Skip to main content


Showing posts from May, 2010

Writing to Change the World: Why Do Stories Matter?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark and a couple of other books that are my go-to books when my batteries are depleted and in need of recharge. This past week, I found another. I've been meaning to order Mary Pipher's Writing to Change the World ever since it came out in 2006, but for some reason just never did, despite that inner voice that said I should. And now I know why. Pipher isn't writing to writers who want to be especially literary, nor is she writing to those of us who want our novels to sell. She's writing to those few, brave souls who are stubborn enough, visionaries enough, and perhaps arrogant enough to believe that something we write may have an impact on the world. Granted, she is talking more of activist writing than writing novels, and even says as much in her introduction. But as I read, I found myself nodding along and realizing that I am one who writes for a greater purpose, because of a calling that c

From "The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane

He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life--of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire. In visions he had seen himself in many struggles. He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess. But awake he had regarded battles as crimson blotches on the pages of the past. He had put them as things of the bygone with his thought-images of heavy crowns and high castles. There was a portion of the world's history which he had regarded as the time of wars, but it, he thought, had been long gone over the horizon and had disappeared forever. From his home his youthful eyes had looked upon the war in his own country with distrust. It must be some sort of a play affair. He had long despaired of witnessing a Greeklike struggle. Such would be no more, he had said. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions. He had bu

Oy, what a week!

BEA week has come and gone. We kept an eye on things with headlines and a few relevant twitter feeds at the top of our FeedMe bar, but kept the big picture in view. Sunday Colleen pondered the joys of literary larceny . Monday Nate's Sparrow Rock got some big love from Dark Scribe. BEA Director of Education Mark Dressler wrangled with the future. Mike Bender and Doug Chernack's Awkward Family Photos still cracks me up. Tuesday Parnell Hall sang us a booksigning ballad . We got BEAlicious with the opening of BEA . Mylene contemplated the bruises left by the best stories. Nancy's Theory of Style looks good coming and going. Wednesday CEOs speak up and editors bust out the buzz at BEA. Author Marta Acosta discusses genre-hopping as Grace Coopersmith. Thursday Springfield, monkey sex, giant typewriter-- what's not to love about BEA10 ? Author Christie Craig pops in to discuss her new novel, Shut Up and Kiss Me . Friday Dorchester au

Curmudgeons at The Chronicle

Two great finds in today's Houston Chronicle, which I love browsing through especially on Sundays: Leon Hale, saying, "Writing a book is nothing. Selling it is hell." Why's that? In case you haven't guessed, click here for his essay on the topic. Here's another note of interest, since I recently finished laughing my head off over Justin Halper's hilarious Sh*t My Dad Says. William Shatner is quoted as saying he's done the show's pilot! Best. Casting. Ever. Happy Sunday to you, too!

Buy This Book: An Unfinished Score by Elise Blackwell

I recently subscribed to Unbridled Books ( great reads delivered to your doorstep just like fruit of the month club! ) My first shipment arrived as I was dashing out the door to the airport last week: Elise Blackwell's An Unfinished Score plus the bonus book I chose, Marc Estrin's nerdtastic The Annotated Nose . I just got around to opening the package today while I was cleaning my office. Several hours later, my office is not clean, my dog is nosing my knee because I'm weeping, and I remember why I love Elise Blackwell's novels. She's an amazing writer, and this is a melodic, intricate, beautifully woven work. It's not for the impatient reader; it's for the reader who's still willing to sink into a book the way you sink into music when you lay on the floor and listen in the dark. You're not skimming ahead, you're letting it all flow to you--the notes, the structure, the adventurism. (I hate it that I read so few books that way these days, and I

Shut Up & Read Me: 3 Questions with Author Christie Craig

Steamy and hilarious as ever, Christie Craig is back with a new romantic suspense romp, Shut Up and Kiss Me. Today, we caught up with her for three quick questions. BtO: First of all, Christie, happy release day to you and best of luck with the new book. Can you tell us a little of the backstory on SHUT UP? CC: Thank you so much for having me here. Colleen is forever my go-to person when I need something, whether it’s about questions about a publishing contract, writing decisions or just sharing my good news or asking where to hide the body of that Weight Watchers attendant who told me I’d gained three pounds the last time I attended a WW meeting, and I really appreciate having a good friend in the business like that. Now, about the backstory on Shut Up and Kiss Me. Writers get their ideas from all kinds of places. I always joke that I find mine at the clearance rack down at Wal-Mart but I have to say that with Shut Up, it was a little different. Now, I don’t think I’ve s

General vibe is positive at BEA (Rick Springfield, monkey sex, giant typewriter--what's not to love?)

According to this morning's report from Rachel Deahl and Lynn Andriani : Overall, people thought traffic on Wednesday was strong. And booksellers, despite some grumbling, embraced the shift to midweek. Workman’s group publisher, Bob Miller, called the mood “rocking,” noting, “It feels busier and more energetic than it has in the past five to six years.” Will Weisser, v-p, associate publisher, marketing director of Portfolio/Sentinel, said, “People seem happier about the midweek. It’s certainly more convenient for New York publishers.” And both Miller and Weisser noted that attendees seemed less focused on the economy this year. I'm just bummed I missed "Esther Newberg and Scott Turow engaged in a pissing match” . That alone had to be worth the price of admission, plus the cost of heel blister ampules. Happenings today include Book and Author Breakfast and Luncheon and "Big Ideas at BEA" Conference Sessions. Click here for the full schedule.

Dark roots, inappropriate ensemble and all (3 Qs for genre-jumping author Grace Coopersmith)

I'm not sure if San Francisco author Marta Acosta is moonlighting with her campy Casa Dracula series (pubbed by Pocket) or daylighting with her new single title release Nancy's Theory of Style    (S&S Gallery) writing as Grace Coopersmith. Either way, she seems to be having a lot of fun with it. Grace, thanks for popping by. This is a dramatic leap in career direction -- from undead to high life. You're a publishing pro by now, but does this book make you feel like a virgin, touched for the very first time? Yes, dark roots, inappropriate ensemble, and all! No, it's actually very different because I've built up so many relationships over the years. At first I was going to rely on my new Grace Coopersmith persona, but I realized that many of my online pals were happy to help me get the word out about my book. I'm digging this author photo with the tutu! Call upon your powers as a recovering drama student and sample for us a bit of dialogue between Tutu

BEA Editor's Buzz Panel: Seriously, did anybody think they'd get copy above the monkey-on-girl sex book?

From PW's take on the BEA Editor's Buzz panel yesterday: One of the six buzz books flogged has a three-page sex scene between a talking monkey and a woman. “It’s not bestiality,” said Cary Goldstein, the book’s editor at Twelve, “It’s love.” The book is The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore , Benjamin Hale’s debut, and Goldstein said he loves the story, that of a chimpanzee who learns to talk, falls in love with a primatologist and eventually becomes a murderer. Why not? “It’s big, loud, abrasive, witty, earnest, and accomplished,” Goldstein said. Queued up in line to be ignored in favor of monkey sex: Emma Donoghue’s Room (Little Brown), about a boy who's grown up as a captive in a room with his mother, who was kidnapped years before. Bad Science (FSG), already a U.K. bestseller from author-physician Ben Goldacre, about a South African vitamin entrepreneur who was selling vitamins to treat AIDS. The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer (Scribner), Siddhar

BEA: CEOs Speak Up

From Shelf Awareness article BEA: CEOs Speak Up , a few soundbites from yesterday's Opening Plenary: CEOs on the Value of a Book: Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux : "Who has time for enhanced e-books? With links you could be there forever...No author will want to have books only online. Every author wants to give his mother a copy of his book." Scott Turow, author and incoming president of the Authors Guild (on how musicians' reliance on concerts to make up for a drop in music sales won't work for writers): "I'm not sure as many people will show up to hear me read as they would to watch Beyonce...Why did publishers let the e-book be available at the same time as the hardcover?" David Shanks, CEO, Penguin Group : "More than 90% of our business still is in paper." Esther Newberg, executive v-p, International Creative Management (on fair author compensation in the digital age): "One of

Buy This Book: Nancy’s Theory of Style by Grace Coopersmith

I admit it. It was the cover of Nancy's Theory of Style that caught my attention. It's...evocative, right? "I have mixed feelings," says author Grace Coopersmith . "I think it's cool, especially with the back cover, but then I go, Agh! I've got toilet paper on the cover of my novel! I have no idea what most people will think." I'm fairly certain a lot of people will laugh out loud, and all but a few will be curious at least. Right away, the front cover tells us that this is going to visit the smallest room in the metaphorical house, but in the most genteel, least scatological sense. And then the back cover reminds us that life frequently defies the most proficient attempts at orchestration. From the flap: Lively, pretty young socialite Nancy Carrington-Chambers has always believed that an excellent sense of style and strict attention to detail are what it takes to achieve a perfectly chic life. Now, however, her own haute couture marri


Over the weekend I attended a workshop led by Brooke Williams, author of the lovely memoir Halflives and my neighbor here in the beautiful southern Utah wilderness. Brooke is now at work on the story of one of his Mormon ancestors. Or possibly at work on more than one story about more than one ancestor. Brooke isn't sure. Dead people keep talking to him. "Let's just be still and listen for a while," Brooke said, "and see if anyone comes to us, and just start writing and see what we find." There were ten of us around the table. None of us regarded Brooke's request as an unreasonable one. Most of us were already in the habit of spending time with invisible people. Most of us knew that the job of the writer is to make the unseen seen. I closed my eyes and waited. It wasn't long before a dead man came to me, a relation I'd been aware of but never thought--or wanted to think--much about, a violinist and teacher of violin who

BEAlicious: BookExpo America starts today

Our FeedMe bar will be back to normal next week, but this week, we're featuring PW's BEA updates and twitter feeds from BEA and a few attendees who I know will be getting a lot out of it, including Yen Cheong of the Book Publicity Blog , our own Fred Ramey , and anyone else who catches my attention at the moment. Today's main attractions: International rights fair and Barbara Streisand's opening keynote. Click here for full schedule of events.

Parnell Hall's Hilarious Take on Book Signings

You know you're an author if you 1. wince while laughing at this. 2. have PTSD-induced flashbacks. 3. feel intense (if guilty) relief that you're not the only one who's experienced a lousy table signing. 4. have downgraded your hopes for signings from a Nora Roberts-worthy line of admirers to just enough to save you from Certain Humiliation. 5. have alienated friends by humbly imploring them to show up (at repeated signings, even!) to save you from the aforementioned Certain Humiliation. You know you're an author's very best friend in the wide world (and building awesome karma) if you 1. show up. 2. bring a friend or two 3. talk to her so she won't feel lonely/pathetic. 4. have ever bought a second or even third copy to give away. 5. Go and check out Parnell Hall's funny, clever Puzzle Lady series . I've heard great things about these mysteries!

Awkward Family Photos (Because your Monday afternoon demands a little sophomoric LOL)

Jennifer Weiner on Awkward Family Photos , the painfully hilarious compilation from Mike Bender and Doug Chernack: Samuel Butler once said "Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself." If that’s true, than God help Mike Bender and Doug Chernack, who waded into the toxic slurry of bad mullets, spiral perms, skin conditions, leg warmers, wet pants, creepy Moms, funny uncles, and truly disturbing Santas, and came back with this hilarious collection of awkward family photos. Awkward Family Photos reminds anyone with a dusty shoebox full of snapshots of unfortunate fashion choices, band trips, braces, bad bridesmaids’ dresses and that one time you got talked into dressing up and going to the Renaissance Faire, that you are not alone. This isn’t just a book, it’s a public service on the page, a living, breathing, laugh-out-loud reminder that no matter how badly you dressed, how oddly you posed

Wrangling with the future: 3 Qs for Mark Dressler, BEA Director of Education

BEA week is here. Whatever that means this year. We caught up with Mark Dressler, BEA Director of Education as he sprinted by. Mark, thanks for taking a moment to join us. What were some of the primary goals in planning programs for BEA this year? Number one was meaningful author involvement. Second to that, practical and edifying content for trade professionals. How has the scope and tone of BEA changed in response to the tectonic shifts in the industry? We've reduced the number of show days while increasing the storyline for a greater number of books and authors. With respect to ed programs, we'll be addressing the issues publishers and channel partners are, and will be wrangling with in the near future. Hopefully, we're doing this in a way that helps decision makers eliminate some hurdles and obtain solutions. What are you looking to get out of BEA on a personal level this year? Is there one particular event you won't miss? Good question! Too many really g

I think this is love

Every once in a while, a review comes along that really nails what you were trying to create when writing a novel, and you get the sense that the reviewer was there with you, looking over your shoulder and nodding with each careful characterization and plot twist. It's that same feeling you get when you meet someone new, and you're sitting over a cup of coffee talking about something important to you, and that person is smiling and nodding and finishing your sentences with excitement as if they feel exactly the same way. It's what we writers live for, that sense that someone else out there "gets it--" whatever "it" might be. This is one of those. And I'm pretty darn happy about it. :)

Snatched Seconds & Stolen Prose

This week, I've made a joyful discovery. I've remembered the art of stealing prose from snatched seconds and borrowed minutes when a hour or a day's an unimagined luxury. I had this skill when I was younger and juggling grad school, a colicky infant, and (most often) full-time teaching. Still needing to write fiction, I'd store the raw ingredients the way a squirrel stores nuts. Then, whenever I had time to kill stuck in a waiting room or the little guy at last conked out, I'd pull out my pen or little notepad, and all the fluttering, trapped words would explode from my hand like a flock of penned birds desperate to escape. Even a few minutes yielded pages, and because finding time was so darned difficult, I often found myself imagining the story, working through characters and complications in my head. As a result, when I did snag a few minutes, I was never, ever at a loss for words, as I so often am when I have hours a-plenty to write ideas that still require &

Oy, what a week we had!

Here's what happened on BoxOcto this week: Sunday Crown's For My Sister campaign : preorder Pomise Me by Nancy Brinker with Joni Rodgers and get a free signed copy for a fabulous woman you love. Monday Robert McCrum makes a plea for difficult over cool. Jorge Amado's Gabriella, Clove, and Cinnamon is all about love, politics, and Brazilian food. Tuesday Dr. KatPat continues her valiant quest through query and rewrite hell . Fred reflects on story as the basis of our sense of self. Colleen critiques for a cause and teams up with bestselling author Sharon Sala to raise money for diabetes research. Michael Harvey's intriguing The Third Rail plots like a runaway train. Wednesday Michael Harvey talks about classic influence on hardboiled detective fiction (and his beefy reading list.) Nate invokes Graham Joyce and ponders the beginning in the end . Mylene invokes Phillip Roth and ponders turning the sentence around ...again. Thursday Dr. KatP

The quest for the perfect word

In New York this week, I spent time with a friend who had a stroke a few months ago. This woman is a lifelong dancer, voracious reader, talented writer, uninhibited artist, and deliciously garrulous conversation maker. It was hard to see her bright mind and vibrant spirit weighted with lymphedema and frustration. The formation of each word was an arduous task. She said people keep finishing her sentences for her because they can't bear to see her struggle, but she didn't want that because they didn't know the specific word she was grappling with. They might say "lucky," and she's the type to say "serendipitous." They might say "sky" where she would say "heavens." I understand their discomfort in that situation, but I also understand the perfect specificity of vocabulary, the thrill of writing the right word. It can be a struggle to get our hands around it. It was good for me to be reminded how important it is to push through th

Q&A-holes (Good writers behaving badly)

Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, on Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bestsellers and Blockbusters , responding to a question about rivalry between authors of genre fiction and authors of literary fiction: I think this is a serious point actually, that the rivalry does not come from us. Why would I care about Ian McEwan? The rivalry comes from them, and it is not necessarily about the sales, it’s about something else, it’s about this: that they know in their heart that we could write their books but they cannot write our books. That’s what it’s about...In the paper in Britain last week, I deliberately said — I was trying to start a fight about it — I said, “Oh, I could write a Martin Amis book. It would take me about three weeks, it would sell three thousand copies like he sells.” And that’s what it is. They know they can’t do what we do and they are jealous of that skill. And then Joe Konrath, whose self-promotion skills are second only to his self-esteem, asks himself questions

Book of the Day at Red Room

Hey ya'll, my novel THE FLOODMAKERS (just released on Kindle) is Book of the Day over at Red Room , that fab site for readers and writers! My thanks to Huntington Sharp and all the great people who keep the Room such a hopping place. I'm pleased and touched.

An MFA versus the Real World: Answering Katja Zurcher's Questions

A friend of mine connected me with the lovely Katja Zurcher (remember that name for the future), a smart, talented junior at Rhodes College in Tennessee. Katja has already accomplished much with her writing, and is now in that familiar place many young writers find themselves, deciding whether or not to go on for an MFA. I told my friend I'd be glad to answer whatever questions Katja had, partly because I did go straight after college, at least the first time. I don't think anything I've done has been a mistake for me, but it really makes me feel for these younger writers. And when Katja sent her questions, I thought they were so astute and so pertinent that they had to be answered on the blog. If anyone else has direct questions about either the MFA or PhD in fiction experience, I'll be happy to answer. Just post them in the comments section below. And if you missed it, you might want to read an earlier, extended post I did on this . You can also take a look at

I do not read to think (Stephen Sondheim's escapist fiction manifesto)

Last night, Jerusha and I saw the legend herself, Barbara Cook, in the Broadway show Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54. (Yes, they've taken down the cocaine spoon.) In this ingeniously staged review of Sondheim's hits, flops, and almosts, Barbara sang "I Read" from Passion , which so perfectly captures the intellectual reasons for turning to books that are pure escapist pleasure trips. I do not read to think. I do not read to learn. I do not read to search for truth I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need. I read to dream. I read to live. In other people's lives. I read about the joys, the world Dispenses to the fortunate, And listen for the echoes. I read to live, To get away from life... I read to fly, to skim - I do not read to swim.

Suspicious Person in Small-Town Texas: Or Why A Writer Shouldn't Marry An Aerospace Engineer

I've always joked with my friends that Mark and I are a lot like the couple on Medium . He's the algorithm-wielding logical thinker, and I'm that strange person with the sixth sense. While I've never actually seen a ghost, I do get "intuitions," and while my book isn't horror per se, there are some downright creepy things in it. Tonight, after working on it for a while, I needed to go for a walk to clear my head. Since it was dark, I decided to stick to the blocks closest to mine, and be careful to avoid my neighbors' barking dogs. A block or so from my house, I was standing at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to go on. Just when I decided to, all the streetlights on that block went out, then all the lights in the houses on the block, then the floodlights in a neighboring yard. Being me and not Mark, my immediate thought was "There's some weird mojo on this street." But because I was intrigued, I decided to keep on walking. I know,

Turning and Turning

I confess to loving it when writers confess that sometimes we can't explain how or why it is that we do what we do. That some of our best work is the result not of grand theory, premeditated strategies or any profound understanding of our own process, but of simple trial and error. "Let's put," Norman Mailer said, "the thingamajig before the whoosits . . . is how I usually state the deepest literary problems to myself." "I turn sentences around. That's my life," the writer Lonoff says in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. "I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I read the two sentences over and I turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning." * Yesterday I was thinning apricots from my trees, pulling as many of

"The End" is Only the Beginning

I've had a lot of people ask me lately about how I celebrate finishing a novel. "It must be such a wonderful feeling when it's done!" they say, and then they sit eagerly forward with their little shining faces tilted upward, waiting for me to tell them about the wrap parties and caviar and trips to exotic places where I sip champagne on the beach and take calls from Hollywood. I don't have the heart to tell them it's NEVER finished: that no matter how much I want to feel accomplished and happy, I never am, and that more often than not I'm pretty convinced that the entire thing is worthless. Want to know a dirty little secret of us writers? Most of the real work in writing a novel happens after that first draft. After all the cutting and rearranging I get to a point where I'm happy enough to send it off into the world, but the feeling that I've never quite captured what I wanted to do is probably what makes me keep trying to write another one. Wri

Classic hardboiled: 3Qs for Michael Harvey, author of The Third Rail

Yesterday, I waxed fangirlish about Michael Harvey's terrific novel, The Third Rail . Today, the author stops by to answer three quick questions. Michael, welcome. The Third Rail is our third fix of Kelly (not to mention your third starred review from PW.) Avoiding spoilers, of course, can you talk about how the character has evolved? How important is it for readers to start with The Chicago Way , then move on to read The Fifth Floor and The Third Rail in the order they were written? The first three can be read in any order. Probably better if you start with the first, but not critical. My next book will be a sequel to The Third Rail , so those two have be read in the proper order. Kelly is getting darker. As I dig into his character....and especially his childhood...I find more things from his past that are following him around. Along with the usual assortment of bad guys, shady clients and dead bodies! I'm a Chandler/Hammett devotee, and your Michael Kelly books

Buy This Book: The Third Rail by Michael Harvey

Here's a trailer that tells you exactly nothing and everything about Michael Harvey's The Third Rail : Michael Connelly calls Michael Harvey "a major new voice," but it's his old school style that keeps me coming back for more Mike Kelly. A while back, I read Harvey's debut novel, The Chicago Way , after The Big Sleep launched me into a major hardboiled binge. I wanted more. Harvey gave it to me. Made me want to slump into a seat on the el train, light up a cigarette, and change my name to Stella. From the flap: A woman is shot as she waits for her train to work. An hour later, a second woman is gunned down as she rides an elevated train through the Loop. Two hours after that, a church becomes the target of a chemical weapons attack. The city of Chicago is under siege, and Michael Kelly, cynical cop turned private investigator, just happens to be on the scene when all hell breaks loose. Kelly is initially drawn into the case by the killers themselve

BtO Special: Critiquing for a Cause

Every year, New York Times bestselling romantic suspense author Brenda Novak hosts an auction extravaganza to benefit diabetes research, a cause that's near and dear to my own heart, too. That's why I've donated a critique of an unpublished manuscript's opening salvo (up to 30 pages.) As my critique partners, published authors all, will tell you, my slicing and dicing does not include evisceration, but as many helpful tips as I can think of. If you'd like to bid, please click the link. If you're the winning bidder and mention that you're a BtO reader, I'll make it 40 pages - or 30 plus your synopsis. For those planning to attend the Romance Writers of America national conference in Orlando in late July, I've also teamed up with bestselling author Sharon Sala to offer a breakfast with the two of us, along with autographed copies of our latest releases. But wait! There's much, much more. All manner of autographed goodies, jewelry, trips, and

Picture this:

This weekend, our daughter visited us. While she was here she let us watch the rough cut of a short film she’s producing. And then she and I talked about how much effect on a film the editor has, how much each decision an editor makes affects the final work. But I drew no parallel with the process of editing written narrative. Really, I didn’t. We were talking about movies. And I don’t want to draw that false parallel here either. The more interesting part of the conversation, I think, was about the relationship between character and story —a discussion we all took part in. Our daughter listened as we described what we knew of the characters in her short film from the little things they had done on screen during those ten rough-cut minutes. And we talked of what we understood the backstory to be from what we knew of the characters. I realized we were projecting forward and backward from what we saw in the simple present of the film. This led our daughter to thoughts about another p

When All Else Fails, Go to the Source

Yesterday I had one of those amazing days in a writers' life--the day it all makes sense. In our world, eureka moments are few, but they do happen, and sometimes, in a few rare precious instances, we even brush up against the Divine. Ever since I turned in my semester grades, I've been kvetching over the novel. That's why you haven't seen me for a few days; I've been in both query and structure hell. The query hell started when I saw Nathan Bransford's post on the one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitch , and realized I had a lot of trouble doing those. Last Wednesday I was totally freaking out, telling Mark I was doomed because "there is no way I can sum up this novel in one pithy sentence." I have done it before--did it when I met the two agents who came to UH, but I never felt that sentence really expressed the true pulse of the book. And one paragraph? Two paragraphs? How could I do that when there are three point of view cha