Monday, June 30, 2008

The Mathematics of a Mississippi Road Trip

I've come up with a new mathematical equation:

850 interstate miles/number of bohunks in the fast lane x 36 hours = another Vortex 10 list

1) Not even a Mississippi frog-strangling downpour can extract a Texas bug from its tragic end on your windshield.

2) More billboards on the stretch of I-20 between Dallas and Jackson are devoted to Jesus than casinos, truck stops and John Deere combined.

3) Nothing can light up a cloud-drenched Louisiana day like a technicolor casino billboard advertising the upcoming Chippendale's show. August 14-15. FYI.

4) Starbucks Passion Iced Tea tastes infinitely better during a stolen hour with an old friend.

5) In Cajun families, expletives like "hoo-lawd" and "shewt" exist to train words together into a confusing quagmire of the English language for outsiders.

6) What was, no doubt, a beautiful crystalline garden display in Martha Stewart Magazine can turn, in the hands of a Mississippian, into an excuse to display repeated conquests of Jose Cuervo and Maddog 2020.

7) The observed collective speed on Mississippi highways is directly proportional to the speed of the regional dialect spoken.

8) If it crawls, scuttles or surfaces in the pond "out yonder", wrestle it to the red dirt, sprinkle Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning on it and call it a feast. Hoo-boy.

9) When you get that tingly feeling in your gut at a Shell station near Kilgore, Texas because the restroom has more amenities than a half-empty toilet paper roll, a can of Lysol and a fly to keep you company, it isn't the Cajun sausage you had for breakfast. You'll calculate every future nature call to hail this pee-mecca again.

9 1/2) Speaking of pee-mecca: You know your pit-stop is a Sunday regular for the locals when you find Hallmark cards, alligator jerky and Elvis bling all under one roof and you hear "Harlan, you don't need another bull's ball sack with a Texas star on it" over the snack food aisle.

10) Having watched Duel more times than you can count adequately prepares your imagination for encountering that rusted-out white pick-up with the illegal tint you're convinced wants to play cat and mouse on a Louisiana interstate.

As much fun as it is to envision missing teeth and stretched-out NASCAR tank tops, you'd be hard-pressed to find more gracious, hard-working, genuine people than those in the Magnolia state. My kind of people. Hoo-yes.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Double Release Week

I have a great week planned for The Vortex, including tidbits on cajun baptisms and redneck yard art fresh from a weekend jaunt to Mississippi and interviews with V.C. King, author of a fantastic supernatural tale about the Titanic, and Candace Havens, author of the Charmed and Dangerous series for Berkley. I love the company, so be sure to check back often.

Until then, this is e-book release week for two authors I feel blessed to have in my little corner of the publishing world. One writes steamy police procedurals, the other a perfect blend of contemporary romance and wit. Gritty or humor, take your pick:

Voodoo Bones by Melanie Atkins

Noel Galliano has always wanted her own business, and despite critics who believe she won't succeed, she opens a tiny French Quarter Voodoo shop. What she doesn't count on is finding a dismembered corpse upstairs.

Detective Mathieu Bergeron is considered a screw up around the district station, until he puts away the Bayou Ripper. Then another body is found mutilated, and both his arrest and his competence are thrown into question. Matt and Noel must work together to solve this terrifying crime in the Big Easy...and along the way, they fall in love.

Here Comes the Bribe by Sherry A. Davis

A single administrative assistant accepts her temporary boss’s offer to masquerade as his fiancĂ©e to keep his matchmaking grandmother out of his personal life and out of the way while he negotiates a high-profile merger for his family-owned company. In exchange, she’ll get the down payment for the loan she needs to keep her ex from selling her condo out from under her.

But neither of them counted on the lines blurring between real and pretend--or for the temporary arrangement to leave them both longing for something more permanent.

Really wishing I had a Kindle right about now...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Story Vows

Nearing the home stretch of a novel, the story begins to feel a bit like a tired friendship. At times, taken for granted and not recognized for the gift it has become. As guilty as I am of this infraction, it has been worse. This has been my most faithful and burning project to date and the most deserving of some promises to carry me to the end:

1)I promise not to bloat you with ten dollar words when twenty-five cent ones will do.

2)I promise to forsake all other ideas, even the sparkling allure of the holographic map story, as tempting as it may be, and focus solely on you until the last sentence unfolds.

3)I promise to leak out a line to my Twitter account sporadically, instead choosing to keep the magic between us.

4)I promise to return to you, even when you're difficult or have left me adrift, when life interferes and I can only imagine a root canal would be favorable to the bloodletting on the page.

5)I promise to check each historical fact against two sources, to ensure no critic will ever undermine what we created.

6)I promise to divorce myself from the subplot, even though it has amazing emotional potential, if it makes the rest stronger.

7)I promise to steer you away from the nebulous between-genre ditch the others have fallen into and keep you safely in the parameters of marketability.

8)I promise to always remember the spark I love most about you when all others doubt.

9)I promise never to demean you, curse you, or devalue the time we've spent together, for no writing is ever wasted.

10)I promise to wait to send you out into the world until I'm sure it's the best we can do.

What promises do you owe your story?

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Time Machine - Week of June 23, 2008

I'm back to the whole time-travel-market-is-soft thing. I present further proof it is not:

Exhibit A:
Spike Lee has signed on to direct Time Traveler, a movie based on Ronald Mallett's memoir Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality. The memoir tells the tale of a young African-American male raised in poverty, his journey to becoming a distinguished theoretical physicist, and his obsession to travel back in time to save the father he lost when he was ten years old.

Lee says, "It's a fantastic story on many levels and (also) a father and son saga of love and loss."

Exhibit B:
Universal Pictures has a time travel thriller in the works called The Archive. David Auburn, who scripted The Lake House for Warner Brothers, will join forces with Walk the Line director James Mangold.

Lastly, I found this fascinating short documentary by Jay Cheel called Obsessed and Scientific. In it, the world-renowned theoretical physicist Michio Kaku offers a very accessible interpretation of time travel. We also meet Larry Habner, an entertainment lawyer who represents the family of John Titor, an alleged time traveler from the year 2036, and Rob Niosi, a man obsessed with recreating a full-scale replica of H.G. Well's time machine. It's a fantastic look at the bizarre crossroads between real scientific theory and science fiction. (run time: 25 min.)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Many Thanks

A huge thanks to everyone who came out to the book signing yesterday. The staff at Barnes & Noble, especially Georgette, were all amazing and gracious. Not only did they donate all proceeds from the sale of Love, Texas Style to the North Texas Romance Writers of America's scholarship fund, but added giveaways and prizes for our readers to make the day a huge success. Thank you!
As promised, I took my camera and captured this moment in front of the impressive culinary hardback display. Shanni, a dear friend and avid reader, has the distinction of being one of my first beta readers on several projects. She provides an amazing perspective, much valued, and once uttered my name in the same breath as Dean Koontz's. A true girl-squeal moment.

Three anthology authors who've never had a mug up here on The Vortex. (from left: Arline Todd, Jen Fitzgerald and Beth Shriver)

Tomorrow: Two time travel Hollywood movie deals in the past week AND one must-see student documentary.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Black Hole of Productivity and Booksigning

How is it possible that Wednesday's word count exceeded 2100, a monumental record for me, and Thursday's production amounted to two lines:

1) Uli drummed the heels of her Parisian-inspired, kid-leather boots against the passenger car’s wood floor.
A pair of spectacled eyes peered at her above a copy of The Albany Evening Times.

Not even particularly riveting lines, but follow me here. I have to justify two hours. Said boots are important in that they convey character and are symbolic of character's goals. Did I also need to know they could have been two-toned or embellished with lace rosettes or that King Louis compensated for his five-foot-nothing frame by inspiring future centuries of women to jack their footwear to unnatural heights?

What about the second line? How was I to know that researching the most likely overland rail route the booted character took would have led me to the name of the most likely newspaper picked up en route in 1881 and the headline of September 20th? Accuracy, people. Potentially the most insensitive headline I've ever read: President Garfield Finally Dies in Washington From an Assassin's Bullet. Did they really need finally? The poor man most likely would have lived had doctors not plundered for the bullet with their dirty fingers. Ooooh, and look-see what another twenty minutes of digging treated me to. A genuine train schedule said booted passenger would have held. Squee!! Can you hear my word count grinding to a halt from where you are?

It is possible research for this novel is the black hole of my page count. Who needs time travel when you have time-suck?

On a far less self-deprecating note, I hope if you're anywhere near the brand-spanking new Barnes and Noble in Hurst, Texas on Saturday, you'll stop by and say hello. It's all new carpet and fresh print smell, a heady combination. I'll be signing Love, Texas Style, along with my fellow anthology authors, from 2-4pm. I'll bring my camera this time and post your support to the blog.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dr. Emmitt L. Brown Would Be Proud

Hello, friend. You'll get something in your Cheerios bowl from me, just for creativity. And, for knowing how to correctly spell capacitor. And, because I'm a softie. Oh, and my great aunt from 1977 Chicago wants her shirt back.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Costume of the Mind

"Mouth to ear is much more fantasy than eye to eye. A costume of the mind."
~ Nancy Weber, novelist

While researching antique phones of the late nineteenth century for my current novel, The Night Caller, I became fascinated with the subtle points of the medium--the social lines between the dusty facts about Blake transmitters and Leclanche wet batteries.

In New York City, c. 1882, a subscriber would lease a telephone for $150 per year. Western Electric, then the predominant provider, would make a judgment call as to the worthiness of the customer. "Telephones are only rented out to persons of good breeding and refinement," a newspaper advertisement once read. Offering the commodity at such an astronomical price not only spoke to supply and demand, but ensured a device few could understand and many believed the work of the devil would remain respectable.

The invention of the telephone also had a substantial impact on societal interaction. The tea cup bell's jingle, or absence, became a third party to the conversation, filled with uncertainties. Although the phone's initial purpose fell strictly to business and matters of vial importance, its ability to tether people to the age-old questions of the lovesick--Will it ring? Won't it? Why doesn't it?--quickly became apparent. Few can deny the inherent compulsiveness of a ringing phone.

Stripped of body language cues and other non-audio charms, courting men and women entered a mysterious realm of heightened awareness. Emotions came in degrees of vocal tones, often through a filter of telegraph clicks, scraps of other's conversations and croaking frogs. Fantasies took root while listeners diverted the energy normally given to interpreting subtle facial cues into creative images of dress or absent preoccupations of the free hand or body. The perfect blend of intimacy and invisibility.

The freedom to be in touch more often, at a greater and safer distance, also required a measure of trust. Trust that the intended listener wouldn't find other diversions, a wandering gaze completely outside the conversation or a boredom so strong she'd put the receiver down and walk away for awhile, any number of social misfires oblivious to the caller.

I embraced the challenge of a love story told, in part, through this medium. Similar to the way antiquated love letters let the imagination run rampant, subtracting all but one element to growing intimacy heightens that element exponentially. Toss in fear from the 1880s perspective and the disconnectedness from the present day and it makes for a memorable dance.

A fantastic, fun resource to learn more about the evolution of society as it relates to the telephone is Once Upon A Telephone: An Illustrated Social History by Ellen Stern and Emily Givathmey.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wow, what a great first line discussion. Feel free to continue to add your favorites or comment on the ones already there. Congratulations to Kim Lenox for commenting and receiving a $5 Amazon gift certificate. Be sure to visit her website to learn more about her Shadow Guard series and the October release of Night Falls Darkly. I'll be tapping into her connection with the cover art gods after this one.

Today, I'm scattered. Too many things simmering for any one thought to take hold. So, here's where I am now:

I taped the business card my tarot reader gave me at the Psychic Fair to my monitor. She told me to get my ducks in a row this summer--September would be crazy exciting. Since it's been there, it's taken on an energy of it's own. My mind isn't fully convinced of The Secret's power or the effectiveness of vision boards, but my productivity has spiked this week. Symbolic of my "ducks," it's become a magnet for other must-visualize aspects of my writing. Maybe it's only cognitive reenforcement and the universe has better things to do than to zero in on the card's hypnotizing symbol.

Some of you know how fascinated I am by handwriting analysis. TUL pens have created a general way to analyze your own complete with a sarcastic scientist to pass judgment. Startlingly accurate, some of it. Try it out if you have a few minutes.

Since we're deep into summer re-runs, podcasts aren't as painful an entertainment choice. Thanks to Margie Lawson's suggestion, I've discovered Writing Excuses, a joint venture of Brandon Sanderson, Fantasy novelist, Howard Tayler, Cartoonist, and Dan Wells, Horror Novelist. So far, episode 3: Killing Your Darlings, is a favorite.

Lastly, a blog friend of mine, Todd Wheeler, is offering up a summer reading challenge that completely overshadows my little slice of participation this week. For each book you read he'll donate $1 to a library. Help him reach his goal of $100 this summer.

I leave you with one of my favorite photos from the book Libraries by German photographer Candida Hofer. This book is like porn for nerds. HANDELINGENKAMER TWEEDE KAMER DER STATEN-GENERAAL DEN HAAG

Sunday, June 8, 2008

First Line Comb-Overs and an Amazon Gift Card!

I'm working my way through Donald Maas's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Different in many ways from his non-fiction book; similar in his straight-shooting style. Chapter 25 is all about first and last lines in novels. Weather and description rarely sing. Scene setting isn't always strong. Mood can be disastrous. Action doesn't immediately engage the reader unless there's something puzzling about it. According to Maas, great first lines have the "intrigue factor."

What's the intrigue factor? A mystery. Something that makes us inwardly shout, "What the hell did that mean?":
124 was spiteful. —Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

or awakens our subconscious into charging ahead to find out what the second sentence will bring. Our eyes race forward to see if any answers lie in those words. If not, what about the third line? At this point, the reader is hooked.

Great first lines lead readers into the world of the novel:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
—James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

They may raise a unwritten question begging to be answered:

In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
—David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)

or present vivid physical situations in an arresting way:

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

The best lines often ignite a character's point of view as J.D. Salinger did in Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
—J. D. Salinger,
The Catcher in the Rye

Maas's exercise for writers is to find the intrigue factor in their opening line. What question does it pose? What puzzle does it present? If writers are unable to answer these questions, first try tightening it. Make it shorter. If that doesn't work, Maas advises, "audition your second line for the lead spot. Or combine elements from your first paragraph into one short, super-charged sentence." The exercise does not end until the writer has created a different first line.

American Book Review has compiled a list of the 100 Best First Lines From Novels. Read through them to find inspiration, then audition your own. If you're a reader, pick up the one your bookmark is parked in. Ask yourself, "Do I want to hear the next line?" Ask us. Post it here.

I'll start:
Even his own breath reeked of psychosis.

Analysis: short, back loaded with "psychosis"--the hero's internal conflict. "Even" is a nasty bugger--almost NEVER useful in literature, but it does speak to how overwhelmed he is. Can't get much deeper point of view than smelling your own breath. But does it match up to The Donald? (Maas, not Trump) Let's see. Does it pose a question? No. Raise a puzzle? Not really. Similar to this one (as it starts with mood or mental state--a Donald no-no):
He plunked two ice cubes into the glass and submerged them with Johnny Walker Black.
-Howard Swindle, Jitter Joint
However, Mass goes on to explain this lines gets an acceptable reading because the protagonist is an alcoholic and the plot concerns a murder in a rehab clinic. Vital information straight out of the gate.

So here's the second line, auditioned:
Stale from exhaustion and hours-old Jamaican Blue Mountain coating his teeth, Evan Braun’s urgent, but intimate exchange with the oak door spiked an inferno against the sweat sheen above his lips.
This second sentence has been a bitch. Some are lost in the denseness. Some think he's humping the door, which is clarified in the third sentence:

The peephole’s convex glass bubbled the front lawn into a telescopic blend of muted autumn colors.

But does it all raise a puzzle? Maybe. What does he see through the peephole that is making him sweat? Are these three lines enough to hook a reader? Jury's still out.

Your turn. Post the first line of your work-in-progress or the opening sentence of a book you're reading. Open it up to the same scrutiny a reader will bring to the page. Audition your second or third lines. Give each other feedback. Have fun. How often to we get to play "The Donald"?

Everyone who offers up first lines for analysis or gives feedback will be entered into a drawing for a $5 Amazon gift certificate. The more you post, the more chances you have to win. Let's break my statcounter record and help each other.

Kumbaya, people.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

An Invitation

Granted, this one presents with more theatrics than Mullet Man from Craig's List. And no, this is NOT my September opportunity from the tarot deck. I SO wish could take a road trip to California to find out what specimens show up for this one. Here's the meeting spot. I can only imagine the interviews conducted under this "main sign."

"Good, we'll all need them."
"Rorschach test?"
"Yeah, I see Einstein's hair, too. You're in."
Dear Writer:

Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor."

It wasn't too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

She told me it wouldn't.

John Steinbeck, 1963

One year after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature

Monday, June 2, 2008

Time Travel Aboard the Mothership

Ten things I learned at yesterday's psychic fair:

1)Beware the Sandra Dee woman. She may look like the room mother for your kids, but the orb-eyed creature on her name badge should have been your first clue. She'll expound on her Earthly extraterrestrial mission and send you on your way with an I-Dream-of-Jeannie facial squeeze and a knowing stare.

2)Even the bathrooms have a mystical aura: a potent combination of flowing incense garb, residual heat from the aura photographer's bulb and the wrong end of the fru juice made from brown seaweed.

3)Scarborough Festival shirts are to psychic fairs what Skynard shirts are to monster truck pulls.

4)The only ring of Solomon I see at the base of my index finger is the inner goo of a Pop Tart from breakfast and it has nothing to do with wisdom.

5)The whites of your tarot card reader's eyes do not indicate a seizure. Her fifteen bracelets on each wrist might be interfering with a nearby electromagnetic field.

6)Even having psychic or higher-awareness skills does not redeem a man from being innocuous to details. It's nature. Just saying.

7)The compulsions I feel in this lifetime toward all things Reese's, purple and Oliver Hudson could be past-life shrapnel that didn't fully filter through the veil when I entered this life. This no doubt means I was a 1800s peanut farmer's wife, royalty, or a bartender with an astonishingly witty vernacular.

8)Something as disturbing as a short lifeline or impending health strife on the palm is still amusing in the presence of cherished friends.

9)Don't judge a psychic by a last name, but don't give him your ten bucks either. I'm sure Mr. Crooke would gift you with life's greatest secrets, but it wouldn't go down nearly as satisfying as the sangria at Pappasito's afterward.

10)The X-files Hallmark card belted out the perfect ending credits for the day. I want to believe. That the September thing will come true. That Sandra Dee will never teleport me back to her mothership.