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Showing posts from January, 2009

When Life Imitates Art

Yesterday, I received the eeriest e-mail from a reader writing to let me know that the small-town tragedy involving high school students I wrote about in a book I called HEAD ON had to some extent played out in real life recently, shattering families and putting one of those involved into extended rehab, much as was the heroine of my story. The reader also noticed some a number of surprising similarities between his town and my fictional locale, from its approximate location, I'm sure, to the fact that my version bore the name of a leading local senior citizen. They didn't surprise me, however, as the moment I saw the name of his town, I recognized it as my "model." I'd walked and photographed its brick streets, swiped one of its free weekly newspaper, and generally used it for inspiration after an author friend -- knowing the story and setting I had in mind -- offered to show me around. I didn't want to use the actual town for my book, just as inspiration

Hyacinths to feed the soul (The writing life is all about priorities)

If thou of fortune be bereft, And in thy store there be but left, Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole, Buy Hyacinths to feed thy soul. ~Muslih-uddin Sadi With two kids in college and the economy what it is, Gary and I are on credit card lock-down. No non-biz expenditures, and we've been good about it, but today is my birthday, and I refuse to give up my long-standing birthday tradition: I sent my mom flowers. It's a priority that might not pass the Suze Orman smell test, but I have never felt a twinge about it. There were times in my rock 'n' roll youth that I had to hock my guitar or take an odd job I'd rather not talk about in order to scrape up enough to order my mom's birthday bouquet, but that actually made it more fun because it reminded me how important it is and how lucky I am to have been born to two unbelievably talented, intelligent, loving, courageous people. I was introduced early to life outside the box, and witnessing the way my parents hav

Joanne Rendell on the "Damned Mob of Scribbling Chicks"

Writers are about as stratified as they come, with this weird pecking order of snobbism (and reverse snobbism) that defies all logic. Tough as making it as a published author is, I have limited patience with those who make themselves feel better by denigrating others. But it's nothing new, and the prejudice against women writers, writing for women readers, has for centuries been especially harsh. Over at the Huffington Post today, author Joanne Rendell speaks brilliantly on this phenomena. By all means, check it out. And the photo's for all you haters out there. ;)

The Amazing Adrenaline Simulator

Ever wonder how your characters feel after you've put them through car chases, murder attempts, and various/sundry other calamities? Well, as of this AM, I've developed the Amazing Adrenaline Simulator to help you get a feel for it. First, you'll need two dogs (most will do, but mid-sized terrier mixes preferred; feel free to borrow my two), a fenced back yard, and a hopelessly-trapped member of the local wildlife community. It helps if it's about 6:20 AM, just getting light, your dogs wake you from a sound sleep, and you stumble out in your night shirt and fuzzy slippers, your half-awake brain cells reminding you of the mess you had to clean up when you ignored their whining the previous morning. As the dogs explode out of the back door, you notice that instead of one of the gray squirrels that frequently taunt them and seem to enjoy the chase before invariably escaping, the beasts are zigzagging through (and shredding) plantings in hot pursuit of an absolutely pa

Finalists for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Awards

It's out! The hotly anticipated list of nominees for Best Books People Pretended to Read last year. Below are the highlights so folks can Wiki accordingly before the next faculty cocktail party. (Don't mind us. We're just a coupla swells.) Fiction Roberto BolaƱo, 2666 , Farrar, Straus Marilynne Robinson, Home , Farrar, Straus Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project , Riverhead M. Glenn Taylor, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart , West Virginia University Press Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge , Random Poetry August Kleinzahler, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City , Farrar, Strauss Juan Felipe Herrera, Half the World in Light , University of Arizona Press Devin Johnston, Sources , Turtle Point Press Pierre Martory (trans. John Ashbery), The Landscapist Sheep Meadow Press Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar , Copper Canyon Press Biography Paula J. Giddings, Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching , Amistad Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens:

Every Villain's the Hero of His Own Story

While scratching my head at this perplexing AP headline yesterday, Blagojevich: I'm the victim of plot to raise taxes , I was reminded of an absolute truism. Every villain is the hero or her of his own story. Often, said villains are incredibly creative about how they warp reality in order to craft a heroic narrative for themselves. In this story, the embattled Illinois governor rails against the "black hats" plotting to oust him for nefarious tax-related reasons. In another shining moment, Blogovich actually compared the federal corruption charges against him to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He's hardly alone in coming up with such comparisons. People invent all sorts of explanations, a million different justifications for why they've committed every act deemed unacceptable by our society. It's fascinating and often more than a little sad to hear their reasoning, to know that somewhere inside their own minds, they are Absolutely Blameless. When cr

Books Unbound: Lev Grossman on the state of the publishing industry

On magazine racks today is the current issue of TIME magazine, which includes Lev Grossman's interesting article on all the reeling and writhing currently going on in the publishing industry. Quoth Grossman: A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever. I'm freshly back from New York where I had a number of interesting conversations on that very topic this week. I'll share some of the highlights next week. Meanwhile,

Getting It Down

"Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite - getting something down." Julia Cameron Amen, Julia. Most writers and artists have no trouble with the idea part of the equation. We can hardly help thinking things up. The trouble is, far too many impediments arise to keep us from giving these ideas form. But unless we kick our way through these roadblocks and actually do the grunt work of creation, we aren't artists at all, merely dime-a-dozen dreamers. So with that, I'm waving goodbye and getting back to work. For more information on the artwork, Encre L. Marquet, please follow this link to the Library of Congress .

Romancing the Season:Win a Basket of Autographed Books

Now that I have your attention (VBG), I wanted to let you know I'm helping author-pal T.J. Bennett kick off a wonderful new contest at her blog, IMHO . Commenters on the blog post I've written on What Romance Means to Me (which includes an original poem by yours truly, if you can believe that) can win ten autographed books by various authors, including Kerrelyn Sparks, Susan Squires, Lynne Marshall, Trish Albright, Sophie Jordan/Sharie Kohler, Christie Craig, and Lynda Hillburn. (You must comment on at least two authors' posts in the coming days to be eligible.) So please stop by and say hello, or share your own romantic gesture... and get a chance to win some inspiring reading just in time for Valentine's Day.

Theresa Meyers Shares Lessons from Second Graders

I wanted to give a shout-out to author Theresa Meyers, who's written in her blog Title Wave (love that name) about the lessons she's learned as a writer from teaching second graders. Wonderful post. Hope you'll migrate right over for a look-see. Real life has so much more to teach us than the ivory tower writers long for. And having worked with kids for most of my adult life, I can tell you they're about as real as it gets.

Prima Donna vs. Patsy: Finding Middle Ground

Too demanding and quick to offense, and an author -- especially one who happens to be female -- is labeled a prima donna. Self-serving, conniving -- and these are only a few of the more printable terms one might hear.(If you're a man, you sort of get a pass on this, being called difficult, reclusive, or at worst anti-social, but it's generally assumed this eccentric behavior is part of your genius and people are almost *thrilled* to tiptoe around you for fear of giving offense.) But in trying to be "nice," the female author can go too far in the other direction, turning herself into a patsy who always puts her needs, her time, and her self last. She's the one who's always there to volunteer or mentor, who wouldn't think of asking for a speaking fee or balking at late (or missing payments), and who rushes around tying herself up in knots trying not to give offense. As you might guess, she's not going anywhere in her career. She doesn't have the

Go with God, Andrew Wyeth (a Secret Life rediscovered)

I was not at all sad this weekend when I heard about the death of Andrew Wyeth , the great American artist. His long life was everything an artist could hope for. He grew up surrounded by artists who loved him and nurtured his talent. At the ripe old age of twenty, he had mounted his first one-man exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery in New York, selling out his entire inventory and guaranteeing a future in which he would be free to explore and express himself however he wanted for the next 72 years. He leaves us with a body of work that takes his uniquely American spirit into the future. I've loved Andrew Wyeth since I was just barely big enough to hold a big book of American art (appropriately titled The Big Book of American Art ) open to the full page print of "Christina's World" . Whenever I see that painting, I'm struck with one particularly vivid memory: sitting on the floor in our house in Tomah, Wisconsin, tucked into a corner close to the heater between the w

You 've Got to Laugh

From time to time, I'll meet authors who're clearly juiced on their own grandeur. Frankly, I can't imagine how many layers of insulation it would take to lose touch with publishing's myriad humbling lessons. These puffed up peacocks must have legions of flunkies running interference and whispering sweet pull-quotes in their ears as they walk out the door. These haughty types must never read snarkily superior Amazon reviews, either, or snotterati comments on so-called "review" blogs, and I'm sure they have never responded to gushing, sob-story requests for autographed books or photos (does anyone really collect autographed author photos?) only to find them for sale on eBay a few days later. And clearly, these arrogant authors are not attending the same book signings as the rest of us. Such as the one a friend recently reminded me of, where a man rushed up to me holding a book open and asked me, somewhat breathlessly, to sign the inner liner. "But

A joint's only as classy as the last guy in the door (Joni's publishing parable du jour)

Several months ago, I went to a private party at an upscale restaurant in Philly. In attendance were a number of classical musicians, some movie people, a few attorneys, agents, and that sort. Everyone was dressed for the opera, including the waiters. I had my customary ONE glass of champagne (I get tipsy only in the company of people and dogs who can be trusted to still love me in the morning) and then refilled my dainty fluted glass from a water bottle I kept tucked away on a window ledge. Not everyone at the soiree was that timid/circumspect about consumption, but folks generally behaved like they were at a business function, which they were. (Make no mistake: all publishing and entertainment industry parties are business functions.) Late in the evening, I and a producer who'd chatted me up decided to scout out the ladies room. A waiter penguin pointed toward an ornate staircase, and because the hand of God is upon me, the producer headed up just in front of me with her hand o

The More, the Merrier

Recently, I was asked to speak to local writing group about forming and reforming effective critique groups. While some cynical souls might say misery loves company, I'm of the philosophy "the more, the merrier." So I asked critique partners Joni Rodgers and TJ Bennett to come and join me. It really was enjoyable, dishing with the two of them while entertaining questions from members of the group. Somehow, having company makes speaking a far friendlier, far more dynamic experience. Interactions become more natural and less stilted, and those listening were treated to a much better idea of our critique group's dynamics that I could've possibly given them by speaking on my own. In the photo, from left to right, you'll see me, Joni, and then TJ. And I want to give a friendly shout-out to the wonderful members of the Northwest Houston chapter of RWA. The following week, I was involved in a panel discussion of various publishers for another RWA group. As with

Score one for Joni and Kristin Chenoweth:A rocking great review from PW!

Congratulations to Kristin Chenoweth and BTO's own Joni Rodgers on the fabulous Publishers Weekly review for their upcoming memoir collaboration, A Little Bit Wicked , which is due in stores April 14! As Joni would say, gofightwin, book! Here's the review: A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages Kristin Chenoweth with Joni Rodgers. Touchstone, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4165-8055-3 Currently seen as waitress Olive Snook in ABC's Pushing Daisies, the Tony Award–winning singer-actress Chenoweth looks back at her multifaceted career, which has encompassed recordings (As I Am), films (Four Christmases), television (The West Wing), Broadway (Wicked), solo concerts, animation (Tinker Bell), opera and Opryland. Beginning with the intriguing speculation that her unknown birth mother could be watching her career rise, she recalls her Oklahoma childhood and vocal training when she learned "[t]he music didn't come from notes and lyrics; it came from life and mile

Orwell's "Why I Write"

Stumbled on George Orwell's magnificent essay "Why I Write" recently. Hadn't read it in years, and it's something that every writer should take a look at every once in a while. "...All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose

Sunday Quote: Mansfield on Risk

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. -- Katherine Mansfield This is a quote that really spoke to me today. I've been troubled by doubt and having a hard time writing. I need to refocus on pleasing myself, telling the story as I want to hear it, and trusting appreciative readers -- the right readers -- to find it. Thought I'd also slip in a sneak peak at the cover for my upcoming novel, Beneath Bone Lake . I'm told the colors and lettering will be more vivid in the finished product. While I'm at it, here's the copy from the back cover: Ruby Monroe knows she's way out of her depth the minute she lays eyes on Sam McCoy. She's been warned to steer clear of this neighbor, the sexy bad boy with a criminal past. But with her four-year-old daughter missing, her home incinerated and her own life threatened

Life Interruptus

Today we welcome special guest blogger, historical romance author Emily Bryan , here to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart. Read on for a chance to win signed hilarious upcoming release, Vexing the Viscount . Ah! The writer’s life. We sit about in our posh home offices, gazing out at picture perfect scenery, and creating our masterpieces of prose without effort. We fling our words on the page with abandon and without need of revision. Stories flow from our fingertips so easily, we laugh at deadlines. A few scribbled phrases on a crumpled napkin will net us a multi-book contract. Promotion is taken care of by the promo-elves who creep out each night and stuff envelops, craft clever blog posts, and contact influential media types about TV interviews and feature stories. Royalty checks roll in like clockwork and our families bask in the reflected glow of our success. And you didn’t think I could write fantasy! The truth is a writer’s life is very much like everyone else

Angels and Liars PS

Betwixt holidays, I blogged about Herman Rosenblat's concentration camp memoir Angel at the Fence , the publication of which imploded when he admitted that he'd fabricated most of the story. I've gotten a lot of interesting email about the controversy, including a heads up about Marjorie Ingall's excellent column yesterday in Forward . Check it out.

Go get mooned this weekend! (Every once in a while, we have to look up.)

Breaking away from a critique ms last night, I went to let my dog out, and the moment I opened the back door, I knew something was different. I crossed the patio, out of the shadow of the roof and into a power wash of the brightest moonlight I've experienced south of Montana. And the moon isn't even full until Saturday; right now it's waxing gibbous. "Gare Bear!" I called. "Get out here and look at this." And I swear the moon was so bright, it changed the sound of my voice. Gary's my go-to guy for all things astronomical. He calls in the middle of the night whenever there's a conjunction or an occultation or the space station is flying over, and he regularly checks to make sure we don't miss any major happenings that can be seen with naked eye, spotting scope, or web cam. According to my old man, we're about to experience a perigee moon, the brightest full moon of 2009. Here's how SpaceWeather explains it: Joha

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Start Dragon

Ever wonder what you'd do if you were suddenly incapacitated and unable to complete a deadline? After all, only a tiny minority of writers have disability insurance, and sugar daddies are in woefully short supply these days. After injuring my dominant left arm and shoulder and finding myself unable to type, I quickly thought of a program I heard other writers discussing. Dragon NaturallySpeaking contains everything you need to get started with dictation. Included with the standard program you'll receive one microphone headset and a clear set of instructions to turn your computer into a voice recognition machine. Yes, you will have to spend some time learning the software and training it to recognize your distinct voice. But within two hours of receiving the package, I was responding to e-mails and beginning work on my manuscript. At first, Dragon was making many mistakes, and I was constantly forgetting the correct commands. However, in another day I was using the program

Diagrammar (a moment of unabashed love for Strunk & White)

Critiquing a ms for a talented young fantasy writer, I'm getting an interesting taste of a genre in which I'm not at all well read. The story is strong enough to pull me in. I adjusted quickly to the unfamiliar names. I'm not feeling overly video-gamish about the balls-out action movie battle scenes. What is hanging me up is the desire to smack this young man's middle school English teachers. Here's a guy who's got the essential unteachable element of talent; it hurts my soul to see him tripped up by technical issues, which -- because he is a good writer -- stand out like dung piles in a diamond mine. If he was a lousy writer, I'd never notice the minutia. Good grammar skills don't make for rigid prose. Just the opposite. When you know the rules well enough to follow them consistently, wrap your head around the structure of a sentence as a series of stepping stones -- without stumbling blocks or switchbacks -- then you instinctively know how to bend an

Here at the Intersection of Discretion and Valor

Thanks to Joni and to everyone who's expressed concern over my broken wing. I hope to receive my copy of Dragon tomorrow and will start working to train it. Meanwhile, I'm laboriously typing with one hand to see how frustrated I get. :) As I mentioned in the comments, I was really embarrassed to have injured myself doing something so crazy as trying out my teen son's skateboard. At least one family member has given me the "why don't you just admit you're old and uncoordinated" lecture, but not a one of my writer friends. Why? I think it's because as novelists, we live at the intersection of Discretion and Valor, where we continually dare to defy the tremendous odds favoring failure for a single chance to fly. And even when we crash, we have only to look around for someone to offer a hand up... someone else who understands the reasons we brave the breaks and bruises time and time again. May you all, however, experience far gentler landings. Or at l

Life smarts (update on Colleen's broken wing)

When asked what on earth would tempt an intelligent woman to hop on her son's skateboard on New Year's Eve, Colleen's been quipping, "I realized I hadn't done anything incredibly stupid in 2008. This was my last chance." The resulting broken elbow and wrecked shoulder are no joke. It's every writer's nightmare: a typing handicap. Colleen called me less than 24 hours after this spectacular ass-over-tea-kettle flying-Walenda-meets-driveway event, and she'd already ordered Dragon Naturally Speaking , a voice recognition software that's gotten great reviews. (Colleen promises to update us on how that works out for her.) She's a "life goes on" kind of person who knows that writing is not about typing and falling is all about getting up again. She's got a book under contract, deadlines looming, bloggery to be blogged and stories to be told. Braced by a healthy dose of Darvocet, she showed up at a North Houston chapter of the RWA on

Declaring your genius

This in Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac yesterday: It was on this day in 1882 that the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde docked in New York. Customs asked him if he had anything to declare. Oscar Wilde replied, "Nothing but my genius." Every time I hear that story, I'm reminded that this is all any of us have in this profession. The total contents of my office is worth two or three thousand tops, including all the technology, my Louis Vuitton knock-off tote, and the dog's new chew toys. Rights and royalties provide a dependable trickle of butter and egg money. Sometimes right before I hand off a manuscript, I have bad dreams about my house exploding in flames. Sometimes I have to get up out of bed and compulsively back up everything online, just to make sure. The only real asset I have is my ability to set words in rows, and this work has value, but it took me a long time to take ownership of that. Why is it so hard to say "I'm a good writer" a

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button": Did you love it or hate it?

Earlier this week, Colleen and I went to see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", the extraordinary movie based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I loved it. Colleen not s'much. (I was sitting there choked in tears at the end of the three hour film, so I only vaguely remember her saying something about "watching paint dry.") I want to see it again, so I'm trying to get the Gare Bear to go with me this weekend, but I won't be surprised if he reacts the same way Colleen did. The movie is long. And odd. It requires patience and a complete suspension of disbelief that modern audiences simply aren't trained for, so you've got to be in the right mood for it. The same is true of the short story, though the story and script have very little in common -- at least superficially. The story is very Fitzgerald (though it's not an example of his best writing, IMHO), and the setting -- Baltimore during the industrial revolution, Spanish Americ

Happy New Year!

Wishing everyone a joyfully productive and wildly creative 2009! Ring Out Wild Bells by Alfred Lord Tennyson Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light: The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die. Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true. Ring out the grief that saps the mind, For those that here we see no more; Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to all mankind. Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife; Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws. Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in. Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and r