Monday, January 31, 2011

Back in the Saddle

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


The summer holidays are drawing to a close and with my boys starting school on Wednesday I am emerging from writing hibernation to face the prospect of rewriting my WIP (and facing a blank computer screen!).

You may remember my blog post last year about feeling I was in a deep, dark, plot pit - well, at least I managed to dig myself out of that over the holidays. I didn't get any real writing done but I did get a chance to brainstorm plot options and clear the way for what (I hope) is the answer to my overly complicated plot. The thing is I now have two days to start revving the engines to get back down to writing full time and I feel like a rusty old motor in the scrapyard.
Over the last five years I have been pretty consistent in terms of writing output - but I am nervous after such a long hiatus that I won't know where to start or what to do. Needless to say, my inner critic and naysayer is in high gear as you can imagine...


I am reassuring myself that I am ready - I have a revised synopsis in place and will start with a revised plot outline. I convince myself that all the key ingredients are there - my characters are well rounded and full of necessary angst, the mythology is fully-realized, the historical research complete...so what could go wrong?! I think my main worry is that I may have lost any talent I may have had along with the drive needed to propel myself to the finish.
So any recommendations or advice on getting back into the swing of things? How do you recover after a writing hiatus? How do you make sure you don't stall?:)

All and any suggestions would be most welcome - I'll report back in a few weeks as to my progress!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Helluva Town

James Scott Bell
The Bronx is up and the Battery's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. – Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Town


I love New York. Last week I was there, teaching at the first-class 2011 Writer's Digest Conference. Great turnout despite the cold. How cold was it in the city? It was so cold I saw a lawyer standing on the corner with his hands in his own pockets.

Ba-dump-bump.

But yeah, it was not walking around weather. At least not a lot. But my wife and I didn't let that stop us. We had a couple of meals with Mort, my former NY apartment mate (from my acting days) and with my agent, Don Maass. Stayed at a great boutique hotel on the East side, the Elysee on 54th, which I highly recommend if you're looking for convenient location (we took the Air Train from JFK, then the E train to within a block of the hotel) and complimentary evening wine and hors d'oeuvres.


We ended up doing a lot, though we didn't take in a show. We're not crazy about the gigantic musicals. We prefer Off Broadway. So we were tempted to go see Alan Rickman in John Gabriel Borkman at BAM, but decided traveling to Brooklyn in sub-zero weather to take in an Ibsen play might lead to intractable despair and pretty much cloud the rest of the trip.

We did get up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we were blown away by the wall sized piece called "Earth and Heaven" by African artist El Anatsui.  Also by the exhibition of photographs by Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand. I love photography from the early 20th century, when the art of it was just getting underway. Amazing the emotion Stieglitz captured with such primitive equipment.

They also had a Rodin exhibit that knocked me out. He's like Van Gogh with sculpture. Intense and riveting. You know, if you could write first drafts with the feeling of a Rodin, you'd be 90% of the way toward successful fiction.

Ah, the food. Here are places we ate that I would recommend:

Indigo Indian Bistro, 357 E. 50th Street. Family owned, pleasantly run and just the right spices.

I Trulli, 121 E. 27th. Wonderful Italian fare.

Rocking Horse Café, 8th Ave. and 19th. Excellent Mexican in Chelsea.

Also, the street hot dog guy on 7th and 52d.

Don't miss the High Line next time you get to NY. No, wait a second. Do miss the High Line when it's below zero wind chill. Cindy and I walked about a quarter mile of it before we cried for mercy and ducked for cover in the new Chelsea Market. Now that's a great place to hang out, in any weather. They've got upscale stores and markets and live music, all in the old National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) building.

I guess, at heart, I'm a city boy. I grew up in L.A., lived in New York and Chicago. I love London and San Francisco in doses. Nashville's a nice town. I'm down with Denver, too.

What about you? What's your favorite city to visit?  Or if the city is not your thing, where would you go with a free pass from an airline and a hotel?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

I Can't Believe My Lying Eyes

John Ramsey Miller

We have all seen movies on television where key scenes are deleted or language altered--often comically when they try to make the word fit the actor's lip movements, or change "you Mother F*cker!" to "you silly nut" --that we are accustomed to it. The other night I was watching one of the new shows (Harry's Law maybe)and one character called another an asshole. Did the censors stop working at the networks and go to work on Disney cartoons?

You know I like realism and I've got a cast-iron gut, but I was stunned last night watching BONES. This "Gravedigger", a red-headed female serial killer, ex-prosecuting attorney in an orange jump suit stepped from a paddy wagon and was walking to the courthouse door when her head vaporized in a red wet cloud. Most realistic head blowing up I've ever seen and it was so seamless that, had I not known how illegal it is, I would have sworn they killed an actress (you know who was about to die of some dread disease anyway) for the shot. Then they showed closeups of people being washed with gore. It friggin looked like the special effects guy tossed a giant slurpee glass full of blood and brain tissue into the actor's face and shirt. I was so startled I laughed. That was followed by the slow panning of the corpse, whose head was just not there, a cluttered pool of blood. This wasn't HBO, this was Fox (I think). I've always thought of BONES as a light-weight drama. Those days are over.

I think some things are best shown ...well, maybe less graphically. The parts of the exploded head were given a close up as the lab team prepared to reconstruct the skull on a lazy susan. Why the hell put it together? Identification to check what amount of her head actually evaporated? The shot made what was left look like a meat-lovers pizza special where the a drunk chef used half a side of beef on it. I'm talking chunks the size of toddler fists with teeth, with features and some with tufts of red hair. Man-o-man. Actually, woman-o-woman. Then they showed a corpse in a tub of lye. Everything below the waterline was bone sticking through mushy tissue... And then they had a scene with that corpse on a table in the lab. Ugggghhh!

Did I mention that my four-year-old grandson saw it? I'm sure his mind will never be the same. He was at the table behind me, and when I laughed he looked up from his coloring book. "Dotz, I want to see it again." I changed the channel to Sponge Bob, after pressing the record button, and I had to explain special effects just like I have explained to him that Jurassic Park doesn't have actual dinosaurs, or that there are no Transformers demolishing buildings and so forth.

So here's my point. Do you think audiences have become so desensitized as to accept these radical changes involving what is on the tube. Where do we go from here? When is reality too real? Have I finally become as old fuddy duddy? Well, I didn't think I was. Truth is I know the next steps and how close we are to leaving NOTHING to the imagination. That, I find truly sad.

I feel for kids. We had Roy Rogers and six guns that shot dozens of rounds if the cowboys were in a running fight. Our kids have bullets exploding heads. I'm going to start wearing a raincoat when I watch TV, just in case blood splashes through the screen.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Second Chances

By John Gilstrap

My first two published novels, Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, are out of print, and the rights reverted to me several years ago. Thanks to the somewhat startling success of the first two books in the Jonathan Grave series—No Mercy and Hostage Zero—Kensington Publishing purchased the reprint rights, and both will reappear on the shelves in 2011, first as eBooks and then as pBooks.

They’ll be published in reverse order, however, with At All Costs scheduled for a May release and Nathan’s Run coming out in August. The rationale here is all about practicality: At All Costs introduces FBI Agent Irene Rivers, a secondary yet pivotal character in the Grave books. With the latest Grave book, Threat Warning, coming out in late June, the reverse order seems like an attractive marketing platform. I guess we’ll see.

Enough shameless self-promotion for now.

It’s an interesting exercise to revisit stories I wrote thirteen and fifteen years ago. I have the opportunity to change anything I want—whether to merely put on a fresh coat of paint, or to pull down the Sheetrock and move the walls. I tell you that it’s tempting. If I were to write either of those books today, telling the same story, they’d be structured a lot differently. I’m startled by the degree to which my storytelling instincts have evolved.

But I’m going to resist the temptation—mostly. Fact is, I’m still very proud of both books, and I still think they’re well-written, even if I would write them differently today. They are, in fact, the books I wrote at the time, and the purist in me wants them to remain blazes on the trail I walked in the 1990s. They reflect the sensibilities and the world view of a young father with a small child, written at a time that was in so many ways different than today.

But I can’t leave them alone entirely. In fact, I think I’d be foolish to leave some elements untouched. For example, there’s one scene in At All Costs that I put in specifically under pressure from my editor at the time. I never liked it, and after the book was published, I cringed that it was there. Well, it’s not anymore. It wasn’t mine to begin with, so I don’t apologize for taking it out.

A little trickier are the changes I plan for the ending of Nathan’s Run. My original manuscript ended with a wrap-up chapter—a coda, if you will, much like the codas that end most of my later books. I took it out under pressure from everyone in my publishing food chain—from my then-agent’s assistant, through my editor and beyond. Since then, I have received hundreds of letters and emails from readers who wanted to know precisely the information that I had originally included in my manuscript. I’m putting it back.

Because it’s the ending, though—literally the last images of the story—this change makes me nervous. Part of me wants to put in some kind of note that says, “This used to be the end of the story,” but the rest of me acknowledges that it’s a mistake to interrupt the reading experience. I’ve got three weeks to figure this out, so there’s room for advice (hint, hint).

Most appropriate to threads that have been discussed here in the Killzone is my plan to largely defuckify both books.

Now, before any of you start slinging accusations of hypocrisy, let’s make this clear from the beginning: I told the publisher I wanted to do this, not the other way around. In fact, defuckification vastly complicates things for Kensington.

Again, my rationale is simple and practical: Hundreds (and hundreds) of letters and emails from fans telling me that they loved the books and believed that their children/mother/father/sister/brother would love it, too, if only they could share it. The language was the dealbreaker.

And you know what? They’re right. There’s a lot of gratuitous profanity in those books. In Nathan’s Run—a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist—there’s a passage that rhymes with “you trucking punt.” The story doesn’t need that. Perhaps no story needs that. (For the record, when I wrote that passage in 1994, I don’t think the C-word was as loaded as it is now. And, for the record, the epithet is directed from one male character to another male character.)

By way of full disclosure, a few F-bombs will remain, but in each case, I feel that they’re essential to the scene. In each case, I test-drove the scene sans F-bomb and they didn’t work.

My question to Killzoners is this: Is it okay for authors to “improve” upon their work when given a second chance, or should the first go-around live on forever?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bad Boys & Naughty Girls - You Gotta Love 'Em


I love the challenge of creating anti-heroes/heroines, making a borderline human being into something more. And the closer to the dark side they are, the better I like it, as a reader and an author. The guy could be dark and brooding, but give him a dog (or a baby) and readers will know instantly that he’s worth loving. Or the woman could be an assassin, but give her a younger sister that she’s protecting for a good reason and I’m on her side.

The popularity of the anti-hero (man or woman) continues to be a strong trend in literature and in pop culture. With their moral complexity, they seem more realistic because of their human frailties. They are far from perfect. They tend to question authority and they definitely make their own rules, allowing us all to step into their world and vicariously imagine how empowering that might feel.

Some classic literary anti-heroes that are personal favorites of mine are:

Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Lestat in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Hannibal Lecter (as Clarice’s white knight) in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and even Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

And here is a short list of noteworthy anti-heroes from the small screen:

On the TV show, HOUSE, Dr. Greg House is addicted to pain meds, a by-product of his damaged leg. He’s also obnoxious, abrasive, brutally honest, and definitely politically incorrect in how he deals with patients, but he’s damned good at what he does—saving lives. His public face appears to be a detached man who ridicules any real human emotion, yet he’s fascinated by true emotion too. It’s as if he’s an outsider looking in, an observer of the whole human experience. We never quite know if he really cares about his patients or is merely obsessed with being right as he puzzles out the reasons for the illnesses.

On the cable show, DEXTER, the strange anti-hero, Dexter Morgan, is a serial killer with a goal. He hunts serial killers and satisfies his blood lust by killing them. He’s got peculiar values and loyalties with a dark sense of humor. And he’s absolutely fascinating to watch.

On the new show HUMAN TARGET, Christopher Chance has a dark history. He’s a do-it-all anti-hero, former assassin turned bodyguard, who is a security expert and a protector for hire. He works with an unusual and diverse team. His business partner, Winston, is a straight and narrow, good guy while his dark friend, Guerrero, is a man who isn’t burdened by ethics or morality. Each of these men has very different feelings about what it takes to get the job done, but they’ve found common ground to work together. And their differences make for a fun character study. (My favorite character is Guerrero and I wish his character had more airtime.)

I’ve put together a list of writing tips that can add depth to your villain or make your anti-hero/heroine more sympathetic, but let me know if you have other tried and true methods. I’d love to hear them.

1.) Cut the reader some slack by clueing them in early. Your Anti-Hero/Heroine has a very good reason for being the way they are.

2.) Make them human. Give them a code to live by and/or loyalties the reader can understand and empathize with.

3.) Make them sympathetic by giving them a pet or a soft spot for a child. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination that a reader may find endearing.

4.) Show the admiration or respect others have for them.

5.) Give your villain and anti-hero similar motivations for doing what they do. Maybe both of them are trying to protect their family, even though they’re on opposing sides.

6.) Give your villain or anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice would they make?

7.) Understand your villain’s backstory. It’s just as important as your protagonist’s.

8.) Pepper in a backstory that makes your anti-hero vulnerable.

9.) Give them a weakness. Force them to battle with their deepest fears.

10.) Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to love.

11.) Make them real. To be real, they must have honest emotions.

If you have favorite anti-heroes you’d love to share, I would love to hear from you. And tell us why you like them so much. I’d also like to know if you have any other writer tips to share on creating anti-heroes. Creating them can be a challenge worth taking. Editors sure seem to love them too.

What comes after #1?

By Joe Moore

There is a title sought after by all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Having it behind your name means you’ve made it, you’ve reached the highest level of skill in the publishing industry. It adds legitimacy and validation to your claim to be a writer, and it’s prestigious and honored by all. You get to place it after your name when, for example, you make a public comment and are quoted or you contribute a blurb to a fellow author. It’s a badge to be worn with pride. And once you’ve achieved it, you keep it for life.

It’s the title: New York Times bestselling author.

Sure, there are other bestselling lists. But none has that crystal clear ring of authority and accomplishment like the NYT list.

For those who have garnered that title, congratulations. Quite a few have made it onto the list. For everyone else, keep trying by writing the best book you can. Who knows, someday your name might be there, too.

But there’s actually one more level of achievement to that title, one very few manage to obtain. It’s the most prestigious of all.

#1 New York Times bestselling author.

There’s nothing higher. There’s no better. I’ve never seen a writer claim to have been #6 New York Times bestselling author. Being #1 is like being the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sure all those other generals and admirals are members of the Joint Chiefs. But there’s only one Chairman. And there’s only one #1 on the NYT list.

I was chatting with a few fellow authors the other day and a couple of hypothetical questions came up. If you become a #1 New York Times bestselling author, what would you try to do next? Go for a Nobel? Maybe a Pulitzer? Oprah Book Club? If your next book also reached #1, would it be considered better than the first one? What if it only got to #20 or didn’t make the list at all. Would that mean that it was not as good? Or that you’ve failed somehow?

In answering the questions, we all agreed that as writers we would still keep writing. That’s a given. But in our minds and in our hearts, what would be that next sought-after goal? One author suggested he would write his next book under a pseudonym and try to achieve the #1 status again. Another stated that after achieving that title, nothing else mattered in the area of prestige.

So lets have some fun in a non-scientific survey. If you became a #1 New York Times bestselling author, what would you strive or hope for next? How would you top being #1?

------------------------------------
THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
The Phoenix Apostles demands to be read in one sitting. – James Rollins

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Silencing your inner critic

These days I'm interested in all things related to brain function, so a bit of news caught my eye about the brain and creativity. Researchers have discovered that for artists to become creative, they must muzzle their inner critic. 

In an experiment, scientists measured the brain activity of jazz musicians as they performed a memorized piece of music, and then measured it again when the musicians did an improvised piece. Different brain regions lit up, according to the type of performance being given. During the improvisation, the medial prefrontal cortex--the part of the brain that allows self-expression--was more active. During the memorized piece, the dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions--the brain areas that monitor and correct performance--were more active.

In other words, in order to be creative, we've got to silence our brain's inner critic.

For a writer, it's not always easy to silence an internal critic. Take me, for example. I'm perfectly capable of stalling for days over a single paragraph, even a particular sentence. I'll rewrite and rethink, tweak and prune, until I'm practically clawing at the walls of our house. 

Recently I've developed a coping strategy for my internal critic, which I've named Harpy Harriet. When Harpy starts whispering in my ear, telling me things like, "Man, your writing sucks. You suck. Whatever made you think you were a decent writer?",  I merely type a little placeholder, and move on. Inevitably, when I return to that spot after having forged ahead in the manuscript, it's much easier to write the revision.

But Harpy is a sly, cunning opponent, always scheming to get the better of me. She keeps changing tactics. Recently she's tried to convince me that my medical issues have done a Flowers For Algernon number on the creative parts of my brain, rendering it incapable of producing decent prose. The only way I've been able to reassure myself is by going to my critique group. My group members don't know anything about Harpy--they just tell it like it is about my prose. And so far, everything seems normal.   I'm not like Charlie, regressing to a creative IQ of 68. I'm okay (at least as far as the writing is concerned). I can tell Harpy to take a hike.


What about you? Do you ever have to wrangle with a harsh internal critic? How have you put a muzzle on it?

UPDATE: In honor of some of the suggestions in our comments today, I am adding a picture of the Lamisil Monster as a candidate for the Inner Critic...lol.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Of Droughts and Flooding Rains

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne



It's raining again - and for those of you who have been following the news you know that isn't a good thing.

After the terrible floods in Queensland that consumed an area the size of Germany and France combined (yes, you read that right), my home state of Victoria continues to face its own flood crisis. Over the last week more than 70 towns across the state and around 4,300 people and 1,700 properties have been affected. As I write this blog, residents are being evacuated as floodwaters advance in the northern part of the state along the Murray River. Although no one I know has been directly affected, all that has happened over the last few weeks has been a sobering reminder of just how much Australia remains at the mercy of the weather.


Jim's blog post (and comments) yesterday stressed the pitfalls of describing the weather in a novel, but anyone writing a book about Australia would have to acknowledge the weather, just like the landscape, is an integral character.


Even though I have an indifferent relationship to my 're-adopted' home, I cannot help but admire the tenacity of the people who try and tame its wild shores. Just a year or so ago Australians were facing one of the worst droughts in history and now they are facing once-in-a-century floods. If you were to describe the Australian weather as a character, you might think in terms of a Greek goddess wreaking vengeance.


But the weather has also brought out some of the best Australian characteristics - the 'mateship' and determination to go on, sacrifices made for others (including, sadly a 13 year old who gave his own life to save his 10 year old brother) and the sense of community that I know so many Australians cherish. For my own part, recent events have made me realize that, although the weather can be both boring and cliched in fiction, sometimes it must take center stage.


BTW: Many people may recognize the title of this blog post from a famous poem about Australia by Dorothea Mackellar but few are probably familiar with the poem in its entirety. I thought, in the circumstances, it was appropriate to share it:


My Country

by Dorothea Mackellar


The love of field and coppice,

Of green and shaded lanes.

Of ordered woods and gardens

Is running in your veins,

Strong love of grey-blue distance

Brown streams and soft dim skies

I know but cannot share it,

My love is otherwise.


I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

I love her far horizons,

I love her jewel-sea,

Her beauty and her terror -

The wide brown land for me!



A stark white ring-barked forest

All tragic to the moon,

The sapphire-misted mountains,

The hot gold hush of noon.

Green tangle of the brushes,

Where lithe lianas coil,

And orchids deck the tree-tops

And ferns the warm dark soil.



Core of my heart, my country!

Her pitiless blue sky,

When sick at heart, around us,

We see the cattle die -

But then the grey clouds gather,

And we can bless again

The drumming of an army,

The steady, soaking rain.


Core of my heart, my country!

Land of the Rainbow Gold,

For flood and fire and famine,

She pays us back threefold -

Over the thirsty paddocks,

Watch, after many days,

The filmy veil of greenness

That thickens as we gaze.



An opal-hearted country,

A wilful, lavish land -

All you who have not loved her,

You will not understand -

Though earth holds many splendours,

Wherever I may die,

I know to what brown country

My homing thoughts will fly.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Opening No Nos


Writer's Digest has come out with a special issue called "Write Your Novel in 30 Days." It's not their monthly magazine, but a stand alone. And it's terrific. I say this not because I have a few articles in it (he notes with sly self-promo) but because it's really got great substance cover to cover.

One section has a collection of things not to do in your opening chapter, based on statements by literary agents. Here are some clips (I highly recommend you read the whole issue).

Excessive Description

"Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly," says Andrea Hurst. And this is something you'll hear all the time.

So how do you set an opening scene? Do it with an interplay of action and description. Get the action started first, then fill in just enough information to tell us where we are.

But you're a literary writer, you say? You love style? Well, if you're really good, like Ken Kesey's opening pages in Sometimes a Great Notion, go for it. But you can still start with action and drop in wonderful, styling description later.

Voice and Point of View Fuzziness

"A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point-of-view," writes Cricket Freeman.

This is especially important when writing in First Person POV. We need voice, we need attitude. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Philip Marlowe in any of Chandler's books. Don't be bland.

Clichés

My friend, agent Chip MacGregor, lists several, including:

1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Done to death.

2. A trite statement ("Get with the program" or "Houston, we have a problem.")

3. Years later, Monica would look back and laugh . . .

4. The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.

Other Pet Peeves

1. Descriptions making the characters seem too perfect.

2. Too much backstory.

3. Information dumps.

4. A grisly murder scene from the murder scene from the killer's POV.

5. Dreams.

6. Too much exposition in dialogue.

7. Whiny characters.

8. Characters who address the reader directly.

So there you have it, a handy list of no nos in your opening. Does that mean these are "rules"? I know how you rebellious and creative writers hate rules, so no, they aren't. But they will increase your odds of turning off an agent or editor.

So resist the temptation. When you get a deal, then you can fight to begin your novel another way if you see fit.

But first you have to sell, and these bumps will keep you from that goal.

Okay, let's talk. What do you think of these no nos? Do you have others?

What do you like to see in an opening? What hooks you?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Each One, Read One

I happened across a quotation while surfing the net this afternoon. It was headlined across the top of the website for Joseph Beth booksellers, a small independent chain in the Midwest which regrettably has gotten smaller over the past several months but continues to do yeoman’s work at their flagship store in Cincinnati. The quotation, from Emilie Buchwald, is: “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” Just so.

The earliest book that I can remember my mother reading to me is Rudy Kazootie, Detective. The title is all that I can recall about the book; googling images for that title brings up an unfamiliar cover, pictures of Rudy Giuliani and Prince, and, uh, some other reproductions of a more mature and scatological nature. It struck a chord in me somewhere, however, opening up some channels in the brain that never closed. I subsequently learned to read on my own at the tender age of four by reading the Harvey run of Dick Tracy comics, purchased from the Tremont Pharmacy in Upper Arlington, Ohio, which always seemed to have a new issue of the book each time I went there. When I reached grade school, my dad, probably alarmed to some extent by my taste in literature, came home with some hardbound books in what were known as the “All About” series, featuring such titles as All About Archaeology by Roy Chapman Andrews, among others. He would sit between my bed and my brothers and read to us for fifteen minutes or so; after the lights went out, the flashlights went on and the reading continued. All About Archeology eventually gave way to Sax Rohmer and Fu Manchu; Dick Tracy never gave way to anything --- I still read those strips, to this day --- but shared space and time with the Hardy Boys, when I discovered that the serial off something called The Tower Treasure on The Mickey Mouse Club was part of a long-running series that had some thirty-odd volumes at that point in time (1960 or so). I read every one I could get my hands on before I happened to take a good look at the paperbacks displayed on the revolving wire racks at the drug stores and made the acquaintance of a gentleman named Shell Scott, whose knowing leer promised a peek into territories which I had yet to chart and am, alas, still exploring.

It is a somewhat tenuous and tortured trail, indeed from Rudy Kazootie on my mother’s lap and to Shell Scott and…well, never mind. But Buchwald’s premise holds true. I read every Golden Book I could get my hands on to my sons, both of whom somehow went from Bert and Ernie to Elmore (Leonard) and Vince (Flynn). And my younger daughter, to whom my wife read for hours each night, has been reading Vonnegut and Bradbury since she was eleven. And the pattern continues. My older son, who never wanted children but who has become the best father I know, reads to his daughter on a nightly basis. Maybe some day, one day, you will read something by her to your children.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Domestic Television Wars

By John Gilstrap
I’m embarrassed to admit that we are a ten-television family. It’s even more embarrassing that we are a household of two—just my wife and I, effective tomorrow when my baby boy moves into his own apartment. (Technically, since he’s still in the house today, we are an eleven-television family.)

The MOAT (Mother Of All Televisions) is in our movie room. It’s a 106-inch hi-def front projection wonder with a sound system that could do structural damage to the house if I cranked it up loudly enough. It’s the ultimate man-cave that all too often is pressed into service for the screening of chick flicks. Hey, a deal’s a deal. When I consider what I no longer pay to go to a theater, I figure the movie room might just pay for itself one day.

While there’s a certain utility to the MOAT, the pure luxury of a television is the little flat screen we have mounted in the master bathroom. Make fun if you’d like, but it’s nice to do the morning chores with the morning news in the background.

Ours is a three-bedroom house, and we enjoy entertaining guests, so it only makes sense that each bedroom would have its own television. Then there’s one in my office and the one in my wife’s office. It’s nice to watch TV while cooking and cleaning, so there’s a tiny TV in the kitchen, as well.

When we built the house, our son was still in high school, so we wanted to have a place for him and his friends to hang out, so there’s a television in the downstairs family room. When all is said and done, though, the upstairs family room television gets the most use for routine weeknight viewings of network shows.

See how quickly it adds up? You’d think that that Mars/Venus tug of war on program selection would be a snap. Lord knows we have a lot of options. So, when I want to watch Military Channel and Joy wants to watch HGTV, there should be no controversy. She should watch her programs on one TV and I should watch mine on another.

That logic ignores the complication that after 26 years of marriage, we still like each other and prefer to be together instead of being in different parts of the house. Given our day jobs and my night job of writing books, we spend enough time apart, thank you very much. It’s nice to snuggle up on the couch to watch TV together.

Unless . . .

Well, there’s the rub. The unlesses, I mean. At the deepest levels of my soul, I give not a flying fig what Kate is doing with her Eight, and I’d rather put a fork in my eye than watch another episode of any hospital drama ever to be produced between now and the end of the millennium. Ditto Joy’s feelings toward R. Lee Ermy (one of my top five picks of people I’d like to have dinner with), the latest design of weaponry or colorized footage of World War Two battles.

The good news is that the dark days of choices are behind us now that it’s January and some of our shared favorites have returned. Here are our shared favorites, in no particular order:
American Idol
The Middle
Modern Family
The Big Bang Theory
Two and a Half Men (though this one is kind of on probation; it might have outlived its storyline)
Blue Bloods
Pawn Stars
American Pickers (I’m less an enthusiast than she)
Castle (also on probation, though getting better)
So You Think You Can Dance (okay, technically this is not on yet, but it’s essentially a continuum with American Idol)
I’m sure there are more, but those are the biggies.

How about you, Killzoners? What programs do you and your significant other share as favorites to be watched together?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stuck in the Middle

by Michelle Gagnon

So I've once again hit my least favorite part of the manuscript: approximately 50,000 words down, 50,000 to go.

This is always the point where sitting down at the keyboard seems to thrust me into another dimension, one where time eases to a standstill and no matter how many hours I log, the word count fights me, barely inching upward. Oh, the saggy middle. How I loathe it. My writing pace slows. Plot points that seemed brilliant 20,000 words ago are now, clearly, just dead wrong. It sometimes feels like I'll never pull all the disparate elements together into something coherent that readers will actually pay for. These are the days when I dread opening that .doc file, when I'm tempted to do almost anything else (including laundry and cleaning my oven).

So in lieu of more whining, I've come up with some tips for surviving the midpoint (or, really, any writing lows):

1. Walk away
This can be accomplished literally: by turning off the computer, heading out the door and walking around the block a few times. Sometimes engaging in real-life activities, like dinner with friends or a movie, actually provides a new perspective on a particularly tricky plot point.
Or figuratively: closing the manuscript file and starting a new document. Writing a short story, or starting the first chapter of a different book. Sometimes to jar things loose, I'll embark on a completely different project. Lately during breaks from the manuscript I've been working on a screenplay. In some ways that flexes a different part of my brain. Then when I return to the manuscript, the well has been replenished.

2. Engage in some positive reinforcement
If I'm really starting to feel as though my writing has taken a nosedive, I dig up some of my earlier work and re-read the stronger passages. Reminding myself that once upon a time I managed to write intelligible sentences is always heartening. It also helps me remember that I've been in this position before, and in the end I managed to finish the book, more or less on time.

3. Spend some time with a master
If re-reading my own work isn't motivating enough, I turn to authors whose writing always blows me away. For instance, I was struggling with a love scene. The prose was painfully purple, the dialogue cliched, I was beyond frustrated with it. So I went back to a bookmarked passage in Tana French's last book FAITHFUL PLACE, where a love scene was rendered so painfully well, reading it almost felt intrusive and voyeuristic. Seeing how she accomplished that was inspirational.

There's simply no getting around it: this part of the writing process is always a monotonous, painful slog. It's like a train inching up a mountain, the going always gets toughest right before hitting the peak, then it's a race down the other side.

If you have any tips/coping mechanisms for getting through these next 25,000 words, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Golden Ticket

We attended the American Idol Experience at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the first time last weekend. I’d only tuned in once or twice to the show so I wasn’t overly familiar with the format. However, I do appreciate talent shows for finding the stars of tomorrow, and I understand how wildly popular this program is to its fans. Contestants at Disney have auditions during the morning, and then there are five shows during the rest of the day, with three competitors each. The audience votes on the winners, so in the Final Show, all those with top scores from earlier performances compete against each other.

Whoever wins this final daily competition gets a “golden ticket”, a chance to audition at the front of the line, so to speak, for the real American Idol. At least this is how I understood the process; I won’t vouch for it 100%. Anyway, three judges participate in the show, and each contestant sings a song of their choice from a given list. You can see their hopes and dreams in their faces. The experience was fun, and I’d go again.

Then I came home and checked my email and found a message from my agent. We’d gotten a rejection for one of my submissions. My hopes for that project plummeted. I felt like the losers in American Idol, with disappointment washing away my dreams. It was a close call, too, because the editor liked my work very much but they were publishing something similar.

We go through this all the time as writers, and yet those who stick to their guns are the ones who succeed in this biz. Look, it took me six practice books before I sold my first novel. Now fifteen published books later, I am still getting rejections. The publishing market has always been tough, and these days it’s even tighter. But we have to go on stage just like the singers in American Idol, throw ourselves into the performance body and soul, and wait with bated breath for the audience results. Do we move on to the next stage, i.e. a contract and copy edits, or do we step back and regroup before trying a different tack?

Truly I sympathized with those contestants during their vocal performances and the subsequent judging. Maybe editors can’t see our faces or hear us sing when they read our work, but our words sing for us. And if we don’t make the cut, well, there’s always the next show.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tapping personal creativity: How to make a vision board

Today, our guest is Kathleen Pickering, an award-winning author of romance and women's fiction. Kathleen's latest novel is FLIRTING WITH ROMANCE.


The next time you’re feeling a need to ramp up those creative juices, or simply feel the need to create clarity in your world, try building a Vision Board. Vision Boards are a great way to revisit your inspiration and purpose as a creative being.

Vision Boards offer an opportunity to step out of time for a while--to ruminate, dream, create, and to spend time re-discovering you. I originally adopted this process to enhance the writing process, but no matter what your personal calling, Vision Boards help you to cement your goals. You can do this activity alone, or with friends. (It’s great fun with others.)  The goal is to create a Vision Board specifically describing you---your world as an author, parent, career person, planet dweller. The mantra in the movie, Field of Dreams, promised, “If you build it, they will come.” I say, “Build your Vision Board.  Success will come.”  

Building a Vision Board is simple and requires easy supplies: 


1.  A board. Construction paper or poster board works. I use Vellum Bristol art paper. (Great for framing.) Or a cork board if you're going to use pins and change out visions/goals as they are achieved. If really ambitious, use the back of a door!


2.  Scissors and glue sticks. 


3.  A pile of your favorite magazines and/or personal photos. 


4.  Book flats, if you're published, and if you choose to add them.

Peruse the magazines, cut out phrases and pictures that trigger an immediate reaction of your self-image, your dreams and aspirations. Be outrageous in your choices to show the mega-person you are! Then, paste/pin them on your board. Not only is the process fun, you'll be surprised at how the activity focuses your intentions and creates a powerful, visual image of yourself. Best of all, feedback from vision board creators confirms that the goals and visions posted on their boards actually come to pass. 

If you’d enjoy sharing your Vision Board, take a photo and send it to me at kathleenpickering @ymail.com. I’ve created a vision board page on my website. It’s brand new. I’ll post your board in the Mega-Author’s Visionary Club. You don’t have to be a writer to be a part of the club-- just the author of your own destiny.

Has anyone created a vision board already?  How did it work for you?


Monday, January 17, 2011

Moasting Fun

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After all the doom of bookstore closings and Australian and Brazilian floods, I was relieved to read an article that introduced a new word into my lexicon of 'authorisms'. It was in a NYT article about two French intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq, and the word is a delightful mingling of moaning and boasting - 'moasting'. One example would be: "I cannot believe the state of security at LAX. I mean I had to stand on line for an hour and nearly missed my flight back from taping my interview with Oprah. You'd really think in First Class the lines wouldn't be so bad!"

As you can imagine, the host of social networking sites - from Facebook status updates to Twitters - allow for a plethora of 'moasts' to occur - and let's face it almost all of us have been guilt of a wee bit of moasting now and again. But reading the article made me think of all the fun moasts I could inflict on my next author panel as well as some of the best 'moasts' I have heard in my time. Is there anything more despair inducing to an unpublished writer than to hear famous authors lamenting about their publicity schedules or deadlines? You know the kind of thing - "I didn't even have time for lunch between taping the Today show, being interviewed for The New Yorker and my photoshoot with Vanity Fair."

So I thought we could have a bit of fun (after all the horrors of the last week or so, I could do with some) with all this...Tell me what are some of the best/worst moasts you have heard or read? What sort of moast would you like to inflict on a particularly annoying friend or rival?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The New Reality Claims an Old Friend




On January 31, one of the great independent bookstores in the country, Mystery Bookstore of L.A., will close its doors, yet another victim of the new economic and publishing realities.

It's almost inconceivable that the greatest noir city in the world is losing such a good friend to the mystery and suspense community. 

I had the privilege of launching the first book of my Ty Buchanan series, Try Dying, at Mystery Bookstore. And was further honored to be on their list of authors signing books at the L.A. Times Festival each year (though if you want a lesson in humility, try signing at the same time as Mary Higgins Clark or Robert Crais).



Scores of authors owe a great debt to the longtime managers of the store, Bobby McCue and Linda Brown, and the fine staff who love books and hand-selling to customers. Top names made the store a must for their signings. I caught up with our own Michelle Gagnon there last year, and I've seen Deaver and Crais and Connelly and Jeff Parker and John Lescroart and a bunch of others at the store. The pre-Festival party for the Times event was always a highlight, the store stuffed with writers and readers and good cheer.

Virtually every reader of this blog, I'll wager, knows of a fine local bookstore that's closed. My son's favorite bookstore, The Little Old Bookshop in Whittier, announced its closing a couple of weeks ago.

It's the reality of hard economic times and the huge change in the publishing industry vis-à-vis e-books. There is no changing the facts. Like the era of the passenger train and the 10¢ donut, there may be small remnants and reminders of the past. But the day of the thriving independents is coming to a close.

The Mystery Bookstore will have a presence online, and that is where most used books will be sold now. What we'll miss is the ability to physically browse, hear from the staff what books they like, and that feeling of community good books can create.

So it's a melancholy time here in L.A. among writers. I got together with some friends in the local MWA chapter the other day, when the news hit. We were all cut to the heart.

I don't know what else to say. This is kind of a downer blog post, I guess. But I just had to mention the passing of an old friend.

Maybe tonight raise a glass to independent bookstores and the people who love them. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

GRIT IT BABY!



John Ramsey Miller

On my mind.
Films this week.



I have eagerly anticipated the Cohen Brothers' remake of TRUE GRIT. Maybe I'll see it this weekend in the majamboplex, but more likely when it comes out from Netflix. I'm sure I'll like it better than the John Wayne version. I sustained brain damage from being exposed to Glenn Campbell's acting in the original. I think Matt Damon will do some better in Glenn's role. And there was the fact that Kim Darby played a girl half her age. I know the Cohen Brothers' version will be in all ways superior, because (face it) John Wayne played pretty much John Wayne in every single movie he ever made. In every Western the Duke even wore the same Colt single action Army with the yellowed ivory grips, the same hat and vest and probably the same boots and socks. Don't get me wrong, I liked everything about John Wayne and I've seen every movie he ever made.

John Wayne was an icon in an age when men were actually men and the only feelings they admitted to were horny, hunger and thirst. He was not an actor with a great deal of range. Can you see him playing the femiguy doing the John Wayne walk in Le Cage Aux folles? But I digress. Charles Portis wrote TRUE GRIT and it appears to be in and out of print. Great book by the way. I suspect whoever has the rights to publish it now will run off a few copies for those who didn't read it originally––like 99.9 percent of American readers. I see they released it on Kindle in November of 2010. Duke won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for playing Rooster Cogburn. Had it not been for the new film, I doubt they would have rereleased it. Portis has written other books including NORWOOD and GRINGO. The latter is a slurish title that is blatantly offensive to WASPS may have to be re-released under a softer title, like THE WHITE ANGLO-SAXON PROBABLY PROTESTANT FROM NORTH OF THE US BORDER WITH MEXICO.

Back to the point. Here's the thing. Duke purists hate the fact that anybody would dare remake TRUE GRIT since HE was in it and got that Academy Award for it. That is actually more because they were to a man afraid that Glenn Campbell might return to reprise his role.

Normally I hate film remakes because I think that, while it is not often the remake is better than the original, remakes are already a property the studio doesn't have to pay for, there's already a script to go by, and the film was almost certainly successful. Remakes of foreign films into American films are another pet peeve of mine, although I would rather see a film without subtitles or a good dubbing. I think Hollywood takes the easy (and most profitable) path when they can. Imagination is so draining and threatening to the non-imagining types who think they are. And a new film has no track record.

Last week John Gilstrap blogged about the Huck Finn edition that loses the "N" word in. I thought about that one a great deal, and I can see clearly the Twain teacher guy's point and John's as well. What I wondered was if the scholar guy gets royalties from the cleansed version, since he's taken a work that clearly in the public domain and altered it using find and replace on his computer. I seem to recall that Faulkner's family actually published some of Bill's books in their original/ original form (before editing at Random House) so the family could start the clock over again. But again, I digress...

I have been spending a lot of time with my four-year-old grandson (we're best pals because we have a common enemy) and he insists we watch all three Jurassic Park movies every time he is here and not necessarily in the proper order. After I realized I could go line for line with the actors (including the grunts and squeals of the Velosciaptors). I ordered all three Toy Story DVDs and they came on a slow ship from Hong Kong. I got those today, and I'm going to buy a variety of childrens films else I will sour on Buzz Lightyear and Woody.

Last week, Rushie and I watched Ron Howard's "How The Grinch stole Christmas" Forget changing two words in Huck Finn. Ron Howard expanded the book well beyond anything Dr. Seuss imagined. I understand the author's wife liked the movie script. I'm sure she didn't mind the money either. Howard invented subplots, added characters and dialog. What would Theodore Seuss Geisel have thought about the final films? I thought the movie sucked lemons through a bird's nostril. I discovered that Grinch was voted Worst Christmas Movie Of All Time and was also a financial flop. Jim Carey and one child actor almost saved the film from being totally embarrassing. All I saw of Cary were his yellow and red eyes––all of Mr. Carey to be seen that was not latex and green.

Is it so wrong to remake a classic? If it works and exposes a new generation to movies they wouldn't normally see, especially old films in black and white. How about we remake "To Kill A Mockingbird, with either George Clooney or Tom Hanks as Atticus Finch, Denzel Washington as Tom Robinson, Billy Bob Thornton as Boo Radley. How about Scout, Jim, Dill? Give me some child actor's names.

Who would you cast in a remake of Casablanca, Jaws, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Ten Commandments?" Pick your favorite film that shalt not be touched and give me the cast.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Peek Into Amazon Sales Figures

By John Gilstrap
Since its creation a decade or so ago, amazon.com has provided one of the very few sources of sales feedback for authors. At a glance, we’ve been able to tell what our sales rankings are, as determined by whatever top secret algorithm they use to determine such things. If you’re obsessive about it, you can watch your numbers fluctuate wildly, from number 3,500 in the morning to number 350,000 in the afternoon. The trick is to decipher how rankings translate into sales.

As I write this on Thursday, January 13, the Kindle sales rank for my book Hostage Zero lies at 2,007—its first foray above the 2K mark that I’m aware of. Given that there are a bajillion books out there available to be ranked, though, one would think that that still represents a fairly robust sales velocity.

By contrast, the Kindle sales rank for Tom Clancy’s new book, Dead or Alive, sits at 28. Given the distance between the rankings—and the fact that we’re talking Tom Clancy—I wonder what that translates into in terms of actual copies sold.

As luck would have it, I’ve recently stumbled upon a website called novelrank.com, which uses algorithms of its own (or maybe just old fashioned spies) to monitor Amazon sales data and translate it into useable numbers. The results are interesting.

The Kindle Store has sold 73 copies of Hostage Zero thus far in the month of January, which earned it an average January sales rank of 1,718. Clancy’s Dead or Alive, with a month-to-date average sales rank of 21, has sold 253 copies in the same period. Last month, beginning with the book’s December 14 laydown date and a debut sales rank of 6, Amazon sold 493 copies of Dead or Alive from the Kindle Store. (I don’t have December figures for my book because I didn’t trigger the tracking function until January.)

For what it’s worth, the hardcover edition of Dead or Alive saw an average sales rank in January of 75 (it’s 105 now), with 1,010 hardcovers sold.

If the results gleaned from novelrank.com are reliable—and I have no way of knowing either way—my first impression is that the gross numbers seem low, though I admittedly have no basis on which to judge such things. The spread surprises me, too, with Clancy selling only 12-15 copies more per day than I do, despite a four-figure difference in ranking. Admittedly, that all must add up to a seven-figure delta between our incomes, but I would have thought his numbers to be several times what they are.

If nothing else, novelrank.com is a fun tool.  It lets you type in the title of any book, and if someone has already triggered the tracking function, you can see how it's doing.  If they haven't then you can trigger it yourself.  It's a shame that my friend and blogmate Michelle Gagnon is weaning herself from the Internet, or she'd be able to see how her sales are doing.
Okay, that was mean. . .


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Latest Political Hot Potato

I’ve been lying low these days, writing on deadline for my next YA book. I tend to burrow into the pages and not come up for air until I write THE END, but I had to stray from my writing to watch a horrible drama unfold on TV and I wanted to talk about it here with people I respect.

With Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords still clinging to life after Jared Lee Loughner attempted to assassinate her, the debate rages on in the media and in Washington DC about who is to blame for stirring up such violence. It’s become a political hot potato.

The tragedy that left 6 dead and 13 others injured has prompted many to examine the political discourse in our country. I think the debate about how we exchange political views is a valid one, but perhaps our discussion should be more than that.


We have 24 hour news coverage that demands every minute be filled, even if the ‘breaking news’ is about who is in and out of rehab, or who is breaking up with whom. And have you noticed how reporters have become the news? They give opinions meant to stir viewers into posting online comments, often focusing on emotional hot button topics, just to see who is watching them. Our society has become more malicious in its criticism, especially given the anonymity of the Internet. If no one knows your name, does that entitle you to say things online that you wouldn’t to someone's face?

And with the Internet being in the privacy of our own homes, we have access to people, views, and images from all over the world. It has become a powerful tool and in many ways, it has made the world a much smaller, more accessible place. But has this global fishbowl made us more vulnerable, too? And with reality TV shows thriving on the open abuse of contestants and fueling our voyeuristic hunger for cruelty, is it any wonder this can have an impact on our society over the long haul?

Sure whoever pulls the trigger or detonates the bomb is ultimately to blame for that violence, but maybe it's not always that simple. In this great country of ours, we are blessed with and empowered by our right to free speech, but doesn’t that right come with some responsibility, too? I’d really love to hear your thoughts while I’m grappling with it myself.

What’s up with time?

By Joe Moore

It seems like the older I get, the more I’m aware of the lack of time available to me each day. I remember back when I was a kid my mother used to comment that as the years rolled by, the less time there was to get things done. I thought she was crazy. Back then I had all the time in the world. No crunch, no rush. The days went on forever as I grew up. Well, that’s all changed.

Now my friends and I complain that there are not enough hours in the day. Last time I checked, there were still 24, the same number I had when I was in my teens, going to college, starting my career, working, traveling, and writing. And, incidentally, the same number of hours that Donald Trump, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates get each day.

So what’s going on with time? Why is it that I never seem to feel like I have enough of it? Why do more and more things spill over into the next day? Why is summer over already when it just started? Didn’t we just celebrate Halloween? I can still taste the pumpkin pie from Thanksgiving. There’s something weird going on here. I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s an X-Files issue or a government conspiracy, but I’m losing time.

I know it’s not because I don’t prioritize. I try to figure out what’s the most important task at hand and attack it first. Then when it’s complete, I go to the next item on the list. At least most of the time.

It can’t be from interruptions. OK, so this is a big one for me. I’m easily distracted. I try to avoid being interrupted when I’m working on the highest priority tasks. Really, I do . . . hang on for a second while I check my Amazon numbers and update my FB status.

I’m sure it’s not from stress. I admit I tend to worry about everything, especially things I can’t control. I know it’s really dumb, but what if the North Koreans do have an nuclear bomb? Or something much worse. Hey, I wrote a book about that (THE 731 LEGACY), so worrying can be a good use of time. Right?

At least I can’t be accused of procrastination. Well, I do like to take the downhill road and do the easiest of the most important tasks now, leaving the harder ones for later. But that can’t be the problem.

And God knows I set achievable goals. I try to be realistic in what I want to accomplish. If Dan Brown can sell 40 million books, why can't I? It’s doable.

This time-loss thing can’t be entirely my fault. In fact, I think it would make a great premise for a show like Fringe. Maybe I’ll stop what I’m doing and send them the concept. I’ve got a few minutes to spare.

But I’m convinced there’s something strange going on, and I’ve decided to spend the better part of my day trying to prove it, starting with this blog. And in between my investigation, I’ll work on my new thriller. Should be plenty of time for that.

Anybody else think time is slip-sliding away?

------------------------------------
THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
"What do you get when you cross Indiana Jones with THE DA VINCI CODE? THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, a rollicking thrill ride." – Tess Gerritsen

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Silly writing rituals: creativity pills

So the other day I heard a report about a new placebo study. According to researchers, placebos (sugar pills) can relieve ailments, even when a patient knows he's taking a placebo.

Before the study, medical professionals assumed that placebos wouldn't work if patients knew they were being given sugar pills. It turns out that assumption was wrong. In a study of patients with IBS (er, Irritable Bowel Syndrome), 60 percent of patients reported that they felt better after knowingly taking a placebo twice a day.

That day I was feeling uninspired in my writing (which probably explains why I was surfing the Internet and reading about placebo studies). So I wondered: If a placebo can cure cranky bowels, could it help me break through a minor case of writer's block?

I decided to run my own unscientific study. I didn't have any sugar pills on hand, so I reached for the next best thing: my daughter's jelly beans.  I figured that labeling and ritual had to be part of the reason why placebos work, so I poured the jb's into an empty prescription  container. (And I have to report that jelly beans look extremely potent when they're staring up at you from a bottle of blood thinner medication.) Then I put a nice label on it marked "Creativity."

As part of my morning ritual I started taking two "creativity pills" with my coffee. As I solemnly popped the beans, I paused to meditate for a few moments about my writing goals for the day.

And by God, it worked. I blasted right through that writer's block. I wrote four pages that day, and haven't looked back since.

The only thing is, now I'm afraid to stop taking the beans. I think I'm hooked. For my next batch I'm thinking of getting those special-order M&Ms--the ones you can order with little messages written on them. I'll get them labeled with something like, "Writing is rewriting," or whatever fits.


What about you? Do you have any silly rituals that help you get your creativity engine going?

And if you happen to be in the market for a writing pill, I can get you a great deal on a placebo.



Monday, January 10, 2011

When the real author disappoints

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

In the last couple weeks I have watched two movie biopics about famous children's authors - one was the terribly miscast Miss Potter (about Beatrix Potter) and the other, entitled Enid, was about one of my favorite children's author, Enid Blyton. The latter was a bit of a shock as Enid herself was not in the least what I expected - and this goes to the heart of my blog post today - how readers' expectations of what an author is like in real life are rarely borne out.
I had expected Enid Blyton to be an adventurous, maternal, 'jolly hockey sticks' sort who loved to play games with her own children and who was just as fun and charming as her books. Boy, was I wrong. She was (assuming the movie depiction is correct) an ambitious, selfish and vindictive woman who couldn't stand being with her own children except for the one hour a day she allocated to them (nanny had them the rest of the day) before she then packed them off to boarding school. She reminded me of so many brittle, stiff upper lip Englishwomen who secretly despise their own offspring - but (I wailed!) she wrote such lovely children's books. How could it be?!!!


I was of course mistaking the author for her stories...and who amongst us hasn't fallen into that trap?
The movie Enid presents a side of the author that I hope my own children (huge Enid Blyton fans) never see. In many ways I think as a reader I prefer not knowing anything about my favorite authors, lest finding out ruins reading their books forever. Since Enid Blyton wrote 750 books over her lifetime (amazing in and of itself!) many a child would have been deprived of her wonderful stories had their parents known the kind of woman she really was (and in some way what does it matter, her books should stand on their own, shouldn't they?)

So have you met an author only to find your perception of him/her totally dashed because he or she were nothing like what you anticipated- nothing, in fact, like their books at all?

Have any of my fellow Kill Zoners been confronted by a fan who has expressed their own surprise/shock/dismay that the author persona was nothing like what they expected?

To date, I have only encountered fans who tell me I am exactly like they thought I'd be... (I'm not sure what that says about me or my writing!) Nonetheless I found myself lulled into the trap of hoping my childhood literary heroine was just like the girls she wrote about in her books. Sigh. It will be a few weeks before I can pick up one of her books again to read to my sons without feeling disappointment that fiction was so far removed from reality.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Who is a Real Writer?


A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ––Thomas Mann

A writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops. –– William Saroyan

So who is a "real" writer?

Is it someone who has decided this morning to become one? And then goes to Starbucks and writes Chapter One and a couple of lines?

Or do you have to pay some dues?

Speaking of pay, do you have to get some to be a real writer?

There was a guy who used to hang out at my local Starbucks, typing poems on an honest to goodness typewriter. He said that was the best way for him. He was about 30, and had the hipster look down. He'd type a poem for someone in exchange for whatever they wanted to pay.

He was, I guess, a professional. But was he a real writer?

Should we simply distinguish between those who make a living, or a substantial amount of their living, writing, from those who want to be able to do that?

Or does any of this matter?

Personally, I found it difficult to tell people I was a writer before I was published. After my first book came out, it was still hard to say. When I got a multiple book contract, it got  a little easier. I'd worked really hard and finally it was paying off. But it was only after I had about a dozen books out there that I was able to say without qualm I was a writer.

Now, with self-publishing via e-books getting to be so easy, people can be "multi-published" with a click of an upload. Writers all?

A novelist friend of mine told me this:

To call yourself a writer, you have to engage in it daily with some exchange of money between you and a publisher. Or a client. Or a film or TV company. It has to in some ways be your vocation. As to whether or not you're making a living wage isn't so much the catalyst, but that you are pursuing jobs and publishing your work FOR MONEY. Otherwise, it's a hobby, a fascination, a desire, a work in progress.

Another friend, who has made a living as a freelance writer for many years, told me:

To me, to truly be a writer, you have to pass a gantlet of editors, critics, peers, and the marketplace. Not everyone who types up manuscripts and submits them to publishers is a writer. In my mind, until you have earned the right to call yourself a writer, don't call yourself a writer. So, while I don't blame anyone for saying, "Anyone can be a writer" or "All you have to do is write," these statements really sadden me. I realize that what for me is a holy calling and an ennobled profession has in many ways lost that distinction forever. If anyone with a keyboard and enough money to upload a file to Xulon Press or iUniverse can call himself a "writer," then everything I set my sights on from the time I was nine years old has become relatively meaningless.

Maybe my view is best summed up by the two quotes at the top of this post. If you're a real writer, it's going to be difficult, because you can't just throw anything out there. You have to sweat and bleed to learn to write. And if you want to be a real writer, you can't give up. You have to have a little bit of rebel in you, because people will probably think you're nuts (while secretly envying your passion).

So what's your take? Who or what is a "real" writer?

***

NOTE: For those of you interested in making your revision process the best it can be, I'm doing an hour long webinar next Sunday called Self-Editing and Revising the Knock Out Novel. Would love to see you there.