You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2011.

This will be a clearing-the-decks post. That’s what happens when things go silent for a couple of weeks. My bad. I’d say it won’t happen again, but … well, you know.

ANYWAY …

Last week brought the excellent news that 600 Hours of Edward, a book that I wrote more than two years ago and one that continues to find new fans all the time (for which I’m very thankful), has been selected for the One Book Billings program this spring. The book will be talked about at a series of community conversations the week of April 11, and I’ll be giving a presentation at Parmly Billings Library at 11 a.m. on the 16th. I’m really looking forward to this.

For more information, you can call the library at 406-657-8258.

But wait! There’s more!

The Western Writers of America recently released the results of the Spur Awards voting, and I’m proud to say that Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, the first book published by my little literary house, Missouri Breaks Press, was a finalist in the long-novel category.

This honor, of course, is Carol’s alone, as everything that’s good about her book — and that’s a whole lot — is entirely the result of her own industry and talent. I’m just glad I was able to be associated with such a fine work and such a fine person.

Also worth noting is that Richard S. Wheeler also won a Spur, in the short-novel category for Snowbound. It’s his sixth. That’s a record. A wonderful honor for a true gentleman.

And finally …

The aforementioned Missouri Breaks Press will be releasing its second book-length work this summer, a collection of essays and stories by Ed Kemmick. It’s called The Big Sky, By and By, and it tells the stories of some ordinary/extraordinary folks who give this wonderful place flavor and light.

I’m thrilled to be working with Ed to bring this book to the marketplace. I think it’s going to find a lot of eager readers among Montanans and the many people who love this great land from afar.

More details coming soon …

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I love getting to know other writers, particularly those who work in a literary area other than mine. (That sounds really bad, doesn’t it? This is my area. That over there is yours. Stay out of here.) I love hearing about their work habits, the way they cultivate ideas, how they sharpen their stories. In general, I find more similarities than differences, although the differences can be stark.

Take today’s guest, Jamie DeBree. Like me, she’s an author who lives in Billings, Montana. Like me, she’s holding down a day job and pursuing her novel-writing dreams in her off-hours. Like me, she doesn’t sleep (very much). Unlike me, she writes sexually charged romances. In, uh, doing research for this interview, I read her novel Tempest and was impressed with how well she developed her characters (and, yes, she certainly brought the heat, too). Romance is not my preferred area of reading, but I enjoyed Jamie’s book very much. More than that, I had to find out what led her down this particular path, as a romance writer and the proprietor of her own publishing house, Brazen Snake Books.

Here’s her story:

What lit your fuse for writing? Do you recall an a-ha moment where you thought, “OK, this is what I want to do”?

I think I’ve always “felt” like a writer — it was back in high school that I first voiced my desire to write books. To which my parents very logically responded, “You’re gonna need a real job first.” Turns out, they were right. It was only a few years ago that I really decided to get serious and try to make some money with my writing, but I don’t remember any specific moment, because writing has always just been there, a constant in my life, even during the years I wasn’t writing anything.

You came into the business as a committed independent, even though your genre is certainly well-covered by traditional publishing houses. What was behind that decision?

When I was young and dreaming of being a writer, I always thought I’d self-publish my writing. I’ve always tended toward the control-freak side of things, and I’m kind of an outsider anyways, so doing it myself fits my personality. When I finally decided to actively work at publishing my books and joined the online writing community, I was hit on all sides by the “self-publishing is bad and self-publishers suck” stigma, and bought into it for a while. But the whole process of trying to write for a specific line, the hoops (that had nothing to do with writing) required to even get a manuscript on an editor’s desk and the fact that as a new author I wouldn’t be making much money anyways was just so overwhelmingly against the idea of building a successful career that I nearly quit writing altogether. It wasn’t what I wanted from my writing experience. That’s when I hit that question I think all writers eventually have to come to terms with: “Why am I doing this?”

I decided that the reason I wanted to write was simply to entertain people. And to do that, I didn’t need a publishing contract with a house, I just needed a venue. I started posting a draft on my blog, I got some nice comments, and at the same time, self-publishing was starting to be a more acceptable option (the stigma is still there, but it’s far easier to deal with these days). Excited that finally I could do it myself, I jumped into the self-pub pool and haven’t looked back since I made my first sale.

You and I have talked a fair amount about characterization. Why is it so important to your sexually charged stories?

Characters are the heart of any story, in my opinion. My characters drive the plot, and what they’re thinking and feeling at any given time is what keeps that all-important sexual tension high, and determines what happens next both in the story and in their growing relationship. To that end, I do my best to get deep into my character’s heads and pay attention to what they would logically be thinking and feeling from moment to moment and write from that, even if it doesn’t fit the plot I originally envisioned. I think this makes the entire relationship more realistic than if I try to make it fit a certain “box,” though it does get pretty messy sometimes as far as fears, insecurities and stubbornness go. Unlike real life though, the relationships in my books always work out in the end — usually without any extra help from me.

What’s your personal aesthetic for a sex scene?

Hot, but not crass, if that makes any sense. A sex scene without emotion is porn, and that’s not what I write. I like frank language and I want to feel what each character is feeling throughout. I think a lot can be learned about characters in the heat of a very sexually charged moment. I try to invoke a physical response in the reader, to bring them right into the story with the characters so they’re just as invested in the relationship. Emotions are often invoked or magnified by the senses — touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. I try to use all of those to make the scene very real, and show the reader the emotions that my characters are going through at that point in time. If it makes things more complicated when it’s over, all the better.

You and Carol Buchanan — two writers who are working entirely different parts of the literary universe — have teamed up to write a series of blog posts on sex scenes. How in the world did that partnership come about?

Actually, it was Carol’s idea. She e-mailed me last fall, having read one of the draft sex scenes on my blog, and asked if I’d like to collaborate with her on a comparison in styles for writing sex scenes. Naturally I couldn’t turn down an offer like that. It’s been a lot of fun to study the angle from our very different genres and perspectives. I think we’re both learning a lot from each other, and clarifying our own processes as we explore the subject in blog articles.

You’re a transparent writer, in that you post weekly your progress on a story. Why do that, as opposed to rolling it out when you’re done?

Motivation, mostly. I’m a writer who needs an audience — while many writers claim to write for themselves first, I write predominantly to entertain others. While I do occasionally work on drafts that aren’t serialized, I’m happiest when I know someone’s waiting for the next installment.

There are a lot of other benefits I get from it — my drafts, while still rough, have improved immensely because I’m very conscious that people read them as I go. I tend to plot on the fly (i.e., I don’t really outline), and serializing forces me to maintain a linear plot and pay very close attention to continuity while I’m drafting — which means less work for me on the revision side. I also have to re-orient readers quickly at the beginning of each scene, and entice them to come back for the next one at the end, so it’s helped me learn how to keep readers turning the page (or so I’ve been told, anyways). It’s basically my practice arena, and I invite readers to watch just exactly how a story is “born” in my world. I see no reason for it to be some mystical, secret thing we writers hide away. Nearly all creative endeavors are messy in the beginning, and I don’t think we should be afraid or ashamed of that.

Like many (most?) other writers, you have a day job. How do you balance your time among that, the writing, your husband and home life, etc.?

I like quiet when I’m writing, which means my normal writing hours are between around 11 pm and 1 am (2 am if the scene of the day is particularly frustrating), after the dogs and my husband are settled for the night. I can’t edit that late (the analytical portion of my brain tends to fade out earlier), so a lot of revisions/editing take place while I’m watching TV in the evenings and on the weekends. I’ve been known to load my draft on my Kindle and head to the break room at 10 am and 3 pm for 15-minute editing sessions at the day job too. Writing is basically a second job for me — in the evenings after dinner I’m writing blog posts, updating my web sites, socializing on various online platforms (ie, marketing), and watching TV with my husband. Luckily, I’m a very good multitasker and also very disciplined (I love routines and keep fairly strict schedules), so somehow it all gets done. Although I’ve been trying to remember to order more business cards for three weeks now … and please don’t stop by without calling, so I have time to vacuum and pick up the dog toys.

What do you read for pleasure?

Whatever I can get my hands on, really — I generally have 2-3 books going at any given time. My parents always encouraged reading widely across genres for a well-rounded experience when I was young and I’ve kept that habit. So while romance (all sub-genres), erotica and thrillers are the genres I read in most, I also read mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, westerns and literary novels as they come my way. The only genre I really don’t read much of is young adult — I have nothing against the genre, it just doesn’t hold my interest (and didn’t really even when I was young).

What’s next from you?

I’m nearly finished with the serial draft of The Biker’s Wench, the first book in my Fantasy Ranch series scheduled for release this coming July. Monica Burns is running from a forced marriage and ends up at a ranch outside Reno, Nevada, that specializes in making adult fantasies come true. Her father finds her there, but before she can run again she gets an unexpected offer of help from Harley Majors, the owner of the ranch. She reluctantly accepts, but her father turns the tables on them and dangerous chaos ensues as they work to outwit her father and win her freedom once and for all.

I’m also working on revisions to Her Private Chef, a novel I wrote a couple years ago about a split-personality food critic and a popular TV chef with the power to ruin her career. I plan to finish that up and release it sometime next fall. It’s a fun story, and I’m excited to finally be working on it again.

*****

LINKS

Jamie DeBree’s website: http://jamiedebree.com

Purchase links for Jamie’s books: http://brazensnakebooks.com

Jamie’s blog: http://varietypages.jamiedebree.com

Jamie’s page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NovelistJamieDeBree

Jamie’s Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/JamieDeBree

Jenny Shank’s winning debut novel, The Ringer, comes out this month, and readers will be treated to a fine book that uses baseball to delve into issues of family and class.

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about it:

Shank debuts promisingly with the dramatic story of two families upended by an accidental police shooting. Denver police officer Ed O’Fallon is wracked with guilt after he guns down a man during a drug raid; Patricia Maestas, meanwhile, is instantly made a widow and single mother. Their narratives are equally engaging: as Ed’s marriage buckles under the weight of his feelings of guilt, Patricia struggles to keep her 12-year-old son, Ray, out of trouble. What keeps Ray off the streets is baseball—the same sport Ed’s sons are devoted to. When an investigation reveals the warrant for the fateful raid had the wrong address, Patricia and her family become a symbol of the wrongs suffered by the Latino community. The novel comes to a full boil after Patricia and Ed discover one another’s identities through their sons’ baseball teams.

Shank, the book blogger for New West and an active reviewer, was kind enough to take a few questions on how her book came to be, America’s pastime and how her day job keeps her focused on her own writing dreams.

Where did the idea for The Ringer come from?

I enjoy novels that give the reader an inside look at a particular subculture—for example, you learn a lot about the atmosphere of an advertising agency in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End or you learn about John Henry memorabilia enthusiasts in Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. The intense world of competitive youth baseball is a subculture I knew well.

In 1999, when I was just beginning to contemplate writing a baseball novel, the Denver Police raided a house in north Denver on a no-knock drug warrant, and shot and killed Ismael Mena, the Mexican immigrant that they encountered inside. Later it came out that their informant had given them the wrong address of the house, and they’d killed someone whose house they had no business entering. I was shocked and moved by this incident, and I watched it all unfold. In the aftermath, there was a lot of racial tension in the city between whites and Latinos. The part of this story that interested me most as a novelist was the fact that the cop who killed the wrong man was not responsible for the mistake on the warrant—he was doing his job, carrying out orders. I imagined the guilt he felt must be incredible.

I was also interested in writing about Denver, because there aren’t many novels set in my hometown. So I combined these ideas of writing about baseball and Denver with this growing feeling that I had to in some way address the shooting of Ismael Mena by the Denver police, because it seemed to me to be an important, elemental story, one that could tell us a lot about Denver if we’d listen to it.

Once you had the basic idea, how much cultivating did you do before you started writing? In other words, what is your work process like?

I started to keep a folder with press clippings on the Ismael Mena shooting. I did a lot of research on police, studying what it’s like to be involved a shooting. I spoke to cops and families of cops that I happened to know or meet. My cousin is married to a police officer in Omaha, and he told me in smaller cities, patrol officers often train for SWAT work, and then are on call when SWAT situations arise. (Smaller cities can’t afford to have SWAT officers sitting around, because there isn’t a need for them every day.) So I decided to have this be the case for Ed.

Somewhere in the middle of this research, I started writing a draft, working forward from the scenes I could envision easily. When I realized I was beyond my depth, I’d do more research. I made an informal outline of scenes I thought should be in it, and I gradually refined it. It took years of rewriting drafts and getting stuck and getting unstuck to produce the final version. I rewrote the first fifty pages more than anything—it took me years to figure out the right tone and perspective.

The workshop of this novel happened in public, with it being an Amazon Breakthrough Novel and James Jones First Novel Fellowship semifinalist. How much did the feedback you got along the way affect the version that was submitted to The Permanent Press?

Actually, those contests didn’t involve much public workshopping, but they inspired me to continue working on this bear of a project. I entered the beginning of the book in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest in 2005. I hit a low moment of frustration and difficulty in drafting the novel about then, but when I heard it was a semifinalist, I thought, “Well, they saw something in it,” and that gave me the courage to continue. I entered it in the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in 2008. There were something like 10,000 entrants and my book made it to the final 100. They posted two chapters online, and I received all kinds of positive feedback, and some of it wasn’t even written by my relatives. Reaching the semi-final round in that contest gave me the final push I needed to revise it one more time, and after that revision I was able to find an agent.

The real workshopping of this book happened with my writing buddies. I traded novel chapters with my friend, the writer Paula Younger, and we helped each other through the process. Poor Paula has read so many drafts of this novel, she deserves combat pay. I also have a writing group I meet with once a month.

It seems to me that some of the characterizations in the book — a cop sidelined from coaching baseball because of an anger problem, immigrants — could have ended up being caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer. How did you manage to pull off making everyone, be they main characters or supporting ones, three-dimensional and real?

Thank you. And believe me, I am about as “lesser” as writers come. Early drafts were full of melodrama and caricature, but after you work on a book for eight years, it’s possible to beat those problems out of it. The plot of The Ringer is dramatic, and dramatic plots all sound like movie-of-the-week specials when you read a description of them. There were scenes I knew I had to write because they belonged in the arc of the story, but that I was afraid to approach for just this reason.

For example, in one chapter Patricia has to give a speech to a rally of supporters at the state capitol. There was so much potential for caricature in that—I mean, it just seems like a set-up for an eventual Jennifer Lopez Oscar clip. After worrying for a long time, I finally just wrote the scene, and it was bad, and I rewrote it, and it was still bad, and I took another angle on it, and it was still bad. I kept rewriting that chapter right up until the time I had to turn in the manuscript to The Permanent Press, and finally I think it at least seems plausible. I mean, real people do end up in situations like this. I told myself not to try to be cute, coy, or clever and just try to get the big drama of this story onto the page as clearly and honestly as possible.

Let’s talk a little baseball. What’s your background in the game? Your love and knowledge of it certainly came through in the book.

I was raised in a house of sports fanatics. My older brother was a great baseball pitcher and home run hitter. He was offered scholarships by many colleges and even was invited to tryouts for pro teams when he was in high school, and he was named to the all-state team for Colorado. But he hurt both of his knees, and three or four ACL surgeries later…he’s a fantastically successful sales executive for a software corporation. My cousin Tommy Hottovy is a left-handed pitcher. He played ball for Wichita State and he’s been in the Red Sox minor league organization for many years. He currently pitches for the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. So growing up I had an inside view of the feeder system for big league teams—the intense competition starts early, and there are many, many road trips. I also played a lot of softball. I was a catcher, not quite as good as my brother, though I wasn’t terrible—I made Denver’s all-city team several years.

I loved writing about baseball because I knew I didn’t have to worry about getting those parts right. A few parts of my childhood worked their way into The Ringer, such as how my brother would make me help him sort his annual complete baseball card set, the rules of our backyard baseball games, and the July trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the regional baseball tournament every season.

Books that have the sort of arc found in The Ringer generally need a means of bringing disconnected people together, and baseball certainly does that in your book. What were the challenges of using a game to illuminate racial divides and divergent viewpoints?

So far most of the fiction that I’ve written has been about race in some way. When I was growing up, Denver’s public schools had court-ordered busing for racial integration. Beginning when I was six years old, I rode the bus to schools that were thirty minutes or more away from my house, schools in which whites were in the minority. I spent part of my childhood attending schools that were mostly Mexican-American, and part of it at schools that were mostly black. I think because of this, it has always seemed natural to me to tell stories from two perspectives at once. It seems to me that all stories have at least two sides to them, if not ten!

I often write about situations in which people of different races are forced to be together, and sports are one area where that happens consistently. I played sports in school and because of that I made friends with people of all different ethnicities—people who didn’t play sports didn’t tend to mingle as much. I’ve also written stories about football, track, and basketball, stories that are really about race. Though the challenges in writing my book were gargantuan, I never worried about using baseball to write about race. That felt natural, maybe in part because the history of Major League Baseball is inextricable from the history of the Civil Rights movement.

The designated hitter: useful innovation or blight on the game?

Oh dear. I’ve got to say something either impassioned or witty! I guess I like the wackiness of how the American League has a DH and the National League doesn’t, and when NL andAL teams play each other they have to follow the rules of the home team. Because you think of Major League Baseball as being one entity, but it’s not really—it’s two halves that could not agree on something as seemingly simple as this rule. And anything wacky, I’m for. Also I like how having a DH allows some older, out-of-shape players to hang around for some more seasons. I’m fond of out-of-shape baseball players.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why?

Probably Ray. Although all of the characters are fictional, and I can’t say that any of them are based on real people, I went to school with a lot of kids who remind me of Ray, and I’ve always wondered what happened to them. Ray’s attractive, talented, and cocky and at this point his life could go either way, which is an interesting state to write about a character in.

In what ways has your job as the book reviewer/blogger for New West made you a better writer?

I’ve learned almost everything I know about writing from a combination of massive amounts of reading, analyzing what I’ve read by writing book reviews, and the chance to interview other writers. I wrote book reviews for the Rocky Mountain News for eight years, I’ve been covering books for New West for about four years now, and last year I started writing book reviews for the Dallas Morning News. So I’m a book-review-aholic.

Knowing that I’m going to have to write a review every week makes me an attentive reader. And I think I’m a positive reader—I read to find out what works, not to point out why something stinks. I had the chance to interview Francine Prose about her book Reading Like A Writer a few years ago. That’s one of my favorite how-to-write books of all, because she just tells you to read, read a lot and read widely, and if you’re stuck on a scene or the use of perspective or structure or anything, there’s sure to be a writer who has handled this problem before. Read his or her book, and it will help you figure out how to solve your own writing problem.

I kept two books on my desk as I worked on The Ringer—Richard Price’s Samaritan and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Whenever I was stuck I’d flip through these novels to see how these guys did it. Or I’d read another book for New West until an idea came to me.

I’m not one of those writers who abstain from certain kinds of reading to preserve the sanctity of my muse while I’m writing a book. I like my muse good and polluted.

What are you working on now?

I’m trying to finish a short story collection, and I’m daydreaming and jotting notes for another novel, which I hope will have something to do with a graffiti artist.

*****

Jenny Shank’s website

New West books

Jenny Shank’s publisher, The Permanent Press

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