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Showing posts from March, 2010

Great Minds Think... Differently

Yesterday, I met a friend with whom I'll be working on a brand new two-book writing project. We're both very busy right now, but I carved out some time, after a brief chat with her about general parameters, and typed out several pages detailing the backstory, characters, and a plot idea I had. I was feeling confident about my start. But as we brainstormed, she started popping off ideas about what would work and what wouldn't and then suggesting alternatives. She supercharged the conversation with her own rapid-fire thoughts, based on many, many books' worth of experience with the publisher and editor involved, and the years she spent living in the city where the story will take place. And much of what I had written changed, one of us riffing off the other's thoughts, both of us coming up with central ideas and characters for our respective, interconnected stories, and in the end synthesizing something richer than either of us could have done alone. It happened no

Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing, Genius, and Creativity

"It's better if we encourage our great creative minds to live." Whenever I'm really down about my writing, I watch this video. It's such a refreshing way to think of the creative process. It's a bit long, since it was a TED talk, but if you haven't seen it already and you write, especially regularly, this is a must see. I wish that academia would embrace this concept.

Writers and Workaholism: The Importance of Balance

I'll never forget a conversation I had with a friend of mine a couple of years ago. She asked Mark and me to come to her annual Superbowl Party, and I said "well, we might, but he has to work on his thesis, and I have to work on my novel." She smiled and said a couple of other things, and then said "well, I had to ask you, but I know you guys are workaholics." Her words stung, and it wasn't the first time, nor with that particular friend. In fact, ever since I slipped into the abyss that is known as my novel, I've been saying "no" to almost everything. Some of these nos have been necessary; some have been a long time coming. Getting serious about my writing forced me to quit activities I wasn't really enjoying and to end friendships that no longer made sense. In general, it's forced me to evaluate how I spend my time, almost down to the minute, and to realize that every time I say yes to something, I say no to something else. T

Find Your Groove: The Tao of Routine

For the past week, I've been shaken out of my regular routine by both planned and unplanned travel. One of those trips involved a sick relative, and I decided I would bring along my laptop and work wherever, under whatever circumstances. I know people who regularly write in hotel rooms, airports, coffee houses, public parks, and parents' bedsides. There are those who drag along their netbooks and write their heads off on vacation. (Talk about your busman's holiday!) Although I've been known to jot notes for a work in progress, winnow down and respond to pressing e-mails, and the like, I've found that I truly need routine to signal my subconscious that it's time to settle in and focus. Countless writers have developed rituals involved thinks like freshly sharpened pencils, freshly-brewed tea (or Diet Coke or coffee), two-point-six hands of computer solitaire, and the lighting of a cinnamon cookie-scented candle. What the ritual is matters little. Mine has shi

From physics to fiction: the necessarily speculative nature of ideas

From a US/LHC particle physics blog via an editor friend on Facebook: "All of our theories are probably wrong. And that's okay." Just because someone spends some time developing a new idea, that doesn’t mean that they are doing so because they think it must be true. This may sound silly: if they don’t think its true, then why devote so much time to it? One answer is that it could be true. Thus we should figure out what falsifiable implications it would have if it were true so that future experiments can cross it out. However, there’s a deeper reason to pursue ideas that one isn’t necessarily “married to.” The point is that good ideas have value just because they’re good ideas, even if they are necessarily speculative. This dynamic translates to writing and publishing without much mind-bending. I'm finishing up a huge project. Unemployment is looming. Between me and my next job there are hundreds of ideas, any and all of which have the potential to blossom or fi

Loading my Kindle for Italy. Any suggestions?

The Gare Bear and I are off to Italy next week, flying into Rome and taking the train to wherever it is we catch the ferry over to Sicily and on to the Aeolian Islands to meet my friend, Janet Little . I'm particular about what I read when I'm traveling, so I'm preloading my Kindle with just the right mix. Any suggestions? Currently on tap: Lift by Kelly Corrigan (Recently read and loved her memoir The Middle Place .) Selected Stories of Anton Chekov by (duh) Anton Chekov (Good for trains.) The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings by Carson McCullers Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (That's right! I said V to the D, homes. You wanna make something of it?) I'm also taking a galley proof of The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel, which is due out in May. I've had it for a while and started it a few times, but this is one of those books I wanted to read with my full brain and heart engaged. Emily's debut novel Last Night in Montreal


Yes. It's time to take a break. Stop. Breathe. Straighten your shoulders. Look at your magnificent hands. Photo credit: Bruce Barone

Feet to the Fire (in grudging praise of good editing)

Last night, after a long conversation with my editor, I girded my loins and trudged into my absolute least favorite part of the book publishing process: the copy edit. You know the drill. After you've slaved for months over every word of this manuscript, some anal retentive, OCD-driven, hyper-literal grammar purist who never gets your sense of humor puts your work through the wood chipper and throws the pulp back on your desk with a parsimonious sneer. "Fix it." Praise God and pass the red pencil. As insanely annoying as it is to be tweezed on punctuation that is "technically correct but could be misinterpreted" and clever wording that "may be too arcane" and beloved passages that "cross the line of elegant variation" (I could go on, but that would be "an abuse of rule-bending parameters in the absence of serial commas"), I've grown to love and appreciate the people who do this work. A book lasts a long time. It should be ta

Pre-order "Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer" and get a free copy for your sister

Suzy and Nancy Goodman were raised in postwar Peoria, Illinois, by parents who believed that small acts of charity could change the world. Suzy was the big sister—the homecoming queen with an infectious enthusiasm and a generous heart. Nancy was the little sister—the tomboy with an outsized sense of justice who wanted to right all wrongs. The sisters imagined a long life together—one in which they’d grow old together surrounded by children and grandchildren. Suzy’s cancer diagnosis shattered that dream. In 1977, breast cancer was still shrouded in stigma and shame. There were no 800 numbers or support groups. The words “breast cancer” weren't said in polite company, let alone on TV or in the newspaper. Just before she died, Suzy said, "Promise me, Nan. Promise me you'll make it change." Thirty years and one massive cultural revolution later, Susan G. Komen for the Cure is one of the largest grassroots organizations in the world. Millions worldwide have been brough

Post a Comment, Snag a Book!

Today I've been interviewed by hilarious romantic suspense author Christie Craig (if you haven't tried her books, I highly recommend them!) over at Killer Fiction, where she's giving an autographed copy of my latest, TOUCH OF EVIL, to one lucky commenter. Plus, you'll find out what really scares... me, at the end of a day filled with eliciting chills from readers. Stop by to enter and uncover my darkest "secret."

The answer to everything (and no, it's not 42)

So all of spring break, despite our cat emergencies and ending up sick myself, I worked like a fiend on the novel. Seriously--as in many hours straight through a day, going head to word with what I've written. This may not have been the best thing for my students, as now I head back with tons of papers still to grade, but I feel like I made a lot of progress on my writing. The most important thing, though, was that I rediscovered my direction. It happened tonight, while I was working out a particularly difficult transition, one that got past all six of my dissertation readers (who I am now convinced really didn't read the book very closely), but one I've never been happy with and I think holds the key to some crucial points of the book. That's what made me spend three days on one paragraph and almost a week on a page, because I felt like if the book didn't turn right there, it wasn't going to. And tonight, about half an hour ago, it did. I finally got it

Life Without Writing

Today I stopped to ponder what my life would be without writing. It would be very pleasant indeed. For instance, I would not spend so much time alone in a small room. My shoulders would be less hunched. My abdominals would be stronger. I would do yoga. Or learn to walk a tightrope. I might make a real breakfast, instead of getting up only to sit down again. My first meal wouldn't be over the keys (well, in the keys, sometimes). I would look out the window more. Right now I keep the shades drawn. Views are too distracting. They are often better than words. I would finally cop to this. I would talk more with my friends. I would go out for more lunches. I would be able to talk to them about the tightrope-walking, which would interest them. In the past, not so many of them have been interested. I would read more. I wouldn't have this dreadful feeling that I should be doing something else. I wouldn't worry if a book is better than mine. I wouldn't treat

Wisdom for the week ahead: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."

From "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson: Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark. Click here to read the rest of the essay.


This morning, something to inspire you (in addition to Colleen's excellent post on painting with words, below). Alpha/Alpha is a netbook devoted to the art and beauty of letters themselves. Refresh yourself with the glory of our medium. The letters. Our tools are marvels.

Why Paint-by-Number Writing Never Works

Before I began putting my stories down on paper, I absolutely loved to spend long hours drawing and painting. Since both my great-grandmother and my uncle were talented amateur painters, my parents had some inkling how to encourage me. So from an early age, there were pads of paper, watercolors, brushes and even a couple of art lessons and an easel. Then they clapped onto the idea of buying me some of those nifty new paint by numbers that were still quite popular in the early Seventies. The idea, I'm sure, was that ladling the "correct" colors into the numbered spaces would not only making painting a "masterpiece" easy, but would teach the child (or adult) creativity. I can't speak for anyone else, but I found them horribly disappointing. The end result looked flat and lifeless, and I didn't get any real satisfaction from the dumbed-down task of coloring in someone else's drawing with someone else's choices. Paint-by-number writing, where wri

If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.

The last few days have been a roller coaster ride for me and Mark, as we've been tuning in to the ongoing discussions about the funding of NASA (for whom he subcontracts), making a lot of difficult financial decisions, and watching our amazing neighbor finish the extensive renovation of our house. To top it all off, Tito, our diabetic cat, collapsed suddenly yesterday while I was writing, and Mark came in to tell me. "Tito's not doing well," was all he could say, and we were off to the vet, tears streaming down my face, with a limp, eleven-year-old cat. It turned out his sugar had just gotten low, so several hours and several vet techs later, he was happily gobbling down kitten food, and we were back at the urgent care animal clinic to take him home. And somewhere in the middle of this, it hit me: my writing anxiety was almost completely gone. It's like in the face of all these other, bigger issues, all my doubts and fears about the novel evaporated. I ha

Answering Pub Perspective's Q of the day: "Has Digital and Self Publishing Devalued Authorship?"

Today on Publishing Perspectives, Edward Nawotka asks, "Has Digital and Self Publishing Devalued Authorship?" The gist of it: ...the very definition of “author” is changing. It is no longer merely used to describe a solitary writer working away in a room for hours on end. Today, it means the leader of a “tribe,” someone with their own community which they may have developed through their writing, blogging, Tweeting, et al. What’s more, technology has put the would-be “author” on equal footing with publishers: the cost of publishing — online or even in print — is free and/or accessible to most. As a talented dabbler who developed into a person who writes books for a living, I’m not overly sensitive about other talented dabblers calling themselves “authors.” In my humble opinion, the definitions of “author” and “publishing” set forth above are more a devaluation of the important role others play in the production of a well-crafted book. Writing a book without an editor is

Catch Up with Colleen

I'm chatting online at Romance Reviews Today on Wed. (St. Patrick's Day) at 9 PM EDT. I'll be giving a signed copy of Touch of Evil to one lucky participant! Plus, I hate hearing crickets, so please stop by and say hello! I'm guest blogging, too, this week. If you'd like to hear about the romantic suspense authors and books that inspired me to join the genre For those of you in the Greater Houston area, I have some upcoming events, and I'd love to meet you. March 20th at 4:30, Murder by the Book, Houston. Q&A and autographing my latest, Touch of Evil. April 3rd from 1:30-3:30, Katy Budget Books, Katy, Texas. Autographing. April 10th from 2:00-4:00, Good Books in the Woods , The Woodlands, TX. Autographing and special character naming rights presentation . Hope to see you if you're able!

Spring Break a la Tintin: Chateau de Cheverny is an adventure in comic book history

My girl Jerusha is adventuring in France for spring break, hanging out with her cousin, Jenny, who works as an au pair for a family in Paris. They spent Saturday at the Chateau de Cheverny , which you'll recognize (if you're as big a nerd as I am) from the Tintin comic books . Belgian author/artist Georges Prosper Remi, writing as "Hergé", used the iconic French estate as a template for Marlinspike Hall, which first appeared in The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure . The Tintin books were known and loved for their meticulous research and sly political satire. There's been controversy over the years about the anything-but-PC undertones in the series, but that's part of what I loved about Tintin books, which I discovered in my geeky early teens. Hergé is one of those rare and wonderful children's artists like Maurice Sendak who whispers in the ear of a kid and is heard by an adult twenty years later. Marlinspike Hall was home base for Tin

Starting from Silence

First, I must apologize to my blogmates, and to our readers, for not having posted in some time. I've been on the road, my thinking muddled by long hours, long miles, and vapid, floral motel rooms. But now, at last, I'm home again, in my own office, with my books around me, a familiar view of snowcapped mountains outside the window, and my feet tucked under my antique pine desk. (The desk is made from the floorboards of an old house; when I rest my hands on it, I travel along the path of ghostly feet.) I have every reason in the world to be happy, at peace, and to do good work. And that's just the problem. After weeks or even a few days away from writing, the silence that falls between me and the page is loud. Yesterday, my first day home, I did everything I could to avoid sitting at the computer with it. I unpacked. I looked around. The metal patio furniture urgently required a good wiping. The yard needed raking, the porches needed sweeping, the garage and the o

Writing Past Doubt

"...Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. " -Sylvia Plath How does one banish self-doubt in a sea of rejection, ridicule, and criticism? One thing is for certain: you can't trust to your self-esteem to others, depending on their pronouncements to keep your head above the water (or drag you under by your ankles.) Somehow, you have to find your buoyancy yourself. You do it by immersing yourself in the written word, reading, reading, and reading until you to absorb the alchemy of storytelling, the magic of well-crafted prose in your pores. The reading is a continual process, not something you quit once you start writing or when your first book is published. Equally important is the ongoing act of writing -- every day, or as close as you can come. Only with repeated, concentrated practice will you break through to those moments when you finally hear you

The Problem with Agent Blogs

I have a new obsession: literary agent blogs. Now that I'm in the final stages of novel revision, I'm hard-core researching agents and compiling a back-up list in case my target agent says no. Through all this research and reading, I've learned so much that will be helpful no matter whom I query, and I'm learning a lot about how the business works. But there's a problem here, and that is that writers (including this one) are prone to fantasizing and conjuring up dream outcomes. We're also prone to paranoia. Case in point: Literary agent A says something about word count in her blog, so then I'm up late trying to figure out if I've miscalculated my word count. Then I go into "ohmygodmybook'stooshort, noagentwilleverwanttoreaditImightaswelljustdie" mode. Then Literary agent B says something about noticing the misuse of repetition, and I think about the use of repetition in my third chapter and how people in my workshop liked it, but

After a Million Words of Crap... the Right One

The other day, I received a lovely compliment from a reader and aspiring author, who told me how much she wants to write like me. Flattered as I was (and I can tell you no one laps up praise more happily than I do) I quickly thanked her and hastened to add that that's the wrong idea. Because no matter which author you admire, you'll never be more her than she is. But you're the very best at writing like yourself. The trick is, writing enough words (Raymond Chandler is said to have insisted that every writer has a million words of crap to produce before getting to the good stuff) to break through to your authentic voice. More than likely, you're imitating other voices, other styles, and/or those you perceive as big successes for about half a million of these. You spend a few hundred grand more floundering, and the last ones grinding out some pretty decent prose that's not quite ripe yet. (When I go back to my old short stories, I see the raw material for what I

The Truth about Rejection (and why we keep on fighting)

I'd finished writing for the night and finished prepping for class, and was just about to head to bed. Then I decided to check my facebook one last time, and there it was, a young friend's status: "feeling insanely butt-hurt by the rejection letter I just got in the mail." I started to join the chorus of well-meaning comments after her status. I thought of all sorts of hopeful, cheerleaderish things to say. But as I typed in that tiny little box, I thought about my first rejection, that first moment when I realized the world would not shift because of the words I wrote. And I remembered the sting, the hurt, the black despair. So I told this writer--who I've no doubt is very talented--that she shouldn't try not to feel this. And I'm telling her and myself and everyone else who does this job and takes it seriously: There is no point in pretending rejection doesn't hurt. There is no point in conjuring up a thick skin if by nature you are too sens

Staggering genius Dave Eggers (I bet he gets really tired of that) talks about reading, writing, and the power of paper

My daughter Jerusha and I have been involved in a heated back and forth about my Kindle usage, which she considers nothing short of treason. I'm afraid to share this great article from the Guardian, in which Dave Eggers is optimistic about paper and ink : "I only read on paper. I don't have an e-reader or an iPhone. I have the best time reading newspapers. I don't believe books are dead. I've seen the figures. Sales of adult fiction are up in the worst economy since the Depression." He's not s'much on the internet: "Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you're called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can't ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn't written anything for a year." Read the rest here.

Oscar winner Mark Boal on the psychology behind The Hurt Locker

Yes, of course, I'm thrilled that a woman finally won a Best Director Oscar, but I love that so much credit for The Hurt Locker went to writer Mark Boal last night. (Was there even a mention of the guy who wrote the book The Blind Side ?) Anyway, here's a great interview with Mark Boal on Vulture , and below, he speaks to the psychology of why men fight. Overall, I think it was a pretty good night for writers. The next sound you hear: an outboard motor gunning into high gear on Sapphire 's career.

Gotta see "The Ghost Writer"

Okay, how am I NOT going to see this movie today? Two lines from the trailer that got a big "True that!" from me: "I interview you and turn your answers into prose." An exactly correct explanation of what I do for my clients. "Inviting the ghostwriter to the book party is like having the mistress at the wedding." Seconded. Him (to prime minister's wife): "Didn't you ever want to be a proper politician yourself?" Her: "Didn't you ever want to be a proper writer?" Zing! And I have no trouble believing: "It was the book that killed him!" I'll let you know how it goes down.

The Historical Novel: An Unscientific Prognostication

I have this thing I do. When I notice my my mind bending a certain way, when I feel myself tending toward one thing and not the other, I stop and wonder if my proclivity is a purely personal one, or if it might reflect some participation in a larger trend. I've been wondering this lately as I turn more and more toward the historical novel for reading interest and pleasure. "Historical novel" is a broad category, so let me give my recent bent some specificity when I say that stopping by my local bookstore recently I passed over contemporary nonfiction (which I enjoy), and contemporary fiction (which I write), and picked up instead Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant (about an 18th-century British marine who is among the first colonists in Australia) . As I passed by other books to pick up this one, I sensed something in my choice: something that wanted not just novelty, but a particular kind of experience that modern media, with all its access, all its video and audio

The Literary Gothic: Why I Love Scary Stories

So it's official: I just got my teaching assignment for the summer, and it's a class in The Literary Gothic. This is a class I created for the Humanities program, ironically because I'm teaching it in a prison, and they don't have access to that many books. I always have to be creative when working with their inventory, and Lit Gothic was one of the easier sells. It's also a fun class to teach in a prison, for a variety of reasons, some of which you'll get to hear in the next few months. But it got me thinking: why do we love scary stories? What is it about the Gothic that gets us? Out of every kind of literature, I always end up gravitating towards a literary sort of horror, along the lines of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, or Bram Stoker's Dracula. And Poe. Wow, talk about a literary crush. I could dig him up and marry him. What I most love about the Gothic is the way it deals with the psychological. I love the way it takes our anxi

The Last Station is all about truth, love, and Tolstoy

My son Malachi is in town for a few days, and we're trying to see a bunch of movies for which I haven't had time and he hasn't had money. I've recently been on a Kindle-induced Tolstoy binge, so I especially loved The Last Station ... Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are up for Oscars as Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy. It's a great script, beautifully executed. Laughed, cried, couldn't wait to get home and read more Tolstoy.

Storytelling Smackdown: Avatar vs. A Serious Man

Predating our recorded history, storytelling has been part of what makes our species unique. Our stories help us make sense of the world around us and build our confidence by assuring us that even the humblest person can find the strength to overcome daunting troubles. Reading, listening to, or watching stories relieves stress, reaffirms core social beliefs (often telling us that love, family, and friends truly matter), and underscores heroic values, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, courage, and hard work. As a writer of commercial genre fiction, I argue that that's a noble tradition and something our audience has a right to expect from us. We may be able to "get away with" straying or (sometimes) be rewarded with critical acclaim for dramatically altering the story landscape, but it's tough to endear oneself to a large audience that way. Case in point: two recent Academy Award Best Picture nominated films, James Cameron's Avatar, which for all its nifty speci

Sherman Alexie and the Loving Spoonful (a publishing parable)

I've heard this little parable in various versions -- rabbi, priest, monk, generic seeker -- and I'm thinking we need to adapt it to the publishing industry: A monk asked God to show him heaven and hell. First, God showed him a banquet table laden with a great feast. But the people at the table were shrunken and famished. They had spoons melded to their fists, and the handles on the spoons were longer than their arms, so the people couldn't put the food in their mouths. "This is hell," said God. Then he showed the monk an identical table with an identical banquet and the same spoons with impossibly long handles. But the people assembled were healthy and strong, laughing and feasting. "This is heaven," said God. "They learned to feed each other." Over a blog posse lunch at El Pueblito in downtown Houston yesterday, we were discussing how great it is when authors lift each other up when the opportunity presents itself, and we agreed it'