Saturday, September 29, 2012

THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling


4.0 out of 5 stars Peyton Place meets PG Wodehouse. (Yes, I read it. No, I haven't read HP.)

Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Throwing in my two cents as one of the few people on the planet who hasn't read the HP series. (My kids were the perfect age as the books came out: young enough to love them, old enough to read for themselves.) I pre-ordered THE CASUAL VACANCY and inhaled it the minute it hit my Kindle mainly (I will admit) because it's a remarkable moment of publishing history, but I was quickly drawn into the story. The characters are people I already know, because they are the people we all already know. In the end, I liked this book on its own merits. And I liked it a lot.

Rowling is a terrifically strong writer; you can't fault her on craft, and I like that she doesn't feel the need to do any acrobatics or post a billboard - THIS WAY TO THE BRILLIANT WRITER - on every page, as is the irritating case in a lot of literary fiction. If you're able to set aside the JK ROWLING of it all, you'll love or hate this book on the strength of what it says about people. Folks. Relationships that are the opposite of magic. Politics that are petty. The youthful compulsion to crusade - at any age - and the crusty compulsion to squash the crusading of others.

Early on, it's noted that Samantha "enjoyed [Miles'] pomposity with precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat," and Rowling is able to enjoy the faults of these characters the same way. These are the characters Franzen would write if he had more tenderness and less literary dyspepsia. Observations about resonant, everyday dynamics - conversational currency, backhanded charity, the lie of self-sacrifice - are made with more wry than sly and not a whiff of self-righteousness.

This is a quiet book; some will say cozy, but I think there's enough edge to prevent that. I loved the dry Britcom humor. A thousand little understated zingers make THE CASUAL VACANCY a pleasure to read in the way that the Mapp and Lucia books are a pleasure. As life unravels for the people of Pagford, we have a goldfish bowl view, but that understated tone keeps things from going totally soapy.

A book that kept coming back to me as I read was Joseph Heller's Something Happened. I can't think of another instance where an author from whom so much was expected took on the profoundly risky task of reminding us that there is nothing more human than the mundane.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Inside Out Art: Halvor Aakhus' BOOK OF KNUT

Okay, how brilliant is The Book of Knut? Answer, based on what I've seen: Very. The book comes from Jaded Ibis, a tiny publisher that's recently won me over heart and soul.

The premise, according to an interview with author Halvor Aakhus: "A mathematician finds a novel (Book) written by her dead lover (Knut Knudson) and subsequently transforms it into an annotated mathematical textbook, complete with homework problems. Aside from oil paintings, musical scores, mathematical graphs, etc., it’s got 216 footnotes."

Padgett Powell (author of The Interrogative Mood) says: "Halvor Aakhus should be paralyzed from depression and knowing too much. He has two or three doctoral dissertations, never consummated, in his head. The truly arcane stuff in Book of Knut is from his memory. This book won a prize getting to this point, and the judge said it was so outrageously complicated he could not not give it the prize. The reader should gird his or her loins if loins can be in one's head."

.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"When you can't create, you can work." Writerly Advice from Henry Miller


The Author as Mimic

This very short and absolutely amazing video about the mimic octopus started me thinking this morning of the mimicry skills of the successful writer.

There are definitely authors out there who cultivate such a distinctive style that their work would never fit anywhere but in their chosen mode/genre. If they're successful doing only this, more power to them, but often, an author who's versatile enough to learn to adapt to other forms or genres is the one who stays busy and employed.

I first learned this lesson when writing for the magazine market. I was striking out left and right because I expected the editors to recognize my distinctive "genius" and mold their magazine around me. (*Snorf!*) Instead, I soon learned, I had to carefully study the magazine I was targeting and learn to emulate its tone and style.

The same held true when, as a normally-single title author, I wanted to expand my audience by delving into the world of category fiction (shorter, "series" books of the type most often associated with Harlequin and the former Silhouette Romance brand.) I had to figure out what type of reading experience the line was selling and try to create a fresh, new story and characters that fell within those more streamlined parameters. In both cases, I met with some success only after learning those lessons.

The willingness to retool your storytelling to fit the available market or seize on an unexpected opportunity not only keeps a writer working but also helps keep the writer from becoming bored doing only one thing. In some cases, it can bring about great career leaps, too, as was the case with two authors I know well, one of whom was asked to ghostwrite a celebrity memoir and the other of whom was invited to submit the first in a series of young adult paranormal romances. Both were challenged to move outside their confort zones. Both harbored doubts about whether or not they could succeed. And both, I'm happy to report, are today New York Times bestsellers.

So if you're ever offered an opportunity to try your hand at something different than the trajectory you'd envisioned for yourself, consider making like an octopus and giving it a try. At its very worst, it will force you to grow as a writer--and that alone may well be worth the risk!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Nutshell Version: Adrenaline Shots for Plots!

Ever get bogged down in the middle of your manuscript? Have you lost interest, tempted by a shiny new idea just over the horizon? Or perhaps you've finished, but your rejections have comments such as "Didn't live up to its promise" or "I couldn't finish this."

Before you shove the project in a drawer forever, ask yourself these three questions, gleaned from my recent "Adrenaline Shots for Plots!" workshop and tighten up the sagging middle with an infusion of fresh new energy.

1. How can the protagonist's (hero's/heroine's) situation go from bad to worse? Can you alter the goal? Make the consequences of failure more dire? Create a ticking clock and then allow it to unexpectedly spring forward?

2. How can the antagonist (villain) be strengthened? Can s/he find the "magic bullet" the protagonists been searching for? Can s/he come into a position giving him/her power over the protagonist? Can the antagonist's motivation become more urgent?

3. How can the protagonist be handicapped? Does a friend or mentor betray him/her (or appear to)? Could a death (real/symbolic) or injury (physical/psychological) send him/ his reeling? Can the unthinkable happen?

Create a list of ideas on how you can make your protagonist's job impossible. Then write yourself into a box and dig deep to invent a new way out!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Have a Question? Win a Copy of RELENTLESS PROTECTOR

Have a question about my books or writing? Visit me today at the Kiss and Thrill blog, where you can win a copy of my new release, Relentless Protector (or an alternate title, if you've already gotten a copy!)
Colleen Thompson RELENTLESS PROTECTOR, Harlequin Intrigue, 9/12 PASSION TO PROTECT, Harlequin Romantic Suspense, 11/12 www.colleen-thompson.com

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Thanks, dumb@ss, for reminding me why I wrote this book.

In 1999, Sugarland, my second novel, was published by Spinster's Ink, a brave little feminist indie press, in the USA and by Bertelsmann in Europe. It's a modern retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth, expanding on some of the feminist ethos I think is beautifully present in that story.

The lives of the two protagonists, sisters Kit and Kiki, are quite similar at first blush: they both have two small children and all the dreams and frustrations quickly understood by most young mothers. But Kit is married to a gentle salt-of-the-earth working man, and Kiki is married to a man who beats her. The complexity of the story arises from an incident that is described in succinct emotional and physical detail very close to the beginning of the book: Kit is raped by Kiki's abusive husband.

There is absolutely no question about the fact that she is not a willing participant in this act. Later in the book, this guy violently beats and rapes his wife, and the language purposely echoes the previous rape, which is less physically violent. The entire story (in my mind) spins out of the silent, insidious damage that is done to Kit as her children and her sister's children are sleeping on the floor just a few feet away.

In trying to deny and cover up what's happened, Kit loses herself and methodically destroys her own life. The arc of the story is how she recovers, but in the downward spiral, one of the self-destructive things she does is have sex with her boss. Again the language was very carefully constructed to demonstrate the difference between the rape and this situation, in which Kit is a willing participant.

From the Library Journal review (emphasis mine):
"When both sisters become pregnant for the third time, suffering ensues: cataclysmic loss for Kiki and overwhelming guilt for Kit, unsure of her unborn child's paternity after a virtual assault by Wayne and a spontaneous tumble with her boss."
You can read the review in full on Amazon, but you get the gist. The victim of a "virtual assault" clearly does not meet the moral standards of "legitimate rape."

From Publisher's Weekly:
"Meanwhile, Kit has two quickie flings, resulting in a pregnancy of questionable paternity. Readers with true equality of the sexes on their minds may object that Kiki's husband's cheating is treated as an actionable offense while Kit's marital excursions are permitted the luxury of mitigating circumstances."
(PW's full review also appears on Amazon.)

I was stunned when I saw these two reviews and many others that had high praise for the book itself but utterly dismissed the entire premise on the grounds that this was not a "legitimate rape." No, this was a "quickie fling."

QUICKIE. 

FLING.

And what a feminazi I was for treating his "cheating" as an "actionable offense."

Note to anyone on jury duty: IT IS.

I was thrilled that book clubs far and wide embraced the book, but dumbfounded that so many women also condemned Kit for "having an affair" with her sister's husband. Book club discussions often centered on debates about what she could/should have done to prevent the rape from happening.

"Now you know why this book is important," said my wise editor, Joan Drury (one of the great unsung - or not sung nearly enough - heroes of publishing history.) "They're having the conversation. They're talking about it. That's a victory."

Thirteen years later, though Sugarland has enjoyed a little resurgence of popularity since I indie published the ebook edition, I'd begun to think the book was no longer relevant. Like a lot of feminist of my generation - those of us who came of age taking for granted women gynecologists, harassment laws, and access (theoretically) to safe, legal abortion - I slipped into a busy but complacent sort of ideology that allowed me to be a stay-at-home PTO mommy who wrote the occasional pro-choice letter to the editor.

Thanks to Todd Akin and the recent firestorm surrounding his galactically shit-headed comment about "legitimate rape," I've been reassured that Sugarland is still as relevant as ever. No dumbass is an island; this is not one guy's political faux pas, this is an agenda embraced by a LOT of people. (Check out Nerve's "Republican Guide to Female Anatomy.") This is a conversation women need to have with each other, with their daughters, and with the people who represent us in congress.

It would have been nice to think that the good fight fought by Joan Drury and her sisters would be sufficient to secure safety, health, civil rights, and respect for American women.

Note to my daughter: It wasn't. It never will be. The good fight goes on. Mamala's got your back, but it's your fight now. Get yourself into that voting booth and kick some ass.

Thank you, Todd Akin, for reminding my why I wrote this book.

In 1999, Sugarland, my second novel, was published by Spinster's Ink, a brave little feminist indie press, in the USA and by Bertelsmann in Europe. It's a modern retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth, expanding on some of the feminist ethos I think is beautifully present in that story.

The lives of the two protagonists, sisters Kit and Kiki, are quite similar at first blush: they both have two small children and all the dreams and frustrations quickly understood by most young mothers. But Kit is married to a gentle salt-of-the-earth working man, and Kiki is married to a man who beats her. The complexity of the story arises from an incident that is described in succinct emotional and physical detail very close to the beginning of the book: Kit is raped by Kiki's abusive husband.

There is absolutely no question about the fact that she is not a willing participant in this act. Later in the book, this guy violently beats and rapes his wife, and the language purposely echoes the previous rape, which is less physically violent. The entire story (in my mind) spins out of the silent, insidious damage that is done to Kit as her children and her sister's children are sleeping on the floor just a few feet away.

In trying to deny and cover up what's happened, Kit loses herself and methodically destroys her own life. The arc of the story is how she recovers, but in the downward spiral, one of the self-destructive things she does is have sex with her boss. Again the language was very carefully constructed to demonstrate the difference between the rape and this situation, in which Kit is a willing participant.

From the Library Journal review (emphasis mine):
"When both sisters become pregnant for the third time, suffering ensues: cataclysmic loss for Kiki and overwhelming guilt for Kit, unsure of her unborn child's paternity after a virtual assault by Wayne and a spontaneous tumble with her boss."
You can read the review in full on Amazon, but you get the gist. The victim of a "virtual assault" clearly does not meet the moral standards of "legitimate rape."

From Publisher's Weekly:
"Meanwhile, Kit has two quickie flings, resulting in a pregnancy of questionable paternity. Readers with true equality of the sexes on their minds may object that Kiki's husband's cheating is treated as an actionable offense while Kit's marital excursions are permitted the luxury of mitigating circumstances."
(PW's full review also appears on Amazon.)

I was stunned when I saw these two reviews and many others that had high praise for the book itself but utterly dismissed the entire premise on the grounds that this was not a "legitimate rape." No, this was a "quickie fling."

QUICKIE. 

FLING.

And what a feminazi I was for treating his "cheating" as an "actionable offense."

Note to anyone on jury duty: IT IS.

I was thrilled that book clubs far and wide embraced the book, but dumbfounded that so many women also condemned Kit for "having an affair" with her sister's husband. Book club discussions often centered on debates about what she could/should have done to prevent the rape from happening.

"Now you know why this book is important," said my wise editor, Joan Drury (one of the great unsung - or not sung nearly enough - heroes of publishing history.) "They're having the conversation. They're talking about it. That's a victory."

Thirteen years later, though Sugarland has enjoyed a little resurgence of popularity since I indie published the ebook edition, I'd begun to think the book was no longer relevant. Like a lot of feminist of my generation - those of us who came of age taking for granted women gynecologists, harassment laws, and access (theoretically) to safe, legal abortion - I slipped into a busy but complacent sort of ideology that allowed me to be a stay-at-home PTO mommy who wrote the occasional pro-choice letter to the editor.

Thanks to Todd Akin and the recent firestorm surrounding his galactically shit-headed comment about "legitimate rape," I've been reassured that Sugarland is still as relevant as ever. No dumbass is an island; this is not one guy's political faux pas, this is an agenda embraced by a LOT of people. (Check out Nerve's "Republican Guide to Female Anatomy.") This is a conversation women need to have with each other, with their daughters, and with the people who represent us in congress.

It would have been nice to think that the good fight fought by Joan Drury and her sisters would be sufficient to secure safety, health, civil rights, and respect for American women.

Note to my daughter: It wasn't. It never will be. The good fight goes on. Mamala's got your back, but it's your fight now. Get yourself into that voting booth and kick some ass.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Meet the League of Extraordinary Authors

Ask Dr. Kat: Can Two Characters Tell the Exact Same Story and it Not Be Boring?

I named this post a bit ironically--"Ask Dr. Kat," because today I want to address a question from one of my former students, Angela Garza Douglas (follow her on twitter--@amd6841!).  She has a great question, and I think it's worth answering here, because I'm not sure there's one simple answer.  She writes:

 I am reading a book and one chapter is in first person POV from one character and describes a scene and everything that happens including dialogue... then the next chapter is in another character's POV (the other character from that same scene) and describes the same scene from the same point in time the other chapter started.... I am totally put off by this... have you ever read this successfully??? I mean, even the dialogue between the two characters is repeated...
My answer:

Yikes--even the dialogue is repeated???  Without reading the book myself, I'd have to say it sounds painful. One of the first rules of narrative (if there can be rules these days) is that there should be an arc to the story, ideally moving across the entire novel, but also within each chapter.  As readers, we like to keep moving forward, and the writer will risk losing us if too much material is repeated.

That said, when I first conceived my novel, I ran into this sort of thing, because sometimes the different POV characters notice vastly different things in the same scene or interpret the same things differently.  Sometimes I want to reveal the "truth" of the scene, from one character's eyes, as opposed to the way the other character conceives of it--particularly since the mental health of one of my narrators is in question.  One of my struggles has been to show the different nuances of an act while still keeping the story moving, and the way I chose to handle it was to have the characters come together to tell the same story, but to give each one a different part of the whole.  I don't know if it will work.  I hope so.  But in my first draft, one of the problems was this sort of repetition, which I had to deal with in revision.  Now I am careful to start a new scene from the next character's perspective, except in rare instances where I do end up changing POVs within a chapter (risky!).

But Angela asked if I've ever read this successfully.  One book in particular comes to mind, The Collector by John Fowles.  For those unfamiliar with its story, its told from the point of view of a serial killer who "collects" women, and then from the perspective of one of his latest victims.  It's a riveting storyline and the points of view are well done, but there's a big difference between it and the book Angela read.  In The Collector, Fowles narrates the whole story from the killer's point of view first and then the whole story again from the victim's.  And they're not the same story--obviously.  By first putting us in the killer's point of view the entire time and then switching, we see in effect two completely different stories, and yet they inform each other, and the final effect is chilling.

It sounds like the problem with the book the student read is that there wasn't enough difference between the scenes, and maybe not enough reason to repeat scenes or parts of scenes from the different character perspectives.  But without seeing the book, it's hard to know.  I have a hunch, though, that Angela is onto something, and more importantly, it makes me excited to hear this kind of question, because it means she is reading like a writer and thinking about the kinds of narrative choices that are being made, and what the ramifications of those choices are.

 I'm sure there are other obvious examples that I'm just not thinking of, but it definitely sounds like a risk.  Whether it's a risk worth taking or not probably depends on the material and the skill of the author.  I'd certainly caution a new writer against this, but the downside of making up these sorts of "rules" is that they can be limiting.

What do you think?  Have you seen the same scene told from different character POVs successfully?   When can it work?  When is the risk worth taking?







Gloria Estefan "There's Always Tomorrow"



I heard this song the day I was diagnosed with lymphoma, and it still brings tears to my eyes. Can't begin to express what these words meant to me in that moment and all the years since.

If you're hanging by a thread today, please know that you're not the only one. And there's always tomorrow.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

What Release Day Really Feels Like

Back before I was published, I assumed that every book release day came with a huge launch party, the kind you see in movies, where all the swells (and with any luck, George Clooney) showed up in tuxes and you, your editor, and everyone who ever mocked your ambitions or gave you a hard time on the schoolbus wore diamonds and carried around darling little cocktails and clever hors d'oeuvres (all the former bullies secretly seething with jealousy.) I supposed that party came the night before they sent you on the grueling but gratifying book tour, where you always stayed in swank hotels and had brilliant bon mots on hand at all hours. And you look awesome the whole time, thanks to the brilliant stylist (who doubles as the chaffeur of your limo) the publisher sent with you.

And, really, after all those dreams and all that effort, a person could at least be greeted with a parade or a pony or a bouquet of peonies. But in the reality of the working, non-celebrity writer, it starts the way today did, with your dog licking you awake and whining to go out (and feed me while you're up, why don'tcha?) The dishwasher still needs cleaned out. The toilets still need scrubbing, and your back still aches because you spend way too many hours in a chair.

But guess what. It's still damned cool. You realize (when you remember) it's release day, and you've brought a world to life. A world that came together in your imagination. A world that your agent, your editor, and (with any luck) a lot of readers totally buy into.

And it's suddenly all good.

So please join me today in celebrating the e-book (all formats) and audio edition release of my novel, Relentless Protector. I still have a few more days (September 4th) until the paperbacks are out in stores, but I want to take a moment to acknowledge this arrival, not with parades or ponies or peonies, but a big smile...before I go on working on another world I hope to bring to life.

BALD IN THE LAND OF BIG HAIR to Benefit Blood Cancer Awareness Month





September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, and I'm doing what I can to spread the word. Please be aware: BLOOD CANCER SUCKS.

This month, Bald in the Land of Big Hair, my memoir about surviving non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when my children were small, is priced at just $2.99, and 100% of the royalties will go to the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

 The hardcover was originally published in 2001 by HarperCollins, so last year, I did a 10th Anniversary Ebook edition with bonus content, including a foreword by Elizabeth Berg.

 Help me raise a good chunk of cash for blood cancer research! If you haven't read it, grab it! If you loved it, gift it! If you hated it, gift it to someone you don't like! Here's a link to the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

THANK YOU

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Peace, love, and statutory compliance ~
Joni