Monday, February 22, 2010

The Art of Critique: Baby, Give It to Me Straight

In the fall of 1997, I got a flyer in the mail. Nothing fancy; just a single yellow sheet announcing that Portland novelist Karen Karbo was starting a weekly fiction writing workshop. If interested, please contact.

It was one of those lovely moments in life that happens when you've committed to a drastic course of action, subsequently decided you're insane, and then the exact thing you need to see it through falls smack into your lap.

See, two months earlier I'd quit my full-time job so that I could finish my first novel. I felt exactly as if I'd jumped out of a plane without a parachute. Okay, not in the
I'm going to splat to my death in less than a minute kind of way, but in the gut-gnawing, have-I-just-ruined-my-life insomniac kind of way. (Same terror--just slower.) I didn't know how to write a novel. All I had were eighty manuscript pages and a vague idea of what might happen on page eighty-one.

Then the flyer arrived. On the first evening, I was one of ten writers sitting around Karen's dining room table.
Over the next few years I did complete my novel, and get it published, due in no small part to what I learned there.

Karen's wasn't the first workshop or critique group I'd been in. But it's been by far the best, which is why, twelve years after that first class, I still take my place at her table.
If you're looking to join or start a critique group yourself, here are a few things that you might want to consider:

Critique is specific.
No wishy-washy "I really liked it" or "It didn't work for me" without reasons to back it up. Pinpointing why a piece works--or doesn't--can be surprisingly hard to do. And the higher the skill level of the writer, the harder it gets. A really good writer can hide fatal flaws under dazzling wordplay...which means it often takes a lot of thought and effort to put your finger on what exactly isn't working. But the payoff isn't just for the writer; the better your critique, the more you yourself are learning about the craft.

Critique isn't just pointing out the flaws.
It's also important to acknowledge what the writer is doing well. Writers need to recognize their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Plus, we all need to hear that our pages aren't pure crap.

Critique what's on the page. Don't impose your vision on someone else's work. In one early critique group (long before Karen's) a fellow "critter" told me that the premise of my book was all wrong and that instead, my two female characters should set aside their differences and form a friendship that would be a testament to female bonding in a society that doesn't value women's relationships. (Gee, projecting much?) Which not only missed the entire point of my book, it bore no relation to anything I'd already written.

I've also been in workshops in which the instructor's critique mostly centered around getting students to write in the same style as the instructor. A good workshop leader isn't interested in creating copycats. Instead, like Karen, she recognizes each student's individual style and works to help her students develop their own unique voices.

Work with people at your ability level or slightly higher. If you're far and away the best writer in the room, it's easy to start thinking you're God's gift to literature and that you know all there is to know about writing. You'd be wrong.

I'm not the best writer in my group; in twelve years, I never have been. These people are wicked talented, which means I'm always striving to up my game. In the same vein...

...Try to find people with similar goals and work ethic. This doesn't mean everyone in the group should be gunning to get published. But if it's important to you to keep learning and getting better at your craft, you'll save yourself frustration if you're not the only one.

Likewise, members need to pull their weight. That doesn't necessarily mean bringing in new chapters every week (although of course that's great.) Members of Karen's class have gone through long periods--months, even--with not a single page. But they still show up, week after week, and give honest, thoughtful, and insightful critique. Does that count? You bet it does. Good critique is damn hard work. In fact, the least welcome member of any crit group is the one who shows up only when she has pages. Critique is a two-way street: if you want to get, you have to give.

Keep the focus on the writing. In some groups, critiquing gradually takes a back seat to snacking and discussing each other's personal lives. When a critique group turns into social hour, its demise soon follows.

And finally, if you want to have a quality, longstanding writing workshop or critique group, there is one thing you must never, ever overlook:

Give yourselves a catchy name. Us? We're the Writers of Renown.

Damn skippy, as Karen would say.

Next time: Receiving critique (aka, You've Shredded My Precious Like Soggy Kleenex And I Think I Might Hate You Forever.) In the meantime, you writers out there: what's your dream critique group like?


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Optimize Me, Baby!

You may remember (or not, it was a tad bit ago), me rhapsodizing about a character-naming website called the Baby Name Wizard. Although why they call it the Baby Name Wizard and not the Character Name Wizard, I'm not sure. It might have something to do with wacky people using it to name actual living humans instead of figments of their imaginations. Sounds crazy, I know, but hey--I don't make this stuff up.

A character's name is of course enormously important. For example, if your protagonist is a half-feral, demon-killing maiden of the Sacred Sword of Arnooth, who has sworn bloody vengeance against the spawn of Beezelbub who slew her mother lo these many years past (now, that I made up) you don't name her Pickles. Actually, you don't name anyone Pickles. That's a Rule. Write it down.

I hear you whispering back there. You think the example I just gave is easy. Because obviously the perfect name for a half-feral, demon-killing urban fantasy protagonist is Shzaghatha of the Rampaging El. What novelist worth her salt needs a website for that?

Well fine, smartypants. Name me this: a boy's name that means warrior.

With no more than two syllables.

In Arabic.

Ha! Not so easy now, is it, my pretty?*

And yet--it is. Writers,** say hello to the Baby Name Optimizer. Make your choices among 17 variables--not only ethnicity and number of syllables, but style (trendy, timeless, exotic), popularity (Top 100, less popular, unusual), origin (Biblical, Buddhist Zen, Muslim, Sanskrit, Saints, Shakespearian, among a slew of others). Want a celebrity name? A name that conveys your character is athletic? Dark? Graceful? A name that is associated with animals? A place? A gemstone?

The Optimizer, it is a veritable garden of geeky delight, my friends. A garden! We're talking wild climbing roses and birds of paradise and lilies of the freaking valley here. Not to mention, it's a procrastinator's dream.

And remember: Once you've optimized your character's name, pop over to the Baby Name Wizard and find out how popular it's been in every decade since the 1880s.

Sigh. And they say we can't find heaven here on earth.

Okay, enough geeking out (although really, can one ever truly get enough?) But I gotta get to work. Just as soon as I plug in a request for a four-syllable Teutonic girl's name meaning "peacemaker" that does not end in the letter a.

Axelle. Ah well--four out of five ain't bad.

*I have got to stop watching Wizard of Oz late at night. Oh, BTW, the Arabic boy warrior's name? Shamar. Nice, huh?

**Yes, I suppose you expectant-parent types can use it, too. But don't you dare take Axelle. That name is mine.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Dream Big 2010

All this month, author Lisa Schroeder (I Heart You, You Haunt Me; Far From You) is having a Dream Big celebration over on her blog. Lisa has asked twenty-six fellow authors to write about what it means to Dream if you need some inspiration this January, don't miss what everyone has to say about their own personal journeys, setbacks, discoveries, and triumphs.

Last night, I had the pleasure of hearing Lisa read from her brand-new novel, Chasing Brooklyn. Today, I have the honor of being her guest blogger. Check out what Dream Big means to me.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

What ARE Editors Thinking When They Look at Your Manuscript?

I don't often lift content from other blogs, but today is an exception. That's right, I'm gonna start my blogging New Year as a big fat stealer. Why? Because this is good stuff and if you're a writer and you haven't seen this already, I think you should.

(If you're not a writer, you might still be interested. OR you can skip to the bottom and look at this LOLcat instead, which I stole off I Can Has Cheezburger just for you.)

The following pearls are from Kathy Temean, a children's book author and illustrator who also writes a very informative blog on children's publishing. In one of her recent posts, she listed the Top Ten Questions Dutton Editors Ask Themselves When Looking at a Manuscript. Bear in mind, these are for children's books, but most of them pertain to novels for any age:

1. Who is the readership for this book?

2. Does this story surprise me and take me to places I didn’t expect?

3. Is this a main character I care about?

4. Am I personally moved by this story or situation?

5. I this a theme/emotion/concern that a lot of kids will be able to relate to?

6. Has this been done a million times before?

7. Will I want to read this manuscript ten (or more) times?

8. Is the voice/character authentic and real?

9. For picture books: Would this story be visually interesting for 32 pages? Could I easily envision the illustrations for this?

10. For novels: Does the action of the story move at a good pace and hold our interest? Does tension build as the story moves forward?

*For a book to earn a permanent spot on my shelves, it has to be one I have read/will want to read at least twice. There might be three or four out of the whole bunch I've read as many as ten times. But when an editor acquires a book, he or she is committing to reading that book again...and again...and again... Which would be a lot easier to do if you really love the stuffing out of the thing.

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Conversation with a Half-Finished Novel

Hi, novel? We need to talk.

See, the thing is...I mean, it's like this... Oh, crap. I'm just going to say it.

It's over.

No, no, it's not you. Not at all. You're wonderful. Amazing. You're deep and layered and evocative and...and... Well, you know, I admire you so much. And love you, sure. Of course. It's just...I'm not in love with you.

I have tried. You know I have. I was there for you, wasn't I? Every day for a year and a half--

Oh, here we go again. Complaining that I have a day job. How many times do I have to explain this to you? The laptop, the flash drive, you think they grow on trees? I worked for those. I gave you the best, I busted my butt for you. You can't deny that. I've worked so hard but it's just not...

No, don't cry. Come on. Please. I swear, it's not you. It's me. Really. I'm not good enough for you. You deserve someone better. Someone who can do you justice. You're so intricate, I already say layered?

What? No! How can you even think that? I mean sure, there have been blog posts, but they're nothing compared to you! I would never--

Okay, now you're just talking crazy. When would I even have had the time? Five days a week, who was I working on? You. What do you think, I had some other file open on some other computer? That in between typing on you, I'd sneak away and dash off two sentences with someone else and then sneak back? Do you hear how crazy that sounds?

Those were games of solitaire! Look, I swear to you, I never once cheated on you. What are you talking about, "other novel"? What other nov--

Oh. That.

OK, look, just calm down, all right? It's not what it looks like, I can explain. See, there was this...

Fine. You want the truth? OK, then. You're right. I am leaving you for another book.

No, it did not start back in Chapter 3! I didn't even know the other novel then!

See, this is what I'm saying. We've always had problems. Right from the start, fighting over every single word. I kept thinking it'd get better, that if I just hung in there we'd hit that groove, we'd start making beautiful music...

As if I need you to tell me that. You're not my first trip to the fair, you know. I know it gets hard. I know there are rough patches. Times we want to quit. But where was the magic? We didn't even get a honeymoon. That exaltation, the joy of beginning, when you feel you can scale mountains and cross deserts, like you can conquer the world... You don't even understand what I'm talking about, do you?

Why yes, if you want to know. The other novel does understand.

I didn't mean for this to happen. It's not like I went out looking for it. The other novel just popped into my head. And we started spending time together, and it just, I don't know. It made me feel so alive. Like I could do anything! I admit it, I fell. I fell hard. I couldn't help it.

Oh, sure, throw that in my face. "Once a cheater, always a cheater." You think once the going gets tough I'm going to dump the new novel, too. Well, I won't.

I won't.

No, I won't.

Fine. Believe whatever you want. But this isn't some whim. I've agonized over this decision for weeks. Months. And I've decided it's for the best. For both of us.

No, wait, let me explain! What I mean is, maybe I'm just not ready for you yet. In a year or two, when I've got this other novel out of my system...I mean, I'm not making any promises or anything...

So hey, we're good, right? Because I hate to do this, but I've got to go. Thanks. For everything. You taught me a lot. I'll never forget you.

Um, yeah...the other novel is waiting.

Okaaaay, well. Awkward. So, um, take care of yourself. It's been great. And we can still be friends, right?

Oh, wait, I almost forgot. I, uh...I'm going to need that flash drive.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Geek Fun

Wanna write a novel but the idea of slaving for years over deathless prose leaves you cold?

Baby, welcome to NaNoWriMo.

If you're a writer, you probably know what I'm talking about. If not, then consider yourself hereby informed: NaNoWriMo is shorthand for National Novel Writing Month.

National Novel Writing Month is not, as some people assume from the name, a month set aside for the appreciation of novel writers. (Although that would be nice--can we talk about that? I nominate the month of May, and further stipulate that said appreciation be in the form of cheese popcorn and/or Skittles. But that's just me.)

NaNoWriMo is about writing. Specifically, writing an entire novel (minimum 50,000 words--which is actually a pretty skimpy novel, but I digress) in the month of November.

Is it a contest? No, because there aren't any judges. Are there prizes? No, except for the glory and honor of completing a novel in 30 days. Am I participating? No, for a variety of reasons, mostly because I'm already deep in a novel and that doesn't lend itself to the kind of madcap seat-of-the-pants invention you need to write 1,666.67 words per day, every day. But hey, just because I'm a stick-in-the-mud doesn't mean you have to be. Limber up those fingers, put on the thinking cap (never mind, forget the thinking--there's no time for that!), click here for some inspiration, then let `er rip!


In other late breaking news, one of the Words of the Day this week (courtesy of A Word A Day, a site so insanely geeky it makes my heart flutter):


Noun: meaning the part of the body one cannot reach to scratch.

Pull that one out of your linguistic hat the next time someone asks you to scratch their back. Instant awe and admiration! Right? Am I right?


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Sunday, July 19, 2009


I’ve been meaning to write the counterpoint blog to Writing and Leisure, and I haven’t gotten around to it because I’ve been, well...writing. Which I guess is the counterpoint right there. That is, while it’s true that writing requires room and time, what’s even more true is that writing requires—first, foremost, and always—BiC.

Butt in Chair.

Once, years ago, I was invited to attend a support group/networking meeting for women in the creative arts. The moderator went around the room and asked each of us to visualize and describe a perfect workday. One aspiring writer described her day in such wondrous detail, I’ve never forgotten it. First, she would wake up to the sound of birds singing and sunshine streaming through her gauzy white curtains. Then, after a delicious breakfast, she’d spend the day sitting under a venerable oak tree, listening to the wind and the bees; following this, a horseback ride through a meadow, capped by gathering wildflowers. She would then cook a fabulous dinner for friends and spend the evening, eating, drinking wine, telling stories, laughing and sharing. Then, at long last, she would...fall into bed.

This, she said, would be just the ticket to put her in the frame of mind necessary to create.

I never went to another meeting. I was a total newbie, but I already knew enough to realize that was two hours I could have been writing.

Frame of mind has nothing to do with it. Having the right computer software, the best computer, the most organized desk, an ergonomic desk chair, a certain allotment of hours has nothing to do with it. Even that most-oft-invoked prerequisite, inspiration, has very little to do with it.

Just about the only thing that has anything to do with writing is actually writing.

In a lovely bit of synchronicity, as I was thinking about this post I stumbled across this poem by novelist Charles Bukowski.

air and light and time and space

"–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to

no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.

baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

© Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press

Butt. In. Chair. Fingers on keyboard or pen or pencil or sharpened quill. Go.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writing and Leisure

June. Roses bloom, strawberries ripen. Graduating seniors swelter in their robes while somebody important urges them to do, to strive, to achieve. Nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, as graduating seniors have been urged since time immemorial.

Unless they happened to be from Hiram College, Class of 1880. No fiery speech exhorting them to get out there and give it their all. No, what they heard instead was this:

“It has occurred to me,” said their commencement speaker*, “that the best thing you have, that all men envy, is perhaps the thing you care for least. And that is your leisure. The leisure you have to think in, and to be let alone; the leisure you have to throw the plummet with your hands, and sound the depths, and find what is below… I congratulate you on your leisure. I commend you to keep it as your gold, as your wealth…”

The leisure you have to think in. Even then, a scarce commodity. Scarcer now, what with those 15,000 applications for our iPhones. (Hey, I bet it takes hours to sort through all those).

But what does this have to do with writing fiction?

Fiction requires space. Fiction requires time. What non-writers don’t know—and what writers ourselves sometimes forget—is that the writing itself is only part of the process. An even greater part is simply thinking. Imagining. Listening. Seeing. Paying attention to the story in our heads, paying attention to the details of the world. (Oh, not practical details, like when the phone bill is due. Please. No, I mean like how spiderwebs gleam gold in certain slants of sun. Like how a dog’s eyes dilate just before it bites. You know…critical stuff.)

The leisure to throw the plummet with your hands, and sound the depths, and find what is below… Is there any better description of fiction writing than this? Sound the depths, and find what is below…

The novelist John Gardner once described a scene he wrote in which a character is offered a cocktail. The character had two choices: accept the drink, or decline. It was a simple, trivial detail, with no impact on the action of the scene. But Gardner couldn’t decide if she should accept the drink or not, and it paralyzed him. Unsure if he could even finish the book, he left off writing and plunged into physical chores. After three days, suddenly he knew exactly what the character would do…not only about the cocktail, but about everything else, too. He’d figured out the kind of person she really was. But in order to solve the problem—in order to even realize what the problem was—he had to give himself room and time.

Leisure. Kind of a dirty word in our culture. Brings up a mental image of beaches and funny-colored drinks with little umbrellas in them. In our anxiety to produce—so many words a day, so many pages a week, so many books a year—it’s tempting to hammer out any contrivance that will make the plot work, even if it means selling our characters short. It’s tempting to race to The End and call it done, and ignore the deeper threads and connections that beg to be teased out.

Embrace leisure. Keep it as your gold, your wealth. When the story is stuck, when you feel something isn’t quite right, when you hear whispers of something deeper lurking, step back. Give yourself the luxury of room and time, and let the story speak to you.

Your fiction will be all the richer for it.

* James Garfield, then a presidential candidate, soon to be President of the United States…for four months, until he was shot by an assassin. Not a novelist, but a great lover of books. And, apparently, of free time.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Chasing the Dragon

I once worked with a heroin addict (clean for many years, but he taught me that to say "former addict" is incorrect) who told me that the first experience of heroin is the best. Junkies, he said, are always chasing that ephemeral first time, which will never occur again.

Writing is like that. The first time I hit the zone--that state in which a scene unfurls seemingly with no effort, in which the characters take on life and act with no regard for the author's preconceived ideas, the state in which (as one author once put it) the writer seems to be taking dictation from God himself--I was hooked. Entirely and forever. That first experience was long before I began writing novels, long before I could reliably write even two pages a week for my writing class. But from that day to this, every time I sit down at the computer, I hope that lightning will strike.

It usually doesn’t. But the promise of it always brings me back. Because unlike heroin, the first time for writers is not the only time. Who knows what the zone really is--self hypnosis? Endorphin rush? Whatever brain chemistry is percolating (biologist geek that I am, I'm certain that some physiologic process is involved) the zone is, for me, one of the strongest lures of writing.

This is how I chase the writing dragon: Unfold the scene, starting with the light. I read that once in an author interview, although I can't remember who--Anita Shreve, maybe. Imagine the light in the scene first, she said. How bright it is, where it’s coming from.

Then the sounds. Scents. The touch of upholstery, the humidity in the air. See the characters, set them moving, set them talking. Set a spark, see if it catches. Get it all down. If the zone starts rockin', hallelujah and roll with it. If not, then slog on. The dragon waits to be caught...

...if not today, then surely tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Where in the World is Christine Fletcher?

Honestly, I haven’t been slacking off. OK, yeah, it’s been three weeks since my last blog post—you got me there. So what have I been doing? Well…

On Febrary 22nd, I had the honor of taking part in the Northwest Author Series, a series of presentations by NW authors to aspiring writers. The NAS is the brainchild of Christina Katz, whose book “Get Known Before the Book Deal” is required reading for any writer looking to publish in today's competitive market.

And my topic for NAS? “Essential Skills for Every Fiction Writer.”

I had ninety minutes, so I distilled my list of essential skills down to three bottom-line, make-it-or-break-it abilities that every novelist or short story writer must master: building characters, building conflict, and building the fictive dream. Attendance was good, and the audience was great. As any of my former students can tell you, I get bored if I’m just up there rattling away; I like participation, and I’m not above randomly pointing at people and firing questions. But I didn’t have to with this bunch; every time I posed a scenario, they called out ideas and answers. Fabulous!

Many, many thanks to all who attended, and especially to Christina Katz for inviting me to speak. I had a great time, not only giving the talk but having the chance to chat with folks afterwards. The talk was filmed, and when I get a copy of the video I’ll post an excerpt or two here—keep your eye out for it!

And then I was done and headed home…only to pack the suitcases for a 6:30 AM flight the next morning. My latest Adventures in Book Promotion had only begun, and the next stop?

The City of Big Shoulders itself: CHICAGO.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Journey Continues...Book #3

Before we went to Colorado, I got the first six chapters of my new novel finished, prettied up, and sent to my agent. Which started me thinking...while there’s a ton of information out there about getting that first book published, few people talk about what happens after that. What about books two, three, and more?

I used to assume that once an author got that first book deal, she’d be in like Flynn—her publisher would snap up the manuscripts as quickly as the writer could scribble `em down. Once published, always published, right?

As it turns out, there’s a reason most agents tell their writers to hang onto the day job. Writing—especially novel writing—is not even close to a stable way to earn a living. Just because someone wanted one of your books doesn’t guarantee they’ll welcome another. As New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerrittsen has said on her blog*: “A writer is only as good as his last book.” Ouch.

But the process does change. Most significantly, I have my amazing agent on my side. Some months ago, I told her my idea for book #3 to see what she thought. She gave the thumbs-up, and so I plunged forward. What would’ve happened if she thought the idea was a dud? Then we’d talk: does the concept just need some tweaking, or does it need to be scrapped altogether? This is one of the reasons a writer really, really needs a good agent. Someone who is interested not only in your first book, but in your entire career. Someone who knows the market and how your work might best fit. And someone who can sweetly push you to do more than you ever thought possible. I’m lucky—my agent is all those things, and more. She’s the bee’s knees.

So, backed by her encouragement, I wrote the first six chapters. I also wrote a synopsis—my vision for the book as a whole, including major characters, conflicts, and narrative arc.

Now what happens? My agent will read what I’ve written so far and give me her opinion. Do agents ever reject work from their clients? Sure they do. If your agent doesn’t think the book will sell, then it’s her job to tell you, so that you don’t spend a year or more on a futile project. Bookends Literary Agency has a great blog post on that subject here. (Do authors ever disagree with their agents? Yes. Sometimes spectacularly so, as when Garth Stein’s agent rejected his novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. Stein believed in his book so much, he rejected the rejection and sought new representation. The book has been published to great acclaim and translated into 26 languages. This is a huge exception, but it does happen.)

What do I do while I wait to hear back from my agent? Keep writing, of course. My goal is to have a new chapter ready for my writers’ group next week. And I’m putting together two presentations for media events early next year. I'll fill you in on that sometime later. Perhaps when I have a clear grasp of what I'm doing...although I'm finding that that usually happens only when the whole thing is over. (I guess that's why they call it a learning curve...)

*If you want to know what it's really like to be an internationally best-selling tours, insomnia-producing anxieties, warehouse book signings (did you even know there was such a thing? I didn't), then you've got to visit Tess. She's gotten flak for not being all sunshine and roses, but she says hey--if you don't want the truth, don't read the blog. Publishing is a weird, weird industry, and Tess--having published twenty books in twenty years--is one of the best tour guides ever.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Worducopia Review & Interview!

Last month I spoke to Willamette Writers , Oregon's largest writers' organization, about writing young adult fiction. Afterward I had the pleasure of meeting several of the members, including Ali, who is currently working on her own novel. After Ali read (and reviewed!) both Tallulah Falls and Ten Cents a Dance for her blog, Worducopia, she asked if I'd be willing to do an interview. Ali had a singular knack for zeroing in on the issues I struggled most with while writing this book. Kudos to her for asking in-depth, thought-provoking questions...this was one of the best interviews I've had.

Thanks, rock!

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Guest Blog over at the RAVENous Reader!

The RAVENous Reader invited me to guest blog for her, and I was delighted to oblige. Trot on over for my thoughts on inspiration, and the story of how Ten Cents a Dance got its start. You can also check out RAVENous Reader's review (suffice to say, she has impeccable taste. Thanks, RAVENous!)

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

An Anniversary. A Contest. And It's Only Been Two Years!*

I just realized that on April 26th, 2008, the second anniversary of this blog slipped quietly past. I clearly remember, at the beginning, giving myself six months. If I was managing to post on a regular basis, I figured I’d keep going. If not, I’d bag it. Quite honestly, I doubted I’d make it past two posts, let alone two years.

Why did I start? Simple. Because my agent and editor said all authors need to blog. Period. I was a brand-new baby author; if my editor said I had to eat Froot Loops for breakfast every day, I’d have run out to buy a dozen boxes and a gallon of milk. And too, I thought it’d be fun to try (blogging, not Froot Loops. I hate Froot Loops).

But even though all the pros were sure I needed a blog, I was still hazy on what the thing was actually FOR. Endlessly pushing my own books? Ewww. Just the thought made me queasy. Rambling on about my day? Oh, please. Not even my dogs are interested in my day. (“She sat and make the clicky noises with her fingers…I fell asleep…woke up… still making clicky noises.”) Yep, that’s fascinating.

My own favorite blogs are snarkily funny (the great Miss Snark herself, RIP; Smart Bitches Trashy Books; barista bratwhere are ye, brat? So long since we heard from ye…) But snark isn’t a voice I can pull off. No way, no how, don’t even try.

So…when in doubt, make it simple. I blog about things that interest me. Now, I know well the depths of my own geekiness; I’ve had too many actual-world people stare blankly while I blather on about something I find absolutely fascinating to doubt I might get the same reaction online. (After reading one of my first posts, my sweetie shook his head and said, “Wow, that’s really strange.” And no, I’m not going to link to which post it was). Snarkiness might be the homecoming queen, the quarterback’s girlfriend, the head cheerleader. Geeks work on the yearbook committee and come up with the obscurely funny photo captions that nobody else gets. But what would the world be without us?

Anyway, somewhere along the line I figured out the purpose of this blog. Nothing profound; it’s an open door, that’s all. For folks who are curious about my books, or who just stumbled across my site: come on in, poke around, get to know me a little. And for you who stop by regularly, my deep thanks. I’m still delighted and honored whenever I get a comment—wow, someone read what I wrote!

I have my Post-it note of possible topics stuck on my desk, and Blogger awaits. Sometimes, it even lets me post pictures. And so we begin year three…

...the same way we began two years ago: with a contest. Leave a comment on this post and I'll use the magic random number generator to pick the winner of a signed copy of Ten Cents a Dance. Deadline by my next post. Which I don't know when that will be. Could be tomorrow (OK, that's unlikely), probably within the next week. Hey, what's a contest without a little suspense?

*A shout-out to the post that started this whole shenanigan.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lightning Strike

Most days, writing feels like a whole lot of heavy lifting. Write a sentence. Delete it. Write a slightly different one. Delete that. Put the scene together, bit by bit. The character enters, and…then what? She looks around, oh, that’s good. And sees…what? OK, think about where she is. What does it look like? Sounds? Smells? What is she feeling? For that matter, why is she there at all?

*Sigh* Delete paragraph. Start over.

But then—sometimes—lightning strikes.

It happened last week. I’d already written one partial scene that didn’t work. I went back to my notebook, scribbled some thoughts, drew arrows from one note to another. (Drawing arrows always makes it seem like I’m in charge. Like I know what I’m doing. It’s an illusion…but one I cling to).

I started the scene again. And this time…it flowed.

Some people call it being in the zone. Some people call it the Muse. I call it Thank you, God, and I write as fast as I can. Don't stop to look stuff up. A character needed a French surname; I threw together a bunch of letters ending in "ier." Fix later. Write now.

When lightning strikes, the characters take on life. They’re no longer mannequins, waiting for my direction. Instead, they’re moving, talking, acting, often with no regard for my original intentions for them. I feel like a reporter, looking through the characters’ eyes, feeling what they feel, scribbling down everything. The internal editor stops squawking (awkward sentence! bad phrasing! how run-on can you get?) and quiets to a hum, reaching in only now and then for a fast tweak. The scene unfolds; new people appear; characters say and do things I didn’t anticipate. It’s like watching a movie for the first time, with all the surprise and delight of the unexpected. I’m no longer eyeing the clock on my computer taskbar, wondering when I can legitimately take a break for lunch… check the mail…move laundry. I get hungry, but the scene isn’t stopping, I can see what’s coming around the corner, let me get just this bit down and then I’ll go eat.

The scene comes to a close. Last sentence, final period. I stretch, and the animals leap to their feet. It’s past their dinnertime. I never stopped for lunch. Wet laundry is still in the washer, the mail is still in the box. My shoulders ache, and I feel a little buzzed, a little disoriented. I’ve just spent ten hours in an upscale department store salon in 1944. My kitchen in 2008 seems strange. I find myself looking at a can of cat food like I’ve never seen it before.

I feel fantastic.

All the writers I know live for days like this. They don’t come often. The only way we know to make them appear is to do the days and weeks of heavy lifting. If you choose not to write until the lightning comes...well, you’ll be waiting a long time.

Sure enough, since that one great day, it’s been nothing but more heavy lifting. That’s OK. The lightning has struck, for the first time, in this newest novel. It’ll strike again.

We’re on our way.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

We Gots Us Some Geeky Fun

Naming characters is always fun. For Tallulah Falls, I knew Tallulah’s name from the very beginning. Maeve's, too. I don’t know how; that’s just who they were, and I ran with it.

For the characters in Ten Cents a Dance (which I’m already thinking of as my “last book,” even though it isn’t published yet, to distinguish it in my head from the “new book,” the one I’m currently whamming at with a sledgehammer trying to get it off the ground—and if that sounds like a frustrating way to get something airborne, believe me, it is), Ruby’s name came to me fast. It’s colorful and sparkly, which fits her, plus it has that lovely 1940s feel to it.

That’s the thing about names. They have to fit the characters, and they also have to be true to the time period of the book. Which gets me to the main event of this post:

The Baby Name Wizard’s Name Voyager!

Now, I realize I am a geek. I find many things fascinating which put other people to sleep. Which I don’t understand, because they're fascinating, don't you understand? But OK, whatever. This, though—I showed this to a couple of co-workers, and the next thing I knew, ten people were crowded around the computer, yelling, “Put in ‘Leslie!" "Put in ‘Sam’!" "Put in ‘Ashley’!

See, the Name Voyager is a Java interactive thingy whereby you type in a name, specify “boy” or “girl” or both, and its magical presto-chango graph illustrates, in lovely color, how popular that name has been in every decade since the 1880s. You heard that right. Eighteen-eighties.

Type in “Bella.” Middling popular until the 1910s, then it tanks and disappears by the mid-‘30s. Gone for decades, then…boom, 2003, folks start naming their baby girls “Bella” again. It’s shot up the charts and is still climbing. Why is that? No idea.

And then there’s “Lisa.” I know a million Lisas. It’s a name as old as the hills, right? One of those perennial favorites that’ll never disapp— Hey, wait a minute! Where’d it go?

Gone with the wind, my friend. The Lisa, she is gone with the wind.

I could spend hours on this thing, it’s so much geeky fun. No, wait—I have spent hours on this thing. Naming characters was always entertaining…but with the Name Voyager to play with, now it’s a wonder I get anything else done at all.*

*Shhh! Don't tell my agent. She thinks I'm working.


Cassie Edwards plagiarism update:
(here's the original post)

Signet Books, which originally said this, is now saying this. (I can just hear their lawyers: "All riiiiight, everyone, backpedal! And a-one-two-three-four...")

One of the plagiarized parties, Paul Tolme, whose article on mating habits of the black-footed ferret—I swear to God I’m not making this up—was copied and pasted into Edwards’s novel, Shadow Bear, writes about his reaction in Newsweek magazine.

To top all off—because the whole thing isn't bizarre enough already, you know—an exceptionally dedicated searcher found this in Edwards’s novel Savage Obsession:


The odors of the forest, the dew and damp meadow, and the curling smoke from the wigwams were left behind as Lorinda [...]

HIAWATHA by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Lines 3-5 of the Introduction

With the odors of the forest,
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams

Holy freaking moly. Hiawatha?

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

If It's Not a Resolution, Does That Mean I Can Keep It?

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I’ve broken too many, I guess (the gym, yeah, I know. And my vitamins. And walking the dogs. And watering the plants. And washing my car. All right, already!) But I have a thought to keep in mind as I slug away at my third novel (currently in the research/deep imagining/taking-stabs-at-the-beginning phase):

Strive to stay outside my comfort zone.

It’s said that big risks mean big rewards. The flip side, of course: big honkin’ failure. Staying outside my comfort zone means working with the constant feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing. Forging ahead on a project that at times seems so out there, I have no clue whether anyone will be interested in reading it. An idea that spins off in so many directions and into such big territory, I don’t think I can do it justice. Or even if I can do it at all.

Then again, if it seemed like a cinch, that would mean my vision is too small.

At least, I’ll keep telling myself that.


Besides wrestling the new project, there’s plenty happening around here in 2008. My second novel, Ten Cents a Dance, will debut on April 1st. (Yippee!) My website designer and I are busy cooking up a brand-spanking-new look for, including a slew of pages devoted to TCAD. (If you haven’t already signed up for the newsletter, you can do so here to get exclusive “sneak peeks” of book excerpts, contests, and events).*

Stay tuned to this space…and Happy New Year to all!

*Never fear that I’ll jam up your inbox with endless updates. I can guarantee no more than four newsletters a year, and frankly it’ll probably only be two. No New Year’s resolution, you see.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007


At the beginning of a new project, I’m in love.

The idea is not only brilliant but emotionally gripping. The main character…oh, I could swoon over her, she’s so alive and complex and unique. Snippets of dialogue and scenes start writing themselves in my head. The settings are Technicolor bright. Everything is exciting, busting with possibilities.

This euphoria lasts until I actually start writing.

When the project is contained entirely in my head, it’s perfect. The moment I sit down and commit words to screen, though, that sense of shiny-apple newness wears off faster than the bath I just gave my dog. Because once the work actually starts, problems start poking their ugly little fishy snouts into my vision.

Exactly how was I going to manage the—? Which point of view—? If you have main character X doing this, then she can’t go there, because—No, maybe she can, if I just—Why was she doing that to begin with? Wait a minute, now I’m confused. Where are my notes?!

This is never going to work. This idea is stupid. Whoever said I could write, anyway? Oh, look, Star Trek is on. Aliens with funny foreheads, now
that’s a good idea! Maybe I should write science fiction instead. Yeah, science fiction, that’s it.

Get. Butt. Back. In. Chair.

Stare at computer screen. Type a few words. Delete them. Hunt for my notes. The notes don’t help. The vision in my head is still there, but trying to capture it feels like catching butterflies with a sledgehammer.

This is when a writer is confronted with Two Choices.

1) The sledgehammer.

2) Hold onto the dream of perfection forever.

If I choose 1), trying to club this thing onto paper, I know that my perfect dream of a book will sprout warts and grow twisted limbs and disappear, for long stretches, only to reappear looking like something out of Tim Burton's nightmares. But…it’ll be real, it’ll be out in the world. It will exist.

If I choose 2), the vision stays in my head. Forever perfect, and never taking on a life of its own. And I get to go back to work full-time.


Where did those notes go, again…?


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Knitting and Brewing and...Writing?

My cousin Jenne Hiigel e-mailed me recently to let me know about her new book project, A Knitter’s Guide to Beer. Now that, I thought, is one intriguing title. Equally captivating are Jenne’s thoughtful and funny posts about knitting, homebrewing, and the process of craft. I especially loved “The Value of Ripping and Dumping.” When her knitting students are daunted at the prospect of having to rip out stitches and redo them, Jenne tells them that’s “more knitting pleasure at no additional cost!” Mistakes, she points out, are an essential part of learning the craft…and that the process itself should be valued and enjoyed, not just the finished product. After all, if you’re not having fun, why do it?

My first writing teacher, Verlena Orr, told us that most beginners have to produce about 10,000 pages before their work is good enough to publish. My heart instantly sank. At that time, I was lucky if I could produce one page a week. Compulsive geek that I am, I quickly figured that, at that rate, it’d take me one hundred and ninety-two years­ to get published!

Whether the 10,000-page-rule is really true or not, I don’t know. What Verlena was trying to get across to us beginners is that writing is a craft. Like any other craft, it takes learning and practice. It also takes a willingness to recognize when something isn’t good enough. When the work needs to be rethought, re-imagined, redone. Or even scrapped entirely. At that point, it’s tempting to get discouraged and give up. Or to hold on even more fiercely to the work, blaming everyone else when it doesn’t get the recognition we think it deserves.

Part of craftsmanship is never resting on your laurels. It's striving to always improve, to tweak a little something, get a little better, a little more original. That’s what keeps it from getting boring. That’s what makes it fun. It's how all of us—eventually—get to where we’re headed, slipping and tripping though we might.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Writer-Geek Heaven... two days spent bundled under an afghan in a rocking chair , with my manuscript, a sharp pencil, big pink eraser, a cup of coffee, and the Chicago Manual of Style. Outside, it rained; inside, kitties snoozed on the bed. A cozier, nerdier time could not have been had.

It was time to review copyedits.

As I mentioned in my last post, I adore copyeditors. First, I strongly suspect that they are even geekier than I am. Second, as I noted before, it’s the copyeditor’s job to keep me from making an idiot of myself in public. As I went through the manuscript, one thing became clear: me and proper comma use, not so much acquainted. What can I say? I put them where the pauses sound in my head.

So if the copyeditor is catching all the mistakes, what is the manuscript doing back on my lap, the person who made the mistakes to begin with? Because my job, at this junction, is to go through every change suggested by the copyeditor. The author may not have final say over the cover or the title, but s/he has absolute, final say over the actual writing. If I felt it was utterly essential that those commas stayed where I originally put them, then all I needed to do was indicate so on the manuscript. Take that, Strunk and White!* My word is law!

Then again, my manuscript was blessed with a wonderful copyeditor who really knows her stuff. That, and I’m not an idiot.

Reviewing copyedits isn't all coziness; it's also stressful, and not only because I'm never sure if I'm making the little squiggle at the end of a line deletion correctly. This is crunch time, the last chance an author has to make any significant changes. By this time, I have so many different versions of certain scenes in my head, it's hard to see the words fresh on the page the way a reader will. And there's not much time to ponder. One week to turn the manuscript around. But by Monday afternoon, I was done, the sun was out again, and the manuscript was winging its way back to New York--in better condition, I hope, than when it arrived.

*"Strunk and White" is the nickname for the book The Elements of Style. It was originally written by William Strunk, Jr. a zillion years ago, added onto by E.B. White only a million years ago, and is the one essential reference on written English that everyone should have. Everyone. It's only about 80 pages long and it's plain, clear, common good sense and a masterpiece. So no, I don't really defy Strunk and White. But I could. If I wanted to.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Last sentence, last period, done. Stare numbly at the computer screen for a few minutes. Attach manuscript to an email and hit Send. The book flies away to New York City. I collapse on the couch with a big juicy comfort-food-style novel and turn off brain. Meanwhile, in NYC, my editor goes to work.

Several weeks later, the manuscript—printed, this time, rather than electronic—arrives at my door via the wings of FedEx. I open the package with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, riffle through the pages. Penciled in the margins are brief notes from my editor: Wow! and Great line and Tighten through here and, in several places, See ltr.

Ltr. means the editorial letter accompanying the manuscript. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that editors don’t edit anymore. If that’s true, then I’ve hit the publishing jackpot, because my editor is amazing. My first draft, like all first drafts, had its creaky places—the action in one chapter not quite tracking with what came before, the emotional pitch a little off, the characters’ motivations gone a tad wonky. Most of those, I thought I’d fixed, or convinced myself, No, it’s fine, really. But my editor has an uncanny nose for spots like this—she nailed every single one I knew about, and some I didn’t. If you’re having flashbacks of English comp class, getting your paper back with red marks all over it like a mouse after a cat’s done with it, fear not. The editorial letter is thoughtful, detailed, supportive, and encouraging. It's not criticism, it’s collaboration. Reading it left me inspired and enthused to tackle the rewrite, full of new ideas and possibilities for the story.

Inspiration and enthusiasm are key, because rewrites are tough. I heard this bit of writing advice once and never forgot it: “The first draft is the writer telling herself the story. The second draft is the writer telling the reader the story.” Meaning, the first draft is where we figure out what happens and what the book is really about. In the second draft, the job of revision is literally that—re-vision. Seeing the story again, but this time from the reader’s perspective. Almost every scene is re-imagined to streamline the action, heighten the intensity, get to truths that weren’t quite realized before. Some scenes are tossed completely. (Another classic bit of writing advice: “Be willing to kill your darlings.” Painful—but necessary.)

From the arrival of the the manuscript on my porch to a finished, revised draft: six weeks. Ten or twelve hours a day, five days a week (I work my day job the other two days). That last week, I was at the computer sixteen to eighteen hours a day. And then...

Last sentence, last period, done. Stare numbly at the computer screen for a few minutes. Attach manuscript to an email and hit Send. The book flies away to New York City. I get dressed, grab a protein bar, rush to my day job. Meanwhile, in NYC, my editor goes to work.*

*To find out how the revised manuscript continues on its way to a finished book...stay tuned.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Guest Blog over at Bookseller Chick

If you’re a writer, you know there’s tons of books, workshops, and advice forums for those struggling with their first novels. But what happens between books #1 and 2? Bookseller Chick invited me to guest blog on that very topic, and you’ll find it here. As I told her, guest blogging feels kind of like throwing a party in someone else’s house, hoping no wine gets spilled on the carpet. Thanks, BSC, for letting me set up a tent in your space!

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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Secret

Oddly enough this past week, it seems every blog I read or radio show I listened to had the same theme: What’s the secret to getting published? Miss Snark, The Rejecter, and a Q&A with author Francine Prose on NPR all fielded variations on this question from aspiring authors. The writer calling in to Ms. Prose seemed especially jaded: You can’t get published unless you know somebody!

Not true. I’m a slush pile success, myself. (For those of you not into publishing, the “slush pile” is the mountain of unsolicited queries and manuscripts that teeter in the offices of agents and editors--see pic at left. Slush piles are often dealt with by assistants, who read through quickly, pull the letters/manuscripts that they think will interest their bosses, and dump the rest with rejection letters). I didn’t have anyone pulling strings on my behalf with my agent-to-be; I simply wrote a query letter and sent it off. A few months later, she asked to see the manuscript of Tallulah Falls. The rest, as they say, was history.

But here's the rub: if sending the query was simple, the road leading up to it wasn’t. I had no idea, when I signed up for my very first writing class, that it would take me twelve years to get published. I had no idea that first I had to learn my craft, and then write a novel good enough to get noticed. I certainly had no clue that getting published takes an entirely different set of skills than writing the novel! Each step has been a new challenge and a new learning curve.

It’s easy to look back on it now, and counsel patience. But I remember how impatient I was. How convinced I was, at times, that you can’t get published unless you know someone! Which, translated, means: I’ll never get published!

But I did. And if you’re an aspiring author, you will, too. If you write well. Tell a good story. If you seek out good critique and are willing to learn from it. If you never rest on your laurels and always strive to improve. Because in the end, if you’re a writer, you’ll write. If your first novel doesn’t sell, you’ll write a second. A third. You’ll get better and better, and you’ll never stop writing.

If there’s a secret to getting published, that’s it.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007


The most surprising thing has happened the past couple of weeks. I finished my novel, sent it off to my editor and my agent, did my happy dance. Then I sat back down at the computer. Now that I had a little bit of downtime, I planned to blog at least twice a week. Write articles. Work on a short story I’ve had simmering on the back burner for months. I was raring to go. But it was as if someone had turned a tap off in my head. All the words that, these past many months, had come pouring out of my fingertips into the keyboard onto paper just…vanished.

No. Vanished isn’t the right word. They’re not gone. It feels, instead, as though they’ve gone deep. As if my brain is earth. Waiting. Warming in the spring sun, recharging. Gathering energy.

In the meantime, I’ve been out to see my friends. Lots of laughing, lots of catching up. Working my day job, of course. Cleaning my house. All the while, soaking up everything around: the smell of flowers that hits as soon as I step outside my front door (Oregon in the spring is not only beautiful, but beautifully fragrant), the way a person in the coffee shop crinkles her eyes when she smiles. Everything. Instead of churning out, my brain is taking in. Watching and observing and listening and turning things over. I can feel it, just below the surface. Thoughts and fragments of ideas float up, sink again.

It sounds odd, probably. It’s as if the subconscious puts up a sign: QUIET. WORKING. I think about writing, I sit at the computer. I type. I don’t say much.

But the past day or two, I’ve become irritable. A sure sign—I’ve learned—of words building up. Wanting to break loose.

A little rest, a fallow time. And now we begin again.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Light of Day


I composed an e-mail, attached a file, hit Send, and away flew my manuscript to New York. My second novel is now in the hands of my editor and agent.

Second novel—but the first one I’ve written under a deadline. This is the thing about novel writing: Your first novel, nobody cares. I mean that literally. Nobody cares. Only you, the writer, care. You have to care enough so that it doesn’t bother you that nobody else cares. For years, if you’re like most of us.

Harsh? Maybe. It’s just that so many people start writing novels, and not many finish them. One out of a hundred, is the going quote, although how someone came up with that number, I’ve no idea. Anyway, there’s a lot of half-written books out there. So, when it comes to fiction, agents and editors don’t want to see it or hear about it until it’s finished and polished to a bright sterling shine.

The upside? You can take as long as you want or need to get that polished gleam in your manuscript. For my first novel, Tallulah Falls, it took three complete drafts written over something like 3½ years. Then another major revision for my agent, then another set of revisions for my editor. This doesn’t count all the minor fine-tuning that went into it along the way.

For my seond novel, Taxi Dancer, I had one year. Because this time, lots of people care. My agent, my editor and all the wonderful folks at my publishing house, Bloomsbury. They’re on a schedule. Taxi Dancer is on a schedule. And none of them can do the jobs they do so well, until I turn in the manuscript.

Gotta make the deadline.

And I did.

Now I’ve got a little breather, and I’m catching up. With my friends, most of whom I haven’t seen or talked to in weeks. With my blog (sorry, blog readers!) With my house, oh, the poor house! With my sweetie, who bore all my anxiety and neglect and took me out for margaritas when I knew, just knew, that I’d written the plot into a hole it’d never get out of. (Plot problem solved halfway through margarita and some very fine tamales).

I feel like a bear coming out of hibernation—squinty-eyed and blinking in the sunshine, sniffing the air. Looking to see if the old neighborhood still looks the same, and if there’s any early berries to eat.

Mmm, yes. Blueberries. Time for a snack. More later…

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy Ruby New Year!

Yes, I've been neglecting you. I never write...I never call. In the spirit of starting the New Year right, I'm going to come clean:

I've been spending time with a girl. Her name is Ruby Jacinski. She's 15 years old, and she lives in 1941.

Yeah, you guessed it. Ruby's the leading lady of my new book, and the reason I've been neglecting this space. Not to mention the household chores, balancing the checkbook, spending time with my sweetie, and sleeping. Ruby's the sassiest hepkitten this side of the Savoy -- she wants her story told, and she wants it told right. Last night, 2006 clicked over to 2007, fireworks sparkled outside my office window -- and on the page, Ruby was sparking some major fireworks of her own.

Deadline is March 15, 2007. So, if it's a little while between posts, you know where I'll be. I haven't forgotten you, I've just been in high gear -- and kicking higher, now that we're in the final stretch.

Happy New Year, everyone! Now, where did I leave off last night? Oh, yes...

At first I kept my mouth shut, for Ma’s sake. Maybe if I hadn’t had Paulie on my mind every second, worrying about where he was and who with, I might’ve held out longer. Or maybe not.

I never was good at taking guff from anyone.

Say on, Ruby.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

So much to be thankful for. Not least of which, for all of you who visit me here. Happy Thanksgiving! I’m spending my holiday writing, answering the call of the deadline. I love to write, so this is no hardship--and anyway, that deadline is one of the biggest things I'm thankful for! (since it means that my new book already has a home...kind of like a puppy who's already been adopted, but is too young to leave mama just yet.)

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

The 21st Century Feline

Seamus O'Leary takes the traditional I'm-going-to-sit-on-top-of-your-papers manuever and gives it a modern twist.

He managed to fall fast asleep in this position, so I felt bad kicking him off. And yet...I did. I'm not a total meanie, though; just as soon as he demonstrates 90 words a minute, the keyboard's all his.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Bella Stander Poetry Contest

If you’re in the mood to read some REALLY bad poetry (and come on, who isn’t?) then head on over to Miss Snark’s blog. Miss Snark is a literary agent whose prolific, funny, and yes, snarky blog normally deals with publishing questions. This week, however, she held a poetry contest. Why? To make Bella Stander laugh.

Who’s Bella Stander? And why do we care if she laughs? She’s a writer and book reviewer, an organizer for the Virginia Festival of the Book, and founder of Book Promotion 101, a workshop that teaches newbie authors like me how to launch our babies into the cold cruel world. I took Bella’s workshop last year and found it excellent. Afterward, I had the pleasure of chatting with her for a couple of hours over Chinese food, and that was even better. She’s a fount of book world wisdom, and funny as hell to boot.

This past May, Bella took a very nasty spill off a horse. On Tuesday she went in for yet another surgery, this time on her fractured (and poorly healing) humerus. Not one to pass up fun with homonyms (humerus/humorous—the possibilities practically boggle the mind!) and with the goal of rallying Bella’s spirits, Miss Snark announced the contest and threw open the blog doors.

Eighty-five entries in 48 hours. Twelve hours for blog readers to cast their votes, and—ta da! Results are in. The poem written by yours truly (#44) landed in a 3-way tie for third. (Yeah, I see you back there, I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t vote for myself. Not even once. Scout's honor).

So Bella, I hope we made you laugh and that your humerus is on the mend, and do you have any idea how hard it is NOT to make bad puns on the word humerus? (Must refrain…mustrefrain…)

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Behind Every Successful Writer...

Tess Gerritsen is an award-winning writer of thrillers. She also writes an insightful blog about writing and publishing. Her latest post, “Only Another Writer Would Understand,” is a beautifully written essay on the difficulties of being married to a writer.

I understand what she’s talking about. I could write the companion piece: “Only Another Veterinarian Would Understand.”

Fortunately, my significant other is a veterinarian, too. We both understand fourteen-hour days and the lack of weekends. We consult each other on the hard cases and commiserate over the heartbreaking ones. We accept the near-absolute certainty that we’ll arrive late (or miss entirely) any event for which we buy tickets. And still, sometimes, we get frustrated with the demands of each other’s careers. For spouses who don’t belong to the same profession, those frustrations must get enormous—even when they are entirely supportive of their loved one’s vocation.

How much worse it is, then, when the spouse is not supportive.

Years before I had the great good fortune to find my sweetie (and long before I started writing), I experienced exactly that. The attitude ranged from comments like, “Why would anyone spend money on a cat?” to a silent, condescending indifference toward anything veterinary-related…because after all, “it’s just not important.”

Bye-bye. Better to be alone, than with someone who thinks my work—my passion—is trivial.

Writers with unsupportive spouses hear a lot of the same kind of thing: The writing is a “hobby.” It’s "not important." It’s a "waste of time." And when the rejections arrive (as they always do): “I told you so.”

I changed career mid-stream. I took a pay cut to pursue writing. I spend countless hours in my office tapping at the keyboard, and countless more musing about characters and plot points and story problems. My sweetie sure didn’t sign up for that. He thought he was getting a veterinarian who liked to read. Without warning, he ended up with a writer, complete with angst, negligible odds for success, and an anemic cash flow. And throughout it all (Quitting my job! Haywire schedule! Rejection after rejection!) he has been my champion. Because it makes me happy. Because he thought I should go for it. And because he’s the most excellent man on earth. To say I’m blessed is the understatement of a lifetime.

To those struggling with this issue, I can only say: Don’t ever, ever settle for less.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Life and Art...or, Who is Tallulah, Really?

The most common questions people ask me after reading Tallulah Falls are, “Are the characters based on real people?” and “Did any of those things happen to you?”

Which has gotten me pondering how thin—or thick—the line is between life and art.

Writers steal. Plain and simple. We steal physical traits, turns of phrase, and oddities of manner. How someone folds their arms and rears his head back while listening. How someone else can’t tell a joke without giggling her way through it. We are, first and foremost, observers; any writer who doesn’t pay close attention to the people around him probably isn’t much of a writer.

However, most fiction writers (myself included) don’t base an entire character on one real-life person. First of all—eww. Writing a fully-rounded, memorable character means living with that character in your head for months or years: thinking in his thoughts, speaking in her voice, digging to the depths of his motivations, prejudices, ambitions, loves, and hates. Most of us barely know ourselves that well, let alone anyone else. Which means I’d have to start making stuff up, and making stuff up—intimate, soul-baring kind of stuff—about a person I actually know, and then living with that day after day for months…ewwww.

Not to mention that very few people actually want a character in a novel based on them. Characters in novels are flawed creatures. They have to be, or why else would they be interesting enough to read about? Plucking people from one’s real life and plopping them, intact and recognizable, warts and all, into the pages of a book is a nifty way to antagonize one’s circle of friends and relations. Besides, see #1, above.

In fact, if I happen across a really striking, unique characteristic—physical or behavioral—in someone I personally know, then I’m actually quite irritated, because I feel I can’t use it. (Other writers aren’t this squeamish—they believe that all is grist for the mill, and they won’t pass up the opportunity to incorporate a dazzling detail into their characters, no matter how recognizable it is or who it comes from. Every writer makes up his or her own mind on such things).

It’s been interesting, hearing people’s theories on which Tallulah Falls character is based on which real-life person. So far, nobody’s right…and nobody will be right, because the dozens and dozens of characteristics I lifted from real people are all mixed together in my characters. You’ve probably heard the phrase Heinz-57 to describe a dog descended from many different breeds. Well, those are my characters—Heinz-57’s all, with a lot of each of them made-up, to boot. (Remember, this is fiction!) But for all you who know me, speculate away. After all, I finally realized, it’s part of the fun of knowing the writer. As for me, I’ll just sit back, and listen to the theories, and smile.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

This Reading Experience Brought To You By...

Courtesy of the New York Times comes this article about product placement in a young adult novel.

Yep, that’s right: product placement.

You know product placement. It’s what made Reese’s Pieces a household name after E.T.; it’s why sitcom characters always hold the soda can with the name displayed toward the camera. Companies pay for the privilege of having their products onscreen. Nobody cares; after all, the hero has to swig something, and whether it’s a Coke or a Pepsi won’t make any difference to the story or to the viewer. If a company wants to cough up enough cash to ensure that their athletic shoes adorn the heroine’s feet, be my guest.

This seems to be the line that the publisher, authors, and Cover Girl are taking about the product placement in Cathy’s Book, a young adult novel due out in September 2007 from Running Press. Cover Girl isn’t paying the authors directly; instead, the company will help promote the book. In exchange, according the NYT article: “Some of the changes that the authors and illustrators…have made since the partnership was struck include altering a drawing entitled "Artgirl Detective" to "Artist! Detective! UnderCover Girl" and changing a generic reference to "gunmetal grey eyeliner" to "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'”

So what? Does this hurt anyone? Probably not. But it makes me uneasy, if for no other reason than novels are one of the last ad-free bastions left in our world. Here in Portland, our city ballpark is named after a utility company. The Triple Crown races are now the Visa Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby brought to you by Yum! Brands. Everything, it seems, now comes with a tag attached. Even--if you can believe this--a kid’s bus ride to school.

If this works out well for Cover Girl, then certainly we’ll see more of it. How soon before a company offers to pay? How many authors could resist the kind of money and promotional opportunities a big company can offer? (Let me pop a balloon right here—nobody, aside from Steven King and John Grisham and a few others, makes a living writing novels. Even Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates have day jobs). Would we tell ourselves, as the writers in this article did, that it's not a big deal, it's not changing the story?

As far as that goes, I do believe them (and for the record, let me say that the premise of Cathy’s Book sounds absolutely delicious). But if a company pays for product placement in a novel, you can bet that at some point, pressure will come to bear on the author or publisher.

More importantly, does it change the reader's experience? To me, there's a big difference between "gunmetal grey eyeliner" and "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'" The first is good, detailed writing that does what good, detailed writing is supposed to do: evoke a visual image. I read that phrase and I can see the color. In contrast, “eyecolor in ‘Midnight Metal’” pulls me out of the story, wondering what Midnight Metal might look like. Instead of a clear visual image, it mall.

It's the same difference between the Civic Stadium and PGE Park. One belonged to the city residents. The other is bought and paid for, and you'd better not forget it.

It could be hard to lose yourself in a novel with that kind of message.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Literary Agent Redux

You’ve written a book, and you want to find a literary agent to represent you and your work. How do you find this person, and how do you make sure you don’t get scammed?

(Do you need an agent? That depends. If you’re going to self-publish, no. If you’re aiming for the small, independent publishing houses—not necessarily. But if you’ve got your sights set on the big guns—Random House, say, or Simon and Schuster—then you probably do. Check out this article, or the resources listed below, for more info).

The first step is to make a list of agents who are looking for manuscripts like yours. There’s lots of ways to do this, and I recommend a combination of approaches (hey, it worked for me). First, look for published books that are similar to yours in genre or theme. Often, the author will include his or her agent in the acknowledgements. (If not, a Web search can often turn up the agent who represented the novel; or, as a last resort, you can call the publisher and ask who the agent of record is for that book). Once you’ve discovered the agent's name, you can then search the resources mentioned below to see what other books he or she has represented, to see if the agent might be a good fit for you.

A couple of nice bonuses to this approach is that 1) You’ll get a good feel for what’s already out there on the shelves. Agents appreciate writers who are knowledgeable about what’s happening in their genre. And 2) If an author thanks his or her agent with particular enthusiasm, that’s practically a personal recommendation!

At the same time, do some digging to turn up more agent names. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents is an great place to start. A new edition comes out every year; since agent information can change rapidly, be sure you’re using the current one. Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents is another good reference, also updated annually. On the Internet, two very helpful resources are Agent Research and Evaluation and AgentQuery.

When searching these references, remember you’re not going to contact every agent listed; that’s a waste of your time and theirs. Instead, you’re looking for those agents who represent books like yours. Using these strategies, you should be able to generate a list of twenty to fifty literary agents, and possibly more, depending on your genre.

How do you avoid scams? Pretty easily, actually, if you remember two principles.

First: Only query reputable agents. Reputable agents make their money by selling manuscripts to publishers. This means they'll have an established track record, which you'll be able to find. Most are also members of the Association of Author’s Representatives, and so are bound to the AAR Canon of Ethics. (Note that membership in AAR is not mandatory, and some very excellent agents are not members. Still, they voluntarily abide by the same ethical code). If you use the agent-hunting strategies described above, chances are good that your list will only include reputable agents.

Second: In the agent-author relationship, money flows toward the author, NOT the other way around. In other words, before the manuscript has been sold to a publisher, you never, ever pay an agent. For anything. Ever. As I emphasized above, agents earn their money by selling manuscripts. Once this sale is made, then the agent takes his or her commission (15% is standard) out of the advance paid to the author by the publisher. At this point, the agent may also ask to be reimbursed for any ordinary office expenses (postage, copying, etc) incurred in the sale. These expenses should be clearly explained to the author beforehand, and/or spelled out in the agent-author contract.

In contrast to the above, a scam agent usually has no verifiable record of sales to publishers. He or she will not be a member of AAR. Most importantly, a scam agent will ask for some kind of upfront payment from the author. This payment may be disguised as “reading fees”, “editing fees”, or reimbursement for office expenses (remember, any such reimbursement should only be made after the manuscript is sold). These people make their money from the authors they’ve scammed, NOT from selling manuscripts to publishers.

If you harbor any doubt about the agents on your list, do yourself a massive favor and check them out before you send them your manuscript. (Two excellent resources to help you: Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware). As I noted in last week's post, many authors spend little or no time researching agents. Before they know it, they’ve signed with a scam artist—and only come to realize it when, some months down the road, the manuscripts they've labored over for years remain unsold, and their bank accounts are smaller by hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars.

Be smarter than that. Next to writing a fabulous book, finding a good agent can be the most important step you take toward publication. You owe it to yourself—and to your writing career—to do it right.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Agents 101

Fireworks arrived early this year, in the world of writing and publishing blogs. The website Absolute Write, which has been a wellspring of information on writing and publishing for several years, was shut down last week after a threatening phone call from a “literary agent” whose name appeared on AW’s list of 20 Worst Agencies (the AW site is back up, but I can't find their version of the list; so here it is on Writer Beware). This hasty plug-pulling of a respected, educational writers’ website caused a furious backlash among a number of writers and publishing professionals, including the anonymous NYC literary agent, Miss Snark, who issued a take-no-prisoners, bring-it-on shout out to the “agent” who started this whole brouhaha.

So what? You’re writing away in your cubbyhole, deaf to the distractions of the blogosphere. (In which case, what are you doing here?) You say to yourself: Tempest in a teapot, and why should I care, anyway?

If your goal is publication, you should care plenty.

Why? Because in your quest for publication, most likely you’ll be seeking representation by a literary agent. A GOOD lit agent can and will do all these things:
  • Help you polish your work, so that it is in best possible shape prior to submission to editors;
  • Formulate and carry out a submission strategy to these editors, using her extensive contacts and the relationships she’s built in the publishing world;
  • Negotiate the best possible publishing deal for you and your work (this goes beyond the bare question of advance money; this also includes which rights and subrights the publisher gets, the royalties you will receive, and a host of other details—most of which you’ve never heard of, but which can make a huge difference in your publishing experience);
  • Mediate any problems which arise between you and your publisher, from bad cover art to book promotion snafus;
  • Give you oodles of advice and encouragement, to help you shape your long-term writing career.

So what’s the problem? There are no degree certificates for literary agents, no government regulation, no exams to pass, no licenses to acquire. I could slap together a webpage today, order some business cards saying “Dog-Eat-Dog Literary Agency”, and voila! I’m a literary agent. (Perish the thought—I would be terrible). Many writers, many of whom have invested years in their novels, don’t bother to take the time to learn what separates the good agents from the bad. Bad agents know this. Operating under the time-honored truism that there’s one born every minute, these scam artists go a-hunting. And they catch plenty, with the result that the agent ends up richer, yet another writer ends up poorer (and bitter, to boot), and the book is no nearer publication than it was before.

Over the next week or three, I’ll post some more about agents: how to recognize the bad ones, how to find the good ones, and how to get the agent of your dreams.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

And The Bell Rings For Round Two!

Like most unpublished writers, I had one goal in mind: publication.

Didn’t see much beyond that, except, of course, that life would become easier. As if the alchemy that would transform my hundreds of loose manuscript pages into a gorgeous bound book would also transform my working life into a smooth, clean machine. I would be a writer! Gone would be the juggling of schedules, the stress of too many tasks in too little time, the eking out of an hour here, a morning there, to work on my books. No, I would be a writer, and my life would be writing.

If the laughter you hear is a little shrill, well, that’s because nothing has changed—except now, I’m working under a deadline.

It was different for Tallulah Falls. In the normal course of publishing (we’re not talking Kaavya Viswanathan of Opal Mehta fame here—her path to publication was definitely the road less traveled), the only person invested in the completion of a first novel is the writer herself. I realized an important truth about halfway through the first draft: Nobody cared if this thing got finished or not. Except me.

The second book, though—that’s a different story. The second book has all kinds of people invested in it. It’s exciting, it’s life-changing. It’s scary as hell. It ought to be interesting—especially since, in this next year, I’ll also be spending time promoting Tallulah Falls. And of course working hard at my first love, veterinary medicine.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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