Saturday, March 31, 2012

Look! Over There! Misdirecting the Reader While Still Playing Fair

This week, I've been revising Proposal Interrupted, a project I'm very excited about. Initially, I'd been thinking of it as the sort of suspense where the reader knows the identity of the bad guy almost from page one yet gnaws his/her fingernails trying to see whether the likable (I hope) protagonist will clap on in time to survive the novel.

After getting some shrewd editorial feedback and realizing that would be boring (to me) to write, I'm making it a mystery/suspense instead, with several viable suspects vying for attention. The trick, in revising, is to obfuscate the original clues, diverting the reader's attention with bright, shiny, noisy competing information. (I call this my "Look! Over there!" technique.) Whenever possible, it works well to "sandwich" the real clues between false leads, since the human brain naturally pays closer attention to the first and last details than those tucked inside like so much lettuce.

As Yoda might say: Sneaky like that I am.

This may well be true, but surprising the reader is no mean feat, since many are incredibly adept at sniffing out the right clues and ignoring the red herrings. I try to combat this by making the other suspects more plausible, more layered and complex, oftentimes so much so that I frequently end up changing my own mind about whom the antagonist will turn out to be. (I've surprised more than a few editors by having a completely different villain in the completed manuscript than the synopsis. Since the new version is always sneakier and better, I haven't have any complaints so far.)

But the truth is, if you're playing fair and not simply pulling an unknown or barely-mentioned bad guy out at the last second (which rightly infuriates the reader, since it violates the rules of the game and deprives him/her of the fun of trying to guess the solution), some readers are going to figure it out. The trick is to layer enough surprises into the story that he/she with still find it engaging and make the mystery element sufficiently difficult that the reader will congratulate him/herself for beating the author to the punch rather than disdaining the story for being too easily solved.

Writing a mystery or a book with a strong mystery element is always a challenge, but it's one I find so completely absorbing, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Do you have a favorite technique you've either read or used in your own work? I'm always on the lookout for new weapons for my arsenal.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do You Love It Enough? Thought for the Day

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
--Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ask yourself, Do I love whatever I am doing enough to make it my life's work? If not, keep searching until you find your passion.

Life's too short to waste merely going through the motions.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Big Giant BtO Newsflash:Barbara Sissel's 2-Book Deal!

It's been so hard for me to contain myself, but it's finally official. BtO's own Barbara Taylor Sissel has scored big.

Check out the Publisher's Marketplace announcement:

Barbara Taylor Sissel's EVIDENCE OF LIFE, about a woman caught in a web of lies after her husband and daughter go missing during a camping trip to the Texas Hill Country, challenging everything she believes about her family and her life, to Erika Imranyi at Mira, in a two-book deal, at auction, by Barbara Poelle at Irene Goodman Agency (World English).

I've always know my long-time critique partner and very good friend was prodigiously talent, but now, she's officially a force to be reckoned with!

Congratulations, Barbara! We're celebrating with you!

True Spring in the Writer's Heart

Late this past August, as I was excitedly working on a much-loved "secret" project, I received a call from my agent and a very welcome offer on a pair of books for my current publisher. The catch? I needed to write them very quickly to make the publication slots that were being held for me. So for the past six or seven months, I've been pedal-to-the-metal writing these two books, the not-so-secret project relegated to the back of the already-quite-crowded closet. (I call it my "future file," and it's jam-packed with half-baked ideas, half-complete proposals, and rejected projects I hope to attack from another angle and give a second chance.)

But I can tell you, the secret project did not go quietly. For months, it's been struggling to flap its way free, as the strongest of ideas often will. Casting itself in my mind as a glittering, gold-feathered (with diamonds for eyes!) bird in the bush, it fluttered at the edges of my consciousness, distracting me from the everyday drudgery (and I'm talking seven days a week here) that tight deadlines can become with its hopeful song, tantalizing me with its possibilities.

Yesterday, I turned in my second manuscript, and after two seasons of hard work, I'd convinced myself that it was time for a few days off to consider which possibility I really wanted to drag out of the closet, but the secret project had no intention of waiting its turn. And with that realization--and the knowledge that I am at last truly free to pursue it--I feel the warmth of the March sunshine, the breath of scented air, the sense of delicious anticipation that only true spring can bring with it.

Still, I remind myself, though there is nothing so exciting as raw potential, hard work must always follow. The trick is, keeping that initial thrill alive throughout the seasons, long enough to set it down in writing and shape it with sound feedback and careful editing. Only then can it bear fruit in the mind of every reader.

So as spring begins, what new projects are on your horizon? And how do you keep that initial thrill alive?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Riding the Giant Sand Worm (OR "An indie author's relationship with Amazon")

At SXSW last week, someone said something to me about morally ambiguous authors crawling into bed with Amazon. This was the best analogy I could come up with to describe how I feel:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ibsen plots a revolution

"I'm plotting revolution against this lie that the majority has a monopoly of the truth. What are these truths that always bring the majority rallying around? Truths so elderly that they are practically senile. And when a truth is as old as that, gentlemen, you can hardly tell it from a lie."
Henrik Ibsen

Portrait of Ibsen by Edvard Munch

Friday, March 16, 2012

Blues Bros approach to indie publishing: Shake Your Tail Feather

PW was tweeting live and collaborative notes were emerging on hackpad during a panel discussion on indie publishing at SXSW earlier this week. I was happy to see the notes reflect the most important point I made during the whole discussion:

"What sells a book sells a book, same in traditional or self-publishing. You gotta shake your tail feathers."


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ask That

My husband, wonderful man, asks questions.  He collects stories.  He loves to listen to you.  He is not, by choice, a writer.  He's simply very curious, and attentive; and he would much rather speak to you about something moving and unexpected than about something dull and plainsong.  This is why, sitting down to dinner with my parents this week--we hadn't seen them in quite some time--he turned to my mother, and rather than intoning "pass the salt" or "let's have a moment of silence" or "how was your flight," he looked her in the eye and smiled and began with,

"Now.  Tell me a powerful moment from your childhood.  Don't think about it.  Just share the first thing that comes into your mind.  What is it?"

"The smell of tin."


After a moment's surprise, and a pause, she said,

"Tin!  It's tin in the sun."

She went on:

"I'm very little.  This is the first house I can remember.  We had other houses before this one, but I don't remember them.  This one had a backyard, and my mother used to give me baths in a tub in the yard.  That's how children were bathed then."

"In the 1940's."

"Yes.  You took the tin tub outside, and you filled it with warm water . . .  And so when I smelled tin in the sun, I knew, I knew, I knew . . ."  Her eyes grew big, and she smiled the way a child does, with eyebrows going up as if the sun has risen in the sky for the first time.  "I was going to get a bath."

We all sat for a moment.  Smell of warm metal in the air.  Wet skin.  Quick as that.



Fork tastes sharper.

Mama doesn't look the same.


All for the question.  All for the asking.

You didn't know.  How could you?

Not what you thought you should: something else, my husband reminds me all the time.  Ask that.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Visiting Writer

Quite often, I find myself in a position known as that of the "Visiting Writer."  I have to admit, I have a fondness for the title.  It seems so deliciously appropriate.  What is a writer if not a visitor?  One who arrives, looks around, settles in, makes herself temporarily at home; then tries to find out as much as she can about her surroundings and the characters in them, observing, chatting, teasing, asking, touring, wondering, inserting, pondering; she tries, amazed, eager, hungry, to register, to record, to remember, remember, remember and keep vivid, make real, begin to understand; she may fall in love, develop decided opinions, nurse occasional antipathies, feel foolish, ungainly, rude, clumsy, tongue-tied--what form of the verb does one use here?--then slowly, or sometimes quickly, she strikes out, strikes in, makes friends, makes discoveries, embarrasses herself, triumphs over a looming obstacle, envisions an ending, doesn't want to leave, doesn't, doesn't, but must, because there are other countries to see, and new maps to draw, and so with relief, or regret, or renewed, she parts, leaving the worn book on the table behind her.

In the mid 1990's I was a Visiting Writer at the National Autonomous University of Chiapas in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico.  My duties during the day were to teach literature to advanced students of English.  I began with an e. e. cummings poem:





We watched the language flutter this way and that, and talked about playing with words that were strange to us, and that played in ways that were strange.  We talked about loneliness, and what the word meant, in the poem.  Single?  Loose?  Tumbling?  At night, I wrote my first novel high in a mirador, a cupola at the top of the house.  My novel was set not in Mexico, but in a faraway country; every night I would write from my lofty perch, atop one of the mountains of San Cristobal, mistress of all I surveyed; and in the morning the students would bring me down to earth again.  I mixed up the Spanish words caballo and cabello.  I told them I was looking for a good place to cut my horse.  They looked horrified, then laughed at me. We'll straighten you out.  The novel, which had been very serious, grew funnier.  There can be a tendency, when you are a visitor, toward over-confidence, at first.  You don't mean it.  But you try too hard, assume too much.
After the turn of the millennium I found myself as a Visiting Writer in Austin, Texas.  I had lived in Texas, but never in its capital.  And I had never been a writer in a place so vast as the University of Texas.  The students came to my classes from large auditoriums, and squinted down at the table where there were only fifteen of us.  I had to teach them how to look at each other, to speak across the table when they discussed each others' stories.  One day, I said I was cancelling class because I needed to attend an anti-war protest.  I apologized, but I did not approve of our country starting a war in Iraq, and I had to do this, and anyone who wanted to was welcome to join me.  The students, all of them, stayed seated.  I thought we were speaking the same language, sitting the same way, but we were not.  The novel I was working on then had been quite funny, but grew more serious.

Once I was a Visiting Writer in Columbus, Georgia, and I got to live in the house of Carson McCullers, the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  I had few courses to teach, meeting with a group of writing students only once a week and speaking at a few additional classes.  I could have spent my time almost entirely alone (a le af fa ll s), picking away at my fourth novel while McCullers' glass-cased typewriter sat silently, unhelpfully, next to me.  Instead, like McCullers, I wanted to walk and ride my bike everywhere, and look around.  It was obvious to the locals I was from somewhere else.  When I walked strangers stopped their cars, politely, to ask me if I had been in some accident and needed a lift; when I rode I was a danger, something to be momentarily appalled at, then forgiven.  But after I was forgiven I was welcomed in.  I learned the correct way to say "Fort Benning," where the soldiers bound for Iraq were coming and going. I tried a species of soft, white chalk that is eaten as a delicacy--or maybe my hosts were just making fun of me?  The novel I was writing fell to pieces, went soft, and I had to admit it and start all over again.  There is nothing about a visit that guarantees success.  I wept to leave that house in a way I did not weep in Chiapas or Texas.  On my flight out, I sat next to a soldier who did not at all support the war.  But he was obliged to go.  There was nothing about him, decked in camouflage from head to toe, to suggest he was Visiting.

I have been a Visiting Writer in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I have taken up residence on an island in Puget Sound, and on a cattle ranch in the Hill Country.  I was never invited to stay at any of these places; nor did I want to.  There are writers who are afraid of stasis.  I have always been one of those.  I'm afraid of a home, of not being a visitor, the way some people are afraid of wolves.  To keep moving, keep seeing, keep reading, keep turning the page as you write it, keep at the edge of the narrative, at the far side, the out-side, is to live.  Or so I've always thought.

Enter North Carolina.


I am all discombobulated.  Is that how the word is spelled?  Spanish: Tortuoso.
I am once again a Visiting Writer.  But something has changed.  Something about the way the light falls.  Or how old I am.  Or how kind the faces are, people I would have left in the dust before.

McCullers wandered a great deal, and was most at home when she was not at home.  In Brooklyn she shared a house with W.H. Auden and Gypsy Rose Lee.  Gypsy had a place of her own but preferred being in Brooklyn while she worked on her novel (she was writing a novel then); Auden gave up on Great Britain and became an American.  He fell in love.  The expatriate is the visitor who never leaves.

My current students hug me.  It's that sort of place, this new college of mine.  They make me want to stick around long enough to see them graduate.  I have a corner office, and outside of it a maple tree.  A poet lives across the hall.  She lets me hug her. (Writers can be prickly, and do not always let you do this.)  The novel that had been torturing me stopped doing so last month and straightened itself out like an elm.  I am learning the local language.  The barbecue here is made with vinegar.  Pine needles can be purchased in bales, from forests as far away as Florida.  I have bought a house, and put down needles.  If I have been prickly in the past, let the ground be so now.

A writer may walk on pins.  She may rest on laurels.  She may visit a mountain.  She may sit in the street and wait for the police to come.  A writer may go.  A writer may stay.  No one much notices.  There is really only one requirement for the job, one Permanent Position:

She must be surprised.

Stay tuned.


Wednesday, March 07, 2012

What does an author do with an ugly baby?

A few weeks ago, I put it out there to the universe: "Does this book cover suck?" The answer was a resounding "Yup."

Urg. The backstory on this book cover is fraught. Though I have a bit of graphic arts background and a lot of experience in book cover brainstorming, I didn't want to trust myself. I had it designed by a *real* designer. I hated the result, so I threw some good money after bad and had it redesigned. Then I decided to cut my losses and re-redesign it myself.

When I put all the covers side by side in front of a few trusted advisors (without telling them which ones were designed by me and which were the low-priced-and-you-get-what-you-pay-for *real* designers), they unanimously picked the two designed by me.

I went with the image of a dopler radar view of Hurricane Katrina in infrared technicolor splendor and launched the book with a not inexpensive ad campaign earlier this year. (Thanks for the birthday bucks, Mom! Wish I'd used the money to come visit you.)

Much to my dismay, the book just laid there.

It's painful (and not inexpensive) to realize that after years of gestation, one has given birth to an ugly baby. In the traditional publishing world, this would have been the death of the book, unless the publisher did a total overhaul for the paperback. And if it was an ugly paperback originally, game over. As an indie, I have the power to do something about it.

So I put the question out there, offering a free book to anyone who flipped me an email with a candid answer, and I got an interesting variety of responses.

About 25% said, "No, it doesn't suck! It's cool!" or some such. About 25% said, "The image is too swirly/ red/ confusing/ violent/ science-ish/ literal/ impersonal." About 50% said, "I like the image, but the title is too big/ too small/ should be more off-center/ should be more on-center/ lighter/ darker/ lower/ higher" or something to indicate something indefinably off about the font and/or copy.

Several people suggested a book cover has to have people on it, and the two of the four covers I'd originally had designed did have a pair of lovers in the clinch. More than one person looked at those and said, "I don't really like them, but you should probably use one because sex sells." (I don't think that holds true in literary fiction, by the way.)

Finally, one respondent hit the nail on the head. I knew the moment I read it that he was absolutely correct, as much as I hated to admit it. He said, "The masculine image doesn't go with your girly name. If it had said 'Tom Rodgers,' I'd have bought it."

Like it or not, there are deep gender biases inherent in publishing, and they stem directly from buyer behaviors that book buyers are not even aware of. I realized that the suggestion that it should be "more personal/ warmer/ less science-ish/ more... something else" actually meant "more feminine" so as to appeal to my audience, which is obviously not men, especially when my first name has that little clitoris over the i. (The in-house designer on one of my previous books told me I should always have my name in all caps, but at the time I didn't connect the dots, as it were.)

Book buyers (including me) do judge books by their covers, and there's an unspoken, mostly unconscious, but very real perception that men write books for readers, and women write books for women. That's bull, of course, but that's the perception, and anyone marketing books ignores it at their peril.

So I re-re-redesigned the book cover, and I'm re-releasing it this week. I've been assured by my trusted advisors that my baby is robustly beautiful now, and I took advantage of the reload to tweak a few typos missed by the copyeditor.  Like I said, you get what you pay for, and one of the big hurdles in indie pub is being able to afford the services we've always had provided by our publisher. (Not to say that the publisher's covers and copyediting are always great, because they can and do suck on a regular basis. This was not my first ugly baby. Just the first one for which I had to accept sole responsibility.)

From start to finish, it's been a learning experience, and I know my next novel will have a stronger launch because of it.

I hope this book will find a broad, varied audience. Frankly, all I've cared about since the beginning was what this baby was like on the inside. All that matters to me is getting this story into the hands of readers. The cover has to function as a welcoming doorway. So here's my best attempt at that.

Hopefully, the colors, movement and general vibe will indicate that it's about meteorological weather and about political climate. It's not a romance, but there's a love story and a lot of passion in all its iterations.

And it's free if you download it this week (Wed-Fri, 3/7-3/9) on Kindle. I hope you'll read and enjoy it.

Update: In less than 24 hours, The Hurricane Lover was in Amazon's top 20 overall, #1 on both literary fiction and suspense lists. Apparently, the new look is working!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Some words are just too too wonderful.

“To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.”
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera


Saturday, March 03, 2012

Congratulations to BtO's Own Barbara Taylor Sissel!

Raising my head from the deadline cave to bid a very hearty congratulations to BtO blogster Barbara Taylor Sissel, who just signed with Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Agency!

For those of you who don't yet know her, Barbara Sissel writes beautifully-crafted, issue-oriented women's fiction. She's also one of the best critique partners on the planet, with a keen editorial eye and finely-tuned sense of what works and what doesn't in a story.

You can check out her latest novel, The Volunteer, on Amazon.

Best wishes for a long and fruitful partner with your new agent, Bobbi!

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Gary's Chevy SSR and the definition of practical

I won't lie; I teared up when Gary signed the papers for this Chevy SSR yesterday.

"Your wife is more excited than you are," the salesman marveled. "Usually it's the guy who's crying 'cause the wife won't go for it."

It wasn't an impulse purchase; it was the sudden and unexpected realization of a dream he's had for years. He's wanted one since they came out in 2004. Priced and looked and Googled them a thousand times.

In Bald in the Land of Big Hair, my memoir about how I got my first book published while undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, I wrote a lot about Gary's dedication to our family and his role as my Rock of Gibraltar co-survivor. My favorite review of the book called it "a love letter to an extraordinary caregiver." And the book doesn't begin to cover how he's stood behind me through the feast and famine of my career as an author.

Beyond the basic fact that Gary deserves this -- and he's earned it -- is the basic philosophy that's guided our lives since cancer barged in and kicked us in the head. The most impractical, wasteful and foolish thing a person can do with his or her life is to not live it.


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