out there. It was fascinating for the most part, all consuming all the time, and I started to feel like I just might be getting the hang of it by mid-summer. I was making friends, connecting with other writers, reading several blogs, getting to know the wonderful world of book bloggers, and basically just falling down the rabbit hole of social media all day every day.

My publisher seemed happy with me; my book seemed to be doing reasonably well, (who can tell?) I was having fun. Great, right? Then I started to notice that I wasn’t spending as much time outside as I usually do during the summer. How was it possible I was feeling the pull of the computer more strongly than the pull of the beach or my bike? My reading was falling off; it was hard for a book to hold my attention. I was becoming forgetful; I was often doing so many tasks at once that I would forget what it was that I had initially set out to do. I was distracted and distractible. I was beginning to feel a little lost.

At first I had been upset about leaving my 2nd book behind while I helped promote my 1st book. Now I wasn’t even thinking about my 2nd book. This was troubling if I stopped to think about it, but at that point I was so fully engaged with my fast-twitch world, that I wasn’t thinking about it.

I decided that my vacation, the first time we’d taken two weeks in more than a decade, would be the turning point. Pre-vacation would be the waning days of my social media free for all. Post-vacation, my 2nd book would be my priority, social media and book promotion would be relegated to the 5 – 6 pm time slot, managed and scheduled, just like the pros advise.

So what does all of this have to do with reading?

I spent less time thinking about what clothes I would need than what books I would bring. I packed the new translation of Anna Karenina, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth. My husband had Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and William Trevor’s Death in Summer, just in case I ran out of things to read.

How would my mind, which had begun to feel a little dumb and slow and at the same time twitchy and impatient, respond to this cold turkey approach? Could I actually settle down and pay attention? Would I secretly be looking for internet cafes, scheming to check in and make sure I wasn’t missing anything?

We were on the Atlantic Coast of France, on the Arcachon Basin and the Ile de Re. Both of these places have beautiful bays full of oysters and long, long stretches of bold Atlantic beach. We parked our car at the hotel and got on bikes, books and beach towels in our baskets, and headed out for each day’s adventure. It was a wonderfully physical vacation, as different as possible from sitting indoors in front of a computer. Biking, especially on the Ile de Re, was often a peak experience as we cycled through the center of the island, surrounded by bird sanctuaries, vineyards, salt farms, horses, sheep, goats, and views to the ocean and the bay. The air was perfumed with herbs: lavender and rosemary and fennel, as well as late blooming broom, ripening grapes, newly mown hay, pine, and the wrack from the edge of the sea.

We took our books everywhere: to breakfast in the morning, to the beach, to whichever café we would choose for our mid-morning coffee or our late afternoon aperitif. And reading picked me up and challenged me and enchanted me and slowed me down and brought me back to myself. We were living almost entirely outdoors and at the pace of someone walking or riding a 3-speed bike. I was no longer racing, no longer juggling multiple tasks. I was alive and present to the current physical moment and activity of my day as well as the unfolding story of Anna Karenina. And what a book to choose to slow me down and bring me back to thinking; a book that is so stuffed full of ideas, one marvels at Tolstoy’s ability to embody them all. A book that wrestles with all of the big questions: how to live, how to be useful, how to love, what is love, what is marriage, what is a soul, what does my soul require of me?

I would be pedaling along thinking of Anna and Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Stiva, so alive to his appetites. The world of the book was deep enough to captivate my mind and my imagination, so that I rode and mused, and mused and swam, and lived inside this book for all of its 819 pages.

I was living in Tolstoy’s world and at the same time, living deeply inside my own mind for the first time in a long time. There was a constant sense of deepening: of characters, of story, of questions. Is this, after all, what great literature has the potential to do? To bring us back to our own minds, to allow us to rediscover our true selves, to ask us to think more slowly and more fully, to remind us of the larger questions that our lives and our stories can wrestle with and embody?

I was changed by Anna Karenina, I was changed by the simple act of reading, changed by a new environment, a different way of life. But it was reading that truly brought me back home to myself: as a reader, as a writer, and reconnected me to my soul’s purpose.

Will I be able to hold on to this new state of mind? Will I be able to balance the quiet demands of writing with the livelier demands of social media? Can the two states of mind co-exist, or do they have to be separated by a firewall?

How do you balance your writing and social media life? How do you carve out the time to keep the quiet places quiet, to honor the need to live and listen and write inside those silences?

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Epic rap battles: Seuss vs. Shakespeare



Nuff said.

Buy This Book: Jewball by Neal Pollack

A while back, I posted about Neal Pollack's decision to go indie with his forthcoming novel, Jewball, which forthcame today! Congratulations, Neal! I read the smart, funny teaser chapter and can't wait to read the rest. (It's burning a hole in my Kindle as we speak.)

"This isn't a book that's going to move via traditional channels," Pollack says on his website. "Its success won't and can't be easily quantified. But if the Internet does what it does best--spread the word about things that are awesome--then Jewball stands a chance in the glutted digital marketplace."

From the metaphysical flap:
From the bestselling satirist and memoirist Neal Pollack comes a funny, gritty historical noir about a tough Jew on the brink and about a great American game coming into its own.

1937. The gears of world war have begun to grind, but Inky Lautman, star point guard for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, America's greatest basketball team, is dealing with his own problems. His coach has unwittingly incurred a massive gambling debt to the German-American Bund. His main basketball rival is self-righteously leading public protests against the rise of homegrown American fascism. And his girlfriend wants him to join a Jewish student organization that's all talk and no action. It's more than Inky can deliver. He just wants to play ball and occasionally beat people up for money. The tides of history are flowing against a guy like Inky. Can he make his free throws and still make it through the season alive?

This...is Jewball.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Men and the art of motorcycle maintenance (or “Why I love this bird”)

Originally posted on Boxing the Octopus, 9/7/07


Shortly after I posted about risk-takery on Wed morning, my son Malachi walked into Starbucks with his girlfriend, a voluptuous psych major who actually seems to get his sense of humor (a testament to the towering abilities of the psych professors of Central Florida.) Gary and I were doing a fast latte and email check on our way out of town.

I said, “Hey, Spike. How are you today?” He responded, “I am astonishingly well.” And he was. Gary had trucked him and his wounded motorbike around Orlando in search of repairs the previous day, the VPM had driven over from Tampa for a pleasant meet the parents over Mexican food, and Malachi was preparing to meet his fate as a UPS box hefter, a job that might be less than edifying on an artistic level, but will fund his travels to Asia and Europe this year.

Sitting across from him at Starbucks, I observed a happy man. He had wheels. He had a woman. He had work. His life, for this brief and shining moment at least, was working on a mechanical level. When we parted in the parking lot a little while later, I was weeping about this, and thinking I was crying because I wanted him to remain my baby, he put his arms around me and said quietly, “I love you, Mom. I’m still your kid in a lot of ways.”

Meanwhile, holding down the fort here at home, our daughter Jerusha was apparently feeling the need to spread her wings, as it were. For three years, she’s been talking about getting a tattoo of a mechanical bird on her back. The idea presented itself to her in a dream when she was fifteen, and she fixated on it, but I said, “Absolutely not. A tattoo is an adult decision. If you end up regretting it, I’ll be responsible because I gave permission.”

Now she’s eighteen. My permission is no longer required. (Neither is my blessing, so I appreciated that she was up front enough to keep me in the information loop.) With the droning folks conveniently out of town, she drove down to Sacred Heart Studio (“best tats in Houston”, according to her exhaustive research) and talked with a guy named Grimm ((gulp!)) about the design. In an effort to assuage my fears, she sent me a link to his page on the Sacred Heart website:
…I am an artist first and foremost, and then a tattooist, so my style isn't what most consider traditional tattooing. I like rendering things in unusual combinations of color and like my tattoos to look like paintings rather than tattoos…I believe a tattoo should be a reflection of an individuals spirit and perspective on life not mine. Therefore I gather lots of information as well as references from a client when I'm working on a piece.

Decepticons Rule!

Now, I don’t know what “decepticons” are, and I try not to render hasty judgments about the maturity level of people who state that things “rule”, except in cases where this person is jamming a permanently disfiguring ink-loaded needle into the baby soft flesh that was knit in the foundry of my womb. I was not greatly comforted by Grimm’s artistic manifesto. I did look at photos of his other work, however, and he is an amazing artist. He spoke at length with Jerusha about her vision and looked over some Victorian art samples she’d collected, then spent the following day free-handing a design.

As Gary and I drove across the Florida panhandle, I received a text message from Jerusha’s friend Jess: “Tattoo is underway and she’s taking it like a trooper.” A few grainy photos made their way through our leaky cell phone signal. We got the general idea. It was not small. It was not pale. Or fragile. Or temporary. I sent Colleen and the other midwives an email from a Starbucks somewhere in Alabama: “It’s a whole lotta tattoo.” Ever the pragmatist, Colleen urged perspective: “It’s not a swastika, or a 666, or anything that will show under an interview suit.” (Lord, I can’t wait till her kid turns eighteen…)

Grimm’s opus was still swathed in gauze when Gary and I got home last night. Jerusha brought the after care instructions up to my bathroom, where I peeled away the bandage and gently washed away the dried blood, spare ink, and surgical tape stickum. The bird emerged in stunning detail. Spring-loaded wings, hinges, gears, tiny cogs and rivets, even a little mechanical heart. It’s good art. Astonishingly good. Gorgeously rendered, minutely nuanced, placed with enormous sensitivity to the pepper of freckles I kissed the day my daughter -- the child of an artist and an airplane mechanic -- was born.

This tattoo, which I thought was about rebellion, is in fact about resilience and maturity, the beauty of strength and the strength of beauty. It’s about life and art and love all working on a mechanical level.

Originally posted on Boxing the Octopus, 9/7/07

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