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Showing posts from April, 2008

Midweek reminder: Make the garden grow.

Came home from NY last week to find my backyard full of irises. Today there are two plump red roses on a forgotten bush that haunts a corner by the back fence. I do absolutely nothing to take care of any plant life back there; these blossoms are a gift that insists on giving. It inspires me every spring, and while I can't promise to become a "yardie" (as Gary and I call our fervently green-thumbed neighbors), I have to wonder -- if a rose (or an idea?) persists in blooming all on its own, imagine what would happen if I actually put my back into it, tended the flowerbeds, fed the soil, and devoted the time and energy it takes to nurture possibility. My research this week led me to revisit Voltaire's Candide and the Leonard Bernstein music that blossomed from it. The theme is so simple and so true: The purpose of life is to "build our house, chop our wood, and make our garden grow." Here's the astonishing Renee Fleming and co:

Climbing the Walls (and Trees) for Story

As I was racking my brains for a blog topic this morning, my two shelter mutt/terrier mixes interrupted by barking with outrage at this fat and saucy squirrel on the back porch. It's a beautiful, coolish, low-humidity morning, so it was just the screen door between the mutts and the taunting floozy of a tail-shaker who was out there very purposely teasing them. I had to let out the dogs before they tore through the screen. The squirrel, of course, knows this game well, and jumped off the porch and tore up the side of a huge pine with no lower branches. Little Zippy just yapped her head off, but Jewel decided she'd had enough of this crap, so with a running start, she bounded up the tree. Young and athletic though Jewel is, she got about eight feet off the ground before gravity pulled her down. (She twisted neatly in the air and landed on her feet.) But she apparently liked the feeling, so she kept at it, running up the tree time and time again even though Madame Squirrel ha

My TBR pile is calling

I woke up at five this morning, snuggled up to the ol' Gare Bear, and looked longingly at the stack of books on my night stand. Nothing would make me happier than to spend the day right here with a good man, a good read, perhaps a cup of my newly discovered favorite passion fruit herbal tea. But a May 1 deadline loomed in a dark corner of the room; I have three days to blaze out a detailed chapter outline, and I'm still hip-deep in research. (I won't be ready to outline until I'm neck-deep.) But that To Be Read pile is so tempting... Top of the heap the second I get past this deadline is The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber . (I'm not sure who sent me this book, but I'm grateful, whoever you are, and would have sent a proper thank you if I knew who you were!) The Buzz: (From the starred review in Publishers Weekly ) "Bestseller Gruber ( The Book of Air and Shadows ) probes the boundaries between sanity and madness in his outstanding sixth novel. Talen

The New Crown Princess of Snappy Comebacks

This country may have been founded on the principles of democracy, but Americans haven't lost their taste for snobbery. This holds true in every facet of society, and reading/writing tastes are no exception. When someone makes a snotty comment to me about, say, writing trash, I'm always so flabbergasted (amazed, really, since without exception the perpetrator has never bothered to read one of my books), I have a tough time thinking of what to say. When accosted recently -- and publicly -- for her reading tastes, however, aspiring romance author Dana Belfry suffered no such loss for words. Rudely upbraided by a stranger for reading a Silhouette Desire category romance in a checkout line, setting back the cause of women's rights fifty years, and generally contributing to the decline of Western civ, here's how she responded: “You know,” I said, “you have an excellent point. Romance novels are horrific. I’m ashamed of myself. When I think of those kids in school who

My Name Is My Brand

Alerted by the Smart Bitches blog, I hopped over to the Palm Beach Daily News site to read this article where James Patterson is promoting his new "romance" novel. For reasons un-expressed, he insists it isn't a "real" romance. But is it a real James Patterson? Sundays at Tiffany's was written with North Carolina-based children's author Gabrielle Charbonnet in the collaborative style that Patterson developed about 10 years ago. It has been a key element in his increasingly prolific output. "We're hung up in this country about individualism," said Patterson, who compares his collaborative process for writing novels to the traditionally accepted manner in which film and television writers develop their products. "Why can't a book be created this way?" Patterson writes an outline, then selects a co-writer to write a first draft (which in my experience is the most time-consuming portion). Afterwards, he polishes, rewrites

Reading, writing, and restaurant love (a conversation with Tara Yellen)

Yesterday, I shared a bit about the mother/daughter dialogue sparked by Tara Yellen's gritty and gorgeous debut novel, After Hours at the Almost Home . The story unfolds behind the scenes at a restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday, and the characters proved way too close for comfort at times. (Publishers Weekly calls the plot "as intricate as a Greek tragedy.") I asked Tara to visit with us about the backstory on the book, her process, and of course, what she's reading... First of all, how are you? First novel. Big world. How’s that working out? What have you loved and hated about the process so far? I'm great. Good god, I can't complain--I've wanted to write a book from the time I was five. Now I can hold it in my hands. (I'm so excited, I almost want to chew on it.) As for the process, it's been exciting and scary... a bit unreal... I had no idea that, once I'd written it, it would take so long to become a book. I wrote it in a weekend and it to

After After Hours at the Almost Home (mother and daughter talk about a tough book)

The advance reader's copy of After Hours at the Almost Home , Tara Yellen's gritty and gorgeous debut novel, arrived as my daughter Jerusha was on her way out the door to the airport. She nicked it with a quickness after checking out the PR copy: It’s Super Bowl Sunday at the Almost Home Bar and Grill with the hometown Broncos playing for their second championship in a row, and the already busy night is about to get busier. When the bartender walks off, she leaves the remaining staff to the chaos of the night—and with the real question. Not why did she leave but why do they stay? After closing time and on a school night, Colleen’s 14-year-old daughter is no stranger to the Almost Home. She’ll do almost anything to leave, to move her life forward or somehow return to earlier, better times, anywhere but here. But it doesn’t matter; there seems to be no way out. For one night, we follow all of them as they make their cash, close up, and then linger into the after hours, as they

The Book-Hoarders' Dilemma: How Do You Recycle?

In honor of Earth Day, I'd like to bring up a question that gets a bit sticky among writers. How do you -- or do you -- recycle your books? I buy a goodly number of books each year, books I've read about or friends have recommended, authors I've learned to love, and from time to time, a book that catches my eye in the store for some reason. Along with these, I receive numerous free promotional books from writers' conferences and other sources. More than I could read, even if I chose (which I don't, since many aren't the type of book I'd enjoy) to only read freebie books in any given year. As much as I love books and want to support their authors, the necessity of getting rid of some is clear. My space for storing both unread and already-read books is finite, so what's the best and most responsible way to keep my house from looking like one of those stacked-to-the-rafter hoarder homes? Here's how I handle it: 1. I try to pass along new sample bo

Julie Anne Long on Deadline Preparedness

"In the interest of preserving the sanity of authors everywhere, Julie has philanthropically decided to share a few of the things she keeps in her Deadline Preparedness kit. Watch and learn." Julie is having a blog party this week over at RED ROOM , an online community of diverse authors incuding Amy Tan, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snickett), Jon Stewart, Susan Wiggs, Melissa Bank, and Jane Smiley. (Not to mention Jack Daniels.)

The Out-of-Genre Experience

I meet a lot of writers who are landlocked in their reading. Focusing narrowly on their own genre or subgenre, they rarely pick up any other type of book. Explaining away this habit as market research, they sometimes get burnt out as readers and bored with what they're writing. But with no knowledge of any other type of book, they have a tough time adding outside elements or techniques to refresh their prose. Sure, I'm a writer, but I was a reader first, and a great book still has the power to amaze and delight me (and switch off my internal editor). I'll read almost anything, as long as it transports me. Literary fiction, memoirs, historical novels, romance, mystery/suspense, fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction crowd my keeper shelf. Yes, I read a lot of romantic suspense and suspense, my chosen genres, but I'd quickly tire of it if I couldn't refresh my pallet with an escape to, say, the building of a 12th century cathedral (Ken Follet's The Pillars of

Are You Facing a Season of Stagnation?

As my husband and I toured Caddo Lake, our guide explained to us that with the recent rains, the lake's level had risen, and the creek currents were circulating fresh water into the ecosystem. Bright, new vegetation was unfurling, and the fishing was fine. By late this summer, however, thick growth (much of it of invasive, non-native species) will clog the water's surface, depriving large areas of oxygen and suffocating the life below. I think the creative life has similar seasons. Fresh ideas bring us new growth. Risk-taking forces change. Without either, we enter a season of stagnation, marked by boredom, apathy, or exhaustion. Play drops out of the equation, and we start going through the motions. Readers quickly sense when joy has drained from an author's work. They might hang with a favorite for a while, but eventually, they'll seek out fresher waters. So today ask yourself what risks you've taken lately? What new techniques have you tried? Are you recyc

Have a Ball with Research, But...

While researching the probable setting for a future project on a tiny back road near Caddo Lake in deep East Texas, I came across this sign for a "calf fries" cookout sponsored by a mom & pop bar & grocery. Tragically (awww...), the date for it had passed, leaving only the words and that ball of I-don't-even-want-to-know-what tacked against the placard. Research can be both fun and funny, as it's a place's differences that catch one's attention and excite the imagination. But writers sometimes forget that those differences don't tell the total story. Select only these, and you'll end up with a stereotyped gooberville, a cartoonish depiction that does a great disservice to the smart and savvy locals. This sort of lazy over-generalization is what makes Southerners groan at so many of Hollywood's renditions ( Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?), just as it hacks off folks from working class, Northeastern urban neighborhoods and infuriates more mai

The New Rue (I love it when good art wins the day)

While we're on the subject of cover redesigns ... Year before last, I worked my memoir guru mojo with actress Rue McClanahan, who played Blanch (aka "the slutty one") on The Golden Girls . It's a fact that at any given moment of any given day, The Golden Girls is on television somewhere in the world. Even now -- twenty years or so after the last ep was shot -- the show has a huge international following. So it was no surprise that when the book came out in hardcover last spring, the design played straight to that audience with a very Blanchified photo of the present day Rue everyone recognizes laughing in front of a golden backdrop. But the book tells the story of Rue's real career, in which The Golden Girls played an important but very small part. Rue is a classically trained actress who studied the craft under the legendary Uta Hagen and a classically trained ballerina who studied various dance disciplines at Jacob's Pillow, among other places. Most of

Delicious: Elise Blackwell's Hunger is back in print with a sumptuous new cover

A few years ago, I was poking through a bin marked "Fictions at English" outside a souvie shop in a small town in France and came upon Elise Blackwell's luminous novel Hunger . I'm particular about my traveling books; they have to be worth their weight, and when I'm in a place where I'm hearing little or no English spoken, I want a book that gives me the loveliest possible experience of the language. My traveling books rarely return home with me, but this one did. I knew I'd want to revisit this beautifully rendered and deeply emotional story about a botanist who struggles to reconcile with his own appetites while trying to preserve a collection of plants and seeds during Hitler's siege of Leningrad. Flash forward about four years. This week Unbridled Books is rereleasing two of Blackwell's critically acclaimed novels: Hunger , which had gone out of print, and The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish , which came out in hardcover last year. I

Bon Voyeur take 2

On a tight schedule while I'm in NYC, but I wanted to check in. Since I don't have time to wallow in the pondering pool today, here's a tidbit from when I was here last year: I've heard New York described as a city where "everyone performs and no one watches." But I, like most writers, am a vampire, so I do watch. I absorb. I wonder. I speculate. I spy. I've been sitting here among the living, eavesdropping on conversations at a diner near 53rd and Lex, jotting down thoughts about the expression on the waiter's face as he is apparently told in emphatic Italian that he must wear a little hat that is being handed to him. I have a few favorite diners in Manhattan, and I always sit as close to the counter as I can, especially if there are elderly men there. Or hookers sometimes. Lots of actors in this neighborhood. Actors can always be counted on for a good corner booth vignette. (As my client's husband said about his artistic wife yesterday, "

A ghost in New York

In New York to work my memoir guru mojo for a client with a great story. A lot of writers don't understand how I can devote so much effort to a book for which someone else receives the credit as "author". My objective is to disappear into the voice of this true life but larger than life character, and the ghost gig is an exercise in what matters. Is it possible to cleave unto the joy of telling a story for storytelling's sake? Yes, of course, the money makes it easier. Get real. But there is an enormous joy in this job. And in truth, I get off on being invisible. A huge perk of the work: I love sharing my life between Houston and New York. It's like being allowed to be a dog person one day and a cat person the next. My first night in Manhattan, I always think of Walt Whitman's "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun". Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now, The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of muskets,

Local Flavor

I know writers who do all their research on the Internet and still end end with very commercial, very successful books. My hat's off to them, but as for me, I can't seem to really get grip on a place I'm writing until I've breathed its air, walked and/or boated and/or flown the territory, and chatted up the locals. I like to gather local newspapers and read the letters to the editor, then pick the brains of long-time residents to get a taste of the decades-long rivalries, grudges, issues, and prejudices that make each community unique. An observant outsider sometimes sees things more clearly, but even the most studious will always get stuff wrong. When it's all said and done, the location I'm writing ends up at the intersection of Reality and Imagination. With Story being the car and Character the driver. In other words, I do my best with research but have to live with the fact that my fictional world is not the real world, just my best approximation. And wit

Writer Unplugged

Lately, I've been feeling fragmented, my attention all too splintered by way too many choices. I could watch one of the Netflix movies I've been sitting on forever, read one of the huge array of books in my massive to-be-read stack, catch a show on TV, or default back to the mind-numbing computer game or aimless Web trolling that have recently consumed far too many hours. It's no wonder I can't focus on my current work-in-progress. Many years back, Robin Williams appeared in a movie called Moscow on the Hudson, which featured a Russian musician named Vladimir Ivanoff, who defects to America. I don't recall a lot about the movie except one scene where Ivanoff, used to long lines for basic commodities, freaks out in an American grocery store, overwhelmed by the myriad choices laid out before him. (Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!) Finally, he passes out, escaping the information overload in the only way he might. My solution is simpler. To reclaim the single-minded focus

It's Not About the Gift Shop: Yet Another Parable on Publishing

In my previous professional life, I worked with upper elementary and middle school kids as a classroom teacher. Though teaching's no cakewalk, I loved the work, the certain knowledge that I was making a difference, and the kids. Most days. But not so much on the days that we took field trips. In big, suburban schools, the powers that be are all hung up on fairness, so you couldn't take just one class; it had to be the whole grade level. Which meant we had to wrangle numerous buses, find a venue the would accommodate a hundred-sixty or more kids (or run them in shifts, which was nearly impossible to pull off, for reasons I won't get into), and go into strategic planning sessions to coordinate the volunteers, the eating arrangements, students' pharmaceutical needs, etc. By the time the big day arrived, the teachers were already exhausted, but the kids - whoa. Those kids showed up with snapping little firecrackers in their eyes, and the ones with behavioral problems or

Road to Morocco (Joni's publishing parable du jour)

Long story short, we were standing by the Pillars of Hercules on the Rock of Gibraltar when Gary pointed across the water to the northern coast of Morocco and said, “It’s Africa . You can’t just look at Africa and not go there.” (This, in a nutshell, is why Gary Rodgers is the love of my life.) We’d been backpacking around Europe for two weeks with Malachi and Jerusha, who were still young enough to be pressed into adventure. Accidentally ordered raw beef once, but otherwise enjoyed a spectacular run of Mr. McGoo’s blind luck. Emboldened, we hiked back over the bridge to Spain and blithely boarded a ferry. This was a few months into that multi-phased goat-pluck known as Operation Desert Storm, and the Self-Terrorization level was at orange. (You know. Yellow = boy cries “wolf”, orange = boy cries “WOLF!”, red = boy shoots chihuahua, which could be construed as wolf-like. Mission accomplished!) We knew that additional FBI warnings had been issued for Northern Africa, but we didn’t know

Writer's Conference Confidential

Thinking that attending a writers' conference might be a great way to jump start your career? I couldn't agree more - providing that you choose the right conference for you. When examining conference listings, ask yourself the following questions. 1. Is the conference geared to what I write? If you're a poet or essayist or playwright, the realities discussed in a conference of mystery writers probably won't be worth the time and money you'll invest. But if you're a mystery writer, you may find that your genre and, for example, the romance genre (where newer writers are also published in mass market paperback and often share the same publishing houses) could have enough of a common denominator to be of help. And craft of fiction writing workshops focus on truths central to all novelists. 2. Does the conference include high-caliber speakers? If you're shooting for publication by the New York establishment, why bother with a conference where the majority of

It's not about the blog (Larry Dignan responds to NYT's "death by blogging" story)

I'm not a blogger who writes, I'm a writer who blogs, but someone who loves me still felt the need to call my attention to a story in the Sunday Times: "In a Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop" , in which Matt Richtel holds up the fact that two tech writers recently died of heart attacks as proof that blogging is inherently unhealthy...or something. Quoth our Matt: To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style. The pressure even gets to those who work for themselves — and are being well-compensated for it. Oh. It all makes sense now. Any time I see the words "writer" and "well-compensated" in the same

Pulitzers announced this afternoon

FICTION: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books) DRAMA: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts HISTORY: What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford University Press) BIOGRAPHY: Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson (W.W. Norton) POETRY: Time and Materials by Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins) POETRY: Failure by Philip Schultz (Harcourt) GENERAL NONFICTION: The Years of Extermination by Saul Friedlander (HarperCollins) Two winners for poetry, none for editorial writing, and Bob Dylan got a Special Citation, too. Go here for the full list.

The Literal Truth about Workshops

I'm just back from the DARA conference (loved it!) near Dallas, where I gave a workshop Saturday called "How to Be Your Character's Worst Enemy," which basically consisted of a number of tips to ramp up tension and rev up a book's pacing by making your protagonists' lives tougher. It's the kind of workshop that asks participants to think about their works in progress and examine the possibility of adding an unexpected twist to toss their characters into an "impossible" situation just to see what surprising things they'll do. I like teaching the class because I can look into the participants' eyes and see them really thinking and because the techniques are as useful for veterans as they are for the rankest newbies. Lots of nice folks came up to see me afterward, either to say thanks or ask questions, including one rather desperate-looking woman who seemed extremely concerned because she didn't know how she was going to fit all of my

TJ Bennett's big SQUEEEEEE!

While Colleen and I both keep a generally positive outlook on the publishing process and life in general, we are both far enough into our careers that our hides have gotten pretty tough. One really has to be a bit of an armadillo to survive and stay sane in this biz, but it's equally important to stay connected to those fresh-faced first-time-author moments that felt like falling in love and climbing a mountain and falling down the rabbit hole all at once. Our friend TJ Bennet is on that ride right now. Launching her first novel, The Legacy , has a lengthy, fraught process (including a bombastically ill-timed fire at the printing facility), during which TJ has kept her head on absolutely straight. And most importantly, she's continued to write during the labor and delivery of her firstborn. TJ posted this in her blog yesterday : A friend of mine from California coined the term "squeee" as the joyous sound a person makes when she is squealing for, well, joy. My &q

Well heeled and into character

I'm working on a book with a terrific client -- an actress who made it huge on Broadway and transitioned to both silver and small screen -- and part of my research is going to entail a certain degree of fashionista research. I also decided that I needed to wear heels while I work this project. I hit my full height of six feet (I've stopped pretending I'm really only five-foot-twelve) when I was senior in high school, and I've had very little truck with high heels since then. This actress is a petite little dynamo, however, and she does love her Jimmy Choos. I decided I needed to walk the walk in order to talk the talk, so I purchased pair of inexpensive pumps and some four-inch espadrilles at Payless and started wearing them in my office. I think I may have been visited by the spirit of Nancy Sinatra. Walking around in heels is a totally different posture, physically and psychologically. There's an enforced sense of sex and carriage and awareness of everything fro

Winging it (thoughts on that reinvention thing)

Yesterday Colleen posed a question about the way we reinvent ourselves as writers , something I definitely have some experience with. My career has taken me miles from my original (and extremely naive) vision, which was something about angsty quasi-literary women's fiction providing me and my progeny a life of Starbucks-fueled adventure. But I never made one sweeping change that rewrote my destiny; it happened in stepping stones. And it wasn't about abandoning one thing to embrace another; it was about being open to unexpected opportunities. I wasn't making a kazzilion dollars, but I was happy writing angsty quasi-literary women's fiction, and when a big NY house picked up my memoir, I was living the comfy life of a respectably compensated mid-lister. After the memoir came out and was nicely received, I started getting a lot of speaking invitations, which paid well but kept me on the road a lot. Not very conducive to writing another book. My wonderful ed at Harper Coll