Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy New Year!

While getting ready to make those resolutions, I stumbled upon my favorite list. Each year J.A. Konrath, author of the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thrillers and blogger of the no-nonsense A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, adds to a list he started in 2006. As soon as you read it, you'll jump off the internet and get back to writing the book or story you put down before the holidays. I'm not the only one, right?

I've been reading like mad, at least keeping up with part of my job. Several books on London showed up under the tree because, alas, a research trip in 2009 is out of the question. London: A Biography by the masterful Peter Ackroyd is chockful of details, 772 pages worth to be exact, 12 of which are an essay on sources! A shorter read is Walking Haunted London by Richard Jones. London has more ghosts than any other city and reading about them fuels my imagination.

So I'll procrastinate no longer. As J.A. Konrath says, "Now quit reading blogs and get some writing done."

Happy New Year all!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ghost Writer

As someone who can't stop writing about ghosts, it was inevitable that I would eventually be visited by one of my own.

While writing my new manuscript a few nights ago, I frantically typed, trying to get my ideas on the page before I forgot them. I'd written a few pages when all of a sudden my cursor started dancing across the screen. I'd try to anchor the dang thing, but no go. Then letters appeared. But not letters I'd typed.

I debated telling my son, who was doing homework at his desk behind me. Nah, he'll just laugh and question my sanity. Again.

That's it, I thought. I've finally raised my own ghost. My skin tingled, a breeze blew by my neck, and I looked around for loose change. Then, a crash sounded behind me.

It was my son. He'd tossed his mouse on his desk in frustration because it wasn't working. "Look, nothing happens," he said, rolling his mouse on his desk. I turned around and saw a cursor looping across my screen. His mouse was controlling my computer. We called tech support (husband) for advice, and he'd never seen this problem before. Leave it to Joan, I'm sure he was thinking. But then he figured it out. He tossed aside my Bluetooth mouse and wired up the old one. The words I typed were my own.

I was kind of let down that it wasn't an apparition after all. I'd already made plans to bring her to critique with me on Thursday night. Ghost writer, indeed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

WIth Advice Like This

Since my mini-retreat at the library, I've been reading a few more how-to books. A few I will buy and keep within reach. Some were published over twenty years ago. Most of the advice holds true. I take general notes, hoping someday I'll find the time to reread them. But I also jot down ideas for my WIP characters or plot. Yesterday I finally put it all together and wrote about 3,000 words. A good day for me.

I'm still waiting to hear from a few agents reading full or partial manuscripts of The Bodley Boys and Center Court Seats and a Pair of Jimmy Choos. Pamela and I received excellent comments from Moonrat on CCS after Pamela won us a partial review and we're working on tweaking the manuscript. Moonrat said she believed someone would snap it up!

It's been over a month, so I'm not sure if I should query the next few agents on my Bodley wish-list. I thought I'd read up on the etiquette.

One particular book was published about ten years ago. Not so old. The book focused mostly on proposals and finding an agent. So far, so good. I started feeling squirmy after seeing the word entitled. As in "the book was entitled." In the U.K., acceptable. In the U.S., not so much. But hey, it could be a style thing, right?

Then halfway through I realized the advice was a little off. No, a lot off! If I followed it, I wouldn't receive the amazing rejection I received last week (so close!) or even kind "I'm passing on it" rejections, I'd be starring in all those agent blogs titled "How to Piss Off an Agent." I'm clearly exaggerating for dramatic effect, right? (The all-cap SNL references are mine.) You tell me:

1. Query one agent at a time. Offer them a six-week exclusive. REALLY!?

2. If you haven't heard from that agent, call after three weeks. OMG, YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!

3. If you receive a confusing rejection, call the agency and ask to speak to the agent for clarification. NOW YOU'RE JUST TALKING NONSENSE!

I don't know about you, but I'm going to pass on it. Any agents reading my blog want to comment on that advice?!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Buy the Book

I read this article in Publisher's Weekly (further link to Editorial Ass a.k.a. Moonrat). She suggests, "Buy a book this weekend. Just buy one."

Most everyone's heard about how the economic crisis has affected the publishing industry. Many people will be reining in their spending habits and chopping gift budgets. But if you're buying gifts, why not make it a book? I typically buy the little kids books anyway. I love to share some of the titles my son asked for over and over (A Fly Went By, The Fraggle books, Go Dog Go, The BFG and one with the line, "Cheese it, the cops!"). If anyone remembers it, let me know!

Normally, unless it's an author I love to read, or a writing buddy, I check out books from the library. Or frequent Half-Price Books. Or Amazon used. I know, I shouldn't admit it. But if I bought all the books I read, I'd be serving paperbacks for dinner. (When you do go to the library, save a clerk's job and avoid the self-checkout kiosks!)

However, this year, everyone on my gift list is receiving books. I love B&N and Borders, but consider giving some of your business to an independent. Legacy Books has just opened in Plano. It's a huge store with a comfortable environment and knowledgeable booksellers. Hopefully everyone knows about Powell's Books in Portland, the largest independent in the country.

And if we all encourage our friends and colleagues to do the same, maybe we can make a difference. Push a publishing house into acquiring a new author's book. It might just be yours. Or mine.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How A Lizard Sent a City Girl on a Writers’ Retreat

A 3-inch green lizard skulked in the corner of my bathroom this morning. It scared the pants off me (a horrible cliché that I promise will make sense later). My husband wouldn't turn around on the tollway and head back home, so I closed the door and shoved a towel in the gap, so he could catch the little guy later and take him to a nice place in the woods a few blocks away. I threw on some clothes, stuffed my files in my bag, and ran out the door. I was so scared, I forgot to brush my teeth and chomped on gum and mints all day long like a teenager.

If anyone in Plano doesn’t know, Haggard Library has a terrific writers’ reference section. I curled up in a chair and for 6 hours soaked in the wisdom of Elizabeth George (Write Away), Noah Lukeman (The Plot Thickens) and Orson Scott Card (Characters and Viewpoint). I had my own little spontaneous writers’ retreat. Now I’m rejuvenated and ready to apply what I’ve learned to make my WIP characters multi-dimensional and unforgettable.

I called Pamela and she asked, “You won’t pick up a lizard?”

I should have called one of my east-coast city-girl friends who could appreciate my plight.

On the way home, I called my husband and asked if he’d caught my lizard. He said, “You scared the tail off him.”

“Oh, ha ha, you’re so funny,” I said.

“No really. When lizards get scared they drop their tail. I found a lizard running around the bathroom—without a tail. His tail was on the other side of the room.”

Oops. “Poor little guy.”

“It’ll grow back,” my husband assured me.

Whew. As long as it grows back on someone else’s bathroom floor.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Where's The Plot?

I’ve started a new project. Before I started writing, I thought I’d do some research first. Read for inspiration. Read for advice. Read agent interviews.

I picked up Susan Page’s, Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book, recommended by one of the agents. I don’t read every how-to book that comes along (this one was published in 1997!) but I started to wonder if in fact there was some big step I’d completely overlooked. Maybe I hadn’t put the right secret code word in my query letters.

I usually read non-fiction in the order it’s presented. The author had a reason for the order, certainly. But this time I glanced through the table of contents and Part II: Taming the Monsters, jumped out at me. Monster #2 is procrastination. Until now, I’ve never had a problem with this particular monster. But since finishing my last manuscript, I hadn’t been able to pin down my next project. I couldn’t focus. I began to wonder if I had some form of ADD. I couldn’t even focus on what to read. I’ve been in the middle of six books for a few weeks now and each day I pick up a different one depending on my mood.

I’ve been researching, writing snippets of ideas and scenes, but without a clear mission. Finally I wrote the first 20 pages. I even asked Pamela to read it. “Lots at stake,” she said. “But where’s the plot?” I knew she was right. If only I could read a little more, research a little more, it would come to me. I’m procrastinating, no?

No! I’ve got acedia. (Not a disease!) On page 218 of Page’s book, she notes that a friend told her about acedia. “Acedia, my friend explained, is the slow and arduous forward motion required to start a new project or to return to work after a break.” She goes on to explain that it’s a way to allow the creative juices to flow, to prepare for the next writing journey. Procrastination is putting off something you don’t want to do. Acedia is the process of getting ready to start a creative project that you want to do. Wow! Yes! I love to write! There’s nothing I want more. (Aside from a call from the perfect agent, the one who knows one of my books will sell immediately!)

As soon as I accepted this explanation for my lack of direction, I began to focus. I brainstormed. What would happen if… I jotted notes about my characters. What does he want? What’s in his way? Next thing I knew, a plot was forming. Now I’m so excited about it, I can’t wait to write. And I actually know what I’m going to write.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Positive Rejection

Last week I started writing a piece about rejection. I’d received a few query rejections. Two agents had passed on my full manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, I was crushed. But an agent I met at a conference sent one of the nicest letters to date, a hand-written note praising my writing. Letters like hers encourage me, make me determined to do whatever it takes to write the best novel I can and get it published.

No one loves rejection, but when I get an email back from an agent query or hear the slow tires of the mail truck, my pulse quickens. I don’t always run outside right away--mostly because I’m usually still in my pajamas! Sometime in the afternoon, I head to the mailbox. Finding a returned SASE is thrilling. It means I’m putting my work out there. Others are reading my work, even if they’re not convinced it’s “right for this agency.” Once, an agent requested the full via my SASE! “Love to see it,” she wrote. I might never receive another request in the mail. But, then again, I just might.

Fast forward. This week, I received two requests for full manuscripts. Better still: they were for two different books.

I’ve revised The Bodley Boys after receiving valuable feedback from critique partners and a few other trusted readers. I still love it. Maybe this will be the agent to champion it. And, if I’m lucky, an editor will, too.

Pamela and I started querying on our Center Court Seats and a Pair of Jimmy Choos and within two days we had a request. We knew when we read our chapters aloud to a critique group full of non-women’s fiction readers and they all laughed, we had something good. This might not be the one. But even if it isn’t, we know we’re getting close!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Book Recommendations

Lately I've been reading historical fiction. Something about the early 20th century has enthralled me and it seems every book I read and every movie I check out from Netflix is from that period in history.

There are two books I've read recently that I immediately reread. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield and The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton. Diane Setterfield's tale is a cross between Rebecca and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, about an antiquarian bookseller's daughter and biographer who is asked by a reclusive, terminally-ill author to write the author's true life story--something she's lied about until now. If you like eery, family saga/tragedy, this is for you.

The House at Riverton is a cross between Elizabeth Jane Howard's, The Light Years, and Susan Minot's Evening. A convoluted family history, including two sisters, Hannah and Emmaline (curiously, The Thirteenth Tale also has a character named Emmaline), torn by their love of the same man, told from the perspective of Hannah's ladies maid. This book is so well-crafted that when I read it the second time, I gasped at how brilliantly she weaved the story.

Anyone else have any must-reads?

Friday, August 22, 2008

What's Next You Say

Three down: One under the bed, one in query-mode, one in final revisions. I'm pleased with my work. But what's next?

Lately I've been kind of antsy. And until a few days ago, I hadn't been able to figure out why. I haven't been writing anything new. I have a couple of ideas roaming around in my head plus a few things I started writing and put aside. But nothing has jumped out at me as the one. I've been considering a novel set in Highgate Hill Cemetery in Hampstead Heath outside of London. George Eliot's buried there. And so is Karl Marx. They ought to make for an interesting set of ghosts, right? However, if I attempt another novel in a cemetery my family and friends might start wondering about me. Then again, I think they already do.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


This weekend, a kind relative mentioned that I've been delinquent in my blogging. He's right. But I have a good reason; I've been fiendishly writing novels.

It's not quite time to pop THE bottle of champagne, but last night I celebrated two triumphs. The Bodley Boys is currently being read by an editor and three agents. YEA! And Pamela and I are one chapter away from finishing Center Court Seats and a Pair of Jimmy Choos. Okay, maybe I started celebrating early, but I finished MY last chapter! (no pressure, Pamela!) As soon as I emailed it to her, I called. I was shaking with excitement. It's good. It's really good, I screamed in her ear. (too confident, you say?!) This week, we're going to query an agent who was referred to us by a bestselling author!

What's next? It's time to start planning my fourth novel. Yes, fourth! Maybe someday soon I'll get paid for one of them! But hey, let's not let one minor detail hamper the celebration.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Hard Part

When I first started writing seriously, I thought completing a book would be the most difficult part of the business. Sitting down every day, writing 1,500 words, not watching a movie on my laptop, not taking daily naps... Turns out, I’m a self-motivated writer. As Kingsley Amis wrote: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” I do this really well. Sometimes my family has to pry me away from my laptop or at least tempt me with chocolate or a movie (or both!) to see my face instead of the back of my head.

I completed my second manuscript, The Bodley Boys, in less than a year after deciding to write full time (thanks to my fantastic critique partners!) and my third manuscript, a collaboration with Pamela Hammonds, is past the half-way mark. (Did I mention Center Court Seats and a Pair of Jimmy Choos is really funny?)

Now comes the hard part. Sending my baby out. I’m fortunate to have met an editor at a recent conference who is interested in reading the manuscript. And wouldn’t it be incredible if she’d fall in love with it, snatch it up and offer me the name of a few agents she believes would also love my work? But, realistically, I need to query agents as well.

First I’ll approach the handful of agents who liked my query enough to request the full of The Cemetery Garden. Even though they all passed, they saw something in my writing they liked and hopefully they’ll recognize my name on a new query.

My friends and family have been so encouraging, it would be really nice to answer the question, “Have you sold a book yet?” with “Yeah, that was the easy part.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Debut Novel

Hello all,

Fellow writer and Writers' Guild of Texas member, Maria Zannini, debuts her futuristic fantasty, Touch of Fire today. Let's all go online to get the e-book (tell your friends!) and pick it up in stores in December just in time for the holidays!

The cover is smoldering, check out the link:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Star Author

This post is way over due. The good news is that I've been diligently writing and will make my (new) deadline for finishing The Bodley Boys by May 1. And, my writing partner, Pamela, and I are progressing in our fun novel, Center Court Seats and a Pair of Jimmy Choos. We're cracking each other up and hope others will laugh too!

I'd like to share a story about my encounter with a star. About a month ago, while I browsed at the Barnes & Noble at NorthPark, an author autographed books at the center aisle. Interesting. I leaned over to see the name. Only the author of one of my favorite books, The Passion of Artemesia. I couldn't have been more excited if Emma Thompson or Meryl Streep had showed up. (George Clooney or Johnny Depp, another matter entirely).

After looking around to see if someone was playing a joke on me, I asked, "You're Susan Vreeland?" I blabbed something about how I loved her writing and she thanked me. We talked about her other books and she pointed me to a copy of The Forest Lover she'd just signed. Of course, I bought it. I wished her other three novels sitting at home on my bookshelf would miraculously appear in my hands for autographing.

On the way home, I called Pamela and screamed in her ear. Most people would have humored me and let me rant. But Pamela understood! I'd met a star author!

I wrote Ms. Vreeland a note a few weeks later, to tell her how much I enjoyed meeting her. She wrote back and wished me well with my own writing!

One day, if I get the chance to sign books at Barnes & Noble, I'll be kind and approachable too. I swear I will, just give me the chance!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Painful History: Part II

A while back I blogged about how painful research is for me. But recently I stumbled onto a few novels (and an autobiography in diary form) based in Oxford and the Bodleian, and scouring them for relevant details will be far from painful. At first, after finding Hazel Holt's The Cruellest Month, I hesitated reading it, not wanting to be influenced by a previously published work. But knowing I would be learning much about the library and the time period in which the novel takes place, I dove in.

As it turns out, a character in Hazel Holt's novel dies in the Bodleian in a very similar way that one of my characters does. (After all, how many ways can a person die in the midst of stuffed bookstacks?) But it wasn't the method of death I gleaned from the book, it was the details of the underground passages, lifts, stairwells and rooms as the characters maneuvered through the library.

Another book I picked up this week is A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, by Barbara Pym (edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym). The first part of the book takes place during Ms. Pym's time in Oxford (1932-1939). There are many scenes of her reading in the Bodleian and eyeing her longtime crush, Henry Harvey. I'm learning about the clothing they wore, punting on the Cherwell and sherry parties. There is even a quote which echoes a scene in my novel: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if you could give all your love letters to the Bodleian and then go and read them 30 years later!" Serendipity!

Reading through the diary over the weekend, my heart raced as I stumbled onto this entry, (which most fantasy writers--heck, most writers--will get a kick out of):

"10 October, 1933. An amusing lecture in the morning - Professor Tolkien on Beowulf." When I stayed at Exeter College, I was thrilled to learn that Tolkien's rooms were in the building next to mine. But reading Ms. Pym's words brought him back to life.

She also refers to the Bodleian as The Bodleiana. I've not heard this reference, but this might be the title I've been looking for.

I am anxiously waiting for the UPS truck to deliver the other Oxford-based novels I've ordered from Barnes & Noble:
Operation Pax, Michael Innes--The end scene takes place in the Bodleian stacks.
Jill, Philip Larkin
Death at the President's Lodging, J.I.M. Stewart

Lucky me! Pain has never been more fun.

Note to the editors: I've left the double "l" in Cruellest and marvellous to accurately depict the correct title of the book and the English spelling.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Big Top

My perfect day: Write, read, spend time with my family, sleep. Oh, and if I can break away from the computer long enough, exercise. Mine is a job with many perks and, aside from the teeny-tiny detail of not getting paid for my work, it’s a dream career.

My actual day: Catch up on email, write, research, email, read, blog, shuffle paperwork, eat, email, exercise, carpool, read, cook (I use this term loosely!), avoid the laundry, check the mailbox, stare at the phone waiting for an agent to call (not really), hang out with my family, write, read, email; a real circus.

Like many writers, I love to read. It’s part of my job requirement; part of continuing to learn. I study books on the craft of writing and the how-to of getting published or agent-ed. But mostly, I read fiction—literary, women’s, sometimes mystery. I’m supposed to read in every genre to broaden my skill set, but time is so limited, I tend to read what I enjoy. I make exceptions for audio, because this is how I tackle those books either too cumbersome or dry to read the traditional way—primarily classics I never read in high school or college, and most British fiction (or any U.K. fiction for that matter), not because it’s cumbersome, but because I adore listening to the stories in the accents in which they are written.

I don’t know how to classify the last book I listened to: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. Is it literary fiction? Possibly. Mainstream fiction? (In my opinion, a catch-all genre). Whatever it is, the book was published in 2006 but just hit my radar screen when one of my critique partners lent me the CDs. As I got deeper into the novel, I couldn’t wait to jump in the car to keep listening. Tollway, yes!

I’m not a skilled book reviewer, (the reviews on Amazon are fantastic and outline why it’s an amazing story), but in my opinion, from a writer’s perspective, the novel is brilliant. Every word, every scene, every character has a purpose. It has one of the most satisfying, perfectly crafted endings I’ve read and I never saw it coming. After I finished, my only comment was, “Of course.”

I will now buy the book to study each page. Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) was shouting in my ear as I read, “Keep throwing your characters in bad situations.” Over and over he said, “You might think it can’t get any worse than this. But it can.”

In Water for Elephants, the characters were all faced with tremendous conflict, and we cared about them, from page 1. Extenuating circumstances always stood in Jacob’s way when he was about to get the one thing he wanted so much. He couldn’t go for it, because someone close to him would be hurt. Over and over, he was pushed into terrible situations. He couldn’t act on understandable revenge, until a very cruel thing, masterfully set up earlier in the book, happened. And then, revenge was taken care of for him in a most unlikely, yet completely satisfying, way. Not since reading the Poisonwood Bible have I felt this strongly about the way a novel was written and crafted. A slight warning: it was gritty and crude and sometimes portrayed animals in heartbreaking situations, but it all had to be there. Tension on every page (hell, in every paragraph). And not a contrived word in the book. Impressive.

This novel was over the top in a good way—over the Big Top.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I spent the weekend at the DFWWW Writers' Conference and am now sufficiently motivated to finish The Bodley Boys. Once one hears Candace Havens speak, one cannot possibly say "I do not have enough time to write." Finish and revise by March 31st. Those are my goals and by committing to them here, I'm hoping my friends and critique partners will hold me accountable.

On another note, a member of the Writers' Guild of Texas has asked me to pass this on. As writers, we need to support each other. I saw the blurb on his book and it looks fascinating. I will buy it.

Hi all,
I was asked to post on this site a way you can help. I have selfpublished a novel through iUniverse called The Samson Effect. It haswon their Editor's Choice, Publisher's Choice, and their Reader'sChoice honors. I was also able to get Clive Cussler (New York bestselling author with over 100 million books in print) to read mymanuscript and provide a cover quote for it. I am also working with amajor Hollywood film producer to turn the book into a movie.Here is where I need your help. The national booksellers at Barnes andNoble have decided to place The Samson Effect in their high profilestore at US 75 and Northwest Hwy this Tuesday for a test run of 2months. The book will be displayed on their New Paperback table at thefront of the store. If the book does well there, they will considerlaunching it nationwide.You don't know how much I would appreciate it of you could pick up acopy there. Also, please pass the word to your friends and family wholove to read. You can bring books to our meeting for me to sign foryourself or friends who purchase them. This can make a unique gift foremployees, friends, or family.Okay, thanks for indulging my pitch. I just really need your help totake advantage of this rare and short lived opportunity. The book willbe available Next Tuesday, Feb. 26th. If you get there and the book isnot on display, that's a good thing. It means it's sold out. Just askBN to order you a copy. The more request like that, the more likelythey will order larger stock.Here is the info about the store and the book:Barnes & NobleLincoln Park7700 West Northwest Hwy. Ste. 300Dallas, TX 75225214-739-1124The Samson EffectTony EldridgeISBN: 9780595451722Thanks in advance for any support you can give me.Tony Eldridge

Monday, February 18, 2008

To Blog or Not to Blog

Lately I've been feeling as though blogging is chipping away at my novel writing time. I like to share my thoughts on writing and appreciate the 13 listeners (it's a DC radio joke) who visit often, but I've got to finish my WIP.

Today I read Maria Zannini's blog linking to Josephine Damian's blog. JD went to one of Donald Maass' workshops on his Writing the Breakout Novel (one of the best how-to books/workbooks I've read). Donald Maass strongly believes (read Part 1 & 2 on Maria's link to see how strongly!) that it's what's in the novel that matters, not what's in your blog (or if you blog).

Reading and writing blogs is time consuming. Useful information all, but precious minutes must be scheduled in the writing-time budget. Otherwise, the novel writing will not get done. And since my goals are to 1. Write a damn good novel 2. Get it published, I will be blogging less and writing more.

I appreciate your interest in my blog and hope you will check back from time to time. I will post noteworthy writing topics and updates on my own journey.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Call - False Alarm

Last night around 6pm my phone rang. I don't usually pick up the phone, especially if I don't recognize the number. It's always a salesperson or charitable organization. If someone really needs to talk to me, he or she will leave a message. However, this time it was the 212 area code (what writer waiting for an agent call doesn't know that one?!) My heart pounded. Could it be?

"Hello," I said.
"Is this Joan Mora?" a distinctly New York-accented voice asked.
"Yes, this is she." (Note the proper grammar.)

Oh my God. It's the one. It's the agent currently reading my full manuscript. SHE WANTS ME, SHE REALLY WANTS ME! (Who doesn't love Sally Field?)

In the space of a second, my life had changed. This was it. I was going to hang up with her and call my husband, my critique partners, my close friends...

"I'm calling about your New York Magazine subscription. It's arriving promptly and you're happy with the service?"

Huh? After I stopped dancing, I told her, yes, the magazine is fine. In fact, better than fine. See, a few weeks ago I went online to cancel the subscription. I couldn't read the magazine anymore because the perfume inserts were so strong, I had to open windows to air the house. Whenever it arrived in the mailbox, I'd toss it right into the trash. But the website offered a box to check: Send me perfume-free copies. Seriously! I checked it and from then on, the issues have been scentless.

This phone call reminded me of an incident which occurred twenty years ago. When trying to buy a Honda, I asked the car salesman to call me if he got in an Accord with the features I was looking for. His response: "If the phone doesn't ring, it'll be me."

And there you have it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Nightmare or Dream?

A writer's process of identifying and querying agents can be a nightmare. Once you start the search, you might find yourself in a loop of night terrors. Here's a handy reference guide to help you interpret some of the most common reoccuring nightmares:

Stuck in quicksand—You’ve spent six hours researching agents online or in Jeff Herman’s book and now have a list of thirty to narrow down.

Naked in public—You’ve mailed a query and the first chapter to the perfect agent and she thinks the writing’s so bad she’s passing it around the office or using it as an example in a "don't do this" workshop.

Pushed off a cliff—You’ve scheduled a face-to-face agent pitch at a conference and she’s asked for your manuscript but you can tell by her expression it’s only because she wants you to leave.

Bad guy is attacking you—You’ve opened a really mean rejection letter.

Driving up a steep mountain and falling backward (car and all)—An agent requested the full, you waited two months for the phone to ring and then received a rejection. If your car landed top up and you live, the agent complimented your writing.

Negative? Who, moi? Not really. I’m just trying to keep my sense of humor. I’ve received nothing but kind treatment from the agents to whom I’ve pitched or queried. And I know, one of these days the phone will ring.

What's your nightmare?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Thoughts on Gestures

Writers: How often do your conversations between characters include gestures? In order to avoid “talking heads” as one of my critique partners likes to call it, you must offer a visual of characters’ movements.

I’ve been so consumed with mastering this writing technique, I’ve found myself play-acting while reading other books. If a character tilts her head or rolls her eyes, I mimic these gestures (in my head if I’m not alone!). Try darting your eyes back and forth; it’s a sure path to a headache.

In addition, arms and legs have to be where they’re supposed to be. If your character is holding a baby in one arm and flipping pancakes with the other, she can’t scratch her head. Plus, she’d have to stop and wash her hands and that would require juggling the baby and the spatula.

Recently, I read an interesting piece of advice: Less emphasis on gestures, more on thoughts.

However, be very sparse with this technique, writing too many thoughts of your characters (or extended segments of thoughts) significantly slows the story. The more effective, and subtle, method would be to use a combination: He sat across from her, willing himself not to touch the toe of his shoe to hers. Okay, not brilliant, but you get the point.

In my WIP, I switch POV between the main characters by using “scene” breaks. Last night a critique partner pointed out this technique is confusing, especially since I don't change scenes, merely POV. I felt the reader should know each character’s thoughts, especially since men and woman often view situations differently. I believe it reads better this way, but because it’s a WIP—and I value this critique partner’s advice—I’ll consider changing it.

Better advice: Stop worrying so much about the “rules” and tell a good story. Sounds simple, right?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Title Me

I’m not talking about Sirs and Dames. I’m talking about book titles.

I often speculate about why an author (or publisher) titled a book a certain way. Some titles are obvious like Memoirs of a Geisha or The Time Traveler’s Wife, but others keep me stumped until halfway through a book, “Aha. That’s it.” Sometimes the reasoning is not clear until the last page. I always feel very clever when I figure it out. It's fun to come across a double (In Her Shoes or Disobedience) or even triple meaning (I know there must be some, but I can’t think of any right now!)
Some of my favorite titles (Great books, great titles—the meanings unclear until close to the end):

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Second Glance, by Jodi Picoult
The Ice Chorus, by Sarah Stonich

For weeks I’ve been searching for a new title for my WIP. The perfect few words that will sum up 75,000 and entice a reader to pick up my book (when it actually lands on a B&N or Borders table). In truth, it’s more important for the title to entice an agent at this point; I’m aware titles often change after reaching the publisher’s desk.

Since my WIP is set at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, I wanted a title to incorporate the setting, without sounding non-fiction-y. The Bodleian’s nickname is Bodders or The Bod. But the titles using Bod in the title sounded like, well, bodice rippers as one of my critique partners pointed out. Since I don’t write bodice rippers (my characters never take their clothes off--my mom will read the book!) that reference was out.

Thanks to my critique partners for the great suggestions. After much agonizing (too much probably), the winner: A Night at the Bodleian. (Thanks Pamela!)

Friday, February 1, 2008

Name That Character

Lately I’ve been obsessing about names. Usually I only worry about this when I’m trying to come up with an interesting name for a character. I search the baby-naming websites, scan articles in the newspaper, yes, even check the obituaries. But now, every time I hear an interesting name, I’m thinking about how I can use it in a book.
I started a file of names for future novels and my desk is littered with slips of paper. Sometimes I’ll read a book and wonder why an author chose a particular character’s name. I’m so caught up in the name I don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the book. This is especially true if it’s difficult to pronounce.

I hate it that Pushing Daisies has a character named Olive because it’s such a great name and now if I use it, I’ll feel as though I’m cheating. Once a name is used in literature, is it off limits? Not really. But will there ever be a stronger Emma than Jane Austen’s or a quirkier Owen than John Irving’s Meany? If your character has similar traits to another literary character, will you call her Scarlett or him Holden?

A character named Caitlin will have a different personality than a character named Martha, right? And she’ll likely be of a different generation altogether. One of my favorite names for a character (though I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember the book) is Minty. She was an agoraphobic loner who was pure and naïve. Makes sense, right?

So, if we're in the middle of a conversation and my mind starts to wander, it’s likely I’ll be thinking about how I can use your name for a character. And if you’ll be flattered or insulted!

What are your favorite character names?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Credentials in Your Query

The unwritten-rule book for finding an agent (and subsequently selling your manuscript) suggests you need credentials to be recognized, e.g. winning awards or being published in literary magazines. But finding the right magazine and/or contest is key.

When looking at a few of the well respected literary journals, I’ve noticed an interesting catch. Most of the journal’s short stories are written either by published authors or by graduates of fancy MFA programs. Hmmm.

Okay, you say, I’ll win a contest first. But when considering which contests to enter, think about this: Prize amount, entry fee, reputation of the judges. If you win an award for a contest no one’s ever heard of, did you really win?

Poets and Writers, Inc. lists contests by submission date. Over the past three months, I’ve entered nine contests and am about to send another for a February 1 deadline (yikes, I have only four days!) I look for contests specific to my genre (literary fiction a.k.a. the “no-genre” genre) and those having either semi-exciting dollar awards or judges by whom I’d like to get noticed. The negative results are in on four, one of which didn’t make it to the final judge: Joyce Carol Oates.

I don’t look at my not placing as failure. I’ve entered novel excerpts and short stories, a few culled from my first manuscript, and they’re being read. But if I’m really a novelist, am I wasting my time trying to be a short story writer. After all, I don’t normally seek out short stories to read. So, should I write them?

One of my critique partners recently pointed me to the Rejecter's blog about credentials. Here is the rejecter’s advice: “Don't stress over short stories if you're not a short story writer. Some people aren't. If you are, by nature, a novelist, then you might burn a lot of time and frustration trying to get some short story that you threw together for the query letter published. The magazines/journals we care about have very, very high standards and way too many submissions to publish everything they would even want to publish.”

Whew. Now I can get back to work on what I do best. But if by some chance I place in one of those contests, you can be sure I’ll mention it in my next query letter.

Friday, January 25, 2008

History Lesson

Confession time. I used to get Cs in history. I never saw the merit of remembering the names of war generals, types of foreign governments, or other equally fascinating details (see, I really didn’t pay attention). I don’t write historical fiction. So why am I spending more time researching than writing?
Each time I write a new scene in my Bodley Boys book (suggestions for a new title greatly appreciated!) I stumble on a topic involving research. If I’m describing Broad Street in the fall of 1935, I need to know details of building architecture, which cars were being driven, whether horse & buggies were still clomping through the cobblestone streets. (If this is one of those really obvious facts, please forgive me. I’m smart in other ways.) If the librarian is shuffling through the Bodleian in 1947, I need to know his real name, the clothes he wore, and the phrases he used.

Wait a minute; am I writing historical fiction? Granted, most of the book is set in current day Oxford. But once the tour group enters Duke Humfrey’s library on the second floor and touches the centuries’ old books hanging from original chains, the reader needs to be transported back in time. When an English professor lifts a book off of the shelf in the Upper Reading Room, I need to make sure that particular book is not located in the Lower Reading Room instead. When the kids in the 1930’s bicker at each other, their language needs to be accurate.

Maps and brochures from my visit to Oxford are very useful and internet research is invaluable. A fascinating book, Most Noble Bodley, edited by Ursula Aylmer, an anthology of writings from prominent library historical figures (even Thomas Bodley himself), sits on my desk, yellow post-its sticking out from the pages. I’ve been scouring local libraries (online, of course) for History of the Bodleian: 1845-1945, by Herbert Henry Edmund Caster (former librarian) so I don’t have to pay the $55 for a used Amazon seller’s version (plus shipping!) But, imagine that, the Plano and Frisco libraries don’t have a copy. This morning I located a copy at one of SMU’s libraries and I’m off to see if they’ll loan it to me.

If only my high school History teacher knew his C student was this excited to learn. Maybe he’d change my grade. In the end, though, we all know my goal: to hop a British Airways flight for another site visit to Oxford.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Agent Search: Can This Really be the One?

Pardon my stream of conciousness. But you tell me, what are the chances this ends with an “I want to represent you” phone call?

Query letter and first chapter sent to agent
Receive email from agent requesting larger excerpt by snail mail or email.
Chose email—and attach full manuscript
Receive automatic response from agency—translation: “you’re in the slush email loop.”
Call agency to inform them of dilemma. Receptionist offers to leave message for agent.
Agent calls when I’m not home (I’M ALWAYS HOME!)
Agent leaves voice mail explaining I should send an email if I have a question about my manuscript.
Send another email
Receive another automatic response
Print hard copy of manuscript online to Kinko’s
Prepare Express Mail package with stamps purchased from self-postage machine in May 2007 and placed in the drawer for future large mailings (post office is not close to home).
Call critique partner from Kinkos store to confirm spelling of word I’ve already spellchecked. It is correct.
Critique partner says to make sure postage is adequate. Yuk yuk, after all this, wouldn’t that be funny?!
Go to Mail Box store to double check weight for postage
About to seal package, realize I’ve left my business cards at home and the cute plastic folder I purchased in which to send manuscript has the perfect business card slot.
Notice the “Extremely urgent” notation on the express mail package and decide agent might be perturbed at my insinuating the priority of my work.
Change to Priority Mail package and attach more May 2007 postage
Drive to post office to get in 1pm pickup.
Wait in line to find out my postage has “expired.” WHAT!?
Go to self-serve postage machine and order up new postage
Opt for delivery confirmation and drop package in the box
Panic because now agent will be perturbed at delivery confirmation request.

My phone won’t be ringing, will it?

Monday, January 21, 2008

I Can Do That

We’ve all heard about how difficult it is to find an agent, and harder still to get published. We’ve heard about the impossibility of earning a living as a writer. We should just throw our pens and laptops into the trash can and crack open a book, right? But new writers get published every day. Really. Nathan Bransford mentioned in his blog last week that according to PW, 3,000 books are published each day. Sure, many (maybe most) are written by previously published authors, and I have no idea of the breakdown between fiction and non-fiction. But debut novels are published every day too.

Last week, an agent passed on the full manuscript for The Cemetery Garden because it got “bogged down in the middle.” Luckily, I received another agent request the day before and sent the full manuscript right away. I’ve decided not to consider rewriting The Cemetery Garden until I complete my next manuscript (goal date: March 31). When I emailed published author Sophia Nash on the status of my journey to publication, she wrote back: “You are playing this portion brilliantly - by continuing to write. That's the hard part. But I have to say that it's the only way to hone your craft.”

How do we stay motivated and become debut authors? Advice on this subject is abundant. Maria Zannini’s April 16, 2007 blog discusses motivation. Maya Reynolds suggests treating your writing career as a business. She should know. She followed her own plan and made it happen.

Here’s a true story that should motivate us all: A writer watched each of her friends get published for 8 years. And last summer she sold a manuscript which ended up being a 2 book contract. Then in December, an editor at another NY house plucked a manuscript that had languished in the slush pile for 2 years. They offered her a 3 book contract. When her first house heard about her single title sale they wanted 2 more books. Then – are you ready for this - ANOTHER editor plucked ANOTHER old manuscript from the slush pile in late December - and offered her another 2 book contract. She has to finish or write 9 books in the next 18 months and will be published by three different houses. That's what happens if you just keep writing and submitting!

Bottom line or big picture, however you visualize it best: Writers with goals, determination and positive attitude (and yes, either natural or hard-earned talent) are more likely to be published.

I can do that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Too Many Blogs

At first I thought blogging was silly. Arrogant rants about vacations, politics, breakfast menus, celebrities, skiing, tree-hugging, you name it, you can find it (sort of like eBay). But that's the beauty of it, too. Blogs are internet Op-Ed columns. No matter what the subject, someone has an opinion on it. Try it. Think of the most ridiculous idea and Google it. You'll find a blog about it. I don't want to plug weird blogs, but you can read about marshmallows, dryer lint, even anteaters.

Thanks to a tip from a fellow writer, I recently visited, an author community website. Published authors can set up web pages and blog. You can read reviews of the latest books. It's a one stop publicity frenzy. Amy Tan blogs there!

But if you're not careful, you can spend all day reading blogs. Although I read mostly writing blogs, pretty soon I'll be clicking a link to another blog to understand the first blog. Then I'll see another interesting link, say, to writing the perfect query letter or reading what really ticks agents off (rhetorical questions, spelling their names wrong). Then I'll go to some of my favorite writer's blogs. Many have links to their favorite blogs: literary critique, e-Mags, author friends. Fascinating stuff, all of it. But if I'm reading blogs all day, guess what my word count for the day will be.

So, I visit the blogs of a few agents (still reading the pitch critiques even though her taste baffles me!), writer friends, and authors. But I limit my time. And when I start feeling envious of the writers with books on the docket, I stop reading and get back to writing.

By the way, I'm much more careful about word echos when I'm working on my novel. Count how many times I wrote the word blog!

Do you blog? And what are your favorites to read?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Grammatically Undesirable

Recently, I read a piece in The Atlantic (Word Court, by Barbara Wallraff) about the misuse of certain phrases. The magazine's special section covers language questions and disputes and in this edition addressed the following:

1. The misuse of the word scores (as in scores of people). A score is twenty ("four score and seven years ago means 87 years ago, not way back when.") So, when speaking about the number of talented, unpublished writers, say, or the number of published authors earning enough to support themselves, scores would be a very small percentage.

2. The slip of phrase, "rule of thump" instead of "rule of thumb." Now that's just funny.

3. The use of preregister and preregister early (a writing teacher said these "drive me nuts.") Turns out, although seemingly redundant, both are correct. As Ms. Wallraff wrote, "If returning students, for instance, are allowed to register in advance of the general registration, why shouldn't that be called preregistration? And if they're allowed to do it well in advance, can't they preregister early?" Her peeve is "advance reservations" as "there is no such thing as a reservation that isn't made in advance."

I love word questions. Like this one: am I feeling nauseous or nauseated? Actually, either use is correct.

How about grammar problems? Now, I've had to work hard at mastering grammar (I'm sure there is something wrong with that sentence--or others in this blog-- and someone will point it out to me!) And really, if you ask any of my critique partners, you'll find that I haven't really mastered grammar. But, here are two of my peeves:

1. "I'm going to get me one of those." With "I'm going to get" the "me" is implied, right?!! Not to mention, I don't have another "me" standing next to me.

2. "My bad." I know all of the kids are saying it (except mine, he's forbidden to say it in the house). And though I haven't looked it up, the phrase has probably made its way to some dictionaries.

One of my sisters is a gramma-phobe and Latin teacher. She's shared some hilarious examples of butchered grammar over the years. She shared this with me: "One year I was reprimanding a student about saying 'that's mines' instead of 'that's mine.' When she asked what was wrong with her version, I said, 'Among other things, it doesn't sound right.' Her response was, 'Well it sound all right to me!' "

What's your peeve?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Writerly Gifts

Writers don't clock out. We never stop trying to be clever. Not only do we agonize over plot twists, but we rephrase mundane sentences into clever ones, revise thank-you notes, reread email messages before clicking send, and rewrite poorly written newspaper articles in our heads.

We also receive clever gifts.

One of my critique partners gave me the coolest gadget: an embosser to personalize my books. It resembles a notary stamp, with the same cool hand-squeeze design. A design that makes me feel important when stamping Library of Joan Mora on my books.

My son gave me Defining Moments in Books. This gem is almost 800 pages about the greatest books, writers, characters, passages and key events in the literary world.

So, when I need a brief diversion from clever writing, I'll be embossing my books and rediscovering truly great literature.

What fun gifts did you get (or give)?

Monday, January 7, 2008


Happy New Year all,

I'm returning to my blog well after any reasonable time off, but I'm ready to join 2008 now.

One of my critique partners pointed me to J.A. Konrath's invaluable writer's resolutions (, blog date Dec 21). Good advice about keeping up with your blog (ahem!), finishing the damn book, attending writer's conferences, etc. The resolutions I'll focus on are setting realistic goals, helping fellow writers and refusing to be discouraged.

Although I'd like to believe it's in my power to find an agent, it's out of my control. But sending queries is in my control. And, although I strongly believe TODAY is the day I'll hear from the agent reading my full manuscript, realistically I know I need to identify more perfect agents and send more queries. So, every two weeks, as I'm finishing my damn second book, I'll identify five more agents to query.

Although I'm not published YET, I can still help fellow writers. I attend a critique group where hopefully my critique is of value to others. I attempt to follow the critique advice I previously blogged about and I'd like to believe it's helpful. I was elected Treasurer of The Writers' Guild of Texas, a non-profit organization formed to support the Texas writing community. I've spent the last two years researching, improving my writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. If someone asks for (reasonable) help, I'll give it to them. As I'm finishing the damn book.

Now the hardest: Refusing to be discouraged. Soon I will blog about contests. But for now let me say, I've entered eight over the last two months (some short stories, some novel excerpts) and will send one more entry by January 15. I've received three "Sorry, not this time" responses. I've received 22 rejection letters in response to queries. We've all heard/read about Stephen King's 500 rejections before he was published. So every time I start to get discouraged, I think about that stack of paper stabbed to King's wall, login to, and research a new agent to query. As several of the rejections I've received from agents have advised: "It's not right for me, but it'll be right for someone." And as Maya Reynolds ( advises, set goals and take the steps necessary to reach those goals. Treat your writing career as a business. That I can understand. That I can control.