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

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.

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

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.

Monday, October 24, 2011

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

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.

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

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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

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?

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

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? Jewball.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Common Peer Review Mistakes and their Overlap with Critique Groups

While some of the common "mistakes" in this video are specific to an oral critique, paired peer situation, there are others that are common to any critiquing relationship. Are you a Picky Patty, a Mean Margaret, or a Defensive Dave? Have you ever been critiqued by a Pushy Paula or by Jean the Generalizer?

Conversely, what characterizes effective writing feedback? How do you know when a critique partnership is working, and when is it time to let go? And what are your best tips for handling writing advice?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

What are you trying to prove?

So somebody sold a thousand books for 99 cents. (Reality check: they made $350 less their expenses, not a solid grand.) Somebody else has 5K followers on twitter. (Reality check: here's some sobering stats that might cause you to rethink the actual value you're getting in return for the time you're investing there.)

We're all trying to get a handle on the brave new world of publishing, and the numbers can be daunting. The squawkers who claim to have all the answers are loud and plentiful. We have a natural tendency to look at author acquaintances and feel like we're getting left in the dust as everyone else revs up the engine and blasts off down the highway. I think it's imperative that we mentally separate PR that has actual value (in that it sells books and enhances author brand) from PR that sucks money and time away from writing and funnels it into the activity of trying to prove you're a writer.

This week, I think I'll focus on doing what I want to do. What everyone else is doing/ getting/ tweeting is irrelevant to me, my career, my direction, and my artistic spirit. If I quietly write the books I want to write and bravely present them to the world in a way that feels organic to the project, authentic to me as an artist, and appealing to the audience who's open to it, my integrity stays intact and the rewards will be real and satisfying - artistically, emotionally and financially. It won't matter to me if another author zooms off down the highway without noticing that I'm happy.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Buy This Book: Love at First Bark by Julie Klam

The wonderfully funny author Julie Klam won me over with You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, a hilarious love song to Boston terriers, and Please Excuse My Daughter, a memoir of her privileged upbringing and stormy young adulthood.

Coming to bookstores this month, Love at First Bark: How Saving a Dog Can Somehow Help You Save Yourself is about the alternately hilarious and heart-ripping task of rescuing dogs, who have a habit of turning around to either bite you or rescue you right back.

Visit Julie's website here and check out the great trailer.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Buy This Book: Crazy For Trying

I recently downloaded and read the Kindle version of Crazy For Trying, by Boxocto's own Joni Rodgers, and although it's been a while since she wrote it, I can say for sure that it still delivers. It's a story that is as big and wide and gorgeous as its Big Sky country setting. It is a punch to the solar plexus, unflinching on so many levels. Troubled and witty, and sometimes irreverent, it is the truly courageous exploration of one young woman’s journey through heartbreaking circumstances of loss and abandonment, of vulnerability and self doubt, to full-blown, joyous self-discovery.

Tulsa Bitters, the daughter of a famous, recently-deceased feminist, arrives in Helena, Montana with a dented heart, twenty bucks and a couple of guitars. She wants to hide and life gives her a plan, a way to do it in plain sight as “VA Lones”, Helena’s first female deejay. It’s the job she was born for, one she loves. Soon she meets Mac, a guy twice her age, and she loves him, too. As Tulsa, or Tuppy-my-guppy, as her famous mother affectionately called her, she might have lacked the confidence to take on such a job and the lover, but as VA, she can be bold--sort of. The relationship between Mac and Tulsa is no typical May-December affair. It’s a coming of age, a coming to terms for them both. It’s tender and tough; it takes side roads that twist off the heart’s ledge. A way is lost and then found only to drop into the dark night. A small town watches, or at times what is a full and colorful cast of players mixes in. As the reader, you become entangled, engrossed.

Joni’s voice is unique, a wry and beautiful gift, that breathes life into characters and a plot that is as vividly drawn and compelling as it is passionate. The ending is up for grabs. You might be surprised; you just might find yourself laughing through your tears. For more about Joni, visit her website.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

"Three Stories From My Life" (Go with God, Steve Jobs.)

Go with God, Steve Jobs

Whether you're a "fanboy" (or girl) or a detractor, you can't deny the tremendous influence of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, whose death was reported on October 5th. Nor would many argue the point that Jobs was a creative giant.

While reading his obituary over at CNN's site, I was particular struck by this quote from a 2005 commencement speech, given at Stanford University:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

True of so many things in life, these words seem especially applicable to creative endeavors. How often do we struggle never knowing whether we are destined to nosedive into disaster or exceed beyond our wildest imaginings? How many failures seem permanent, only to prove stepping stones to an eventual success we never could have defined at the time? Only our capacity to trust keeps us creating, our ability to believe that some agency outside our understanding will break through, like the light that pierces the darkest cloud bank.

Thanks for this reminder, Steve. Of all the many, many gifts you've left us (including the computer I use to write these words) this wisdom may be most important.

Now let's get out there, everybody, and do our work, and let the universe, the muse, or whatever you want to call it worry about the rest.

Shana Galen Contest: We Have a Winner!

Congratulations to Pat Moore, winner of the drawing for an autographed copy of Shana Galen's Lord & Lady Spy! Thanks so much to everyone who stopped by Boxing the Octopus to enter or just to say hi in the comments!

Monday, October 03, 2011

Free Book Giveaway: 3 Questions with Shana Galen

Special Instruction for the Drawing: We'll be choosing one lucky reader from among the commenters below to win a free, autographed copy of Shana Galen's wonderful new Lord & Lady Spy! We'll be announcing the winner on Wednesday at noon (Central Daylight Time.)

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to be part of a signing with historical romance author Shana Galen—and even more privileged to purchase and read her brand new release, Lord & Lady Spy.

And it was fun, readers, the most fun I've had with a historical romance in eons. Fresh and exciting, it had crisp repartee and a number of laugh out loud moments, but most of all, the story and the characters had heart.

So aside from recommending it like mad to everybody I know, I also asking Shana to stop by Boxing the Octopus for the traditional Three Questions.

BtO: Hello, Shana, and thanks for joining us. One of the things that stood out to me was your ability to blend seemingly modern plot elements (i.e. the Mr. and Mrs. Smith-like set-up, where each member of a pair of married spies knows nothing of the other's secret life) with a more traditional British setting. What gave you the idea to liven up the Regency romance with this idea? Could your secret past as a writer of contemporary chick lit have anything to do with it?

SG: Thank you so much for having me. I try to read the blog whenever I have a free moment and really enjoy it.

I don’t think my not-so-secret past as a contemporary author had as much to do with the idea for Lord and Lady Spy as did desperation for an idea for my next book. I was thinking and thinking and nothing was coming to me. One evening I was flipping channels and saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith on cable and started thinking, what if the year wasn’t 2005 but 1815? And what if the hero and heroine weren’t assassins but spies? Unemployed spies, since Napoleon was captured in 1815. I got chills and knew I finally had my next idea! Most of my books have a lot of action, and I’ve written heroes who were spies before, so that part wasn’t a huge leap. Writing a romance with a married couple was quite a challenge. I’ll get into that more below.

BtO: I recognized so many accurate historical details, I instinctively trusted that you'd done your homework. To what extent was the spy-related background really rooted in fact?

SG: There were actually spies during the Peninsular Wars, but they weren’t very well known. We tend to think of spying as dangerous and sexy. In the nineteenth century, spies were considered cowardly. A real man didn’t sneak around but fought in the open. So most of the spy-related parts of the novel were pure fiction. Two real people who did influence how I wrote the spy sections were George Scovill and Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Scovill cracked Napoleon’s Paris cipher for Wellington. His story is told in The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes. Elliott was a British courtesan living in Paris during the French Revolution. She smuggled messages from Marie Antoinette to her sympathizers in Austria and saved several royalist sympathizers from being captured and imprisoned by the French Revolutionary government. A great book titled My Lady Scandalous tells her story.

BtO: For all the derring-do and funny moments (love your sense of humor!) what really made this novel stand out for me was the root cause of Sophie and Adrian's emotional estrangement, the heart-wrenching loss of three pregnancies to miscarriage. What made you decide to add such a serious issue to the story?

SG: I was struggling with the conflict between Adrian and Sophia for a long time, and I needed to come up with some reason they were estranged to make the book move forward. During this time, I suffered a miscarriage. It was my first pregnancy, and it completely devastated me. When I was able to get back to fiction writing, I started thinking about Sophia again, and I realized infertility/miscarriage could be one reason for a marital estrangement. Also, writing about miscarriage gave me a way to address a topic that isn’t covered in many romance novels. And yet it’s something many, many women deal with. I know so many friends who have suffered miscarriages. I thought my readers could relate to a woman who struggled with pregnancy loss.

I did face some initial reservations from publishing industry people because “miscarriage isn’t sexy.” But my response was that I thought readers could handle a more complex emotional subject without feeling it made the book less romantic or the sexual relationship between the hero and heroine less fulfilling.

BtO: I'm really sorry to hear of your personal loss, but I agree that readers will be very touched, as I was, by reading of an issue that impacts so many.

Is there anything else you'd like us to know about the book or future releases?

SG: I do have a book coming out in February. It’s the third in my Sons of the Revolution series. The first two were The Making of a Duchess and The Making of a Gentleman. We’ve been going back and forth about the title, so at this point, I’m not even sure what that’s going to be. It was The Making of a Rogue and then Once a Rogue and then The Dread Pirate’s Bride. It might be something else next week! But we’ll get it figured out soon.

Also, because of the great reader-feedback, my editor and I are discussing making Lord and Lady Spy a series. I’m currently contracted to write a new series, and the first book in that will be out in Fall 2012, but somewhere between books 2 and 3, there may be another Lord and Lady Spy book.

BtO: Yea! Glad to hear that! And I almost forgot the obligatory BtO bonus question. What are you reading and loving these days?

SG: I just turned a book in today, so I haven’t been doing much reading. I did finish Ashley March’s Romancing the Countess and really enjoyed it. Next up is Sophie Jordan’s Vanish, and I have your own Colleen Thompson’s Phantom of the French Quarter on my nightstand too. I am really looking forward to taking a week off and reading.

BtO: Thanks so much for visiting, Shana (and enjoy Phantom!) We're so glad to share Lord & Lady Spy with readers—who might be interested to know that the e-book version (the book is also available in paperback) is now on sale for the low price of $2.99. Score!

SG: Thank you for having me! I want to offer a signed copy of Lord and Lady Spy to one person who comments today. I’ll check in later today and reply to any comments or questions.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

How to Find a Story and Write It: David Rocklin on his debut novel, THE LUMINIST

Friends, sometimes the most wonderful things come over the transom: it was a year ago when I was contacted by debut author David Rocklin, who asked me if would be willing to reading his novel, THE LUMINIST, and blurb it.  I was, after the first few sentences, not only willing--I was elated.  Set in colonial Ceylon, this beautiful, haunting story chronicles the unlikely relationship between a poor servant and the grieving woman of privilege who employs him, who struggle together to understand the mysterious and as yet "unfixed" art of photography, and so find a way to halt time, stop hurt, and capture the fleeting essence of life.  I asked David to share with us some of the background to this complex, wonderful book; read on, and then go and grab yourself a copy.  You will be, simply put, inspired.

David, there is a wonderful story behind the birth of THE LUMINIST. Can you share with our readers how you came to write the book?

In early 2004, my wife and I went to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They were exhibiting photographs from the earliest days of the art, including a number from Julia Margaret Cameron. Now, I’m not a photographer – I’m the one most likely to stare at your camera, waiting for it to tell me how to use it, when you ask me to take a picture of you and your family. I’d never heard of Ms. Cameron, or her work. I am, though, very visual. Everything I’ve written had its start not as a theme or a character, but as an image that I could not shake, that hinted at a larger story in its peripheries.

The photographs I saw that day really moved me. Those faces were at once immediate and long-gone. They had a lost quality to them when viewed from a distance; here, after all, was a wall of people who died before I’d ever encountered them. Up close, though, I saw something else entirely: individual moments of whimsy, contemplation, mourning, a child’s exasperation at having to wear wings. The first image I encountered, of a woman half-shrouded in shadow, was stunning. Her face emerged from the dark into a muted light. She was unreadable. The model, as it turned out, was Julia Jackson, the mother of Virginia Woolf (I wrote a blog about that image, and the serendipity that caused it to become the cover of the novel:

After the Getty, I did a bit of research on Ms. Cameron. She was unique for her time, a Victorian woman who obsessively pursued this then-unknown art and science despite all societal expectations or barriers. She was ambitious and a skilled self-promoter unafraid to approach the great men of her era in furtherance of her portraiture. The likes of Charles Darwin, Lord Tennyson, Robert Carlisle and Sir John Herschel all sat for her, enduring the hours of stillness necessitated by the technology of the time. She expressed herself via recreation of biblical scenes and her time in Ceylon, when many who introduced themselves to this new medium did so mainly to preserve family in life or in death. She saw something like prayer in her work, and saw possibilities to rival painting.

I found a quote of hers: “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me…” I read that she lost a child shortly after birth. Her quote took on a newly relentless, tragic meaning. An image of her started to form, but from a vantage point outside of her, as if she were observed from under the cloak of an old camera.

That’s where the story started. What transpired is completely fictionalized, but my jumping-off point began the day I met her at the Getty.

One of the things I love about THE LUMINIST is the sustained and, yes, luminous quality of the prose. I remember thinking when I first began reading the book: "There is no way he can keep this up--every sentence is a miracle." And yet you do keep it up. Writing being as difficult as it is, how do you keep yourself inspired, day after day, at the level of the sentence?

That means the world to me, coming from you. Other than a precious few, most of us who write do so in the nooks and crannies between jobs, children, spouses, commitments and overall sleep deprivation! It’s an enormous challenge to pick up the thread of the day before, to find that emotional level once again, when so much of life has likely intervened in the hours/days since the last time. If this novel works sentence to sentence, page to page (and I’m truly grateful that you feel the way you do about the novel), I think it’s because I really lived with this world for quite a while before starting the book. I realized early on that even if I travelled to India, I could not find the setting for the book. Ceylon no longer exists as it was. More importantly, the moment that really drives everything in “The Luminist” no longer exists: that moment before the first photographic image existed, before that instant of fast-passing life could be held still. And then, it could.

I realized that to make the story work as I hoped to, I needed to do my research, become as familiar as possible with the rims and borders of the world the characters inhabited, and then imagine the granular aspects of that world into existence. Once I was able to see it – being visual again – I could live with it day and night, even as I was reading a bedtime story to my little one, or paying the bills. It never left.

I know you are working on a new book. Can you talk about the process of transitioning from a first novel to a second? How have you found that process? What have you learned and carried forward into your new work, and what do you find must be discovered afresh?

The transition from “The Luminist” to the new one (tentatively “The Daylight Language”) is a bit unique, in that the story suggested itself from one of Ms. Cameron’s photographs. I found it during the research phase for Luminist and set it aside, because I knew right away that it was going to become something for me down the road. The photograph depicts an Abyssinian (now Ethiopa) boy of about 8, in traditional garb, seated in a manner that speaks of tribal royalty. Yet his is one of the most bereft expressions you can imagine. After I had completed “The Luminist” I went back to him. He was the son of Abyssinia’s emperor, and after England invaded in the late 1860’s, the boy was taken back to England, where he became a ward of Queen Victoria. I’m fictionalizing the hell out of it (as I did with Ms. Cameron in “The Luminist”), but that boy’s story is very evocative for me.

So much of what I learned from writing “The Luminist” is making the journey with me towards realizing the new one. Patience with the stops and starts of the first draft (the characters were really battling for dominance in voice, and I’ve re-started the book three times now). Immersion in the world, and once immersed, picking my battles. By this I mean picking from amongst so many possibilities in terms of historical backdrop. Queen Victoria, her court, her children (each with their own unique maladies and topography), life in England…where to start? Which of so many tapestry threads to use? That’s probably not going to sort itself out until a couple of drafts from now.

 To learn more about David Rocklin and his work, visit

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