Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New Story at Pulp Pusher

I have a new little story titled "Granny Panties" up at Pulp Pusher. Thanks Tony!

Incidentally, editor Tony Black's very fine second novel, GUTTED, will be released this June.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Inspiration from an Unlikely Source #1

Actually, this is not the first time I've drawn inspiration from an unlikely source. Far from it. For several years now I've noticed a particular stripe of person who has been there all along, the hardheaded toiler, the person with no quit in them (to quote Woodrell), the stubborn beast who simply will not back down in the face of disappointment and setback and rejection.

I like these folks plenty.
Here's today's: Jimmy Wayne, country singer.

Jimmy had a couple of hits in 2003, and then he faded into relative obscurity and couldn't get a break. Guys like that are a dime a dozen. They end up flipping burgers or selling used cars or sitting at the far end of the bar. Or going back to school or becoming lawyers or city councilmen - I don't really know, to tell the truth; the point is that they leave the dream behind and do something else.

Not Jimmy:
“I played at cookouts and everything I could around my hometown. It didn’t matter what it was or if it was for two or three people, I would play anywhere and everywhere.”

I love that! The guy just wouldn't shut up. And now he's got a hit. Not much of a hit, in my opinion, but that doesn't much matter, does it - because if there was only one person on earth interested in hearing Jimmy sing, I imagine he'd still be singing.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Mystery writers can appreciate things that are weird."

That sentiment courtesy of my daughter, who was consoling me after explaining that her friends have no interest in my book. Apparently she's tossed out the premise a few times, in an exploratory fashion, and the thing has received a chilly reception.

I'd be devastated and all, except they're thirteen.

On the other hand, today's bright-eyed adolescent is tomorrow's jaded book consumer (or not, depending on which doom scenario you subscribe to) so maybe I ought to be more worried.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Patrick on Pivotal Books

Patrick Shawn Bagley asked a bunch of authors to comment on their “pivotal books.”

He says:
"It was a slightly different take on the “book that made me want to be a writer” theme—which has been done a gozillion times. What interested me were the books which, when read by someone who was already writing, affected the direction of that reader’s work."

I like the idea of considering, as a writer, our path's turns. No one I know has written in a straight line. (If they did, a lot of women would still be trying to rewrite THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER and I guess guys would be writing DUNE...or something like that.) Sometimes we make abrupt shifts, even U-turns - and other times we veer gently.

There are so many factors at play. For me, it's been revelations about myself coupled with a decreasing appetite/tolerance for other people's approval/input/censure. Pretty typical - that's just another way of saying that as I get older, I write more like me.

One such shift came pretty early in my writing life. Here's what I wrote in response to Patrick's question:
When I stumbled on an early short story collection by T. Coraghessan Boyle in the 1980s - not even sure which it was, though a quick search gets me thinking it might have been Descent of Man - I was riveted. I was in my first year or two of college, home for the summer, broke, bored, and trolling for something new at the local library. I was shocked that you could write in such an unvarnished way about human appetites and still get published. There was also an element of emotional violence in Boyle's work that struck a resounding chord in me, one which, it turns out, later formed the basis for most of my own work. Also, some of the stories were also just so wonderfully, unapologetically, fantastically weird. I had certainly never heard of magical realism and, if I had, would have assumed it wasn't allowed in Missouri.

I wondered which of the librarians had test-driven the book - I was under the impression there was some round-table vetting process - and hoped I would not meet her eye by accident, because surely she would know: reading the book, I was convinced, had marked me forever.

In those days I felt deeply ashamed that I was so viscerally attracted to raw writing. A decade later, books like Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here made me see that you could reveal the drama at the core of human relationships without necessarily having to introduce sex and violence into the story. Though damn if those don't make handy story elements.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New Story - February Flash Challenge

I took part in the second annual Flash Fiction Challenge hosted by Patti Abbot, Gerald So, and Aldo Calcagno. This year was a little different - kind of a grab-bag approach:

1) Everyone who signed up wrote the first paragraph of a story and sent it to Patti.

2) She stirred the pot and sent the paragraph back out to another writer.

3) Everyone wrote a 750 (or so) word story using the first paragraph they received.

It was a lot of fun and it resulted in some great material from a variety of authors. You can read my story "Reparations" here, on Aldo's flash fiction 'zine, Powderburn Flash. Thank you Aldo for posting it.

See a complete list of stories here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Creating Memorable Genre Characters

Yesterday my friend Julie and I gave a workshop on creating memorable genre characters. Our premise was that good characters share the same essential building blocks no matter what genre they inhabit. Between us, Julie and I figured out we write in about seven different genres, and the basics are always the same.

Compelling characters have:
A past (backstory)
Flaws (internal conflict)

And, because even a flock of great characters does not a good book make...
Stuff happens to them (aggravating circumstances)

So we introduced the idea of a formula that looks like this:
backstory + internal conflict + aggravating circumstances = unforgettable character

I like reducing complicated story concepts down to flow charts and formulas and the like. It's not at all that I think there's a simple recipe to be followed, that I can tell you precisely which ingredients to toss in the pot to create story. Rather, because my head is generally teeming with unrelated, messy, chaotic ideas, any opportunity I have to corral them into a semblance of structure is appealing.

And this one seems to do the trick. When I'm thinking up a new character, there is a jumble of impressions in my head. Sometimes I start with a real person or an impression of a stranger (how, I wonder, can non-writers bear to stand in line, to sit through church, to watch sports events? If you're not inventing stories for everyone you see, what the heck *is* going on in your head?). Backstory and internal conflict arrive in my brain as a disordered mess, like yarn at the end of a skein or noodles left too long in the colander. Teasing them apart is worth the effort, though, because you really do need to make sure you have a balance of the two.

Too much backstory and too little internal conflict lead to unmotivated characters -> reader frustration
Too little backstory and too much internal conflict lead to where-the-hell-did-she-come-from syndrome -> reader puzzlement

(just in case it needs to be said...frustrating or annoying your readers will not endear you to them.)

hard at work creating those memorable characters...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Going Soft

I received a heaping plate 'o rejection this week. These were relatively minor undertakings, in the grand scheme of things - a short story that had been sitting at a publication for the better half of a year, and some workshops proposed for a conference. These are barely bugs on the windshield in the sense that they won't alter my course or affect my plans in the least.

But they still stung. More than usual.

A lot of it probably has to do with the dire state of affairs in general. Gloom's ankle deep on the ground these days, and there's more than enough to go around. I bear no ill will toward my rejectors; hell, everyone in publishing's being forced to say "no" even more often than usual these days. I'm even open to the idea that other submissions had more merit than mine. (!!!)

But what's bothering me this morning is that I had a tougher shell than that. I'm the veteran of hundreds of rejections, after all. A year ago, I was eating rejections for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I had adopted a practice of cussing at my computer when one arrived and getting back to work. Much as the words themselves go straight from the brain to the screen, with only a fleeting trip through the fingers, the rejections went straight from the mailbox (virtual or actual) to the trash, with only a cursory acknowledgment from me. No mooning. No sulking. No f'ing whining allowed.

So that's today's plan. Enough with the whining. Yesterday, my husband and I took a long hike in the Las Trampas hills. We came across a dozen cows in the path. They were a calm but immovable lot. We had to detour through the brush. That's a cow for you. And not a bad model for writers: I ain't going anywhere.

photo: franco folini

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Oh Look, It's February -

- and I've got *just* enough time to post my column before kick-off!

(entirely kidding - y'all just knock yourself out with the TV, I don't much need it for the next few hours....)

From the February Heart Of The Bay, Newsletter of the San Francisco RWA chapter:

Now that the dust has settled from the arrival of 2009, I think a lot of us are looking around at our beleaguered industry with trepidation. By the time you read this the inauguration will be past us, and perhaps the country will be in a rosier mood that’s reflected in the economy, but even so it’s going to take a while to stabilize from this “correction.” January saw the loss of several bookstores near and dear to the hearts of our members, and many of our colleagues across the country are struggling.

At the January meeting I made a plea for everyone to remember independent bookstores when drawing up your book budget. Of course, we want to support all of our bookstores; several of the chains have been very good to romance, and a cash register ringing up book sales is a good thing whether it’s at the mall, Costco, or virtually over the internet.

But the independents are on my mind right now as I think about new authors. Selfishly speaking, my own debut will take place in 2009. But as I look around our chapter I see so many authors who are either newly sold or on the cusp of selling.

Who nurtures the newcomers? We do, of course. I don’t think there’s a writing organization out there that offers more peer and mentor support than our chapter. But we also rely on readers to discover our talent, and for that we need the partnership of book-loving merchants willing to read and hand-sell our work.

At a state-of-the-industry presentation I attended in December, the owner of a San Mateo independent bookstore cited the example of Michael Connolly, who was not an overnight success. It took seven books for him to receive wide acclaim. As the bookstore owner pointed out, word-of-mouth buzz was responsible for slowly building his readership. And that, friends, is not a commodity that you’ll find on the warehouse club book table.

You can start right here at home within the chapter by purchasing books from Dorothy and Teresa, our booksellers from The Book End in Newark. They’ll bring any book you wish if you email them by the Sunday before the meeting at bookendnewark@yahoo.com.

To close on a positive note, some good news is going overlooked in all the doom’n’gloom reporting: Nielsen BookScan numbers for 2008 show an increase in adult fiction sales. Yes, at .4 percent, it was tiny, but we’re in the black, ladies!