Friday, April 22, 2011

The Blog is Moving!

Hello all,

I'm moving the blog over to There is a new post there titled, Step Four: Gather it up and Toss it in the Trash.

When I figure out how, I'll add an auto-direct.

Thanks for patience. I hope you'll follow me there.


Monday, April 11, 2011

More on Romantic Times

Amid the rash of comments regarding yesterday’s blog, I noted Tana’s request for more info about who I met at RT. I aim to please. Therefore, get some tea, drag over your chair and I’ll spin you a tale.

I’m not big on large groups of people. After my first terror-inducing ride in one of the hotel’s horrible glass elevators, I had to give myself a pep-talk. “Go down there,” I said to that stubborn inner-voice that had been spooked by the first wash of crowds in the lobby. She wasn’t open to persuasion. I might still be debating the subject if the negotiations had been left to a my logic-persona and my cringing, alter-ego.

But I got hungry. And, as is true in most situations, the stomach won.

I sent a text to a friend (Hello Dani) and met her for dinner. And that was the start. Between my fear of the elevators, my constantly empty stomach, and the pure comfort of the bar, I found my happy place. Yes, there were times when I longed for a bath, an aspirin and a really gorgeous guy to give me a foot rub. But most of the time, I found myself thinking, “wow, don’t forget this.”

As in--don’t forget eating breakfast and realizing that Joanna Bourne is sitting right beside you, working on her manuscript. Let’s stop for second to embrace my inner conflict. Her w.i.p. was right there. On. Her. Laptop. A rude, underhanded person might have feigned dropping their napkin to steal a glance at the words on her screen…It crossed my mind, but so has robbing a bank, and as yet, I haven’t fallen victim to that particular urge. So, I didn’t peek, and she never lifted her head from her work, and thus, she remained oblivious to the fact that we were sharing a moment. The way Joanna Bourne was studying her prose? Well, I know the evil eye when I see it. Just like her, I have scowled at my monitor and thought, “This is an awkward sentence. How can I fix it?” It was an instant of deep bonding.

Or how about this for another unforgettable memory? Deidre introduced me to one of TKA’s authors, the very gorgeous Kristen Painter, who has a book coming out with one of the most visually attractive covers I’ve seen in awhile. Heck, if the book is as cool and fab as Kristen, it’s going to sell off the charts. Anyhow, my new pal tugged me along, and I found myself crashing an exclusive fete. True, the party was almost over, and I was so cowed by terror that I made like a tree in the corner, but I saw them. Big authors. Together. Sort of a visual feast spread out in front of me. I so wished I'd pack a little spy doohickie that captures audio:-)

I learned a lot at RT. Not only from the panels (which I found really useful), but from people who were willing to share their opinions and insights. At one gathering I attended, Barbara Vey made a comment that made my brain wander to another question. When I saw her passing by the lounge the next day, I asked if she had a minute to answer something. Not only did she satisfy my curiosity--the kind woman ended up teaching me how to tweet. All right. I admit that I hadn’t made much progress on the twitter thing; partly because every time I tried to read an educational blurb about hash-tags, white noise filled my head. Barbara took the bull (or in this case the cow) by the horns (tail) and stood behind me while I fumbled my way through my first use of the dreaded hashtag. I must have looked like a particular dullard, because I misspelled her name three times. Normally, that would have embarrassed me, and I’d have made a quick reference to the family’s long history of l.d.’s, but I was so enthralled by my first tweet that included the proper use of @ and  # in one coherent message that I never got around to doing so.

Generosity. I saw it all over the place. One screen-playing writing author gave me her card and said my daughter could contact her for advice. Another author offered to blurb me. (I’d mention her name, but I don’t want to put her on the spot.) Here’s the thing about fellow word-smiths. Most have experienced the same deep, festering need for validation via publication. They can recollect the struggles. The hardships. The knocks on peach-soft skin. And so, the majority of them are very kind. Not all of them. I saw some other stuff too. Some of it was a bit stomach-tensing, but I’m going to let that go. Let’s dwell on the good things. Or if not that, then the funny stuff.

For example, Patrick Rothfuss.

That poor man. I saw him crossing the lounge, and I had a total fan-girl reaction. I was shameless. First, I started by ogling and smiling at him in such an unavoidably forward manner that he came over to my table and said, apologetically, “I know you, don’t I?” Now, in hindsight, the correct response would have been. “Of course you do. How have you been my friend?”

It would have been the smart thing, no? Instead, I leaped out of my chair like I had won a date with George Clooney, and then…(deep shudder)…I launched myself into that black-hole of humiliation reserved for truly rabid fans--the complete, fluttering hand, impassioned delivery of the most blush-worthy platitudes ever assembled in one babbling speech that the author of THE NAME OF THE WIND was rendered momentarily speechless.

Clever man, Patrick Rothfuss. He hugged me--effectively rendering me mute, and then he backed away and got on the elevator and no one saw him for another 24 hours.

Back to the salt mines tomorrow. Ah, but today. The memories…

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Seven Questions for Deidre

As written, April 9, Hotel Bonaventure,

I am at the RT convention in Los Angeles, sitting in my favourite seat in the bar, staring at my least favourite feature in the Hotel Bonaventure—the glass elevators. They are such a problem for me, these miserably windy conveniences. First, because I'm on the 15th floor, which eliminates the fine-I'll-just-use-the-stairs option. And secondly, because every time I step into one of these plexi-glass nightmares, I come up with a new falling-death scenario. The worst is being trapped in one of the hotel’s elevators during an earthquake. I use up just about every well-worn movie trope imaginable over that one.

All things considered, I'm not keen on using those elevators, and so, that's the excuse I offer to the fact that I'm writing this blog seated at my preferred table in the lobby's bar. I have the laptop, the glass of merlot and the topic.

So far, the blog has been building on a linear fashion. A ‘Moment’ followed by a Step, followed by another ‘Moment’--kind of like threading pearls onto a sturdy string. But today, we’re going to deviate just slightly from the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other format. We’re going to talk about conventions, because I don’t want to wait for another year to shine the light on another great tool in your quest to find the perfect representation.

If you’re new to writing, you may think that the only way you’re going to get an agent is through a query, which is real bad news for some of you, because it just may happen that you truly suck at condensing your story outline into 35 words of pithy brilliance. If that realization has come a little late, and the form rejections are falling into your inbox with depressing speed, here’s something to cheer you up: a convention gives you another crack at pitching your book. Many agents use these gatherings as opportunity to discover new talent. They’re not there for the hangover or entertainment, they’re looking for someone new. It could be you. That is, if you have a smokin’ finished manuscript, and the story-skills to pull off another one.

Now, remember, I used the adjective ‘many’. Some agents have a full client-list, and so they go to the event with a different agenda. Their dance card is full of meetings--editors, clients, and friends. Do your homework before you go. Know who’s going to be there, and what their interests are. Be prepared.

During this convention, I had my first in-person meet with my agent, the—gosh-darn, hand-over-heart, awesome—Deidre Knight. I went to the appointment with the intention of not wasting it, but of course I did squander time, because, well, did I mention my newly acquired agent was super, and funny and she made me feel all gooey-happy inside?

Once we got past the, oh-thank-God-we’re-hugely-compatible segment of the appointment, we got down to business. And that’s when I pulled out my list of seven questions.

Here they are:
1)    How did she plan to sell my book?  
2)    Will I stay in the loop during the process? How much of the feedback, negative or positive, will I hear?
3)    If she sells my book, what will my next 12 months look like?
4)    If I ever signed for a series, what will her involvement be, once the ink is dry on the page?
5)    What did she think about  the ‘branding’ issue, and in terms of a platform, where am I weak, and what steps should I  take to remedy those flaws?
6)    What does she want from a client? If she could choose just one thing from me—other than the obvious ‘write a wonderful story’ option—what would it be?
7)    I have something else I’d like her to look at. Did she have time to read it?

She answered those questions with honesty and clarity, and now I have another list of goals. One day, you might find yourself sitting opposite your agent, with your little heart going pitty-pat in your chest. Have you got your list of seven questions ready?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Who the Hell Has the Kleenex?

I was poised at the edge of ‘the moment’. There she was--Charlaine Harris; the woman whose books had so thoroughly charmed me, I'd morphed into a mouth-breathing fan. She's famous for her Sookie Stackhouse southern-vampire series, which some of you boob-tube lovers will recognize as the basis for HBO's True Blood. Over her long career, she's penned several other award-winning series; my own favourite being the Harper Connolly books. What’s so great about Charlaine Harris? It’s the way she writes--deceptively spare, wry, and quick-witted. It’s the fact that her books always have solid mystery plots. It’s because her style looks natural and easy, and trust me, that's an art. There is no such thing as easy.
That day in April 2010, the best-seller novelist was so close, all I had to do is lift my hand to touch her. She’d met me once or twice before, but those had been fan moments, wherein the fan tries not to gush, and the writer tries to make a smooth getaway.
This was different. This was ‘my’ opportunity to tell Ms. Harris exactly how her books and craft insights had encouraged me.
She’d had a busy day. Possibly her hand hurt from signing all those books and maybe her feet were paining her after all those meetings, but none of that showed on her face. With infinite grace and a very sweet smile, she said, “Hello Leigh.”  
So, did I launch into my carefully prepared speech?
Uhm, no.
I rewarded her generosity by bursting into a crumpled-chin, squeaky-voiced, teary melt-down. In public. In a line up. With maybe 300 people there to witness it. Just to put it into perspective; I have a list of approved boo-hoo moments--the end of sad books, the OMG-don’t kill-the-dog movie scenes and my kids' graduation ceremonies. And all right, yes, I did once get a bit damp over a telephone commercial. But in real life? I’m frustratingly short on tears. Trust me, there have been times I wished I could cry.
Just as FYI for you blog-skimmers, I still had a vague idea of the character I wanted to write about, and was starting to get a better sense of what type of world I needed to create for her. Cue the cymbals--I had begun working on novel attempt no. 3.

I was doing things in the manner I understood to be the right way. My Intro to Novel Writing class had ended (praise heaven, and let's get the hell out of here). I'd joined a writer's group with three former students--an association doomed to an early death, but I didn’t know that then. I continued to write every week day. I submitted stuff for critique. I observed the rules for good writing as I understood them.  But still, a lot of the times, I wanted to give up. I’d read a good book and feel humbled, and annoyed with myself. Why couldn’t I write better? I’d get stalled on a plot point or a motivation and want to delete the whole damn thing. I’d write a choppy page and despair that I’d ever learn flow. There were many, many head-thuds-on-desk moments. But despite a truly awesome collection of bruises, this time I wasn’t giving myself an out. I was going to continue pounding those keys all the way to the last period.

Because somewhere, I’d read that’s what you were supposed to do.

Well, here's the sodding truth. Trying to write in such a rigid, self conscious manner can make you miserable. Thus, I did what I have always done in times of great distress. I read. When I wasn’t at the keyboard, I was burning my way through series, chewing my way through the library stacks and scouring book lover forums for suggestions.  And without realizing it, I had stumbled on an essential writing tool.  Reading. I can’t over emphasize how important that is. If you’re serious about finishing a manuscript, read everything you can lay your hands on. You will pick up things unconsciously, and develop unshakeable opinions about what makes for a good or bad read.

Still I carried on--heroically, tap-tapping my way past the dreaded 25K. But even as I blew past that benchmark, I was growing more aware of my isolation. I didn't know anyone, outside of a classroom, who understood the writing process. I had questions, and no place to ask them. And there’s a LOT of potholes on the road to finishing a novel. Some of those nasty little craters are filled with dark water, and you have no idea how deep they are until you're past your knees and still sinking.

Which is when I discovered Charlaine Harris’ community board had a thread titled, “On Writing’.  Holy Hannah. There they were--the questions and the answers. The support. That little corner on the internet is an superb example of giving back to emerging writers. That loop became my new classroom. The people on her board my dear friends. And on the way, I got to meet (and cry over) Charlaine Harris; a possibility that never occurred to me the day I shut the cover on my first Sookie novel.

Lessons for this one?
Don’t try to write in isolation.
Go find people who share your writing obsession.
And oh yeah,
Bring a box of Kleenex.

Tip: If you're going to buy one Sookie book, I suggest you buy the boxed set. It will save you on gas, because seriously, you think you can stop with just one?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

More than water flows through a burst dam

The dam was damn-well gone, I thought, feeling very smug and self-confident. Imagination poured out of me. Now all I had to do was seize my passion and believe in my destiny. Success would follow.


Identifying your passion is only a little portion of what leads to success. Working your ass off in preparation for the moment opportunity winks is the larger wedge.

But back then, I didn’t know that. I left Creative Writing aware of two things: I was not the best writer in the class but I was the person who wanted it the most. Armed with the power of the re-inflated dream, I signed up for Introduction to Novel Writing.

And discovered everybody wanted it as badly as me.

It was a tough semester.

Novel Intro’s teacher writes literary fiction. He produces a book every year or so, and rightfully receives favourable reviews. He also has a tell: whenever he wants to hide what he really thinks, he stares at the table and says things like, “yeah, plenty to work with there.” And thus, our disdain-filled professor spent a good portion of the semester shielding his eyes from our searching ones, in fear that we’d discover his true opinion.

I can’t dig my way into his brain, but I came to the unshakeable belief that he thought most of us sucked. Big time. We told, not showed. We liked clich├ęs. We lost our story narrative. And we were thin on the right details.

From his class I got the following: a fistful of writing cautions and my first very public, put-down from another student over my genre choice (and baby, if you’re writing fantasy, romance, erotica, or horror, you will face that sneer at one point or another).

The result? I started Novel no. three, and everything I wrote for the next five months was pushed through the tight sphincter of literary pretension.

Learning from this one?

Some people will curl their lip at your stuff.
Not because it sucks.
Just because it isn’t their stuff.
Get over it.

I might have lingered there, forever the self-conscious writer, if not for Charlaine Harris. I'll tell you about that next time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Step Three - Writing to Learn

I enrolled in a creative writing class because I decided the early demise of books 1 & 2 was totally related to a bad case of writer’s block. Oh, hell, I’ll be honest. I wasn’t just blocked, I was bloody-well constipated. It’s enough to be word-stymied. Try having a constipated imagination.

 ‘You can’t spend all your life in fantasy,’ I’d reasoned twenty years earlier. Kids had to be picked up. Meals had to be made.

I’d quelled my imagination and let it wither.

My heart was doing the two-step when I walked into the class. I was early but that meant I could pick the best seat and watch as people walked in. Younger than me, younger than me, maybe the same age as me, oh, wait - much older than me!

And then my prof walked in. I’d thought she’d be a benign spirit, who’d smile sweetly and occasionally pat my head. A bit of an earth-mother. That’s not what I got. Instead she was youthful, and exacting, and yes, wise and sensitive, too. In her class, I learned about word count, self-editing and the power of a critique.

The first request was to describe a bedroom in 250 words. I took that literally and edited it down to 249 words. I learned a lot about self-edit that week.

For the next assignment, I had to write a scene in which the main character felt emotional pain. I spent 20 hours on it; gathering up words like loose confetti, trying to stick them together so they’d form a recognizable shape, all the while searching for an elegant way to infuse emotion. 250 words. One scene, little-to-no dialogue.

But I did it. And felt proud, even though I was not the best writer in the class.

The requests got harder. Using mostly dialogue, write a scene that shows conflict. Provide us with a 500 word scene revealing a pivotal moment between two people using description and dialogue. Take one of your shorter pieces and expand it to 500 words. Now, revise it based on the class comments. Do not exceed your word count.

And then…read it out loud to the class and sit silently and appreciative as people critique your piece. No excuses, no explanations. Sit and absorb. Listen carefully.

Harder still.

That class taught me a lot. First, the power of the impersonal, balanced critique. Second, self-editing is part of writing. And third--

You have to write to learn how to write.
There is no short-cut.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kind words, from a kind man

Just as I was at my apex of Thinking About It, I read one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. It’s called THE NAME OF THE WIND, by Patrick Rothfuss. I picked it up because it had a label on it “Susie Recommends” (which means that the salesclerk Susie had read it and thought it swell). I turned it over and read the blurb. Whoever wrote the blurb on the back of that book is one hellishly good blurb-writer. In addition, the novel was heavy, which was good, because it wasn’t too badly priced, which meant, hey, I got a deal. And better yet, there was no bare-chested guy with a sword on the front of  the cover. Okay. Sold.

It was, and is, a superb book. Imagine yourself sitting in your favourite chair at dusk. A man begins to tell you a story. His voice is deep and soft and layered, and you just find yourself transfixed in your chair, inwardly praying that he’d never stop talking. Hoping beyond hope, that the story will never end. That’s the type of book Patrick Rothfuss wrote.

I liked the book so much that I got out of bed at 1:00 a.m. and went down to the web to find out when book two would come out. And then, because I was so totally bowled over by Kvothe’s story, I wrote my first fan email. I let myself go on that email. I told him exactly why I liked the book, and why I was thrilled to have read it, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It was, as emails go, fairly long. I hit send and felt relieved.

A week later, I opened my email. Patrick Rothfuss had written back. Real authors do that? I sat down. Read the entire email so slowly, my dog aged another canine year. He said, (and yes, I still have the email), that it was a ‘lovely, lovely email’, and that -- oh wait this deserves its own line --

“you’re not a bad writer yourself.”

There it was. In black and white. He thought I could write.

And you know what? That tiny whisper in my ear was all I needed to start again. I wasn’t just a wordless matron with a tribble who’d forgotten her dream and was standing on the crossroads between a lifetime of Oprah and a life-quest of writing.  I was someone who’d written a ‘lovely’ email, and Patrick Rothfuss thought I wasn’t a bad writer. Small words, written by a kind man, but for me, it was a moment. Another one of those ‘well, look at that’ moments.

I was looking for a omen, and I had found it. So, the next step?

Look for inspiration  and believe in yourself.

Of course, I did more than clutch a crystal in my hand and hope for good stuff to come my way. Next time I’ll tell you what work I needed to do toward payment for my inspiration. In the meantime, go read The Name of the Wind. You’ll like it, even if you don’t like fantasy.