Sunday, March 29, 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Bloom where you're planted (Fresh ink and yahrtzeit for my mother)

"I don't understand tattoos," Gary said yesterday. "I don't get what it is or why people feel the need to do it." Anyone who contemplates getting a tattoo should probably think that question through, in addition to contemplating the pain and money and huge risk that it could go awry.

The best explanation I could come up with: A tattoo is the karmic counterpart of a scar. A scar is (usually) an involuntary statement of the skin: "I was in this place and this thing happened, and I healed, but I am changed." A tattoo is elective, but it makes a similar statement. For whatever reason, the person feels the need to express: "I went to this place in life, and I am changed."

Even a stupid little Tweety Bird or ill-chosen tramp stamp is the branding of a moment, a scar left by rebellion. Not all scars are beautiful or worth the misadventure, but every one of them marks a lesson learned. Same is true for tattoos.

The topic came up because Jerusha and I had an appointment with artist Christina Sparrow (who also did my Shakespeare tattoo) to get inked in memory of my mom, author/historian Lois Lonnquist, who died March 27, 2014 of Alzheimer's.

In my quest to invent a religion that works for me (I call it Jewbuddhistianity), I've observed that Jews really do death right. You sit shiva to calm the chaotic moment and acknowledge how we're humbled by loss, and then you observe yahrtzeit one year later to honor the power of love that far surpasses the power of loss.

Yesterday was yahrtzeit for my mom. Her downward spiral was an exhausting trek, but for 75 years before that, she lived a vibrantly creative life of the mind. "Bloom where you're planted" was a keystone Momism she repeated many times while I was growing up. Even as a kid I knew it meant more than "pack your stuff, we're moving again," though that was frequently the context.

My mom embodied the greater meaning of that folksy little saw. She was a resilient survivor of a hardscrabble childhood, and time after time, throughout my life, I watched her make something extraordinary out of circumstances and opportunities that ranged from vaguely disappointing to downright punishing. She had the fortitude to till whatever earth she was given. She had the patience and wisdom to cultivate something better. She taught her six children the importance of being grounded and productive, not just in where you are, but in who you are. My tiger lily is a perfect avatar for Mom: graceful and determined with a just hint of volatile.

Jerusha opted for wild flowers. When I checked in with her this morning to see how her fresh ink was settling in, she texted back:

"I'm really happy. And I see Montana when I look at it. It's grandma's flowers and the coyote pillow and the couch/chair and saying goodnight to the Sleeping Giant. It's the spirit of all the time I spent with grandma and all the stories she told me about her life. I think that's why I like that it's a tattoo as well. It's so delicate and pretty and feminine, but to get that, I had to go through something painful that takes strength and endurance. It's a microcosm for the things I learned about grandma's life as I got older and could understand more about how she went from Fort Peck Dam to Humbolt Loop."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Novel gets falsely reported dead more frequently than Willie Nelson

Had to laugh this morning when I saw this Vox list of 30 times the novel has been declared dead, from 1902, when Jules Verne declared the novel had been replaced by newspapers, to 2014, when the death of the novel got its own Twitter.

Seems fishy to me that the novel sort of gelled into the form as we know it during the same era that literary criticism became a thing, and now, as literary criticism loses ground, critics are stepping up the novel death watch.

My humble opinion: it's literary criticism that's on the brink of extinction. The novel just has a severe case of gout brought on by a spavined publishing industry business model that just came into being within the past 75 to 100 years. Storytelling was around thousands of years before that, and it will be around as long as human beings cling to the planet.

To me, the most baffling thing about the "novel is dead" debate is how little is ever said about life support for authors.

Monday, March 23, 2015

#First50Words: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The stately opening lines of The Age of Innocence sweep us into a genteel world about to be rocked by scandal.

Celebrate outside-the-box fiction by authors who write beyond the boundaries.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Betsy Talbot pops in to talk about world travel, wild ideas, and romance on a dare

A few weeks ago, I paid a virtual visit to Spain to do a guestie with Betsy and Warren Talbot on Married With Luggage, and try I as we might to stay on topic, the conversation ended up ranging all over the map. As Gary closes in on retirement, we're planning our own expat adventures, so I came away from the podcast inspired by their lifestyle and hoping we can all share a bottle of wine next time we're in Spain. 

Meanwhile, I invited Betsy to pop over to BoxOcto and tell us about her fiction debut, Wild Rose, the first installment in her Late Bloomer series

Here's Betsy!

Have you ever wondered why most of the good love stories happen to women under 30? It’s not like we stop loving and living after that age. And we certainly don’t stop reading.

That’s why a writing a series about a group of friends in their forties who were still loving, adventuring, and traveling the world was so appealing to me. If you don’t like the way the world looks, you have to do something to change it! And that’s what this series attempts to do: contribute an entertaining, sexy romance series for women over forty to enjoy.

The inspiration for this book came during a hike back in 2012. We were on the West Highland Way in Scotland, an eight-day trek through moors, rocky paths, lochs, and green hills. The journey was hard on my feet but great for my creativity.

I'd been thinking of inviting my mother to come join us on an adventure instead of making a trek back to the US to visit. (My husband and I had already been traveling the world for a few years with only our backpacks, a response to my brother’s heart attack and a good friend’s brain aneurysm in their thirties.) My mother is not a travel lover, preferring usually to be with her garden, her home, and her friends.

As it usually is with a long hike, I had plenty of time to imagine what a visit from my mother would be like. She is a sweet soul, always caring for other people, and I imagined what it would be like if she had no one else to look after but herself. What would it look like if she put herself first for a change? It wasn't long before I imagined a set of circumstances where she would be left in a new place without me – perhaps a storm or a severe travel delay – and how she'd bloom in place.

This little germ of an idea was typed into an Evernote file and tucked away, one of many "someday" ideas.

Then in January 2013 we were in Morocco sharing a house for a month with another couple who writes and works mostly online like we do. After cooking a tasty tagine, pouring cocktails, and turning on some music, we sat on cozy couches and talked about what we wanted to accomplish in the future.

I talked about romance books, how writers I knew were having huge success with these stories but none of them had characters I could relate to. The main characters were in their twenties or thirties, a stage I’ve already passed and don't long to return to. The future is ahead, and I want to imagine more of what that will look like.

The four of us agreed that the market is big enough for all kinds of books, so we dared each other to write one quirky romance that didn't fall into that norm and to publish it within a year. The ideas were pretty wild, let me tell you. (Well, actually I won't tell you, just in case they ever write them.)

I thought back to the germ of an idea, the story of a young mother with a grown daughter who goes off on her first solo adventure. That idea spread to include other scenarios with different characters, also over forty, and before long I had a five-book series plotted out.

Much of what I write is drawn from the bits and pieces of real women I know, real places I've been, and real experiences I've had or been told about first-hand. It all meshes together to create brand-new characters who are going to entertain us all for years to come.

If you want to know more about the writing process for a romance (at least mine), you can check out the How I Became a Romance Writer series on my website.

You can buy Wild Rose, the first book in The Late Bloomers Series, in print or ebook at all the major online retailers. Click here for links. I’ll keep writing books about women with experience if you’ll keep reading them. Because let’s face it: Women with experience have the best stories – on and off the page.

About the Author: Betsy Talbot is a forty-something traveler and author. When she’s not traveling or penning books about love, adventure, and self-discovery, she is hiking, learning flamenco dancing, and drinking wine in a tiny whitewashed village in Spain. Betsy is the coauthor of four books with her husband Warren Talbot, and they also co-hosts of the popular weekly podcast, Married with Luggage. Her latest project is The Late Bloomers Series, a five-book romance series about women in their forties. You can download a free Late Bloomers short story at

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What We Really Are: What's changed about the way people view indie publishing?

Remember the "What they think we are/What we really are" meme trend back in 2011? Navigating the unmapped territory of self-publishing for the first time, flailing away at this new thing being called "platforming" (part of a whole new vocabulary that also included "meme" and "gamification"), I created this one for indie authors. I laughed out loud this morning when I saw it reposted on Facebook, partly because you never know where this sort of paper sailboat will end up, partly because it's been such a bullet train the past few years. It's good to stop once in a while and look out the window, surveying where we are and noting how far we've come.

What literary agents think we are
THEN: Agents were actively discouraging established authors from self-publishing and warning debut authors that it was the kiss of death, smacked of desperation, made you look like a loser.

NOW: There are a few luddites, but most agents have recognized that self-publishing--when it's done right--works hand-in-glove with a career in mainstream publishing for established authors who want to maintain creative control over their work and for emerging authors who want to hone their craft skills and build a foundational readership. I also see agents actively trawling for successful indies who might bring big bucks from a corporate publisher.

What old school publishers think we are
THEN: As a glut of 99 cent books gushed forth, gutting book prices and empowering Amazon with an insane amount of sway over the marketplace, corporate publishers were forced to wake up and smell the revolution. Everything we'd been told about the necessity for "gatekeepers" became moot as the gate was summarily torn off its hinges and tossed over a cliff. Still working with big publishing houses on ghostwriting projects, I saw palpable resentment toward "undeserving interlopers"--and palpable fear as the sea change brought a wave of layoffs, mergers and downsizing.

NOW: Again, luddites aside, publishers are looking to indies for potential projects that have already proven their market and can be produced at a lower cost because the book, in most cases, has already been professionally edited and the indie author is savvy in the ways of promotion. I always said that traditional and indie publishers could learn a lot from each other, but we'd have to move beyond a lack of respect that cut both ways. I do see that happening now on both sides. More important, I see the concept of "sides" becoming obsolete as more and more authors discover that, in the long view, the greatest creative and financial opportunities reside in a hybrid indie/trad career.

What Amazon thinks we are
THEN: Creating the world's most user-friendly, powerful portal for self-publishing authors was a brilliant keystone in Amazon's strategy to launch Kindle and change the way people buy books. They needed a massive number of books--quality optional--at rock bottom prices, and they initially set it up so that the rewards for authors were potentially huge. In true gold rush tradition, sporadic stories of big money fueled the fervor. There's never been a shortage of dreamers.

NOW: With the recent introduction of Kindle Unlimited, indies have gotten a taste of what the traditional publishers felt like three years ago. Indie incomes have plummeted. Amazon's own publishing imprints are on the rise, and the book deals they offer rarely, if ever, involve significant author advances. I've always likened Amazon to the sand worms in Frank Herbert's Dune. You try your best to scramble aboard and ride, but there's a strong chance you'll be gobbled up by the beast.

What readers think we are
THEN: My original thinking with the piñata was that readers would be pleasantly surprised by what's inside, but over the following year, a lot of my indie friends felt like they were being beaten with sticks. As bullies and trolls took over, Goodreads was like a bar I just didn't want to hang out in. It took a while to recognize that the loudest readers are not the ones who buy the most books and that the truly bookish readers were being overwhelmed by the tsunami of books coming at them online.

NOW: Things are improving on both sides of the discoverability equation. Authors are getting better at connecting with the right conversations and spreading the word about their books, avoiding overzealous hand-waving. Readers are connecting with authors in a whole new way, taking online reviews with a grain of salt and getting savvier about reading the Kindle sample before snapping up a cheap book. The marketplace is coming around to the idea that the price point on books should be roughly the same as the price point on a bottle of wine, and expectations for enjoyment can be raised and lowered accordingly. Most important, people are reading more than ever with decreasing awareness about who published a book or what genre it's supposed to fit into. The Harry Potter generation is coming of age, and they do love a good book.

What we think we are
THEN: You know how pirate rules are. More like guidelines. We were renegades with hearts of gold.

NOW: We're still the swashbucklers of the publishing world, but we've become better merchants. Now the indies who succeed are businesspersons with a healthy surviving streak of Jack Sparrow. One terrific trend with huge benefits for authors and great bargains for readers: the box set. Indie authors have the agility to band together for pop up projects like Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, which brings together seven bestselling, award winning and critically acclaimed authors in an anthology of seven full-length novels with a common thread--strong, idiosyncratic heroines--including my first novel, Crazy for Trying. (Here's Jane Friedman's blog about the experience.)

What we really are
THEN: From the beginning I always said indie publishing was like my Smart Car. All about agility and economy.

NOW: Indie publishing is still the Smart Car. What's changed is the publishing world around us. American car trends have moved away from the ridiculously outsized suburban assault vehicles of the '90s and 'Noughties, embracing electric and hybrid cars and small, super-efficient, super sexy little vehicles with high gas mileage and low overhead. Same goes for publishing. It's all about getting where you need to go.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A few final words from Terry Pratchett you may #applyasneeded to writing and life

"If it wasn't for the fun and money, I really don't know why I'd bother."

"The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it."

"For an author, the nice characters aren't much fun. What you want are the screwed up characters. You know, the characters that are constantly wondering if what they are doing is the right thing, characters that are not only screwed up but are self-tapping screws. They're doing it for themselves."

"The ideal death, I think, is what was the ideal Victorian death, you know, with your grandchildren around you, a bit of sobbing. And you say goodbye to your loved ones, making certain that one of them has been left behind to look after the shop."

"This isn't life in the fast lane, it's life in the oncoming traffic."

"The only superstition I have is that I must start a new book on the same day that I finish the last one, even if it's just a few notes in a file. I dread not having work in progress."

"I got quite annoyed after the Haiti earthquake. A baby was taken from the wreckage and people said it was a miracle. It would have been a miracle had God stopped the earthquake. More wonderful was that a load of evolved monkeys got together to save the life of a child that wasn't theirs."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"...her pages scattered across our bed..." First 50 Words: Blue Mercy by Orna Ross

Orna Ross's Blue Mercy brings intense family drama to Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, a digital box set of seven top drawer novels by bestselling and critically acclaimed authors.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Georgette Heyer throws shade via FB header of the week from Women Writing Women

Oh, snap. Feel free to steal this perfectly sized meme for your FB cover. Just click to expand and right click to save. And don't miss out on this amazing box set offer from Women Writing Women!

Sunday, March 01, 2015

'Scuse me while I call BS on this article about Creative Writing MFA programs

Several of my Facebook friends have recently shared Ryan Boudinot's recent article in The Stranger: "Things I can say about creative writing MFA programs now that I no longer teach one."

I understand why people praise him for his brave honesty, but if I'm to be equally candid, I gotta call BS on most of this, and I don't have time to post comments every time I see this thing, so here goes:

I’m not an MFA or MFA instructor; I’m a working author and ghostwriter whose resumé includes several NYT bestsellers, all the preferred critical kudos and thousands of hours as a book doctor and editor. I’m not rich or famous, but I’ve dedicated 20 years to the art of writing, and for most of that time, I've made an excellent living practicing the craft I love.

People like this guy do such a grave disservice to aspiring writers who invest thousands of dollars and years of their lives to learning the craft of writing.

First, Boudinot says: “The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers.”

Does that mean “nothing of interest” to him? Or does he feel qualified to judge what is or is not of interest to millions of other people? And if his hope for the “vast majority” of students is the modest wish for them to be better readers, they got ripped off and so did the passionate educator who could have filled this position.

Then there’s this ridiculous assertion: “If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.”

While I was a teenager and 20-something, I was a talented dabbler, not a serious writer. I worked as a waitress, factory cog, busker, grocery checker and the person who scrubbed the floors and walls of the little private booths in a coin-operated porn theater. I hopped freights and smoked pot, played guitar, hitchhiked around the US, spent a couple years as an all-night disc jockey on an old-school album rock station, lived on a fire tower in the Northern California wilderness, married the love of my life and had two babies.

I started writing seriously while I was in chemo at age 32. My first novel was published by MacAdam-Cage when I was 35, and despite my being so inexcusably tardy to the party, I’ve since been published by Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Hyperion and Hachett. I also learned everything I could about indie publishing and launched my own digital imprint.

I believe my life experiences make me a better writer than I would have been if I’d devoted the first half of my life to academic circle-jerking. Many, many stellar authors—not just a few “notable exceptions”—came to the profession as fully grown ass folk.

I do agree with a few points made: you must read, you must write, and nobody loves a whiny memoir unless it’s beautifully written. I strongly agree with his assertion that you don’t need his help to get published, because he seems to know very little about publishing. And this is the crux of the problem. I can’t think of another professional field in which most educators have little or no working knowledge of the industry in which their students hope to make a living.

A creative writing program is useless if it isn't headed up by people who actually know something about the publishing industry, because one of the greatest challenges of writing life is the balance of art and commerce. Literary culture cannot thrive when artists are starved into submission or forced to choose between art and the welfare of their families. We should expect to be paid for our work like any other craftspeople, and that's not what aspiring writers are being taught in most MFA programs.

Last but not least, I wonder why the author, throughout this article, consistently raises examples of mediocre and bad students with female pronouns while the only “real deal” student mentioned is “that guy”?

Actually, that’s disingenuous; I don’t wonder why. I just wonder how much damage he did to the talented women authors who came to class hoping to learn about the art and craft of writing and came away with a bucket of sour academic grapes.


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