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Showing posts from November, 2008

The Thankful Writer

Writers tend to gripe a lot, especially among other writers. Figuring prominently in such discussions are hair-raising contract negotiations, lack of job security and benefits, and the myriad things that can kill a book before it ever draws breath. It's a tough way to make a buck, and tougher still to stay in business. But today it seems appropriate to offer up those facets of the work for which I am so thankful. 1. The fulfillment of a long-held dream after many years of hard work. 2. The satisfaction of watching my fictional world come to life on the page. 3. The Fellowship of the Written Word, which extends from avid readers and impassioned writers to librarians to booksellers, and those in publishing. 4. The opportunity to work in comfort in my own home, or just about anywhere else, for that matter. 5. Deadlines, bless their nerve-wracking little hearts, because they equal employment. 6. Imagination, inspiration, and desire, which keep refilling my well. 7. Non-book-ob

Happy Thanksgiving!

"Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago, was on - two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the restaurant, but Alice doesn't live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. And livin' in the bell tower like that, they got a lot of room downstairs where the pews used to be in. Havin' all that room, seein' as how they took out all the pews, they decided that they didn't have to take out their garbage for a long time..." Click here to hear Arlo Guthrie tell the whole sordid tale. Or visit Arlo Guthrie's official website for the complete lyrics.

FYI: Query Dos and Don'ts

You'd like to think that once you've been published, you'll never have to write another query letter, but Colleen and I both know better. You change agents, you do proposals, you have to pitch every project in one way or another. So there's something for everyone in this no nonsense list of Query Dos and Don'ts from literary agent Wendy Sherman: DO... Write a fabulous query letter Tell us why you chose our agency Tell us why this book has an audience, and why you're the one to write it Include information about your credentials to write this book, publications and prizes, awards, and conferences Know the competition and describe those titles Tell us which well-known writer's work yours most clearly compares to Keep your letter under two pages You can include a double-spaced table of contents and overview (non-fiction) You can include a double spaced 1st chapter (fiction) Tell us if you are submitting to more than one agency Always inc

Lemon or Creampuff: The Selling of Story

I've spent the last few days helping a loved one car shop, which has changed a lot in some ways (thanks to the Internet and Consumer Reports) and is exactly the same (unfortunately) in others. Most of the sales people are knowledgeable, helpful, and respectful, but sadly, a few of them are still the kind who give car guys a bad name. But it's possible to learn lessons from both the good and bad that can be applied to the "selling" of your story to the reader (a group which includes agents and editors.) 1. Be honest about what you're selling. The promise you set out for the reader in the story's opening should not later shift in a whole different direction. ("You don't look like the kind of woman who ought to drive an economy vehicle. Let's walk over and look at some of these beauties! You like red, don't you?") Consumers who feel tricked, manipulated, or flat-out lied to won't be inclined to buy. 2. The shiny little extras may add

Freedom of Speech meets “Loose lips sink ships”

It was inevitable. Joe the Plumber has a book coming out. According to the Huffington Post: The book, called "Joe the Plumber -- Fighting for the American Dream," is to be released by a group called Pearlgate Publishing and other small publishing houses. "I am not going to a conglomerate that way we actually can get the economy jump started. Like there is five publishing companies in Michigan. There's a couple down in Texas. They are small ones that can handle like 10 or 15,000 copies. I can go to a big one that could handle a million or two. But they don't need the help. They are already rich. So that's spreading the wealth to me," he said. Errrkaaay…It’s totally possible that a gifted ghostwriter could take the raw material of Joe's life story and make a great book out of it, but I don’t think that’s going to happen here. I think this is going to be more of his chunky, ill-informed "folk wisdom" (not). Frankly, I wish the dude would,

Saturday Morning Cartoon: "Give Up Yer Aul Sins"

An eloquent lesson in storytelling, "Give Up Yer Aul Sins" is the Oscar nomniated short from a Brown Bag Film series that repurposed 50-yr-old recordings of Dublin school children telling Bible stories. Watch and learn. Director/Producer - Cathal Gaffney Animator - Alan Shannon Producer - Darragh O'Connell Original recordings by Peig Cunningham

How to Avoid Criticism

There's really only one way... To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. Elbert Hubbard (1856 - 1915) And even then, you'll have your mother or your old man or some other spoilsport riding you, asking you why the hell you never get up off the couch. So I guess we've established that criticism is a part of life. So you might as well be happy doing whatever you're being flailed about. As for me, I choose to write books, risk rejection, pick myself up and write another and another. I have something to say, and this is how I choose to say it. To the very best of my ability. So what about you? Are you sitting around waiting for some sort of guarantee of universal acceptance? Seriously. Or are you going to finish polishing that book, research those markets, and (you know who you are) finally get that query or submission in the mail?

2008 National Book Awards

2008 National Book Awards were announced last night at a black tie dinner in New York. I was in Houston, Texas in my PJs, taking a break from a 16-hour writing day, downing a beer in front of "Top Chef". (Sheesh, we live in a competitive world.) Anyway. The envelope, please... YA Lit Judy Blundell What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic) Poetry Mark Doty Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems (HarperCollins) Nonfiction Annette Gordon-Reed The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton & Company) Fiction Peter Matthiessen Shadow Country (Modern Library)

My Shelves Overfloweth

I have a serious problem. All of my bookshelves (and I have many) look like the ones pictured. Or much worse. Besides that, there are the books stacked beneath nightstands, hidden in magazine racks, and shoved in various nooks and crannies. Many are old favorites. Some not so much. Others are autographed by good friends, and far too many are waiting around to catch my eye. So what's a book hoarder to do? Psst... Buy more bookcases, whispers my avaricious soul, but I know in my heart there could never be enough bookcases or enough room in my house to place them. I know in my heart the time has come. Time to set some books free, from paperbacks (even autographed copies) I know I'll never reread to those I suspect, after a decent interval (years-long in many cases) will never get read in the first place. It's time to find new homes for hardcovers I've loved and loaned to friends and duplicate copies of the audio version of my own book. Though I've been holding on

We call upon the author to explain (the poetry of Nick Cave)

Sitting under an acutely blue sky in her quiet garden yesterday, my friend and I were talking about the way we process ourselves and the world through both writing and reading stories. While the gently literary women's fiction written by my friend is a world away from Nick Cave's cynical lyrics in terms of genre and style, both consistently generate a host of thinky thoughts for me -- hers are soundtracked by brown wrens and mockingbirds, his by weathered band buddies. Check this out. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live via the BBC. "What we once thought we had we didn't, and what we have now will never be that way again...we call upon the author to explain..." ...Well, I go guruing down the street, young people gather round my feet Ask me things, but I don't know where to start They ignite the power-trail straight to my father's heart And once again I call upon the author to explain Who is this great burdensome slavering dog-thing that mediocres my ever

The Faces of Irony

Speaking of things that bring a lump to my throat, I thought I'd share this Reuter's photo by Goran Tomasevic working in Iraq. According to Yahoo News, it was one of this past week's most e-mailed photos, and no wonder. This photo is a study in irony: the innocence of the sleeping puppy juxtaposed against the instruments of war. There is a sweetness in the fact that some GI, most likely a young person very far from home, would shelter this pup under such conditions; there is a tragedy in the bleak surroundings and the danger to both the GIs and the animal. In that irony there is story. And in every good story, I believe, irony abounds. There are three main types, you may recall from high school. Verbal is often synonymous with sarcasm. It's the contrast between what a character says and what he/she means. Dramatic is often used to build suspense. It's when the reader knows something the character does not. Usually something having to do with a nasty surprise

Sunday Quote: Frost on a Lump in the Throat

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. -Robert Frost Frost has always had the ability to elicit a lump in my throat, so I'll share this lesser-known favorite of his work. I used the final stanza as an epigraph on one of my desert-set novels. Desert Places Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast In a field I looked into going past, And the ground almost covered smooth in snow, But a few weeds and stubble showing last. The woods around it have it—it is theirs. All animals are smothered in their lairs. I am too absent-spirited to count; The loneliness includes me unawares. And lonely as it is that loneliness Will be more lonely ere it be less— A blanker whiteness of benighted snow With no expression, nothing to express. They cannot scare me with their empty spaces Between stars—on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home

Saturday cartoon: Steven King's very graphic novel

PW reported yesterday that Steven King's animated short story "N" has hit a million downloads. According to Yahoo News: "Stephen King has once again lured his readers to try a new way to enjoy a story," Susan Moldow, executive vice president and publisher of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, said Thursday in a statement. The print version of King's short story, in which a psychiatrist fatally absorbs the madness of one of his patients, is included in the collection "Just After Sunset," released this week. Enjoy Kings commentary and all 25 eps via the widget below!

Sarah Silverman conquers the economy

Yesterday the New York Observer reported the acquisition of a book of essays by Sarah Silverman . Early in the day they said: Sarah Silverman is writing a book, several sources confirm. Publishers have been fighting over it all morning and afternoon, with Trident Media Group founder Daniel Strone overseeing the proceedings and no doubt smiling broadly as the pot climbs past $2.5 million. One of Mr. Strone's other clients, meanwhile, ex-Microsoft sponsor Jerry Seinfeld, has a book on the market this week that is said to have driven at least two publishers crazy enough to submit bids in the $7 million to $8 million dollar range. And later... The auction for comedian Sarah Silverman's book has ended, with HarperCollins emerging victorious after submitting a house bid in the neighborhood of $2.5 million dollars.. Meanwhile, a Tina Fey book recently sold for $6 million. There's a lot to say about the this and that of mega mill advances for celebs, but if you (like me) mo

If You Want to Make Your Book Laugh at You, Tell It About Your Plans

Before you ask, I am borrowing from Woody Allen's terrific quote about God. This morning, the notion seems appropos because the manuscript on which I'm currently working has made a mockery of what I like to think of as my process. First of all, this particular story demands a larger than normal cast of characters. So large, last night I resorted to something I never in a million years thought I'd do. I input every character's name, description, relationship, and page of first appearance into a spreadsheet because I could know longer stand to use my usual Ctrl-F (that's the "find" function on MS Word) or frequently-lost index card method of keeping characters' names and traits straight. (On the last book, I ended up with one minor character who had *three* different first names. Thank goodness, someone caught this before it went to press.) Already, I've seen one benefit in that this allows me to see that A. I have entirely too many characters an

Crime and legal researchapalooza resources

Up to my bloodshot eyes in research this week, I discovered a few excellent resources for searching case law, procedural stuff, and Supreme Court decisions: offers two searchable sites, one for professional (cases and codes, marketing advice, latest court related news, and lots more) and one for consumers (basics of family and divorce law, small biz, and when your kid is in trouble type stuff). The Justia Supreme Court Center offers a searchable data base of decisions, info on the justices, and PDF files of arguments, plus links to various and sundry related stuff. features a nifty virtual tour of chambers and facilities, audio files of oral arguments, and lots more. The University of Missouri-Kansas School of Law has a great data base of famous trials from the interrogation of Socrates to the mutiny on the Bounty to the Chicago 7, Manson murders, and impeachment of President Clinton. More than you ever needed to know about the McMartin Pre-School or Lizzi

On Overload

It's not that I have anything against any one of the networking communities that have sprung up like fire ant mounds after a heavy rain here in the South. My Space serves its purpose, as do all the rest of them. But then you add in the virtual bookshelf communities where you supposedly talk lit with your friends, not to mention the bulletin boards, chat rooms, and, yes, the blogs where a web-savvy author "ought" to be out schmoozing in furtherance of The Cause. Oh, and let's not forget Second Life, where virtual authors have been known to hawk their wares to virtual readers. I'm feeling fragmented, splintered by the geometric progression of online communities. Or maybe pixelated is the correct term for this Twenty-first Century "disease." Whatever it is, this author is declaring a rebellion, and here's my manifesto. From this point forward, I want to be about the depth of focus: in the work I do, the relationships I nurture, and the literature

NaNoWriMo or No-NoWriMo?

Every November much is made of NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month -- which encourages aspiring authors to set aside their procrastinating ways and blitz out a 50K word manuscript in 30 days. From the NaNoWriMo web site : National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30. Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Here's what I love about this endeavor: Writers learn by writing. I truly believe there is no other way to lear

Sunday Quote: Hawkes on Fiction

“Fiction is an act of revenge” -- John Hawkes It absolutely can be. Furious about the state of the world? Write about it, and show the truth through fiction. So many great, great books have come about that way. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 . John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Can you think of any other books written as a form of protest?

Tall, dark, and iconic (Go with God, Michael Crichton)

With all the fooferah about the election on Tuesday, I didn't even hear until Thursday that Michael Crichton had died. From the New York Times obituary : Michael Crichton, who died on Tuesday at the age of 66, was like a character in a Michael Crichton novel. He was unusually tall (6 feet 7 inches), strikingly handsome and encyclopedically well informed about everything from dinosaurs to medieval banquet halls to nanotechnology. As a writer he was a kind of cyborg, tirelessly turning out novels that were intricately engineered entertainment systems. No one — except possibly Mr. Crichton himself — ever confused them with great literature, but very few readers who started a Crichton novel ever put it down... All the Crichton books depend to a certain extent on a little frisson of fear and suspense: that’s what kept you turning the pages. But a deeper source of their appeal was the author’s extravagant care in working out the clockwork mechanics of his experiments — the DNA replic


An article in this morning's Houston Chronicle discusses the special affinity many writers have for a president-elect who is himself an author . Author Rick Moody (The Right Livelihoods, Back Bay Books, Aug. 2008)had this to say: "…I think the larger issue is cultural. There's a trickle down from the top in the way art exists inside and outside of the culture as a whole. Here in the USA, you could feel in the Bush years how little regard there was for it. People who disliked art, literature, dance, fine arts, they had a lot of cover for this antipathy. There's reason to believe that we are in for a much better period." Check out the link above to read the thoughts of illustrious authors Toni Morrison, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others. Then let us know, do you believe the country's leadership has an impact on the place of writers and literature in our culture? Or do you feel respect for the arts emanates from the family, the schools, or soci

Time to Get that Map out of the Glovebox

Until I get to know my characters a little, I can't quite wrap my brain around the journey they'll be taking. So for the past month, I've been driving around the wilderness: writing pages, tossing pages, looking for some signs. One by one, characters have shown up, some of them almost-eerily developed, as if they've been gestating on another plane. Others are still growing, but at least I have my cast now -- and, in draft form, the first few chapters of the book. But it's time now to pull over on this dirt track's unpaved shoulder. Time to reach deep into the glovebox and pull out a roadmap. Unfortunately, that map hasn't yet been drawn. Oh, I've come up with a vague premise. I have some idea of the conflicts and the precipitating crisis that will act as catalyst. But now it's time to come up with the narrative to pull these disparate parts together, to tell the story in some rudimentary form. Other authors do this with notecards, storyboards, or

"Repeat great words. Repeat them stubbornly."

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito by Zbigniew Herbert Go where those others went to the dark boundary for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize go upright among those who are on their knees among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust you were saved not in order to live you have little time you must give testimony be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous in the final account only this is important and let your helpless Anger be like the sea whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten let you sister Scorn not leave you for the informers executioners cowards - they will win they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography and do not forgive truly it is not in your power to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn beware however of unnecessary pride keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror repeat: I was called - weren't the

Swing State (Jo the Writer casts her vote)

In the presidential primaries of 1980, I cast my virgin vote for Jerry Brown for the fantastically principled reason that he was dating Linda Ronstadt, and oh my gosh, how awesomely cool would it be if Linda Ronstadt was the first lady? Brown abandoned the race shortly thereafter, and when I complained to my father that my vote was wasted, he told me very seriously, "No vote is ever wasted. A vote might be misguided or ill-informed. But it is not wasted. It's your voice, and it counts. If all you wanted to say with your vote is 'Linda Ronstadt for first lady', well, that was your priority and you spoke up for it. But here's a few other things that you might consider before you vote in November..." He talked to me about what a good man Jimmy Carter was. Dad had organized a statewide town hall meeting sort of broadcast during the '76 campaign and was invited to a press gathering at the White House, where he actually met and talked with the president. But a

Quote of the Week: Doctorow on Evoking Sensation

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it's raining, but the feel of being rained upon." -- (E. L. Doctorow)

Beyond Blinders

"There's a whole other world out there ," my agent told me a while back. She was reminding me of other possibilities, which authors in my (or any) genre totally ignore. Limited by our own successes, however modest, we fail to consider other ways of earning a living and finding creative fulfillment. It feels safer, sticking with the area we know, and getting to really understand and master our own small pond feels manageable. But it's limiting as well, which is one reason I make it a point to read broadly. My list of favorite books includes historical nonfiction, memoir, lots of mystery/suspense, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and let's not forget romance. But for a long time, it never occurred to me that I could learn valuable lessons from authors in other areas of writing beyond my chosen genre. I was very wrong on that score, and in the past few years I've broadened my horizons with literary techniques borrowed from screenwriting (thanks,

For the Tool Box: Final Draft is the transcriptionist's BFF

I love research in general and the interview process in specific, whether I'm talking to an expert, gathering information that will make a fictional character ring true or listening to the life story of one of my memoir clients, corralling the facts that I know will be tested in the legal review. For the last five years, I've been using a terrific little Olympus digital recorder. I upload interviews to my laptop (backing up on an online storage facility), listen to them two or three times while I fold laundry or paint, and then I sit down to the task that will set the facts solidly in my brain and make the language "pullable" for the working draft: I transcribe the SOBs pretty much word for word. Yech. There's nothing in the world that will make me enjoy this task, but it has to be done, so I'm constantly searching for anything that might improve on the process. A couple years ago, I found an upgraded program that enables me to slow the playback to 50% or s