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Showing posts from November, 2009

Writing through the holiday season

If someone were to ask me, in the months of November and December, which writing gift I would most value, I'd say, hands down, what I most need is focus. It's a distracting time of year, with guilt-inducing "should-be-doings" staring me in the face wherever I look. Working around the holidays requires careful time management, goal-setting, and most of all, realistic expectations. Figure out which holiday routines truly make you and your loved ones happy. Allot these "deal-breakers" a finite amount of time on specific, determined days. If there are traditions that no one cares that much about (or that you're doing 100% of the work for), try setting them aside for one year to find out if they're missed. Then, you and your family can reset your priorities for next year. A few years back, I was down to the wire on a December deadline, had a book coming out (with the requisite speaking/signing activities scheduled), and had galleys (page proofs) show u

Colleen's favorite reads of 2009

This year, I'm extremely thankful for a wealth of terrific reading material. I've read a lot of great books in 2009, but over on the blog Writers Read, I'm discussing some of my favorites for this year. Check it out and let me know, have you read any of these books? What did you think? And if not, what have been your favorite reads of 2009 (so far, at least)? (You know, besides Joni's A Little Bit Wicked and my Beneath Bone Lake ? ;) Photo: Burgess Meredith, from "Time Enough at Last," a.k.a. the best episode ever of The Twilight Zone

The Thankful Writer

Now that I have your attention... this Thanksgiving, I'm pushing aside gripes and worries about contracts, reviews, revisions, and the economy to give thanks for the blessings the writing life has bestowed. I'm thankful for the family who support my efforts, the sharp eyes and good will of my critique partners, and the cameraderie of writing buds. I'm grateful to have found an agent who not only stands up for me but pushes me to take time and risks, for the editors whose thoughtful suggestions and enthusiasm have made me want to work my tail off, and the readers who vote with their wallets to keep me gainfully employed, recommend me to their friends, and write me sweet notes on occasion. With its ever-changing challenges, the writing life keeps me on my toes and never offers me a chance to grow bored or complacent. Inspired to always strive for better, I continually feel pushed to - and sometimes beyond - my limits. I feel as if I'm doing the work I'm meant to do

"My cockeyed Valentine to Japan" (3 Questions for Wendy Tokunaga, author of "Love in Translation")

Japan and Japanese culture have been major influences on the life and writing of Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. She signed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s just as she was beginning the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco in 2006. Midori by Moonlight came out the following year with terrific reviews, and Love in Translation hits bookstores next week. From the press kit: After receiving a puzzling phone call and a box full of mysteries, 33-year-old fledgling singer Celeste Duncan is off to Japan to search for a long, lost relative who could hold the key to the identity of the father she never knew. This overwhelming place where nothing is quite as it seems, leading her to ask: What is the true meaning of family? And what does it mean to discover your own voice? So I have to start by asking, Wendy, how did you discover your voice as a writer? I’d always written stories as a child and even published my own magazine (I think I had three subscribers!). When I was a teen

Best. Pie. Ever. Happy Thanksgiving!

If I'm gonna gain weight (I baked two, heaven help me) then I'll feel much better if everyone else does, too, so I'm sharing our family's very favorite pumpkin pie/cheesecake recipe. Shamelessly ripped from the old classic Great Home Cooking in America (c. 1976 from the editors of Farm Journal - so it has to be good). I defy you not to love this. Festive Pumpkin Pie 1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened 3/4 c. brown sugar, firmly packed 1 tsp. ground cinnamon 1/2 tsp. ground ginger 1/2 tsp. salt 1/4 tsp. ground cloves 3 eggs 1 c. canned pumpkin 1 c. milk 1 tsp. vanilla 1 unbaked 9" pie shell, edges crimped high 1 c. dairy sour cream 2 tblsp. sugar Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream together cream cheese, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Blend in pumpkin, milk, and vanilla. Pour into pie shell. Bake 45-50 min. or until knife inserted halfway between center and edge comes out clean. Bl

A Tip from Twain: Revision

As all you NaNoWrMo folks (and others) finish up manuscripts, here's a great tip from the great beyond to help guide you with what may be the most crucial phase of the writing process. You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by. - Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, from a letter to Orion Clemens, 23 March 1878 Have a great Thanksgiving week, everyone!

Sunday groove: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fiber your blood. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you." Walt Whitman printed 795 copies of Leaves of Grass in 1855. About two dozen sold.

Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue

When I'm reading contest entries that fall short, one of the biggest pitfalls I encounter has to do with dialogue. I'm also most at a loss when commenting on this area, which is definitely more art than science. Here are a few things I do know. Since I'm crabby because the dumb dog woke me up way early , they are totally unfiltered for politeness. Deal with it. ;) Dialogue should never be: 1. Dull. "How are you, Alphonse?" "I am fine, Susie. How are you?" You're not out to transcribe banal, everyday chit chat. We can all hear that at home. Any dialogue on the page should serve the plot and/or characterization. 2. Stiff. "I must say, Sue, you are looking especially fetching today in your pretty, red sweater." Susie's smile turned to a frown. "I am surprised at you, Alphonse. I never realized you were a drug fiend." Note the overuse of names as a form of address, lack of contractions, use of complete sentences, and bi

Not the usual 9 to 5 (looking at the workstyles of creative people)

"Daily Routines" is an interesting little blog that examines the way creative people work. Simone de Beauvoir "I'm always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. Most often it's a pleasure to work." (She adds that she works every afternoon, hanging out at Sartre's place.) Stephen King “There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon. It’s not any different than a bed

Why Writing Gets Harder

As I labor to revise practically every paragraph of a recent proposal (after rewriting from scratch and then sending off another) I asked myself the same question novelists have been whining since Gutenberg: When does this %$@#! get easier? Here's the bad news. I see no sign it ever does. For the past ten years, I've spent the bulk of my time writing. I've seen fifteen books published and seventeen contracted. Yet I often look back fondly on the days when I was scrambling to squeeze twenty minutes or an hour out of days packed with full-time (plus, if you count the many hours a week spent grading papers) teaching, marriage, and motherhood, days when every time I sat down at my computer, the story spilled out in what seemed like an effortless torrent. In those halcyon days, it was all about the story and not about the craft. I didn't have time or space enough in my life for worries about reviews, rejection, and sales numbers. I didn't have to care about whether

Note to Book Editors: Call arse-kicking machine repairman!

From the always insightful David Hewson's "Why does a popular press hate popular books?" : The best selling book in Britain last year was Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye . I checked The Times archives to see if they reviewed it. Yes, they did, favourably. But only after it got to number one. When I was a general reporter and that kind of thing happened with news stories there was always an inquest, and usually someone was invited into the room that contained what one executive liked to call ‘the arse-kicking machine’. With good reason too. I’ve picked on my own paper here because it’s the one I still take at home. This is a little unfair. Snobbery on the literary pages is rife, and not just a British affair. The American prints often behave much the same way. Many of those are steadily killing book review space too on ‘economic grounds’. Read the rest here.

Read Sam Shepard's "Indianapolis (Highway 74)"

Looking for a culturally edifying way to delay starting your work day? Now in the New Yorker, short fiction from one of my favorite playwrights. From "Indianapolis (Highway 74)" by Sam Shepard: Evidently there’s some kind of hot-rod convention going on in town, although I seem to remember those always taking place at the height of summer, when people can run around in convertible coup├ęs with the tops down. Anyway, there are no rooms available, except possibly one, and that one is “Smoking,” which I have nothing against. The desk clerk tells me she’ll know in about ten minutes if there’s going to be a cancellation. I’m welcome to wait, so I do, not wanting to face another ninety-some miles down to Kentucky through threatening weather. Click here to read the rest.

Potential Pitfalls: Flashbacks

Some techniques are riskier than others. After judging for a number of first chapter writing contests, I've come to the conclusion that one of the toughest to pull off is the flashback. In skillful, experienced hands, flashbacks may work - and work well. But more often than not, especially in the hands of newer writers, flashbacks serve as stumbling blocks, distancing the reader from the now of the story before the reader's fully bonded with the characters and their present journey. The writer's goal should be to immerse the audience in the story's real-time flow of events. Anything that detracts from that connection should be cut. So how, without flashbacks, does the writer effectively dispense critical backstory? Ideally, crumb by crumb, dispensing teasing little hints - the kind that keep the reader madly turning pages as she seeks to piece together the totality. Dispensed a bit as a time, this trail of breadcrumbs enhances rather than detracts from the plot, hei

Sisterhood over self help (3 Questions for Melissa Senate, author of The Secret of Joy)

New Yorker Rebecca Strand is shocked when her dying father confesses a devastating secret: Joy, a daughter he turned his back on, the result of an affair when Rebecca was a toddler. Now he wants Joy to read the unsent letters he wrote every year on her birthday. Determined to fulfill her father’s last wish, Rebecca drives to a small town in Maine and knocks on her half-sister’s door. As is always the case with sisters, secrets, and broken hearts, everything that happens after that in Melissa Senate's latest novel, The Secret of Joy , is complicated, to say the least. The book is in stores this week, and Melissa spared a moment for 3 Qs in the midst of launch-o-palooza. This is fertile ground for a story to grow, Melissa. I'm curious about the roots. Where did the idea come from? Several years ago, I received an email out of the blue that said: I think you might be my half-sister. I was. Am. It took me a long time to decide to take that little (huge) nugget and write a novel

Oh, Deer! Lessons from a Misguided Buck

We've all heard of tilting at windmills, but this week, in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a buck went that old saw one better, mistaking a 640-pound concrete elk statue (to give him credit, it was a misty dawn, and mating season, when buck hormones run amok) for a rival and head-butted the immovable object to hard that Very Bad Stuff ensued. Sure, his "enemy" was toppled and its antlers broken, but the poor, misguided buck cracked his own noggin, stumbled a short distance, and succumbed to his miscalculation. Almost immediately, I saw the corollary with writers frustrated by rejection, inattention, or poor sales. Perceiving an enemy in the guise of an agent, editor, or publishing house, these writers allow their feelings of impatience, rage, and helplessness to lead them to attack, often in the form of ill-thought e-mails, public Internet postings, and rants at writers' conference. As in the buck's case, the results (to the writers' hoped-for careers, at any rate) ca

Sound vs. Noise

I have a number of CDs/MP3 tracks I often play but rarely hear. I'm plugged into an old favorite now, An English Ladymass by Anonymous 4 , a gorgeous medieval groove. Beautiful as it is, I don't play it so much to listen as to overlay the harsh cacophony of what I like to call The Noise. More than the literal racket of ringing phones and barking dogs and your neighbor's darned leaf blower, this noise consists in equal parts of old rejections, fear of new ones, and discouraging pronouncements from the Voices of Doom (many of which write articles, post blogs, and tweet copiously, shrilling the news of markets collapsing, agents despairing, and, to put the cherry on top, your most recent effort stinking up the planet.) Now, I'm not advocating a head-in-the-sand approach to writing (or life in general), but there's a difference between the necessary evil of staying aware and allowing The Noise to take up residence in your skull. Art can't happen in the presence o

Upwardly mobile (Levitate innovates more than the world's most awesome staircase)

One of the blogs on our Feed Me bar pointed me toward this amazing multi-tasking bookcase/stairway (to heaven!) in a London home designed by Levitate Architecture . When I visited their site to see what other cool and groovy stuff they were doing, I was taken by their opening statement, which is something a lot of us could tweak to apply to what we do in book world: We are a practice of Architects and Conservation Architects committed to designing sustainable and contextual contemporary architecture. Architecture that is in harmony with modern life and its setting. We practice what we call "innovative common sense," taking our client's brief and delving into it to find something extra, something unique. We aim to create spaces that function effectively but that are also a joy to be in...We take time to understand the wider context, physical, social, economic, of all our projects, but we also take pleasure in attention to detail. We provide a professional, friendly servi

Do You Want to Enough?

"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning." Phyllis A. Whitney To Ms. Whitney's wisdom, I'd add, do you want to enough to put in the time and sweat equity and expend the effort to silence the voices of doom (many of which are located only inside your head)? If the answer to any of these is no, then move along. There's nothing to see here. But if you're brave enough, smart enough, diligent enough, talented enough and mule-stubborn, you just may have a shot.

Stoking the Fire: Keeping the Creative Habit Alive

After taking an extra-long weekend for R&R and travel, I find myself playing catch up this week... and tempted to blow off my own writing to tend to the mountain of O.O. (other obligations) in my way. But the trouble is, O.O.s, like the detritus taking over my office, have a way of expanding to overwhelm all available space. Should I allow them to take precedence over my writing, I'll see more and more and still more things that need doing. And before I know it, the habit of writing will be lost. It's a fragile thing, this habit, and no matter how many years you've stoked its flames, the writer must remember it takes only a little inattention to see them snuffed out by the demands of living. When I've worked for others, my supervisors never would have tolerated my putting their business last on my priority list. It's important that I'm at least as work-oriented a boss to myself. So instead, I plan to give over the best hours of my week to what's most

Fortunately, Rue McClanahan has a great heart!

I've gotten a lot of email this week about Rue McClanahan's heart surgery on Wednesday . Rue was going in to have knee surgery, preparing to return to the stage with an adaptation of her memoir My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away . (I had a blast working with her on the book and was delighted to help with the script adaptation.) According to Rue, during the pre-op stuff, it was discovered that she "needed some maintenance on the old ticker." I really haven't heard any more than has been reported in the media, but word has it she's doing great. What I can tell you for sure is that Rue has one of the biggest, kindest, most genuine hearts in the biz, with or without bipass. I'm sending her a care package today and will pass along all the messages of love and support. Update Saturday noonish: Just heard from a friend that Rue's doing fabulously well and bossing everyone around the ICU. That's m'girl! A little Rue for writers:

Changing the Writer's Point of View

A few years ago, I attended an excellent workshop, given by agent Donald Maass, called Writing the Breakout Novel, based on his outstanding book of the same title. One of the exercises I found particularly intriguing involved having everyone list the one thing their main character would never do. Then, a little while later, Mr. Maass suggested, "Now, have your character do exactly that thing." The results were interesting, forcing the writer to plumb un-guessed depths, nuances, and/or contradictions in a character each believed already well known. Whether or not the scene made it to the completed book, it gave each writer excellent food for thought. I'll take it one step further and suggest a bit of a twist. Why not list several things you would never do as a writer. Then force yourself to try them, one by one. Whether or not you end up with anything useful, you're very likely, by breaking out of a rut, to shake loose at least a few worthwhile new thoughts. Pict

Padgett Powell in "The Interrogative Mood"

Are you happy? Do we need galoshes? Are bluebirds perfect? Do you know the distinctions, empirical or theoretical, between moss and lichen? Is it clear to you why I am asking you all these questions? Should I go away? Leave you alone? Should I bother but myself with the interrogative mood? Yes, no, yes, no, almost, not yet, maybe later, and absolutely not. Here's another question: Is it possible to pull off a literary parlor trick without making the reader want to crawl through the page and hit you with a shovel? Answer: Maybe. I one-clicked Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood , referred to in the press kit as "a bebop solo of a book in which every sentence is a question." It arrived this morning, I love LOVE love the cover, and after a quick skim of the first ten pages, I'm optimistic. I'll let you know how I feel about it as soon as I answer a few of life's other pressing questions.

Save the cat...not. (3 Questions for Peter Leonard, author of "Trust Me")

Yesterday, we went back to the beginning with Peter Leonard whose sophomore novel Trust Me came out earlier this year, bringing together a woman scorned, a load of stolen money, and a host of malefactors in a wildly inventive cocktail of of a plot -- including a triple-double-cross and the antithesis of ye olde "save the cat moment." From the press kit: The first mistake Karen Delaney made was entrusting $300,000 to her boyfriend, Samir, the head of an illegal bookmaking operation. The second was breaking up with him---because Samir holds a $300,000 grudge. A few months later, Karen sees a way to get her money back when two thieves break into her house in the middle of the night. She proposes a scheme to steal Samir’s safe, but Karen soon realizes she’s in way over her head as things begin to spin out of control. Trust Me moves at breakneck speed through the affluent suburbs of Detroit and Chicago as Karen is pursued by O’Clair, an ex-con/ex-cop who works for Samir an

"Boy, you're on your way." (Peter Leonard on getting The Call and stepping out of a tall shadow)

It's a huge moment in every author's career: The Call that instantly takes us from pipe dream to book deal. Today Peter Leonard, author of Quiver and Trust Me (and son of novelist Elmore Leonard) stops by to talk about what his famous father did and didn't do for him in a great "how I got from there to here" story... I remember when I was nine years old, going down the stairs to the basement, seeing my dad at his desk, white cinder block wall behind him, concrete floor. He was writing longhand on unlined, 8½ x 11 yellow paper, typewriter on a metal stand next to his chair. Across the room was a red wicker waste basket, balls of yellow paper on the floor around it, scenes that didn't work, pages that didn't make it in the basket. In retrospect, it looked like a prison cell but my father didn't seem conscious of his surroundings, deep in concentration, midway through a western called Hombre that would be made into a movie starring Paul Newman. F

Wait for it!

Thought I'd share my silly mood with a silly writing joke today. A hungry lion was roaming through the jungle looking for something to eat. He came across two men. One was sitting under a tree reading a book; the other was typing away on his typewriter. The lion quickly pounced on the man reading the book and devoured him. Even the king of the jungle knows that readers digest and writers cramp. Do you know any good writing jokes? We'd love to hear them!