Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pitfalls Facing Newbie Writers, Part III

Previously, in the posts on pitfalls for newbie writers, I've talked about being industry savvy. However, it is very important that you be craft savvy, too.

Today, we're going to talk about some of the most common mistakes made by newbie writers in their manuscripts. All of these have been talked about in other places before now, but that's because these are the mistakes that are most often seen in critique groups:

1) Telling instead of showing--Consider these two descriptions:

Tom was so angry he could barely speak.

Tom took a menacing step toward Mike, slamming his fist into his other hand with a loud twack.

Both are descriptions of anger. In the first one, I "told." In the second one, I "showed." When you show, you use action words and more vivid descriptions. Re-read your material and replace the telling with showing.

I have a quote from Anton Chekhov hanging in my office. It reads, "Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."

2) Too much backstory--Another common mistake is to front-end load a manuscript with a huge amount of backstory--the history of what went on before the story starts. When you begin a manuscript with backstory, you are weighing down your first pages with static narrative. Static means not moving or a lack of action. Not a good way to start out.

Obviously, you need to know what happened before your manuscript starts. However, it is not necessary to tell the reader everything in the first few pages. Write the backstory if you wish and then dribble in a line or two as you go along. You want to tantalize your readers; have them wonder what is behind the feud that erupted into gunfire on page one. You want them to be curious as to why your heroine is traveling across the desert. That's called suspense! Create anticipation; don't dump your entire narrative in the first few pages. And, for heaven's sake, start out with action. If you don't, you'll lose your reader, agent and publisher before they get to page two.

3) Adverbs--I know a fellow writer who spends his time in his critique group circling all the adverbs the other writers use in their manuscripts. Adverbs are a beginning writer's way of shortcutting. When you say, "Beth looked down shyly," everyone knows what you mean. However, you're cheating yourself. You've just missed out on the opportunity to say something like, "Beth dropped her head to hide her blush, afraid to meet Jacob's eyes."

I'm not the absolute purist my writer friend is. When I critique my own work, I cut out all but a handful of adverbs--no more than one every couple of pages. Sometimes an adverb can be used to emphasize something. In my work-in-progress (WIP), I had my hero catch the pickpocket who took his wallet. "You can have your wallet back now," Marley offered magnanimously. I'm being a little sarcastic here, having the pickpocket "offer" to give back the wallet as if she were being generous.

Save your adverbs for when no other word will do as well.

4) Make sure you use the correct word--There are half a dozen words that newbie writers often confuse. Among these are: Your and You're, Its and It's, and Their, They're and There.

Your and You're: Your is a possessive. It refers to someone's property as in your book, your dog, your house. You're is a contraction, a quick way of saying "you are." The easiest way to make sure you use the right word is to actually say out loud what the contraction means: For instance, when you type "you're dog," you are saying "you are dog." Hello? Instead of referring to your hero's dog, you've just insulted him.

Its and It's: Again, "its" is a possessive as in its leg, its puppies, its nest. It's is another contraction; this time for "it is." Same rule applies. Say the contraction out loud. When you do this, "it's hind leg" turns into "it is hind leg" instead of describing the cat's hind leg.

Their, They're and There: Their is the possessive as in their books, their house, their daughter. By now, you know "they're" is the contraction for "they are." When I replace "they're house" with "they are house," I know I've used the wrong word.

Finally "there" refers to "that place." For instance, when I say "put the groceries there," I'm really saying, "put the groceries in that place."

If a particular word gives you trouble, tape a cheat sheet to your desk. That's what I did until I finally learned how to use lie and lay correctly.

I recently critiqued the first three chapters of another writer's manuscript. She made mistakes with all three words above (its/it's, they're/their and your/you're). When I handed her pages back to her, I commented on her issue with contractions. She responded, "That's what critique partners and editors are for; to fix those words for me."

I didn't bother pointing out that, if she continues to make such basic mistakes, she is unlikely to ever sign a contract which will put her in the hands of a New York publishing house's editor. I did decide that I was going to be "unavailable" to do any more critiques for her. I want critique partners who can return the favor by critiquing my work. Sloppy and lazy writers do not make ideal critique partners.

I have more craft mistakes to talk about. We'll look at those in later posts.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pitfalls Facing Newbie Writers, Part II

Today, we're going to look at another pitfall that newbie writers face.

If I had to label this pitfall, I would call it neglecting to do your due diligence. Another way of saying this is failing to research your genre before querying.

It so happens that, in the last week, I saw two posts online by two different agents: Kirsten Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency who has a blog called Pub Rants (; and Jessica Faust, who--along with my own agent, Jacky Sach--is co-founder of BookEnds Literary Agency ( Both Kirsten and Jessica were talking about newbie writers who shoot themselves in the foot by querying manuscripts that are the wrong length for their genre.

There's a standing joke among writers about the newbie writer who announces s/he has begun to market a 200,000-word manuscript.

First of all, that's not a manuscript; that's a doorstop.

Please understand. I'm not saying that you can NEVER sell a manuscript that long. Look at Elizabeth Kostova whose debut novel "The Historian" was 656 pages. And that's not manuscript pages; that's book pages. But that's like lightning striking the pecan tree in your backyard. It *could* happen. It's just not very likely.

You MUST stay within the word count for your genre. Kirsten said it much better than I can. In lamenting queries about novels that were 50,000 to 60,000 words, she said: "Where are writers getting the info that this might be an appropriate length for a work? That it would be a marketable length? Standard word length is usually between 70,000 to 100,000 words for a novel. Fantasy can push up to 110,000 but for a debut, it’s going to be a tough go if the word count is higher."

I've been on loops where newbie fantasy writers ask about where they should send their 150,000-word novels. Invariably, they are insulted when someone suggests they might want to trim the novel length before querying. The question I ask is, "Have you run this novel by a critique group?" Most of the time, the newbie says, "No." HINT: A good critique group can help you cut the fat out of your bloated manuscript. And, believe me, without even reading the novel, I can promise you that a 150,000-word opus is probably bloated.

A couple of days ago, Jessica Faust--answering questions for Dorothy Thompson's Writer's Life Group--had this to say about novel length: "Book length is very important...Of course it also depends [on] what you are writing. Cozy mysteries for example can be closer to 75,000 words while a romance should typically be closer to 90,000 words...The trick is to know your genre and market and know the word count because yes, it does matter. And don't give me that song and dance about Nora Roberts writing 150,000 word books. When you're Nora Roberts we can talk."

The thing is, with the advent of the Internet, there is NO excuse for not doing your homework. The information is out there if you take the time to look for it. When you submit a manuscript that is not the appropriate word length, you are screaming "sloppy" and "amateur."

While no agent will hold it against you for being a newbie, agents do want to represent clients who behave like professionals because, after all, this is their livelihood. If they are going to hook their wagon to your star, they want some reasonable assurance that you aren't fumbling around clueless.

By now, any reader of this blog knows that I am a huge fan of Miss Snark ( On July 4, 2005, she said: "First. it's word count that matters. In fact, it's pretty much ALL that matters unless you are working in the graphic novel format."

Heed that admonition. Know what word count your genre requires and stick to it.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day--May We Always Remember

On a day set aside to remember all those who fought for this country's freedom, let us say a prayer for those brave men and women killed, wounded or missing in action. They sacrificed much so that America could live.

Here is a listing of those Americans killed in action chronologically by campaign:

--25,324--Revolutionary War
----6,180--Indian Wars, Franco-American War, Barbary Wars
----2,260--War of 1812
----------9--Marquesas Islands, West Indies, Sumatra
-------704--Texas War of Independence
--13,283--Mexican War
----------6--Fiji, Texas Border Cortina War
562,130--Civil War
--------11--Japan, Formosa, Mexico and Korea (1871)
----2,893--Spanish American War
----4,460--Philippines War, Samoa, China Boxer Rebellion, Moro Campaigns
-------315--Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti
116,708--World War I
------557--Russia North & Siberia Expedition, China Yangtze, Nicaragua
---2,529--North Atlantic Naval & Pearl Harbor
408,306--World War II
------688--Italy Trieste, China Civil War, Inchon
--54,246--Korean War
----------3--Matsu and Quemoy
--------72--Cuba, Panama Canal Riots, Dominican Republic
--------89--South Korea
--------34--Israel Attack/USS Liberty
---7,040--Tet (Vietnam)
--------36--Iran (Operation Desert One) & Terrorism
------241--Beirut Lebanon
-------23--El Salvador, Honduras, and Libya
-----148--Persian Gulf
-----363--Persian Gulf, Operation Desert Shield/Storm
-----277--Terrorism (1993 - 1996)
------17--Yemen, USS Cole
------44--Terrorism (2001)
-----165--Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan & Filipines)
---2,466--Operation Iraqi Freedom

While these numbers reflect those killed in action, let us not forget those wounded or missing in action.

Alexis de Tocqueville once said of this nation: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

May it ever be so.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Pitfalls Facing Newbie Writers

Started this morning out by meeting an old friend and going for an almost three-hour nature walk. The day was windy and very overcast so, although I had my suntan lotion in my pocket, I never put it on. My friend is African-American, and she didn't apply any lotion either. No excuse. I could have reached for that lotion, but I didn't.

I'm now sporting a rosy red face and neck. I feel like a vampire avoiding mirrors because it's such a shock to see my tomato red sunburned face.

During our walk, my friend and I talked about the difficulty of breaking into the publishing business. There are just so many pitfalls waiting to trip up a newbie writer. I forget sometimes how much I've learned in the last couple of years. Over the next few days, I've decided to focus this blog on some of those pitfalls:


There are more of these out there than you think. They generally fall into three categories: (1) Scam artists posing as agents; (2) Scam artists posing as editors; and (3) Scam artists posing as publishers.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, more and more of them are advertising in places like Writer's Digest. This is the big reason why I cancelled my subscription to Writer's Digest a couple of years ago. In my opinion, any magazine which purports to help newbie writers should make more of an effort to not run ads by con artists who fleece writers.

Most newbie writers start out by sharing their work with friends and family. Remember: Your mother, spouse and best friend are not professionals. They are the people who love you so, of course, they're going to love your work.

The newbie writer--now bolstered by compliments from loved ones--seeks validation in the publishing industry. Those ads or listings that emphasize "We love to work with new and undiscovered talent" are particularly attractive and are meant to entice/attract the newbie writer.

Quick and Dirty Scams:

(1) Agents who charge a reading fee. Agents work on commission. They are paid from your advances/royalties when they get you a contract and you are published. The AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives) has a Canon of Ethics which says that an agent charging such fees is "serious abuse" that reflects adversely on the profession. An agent who joins the AAR must agree not to charge such fees.

(2) Specific recommendations from agents regarding editors. A common ploy is a letter to a newbie writer that essentially says, "I love your work, but it needs a bit of polishing. Here is the name of the editor I recommend." An ethical agent will tell you that your work needs polishing. S/he will not offer to provide those services, or to link you with a specific editor.

Note: A friend of mine got a list of three editors from a scam agent. She thought this was an indication of honesty. Turned out all three editors were the same person doing business under different names. Find your own editor.

(3) One stop shopping: A site that claims to offer you editing and publishing in one place--for a price. Remember: Money always flow FROM the publisher to the writer, not the other way around. An ethical publisher provides editing as a part of the publishing process. You should not be paying a publisher for this service.

There are places you can go to check out an agent or publisher. One of the best sites is Preditor and Editors. That's not a typo. It is Preditors, a word play on Predators. Go here: You can check out any agent, editor or publisher. Bookmark the website. You'll need it again and again.

Last week, a writer friend emailed me complaining about how long the process of finding an agent/publisher was taking her. She finished her novel about a year ago. Against the advice of her critique group, she immediately began marketing it. After a year of rejections, she finally accepted that her novel wasn't ready for publication. But, she is still trying to shortcut the process. Instead of taking the time to listen to the critiques from her group, she is now in the market for an editor, thinking that will speed things up. Her impatience makes her an ideal candidate for a scam artist.

Writing is a profession. Like all professions, it takes time to become proficient. Every lesson you learn along the way--whether it be about your craft or learning the industry--makes you a better writer. Accept that it will take time. Embrace the time as an opportunity to improve your craft.

Good luck and keep writing.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

An Orphan and The Orphan Works Act

Today was another good day. My plan was to take the holiday weekend off and start on the first of my next two manuscripts next Tuesday.

But I woke this morning at 6:30, dying to tell Marley's story. Marley is a pickpocket who makes the mistake of selecting the wrong mark.

All day, in between errands, I kept returning to my laptop to work on Marley's story, tentatively called "Marked." By tonight, I had about 10% of the manuscript finished.

Since Marley is an orphan adopted by the Romani, it seemed appropriate to focus on "orphan works" for tonight's post.

Last Monday (5/22/06), U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced House Bill 5439. The bill is intended to make it easier for persons to use copyrighted material when the original owner cannot be located.

The Association of American Publishers, the trade association for U.S. publishers, supports this bill.

On 11/13/05, I blogged about the difficulty in locating copyrights holders. Google was giving this as the reason they were not seeking rights-holders' permission prior to copying books for their Google Print Library initiative.

The U.S. Copyright Office is one of the most antiquated entities in our government. Their database only includes copyrights back to 1978--less than thirty years. The Copyright Office itself says, "Because the Catalog does not include entries for assignments or other recorded documents, it cannot be used for searches involving the ownership of rights."

At the time I wrote my November blog, at least two copyright scholars had confirmed Google's statement that it would be impossible to locate the rights-holders on all the books in the Google Print Library project.

The Copyright Office says, "when it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of 'fair use' would clearly apply to the situation."

I predicted that, at some point, the courts were going to have to decide whether and how fair use applies to Google Print's effort.

Now, along comes the Orphan Works Act. Copybites, a blog devoted to copyright law (, did an excellent job of listing the provisions in the new bill.

The bill describes the steps that a potential user must take before using a work. These include performing and documenting a diligent search to locate the rights-holder of the work in question. If the user is unable to locate the rights-holder, s/he must provide attribution to the author and owner of the copyrighted work.

If the user takes these steps (which may include using paid search tools/expert assistance), the remedies for infringement shall be limited, meaning award of actual damages, statutory damages and attorneys' fees shall be limited if the rights-holder later brings an infringement suit.

If the rights-holder contacts the user, s/he shall be awarded "reasonable compensation." If the user/infringer refuses to pay that reasonable compensation, the bill provides for payment of attorneys fee and costs. Of course, if the user/infringer fails to negotiate in good faith, the Courts may award full costs including damages.

The bill also limits the reasonable compensation in the case of use "performed without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage and primarily for a charitable, religious, scholarly, or educational purpose" OR if the user/infringer ceases the infringement "expeditiously" after receiving notice of the infringement.

The bill also directs the Copyright Office to provide search tools and best practice guidelines on what constitutes a reasonably diligent search. In order to provide time to do this, the effective date of the bill is delayed until June 1, 2008.

The sponsor of the bill, Representative Smith, said, "The orphan works issue arises when someone who wants to use a copyrighted work cannot find the owner, no matter how diligently they search . . . Under the Orphan Works Act, they could follow guidelines posted by the Copyright Office as a show of due diligence to reduce the threat of litigation for simply doing the right thing.”

Friday, May 26, 2006

Lessons Learned (The Hard Way)

Today was a really good day. After an inordinate amount of angst, I got my three-manuscript proposal off to my agent, who sent me an email tonight that she had forwarded it to St. Martin's Press. Praise the Lord!!

I learned two important lessons during this process and want to share them.

To begin, a bit of history: We'd first sent a manuscript to St. Martin's in mid-February. At the beginning of April, they came back and advised they liked the manuscript, but wanted some changes to it. Additionally, they requested proposals for two more manuscripts.

Since this had been our plan from the beginning, I'd been working on ideas for additional stories for a couple of months. As soon as we had the okay from SMP, I forwarded a proposal for the first new story to my agent for review.

It turned out that she HATED the storyline. Of course, since she's a lovely person, she didn't actually say she hated the story; instead, she sent me a list of all the reasons why it didn't work for her. A lengthy list.

I completely misread this action on her part. Instead of recognizing the bottom line (she hates this story), I went to work trying to fix the elements she said she disliked. Of course, nothing I did changed the basic problem ("I hate this story"). All it did was annoy her and frustrate me. I wasted several weeks before the truth finally dawned on me: I needed to walk away from the story.

After I had this epiphany, I sent her a quick email. Her relief was obvious. Fortunately she loved the next proposed story, and didn't request a single change. She also liked the plot for the replacement story with only one revision. Things moved forward quickly from that point.

First lesson learned: Do NOT chase after a proposal. This is a very subjective business. I trust my agent. I need to accept her judgment, or find another agent. Once she indicates that a specific plot doesn't work for her, if I still feel compelled to write the story (I really loved the storyline), I need to market it elsewhere. Maybe to an e-publisher.

Background for the second lesson: I'm a pantser, meaning I write by the seat of my pants. Generally, I have an idea for a story. Maybe it's a specific scene, or plotline or even an ending. I do not outline or plan the entire story beforehand. I start writing and let my characters direct the action. About one hundred pages into the story (25% of the way), after my characters have made themselves known to me, I begin to seriously plan because, you know, otherwise you'll have a SAGGING MIDDLE--something far worse than a slumping bosom or a face needing a lift.

Obviously, a story proposal requires a detailed synopsis. A detailed synopsis requires a plan. A plan involves forethought.

Writing the proposals was hard for me. I had a vague (make that very vague) sense of my characters, but it wasn't strong enough for me to easily develop the story. I drove my critique partners crazy sending them early versions of the synopses. My CPs were great (special thanks to Jeanne Laws and Linda Lovely), using the Socratic method of asking me questions about the characters and story, thereby forcing me to fill holes and make revisions. Partway through the process, I found myself writing snippets of dialogue. THAT saved me. Through the dialogue, I started to connect (really connect) with my characters.

Now a dialogue-heavy proposal is a very long one. I didn't fight it. I went with the flow and found that things got much easier from that point. While I didn't include all the dialogue in the proposal (one proposal was originally almost forty pages long), you can bet I saved it all for use when I finally do write the stories.

Second lesson learned: Dialogue is a great way to quickly learn about your characters and to flesh them out when you're feeling really, really stuck in a synopsis. I have friends who interview their characters before starting a novel. I always thought the practice was contrived and somewhat cutesy, but I now have a new appreciation for how it can help a writer to get a handle on a character's personality/mood/goals.

I've often wondered how formal plotting would work for me. I now accept that I am at heart a pantser. Like my gender, sexual orientation, and cultural background, it's a part of me. I embrace it wholeheartedly.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Cautionary Tale

Interesting day. I had requests from three other writers to reprint three of my blogs in newsletters. I appreciated the compliment.

I'm also having laptop problems. I'm beginning to think this machine is possessed. Whenever I'm on a deadline or feeling stressed, it seems to act up. Do you suppose it can sense something from how hard I pound the keys or perhaps from the skin oils on my fingertips? Hmmmm. Haunted computer. I wonder if that could be worked into a story?

There's a developing story happening in the blogosphere. I thought it would die down in twenty-four hours but, if anything, it's gotten bigger. Finally decided to post about it.

First, the players:

Absolute Write Absolute Write's website here is a clearinghouse that provides information and networking opportunities for writers.

Miss Snark Miss Snark is the pseudonym for an agent who writes a blog here that provides helpful information for writers.

Barbara Bauer Barbara Bauer is a woman who says here that she operates a literary agency. However, under "Our Clients' Work," her website contains vague language about "a few of the many companies who have worked with our clients," as opposed to something more concrete like "publishers who have bought/paid for/contracted our clients' work." The people (clients?) her website links to are self-published. There is no list of books she has sold.

More to the point, the websites I trust like Preditors and Editors here post warnings that Barbara Bauer is "not recommended." Apparently, enough complaints have been lodged about her with watchdog groups that she recently was placed on a list called "The Top Twenty Worst Agents."

Since this story started, bloggers have come forward to say that, when they wrote something negative about Barbara Bauer on the Internet, she contacted them with threats of legal action. Apparently this strategy has served Ms. Bauer well until the current contretemps.

As I understand this story, Absolute Write recently posted the list of the Top Twenty Worst Agents. Ms. Bauer--in an attempt to get the list removed--contacted the ISP for Absolute Write and threatened legal action. According to Teresa Nielsen Hayden of the Making Light blog here, the web host--a company called JC-Hosting--buckled under the pressure and, without warning, simply pulled down the entire Absolute Write website on May 23, 2006.

As of this writing on the 25th, Absolute Write is still down, but I hear they are shopping around for another Internet service provider.

One assumes that Ms. Bauer must have been pretty happy with this outcome. However, she apparently did not count on the power of the blogosphere because word traveled swiftly through the writers' community about what had happened to Absolute Write. Yesterday, I must have heard the story at least five times on the various loops and blogs I frequent.

Then Miss Snark stepped forward. In a blog that can only be described as filled with righteous anger and indignation, MS posted two blogs on 5/24 here (You'll have to scroll down to the post titled "Hey Barbara Bauer! Put Up Or Shut Up!")

In her inimitable style, MS said, "Barbara Bauer is not a literary agent. Barbara Bauer is a scam artist. And a very very stupid one."

If that wasn't enough to float your boat, MS also said, "Hey Barbara Bauer! Put up or shut up! . . .You can storm around all you want and huff and puff till the house blows down. I have only one question, Babs, honey: 'What have you sold'?"

Things really started rolling then. MS says she averages 3,000 hits a day on her blog. Her loyal (dare I say, fanatical) fans and readers began linking to her blog and the Top Twenty Worst Agents list. The goal was to convince the Internet's search engine web crawlers to pull up the list every time someone googled--you got it--Barbara Bauer.

This grass roots campaign seems to be working. I just googled "Barbara Bauer." Of the first eight listings, the first was her literary agency. The next seven were either the Top Twenty Worst Agent list or a reference to this story.

The story is still rattling around on the Internet. Today's Publisher's Lunch referred to it, saying "Blogger/agent Miss Snark is on the warpath over Barbara Bauer, 'one of the 20 worst literary agents' according to a list compiled by the SFWA's Writer's Beware."

I have three thoughts:

(1) The other nineteen people on that list of the Top Twenty Worst Agents might want to pool their resources and hire a hitman for ole Babs, seeing as how she has now taken them from what was merely an embarrassing situation to a cause celebre;

(2) Babs, you might want to keep in mind what happened to Martha Ivery (publisher of Press-Tige Publishing Company) when Writer Beware went after her. Trying to evade her tarnished reputation, Martha invented a new persona: Kelly O'Donnell, literary agent, and continued doing business as usual. It took several years before the FBI nailed Martha/Kelly for mail fraud (see my blog of 12/8/05 here titled "Anatomy of a Writing Scam"); and

(3) When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that, although the wheels of justice grind slow, they grind exceedingly fine.

Mom, I bow to your wisdom.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What Does Your E-mail Say About You?

Because I want to mention this while I'm thinking about it, you get two posts in one day.

A wannabe writer e-mailed me this week, complaining that she has had no takers on her e-mail queries. Not one. Nada. Zilch.

My first thought was that she'd probably not sent out enough queries yet. I asked how many she had e-mailed, expecting to offer a soothing response about it being a numbers game, and you need to get those queries out there. Instead, I was surprised by the number she cited, which was much higher than I'd expected. Much higher.

I sat there, trying to frame a helpful response like, "You might want to take another look at your query letter." That's when I saw her e-mail address.

I am changing the actual address to protect the innocent, but it was something like

Everyone KNOWS this, but it bears repeating. Publishing is a business. When you send out e-mails to agents and publishers, you are sending out a business letter. You would never put "Timmy's Mom" at the top of your letterhead; don't put it in your e-mail. And, while I'm on the subject, this category includes cutesy e-mails like For heaven's sake, if you can't think of yourself as a single, independent individual, why should a prospective agent?

This doesn't mean you have to get rid of an e-mail address with which you identify. Just open a new one for your business correspondence.

I'm not saying this alone will prevent you from being taken seriously, but remember how important first impressions are. That e-mail name is the first thing an agent or publisher is going to see. Make it work for you, not against.

And, if your results aren't what you want, have someone you trust review your query letter. I'm assuming your sample chapters have already been vetted by a critique group.

P.S. Talked today with an old friend, who is Chief Financial Officer at a local university. We talked about this blog. She said that applicants to college as well as job applicants also need to heed this advice.

Applications which come from "hotgirl" and "bigdick" are not considered for either admission or employment at her school. If you don't display good judgment during the application process, what can a prospective employer/university expect from you later????

Amazon/BookSurge Sued

No sooner did Amazon and its subsidiary, BookSurge, announce a new print-on-demand program for publishers (see yesterday's blog) than they get sued.

New York State Senate candidate Leon R. Koziol is suing both companies in U.S. District Court in Albany for $11 million dollars. He filed the suit in New York State Supreme Court in Warren County, New York in January, 2006. It was moved to Federal Court this month.

Koziol, an attorney, said that he signed a contract on March 17, 2005 and paid $10,000 for 1,000 copies of his self-published political thriller, Paradise Under Siege. The books were to be ready "by May, 2005 to coincide with the summer tourism season" according to the Utica Observe Dispatch. He complains that the 250 books he received arrived late and were filled with editing/production errors. He also complains that the remaining 750 books were never delivered.

Koziol alleges that the trade paperback copies he received were "riddled with misspellings, jumbled text, mismatched pages and other errors," according to

The suit also alleges the book was "replete with grammar, spelling and content errors, including words not found in any dictionary." The Times Union says "copies of the book also had text that was sideways, slanted or upside down." An illustration and the cover design Koziol had requested were not included.

Koziol further states that BookSurge did not return his phone calls or letters. Amazon did not return calls, and BookSurge declined to respond beyond saying that Koziol was no longer a client.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Amazon's New POD Initiative

Last Friday, at the same time as the BEA, Amazon and BookSurge (the POD company they purchased in April, 2005) announced "a new Print-on-Demand (POD) program designed to help book publishers sell lower volume book titles through a more economic supply chain." [Amazon press release]

Translation: Amazon has leapfrogged ahead of Google and is now offering publishers an inexpensive way to print as few as one copy of an out-of-print title from their list.

Last spring, BookSurge CEO, Bob Holt, sent a letter to his clients touting his company's acquisition by He said, "BookSurge's inventory-free fulfillment network offers a great advantage for online retailing. We can stock an infinite number of titles without worrying about shelf spaces, restocking, or reprinting. We simply print the book once it's ordered."

Yesterday's Publishers Weekly (PW) reported that "Amazon also offered a host of incentives for publishers to join its print-on-demand initiative." According to the press release, these included discounted book scanning services for publishers with no upfront fees and free setup for titles with POD-ready digital files. Friday's Publishers Lunch (PL) said the free setup was available until June 30th for publishers placing fifty or more books with Amazon.

Amazon VP Greg Greeley promoted the new POD service as a way to help publishers "avoid taking titles out of print" (PL). In a PW article on 3/27/06, Greeley indicated that the ability to keep books in print through POD was a large part of why Amazon purchased BookSurge last year. PW reported that, once they receive an order, BookSurge will ship the book within 24 hours. "The rights holder determines the cover price; Amazon sets its own retail price."

Readers' choices continue to expand. Once upon a time, a reader's options were to buy a print book new or used. With the advent of the Internet, s/he could purchase a book for download on a computer. With this new POD initiative, s/he can purchase a single book that is no longer available in print.

I'm still waiting to see the math. How much will these POD books cost? How much will the author earn? It would appear that this is an overall plus for authors. Their books can remain in print indefinitely through a program like this.

It will be interesting to see how many publishers take advantage of the incentives Amazon/BookSurge are offering.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Technorati Take On The Literati

Today's had a provocative article about the cultural clash between print publishing and digital publishing. Entitled "Explosive Words" it was written by Bob Thompson, who says, "The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined."

The chatter at the BookExpo was John Updike's talk on Saturday morning. Instead of promoting his own new novel (Terrorist), Updike took on the technorati, heaping scorn on Google's efforts to create a "universal library." Pointing out that "books traditionally have edges," he rallied the booksellers, saying, "Defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity." Updike got a standing ovation.

If Updike was the spokesman for the literati, Caroly Fiorina (who used to be the CEO over at HP) was the spokesperson for the technorati. Her presentation was entitled "The Future of Publishing in the Digital Age." She warned publishers that "There are a whole set of choices in front of you," and "my guess is that not everyone will survive and not everyone will thrive."

Publishers Weekly also commented on Fiorina's talk. Using digital photography to show how quickly technology can change, she pointed out that "five years ago, the notion of zapping digital images among gadgets like cell phones and PDAs . . . would have seemed impossible. She said that, ultimately, 'technology is transforming every industry and it can be resisted, but it can't be stopped.'"

Fiorina's statements are eerily similar to comments she made over three years ago at a conference in Amsterdam: "Over the last couple of years, technology actually is becoming even more deeply woven into the fabric of our businesses and our lives. I think there is a clearer understanding today that no matter what business you are in, technology is the business—and that the smart application of technology increasingly will determine winners from losers."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Promoting Literary Fiction

Today's New York Times had an essay called "Promotional Intelligence" by Rachel Donadio. The article focused on the hard row that literary fiction has to hoe in today's harsh publishing field. "Like an elegant but impoverished aristocrat married to a nouveau riche spouse, it has long been subsidized by mass-market fiction and by nonfiction ripped from the headlines."

The author quotes an editor at Harcourt saying, "The whole system is set up for impatience." He is referring to the fact that, if a literary novel doesn't sell well in the first two weeks after its release, it is unlikely to gain momentum.

One publisher of literary fiction claimed that, until recently, it has been very difficult to get ordinary readers "to take a chance on new writers." Supporting this contention, the Times points out that, in 2005, about half of all literary fiction sales came from the top twenty best-sellers. Familiar names usually win out over new ones.

Donadio describes the dynamic as a "delicate dance: buyers use a writer's past sales to determine how many copies of a new novel to order; publishers try to convince buyers that a book has potential even if they can't justify spending the money to promote it in the way they would a commercial title." The publishers know that the superstars of tomorrow have to start out on the bottom of their list. Even if they don't have the dollars to promote these newer voices, they try to build a buzz around their names.

A literary agent was quoted as saying success in launching a new writer/book is fifty percent hard work and fifty percent luck.

In order to build that momentum for a new book, publishers work to build enthusiasm inside their own walls, send out copies of the manuscript to booksellers and critics long before publication and try to secure "prominent placement" with booksellers.

The Times outs "the single most powerful person in American literary publishing." This powerhouse is Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble's only literary fiction buyer. "Publishers are reluctant to talk about Hensley on the record, for fear of jeopardizing their rapport with the gatekeeper to a company with 799 stores and 17 percent of the United States book market."

My favorite quote in the article was from Jonathan Galassi, a literary publisher: "much of the best writing is the work of the odd, uncooperative, intractable, pigheaded authors who insist on seeing and saying things their own way and change the game in the process. The 'system' can only recognize what it's already cycled through. What's truly new is usually indigestible at first."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Revision Hell

Today was the monthly meeting of my RWA chapter, North Texas RWA (NTRWA). Our featured speaker was Candy Havens, author of Charmed and Dangerous and the upcoming Charmed and Ready.

The title of Candy's talk was "Revision Hell." She made several excellent points. You've heard many of them before, but they bear repeating--again and again:

**After you finish your manuscript, put it aside to marinate. Try to give yourself several weeks (or at a minimum, several days) away from it. By doing so, you gain some perspective. My habit is to put my manuscripts aside for at least a month.

**Be sure to line up your critique partners to go through the revisions with you. This is a time when you need all the input you can get from objective readers--not your spouse, your mother or your best friend.

**Is there tension and conflict on every page? Does EVERY scene move the story forward? If not, it needs to be deleted, no matter how much you love it.

**Remove superfluous dialogue. You don't need a bunch of, "Hi, how are you?"

**Replace your dialogue tags with action tags. Instead of saying, "he said," try something like, "he scratched his five o'clock shadow."

**Are you including at least three senses on every page? Make sure you describe smells, sounds and textures in addition to visual and taste cues.

**Include a good balance of dialogue, introspection and action on every page. Think of introspection as "scene/sequel." Something happens and you need to include your protagonist's reaction.

**Don't get caught up in a Bermuda Triangle of endless revision. Know when to stop. DO NOT SQUEEZE EVERY DROP OF SPONTANEITY OUT OF THE MANUSCRIPT.

Happy revisions!!!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Leonardo (DaVinci) and Me

Before I talk about seeing "The DaVinci Code" today, I want to share a piece of my personal history.

My mother was a red-headed Irish lass, and my father was a first-generation Italian. They met in fairy tale fashion in the melting pot that is New York City. When they announced their engagement, both families were horrified.

My father grew up in Little Italy and, to my stolidly Irish grandparents, was a strange, exotic creature. By the same token, my paternal grandparents regarded Mom with enormous unease. I can still remember her sitting in a chair in the dining room at my father's parents' house looking utterly lost. Daddy--and, later, I-- acted as her translator.

When I was born--the first granddaughter on either side of the family--everyone wanted to be the one to name me. Mom and Daddy were scared to death of offending anyone. Daddy hit on the solution of naming me "Mona Lisa." I'm sure, to his mind, I was the most beautiful child ever born and deserved the name. Mom waited until he left the hospital for dinner to call the nurse and substitute her choice of name on the card. Thank you, Jesus!

All this is to say that I have a love-hate relationship with Leonardo DaVinci. While I appreciate his genius, I still get cold chills at the thought of going through life as Mona Lisa.

Perhaps that was why I had so much trouble reading "The DaVinci Code" (TDVC). It took me a solid year to get past the first fifty pages. Once I did that, however, I speed-read the rest of the book. My assessment was that, while Dan Brown was not great shakes as a writer, he was one hell of a fantastic plotter. I've been anxiously awaiting the movie ever since I finished the book last summer. I took the day off today to see the film.

In the last two weeks, I've seen Ron Howard doing guest appearances on several talk shows. He said that, during the filming of TDVC, strangers would walk up to him and say, "Don't screw that movie up." I'm guessing all those admonitions made him nervous, and his nervousness made him cautious.

The beauty of "The DaVinci Code" was its audacity in weaving together lots of different strands from history, religion, art and architecture in a glorious and sensational tapestry. It was FUN! I suspect Ron Howard was trying: (1) too hard to avoid offending people and (2) to make sure he included everything in the book.

In contrast, look at the "Harry Potter" movies. The Rowling books are so long that it's impossible to make films that include every incident. The three directors wisely chose the most important events to focus on.

By trying to include every puzzle from the book, Howard never is able to build sufficient suspense around any one puzzle. In addition, instead of creating a fast-paced thriller, every time TDVC seemed to be picking up steam, Howard inserted a flashback. One or two would have been okay, but I got really tired of them after a while.

The soundtrack annoyed me. More than once, I was knocked out of the story by its loud intrusion into a scene.

The supporting cast was superb, but I was disappointed in Tom Hanks. His expressions seemed exaggerated and out of character, especially in the scenes with Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing. McKellen just chews up the scenery. He is so obviously having a great time that Hanks seems wooden in comparison.

A group of about ten teenagers were sitting behind me in the theatre. As they left, one of the boys said, "What a dog." In a chorus, the girls immediately said, "Oh, you have to read the book." I think that's going to be a common reaction.

A friend asked me this evening to rate the movie on a scale of one to ten. I gave it a 6.5. It wasn't awful, but neither was it the glorious ride I was hoping for. In my opinion, Nick Cage and Jon Turteltaub did a better job two years ago with "National Treasure."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

I'm Set Up For Sales; All I Need Now is a Book

It happened again today.

I've written about this before. People who claim to be interested in writing, but who are more interested in the ancillary parts of being a writer than in actually writing.

Today, the wannabee was soliciting information on e-publishing, wanting to know how to "compile" an e-book and put it on a website for downloading. And, oh, by the way, the book isn't written yet.

I offered a website with a list of reputable e-publishers, but she came back again, asking about posting the e-book on her website because, of course, she wanted "to look at all options and decide which one is right."

My goodwill having already been tapped out, I told her she was getting ahead of herself. I suggested that she focus on writing the book before starting to decide on a marketing platform.

I didn't mean to be insensitive to her needs, but--after a while--it gets really old to be asked about finding an agent, finding an editor, finding someone to market film rights when the person doing the questioning hasn't written word one.

Lots of well-known writers have talked about this dynamic. Stephen King has spoken about it more than once during interviews. He is not friendly to wannabees who question him while acknowledging they have not yet written anything.

I'm sure every profession has a similar phenomenon. Actors who are too busy writing their Academy Award acceptance speech to bother going on auditions. Football players who are too busy deciding which professional team they want to play for to show up for high school practice. Stock brokers who are too busy bragging to their friends about their sales record to cold call new clients.

Anyway, I wish my friend from today lots of luck in marketing her soon-to-be-bestseller e-book.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Pain of Rejection (Letters)

A fellow writer drew my attention to an old blog today. Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote a post on February 4, 2004, commenting on rejection letters that writers had received and their reactions to the letters.

Every person who is serious about writing knows the anticipation, the fear, and the letdown of receiving a rejection letter. It takes courage to send your work off to a complete stranger to be judged.

Writing is such a personal business that it's hard not to take the rejections personally, too. In trying to explain the dynamic to non-writers, I've compared it to having a total stranger look in your baby carriage and say, "God, your baby is ugly!"

Teresa, who's been an acquiring editor for sci-fi, has this to say about rejection letters: "What these guys have failed to understand about rejection is that it isn't personal. If you're a writer, you're more or less constitutionally incapable of understanding that last sentence...[but] If you got rejected, it wasn't because we think you're an inadequate human being. We just don't want to buy your book...You know your heart and soul are stapled to that manuscript, but what we see are the words on the paper. And that's as it should be, because when readers buy our books, the words on the paper are what they get."

Interestingly enough, Teresa makes a similar comparison to my ugly baby example in her blog: "This all becomes clearer if you think about it with your reader-mind instead of your author-mind. Authors with books are like mothers with infants: theirs is the center of the universe, uniquely wonderful, and will inevitably and infallibly be loved by all who make its can be a form of blindness."

Teresa also points out what should be obvious--don't increase your odds of being rejected by being stupid. Pay attention to guidelines. If the imprint doesn't publish poetry, don't send them poems. Don't neglect to include your SASE. Don't increase your chances of being rejected.

If you'd like to read the entire blog, here's the address:

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Authorhouse Loses Libel Suit

Talk about the ex-husband from hell.

Today's Publishers Weekly had an article about a libel case brought against vanity press Authorhouse by bestselling romance author, Rebecca Brandewyne. A Kansas jury found in Brandewyne's favor, awarding her $230,000 in actual damages as well as an unspecified amount in punitive damages to be determined in a hearing on May 25th.

A really interesting aspect of the case was Authorhouse's contention that they could not be held responsible since their contract states they assume no responsibility or liability for claims arising from publication. Brandewyne's attorney argued that, since Gary Brock (one of the two authors and Brandewyne's ex-husband) had informed Authorhouse that another publisher had turned the manuscript down due to concerns about libel, the vanity press should have vetted it more carefully.

This verdict was the final chapter in a long-running and bitter divorce battle between Brandewyne and her ex-husband. Almost exactly a year ago, on May 18, 2005, Brock was convicted of filing a false police report. The judge ruled that Brock planted a fake bomb on his porch on March 15, 2003, and then called the police at 3 AM to report finding the device and seeing his ex-wife's car drive away from the scene.

When investigators went to Brandewyne's house, her car did not appear to have been driven. Turning their attention back to Brock, they searched his house and garage. They found materials similar to those in the fake bomb as well as a receipt for end caps similar to those on the fake pipe bomb.

District Judge David Kaufman sentenced Brock to one hundred days in county jail.

While the criminal case was still pending, Brandewyne sued Brock for libel. The lawsuit claimed that Brock had written a book called Paperback Poison: The Romance Writer and the Hit Man, which contained "numerous false, malicious and defamatory statements" about her and John Cox, her current husband. The book alleged that Brandewyne plagiarized, committed adultery and hired a hit man to kill Brock. The suit named Brock, a subsequent wife and Author Solutions (later Authorhouse).

According to The Wichita Eagle, "the book was offered for sale on the company's Web site from November 4 [2003] through January 30 [2004], but that no copies were ordered during that time." Today's Publishers Weekly reported that "Authorhouse claims 74 copies of Paperback Poison in total were printed, 21 were given to the author, three were sold, and the company destroyed the 50 copies they had remaining in stock after receiving complaints about the book..."

Authorhouse may appeal the case after the May 25th hearing fixes the punitive damages.

Werewolves Anyone?

Mary O'Gara--psychic, writer and teacher--is leading a class on paranormal characters this month. In her lesson on Monday, she referred students interested in werewolves to an article written by my critique partner, Jeanne Laws. The article appeared in the LARA Confidential, the newsletter for the L.A. RWA chapter.

I agree with Mary. The article is terrific. You can check it out here along with other great articles written by Jeanne:

Monday, May 15, 2006

Plotting By Throwing A Stone Into Water

Today turned out to be a productive day--about time, since my recent house woes had knocked me way off schedule.

I'm in the process of putting together a proposal request for a New York publishing house. The first third of the proposal finally got a blessing from my agent this morning. Finally, because I was late in sending it, not because she was late in blessing it. Energized by her whole-hearted approval, I blasted my way through the second third today (Jacky had already seen this piece and had given me a list of editing suggestions to consider). My plan is to ship this reworked second third off to her again tomorrow, freeing me to concentrate on the final third. I'd love to have the whole proposal out of my house by Thursday night. Thursday, because that would free me up to enjoy The DaVinci Code opening on Friday.

Two things came together in my mind this weekend and, as often happens, I suddenly saw a parallel to the writing process. One was the cascading effect of the flood in my house nearly a month ago. When I say "cascading effect," I mean the way every action provokes a reaction, which--in turn--results in another action and another reaction and so forth. As an example, Texas had a thunderstorm, which prompted my power to go out and (we think) prompted my water heater to blow. The water heater blowing created a flood. The installer for the new water heater then tightened a bolt so tightly, he created a crack in an old pipe, which--in turn--resulted in a second flood. All the flooding freaked out my oldest cat, throwing her off her schedule AND leading to her urinating inappropriately in the house. Now she's locked in the guest bathroom, relearning proper litter box etiquette, which is freaking my kitten out.

See what I mean about cascading effect? It goes back to that nursery rhyme we all learned in grammar school:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Over the weekend, I was so in need of R&R that I spent an entire afternoon reading Janet Evanovich's last Stephanie Plum story (Eleven On Top). If you haven't read the book yet, be forewarned. The next paragraph will be filled with spoilers. Sorry, but I want to use that book as an example of the cascading effect in plotting.

Stephanie Plum is a bond enforcement agent (read here: bounty hunter). She may be the worst bounty hunter in the history of the world. Book #11 starts with Stephanie deciding it's time for her to hang up her bounty hunter hat. This means she needs another job. As always with Evanovich, there are two parallel subplots. The first is Stephanie's search for a new job. The second is the series of attempts on her life by an anonymous stalker. You know, from the first page, that those two subplots will come together at some point, separate and then come together again in the last quarter of the book.

Stephanie starts out looking for a new job. She obtains a position at the local button factory (action). Because she shows up several hours late the first morning, she is immediately fired (reaction). Back in the ranks of the unemployed, she takes a job at a local dry cleaner (new action). Accused of giving discounts to her friends, she is fired again (new reaction). Desperate for a job, she takes a position at a fast food chicken place (action), where her stalker throws what appears to be a bomb through the take-out window (NOTE: second subplot touching on first subplot). A terrified employee throws the package in a fry basket, causing a fire and burning the place down (reaction).

I'll stop there. You can see what I mean. The book is a perfect example of the cascading effect. It's as if Evanovich dropped a stone in the water and watched the ripples spread out wider and wider from that original point of impact. Her books are intended to be humorous mysteries (blue collar chick lit). I've come to think of her plotting as an "H" where each leg represents a subplot and the joining arm is where the two plots come together mid-book. Of course, the "H" turns into a "U" at the end when the two subplots merge into one.

You can, of course, create a book with a linear plot line (the letter "I") but, if you do, you need to speed up your action so that the conflicts come fast and furiously. I find books with several subplots in which the action is woven together more interesting (and less stressful to write).

Think about the plot progression the next time you read (or write) a book.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Power and Consequences of Free Speech, Part III

Okay, so we come to the final chapter of the brouhaha between citizen Lance Dutson and the Maine Office of Tourism (MOT) and their contractors.

If you're just coming to the story, here's a quick summary of the key players:

1) Lance Dutson, a Maine web designer who objected to the MOT purchasing keywords for inclusion in Google's Adwords program, saying it forced businesses to compete with the MOT for purchase of keywords. He also accused a MOT sub-contractor of conflict of interest. From October to the present, he has operated a blog titled Maine Web Report on which he catalogues what he sees as the MOT's many mistakes.

2) Dann Lewis, head of the Maine Office of Tourism. He insisted that, instead of harming Maine businesses, the purchase of keywords by MOT helped small business owners who didn't have a budget for advertising.

3) Sherry Lewis, wife of Dann Lewis. She admitted phoning Lance Dutson in what he described as a "creepy" call where she failed to properly identify herself.

4) Tom McCartin, president of Warren Kremer Paino (WKP), the advertising firm contracted to provide ads to the MOT.

5) Nancy Marshall, owner of Nancy Marshall Communications, the marketing firm contracted to the MOT. She admitted contacting Dutson's clients, his wife and her employer in an attempt to intimidate Dutson into stopping his complaints about the MOT.

6) Mark Wrenn, sub-contractor doing business as First Page Web Services. According to Lance Dutson, Mr. Wrenn was buying pay-per-click ads for the MOT and for a private business (Northern Outdoors). Dutson said, "This means Mark Wrenn is handling the pay per click campaigns for both the MOT and Northern Outdoors, and bidding one against the other." Wrenn responded by creating a website entitled "Lance Dutson Exposed" to criticize Dutson.

When we left off yesterday, the Portland Press Herald had just done a piece on Lance Dutson's story. WKP was threatening legal action against Dutson. Nancy Marshall had acknowledged sending inappropriate emails and making calls intended to convince Dutson to stop his campaign against the MOT. According to Dutson, Wrenn had taken his website "Lance Dutson Exposed" down, apparently after realizing Google was directing his own potential clients to it.

On April 2nd, Jon Stanley, Dutson's attorney posted a message on the blog that read in part: "The question raised by this evolution of the disagreement is simple, and crucial; what happens to a citizen when he chooses to criticize government officials, their agents, and their policies?... All we wanted, and all we want, is for the state officials involved to put an end to any future actions to stifle Lance Dutson, or to intimidate him. Or, in lieu of that, admit that said agents were, or, are, acting outside the scope of their contractual duties."

At this point, if I were running the Maine Office of Tourism, I'd have taken a deep breath and called all my contractors together. I'd have announced that we were going into "de-escalation" mode. By this time, it had to be obvious to Lewis, McCartin and Marshall that Dutson wasn't going to go quietly into the night. The web designer could not have made it clearer that he was a take no prisoners kind of guy. His aggressive and obsessive behavior should have been raising all kinds of red flags. Above all, the MOT did not want to create an Internet martyr.

But, what happened instead? On April 22nd, the sheriff delivered notice of a three-count Federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Warren Kremer Paino (WKP) against Lance Dutson. The lawsuit alleges copyright infringement, defamation and trade libel/injurious falsehood.

The copyright infringement claim was ludicrous to me. Remember when Dutson visited the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development website? He copied an ad that WKP had created for the State. Dutson posted it on his own website, pointing out that the sample telephone number WKP used for the model ad was a porn line. WKP now claimed copyright infringement despite the fact that the ad had been posted on a governmental website intended for the public and Dutson's purpose in posting the ad was to provide a critique of sorts.

As ANYONE with a lick of sense should have been able to predict, the community of Internet bloggers flocked to Dutson's defense. Suddenly, instead of being an obnoxious, unreasonable bully, Dutson was a victim of big business/big government whose first amendment right to speak was being interfered with.

Dutson had difficulty containing his glee on his website. He posted lengthy blogs listing his growing group of supporters and flinging mud on MOT and WKP. In talking about tourism, he said, "This is supposed to be our biggest industry, but it’s being run like a trailer-park daycare on its 3rd notice from the Human Services people."

If my characterization of Dutson seems harsh, it is because I do not see him as the hero of this piece. While I thought many of his points were valid, his inability to work constructively to resolve the issues and to help shape policy in a healthy way do not make him someone I admire. When a local reporter did not report the news the way Dutson wanted it reported, he responded like a grade school ballplayer who didn't make the team. He took his glove and bat and went home. "He [the reporter] called me twice, and I wouldn’t return his call. That’s how it will be, until the PPH gets a better reporter involved with the story." IMHO, Dutson's often childish and churlish behavior, not to mention his personal attacks almost guaranteed the response he received from the MOT and its contractors.

Having said all that, I cannot believe that PR professionals could have behaved as badly as the MOT and its contractors did. Hello??? This is practically a textbook example of how NOT to handle criticism. The MOT and its contractors were defensive, hostile and they played right into Dutson's hands.

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog carried this: "On his blog, Ed Cone asks: 'Even if the complaint has merit — and from my superficial understanding of the case, at least parts of it are questionable — is this a smart strategy for any company to take when confronted with a hostile blogger?' He thinks not: 'A relatively unknown gadfly was irritating the agency and its client, the Maine Office of Tourism. Now Dutson is a cause celebre in the blogosphere, and his allegations about the agency and the tourism department are headed for very wide distribution…. The agency and its client look like bullies for trying to outspend and outlawyer an independent writer.'"

Things moved swiftly from this point forward. On May 5th, Dutson reported: "Representative Stephen Bowen of Rockport has written a letter to Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Jack Cashman, asking him to suspend the contract of Warren Kremer Paino Advertising." That same day, WKP voluntarily withdrew its lawsuit. Dutson was gracious in thanking all the attorneys and Internet supporters that had helped bring about this result.

Things are settling down in Maine. There was one more revelation after WKP dropped their suit. After being tracked down to a client's computer, Mark Wrenn, the subcontractor accused of conflict of interest, was forced to concede that he had been using pseudonyms to send emails to various bloggers' websites that were defending Dutson. He acknowledged, "It was inappropriate, and I apologize for my actions."

The world has been changed forever by the Internet. "Media" now takes on a new meaning as bloggers test their muscle and power in the new order. The Dutson/MOT story was particularly ugly, made worse by the foolish mistakes made by both sides. I suspect journalism and communications classes will study this case for some years to come.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Power and Consequences of Free Speech, Part II

To recap yesterday's post: Lance Dutson, a Maine Web designer, claimed that, when he was bidding for the advertising keywords "Camden Maine Web Designer," he discovered he was competing with the Maine Office of Tourism (MOT). Outraged that his own state was forcing him to bid higher to advertise his company, he began a blog in October, 2005 in which he ranted against the MOT.

Over the course of several months, Dutson uncovered what he thought were serious conflict of interest issues between a MOT sub-contractor and private businesses advertising their services. He wrote to the entire Maine congressional delegation complaining about the MOT.

About this same time, Dutson went online to look at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) website. He found a sample ad that had been created for the MOT by their outside ad agency, Warren Kremer Paino (WKP). In developing the mock ad, WKP had added a sample telephone number. Dutson dialed the number and found it was a sex line. He gleefully reported this on his website.

Dutson's blog was attracting wider and wider interest. This resulted in both the head of the MOT, Dann Lewis, and the head of the WKP advertising agency, Thomas McCartin, sending him long letters of explanation. Dutson posted these on his blog.

Mr. McCartin, in particular, claimed the Dutson's blog was a thinly disguised effort to seek publicity for his Maine Coast Design company. McCartin repeatedly referred to what he called "one-sided reporting" and "false and libelous statements" made by Dutson. The president of WKP flatly denied that the MOT sought to purchase the words, "Camden Maine Web Design." He also refuted Dutson's claim that the MOT had suspended all town specific advertising.

Unfortunately, for McCartin, instead of adhering to a "sound bite" approach, his letter was almost 5K words--that's TWENTY manuscript pages! His tone was biting and frequently petty. As I waded through the tome, I found myself wondering what kind of advertising guru this guy was.

On March 9, Dutson ratcheted up the ante, claiming that Nancy Marshall--head of the MOT's marketing agency--had called him, his wife, his wife's boss and his clients, urging them to convince Dutson to back off.

If this allegation was true, it's the point at which my sympathy began to shift. Up to this, I was leaning toward the viewpoint that Dutson was a crackpot who was somewhat unfairly targeting the MOT and its contractors and delighting in his notoriety. If Nancy Marshall did, in fact, contact Dutson's clients, his wife and her employer, this went wayyyy beyond the pale. In later posts, Dutson says that Marshall insisted she was not the woman who phoned him in what he described as a "creepy" call. He claims to have received information that Sherry Lewis, wife of the head of the MOT, was responsible for that call. He said Nancy Marshall later apologized in a local newspaper for sending the emails discrediting Dutson and for calling his wife. Dutson quotes her saying to the paper: “'I reacted with emotion, and I now realize that it was unfortunate,' she said. 'Hindsight is 20-20, and I wish I had not done it.'” Amen to that.

Next, Dutson claimed that Mark Wrenn, the sub-contractor he'd accused of conflict of interest, had created a website dedicated to sniping at Dutson. If so, this was an incredibly stupid move on Wrenn's part. All he did was add fuel to Dutson's fire. Dutson later reported the site had been taken down.

On March 19th, Dutson announced he'd received a letter from WKP's attorneys warning him to remove material harmful to their client and post an apology instead.

On March 29, the Portland Press Herald broke the story. The newspaper quoted John Palfrey, ED of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. When asked if the MOT and WKP would have been better off ignoring Dutson, Palfrey responded, "'It would be a mistake to ignore this person completely.'" His reasoning was that "The rise of citizen-generated media over the past few years...has provided an opportunity for almost anyone with provocative or interesting ideas to gain an audience. In most cases government can't ignore the forums, especially when they deal with public policy, because people are increasingly getting their information from these Web sites."

While I agree with Palfrey up to a point, I don't think that McCartin's ridiculously long and hostile letter or his attorney's threats were wise. Both efforts only encouraged Dutson in his David versus Goliath stand. And the next step that WKP took solidified Dutson's position as a small guy being victimized by big business. That foolish misstep by WKP attracted a huge audience to this petty power struggle, and garnered Dutson an enormous backing on the blogosphere.

I'll conclude the story tomorrow.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Power and Consequences of Free Speech

A couple of weeks ago, a really interesting story broke on the blogosphere. It was the perfect model for how to guarantee bad publicity, and it got wide exposure among bloggers. I've been waiting for it to be picked up by one of the large newspapers but, to date, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and even USA Today have been strangely silent on the matter. Because the story is almost unbelievable in the drama and craziness that resulted from what is essentially a David v. Goliath tale, I decided to go ahead and tell it now.

Note: The information presented below comes largely from the blog, Maine Web Report as well as from a number of other blogs. I have no firsthand knowledge of this matter.

It all started with a lowly Web designer by the name of Lance Dutson, who lives and works in a little town called Searsmont, Maine (near Camden). He's married with three kids, and apparently fancies himself a "citizen journalist." Back in October, he started a blog called Maine Web Report (, which he billed as covering "Internet issues for Maine businesses."

Right out of the chute, with his very first blog on October 28th, Dutson went after the Maine Office of Tourism (MOT). He criticized the MOT for spending money and energy promoting tourism to the residents of Maine instead of to people outside the state. His chief complaint was that the MOT, by buying pay-per-click ads, was competing with Maine businesses that were then forced to pay higher rates to advertise their own companies. Dutson said he discovered this when he found that he was bidding against the MOT for the words "Camden Maine Web Design" in Google's Adwords.

After that initial post, he blogged sporadically on other subjects until February 15th when he returned to the subject of the MOT: "The Maine Office of Tourism is specifically forbidden to spend their funds marketing inside of Maine. But they do it anyway, with apparent reckless abandon." He later added a postscript admitting that this statement was not true. Even so, the MOT must have noticed his blog because Dutson reported it pulled all its in-state pay-per-click advertising for "Visit Maine" from Google's Adwords program. On February 18th, Dutson posted the letter he received from MOT confirming this.

By this time, Dutson had uncovered what he believed was a conflict of interest situation with MOT. He claimed that Mark Wrenn, whom he described as a sub-contractor for one of MOT's contractors, was responsible for purchasing pay-per-click ads for both MOT and for private businesses within the state of Maine. Throughout the month of February, Dutson posted letters he had sent the MOT asking for explanations along with the increasingly hostile responses from the MOT. On February 28, Dutson posted a letter from Dann Lewis, head of the MOT, promising to investigate the matter and asking him to refrain from any further comment until Lewis had an opportunity to get back to him.

Dutson was apparently outraged by Lewis' reaction: "I’m speechless. I keep getting these tough-guy emails from these folks, telling me that I’m wrong, but with no coherent explanation. If everything is so honky-dory, why did you bring the entire ad campaign down, Dann?"

Two days later, Dutson posted a letter he had sent to the entire Maine congressional delegation. In that letter he complained that Maine "businesses ranging from plumbers to bed and breakfasts were all getting their advertising rates increased because of the Office of Tourism’s willingness to spend thousands of dollars to out-bid Maine businesses."

By now, Dutson was starting to get noticed. He was interviewed by Maine Public Radio, which also started asking questions. For the first time, other bloggers were beginning to get seriously interested in the story, too.

On March 7, Dutson posted a lengthy letter from Dann Lewis explaining the MOT's position with respect to pay-per-click ads and indicating that they were NOT pulling the in-state program because they believed they were supporting small businesses that had no advertising dollars of their own.

This is when things began to get seriously out of hand and crazy. Dutson posted a recap blog in which he claimed, among other things (bolded emphasis is mine):

"-- Tom McCartin of Warren Kremer Paino [MOT's outside advertising agency] wrote a 7 page letter to me, claiming lies and libel and defamation, and telling me I would be ‘tar and feathered’.

-- Nancy Marshall, the PR maven for the MOT, sent an email to my wife’s boss, entitled ‘Are you aware what Lance Dutson is doing?’, putting pressure on my wife through her employer to get me to be quiet. She emailed my wife, and called her there also. She pulled my client list from my website and made calls and emails to them, telling them ... my actions were hurting the local tourism economy...

-- Mark Wrenn published a website titled ‘Lance Dutson Maine Web Report Exposed’, where he babbled some incomprehensible nonsense...

-- I get a creepy phonecall from who I thought was Nancy Marshall

-- Attorneys for Warren Kremer Paino (WKP) send me a letter telling em (sic) to take my blog down and replace it with an apology...

-- I report that an ad, created by WKP, is being shown on the state DECD [Department of Economic and Community Development] website...The ad, incidentally, features a phone sex number instead of the normal number for the tourism department...

-- I receive an anonymous, creepy, anthrax-looking letter from New York City. The letter claims that the crazy phone call I reported on this blog was not from Nancy Marshall, but from Sherry Lewis, the wife of MOT director Dann Lewis.

-- Sherry Lewis sends me an email admitting to making the phonecall

-- Warren Kremer Paino files a 3 count federal lawsuit against me."

I'm going to stop here. I'll continue the story tomorrow.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Future of the Newspaper

Anyone reading this blog knows that its focus is the publishing industry. While that usually means books, publishing also includes newspapers and magazines.

The daily newspaper is under attack on several fronts. Earlier this week B-to-B, an online marketing magazine, addressed the issue. "As readers and advertisers continue to migrate to the Web, newspapers have started to contract by reducing their size and jettisoning mainstays such as stock tables." The story quotes an industry expert who predicts that, over the next ten years, newspapers will become primarily online products.

Frank Ahrens, the media industry reporter for the Washington Post, examined the same issue in October. He interviewed Russ Wilcox, CEO of E Ink Corporation, a company that invented a precursor to the video newspaper used in the futuristic movie Minority Report. A commuter in the film is reading what looks like a full page version of USA Today, but it turns out to be a video screen. "In simplest terms, it's a thin membrane filled with black and white particles. When an electrical charge is sent through it along with digital text, the particles arrange into letters." Wilcox also made a ten-year prediction: he believes that a paper-thin portable video screen thin enough to fold will be available by 2015.

Well-known newspapers are trimming their size and moving more and more content to the Internet according to B-to-B. Effective in 2007, the Wall Street Journal plans to shrink from 15 inches wide to 12 inches, losing one column. "In an increasingly digital age, newspapers must decide what content is better suited for online than print." (B-to-B)

Over at the Post, Russ Wilcox disagreed. "We think the essence of the newspaper is the large size. You are a reader; you're an eagle flying over the desert, you're scanning. You see the rabbit and you zoom down and you grab it. That just happens to have a large display and it has to be portable."

B-to-B predicts that "With more people tracking the headlines and breaking news online, newspapers will probably start to look more like magazines. 'You're going to see more insight, color and features.'"

Once more, Wilcox takes a different approach: "I think that people should keep their eye (sic) on Wi-Max (the city-wide hotspots now rolling out.) The moment that, say, the city of San Francisco gets free Internet access, there will essentially be a free Internet newspaper. In a short time period a lot of people will be reading their news online--the only thing stopping them now is that a laptop is too heavy to carry around. They will roll out city-by-city and that's exactly how newspapers are organized. There will be a very sudden big change in the lives of newspapers when their city gets wired."

Stick around and we'll see.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Best American Work of Fiction in the Last 25 Years

Quick! If you were asked to name the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, which novel would you name?

To save you time in making a calculation, we're talking about anything written since 1981.

That's the question that the New York Times Book Review editor, Sam Tanenhaus, posed to several hundred "prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages." The results were very interesting--both for what was included and what wasn't.

Fourteen writers were named (some several times for different books). I was a little disconcerted to find that twelve of the fourteen were male (overwhelmingly white males) while only two were women. My annoyance was eased when I realized that the book selected as the best work of American fiction in the past 25 years was Toni Morrison's Beloved.

I reacted to the news the same way I respond when someone asks for the best Mexican restaurant in Dallas. There are so many good Mexican restaurants here that I hesitate and then, when someone else answers the question, I immediately say, "Of course. Why didn't I think of that place?"

That's not to say that my relationship with Beloved is without conflict. It's not. I'm very ambivalent about the book. When I read the first sentence in which Morrison says that Sethe's house was "spiteful," I was intrigued. By the time I realized, a few pages later, that the house was haunted by a vengeful two-year-old toddler, I was hooked.

The novel isn't an easy read. Especially for someone like me who dislikes convoluted narrative and endlessly long sentences. Even so, Morrison's imagery and lyricism kept me reading. Her writing frequently left me breathless with awe.

It's not only the writer's style that was hard for me. The subject matter was excruciatingly painful. We never learn the dead baby's name because Sethe, the protagonist, had to exchange sex for the tombstone engraving, and she could only stand the man long enough to pay for the word, "Beloved."

Sethe is a runaway slave, living with her daughter Denver in Ohio during the years after the Civil War. The novel plays with time and with Sethe's "rememories," skipping around from incident to incident, past to present. The horror and degradation of slavery is recounted in such a matter-of-fact fashion that I frequently had to put the book down because I was so overwhelmed by it.

Sethe is no longer a slave, but--eighteen years after her escape--she is still enslaved by her past. When Paul D, an attractive ex-slave from the plantation where Sethe lived, turns up, you wonder if she will at last find some peace. When he seems to lay the baby's ghost, you begin to hope for her. And then, a young woman shows up at the door. She is vague about her past and gives her name as "Beloved." When she begins to seduce Paul D., your hopes for Sethe evaporate.

Beloved is an important novel. In an age when we are debating how we should respond to immigrants seeking to escape their pasts for a better life, the book is worth revisiting. In a political atmosphere when there is discussion as to whether America should import its way of life to other countries and other peoples, the novel has a lot to say about cultural arrogance and insensitivity.

I'm not even going to mention the books that first leaped to my mind when I tried to think of the best work of fiction over the last 25 years. While my choices were great, this one is better than mine for this time and this place.

If you want to read the entire list, go to:

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Selling and Swapping Used Books

Since the advent of the Internet, finding and purchasing used books has become an easy task. I can go online and, in minutes, find a used book at any one of a number of websites: ABE Books, Alibris, Powell's as well as e-Bay and

Until fairly recently, with the exception of e-Bay, selling used books remained a local activity. Managing auctions on e-Bay for used books is usually too much effort for me. I have a local used bookstore to which I bring all my books (I now have a credit of more than $1,000 there).

Today I have two online resources to offer for the sale/disposal of used books: one for paperbacks and the other for hardbacks and textbooks. I first learned of this website almost exactly a year ago in an article in Publishers Lunch. Since that time, the Atlanta-based company has grown by leaps and bounds.

The concept is simple. You list the books you want to swap on the website. Once you have nine books listed, you earn three credits and can begin to swap for the books you want--one credit per book. When one of your books is selected by another member, you mail the book from your home to the new owner. Paperback Swap provides you with a mailer which you can print on your computer. They also provide the amount of postage you need to put on the package (based on the ISBN and usually about $1.59) and with the address to which you should mail the book. It couldn't be easier. The second site is mostly interested in hardback or textbooks in very good condition. You enter the ISBN numbers of the books you want to sell, and they immediately provide you with a cash quote of what they are willing to pay. They will even provide the postage (not just tell you the amount needed) via the mailer they send you over the computer.

While you're doing your spring cleaning, you might find a use for these two sites.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Bob, my kitten, and I are sitting here, sharing a buttered croissant and a cup of tea while we contemplate rejections. Actually, Bob's only interest is in the croissant--he's hanging over my laptop, inserting his head between me and the computer screen to get my attention. He's already had two little pieces, and I'm pacing him.

I belong to several writers' groups. On one of them this week, there was a lively discussion about rejected manuscripts. One writer had racked up almost 100 rejections of his suspense novel, but had also been given a number of thoughtful suggestions by some of the agents who'd responded. Chief among them was to cut his very long manuscript to a length more suitable for the genre.

The writer listened to what he had been told and reworked the entire manuscript, cutting it down to a reasonable length and incorporating the other suggestions he'd received. He then asked our group whether he could re-submit to some of the agents who had previously rejected him. The ensuing discussion was very interesting.

Reading his email, my initial thought was that he'd sent out an unripe manuscript, one that had not been sufficiently edited or critiqued. After two years of belonging to critique groups, I'm very familiar with writers who are convinced that their manuscripts are finished when they type "The End." Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. A big clue that this writer's manuscript was not ready was that he had begun marketing without having done any research into the appropriate number of words for a manuscript in his genre.

My advice was to make a prioritized list of the agents he was interested in, to start by sending to his second tier agents rather than to his top tier picks, to submit in groups of six at a time, and to wait at least six months before querying anyone he'd queried before. My assumption was that the query letter and manuscript probably still needed some work and that, if he was lucky, he might get more feedback that would help him further refine them before submitting to his top tier agents.

Most writers on the loop seemed to be of the opinion that, if the manuscript had been completely reworked, there was no harm in re-submitting it. One or two were adamant that a manuscript should NEVER be re-submitted. The argument raged on until someone brought up a recent interview with Miss Snark. The agent had said to go ahead and re-submit a previously rejected manuscript without making any mention of the fact that it had been sent before.

A thoughtful member of the loop reminded everyone of Madeleine L'Engle's struggles to get her novel, A Wrinkle in Time published.

For those of you not familiar with L'Engle, she is now 78 years old. At age 42, she completed her novel A Wrinkle in Time and began submitting it directly to publishers. Although many of them were complimentary of her work, they were also frank when rejecting it. Not only were they having difficulty identifying a genre for it, they weren't even certain whether it was an adult or a children's book. The manuscript was a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, magic, romance, Christian thought and physics. On top of that, L'Engle began the book with the line, "It was a dark and stormy night," a line made famous by Edward Bulwer-Lytton for whom the annual contest for worst first lines is named.

L'Engle is quoted on the Random House (RH) website saying, "Every major publisher turned it down. No one knew what to do with it." After two years and 26 rejections, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (FSG) agreed to publish it although they didn't have high hopes. L'Engle insisted they publish it as a children's book and, according to RH, it was the beginning of the FSG children's list.

The book was a runaway success (the Harry Potter of its day) and won the coveted Newbery Medal in 1963.

I'm telling you all this just to underscore that you can do EVERYTHING right and still not get published or do EVERYTHING WRONG and be a success story. On March 27, I wrote a blog in which I quoted Joe Konrath, saying that--to be successful--you need talent, craft, persistence and luck.

Keep writing and keep submitting.

Thanks to Marie S. for directing us to L'Engle's story.

The Little Guys Take On Viacom and WIN!

I love NPR (National Public Radio). Although I read widely, I learn more from NPR's interviews than from any other single source.

I was sitting at my computer Monday morning around 5:30 when I caught mention of a news story I'd not heard anywhere else. I went hunting on the Internet for the details.

You'll recall that, on March 13, Viacom filed a billion dollar suit against YouTube and Google, alleging copyright infringement. Viacom, which owns Comedy Central and MTV, claimed that YouTube deliberately profits from the posting of copyrighted material on its video-sharing site. The lawsuit demanded that YouTube take down some 160,000 video clips, which Viacom insisted were proprietary.

Among those 160,000 video clips was one created by and Brave New Films, mocking the Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report. The clip used snippets from The Colbert Report in a parody of the show.

On March 21, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, representing, and the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, representing Brave New Films, filed suit against Viacom. The attorneys for the plaintiffs stated:

This is a civil action seeking injunctive relief and damages for misrepresentation of copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA"); and for declaratory relief.

This case arises out of Defendant's (Viacom) baseless assertion that Plaintiffs' video, "Stop the Falsiness," infringes copyrights owned or controlled by Defendant. This assertion is false, but has nonetheless resulted in the removal of Plaintiff's video from the popular Internet media website, YouTube.

Viacom's general counsel wrote to the EFF, saying, "Your complaint is the first information we have received about this clip . . . We maintain careful records of all of our takedown notices, so any takedown notice most likely did not come from us."

Unfortunately, Viacom's records were not as good as they thought. A notice HAD been sent to YouTube to remove "Stop the Falsiness" from the website.

The EFF's argument was that "Stop the Falsiness" was protected under the "Fair Use" doctrine, which says that a parody functions as a form of critique. Fair Use clearly permits use of copyrighted material as the object of social, political or cultural critique.

Viacom agreed. On April 23, according to InformationWeek, Viacom "admitted that it improperly tried to take down a parody of The Colbert Report from YouTube, and it announced a policy to be more careful in dealing with potential copyright violations."

"Stop the Falsiness" is now back up on YouTube. You can see it here.

If you're interested in hearing the NPR story about parody being an exception to copyright law, go here.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

To Dream The Impossible Dream

I'm the membership chair for Passionate Ink, the erotic romance chapter of RWA. While I mostly enjoy the job, the chapter operates two different websites and keeping their membership lists reconciled is an ongoing challenge. I spent most of this weekend trying to sort out our 350 members. For some reason, erotic romance writers LOVE to change their Usernames without telling anyone.

I did take some time off to go with a friend to see Mission Impossible III.

Plotwise, MI3 makes way more sense than either of the two previous movies. I actually knew what was going on this time. Like the old Alfred Hitchcock movies, the plot revolves around a MacGuffin, which Hitchcock famously described as a plot device that moves the story, but that is unimportant otherwise. In this case, the MacGuffin is a weapon called "the rabbit's foot." Everyone wants it, but Ethan Hawke has to retrieve it in order to save his wife's life. The rabbit's foot is in a glass container decorated with danger symbols, but no one ever explains what it actually is. Maybe they're saving the secret for MI4.

The story has Ethan Hawke, Tom Cruise's character, in a semi-retired position with the IM Force. He now trains other agents. He's engaged to be married to a lovely nurse who thinks he works for the Department of Transportation. There's an early moment meant to be amusing in a Clark Kent kind of way where Cruise talks about his DOT job with his then-fiancee's friends. His delivery is so heavy-handed that it falls flat.

All the MI movies are star vehicles for Cruise. That fact was more obvious than usual during this outing because no one else got much screen time. Director J.J. Abrams brought in a heavyweight like Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the villain Owen Davian and then didn't give him much of a chance to do anything. Likewise for two of my favorite actors, Laurence Fishburne and Ving Rhames. It's a mark of how good all three actors are that they managed to make the most of their brief appearances. That being said, I thought Simon Pegg as Benji, a computer techie back at the IM headquarters, stole the show. He provided most of the humor in the film.

There were nods to the original television show. The famous vinyl masks and the split-second timing that were hallmarks of the show are in evidence. There were great foreign locales, too: Berlin, Vatican City and Shanghai.

Most of all, there was non-stop action. I'm a big action movie fan and, believe me, when I say MI3 is non-stop, I mean it. The two hours fly by without a break in intensity.

That's probably a good thing. During Abrams' attempts to humanize the Hawke character, it was really obvious that Cruise's emoting range is fairly constricted. He did squeeze out a tear when his wife was being tortured, and I found myself actually wondering if someone squeegeed it onto his face.

Don't get me wrong. The movie is a terrific action pic. I guess, after Time named J.J. Abrams as one of the 100 people who shape the world, I was hoping for a bit more.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Very Special Day

Today is a very special day. Because of a very special girl.

Today, my youngest niece turns thirteen. An important milestone. The birthday that marks the beginning of her journey toward adulthood.

I have three nieces and a ton of stories about all three. The girls are so very different, yet each has created her own place in family legend. T was the oldest, the pioneer who blazed the trails for the others to follow. When she was sixteen, I took her and my mother to New York for four days. We let T pick the Broadway shows and the sights we would see. She asked me if she could have a tattoo. Knowing her parents would never permit it, I agreed to take her to a tattoo parlor anyway. I asked the owner to show her how tattoos were done. When she saw his utensils (read here: the needles), T's initial enthusiasm rapidly waned. I pretended not to notice and continued pointing out potential designs in the display books. After a few minutes, she sidled up to me and asked if we could leave.

When T returned home, she told her father what a cool aunt I was, citing the tattoo story as proof. My oldest brother told her I would never have allowed her to get a tattoo. To prove him wrong, she telephoned me. I confirmed her father's assessment, explaining that I'd anticipated she would back out. Outraged, T asked, "What would you have done if I'd wanted to go through with it?" I explained, "I would have told the man that you were only sixteen, and I wasn't your mother. Without parental consent, you couldn't get a tattoo." T was not amused.

L is my middle niece. She's already thirteen and so beautiful she takes my breath away. When she was six, L wanted a kitten. Neither of her parents were inclined to get her one. Her father, my middle brother, promised her that when one of my cats had kittens, she could have one. He conveniently forgot to mention that one of my cats was a male and the other was spayed. It took months for me to figure out why she kept telephoning to ask if either of the cats was pregnant.

M, the birthday girl, is a source of constant surprise. When she was four, she accidentally locked herself in her mother's bathroom upstairs. When neither of her parents heard her first scream for help, she went to the floor-to-ceiling second story window, kicked out the screen and leaped. A neighbor working in her yard saw it happen and came flying across the lawn, shouting for help. Fortunately, it had just rained and a bush broke M's fall. Her guardian angel must have been working overtime that day because she didn't have a mark on her. An overnight stay in the hospital confirmed she hadn't been harmed.

Today, I celebrate M. I'm grateful for her kindness, especially to my mother. Since the death of my father, M has spent many days (and nights) with her grandmother, providing company. I applaud M's generous spirit. She was already ten when her younger brother was born. Instead of displaying jealousy or anger, she accepted him wholeheartedly and willingly entertains him whenever her mother needs a break.

Next month, M's father, my youngest brother, will take her to New York to celebrate her birthday in style. Her uncle and cousin L will go along as well. I'm excited for the four of them and glad their fathers are making their daughters a priority.

Happy Birthday, sweetheart. I'm honored to know you and look forward to watching you blossom into womanhood.

With lots of love,

Your proud aunt