Friday, July 31, 2009

A Book by Its Cover

There has been quite the kerfuffle this week over book covers. In particular, the cover of one edition of Justine Larbalestier's novel Liar. Let me summarize: white girl on cover + black girl protagonist in story = NOT COOL.

I'm going somewhere more lighthearted with this post, however. As some of you may have noticed, I have a LibraryThing widget in the right-hand column, that shows six random books from my "library" at any given time. This morning, I noticed that the wrong cover popped up for my copy of A Farewell to Arms. I own this one, not this one, and I assure you that I actively pick the correct cover for my edition of each book the moment I log it into LibraryThing. (Current theory: LT was briefly unable to access my chosen cover online, and defaulted to another cover. I've now fixed it.)

So, why am I so darn attached to my editions? It's the same text inside, right? And this isn't a situation like the Liar cover, where the image on the outside contradicts the content inside. This is just... my copy. And I want to be very clear about which copy I have. But why should I care?

Children's books are different. I actively hunt for older editions of my favorite books to add to my daughter's library because I want her to have the covers that feature the original illustrations, not some new drawings the publishers must have thought would make the book more appealing to modern audiences. In these cases, changing the cover does, to my mind, violate the content inside, because the illustrations are part of that content. (For example, The Great Brain series. Yes. No.)

But what about those adult books with a variety of covers? Do you care which one you buy? If you lose a book, do you try to replace it with the same edition or cover? Is it just about nostalgia -- we want to own the version of the book that reminds us best of when we first read it? Or is there something more to this?

I open the comments for discussion.

And yes, Serious Girl has her own LibraryThing account, and she currently has more books listed than I do.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Telling the Truth

The truth is incontrovertible;
malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.
--Winston Churchill

Yesterday, while I was off having fun in an internet-free zone, agent Rachelle Gardener wrote a blog post about finding truth in unlikely places. Her post was primarily focused on a Christian perspective: if you are faithful, how do you decide what secular influences you should expose yourself to? Are the secular/religious divisions real or artificial? When does discernment turn into a needless insularity?

I am not faithful. I sometimes feel awkward saying this, for fear that people will think I am criticizing their belief systems, or for fear that people will decide they are no longer interested in what I have to say, because our underlying philosophies are too different. But, I'm an atheist. There it is.

So what about the other side of the argument? I recently turned down an offer of a free book from an internet friend, because it was an overtly Christian inspirational tale, and I figured I wasn't exactly the target demographic, and that one of her other friends would appreciate it more. Was this inappropriate self-censorship? Should I have taken the book (free, after all!) and taken a look, if only to see if there was a writing lesson to be learned within its pages? I checked out the book on before saying "no thank you" and I do think someone with a Christian perspective will appreciate the book more than I would, because that person would be receptive to any spiritual teachings as well as craft-of-writing teachings that the novel has to offer... but even if I think I made the right call about this one book in particular, Rachelle's post has given me something to consider.

We say that good writing is good writing, no matter what the subject or genre. And I think writers would generally agree that "good writing is about telling the truth." (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird). But what about when our value systems lead to a great conflict in what we see as truth?

I think Rachelle is an awesome agent. Her blog is helpful beyond measure for aspiring and new writers, and I think that the vast majority of her advice is broadly applicable across genres. But I did not query her, because she only accepts projects that "do not contradict a Christian world view." My book does.

I don't want to post a spoiler here, but let's say that at least one hot button issue (if not more) is treated as value-neutral. To the best of my knowledge, a Christian book would have to treat these issues as moral wrongs: either my characters couldn't do these things at all, or there would have to be serious consequences if they did do them. I think I told the truth, because I don't think these things are moral wrongs at all. But I imagine certain readers would disagree.

So, what about the truth? Are the remaining issues and emotions and character elements in the book true enough that someone could get past this conflict of philosophy? Does the whole narrative become invalidated in someone's eyes because certain choices are in disagreement with their faith? Is it, to those people who disagree with my views, still good writing?

I hereby open up the comments to believers and non. Ever read a book that moved you despite being in conflict with your ideals? What made it so good that you were able to look beyond that conflict to the other qualities of the story? Go wild here. I'm still sort of hashing all this out myself, and I'd love to get a range of perspectives.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The book that wasn't there

I am out of the house all day Wednesday with Husband and Serious Girl, so I'm scheduling this short and un-serious blog entry to post in the morning... I hope it works!

This weekend I got to thinking about fictional novels* thanks to an article in the NY Times Book Review, Titles Within a Tale. I think we've all at some point read a novel that described yet another novel as part of the story, and thought, "hey, now I want to read that book!" I don't have a book-within-a-book in my novel, but I always thought they must be so fun to write... all concept, no execution. Or, like the faux-novel excerpts in Steve Hely's recent work, there's limited execution with no pressure to maintain similar standards for 200 more pages. (For those who've read How I Became a Famous Novelist, tell me you don't desperately want to read Peking.)

What's your favorite "book within a book"? Besides the one I just mentioned, I also wish I could read The Rubber Slipper, a novel from within Lauren Baratz-Logsted's The Thin Pink Line. The actual novel is about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy. The novel-within-the-novel is about finding the best dad (from a selection of one-night-stands who might be the biological dad) for the protagonist's yet-to-be-born baby. It's so insane, it has to be good.

Oh, and here are some bonus links! It turns out that at least one author actually did write a full version of a story that was originally just a book-within-a-book. Catherynne M. Valente wrote an adult fantasy book called Palimpsest, that contained references to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, "a part of the protagonist’s childhood, a strange novel for children written in the 1920s, about a young girl spirited away to Fairyland by the Green Wind, and her adventures there, battling the wicked Marquess, befriending outlandish creatures, and growing up."

Readers wanted to know if it was real. They wanted to know if she would write it. And she did. It's free online, with a request for donations. How cool is that?

* Not to be confused with "fiction novel," a phrase that drives most literary agents mad, due to its redundancy.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Balancing Act: Work Edition

Okay, Amy gets first pick because she posted in the comments first! (Although I'm happy to say that it sounds like more than one person is interested in her chosen topic.) This post is about balancing writing with the day job.

I'm an attorney. Big Firm lawyers are not known for having a whole lot of extra time on their hands, but I am here to tell you that time can be made to write if it's important to you. (If it's not that important to you, then by all means go see what's on your TiVo instead.)

When did I start to make time for my writing? In 2005, when I learned about NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.

The challenge: Write a novel (defined as 50,000 words or more) within one month. Specifically, the month of November. Even more specifically, the month that started about two weeks from when I found out about NaNo. This was ideal. It was definitely a benefit to not have too much time to consider what I was getting into, since I hadn't been writing regularly up to that point. More about "irregular" writing towards the end of this post.

The goal: The end of the "some day" novelist. If not now, when? I loved writing -- writing is my favorite part of my legal work as well -- and I wrote fiction intermittently, and even though I had never said out loud that I wanted to write a novel someday, the second I heard about NaNo, I knew that I had to do it. You wanna write fiction? Then put up or shut up.

The reason it works: Successful NaNo writers are so focused on the time constraints that the internal naysayers ("'ll never be good enough...") have no choice but to shut up and get out of the way. How good can it be in 30 days, anyway? The point is to get the sheer volume of words down on paper. Don't get it right, get it written. You can't edit a blank page.

The result: Dude. It was awesome.

It is worth mentioning that I did not win. Let me be clear on this -- for me, NaNo was and will probably never be about "winning" in the strictest sense: 50K words in 30 days. My natural writing style apparently tops out at around 1,000 words in a day, and you need nearly twice that to win NaNo (especially since there will probably be at least a day or two where you don't write at all). It's not just that I lose quality when I try to write more than 1,000 words a day, it's that it's not fun for me anymore. And I actually lose the thread of the story by trying to pack something (anything!) into the story just to meet a high word count goal. I need more "down time" for ideas to percolate.

But I absolutely won in the grander scheme of things. In November 2005, I wrote 30,000 words that would not have been written otherwise. And because of the ridiculous time crunch, I abandoned all thoughts of getting a "perfect" writing environment, or a "long enough" span of uninterrupted time.

Admit it, writers, don't you think this? If only I didn't have to work so late, I'd have the whole evening ahead of me. If only I could write somewhere isolated where I could play my music. The if onlys will kill your productivity dead. You must squelch them quickly and ruthlessly. THIS IS THE TIME MANAGEMENT LESSON LEARNED FROM NaNo. It's not just about dumping the idea of perfection in your actual writing (it's called a "first draft" for a reason, people). It's also about dumping your ideas of having the perfect writing environment.

I was working full time at a law firm during my first NaNo, and I wrote during the down times when I was waiting for a senior partner to bring me his edits. (Before NaNo, I probably would have idly surfed the net instead, and then wondered what happened to my one evening break.) I carried a spiral notebook with me everywhere, writing in bed before I fell asleep, and in the morning right when I woke up. When I had a moment alone with my computer but no ideas, I would transcribe those handwritten notes, and often found that the new ideas would bubble up while the old ones were being typed out.

And it wasn't about inspiration. This is also important. I wrote "irregularly" before NaNo, because I basically waited to be inspired. When I was hit with an idea, I would write it (and I think I wrote it well), but in between those times... nothing. What NaNo taught me was how to work despite a lack of inspiration. It taught me how to problem-solve... I mean, something has to happen next, right? And there's a deadline, so I can't just wait a few weeks for the idea to show up on its own. So instead of waiting for that magical bolt of idea-lightning, I would consider all the things that could happen. And the more I did it, the more I would recognize when one scenario was the right one for the story.

And that's how I ended up with 30K words in 30 days despite having never written anything that long before. And I felt like I had more time in my days because I was using the time well.

Bear with me for an analogy: Weight Watchers assigns points to all foods, so you can "budget" what you eat, given the number of points you should eat every week to stay on track. Normally, if you tell me I can't have something, I immediately want it. (Very mature, I realize.) So, when I first joined Weight Watchers, I immediately did the math for one of my junk food favorites, and realized that a single Big Mac (I used to have two in one sitting, oh, how I miss my teenage metabolism!) would use up 80% of the base number of points I had in any given day, although there were extra weekly points I could use up to "pay" for that meal. And boom, like that, I wanted a Big Mac, because it was horrible for me and I "couldn't" have it.

Except, the whole point of WW is that you can have whatever you want, as long as you budget your points properly. So, if I was committed to making it happen, I could have eaten lots of zero-point foods that day to balance out the Big Mac. But every time I walked by a McDonald's, I thought, "Do I really want to spend my points that way? I mean, I could probably get something really exotic and delicious if I'm going to blow that many points in one sitting. A Big Mac isn't that good, when you get right down to it..."

And I'd move on. At this point I honestly can't remember the last time I had a Big Mac, but I used to have them all the time, without really noticing what I was doing. (You know, until that teenage metabolism abandoned me.) But once I thought hard about the trade-offs, I recognized that it wasn't worth it.

I bet you're sitting in front of the t.v. or computer for a decent chunk of every day, without really thinking about it. But this time can be budgeted another way. And I'll admit that my novel sat around mostly untouched for large chunks of 2006 and 2007. But I started noticing how much happier I was when I made the time to write, and I started using the NaNo lessons far more regularly:
  • You don't need the perfect writing environment
  • You don't need a long chunk of free time
  • You don't need to get it right the first time
  • You do need to think carefully about how your time is being spent... is it worth it?
  • Every word that you write, because you made the time to write it, is a word that would have been lost otherwise. Be proud of every single one. Only got a sentence out? You crafted fiction today, and you didn't have to, but you made it happen. That is AWESOME. Now go write another one.
A final thought: why is this post just about balancing work with the day job, as opposed to balancing work with "everything else"? Because I think there are special guilt issues that come into play when balancing writing with kids, especially if writing isn't your day job. I'll think more about it and do a future post on it, for sure.

I also plan to come back to my genre ranting, but from a broader perspective: Mur Lafferty's latest podcast talks about Art vs. Popularity, and I think that debate is very much at the heart of the chick lit vs. women's literature dichotomy. I have to think about this a little more as well before I post...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Did we all have a good weekend?

Why yes, that is a margarita in a travel coffee mug. I assure you that using a standard margarita glass is not a wise idea when trying to balance your drink on uneven ground while surrounded by three toddlers. Please also note the container of extra salt (on the theory that a coffee mug has a very small rim that may need replenishing), and the bowl of pasta salad (after all, drinking on an empty stomach would be irresponsible). They say that Sippys Cups Are Not For Chardonnay, and I agree, because I don't drink wine.

In short, happy Sunday to me! Four adults, three 2-year-olds (who all had nice long naps), an inflatable toddler pool and water table, yummy food, and sunny weather = awesome.

This also means that I did not plan anything clever for my blog today. So, I'll be taking suggestions. What do you want to read about? More genre ranting? Lessons I've learned about querying? Tips that helped me write when the going was tough? Balancing writing with an office job? Balancing writing with parenting a toddler? (I was laid off shortly after having my daughter, so I can't talk about balancing writing with an office job and a toddler. One or the other only.) Editing, since I may be one of the few authors who actually loves editing?

Tomorrow I'll say something more writerly. But today, I am doing research for a possible new "day job." Wish me luck!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Weekly round-up, including some perks of mid-level fame.

Once again, I want to give a huge THANK YOU to those of you who posted comments in the last couple of days. I have been hoping to find some fellow "smart chick lit" authors online... it's so easy to find the internet-based Sci Fi and Fantasy writing communities (which makes sense), but not so easy to find the women's fiction/chick lit communities. Women's fiction is too broad, and for a while it seemed like all the chick lit sites had stopped posting updates somewhere between 2006 and 2008, but as of this week I'm starting to see a resurgence! Chick Lit Books just started up again, and I'm starting to hunt down some of the 50 Best Chick Lit Blogs -- the list was originally posted in late '08, so some pages are defunct, but I think it's still worth checking out. If we don't support each other, who will?

So, while I hope this blog gathers (and speaks to!) people from all sources and genres, I do want to give a special shout-out to the Chick Literati.

What else? This week I went to one of my local indie bookstores, and scored an ARC (advance release copy) of James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover. The back cover is a letter from Ellroy to booksellers, using the phrase "groin-grabbing gravity." I love it already.

I also attended a book reading/signing for J. Courtney Sullivan's debut novel, Commencement. She said she thinks her book got accepted before the genre wars really started, and seemed to feel that her novel could be classified as chick lit or women's fiction... A story of four best friends, described as a great summer read? Chick lit! A story of how the lessons of feminism may be difficult to apply in real life, with a blurb from Gloria Steinem? Women's fiction! Either way, I thought the author was lovely, and I can't wait to read her novel.

Still no word from the literary agents. I am physically restraining myself from calling to "check in." Whenever I am near a computer, I compulsively click "refresh" on my email, hoping there will be some update. I am hanging in.

And, finally, there's the recent discovery I alluded to in the title of this post... the "perks of mid-level fame." For those of you who don't already know me, I used to act. I'm on IMDB. I'm well within the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Briefly, there were perks: the Baskin' Robbins next door to my house used to give me free ice cream because I was a "star" ('cause, you know, the stars are the ones who really need a free cone of Pralines n' Cream). And occasionally I'd find something cool on the internet, like the automated Birthday Countdown that said how many days were left until my next birthday -- I printed it out every year to stick on my office door: "There are 0 days left until Carrie Kei Heim turns [insert age here]."

But this week I discovered that, due to being a "celebrity," I am getting free numerology readings. Now that's something to write home about. Should I go email them the place and time of my birth? I think I kinda like my results, and I wouldn't want to suddenly find out that being born in Tokyo screws the whole thing up...

Have a great weekend, everyone, and I hope your weather is better than ours is right now.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Chick Lit: Kickin' it Old School

(Credit goes to Print Magazine for the chart of chick lit book covers.)

First, thank you to all the recent commenters. I'm feeling the love! Nathan Bransford just posted about "beach reads", and I am more convinced than ever that nobody should be ashamed of the books they choose to entertain themselves. As Dana said in the comments:
Anyone who dismisses an entire genre because of label stigma should be stuck reading nothing but WAR AND PEACE over and over and over and over again.
And yet, so many people -- women! -- felt the need to deride chick lit as nothing but garbage. (WTF, Maureen Dowd?) I'm with Marian Keyes on the broad-strokes criticism of the genre:
It bothers me because it is just another way of making women feel shit about themselves - by making fun of the books they write and read and the issues in them. If there were a group of men writing thrillers who had had the same impact around the world, they'd be celebrated.
Exactly! John Grisham isn't high art, so why should even the most fluffy of chick-lit-brain-candy books be considered anything worse than that... if there's a story that you enjoy reading, READ IT. WRITE IT. And if you manage to add a unique spin or extra layer of gravity to the zippy read, so much the better.

And speaking of men who write books that have impact around the world,
Stephen King, mostly talking about something else, treats chick lit as nothing to be embarrassed about:
Women have chick lit; guys have what my son Joe (as in Joe Hill) calls ''manfiction.'' And publishers sell it by the ton. Here's a concept so simple it's easy to miss: What men want from an Elmore Leonard novel is exactly what women want from a Nora Roberts novel — escape and entertainment.
Escape and entertainment. Beach reads. Chick lit. These should not be pejoratives. Jennifer Weiner agrees:
The genre is all about voice, and if you have a really fresh, really arresting voice, you can still tell a story about a single girl in the city. It's such an interesting time in a woman's life. There will always be interest in that moment when every decision is still right in front of you.

(And here's some more she says in praise of chick lit.)
Many discussions of the genre eventually refer to "traditional" chick lit, meaning the supposed originators/popularizers (is that a word?) of the genre. Specifically, Bridget Jones's Diary (1996), Sex and the City (1997), and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing (1999).

But the term was first in 1995 used as an ironic title for an anthology, Chick Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. The genre was defined as a type of second-wave feminism that went beyond female-as-victim to include fiction that covered the breadth of female experiences, including love, courtship, and gender. Here's an excerpt from Diane Goodman's introduction to the book:
Chick-Lit is hip, stylish, confident, and sharp - it's also honest and very brave. It battles and conquers the term Chick... it proves itself structurally, lyrically, and formally as lit-erature.

The anthology calls up all of the subtle differences in the prefix post and introduces multi-leveled ideas of feminism - it's historical, political, social, economic; it's funny, sad, dramatic, mean, indulgent, moving, scary. It's about mothers, daughters, wives, lovers, partners, victims, heroes, whiners, friends, Dorothy in Oz...

Chick-Lit has guts. And so do [the editors of this anthology]. They should be applauded for not giving in to the urge to be authorities. The work in this book cannot be confined to a label with an easy definition and that, I think, is what the titles and the introductions were trying to say.
In short, chick lit is a feminist issue. I'm now determined that we should, indeed, take back the genre name, rather than replace it with a new one. I'm currently pitching my novel as "smart chick lit" but if I think I have more than three words to explain myself in, I'm going to start talking about how we're writing Chick Lit, Old School-Style.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

There Are No Rules.

(Click here to read
the first post in my series on the genre of chick lit.)

So, if chick lit is not, in fact, merely stupid slutty shopping porn, then what is it? What distinguishes it from the apparently more venerable genre of women's fiction… a genre which is clearly superior even in name, being for "women" instead of "chicks", and garnering the full label of "fiction" rather than the half-word "lit" which implies that the contents of the book itself are perhaps also only halfway there in terms of quality... it’s not real literature, it’s "lit." Girl stuff. Literature lite. Chick lit. (Whoops, I said I was going to go on my linguistic rant later in the week, Sorry, let’s get back on track.)

Here is the comprehensive definition of what constitutes chick lit:

A novel, written primarily for women, usually by a woman, most likely narrated with a first-person P.O.V. by a female protagonist, with a "confidential" and/or humorous tone.

That's it.

Yes, the protagonist is also most likely to be in her 20s or 30s and living in an urban setting, but it's not required, and neither are sex, drinking, high heels, or the pursuit of Mr. Right. The subgenre of "lady lit" is for older protagonists; "Christian chick lit" is definitely going to exclude any gleefully wanton sex & drug use; "mommy lit" may well be in suburbia as the protagonist tries to figure out what became of her pre-baby self... even classic chick lit novels (e.g. The Nanny Diaries) often focus more on getting respect at work than on getting hitched. Yet these are indeed all part of the chick lit category.

To quote author Cathy Yardley:

...if you've got a story that's a coming-of-age or coming-of-consciousness story, that has even a modicum of humor, like it or not, odds are good that a publisher would call it Chick Lit... whether you want it to be or not.
I agree: the genre is all about the funny. (I read somewhere that there's a new category called "humorous women's fiction" but I honestly haven't heard enough about it to give it fair treatment here.) Marian Keyes wrote about drug abuse and mental illness, but did it with some comedic flair... it's chick lit. Jodi Picoult is laugh-free... women's fiction. I think much of Amy Tan's work would be classified as chick lit if written by a debut author today, but by now she's AMY TAN so of course her work must be "better" than mere chick lit.

But what on earth is wrong with humor? I'm with Steve Almond on this one: funny is the new deep, and many weighty topics can handle... nay, they deserve the additional values that humor has to offer.

And that is why I'm not going to remarket my book as women's fiction (as one of yesterday's commenters said she was able to do). If it's the lighthearted, conversational/confidential, doesn't-take-herself-too-seriously voice of the work that makes a novel chick lit from an industry perspective, then dammit, that's what I've written. That's who the characters are, and I can't imagine them dealing with their trials and tribulations in any other way. I hope the reader can't, either.

And I refuse to believe that the coming-of-age element is a problem, either. The tales of disaffected young men finding themselves are among the great literary works of our time, but stories about young women must be mindless fluff? Bite me.

I would love to avoid being labeled chick lit... although I don't think the label should have been stigmatized in the first place. Everyone agrees that Nick Hornby is an amazing writer, despite the fact that he writes "lad lit." The really good chick lit writers are out there, and it's infuriating that they're not getting equal respect. Why can't chick lit get the same fair treatment as, say, SciFi and Fantasy, a category which has total crap but also Neil Gaiman? It is incredibly sad that an entire genre has been tainted. (More on that tomorrow.)

Ideas, anyone? Do we "take back" the label chick lit with exceptional writing and new marketing? Or do we try to invent a new genre label?

Author: Carrie Kei Heim Binas
Title of work: In Name Only
Genre: "Chick Hornby"

I was going end the post there, but then I did a Google search with the intention of adding a link for the above-quoted Cathy Yardley, author of Will Write For Shoes, How to Write a Chick Lit Novel (a book I purchased after writing my novel, because it has excellent advice on how to write a synopsis for literary agents)... and her website says "author of women's fiction" all over it, right up top as part of her name/signature. When you click the Bookshelf tab, her novels are divided into "sexy reads" and "romantic comedy/chick lit", and yet she's not identifying herself as a chick lit author. I guess the stigma got to be too much for her as well.

Edited to add:

More support for my theories: Chick Lit Books' What is Chick Lit?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Other contests, serendipity and self-congratulation.

Okay, you know how yesterday I announced Katie as the winner of my flash fiction contest? Well, today Katie has announced me as the winner of her best first line contest. Woo-hoo! Go check out her blog to see a little picture & bio of me, along with my winning first sentence. I actually am quite proud of it!

Please also note that I picked Katie as the winner of my contest on Friday morning, and Katie had impartial judges pick the winner of her contest a full day after that, so there was no nepotism at all, just a really big coincidence.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled blogging. My first in a series of posts on the genre of chick lit can be found below.

Mythbusters: Chick Lit Edition

I always start the pitch for my novel with the line, "What's in a name?"

So, here's the question for you. What do you think of when you hear the genre name, "chick lit"?

If you said that it's vapid trash, you're probably in the majority. And, you probably have never read any chick lit.

Okay, fine, there is some vapid trash available for sale in the genre, but that's because every genre has its, shall we say, "lesser works". My main argument is that chick lit is not supposed to be vapid trash. It's not what the authors are aiming for, and to pretend otherwise is insulting... and yet, that is exactly the image of chick lit that remains in our post-Bridget Jones, post-Nanny Diaries, post-Sex and the City recession era.

(The derisive diminutives captured in the very name of the genre only add to this image, but I'll be saving my rant on linguistics for a post later in the week.)

Here is a frustrating excerpt from a blog I normally adore:
Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? ... [a]re all of the [above criteria] true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? Does your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags border on the pathological? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category.
Really? Really? Chick lit is nothing more than urban drunken bed-hopping for 20-something shoe fetishists?

Chick lit is apparently a hard sell these days, and, to the extent that even very well-written chick lit used to include a large amount of what my best friend calls "shopping porn," that makes sense. Carrie Bradshaw's Manolos are no longer a vicarious thrill, they're a symbol of the idiotic spending that got our country (I live in the States) into this mess. But the description above certainly isn't doing the genre any favors.

Let's stick with the example of Sex and the City for a minute. (I hate to talk about a t.v. show when we should be talking about books, but since I'm also trying to communicate with people who aren't familiar with the genre, this is my best bet for finding some common ground of knowledge.)

In SATC, there was Prada and Cosmo-drinking and much discussion of marriage as the Holy Grail of Womanhood. But the show also addressed (in no particular order):
  • Infertility
  • Death of a parent
  • Abortion
  • Care of an aging parent
  • Infidelity
  • Motherhood and pregnancy
  • Debt
  • HIV testing
  • Impotence
  • Gender roles and sexual orientation
  • Adoption
  • Career concerns
  • Divorce
  • Marriage and remarriage
  • Cancer
Does this sound unwaveringly vapid and fluffy to you? No, it doesn't, and that is why the show was such a huge damn success. We didn't just watch Samatha buy thongs, we watched Miranda buying a "shitty black bra" for her mother's funeral. Yes, there were many moments of witty banter and NYC skylines and fabulous clothes and the eternal gay best friend. But it wasn't stereotypical. It was honest and real and fun all at once.

One of my first readers insists that my novel isn't chick lit because it deals with weighty themes, and it doesn't have drinking, shopping, or an endless quest for Mr. Right. But I refuse to believe that chick lit is so limited. I believe that the genre can have depth and flexibility... and that's why there was a single episode of SATC where Miranda got married and Samantha found out she had cancer. Weddings and cancer are not indicators of completely different genres.

The INTERN also recently posted about the problem with the current "chick lit image" (original post here):
Today INTERN is editing chick-lit ...or rather, a chick's-guide-to-life-after-college: first apartment, first office job, etc. It is something like 50,000 words long. Since INTERN herself is female and in the midst of her own first job-like endeavour, the eds figured INTERN was obviously qualified.

Word has searched the document and found 1293 occurrences of the word "latte".

Word has searched the document and found 981 occurrences of the word "shoe".

Word has searched the document and found 602 occurrences of the word "cocktail".

INTERN is thinking back to her roommate in freshman year of college, ostensibly the prototypical chick, who indeed drank a lot of lattes, went on dates, and owned many a pair of shoes, but was also an accomplished french-horn player, a savvy businesswoman, and deeply spiritual to boot. Don't get INTERN wrong, the chick-lit thing can be fun and intelligent and authentic, but just plugging in a lot of chick-related keywords doesn't make the book suitable for so-called chicks any more than plugging in the words "hail satan" ad infinitum makes a book suitable for death metal fans. Chick-ness has to arise organically from the material, not be splattered over the ms like bottle of nail polish.
Word. And, speaking of words, here is the comparable information for my novel, In Name Only, which is 60K or 68K depending on which word-count method you use:

Occurrences of the word "latte" : 1
Occurrences of the word "shoe(s)" : 9
Occurrences of the word "cocktail" : 1

Please note that it is in fact a man who drinks the latte, and the word cocktail is actually used as part of the phrase "cocktail-hour menu."

I've said a little (okay, a lot) about what I think chick lit is not... come back tomorrow so we can discuss what it is. And please do leave a post in the comments about your impressions of the genre.

Monday, July 20, 2009


First of all, THANK YOU to everyone who entered my flash fiction contest. It was a joy to read all of the entries, and I hope you had a little fun as well.

And now, congratulations to Katie Ganshert, who is this month's winner! My decision was made late Friday morning, based on the following categories:
  • Adherence to the rules (we had one disqualification for length)
  • The arbitrary, capricious, whimsical, ruthless, and hopelessly unfair application of Carrie Standards

Katie has chosen the "Money, money, money" envelope as her prize. You can learn a little more about her by visiting her homepage, or by checking out her writing blog, Brain Throw Up.

And I really hope you will all play again, starting on the first Friday of next month. Something shorter next time, I promise.

And now, I hope you will enjoy a little bit of Katie's fiction, and swing by her blog to say hi afterwards!


by Katie Ganshert

A small, velvet box with a delicate red and green bow sat like a looming thundercloud beneath the tree, wringing Lola Crinsby’s salivary glands until her mouth flooded with tangy spittle. She swallowed, fists clenched, eyes darting between the gift and the door, as if unsure what defense mechanism to embrace. Fight or Flight.

Before she could decide, James entered the room, feet clad in the slippers she bought him three Christmases ago. They’d morphed into a muted gray, swaddling the tip of his protruding big toe in fuzzy, worn out fabric. He carried a newspaper in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other, steam swirling up from the top and disappearing in front of his face, like some sort of ethereal, magician’s trick.

Her pulse thrummed against her eardrums. Why did James have to ruin the comfortable routine they’d established over the course of their long-distance relationship? Prickly heat simmered up her chest and singed her cheeks. Was he really just going to spring marriage on her without eliciting her thoughts on the matter? When had she ever eluded to the fact that she might want to walk down an aisle in fluffy white lace and say, I do?

James tapped her on the head with his paper, kissed her cheek, and plopped down on the sofa. “Merry Christmas. Did you just get here?”

She eyed the door. Her car was still warm from the three hour drive. She could be in the cab of her Honda Accord, careening back to Detroit before he had the chance to unroll his paper, much less pop such a ludicrous question.

“Lola? Is something wrong?”

She jabbed her hip with one of her balled up fists, flung her other hand toward the tree, and glared at him like an angry mother. Fight. She would fight. “Just what do you think you’re doing with that?”

James blinked, mouth open, eyebrows pinched into a frown. She held her pose, waiting for him to acknowledge his foolishness. He brought one leg onto the cushion and twisted his upper half toward the Christmas tree, the couch springs squealing their protests. She stared at the back of his blonde head, her chest heaving like a barreling train engine.

A booming vibrato saturated the living room, popping the tension ballooning inside her chest with needled confusion. Her hand fell to her side. Her scowl melted off her face.

“What’s so funny?”

James turned back around and slapped his knee, a grin stretched wide across his face. “Relax, babe. This is Christmas, not Neverland. And that’s a bracelet for my mother. Not an engagement ring.”

All the heat invading Lola’s cheeks melted away, oozing down her neck, deflating the panic-stricken air soaking her lungs. She slipped off her boots, eased a smile onto her face, joined James on the sofa, and slid beneath his burly arm. “Well, Merry Christmas, then.”

Once again, that's Katie Ganshert at Brain Throw Up.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Contest Closed!

Thank you to everyone who entered!!! I will be reading your flash fiction this weekend, and posting the name of the winner on Monday. I will post the winner's story in a dedicated blog post once I have confirmed which link (if any) the winner would like to have used in association with the story -- promote your own blog, or whatever else strikes your fancy.

I know this was a contest that required a decent amount of effort, so I really am so grateful to everyone who played along. Next month I'll try to have a contest that involves less of a time commitment... six-word fiction? Worst first line contest? Come back in August and find out.

And, I'm open to suggestions, if you want to post in the comments.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

They die of shame.

Charles Morse: You know, I once read an interesting book which said that most people lost in the wilds, they die of shame... "What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?" And so they sit there and they... die. Because they didn't do the one thing that would save their lives.
Robert Green:
And what is that, Charles?
Charles Morse:
David Mamet's The Edge
Okay, I know two days ago I said I'd been having a bad time lately, but, well... it's been REALLY bad. It has the potential to be endlessly-wallowing-in-self-pity bad. Momentum-stoppingly bad. Paralyzingly bad.

But I'm not going to let that happen. I can't seem to get the jobs for which I am eminently qualified? Fine. I'm going to start applying for jobs for which I am over- and under-qualified. Jobs which touch on my skill set, then go in a different direction. I'm going to get creative. I'm going to paper this city with my résumé until something comes up. I am not going to die of shame, thinking that I should have done this, or ought to have done that. Even if it's true that I did something wrong, I have to pick myself up and keep going.

This applies to writing and publishing, too. I can't stand around wondering if I was wrong in submitting a query that listed the actual word count of 60K instead of the 250-word-per-page-count of 68K. I can't undo those queries where I said the book was women's fiction when I probably should have called it chick lit. And I certainly can't write back to those agents trying to fix it. All I can do is be professional, and get the details right on the next submission.

How about you? Did you send out a query before you were ready? Did you say something dumb at a conference? Did you miss an opportunity because you didn't understand that you had to do more work to make it happen? You have NOT burned all your bridges, I promise you. Get professional NOW. Start today. Clean up your queries, do your final polishes, go to a new conference, get a writing critique group going, and find the next opportunity, because the world is big and they are out there, somewhere. Don't die of shame. Keep writing. Keep querying. Think everything through. Get creative. Keep playing the game.

Go kill that bear.

Disclaimer: No bears were harmed in the making of this post. The author of this blog only encourages fighting metaphorical bears, not real ones. And if you do attack a real bear, the author of this blog hopes the bear eats you, because you probably have it coming. And if you haven't seen the movie The Edge, go rent it now. It's very satisfying.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Last reminder.

Click HERE to learn more. Winner gets the story published on this blog, with a link of his or her choice, and will also receive some cool handmade stationery. Entries will be read with any and all identifying information crossed out, to avoid bias.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Something good is out there waiting for you.

(My daughter, the Serious Girl.*)

It's been a bad time for me. Forget the writing stuff, right now I just want a day job that will pay the bills and not make me miserable. This is actually a tall order -- I'm an attorney, so even in good economic times our jobs usually pay the bills OR don't cause misery, not both. In hard times... well. I imagine I'm not the only lawyer in my current position right now.

But, it's going to get better, right? Something good is going to come along, even if we don't know what it is yet. We just have to keep looking.

What good thing are you hoping for right now? Post a wish or dream in the comments, and I'll think a good thought for you. And if you want to do the same for me, I won't complain.

And now, I'm going to go ask the Serious Girl for a smooch. Those always cheer me up.

* In the interests of her privacy, I'm not going to show my daughter's face on this blog or give her real name. I'm sure you all understand.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sometimes stealth is not the quality I am looking for.

I have a ninja manuscript.
As of Friday, four out of the ten agents who asked me to send more pages -- either a partial or a full -- have now admitted to misplacing those materials, at least temporarily. But I don't blame the agents. I blame the book.

Apparently, my novel has become quite skilled in the art of being unperceived over the last several weeks. I imagine it first developed a plan of attack after three quick captures and rejections by partial-requesting agents early in the process... perhaps hoping to avoid further rejection, it then switched to active stealth mode. Of the remaining seven agents, two failed to realize the manuscript was on the premises, but were able to find it when prompted. One thought she had the manuscript, but was subsequently unable to open the document. Most recently, an agent was unable to find a single trace of the document, even with extensive searching, and another copy had to be sent. Two more remain unaccounted for (the agents haven't gotten back to me yet) and only one appears to have arrived without incident... perhaps it was thrown off its game by the fact that I printed that one in hard copy and mailed it.

This is not ideal. I do kind of like it when the (universally apologetic) agents and agency assistants promise to move my now-captured novel to the top of the pile, but since I didn't check in with these agencies until after the review time guidelines had passed, this is all taking place 8-10 weeks after the manuscripts were first sent in. Industry etiquette only aids the ninja novel in its campaign of stealth and illusion.

Writers, your only defense against the ninja novel's expert sabotage techniques is good record-keeping and a willingness to follow up. Without my Excel spreadsheet, I would not know when the manuscripts were sent, or when it would be appropriate to check in, and my manuscripts would be forever hiding in plain sight like Keyser Soze.

And like that... it's gone.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What Are You Doing Today?

Many of you may have noticed my repeated references to Mur Lafferty's blog and podcast. Here's just one example of why I read/listen to her, and why I think everyone else should as well. Click the link. Watch the video.

Go ahead, I'll wait.


Writers, turn off the internet and get some writing done. Okay, you can keep the internet up long enough to enter the first line / first paragraph contest currently being held by fellow writing-blogger Katie, but that's it.

If you're unemployed and you think you've checked every possible job listing site out there... go check again. Or do a full refresh check of your regular haunts and expand your search terms.

And when's the last time you got some exercise?

Now, I have to go outside and run some errands I've been dreading, including a trip to the gym. Want some accountability? Tell us in the comments what you should be doing today. And then go do it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pick your prize.

Okay, I promised photos. The winner of my flash fiction contest gets his or her choice of the above hand-made envelopes; I tried to pick a selection that would please a variety of personalities. Your choices are:

1) Baby, you can drive my car
2) Money, money, money
3) Waiting for Noah

Yes, I made the envelopes myself. Yes, you can still lick & stick 'em closed like a regular envelope. Yes, the winner will also receive a matching-size blank card enclosed inside the fancy envelope. Yes, the envelope and card will mail successfully with a standard first-class stamp. AND, the envelope and card will come attractively packaged, so you can give it to someone else as a gift if you like.

For those of you who might be new to my blog, this contest has a small tie-in to my novel -- the main character of my novel makes envelopes like these... only, you know, better, because she's a graphic artist and stationery designer. The novel is still at the "querying" stage, which means I'm hunting for a literary agent. Right now there are six agents currently in possession of requested partials or the full manuscript. Here's hoping someone gets back to me soon!

Okay, here's one more photo of the prize choices, and then get out of here. As Mur Lafferty says, you should be writing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Have you entered my fiction contest yet?

Hey. You.

Yeah, you. You're clearly at a computer right now, so why aren't you writing? Too busy, you say? Bah humbug! You can knock out 500 words in no time flat if you put your mind to it. We've got one entry so far... you don't want him to be unopposed, do you?

And remember that 500 words is the maximum, so if you want to write a six-word story like Hemingway is supposed to have done, go for it.

You've got until next Thursday, July 16th, at midnight EST. Original contest post with rules HERE. Don't make me send the owl after you.

Need an extra incentive? Tomorrow I'll post pictures of the prizes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I need more zombies.

First rejection of a full manuscript yesterday. The good news/bad news: "it's not your writing, it's the genre." Chick lit is a tough sell these days, apparently -- a number of other agents to whom I've submitted said the same thing -- and this agent just doesn't think she can sell what I've written, although she had briefly hoped that she could repackage it as women's fiction (which is selling quite nicely). She said some nice things, and we agreed that I would get back in touch once I wrote something with a strong zombie heroine. Now THAT would sell.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What Are You Reading?

Okay, so I haven't been reading a lot lately.

Or, I have been reading a lot, but it's mostly been endless out-loud re-readings of my daughter's current favorites (in particular anything by Mo Willems, and anything in the Lou et Mouf oeuvre). And then there's been all the blog reading, which seems less indulgent than sitting down with a novel because it's industry-related and might be get me published someday, so that's practically a job requirement, right? And I listened to some podcast audiobooks, but I can't decide if that counts as reading (and neither can anyone else, it seems). And I did some re-reading: there was a copy of The Joy Luck Club in the house we rented for vacation, and I haven't read it in years, so it was practically like reading it for the first time... oh, and I kinda wanted to read The World According to Garp again...

You see where I'm going with this. These things are, by and large, not going to broaden my mind and improve my writing the way that the regular reading of new books should.

So, I actually started using the iPod IndieBound app that I downloaded a while ago, I found some new books, and I'm actually, you know, reading them. As opposed to letting them pile up next to my bed, waiting for me to have "enough time" to read them, the way I used to let blank journals pile up because they were too pretty to write in.

I read How I Became a Famous Novelist this weekend (yes, I knew it was a novel and not an instruction manual). I read some of it only a paragraph at a time, but dammit, I squeezed reading into every spare half-minute I had. And it was great. Hell, even my daughter helped, declaring "that's mommy's book!" and asking me to read it to her. Next up: Breath, Gears of the City (which I meant to read ages ago, because I freakin' LOVED Thunderer, but my copy is hardcover and therefore not as easy to fit into the diaper bag for reading in multi-tasking snippets), and maybe some Jodi Picoult.

What are you reading?

Friday, July 3, 2009

First Friday Flash Fiction Contest

(Flash! AAAAaaaahhh!)

I've been writing this blog with the thought that many of my first readers would also be writers. Perhaps you found me through the comments sections on the agent and author blogs I frequent. Perhaps I'll finally get around to promoting myself through my favorite podcast for wanna-be fiction writers. At any rate, I've been thinking about ways to keep writing and stay motivated during the in-between times. When all your work is out on submission. When you're too tired or busy or sick to focus fully on the next project. When, as was my case, you've been working on a single project for so damn long that you're finding it incredibly hard to let go of one set of characters in order to make room for another. What can a writer do to get jump-started again?

My solution was flash fiction: short stories of 1,000 words or less.

I recently gave myself a nice boost by writing an entry for a bi-monthly Writer's Digest competition called Your Story. They give you a prompt, and you get a maximum of 750 words (in my case, about 550 words felt right). I didn't win, but I had a nice 2-page burst of energy that made me feel like I was creating again, when I'd been in editing mode for way too long.

Think that might help you, too? Or just wanna try your hand at a super-short format? Enter my first-ever Flash Fiction Contest.

The Rules:
  1. POST in the comments, to let me know that you're participating.
  2. EMAIL me your entry before the deadline (see below). You can find my email address in my blog profile.
  3. Your ENTRY must be: 500 words of fiction or fewer.

I'll give you two weeks -- until next Thursday at midnight, EST. I'm leaving the writing topic totally open, but if you feel that you need someone to narrow down the options for you, go check out the blog for that favorite podcast of mine. Mur Lafferty has been posting some writing prompts lately, and I'm sure you can find suitable inspiration in one of them.

The Prize:

My favorite contest entry will be posted in this blog, compete with a link to the website of your choice, plus I'll send the winner a cool little stationery item (of my choice) similar to the ones for sale in my Etsy store. (The protagonist in my novel is a graphic artist, so there's kind of a book tie-in here. Stick with the blog. All will be revealed in time.)

If all goes well, I'll try to repeat a similar contest on the first Friday of every month.

And in the meantime, here's my own recent flash fiction attempt. I wonder if my use of expletives hurt my chances at winning the contest? Ah, well. I had to write it as I saw it. If you don't want to read the f-bomb (twice), don't read this story.

Writer's Digest Your Story Contest #18 prompt: Finding Strength. A police detective is assigned to a case involving arson at several Krispy Kreme doughnut shops.

(Oh, and you can find the winning story here.)

I’m never going to be able to get used to that smell.

The usual smell of a Krispy Kreme storefront is sugary and tempting enough to begin with, but now… now there’s that caramelized quality to the air. And there’s a boiled-over vat of chocolate sauce visible through the shattered windows, the smoke-dark shards of glass framing the image as beams of light dance and bob and weave through the store, courtesy of the evidence collectors waving their Maglites around…

“Jones! Detective Jones!”

I rip my gaze from the blackened remains of the donut conveyor belts and turn to see Lisa Pelham -- better known to the Maryland cops as Lisey -- waving her arm at me. I nod, and the uniforms let her under the yellow tape to come over to me.

“So,” she says. “Second one this week?”

“And eight altogether,” I say. “The whole northeast is getting hit; one in New York, plus the D.C. store, and two each in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The Rockland location’s the only one left in the state, and it’s under guard now.”

“Still no casualties?”

“No. All the jobs done at night after closing.” I don’t mention that there’s a 24-hour Krispy Kreme in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m worried about them.

“Any suspects?”

“We are currently pursuing a number of leads and feel confident that the perpetrators will be brought to justice swiftly.”

“Aw, come on, Natalie.” Lisey’s shoulders slump. “Don’t give me the party line. Off the record, okay? What the hell is going on? Competitors? Those no-trans-fat nutjobs from New York?” She gives the store a glance over my shoulder, simultaneously pained and disbelieving. “I mean, come on,” she says again. “Who would do something like this?”

I resist the urge to look back. I’m sure the evidence guys are taking the photos and collecting the samples we need. I’ve already walked through once. That’s enough. I’ll come back again when the place is cold… if I have to.

I look Lisey in the eyes.

“I don’t know. The people who run the Cinnabons and the Dunkin Donuts… they’re scared. Maybe there’s someone else we haven’t talked to, but the ones we’ve met are being straight with us. There’s no way they’re behind it. And the trans-fat types you’re talking about clearly prefer legislation to…” I pause, and I get the smell in my nose again. Smoke. Char. Burnt paper and sugar and dough. “Well, to this.”

I catch that pained expression from Lisey again, and I know that it’s only years of police training -- and years of poker playing -- that are keeping the same expression from crossing my own face.

It’s heartbreak.

I touch Lisey on the shoulder. “I’ll let you know the second I get something. You. And we can talk about what gets reported afterwards.”

Lisey nods, and walks back towards the yellow tape.

A still-smoldering bale of napkins gets shoved outside the store’s front door.

Fucking job.

Fucking diet. You’d think losing the stores would make it easier, but now, knowing that I can’t just go get one, even if I wanted it…

The glazed at Dunkin don’t even come close.

I wonder how long a drive it is to Alexandria.

I wonder if there are any Weight Watchers meetings this late at night.