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Showing posts from November, 2007

Brock Clarke on the southern character (a tasty Friday morning morsel)

What a pleasure it is, in the reading life, to come upon a sentence that's as richly delicious as a bite of warm clafouti . Brock Clarke offers this one in An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England : ...I'd met a few of what he called "his authors," had heard him talk about those authors, and so I immediately pegged Wesley Mincher for what he was: a character, too, the sort of southern character who believed that being a southern character had something to do with misdirectional doublespeak, and losing the Civil War and not wanting others to talk about it but not being able to stop talking about it yourself, and having wise, lugubrious old folks and front porches for them to sit on, and black people, always black people, about whom you knew everything and about whom no one else knew shit, and the idea that self-criticism is art but criticism from outside is hypocrisy, and wise, folksy sheriffs and God and farm animals and good food that wouldn'

What's at Stake in Your Story?

As I've been working toward completion of a new romantic suspense, I've been thinking a lot about stakes. As I read through the manuscript, I ask myself not only what's at stake in this story, but what's at stake in each chapter and every scene. If my honest answer is "nothing much" or "it's just about character development" or "to illustrate the setting" (yawn), I go back and revise, sharpening the focus on the question that must be answered and what lies in the balance. This week marks the release of my thirteenth novel, and though I'm still far, far away from having all the answers, one thing I can say for certain is that stakes count - sometimes more than any other factor - in a book's success. An easily-communicated, succinct "gut-punch" of a story germ (sometimes known as a high-concept story) can be used by the author in a query letter, by the editor when talking to the sales force and/or art director, by the

Life unpeeled: a conversation with Allison Winn Scotch

Stepping out with a lovely debut novel, Allison Winn Scotch takes a moment to chat about writing, life, and The Department of Lost and Found , which PW calls "a bonbon of a book." Allison, I know from experience that a book with cancer in it often gets tagged as "a cancer book", but The Department of Lost and Found is really a book about life, isn't it? It’s funny: on the surface, The Department is a book about a young woman who gets cancer, but to me – and to many readers, so I’ve been told – it’s about much more than that – it’s about a young woman who is trying to figure out her life, what’s important, what’s not, what her purpose is, whom she loves…all of those big questions that so many of us wrestle with as we forge our way to adulthood. And certainly, as I was crafting Natalie’s story, a lot of my own experience rattled around in my mind. For example, Natalie decides, as part of her quest for self-awareness, to track down the five loves of her life

GCC Presents: The Department of Lost and Found

You don't have to have had cancer to have been touched by its profound impact on those diagnosed with the disease. Nearly all of us know someone whose priorities have been completely rearranged by the fight for survival and a suddenly-in-your-face awareness of our own mortality. Allison Winn Scotch's debut novel, The Department of Lost and Found , takes a hopeful, sometimes humorous approach to what could be a downer of a subject. Natalie Miller has just had the worst day of her life. Her doctor gives her the shocking news that she has breast cancer and her boyfriend dumps her, leaving Natalie to question everything she knows. So she decides to take on her cancer the way she does everything—with steely determination. But as she becomes a slave to the whims of chemo, her body forces her to take a time out. She gets a dog, becomes addicted to The Price is Right and, partly to spite her counselor’s idea to keep a journal, Natalie embarks on a mission. She is going to trac

Relentless rain, big sleep, and the simple art of murder

Laid low with an anvil-to-the-head case of flu this weekend, I drifted in and out of a 32-hour nap, listening to the endless rain and rolling thunder, huddled under a big eiderdown comforter I schlepped back from Portugal a few years ago and break out only when the weather gets bleak. This cozy hideout was the perfect setting in which to read Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (once I was able to prop myself up with soda crackers and ginger ale) with its relentless rain and coldblooded killers. I've been studying hardboiled detective stories lately, dissecting the plot clockworks, jotting clues on notecards, charting characters on yellow legal pads. In the process, I've become a huge Hammett-head, practically dislocated my jaw yawning over Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and frankly laughed my head off over vintage issues of Black Mask -- the magazine that gave both Hammett and Chandler their first publishing credits. But while I read The Big Sleep yesterday, there was just me an

Signings, signings, signings

More than any other time of year, I love doing autographings during the holidays. There are lots of people out and about, and some of them actually clap on to the idea that a personalized, signed book makes a thoughtful gift. Either that, or they're worn down by the long lines at the electronics superstores and appreciate the mob-free, laid-back, and friendly atmosphere of most signings. I don't believe in hard sells, don't get up from the table and wander the store or get in people's faces or jam copies in their hands. I chat. I offer. And I try to leave potential buyers with the impression that they've just met this really nice, approachable author who clearly enjoys meeting readers. (Most readers, anyway.) If you're in the Houston area, I hope you'll look for me at the following dates/locations, where I'll be signing my new release, The Salt Maiden. If you're elsewhere, I hope you'll keep an eye out for the book, which is due in stores on or

"Cooking With Pooh": Joni's publishing parable for Thanksgiving

I s'pose it would be nice if I wrote a heartfelt bit about how grateful I am for all my well-blessed squab-bob-a-doo etc today, and truly, I try to follow the Biblical mandate to praise God in all things, knowing full well that God is going to give me something way better than what I've been praying for, but I gotta tell ya, I've had a cascading wall of crap kind of year, and I'm frankly not appreciating it. So I decided to offer instead a deliciously cynical industry roast, inspired by Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who recently concluded his quest to find the worst book titles ever. The undisputed winner: Cooking With Pooh . Yes, it is an actual children's book from Disney. An eloquent comment on the industry in itself, but then... Wait. When you think about it, Cooking With Pooh could be construed as a mandate. A call for unblinking optimism. It's about taking whatever's thrown at you and making the best of it. Writers are great at th

Gifts of Reading, Gifts of Memories

Joni's recent post is dead right. The failure to transmit the joy of reading is dumbing down society. I thought of this while waiting around the drugstore the other day and looking at some oldies but goodies that brought back such sweet memories. Language, love, and self-esteem are far more likely to be transmitted a child snuggles next to a parent, another loved one, or sits, rapt, with other children as a teacher reads to a class than any of the Genius Baby software/video learning systems out there. As a longtime educator and a lifetime book lover, I can tell you that human children are designed to imprint upon adults, not pixels, and there's plenty of research out there to prove that reading with a child just 20 minutes a day improves language, reading skills, and even IQ (all test scores rise, including math, which is largely tested through word problems these days). I can also say that the parent (or parental figure's) enthusiasm for reading is frequently conta

Does "Reading at Risk" translate to "writers at risk"?

It's not exactly shocking news that Americans are reading less and less, but the impact of it is worth looking at, especially for those of us who hope to make a living supplying words that are in increasingly less demand. A recent study by the NEA strongly indicates that as we the people read less, we're getting dumber. According to Motoko Rich's article in yesterday's NY Times : ...Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills. That is the message of a new report being released today by the National Endowment for the Arts, based on an analysis of data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor Departments and the Census Bureau as well as other acade

Colleen Gets Motivated

Click here to read my "Writing Habits" interview over at The Motivated Writer e-zine.

You Tell 'Em, Harlan

Harlan Ellison's an icon: science fiction novelist/short story writer extraordinaire ("A Boy and His Dog" is just one creepy, post-apocalyptic standout) and screenwriter for Babylon Five, The Outer Limits, and Logan's Run, . But over the course of his long, productive career, the man has had enough -- more than enough -- of writers being asked to do things for free (or the good of the hive) and of writers with the I'll-do-anything-please-notice-me mentality. The language is - uh - candid, but there's a lot here that's just plain right. Plus, it's fun to see an icon say exactly what he's thinking. Check it out.

"In the destructive element immerse!" (On writers behaving badly)

As an avid Rolling Stone reader from 14 till 40 (when I saw the Olsen twins on the cover, the love affair was so over), I grew up reading and loving Hunter S. Thompson, but the way he killed himself cast a shadow over his writing for me. There was such cruelty and selfishness in the way he did it. (Thompson's young grandson was in the next room when Thompson shot himself in the head.) All that wonderful "gonzo" blah blah blah suddenly seemed...pathetic. An orgy of cleverness, to be sure, but it left a sticky mess for someone else to clean up. But writers drink, don't they? Writers smoke, get stoned, kill themselves, right? On account of how brilliant and sensitive we are. The two takes on this issue are evident in two Hunter S. Thompson books -- both coming out this month, both with the title Gonzo , both featuring intros by Johnny Depp. (How the heck does that happen?) PR copy for Gonzo from Ammo Books: Gonzo presents a rare look into the life of famed American au

Doing the work, staying inspired, and moving on to the next book

Colleen and I spent the morning at Starbucks, pouring over a recently completed manuscript with a friend. This is a person with a lot of talent, rock solid technical skills, and a big time fire in the belly. She's been published in the past, but not big published. The breaks just haven't gone her way yet. Now she's adding a third novel to her bank of unsold (no, make that pre -sold) manuscripts. After we talked through all the elements to celebrate, tweak, beef up, whittle down in the ms, conversation moved on to her next project. Having finished this book a whole five days ago, our friend is already blazing away on something new. She shared her idea with us, and it's a great idea. "It's waking me up," she said with that familiar spark of divine fire. "I've been sitting there at 3 AM scribbling notes as fast as I can." In the "many are called but few are chosen" world of publishing, hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers boil

The envelope please (preferably the one with the money in it)

Results from National Book Awards last night: FICTION: Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) (That's Denis's wife Cindy above with the book I will be reading soon and sending my son soon after.) NONFICTION: Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday) (Two copies on order for Christmas, one for my dad, one for my son, toss-up which one I'll steal.) POETRY: Robert Hass, Time and Materials (Ecco/HarperCollins) (I don't ingest a lot of poetry, but I did love this book.) YOUNG PEOPLE'S LIT: Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown & Company) (OK, I think Sherman is hot, and I don't care who knows it.) I recall being stunned a few years back when I heard that not one of the novels nominated that year had sold more than 2,700 copies in hardback. This years finalists fared better, for the most part. Critical Mass reports the numbers on this year's fiction finalists (per Books

Nora Roberts Talks Writing

Over on Romance Novel TV today, Nora Roberts answers questions about her novels (by the score, and nearly all of them bestsellers) and on writing. Smart, savvy, and successful, Nora pulls no punches. I especially like this nugget: "Without discipline, drive and desire, all the talent in the world isn't going to put an entertaining story down on paper." Stop by and check out the writing Q&A. And don't expect her to have a lot of sympathy for our (merely mortal) self-excusing and kvetching. Go, Nora!

When authors attack

In case you never thought of "National Book Awards" and "Are you ready to rumble?" simultaneously... I'm not exactly on the edge of my seat to know which middle-aged white man will win this year's National Book Award tonight, but I do wish I'd been at the National Book Award finalist reading last night when ( according to Critical Mass ) "extra-textual political reverberations turned into fire-works." Or at least as fiery as the works ever get at a prestigious-to-the-point-of-sphincter-Olympics events like this. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass kicked things off by commenting on how odd it was to have such an event without any mention of "this war," and how demoralized he was by living in a country where discussion means a "gingerly conversation about whether we should or should not torture our enemies." It wasn't completely off-topic question, given that the uncle of Edwidge Danticat -- the subject of her NBA f

Disproving all those "cat-fight" rumors...

When I first became involved in the writing community, I was a member of a multi-genre group and I attended multi-genre conferences. Whenever I used to hear about romance writers and their groups, words like "catty," "nasty," and "cutthroat" would come up. So I was a little leery when my writing edged into that territory. And surprised as all get-out to find the opposite was true. For one thing, romance writers train and support their competition by offering free or low-cost workshops, judging contests (again, for free, though it's quite time-consuming), and blurbing debut authors. When friend writers fall on hard times, they organize benefits (such as the one Deborah MacGillivray has put together for author Dawn Thompson , who's had some tough health problems). To celebrate their fifth years of publication, two other authors from my publishing house, Jennifer Ashley and Bonnie Vanak , have put together an "Oldies for Newbies" contest

Merrily, We're Pulled Along... Until We Take Wing

I love attending writers' conferences, watching the fervor with which we all (including the editors and agents attending) collectively put our ears to the railroad tracks of publishing in a vain attempt to discern what's coming. Often, some Chicken Little or another shouts out, "It's going to be X," whereupon others take up the cry. Pulled along by the prevailing sentiment, many struggle to keep up, following along like so many kites pulled by puffing children. But every so often, one of us is lifted far beyond the trend, buoyed by some unknown, unknowable inspiration. Losing sight of the fray, this one writes a book so special and so different that it soars high above the others and creates a new trend of its own. Everybody wants to be that writer, wants to lead the wave instead of following. But the magical ingredient can't be bought or earned by study. It can't be found at writers' conferences or in the recorded wisdom of industry professiona

Dough-see-dough: Is it time to change literary dance partners?

Chatting with a few author friends this weekend, it came up in conversation that several of us had changed agents in the last six months. The very notion of "hopping" strikes fear into every writers heart. Obtaining literary representation is tremendously difficult to begin with. It's hard for newbies to imagine you could ever get disgruntled enough to guillotine this person who was supposed to be your savior, and certainly, we don't do it lightly. Authors are beyond loathe to fire the agent we have until his or her conduct becomes so egregious or the relationship so strained that the situation is unbearable, and by that time, a huge chunk of our most precious commodity -- time -- has been lost. "In addition to several authors changing out representation, Agents are also in the process of purging their stables and seeking out new clients. Rumors...but anyone on the list serves has probably heard actual names," says Cindy Cruciger . "My theory is that p

Norman Mailer 1923-2007: A psychic outlaw. And we liked it.

Norman Mailer died this morning. From the NY Times obit : Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. In his memoir (in a way) The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing , Mailer describes the writing of his third novel, The Deer Park : "With each week of work, bombed and sapped and charged and stoned with lush, with pot, with benny, saggy, coffee, and two packs a day, I was working, live, and over-alert, and tiring into what felt like death, afraid all the way because I had achieved the worst of vicious circles in myself...and so as the weeks went on, and publication was delayed from June to August and then to October, there was only a worn-out part of me to keep protesting into the pillows of one drug and the pinc

More book buzz for Colleen

The Best Reviews weighed in on Colleen's forthcoming novel The Salt Maiden with some well-deserved love today: Colleen Thompson is an author waiting to “happen”. Oh, she has been out there, is well respected as a growing talent. She has a solid backlist of amazing tales; only, she just has that presence of an author ready to have that break out novel. The Salt Maiden is that book. Her skill and flow of the prose marks her as a master wordsmith. She weaves an intricate plot into this eerie, sinister tale that kept me spellbound. This simply is Colleen Thompson at her very best. ...under the careful crafting of this very talented writer, the reader is guaranteed a tale that will keep them on the edge of the seat, with temperatures rising, as they turn page after page unable to put this novel down. Very highly recommended. Go, Colleen, go! (Let's have coffee sometime, as long as you're just sitting around waiting to happen.)

Road Tripping, West Texas Style

It's been a particular challenge writing a novel set in a very real small town located a ten-hour drive away from where I live in Houston. The setting for any novel is a fictional construct viewed through the authorial lens. During several brief stops through the tiny town of Marfa in West Texas during Big Bend vacations/research trips, I was charmed and intrigued by its fascinating history , its beautiful views, its isolation, and of course, the mystery of the Marfa lights . So I started doing research, which led me to discover that thanks to the arrival of Burt Compton of Marfa Gliders , this beautiful area has become a premier destination for the sport of soaring. Through research, memory, and some soaring in the Houston area, I put together and sold a proposal for Triple Exposure, my seventh romantic suspense novel (fourteenth book overall). With a challenging deadline, I've been working away at it, but I knew I needed to make another trip out to complete my research.

Marvelous Marfa

As Colleen's sherpa on her research trip to Marfa this week, I'm enjoying the all out grooviness of Marfa folk. Artists and cool types abounding. Check it out.

Who'da thunk? The dirty rotten scoundrels turned out to be dirty rotten scoundrels.

An interesting story in today's NY Times : Five authors have sued the parent company of Regnery Publishing, a Washington imprint of conservative books, charging that the company deprives its writers of royalties by selling their books at a steep discount to book clubs and other organizations owned by the same parent company. In a suit filed in United States District Court in Washington yesterday, the authors Jerome R. Corsi, Bill Gertz, Lt. Col. Robert (Buzz) Patterson, Joel Mowbray and Richard Miniter state that Eagle Publishing, which owns Regnery, “orchestrates and participates in a fraudulent, deceptively concealed and self-dealing scheme to divert book sales away from retail outlets and to wholly owned subsidiary organizations within the Eagle conglomerate.” Regnery is the publisher of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry and other tomes of that ilk. I'm just curious to know what made authors think that a publisher with such blatant di

GCC Presents: One Heck of a Debut with One Hell of a Follow-Up

Once in a while I come across ideas that simply make me say, "Wow, I never would've come up with that one in a zillion years." Girlfriends Cybercircuit member Jackie Kessler has imagined a fascinating universe "peopled" by demons and a 4000-year-old smart-ass succubus named Jezebel. Fun and sexy, her second novel, The Road to Hell, has the critics singing Kessler's praises, as did her debut, Hell's Belles. Praise for THE ROAD TO HELL: "Kessler's sizzling sequel to paranormal debut Hell's Belles puts ex-succubus Jezebel--the now-mortal Jesse Harris, a dancer at a strip club--stage center again. For a month after waking up in a hospital, the former 4,000-year-old, fifth-level succubus who used to seduce humans to claim their souls has been living a happy mortal life in New York with a devoted boyfriend, New York vice cop Paul Hamilton. So when Alecto, a Fury from hell, arrives and demands she return to hell to help Alecto's sister, M

Rhett is no gentleman, and frankly, my dear, I DO give a damn!

When I was a kid before the advent of VCRs (aka "when dinosaurs roamed the earth") Gone With the Wind came round to the movie theaters once a year, and every year, I begged to go. The first year I remember seeing the newspaper advertisement -- a glorious full color quarter page featuring the famous image of Scarlet shaking her fist at God -- only my oldest sister Linda got to go. The following year, my sister Diana joined her. The next year, I turned ten. My sister Janis was going to go with Linda and Diana, leaving me behind like a stupid little kid all by myself. As God was my witness, I was not going to let that happen! I started begging and wheedling months in advance and my mother (so wise, Mom, so wise!) told me, "If you read the book, you'll show me that you're mature enough to go to the movie." I commandeered Diana's well-worn copy and devoured it like a wood chipper. Then Diana, who had the tome practically memorized, quizzed me in front of ou

What does the looming Writers Guild strike mean for novelists?

I'm interested to hear what others think about the impending television writers' strike and how it affects those of us who write books. According to an article in today's NY Times : Indeed, most of those affected by such a strike have no direct stake in its issues. The New York-based book industry, for instance, may find studios reluctant to buy film rights to new works at a time when no writers are available to adapt them for the screen. “In the first part of a strike, buyers will be sitting and waiting to see if it gets resolved,” said Amy Schiffman, who specializes in literary sales for Hollywood’s Gersh Agency. Another interesting piece starts with a cutesy "Talk about writing yourself into a corner!" (Yeah. Tee. Hee.) Then goes on to detail a semi-scary policy that I would be hard put to go along with. [The] writers union also tossed in a provision called a “script validation program” that has some members rooting, at least behind the scenes, for the enem

The Reluctant Expert (Being a published author means you can help anyone publish a book... right?)

Having stumbled home from a lovely evening of good wine and live jazz on the Market Street quad, I'm trying to focus my eyes for a bit of catch up reading and just had to pass on the best industry article I've read this week: The Reluctant Expert: Being a published author means you can help anyone publish a book... right? by Steve Weinberg appeared in Publishers Weekly. When my telephone rings, I almost always check the caller ID before I answer. If the number and name look unfamiliar, I assume that the caller is probably (a) a prison inmate, or (b) a would-be author seeking advice about publishing a book. Why that pairing? As an investigative reporter, I write frequently about malfunctions of the criminal justice system. Having gained a reputation among convicts and their families as a journalist who might look into claims of innocence, I receive numerous calls from desperate people. Most inmates and their loved ones are grateful if I do nothing more than listen. Wannabe auth