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Showing posts from March, 2008

A Master's Voice

One of the most difficult and frustrating facets of the writing game may be voice. It's tough to explain, harder to grok , and impossible to boil down to a simple set of how-to instructions. Yet voice, the unique way in which an author strings words, sentences, and paragraphs to build a story, is the factor that separates the good writer from the great author -- and the single quality that most excites agents, editors, and readers. I belong to a critique group that includes five talented women. If each of us brought one page of a brand-new product to a meeting, and they were all mixed up, with no names, I'm dead sure that every single group member could match each page with the correct writer, in the same way that readers could correctly identify something written by, say, Janet Evanovich or Michael Connelly or Diana Gabaldon or (insert your favorite author). Voice is as good as a fingerprint in that way. You can't go to a workshop to develop your voice. You can't f

More on that Gulfstream

Joni's mention of the gulf stream piqued my interest, since I'm currently reading (and enjoying) Karen Harper's romantic suspense novel Below the Surface . In the book, she makes several references to the Winslow Homer painting "Gulf Stream." I loved that she did this, and I have to think that this painting is especially meaningful to authors. Here in the dangerous waters of publishing, there be dragons, sharks, and, you know, the occasional boxing octopus. Yet most of us are like those valiant, death-defying sailors of old: too stubborn or addicted to quit riding the waves. So come and join me today (now that I've completed my galleys!) The water's fine!

On the road again and in a Florida state of mind

Trippin' to Florida, which was my favorite of all the places I lived as a kid. Gary and I flew over to bottle wine at my sister's and fetch the car back from the guys' baja road trip. Driving along the coast has always been good for words. Gulf stream of consciousness as it were. And then there are places like Destin, where my sister and I met up about this time last year ... I need the sea. The sea doesn't need me. The same is true of the publishing industry. The same is true of parenting children who are no longer children. It's vaguely insulting but on a deeper level liberating to know that the world of books, the lives of my children, the muddy swamp that is politics these days, all this and more will go on with or without my help, as sure as the tide rolls in and out whether or not I sit there. This realization spawns a mellower, less control freaky approach to life. It casts me as an observer, which is what a good writer must be before anything else.

It's never too late to be a wannabe

My nephew has been visiting, and hanging out with this 23-year old aspiring sci-fi/fantasy novelist has reminded me of the best and worst of what it is to be a wannabe. After staying up until after 4 AM two nights in a row, drinking copious amounts of homemade wine, smoking clove cigarettes, and talking impassioned talk about writing and life, he took off on a road trip to Florida with my son. I threw up and spent the rest of the day in bed. Having gone 46 years without smoking a cigarette and then smoking the entire four decades worth in one night, I was in sad condition. My head was buzzing with idealism, and my throat was acid-raw from laughter and tobacco. "I'm way too old for these shenanigans," I told Colleen. "Clove cigarettes!" she said. "I haven't even thought of those since college, when all the Sylvia Plath wannabees smoked 'em. Sounds as if you've had a couple of artsy nights and relived your misspent youth. What could be more fun?

Modern-Day Galley Slave

Life as an old-time galley slave seriously sucked. By comparison, the author's galleys, also known as page proofs or galley proofs are nothing more than a light bump on the road of the writing life. But that doesn't mean they aren't important. For the uninitiated, galleys are the writer's last chance to catch boo boos. These pages show up on one's doorstep between three and six months of the book's publication date. (Depending on your publisher, your time frame may be different.) The author usually has about ten days (with luck) to proofread them and get the corrected pages (or the whole kit 'n caboodle, depending on your publisher) back to the production editor. It's expensive to make changes at this point, so the author can't mess around with flow or word her passages more elegantly (though I guarantee you, you'll find stuff you'd dearly love to revise). That ship has sailed already, during the editing stage. Only corrections, such a

Time & Distance & Revision

Did you miss me? I've been away from the blog, away from the Internet (gasp!) for about nine days. Thanks to Joni for keeping up BtO in such grand style. I spent the week visiting my family across the country. It was a quiet trip. No gliders or mountain vistas or long hikes to view wildlife, but one of those introspective journeys where you spend hours and hours chatting with the folks who knew you first and face up to the You you might have been if you'd stuck around the homestead. In addition to getting my family fix, the trip brought me a writing gift as well. With my nose forcibly pried from the grindstone, I was able to get enough time away and distance from the project at which I'd been laboring to give me valuable perspective. Somehow, I'd forgotten the lesson that it's blinding to stare at any one point so closely and for so long. Coming back to it now, I see it as if for the first time, as cleanly and with as much detachment as if I were editing someone

Applied physics: the natural laws of story

Gary and I were having an admittedly nerdy coffee conversation this morning, and as he was expounding on the finer points of Newton’s laws, it occurred to me that these indisputable physical laws can be applied quite handily in the universe of fiction. There are certain truths about character and plot development that do not change, and breaking those natural laws removes the element of reality good fiction needs. Newton's First Law of Motion: An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. In every sentence of every scene of every story, characters have to have a reason for doing what they’re doing. An arc of change has to be set in motion by some credible catalyst, and a course of self-destruction or self-actualization can only be stopped or slowed by a believable obstacle. Even if the entire story takes place in a bathtub, some force – from outside o

Fact, fiction, and fudgery

Bob Hoover, book editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an interesting piece in yesterday's paper. "Separating fact from fiction is the author's job" discusses some recent cases where facts were fudged -- sometimes through honest mistakes and sometimes not -- and asks some important questions about who is ultimately responsible for making sure that non-fiction means yeah, we really really mean it this time . Quoth Hoover: We've become blase about the issue. Perhaps it was the excessive coverage granted James Frey and his trumped-up autobiography, "A Million Little Pieces," that prepared us for the too-familiar story of Margaret Seltzer, a woman in her 30s who pretended to be the survivor of gang life in South Central Los Angeles and wrote a book about it. Every word of "Love and Consequences," including the "the's" and the "and's," (thank you, Mary McCarthy) was a lie. Yet, for three years, her editor at Rive

Building your book (a publisher's perspective)

An interesting post on "The Right Way to Build a Book" from Theodore Savas of small historical press Savas Beatie : The fundamentals for selling any book are essentially the same. Here is the secret: talk about your book as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for as long as you can, wherever you can, even if you don't sell a single copy when you do. Oh, and there is a follow up: REPEAT--REPEAT--REPEAT. ...Do you have copies with you all the time? Have you sent a letter to everyone you know telling them about your book? Are you talking about your book as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for as long as you can, wherever you can, even if you don't sell a single copy when you do? Are you asking people who they know in the media that can help you? The honest answer to that question will explain a lot the next time you open a royalty statement or read in the news about some author who has a bestseller that is no more interesting than the bo

I've discovered who I am as a writer: a reader.

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write," Stephen King says in On Writing , and that was a boot to the head I needed at the time. As the mom of two young kids, a maniacally devoted church lady, PTO volunteer, and newly published author, I realized I'd been reading less and less, and the books I crammed into my sleepy head in the last grabby moments of my waking day were mostly research or writing/publishing how to books. Then Joan Drury , the wise woman who edited my second novel (she was "Joanie the Greater" and I "Joni the Lesser" a la Biblical distinctions) pointed out to me one day that a person who's never written a break-out bestseller is ill-equipped to tell others how it's done, and a writer is much better advised to read books that restore the love of language and refresh the joy of story, which is what drew us into the world of books to begin with. She gave me an "assigned if the spirit moves you&quo

Pax vobiscum, Sir Arthur

The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey , I was with my big brother Allen. He took me and my sister Diana to the Rivoli Theater in LaCrosse, Wisconsin for an afternoon matinee. The sun was getting low and it was bitter cold when we got home to find that we'd locked ourselves out of the house, and we huddled in the station wagon for hours, discussing the film's weighty themes and artistic nuances until Mom got home to let us in. This from the BBC obituary yesterday: Science fiction writer Sir Arthur C Clarke has died at the age of 90 in Sri Lanka. Once called "the first dweller in the electronic cottage", his vision of the future, and its technology - popularised in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey - captured the popular imagination. Arthur C Clarke's vivid - and detailed - descriptions of space shuttles, super-computers and rapid communications systems were enjoyed by millions of readers around the world. His writings gave science fiction - a genre often accus

Seeing dead people

My novel in progress begins with the discovery of a dead body buried beneath the oleander in the protagonist's backyard, and the cascading wall of research that ensued led me to the web page of Houston's own Dr. Ed Uthman , pathologist, web worm, deep thinker, enthusiastic ranter, and apparently really, really cool guy. Hard research resources that I will definitely be visiting and revisiting include A Screenwriter's Guide to the Autopsy ("Remember the brain? We left it suspended in a big jar of formalin for a few weeks. After the brain is "fixed," it has the consistency and firmness of a ripe avocado. Before fixation, the consistency is not unlike that of three-day- old refrigerated, uncovered Jello."), an introduction to Forensic Pathology , and a delicious section on Exotic Infections ("For medical students, any treatment of infectious diseases at the survey level will of necessity leave out a huge amount of medical knowledge, so please consider


I wanted to take a moment to introduce BtO's readers to the new web resource, , that Joni has put together for us. The website contains some of the best of the blog, links to helpful writers' resources, and a bookstore that includes helpful books on writing, recommended reads, and (naturally!) our own books. Thanks so much, Joni, for all the work you've put into the site and into BtO's sleek, new look! Readers, please let us know what you think or any suggestions you might have.

More on Collaging

Not so long ago, I posted about a number of methods used to brainstorm a new novel. For my most recently-released novel, The Salt Maiden , I mentioned the use of collaging, which is a technique I picked up from several authors, including Susan Wiggs, Barbara Samuel, Jenny Crusie, all of whom, I'm 100% sure, are more artistic than I am. But I won't knock anything that works, so when I recently rediscovered my original collage, I snapped a photo before tossing it, mostly because I thought it would be interesting to see how closely this idea-catcher resembled the final novel. I've done this with other prewriting plans (usually webbing, which I described in the linked post, or occasionally in poorly-rendered sketches) and have been surprised to find that these may have formed a springboard to the ideas that formed the synopsis and, after much hair-pulling, a novel, but they've borne little if any resemblance to the final product. Not so with the collage. I was surprised

The real deal isn't defined by numbers

According to the legend at the bottom of every deal report from Publisher's Marketplace , a "nice deal" is $1 - $49,000, a "very nice deal" is $50,000 - $99,000, a "good deal" is $100,000 - $250,000, a "significant deal" $251,000 - $499,000, a "major deal" is $500,000 and up. The legend is basically a waste of space, of course, because only a tiny fraction of authors make it past "good", and even those lucky ducks who do recognize the difference between the $100K and $250K per annum lifestyle. If PM actually wants to make this information useful, to give authors (and agents and editors) some actual frame of reference, they need to break those first two levels down to bite size and label anything over $150K "Neenur Neenur Neenur". A far more accurate system for quantifying your latest advance: "The Real World Book Deal Descriptions" from John Scalzi's Whatever blog, which still cracks me up years

Did Someone Say *Free Books*?

Publishers Weekly's "Beyond Her Book" blogger Barbara Vey is celebrating her first-year anniversary of filling us in on all things women's fiction. I love Barbara's friendly, positive take on the industry, so I'm one of more than 75 authors, publishers, and publicists donating goodies (in my case, an autographed copy of The Salt Maiden ) to one lucky person who posts a comment on her anniversary post today, Friday, March 14th. I hope you'll pop over and wish her a happy anniversary -- and let the powers that be at Publishers Weekly know we're glad to have a place to dish on romance and other chick-friendly fiction. And on another note, thanks to Joni for all the hours she's put into freshening the look of Boxing the Octopus! We're trying to make the format leaner, cleaner, and easier to navigate. Any thoughts out there?

Workable shmerkable, it's all in the delivery

A telekinetic girl goes ape-crazy after getting her first period? What a crappy idea. No wonder the author threw it in the trash. An evil genius assembles a monster from human body bits? Yark! Hideous idea. And the author's husband was a literary lion. Certainly, he was right to throw the manuscript in the fire. And what's the market for a book with a fat, obnoxious protagonist? Worst idea ever. Who could blame the author for despairing? But Stephen King's wife rescued Carrie . Brave Mary Shelley resurrected Frankenstein . And sadly, John Kennedy Toole's heartbroken mom watched A Confederacy of Dunces win a Pulitzer after her son despaired and took his own life. I won't even bother mentioning the scores of agents and editors who told JK Rowling that her ten pound tome about a boy wizard was utterly unworkable. So what grand moral may we extrapolate from these tales of tragedy and triumph? Perhaps it's that two things separate good ideas from bad: skilled exec

Help Houston Fire Station 6 with Your Vote!

I owe my husband big time, not only in real life but in the writing department. He supports my career with gusto, has taken me seriously from Day One, and is my go-to guy for research involving emergency services. Recently, his Houston Fire Station entered Gallery Furniture's Create Your Own Commercial contest to win $25K worth of merchandise to replace their ancient, mangy furnishings. I think their commercial came out great, but it needs votes to have a shot at winning (requires a quick & simple registration). If you can spare a few minutes to help out, please follow this link and cast your vote Or you can simply visit Gallery Furniture and click on the video contest link, then find the entry for Station 6. Should be halfway down the "most recent" lists. Most folks don't realize it, but the firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts in many places (Houston included), supply their own televisions, pots and pans, food items, bedding, newspapers, and telephones. An

When the Dogs Do Bark

Over the last few days, we've gotten into some wonderful off-blog discussions regarding Joni Rodgers' insightful post: "Consider the Source: Rise of the Cleverati," about those snarkier-than-thou amateur reviewers out to wow all of cyberspace with their evisceration of this book or that. Since criticism and rejection come with the territory, authors do their best to shrug off the naysayers and those folks who seem to expend an inordinate percentage of their time on this planet posting rabid, one-star reviews on Amazon. From time to time, however, the harpies' talons punch straight through an author's protective armor. They can wound, and in some sad cases, kill an author's desire to continue writing. Author Sue-Ellen Welfonder shared some valuable wisdom in the form of a Saracen proverb she uses whenever she needs to give herself a reality check. I thought it was so on-target, I asked for her permission to share it with BtO's readers. So here ya g

Breaking Bad: the constant chemistry of change

It’s pretty rare to stumble on a TV show that actually makes it worthwhile to set aside your book for an hour, but I have recently become addicted to AMC’s original series Breaking Bad in which Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who goes into business with a former student cooking crystal meth. In the first episode, we meet the remarkably unremarkable Mr. White, who works a second job at a car wash in order to support his pregnant wife and severely handicapped teenage son. When White is diagnosed with lung cancer and handed the darkest possible prognosis, his story shifts from sleepy to searing. What I love about this series is how the action – and there’s a whole lot of that – is all about the transformation of this character. It’s all about chemical reaction, about the subtle and explosive changes that occur when one basic element meets another. The high concept is fantastically well-executed with brass-knuckle writing, inspired acting, and smartass

Dreamer vs. Writer vs. Author

I'll confess, it always bugs me when somebody comes up to me at a signing or a speaking venue and whips out that hoary line: "I've got this story in my head. I know it'd be a really great book, and if I get the time someday, I'm going to write it." The subtext is generally something to the effect of: "I'll be on Oprah with my first try, have People pounding at my door, and won't give a working hack like yourself the time of day." These folks are the dreamers, of the same ilk as, well, me, when I fantasize about playing backup to Bruce Springsteen (I was born and raised a Jersey girl; this dream comes with the territory) in spite of the fact that I have no musical talent whatsoever. The dream is really vivid (including tanned and beefy lifeguard groupies eager to offer up a standing O!), but I haven't put the time in, don't intend to put the time in, and lack the genius for going beyond the printed note. Much better than the dre

So This Gets Easier... When???

Back before I published my first novel, I remember thinking that once I got the call, I'd have it all together. Be able to look in the mirror each morning and think, "Here I stand, a published author. I must know what I'm doing." Instead, I celebrated for about two days and then worried about becoming a one-book wonder. But I was already working on a second book, another historical romance, and my agent prompted me to whip up a synopsis of the half-completed book and submit it with the first three chapters. Sure enough, my then-publisher bought the thing. So then I started freaking about having to complete (with major alterations) an already-sold manuscript on a deadline. I somehow managed and for a while got caught up in building a website, promoting the first book, and yep, starting another proposal for a historical romance. That was about the time I lost my first editor, so then I began freaking about pleasing the new one. And then another new one. And yes, fri

I need to write a memoir about the good old days when "memoir" meant...well...memoir.

Yarg! Not again. Last week, it was Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca. (Not!) Just when we were beginning to forget about James Frey, who single-handedly smashed the credibility of memoirists into A Million Little Pieces . Now there's this from Motoko Rich's article in the NY Times yesterday: In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods. The problem is that none of it is true. Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she

Consider the source (rise of the cleverati)

Colleen just sent me a link to a snarky review of her latest book, and it put me in mind of a formative experience from my youth: Charged at the tender age of 16 with the task of writing a huge term paper on the use of humor in Great Expectations , I procrastinated until the weekend before it was due, begged my big sister Diana to tell me about the book, then plied my precocious writing abilities, cranking out forty pages of double-spaced BS. When the papers were handed back a few weeks later, I'd gotten an A, which didn't surprise me because I always got an A in English. My teacher proceeded with class, something about sonnets, I think, but during his lecture, he paused and thought for a moment. He walked over to my desk, took my paper, etched over the A with an emphatic red F and wrote below it, "You are such a clever writer! You almost had me believing you read this book." I happened upon that paper in my archives several years ago, and by cracky, it was clever.

If Elected, I Promise Not to Bore You...

Here in mighty Tejas, it's election day. A primary this time, but an especially crucial one. We're not used to counting for much in the presidential primaries. Way too often, the nominee's a done deal by the time we roust our slacker butts to the polls. But this year we've been bombarded with messages telling us that we're important. That our opinions really count... So I thought I'd take the moment to remind every reader out there, that your vote counts as well. When you love an author's work or take a friend's recommendation and buy a book brand new, you're voting (with your wallet) to let that author keep on writing more books for you to enjoy. When you haunt the used bookstore or skip over to Ebay to picked up a pre-owned copy, you're voting for that author to have increasingly weak sales, which will eventually put him/her out of business. Now, like a lot of people, you may not think your vote counts. You may leave it up to other people (

Joni adds a PS to Colleen's post below

I've had this posted above my desk for about six years: Great post, Colleen.

It's the Story, Stupid

Back in the day, when Bill Clinton was first running for Prez, his campaign staffers kept their focus with the motto: "It's the economy, stupid." Writers would do well to do winnow down the locust-like swarm of important-stuff-to-keep-in-mind to a single mantra that keeps what's personally important in the forefront. Mine is "It's All About the Storytelling." Craft is really important to me, as are (to a lesser extent) market-savvy, business sense, and intelligent networking. But every one of these can be trumped by story, and I can think of a number of gut-level, emotionally-engaging storytellers who have been hugely successful in spite of significant deficits in any or all of the other areas I've mentioned. Work by the story-rich but craft-poor tends to exasperate reviewers and confound fellow writers, but it connects with readers by the hundreds of thousands. Rather than stick my nose up at these vastly-popular storytellers, I read their work w

One man's trash: Stephen King on the real Carrie

I'm sitting here clearing my email as Gary mindlessly clicks. I love the man to pieces and want to be near him; sadly, the price for hanging out with him on Sunday morning is being willing to simultaneously watch 35 different TV programs in an endless parade of 4 second increments. But even Gary had to stop on the final scenes of Brian de Palma's hemoglobin-soaked rendition of Stephen King's Carrie . I love the backstory on the book: King was unable to place his first three novels with a publisher, but had done some short stories. King says, "I got an idea for a story about this incident in a girls' shower room, and the girl would be telekinetic. The other girls would pelt her with sanitary napkins when she got her period. The period would release the right hormones and she would rain down destruction on them." But three pages into the story, King decided he hated it and threw it away. His wife Tabitha rescued the acorn of a manuscript and encouraged him to e

Saturday morning cartoon: Dada meets Disney

How much do we love Walt Disney for wanting to include the art of Salvador Dali in the massively ahead of its time box office turkey Fantasia ? The lush but confusing piece hit the cutting room floor faster than you can say Cruella De Ville, but it found its way to the light of day a few years ago, and I saw it (fourteen or fifteen times in a row, but that's just me) at the Dali museum in Tampa. Danged if I know what it means, but it made me understand the dadaist methodology: Fling everything you have out into the universe -- thought, energy, light, love, sex, anger, disillusionment, Joe DiMaggio, pigs in boxes -- and sooner or later something will stick to the wall and be art. More of Dali's freaky deaky presence in la cinema Americain : Gadji berri bimba, baby.