Friday, December 21, 2007

Love and Joy Come to You . . .

I love Christmas, in all its chaos and stress and emotional upheaval. I love the memories and the hopes for the future and seeing little kids giddy with excitement. I love the smell of freshly baked cookies, and the fir tree in my house, and finding my cat snuggled under it among all the presents. I love findng the right gift for the right person and still being able to surprise my twenty-something sons. I love that, through the wonder of stepdaughters, I now have girls to buy gifts for.

I love dropping a five or ten in the red Salvation Army kettle, and I love Christmas carols--the traditional ones and the more modern ones. I love that twice I've heard Springsteen sing "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" live in concert. I love the goofy coffee and hallmark and beer commercials that make me cry.

I love the sense of hope and wonder and miracles that this time of year holds--that even when it's gray and wet and cold outside, there's this spirit of love and faith and mystery in the air.

I wish all of you a warm, wonderful holiday season filled with laughter and time for quiet and good food and being with people you love.

Friday, December 14, 2007

First Impressions

Carleen Brice, fellow Ballantine Babe and blogger buddy, tagged me for this meme where you post the first line of the first post for each month of 2007 (since I didn't start blogging until March, I'm getting off easy). . . .

March: I figure that in my first blog post I should introduce myself. And perhaps explain or justify why the world needs another blog.

April: Well, reluctantly, I'm back from a fabulous few days at The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival--and I just have to say, if you haven't been to New Orleans, go now, and if you have ever been, go now.

May: This Saturday morning, I get to do one of my favorite book-related things: participate in a book club.

June: Moments ago I was sitting in my family room, editing my current work-in-progress, loving the quiet hour or so I'd lucked into.

July: I have a dog who howls at sirens.

August: Just a Little Nuts: That would describe me and the week or so we've just had around here.

September: Last Thursday I had one of the best experiences I've ever had as a writer: I was the guest speaker at Ursuline Academy because they'd selected my novel as their whole school summer read.

October: In June 2006, I resigned from teaching high school.

: Last Friday, I drank a few cups of strong coffee, took a deep breath and headed out to the mall.

December: In my Thanksgiving post, I quoted a passage from one of my favorite novels of all time, Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety.

This was a fun meme to do and not just because I'm one of those people who loves to look back over the year. It's interesting for me to look back and think about who I was in those earlier days, what I was worrying about, looking forward to, enjoying. So, I tag all of you--see what was on your mind in February or March or June. Think about what you've accomplished, what's no longer on your to-do list, what's been resolved (or not). In looking over my blogs, it's fun to see that the WIP I was looking over in June is now done. Yes, indeedy. Finished, completed, ready for submission early in 2008. That feels amazing. Twice I mentioned meeting with book clubs and I'm still doing that, have at least two such dates set up for January. That's fantastic. And my dog who howls? Still does. And so do I.

Happy looking back, everybody.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Writers in their own words-GCC

Today, I'm tickled to be touring Eliza Graham, whose debut novel, Playing with the Moon explores the mystery behind a 1940s inter-racial love affair and the eventual murder of a black GI. It's set in the British village of Tyneham on the Isle of Purbeck, emptied in 1943 to be used in the preparations for the D-Day landings. This is history and mystery all rolled into one compelling tale.

Let's hear Eliza, our friend from across the pond, in her own words:

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?
I visited a deserted village on the south coast of England that had been evacuated for pre-D-Day exercises during WW2. I was completely overwhelmed by the poignancy of the place and couldn't help thinking about the people who might have lived there and who had never been able to go home again.

I think I first dream up scenes, rather than characters or the overall plot. In my mind's eye I see people sitting on wagons, taking a last look at their homes before they leave them for ever. Or I see someone running from soldiers. Or someone climbing out of a window at night to go somewhere they're not supposed to go.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?
I really like Felix. She reminds me of ladies of a certain age I know in real life: so stoical and with such a sharp sense of humour. They seem to have a resilience I feel I lack personally. Some of them have dealt with world wars and depression and I find their life stories fascinating.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?
I share with the dining room table and chairs and two dogs and two hamsters. We all get along. Well, I get along with all of them but the dogs want to eat the hamsters and the hamsters try to filch pieces of paper out of my in-tray to shred for their bedding. One way of dealing with bad first drafts, I suppose.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?
Those occasional flights of inspiration you get when you can't wait to get to a keyboard before you physically burst with excitement. I don't get them often but they are like literary champagne.

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

You need the soul of a child and the hide of a rhino (or was it a hippo?) to succeed. It's so true.

This sounds like a perfect book to have for those cold dreary days ahead. A cup of tea, a bunch of Christmas cookies and a good book. What could be better?

I Took a Break from Eating Christmas Cookies

Real quick: I'm guest blogging over with The Good Girls Who Kill for Money . . . but I'll be back later for a new Girlfriend Cyber Circuit Tour.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Walking in a Winter Wonderland . . . or Not.

One year ago last week, we had an ice storm, and I wrote this. I'd thought about submitting it somewhere, but I got busy with the holidays, so it got pushed to the back of my computer (so to speak). Today, all the trees and houses and roads are glazed over, although the forecast is not suggesting another armegeddon. I remembered I'd written this, and it still seems appropriate. So I thought I'd share it with all of you . . .

I never would have believed that five days without power following an ice storm would help me see how lucky I am, but during a phone call with my mother-in-law Vivian, that’s exactly what happened. When our power first went out Thursday evening, we embraced the adventure. My husband started a fire in the fireplace; I lit candles. We gathered blankets assuming that by morning we’d be making waffles and warming up while we gazed out the windows at the icy wonderland.

By Friday afternoon when the utility company said we might not have power restored until Sunday or Monday, and the temperatures dipped into the single digits, I fell into a survivalist’s mentality. My husband left town on business; I stayed home with my dog. My world narrowed to the living room, heated by the fireplace and the kitchen, where I could use my gas stove. All the hotel rooms were booked, and while friends who had power invited me for meals and visits, I couldn’t move in with them because that would involve bringing along my 2 year-old Golden Retriever, who, while cute and sweet, had never been invited back anywhere he’d visited.

I hunkered down and began to see how victims of natural disasters could become paranoid and resentful. Driving down streets that had been dark but now had power, I’d think, “Why them?” When I saw holiday lights, they seemed excessive. When I called City Hall to see if there was any timetable for the power to be restored and was put on hold, I’d fume, “Are they sitting in the back drinking coffee?” On Monday morning, I took myself out to breakfast, and when the waitress brought me wheat toast rather than the English muffin I’d ordered, I had to fight back the tears. This is more than I can bear, I thought. But then, Vivian called.

I’d just emptied my refrigerator and freezer of spoiled food. The phone rang just as I was coming back in from hauling it out to the garbage. Vivian’s warm voice washed over me. She was worried. And somehow, right then, I knew how lucky I was. I could empty my refrigerator knowing I could refill it without blowing my budget for the month. I could take myself out to eat without worrying about paying next month’s rent. I had gas in my car. Most of the world’s population would trade places with me—even without power. Who was I to complain? My house hadn’t been blown away by a storm or tsunami. No one had died.

And then I started thinking about how easily I often overlooked real storm victims. Sure, I pay attention at first, and if I have a personal connection, I worry and contribute money, but all too quickly I’m caught up in the minutiae of my own life and move on. I knew now that people who had turned on their holiday lights weren’t flaunting what they had; they were simply getting back to normal. So, when my power came back on at 11:18 on the fifth day of our blackout, I cheered and told the utility worker that I loved him rather than ask him what took so long.

What I want to take away from my brief refugee status is not a litany of woes and what I had to do without, but a real appreciation for all that I have. For the friends who took me in and brought me coffee. For the roof I have over my head. For the heating bill I can easily pay.

I want to remember this the next time I hear about people in the cold or the dark, people who are making do with much less during much worse. And I hope it will keep me from immediately changing the channel or turning the page.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Embroidery that is Revision

In my Thanksgiving post, I quoted a passage from one of my favorite novels of all time, Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety. I flat out love this book. It's got Madison, it's got a story of an adult lifelong friendship between two couples, it's got a writer/teacher struggling to make sense of his place in the cosmos, and, above all, it's got magical, lyrical writing that I get completely lost in. It, along with a few other stories (The Sound and the Fury and The Things They Carried to name two) take my breath away.

But, I digress.

Here's another quote:

"Charity and Sally are stitched together with a thousand threads of feeling and shared experience. Each is for the other that one unfailingly understanding and sympathetic fellow-creature that everybody wishes for and many never find."

These two women know each other beyond knowing. And, so does Stegner. And that's what I've recently discovered again in my revisions.

With All the Numbers, when I wrote the scene in which my main character has to take her dead son's clothes to the funeral home, I knew I'd found the perfect place to open the book. But, this was actually the very last scene I wrote. Initially, I was surprised that I hadn't started here, but as I thought about it, I knew that would have been impossible. I hadn't yet wallowed in her world of grief to know what that moment would feel like for her. To know what it would mean for her to smell her son on his clothes. And to frantically not want to lose that scent. Until I'd written the rest of her story, I hadn't put in enough stitches. And when I had, it all worked.

I'm now in the final revisions of Unexpected Grace. And I had to do some major restitching of one of the narrative lines. Using completely different yarn. And, if a few months ago, you'd told me, gee, Judy, maybe you need to make that one guy die 8 months ago rather than 8 years ago, I would have panicked. Well, no, I'd have wanted to say (but I'd have been too tongue-tied to do so), I can't do that because, well, it's not how I thought it out and no, it just won't work. But, since I'd completed the story, I knew the characters so well that when it was suggested to me recently, I thought, oh my, that's exactly right. It was as if I'd pulled some threads too tight, and this one suggestion opened up so much more. And it's been incredibly easy. All because I'd thought I was done. I'd gone so far in with my characters; I knew them so well.

I HAD to know those thousand threads of my characters. And I could stitch and sew and pull and knot all I wanted, but until enough threads were present, I wouldn't have the full picture. And I might have to yank out an entire section and restitch. And in the process I'd probably poke my finger and perhaps even draw blood. But in the end I'd have a fully formed piece. Only because I'd allowed myself the luxury of a draft. I'd allowed myself to make a garment, try it on, let it out here and take it in there. Put it on the dummy and glance at it from all angles and under different lights. Revision truly is RE-VISION. Another look. A glance back.

And to go back to the quote--it's something everyone wishes for but many never find. Maybe because it requires a writer's eye.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

In the Midst of Things

I'm in the middle of revisions of Unexpected Grace, and I'm having a blast with them. I'll write more about the process next week, but suffice it to say that having a brilliant reader point out one change can open up a world of possibilities. It was definitely a "lightbulb" moment--one of those "Gee, I could have had a V-8" experiences. I'd been too close to the manuscript to see how to tighten everything up and add some needed tension. Once my reader suggested it, I knew it was perfect. Other eyes are always a good thing!

My blogging buddy Larramie tagged me for a meme I'm actually going to be able to complete. Here's the scoop:

1. You have to post these rules before you give the facts.
2. Players, you must list one fact that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your middle name. If you don't have a middle name, just make one up...or use the one you would have liked to have had.
3. When you are tagged you need to write your own blog-post containing your own middle name game facts.
4. At the end of your blog-post, you need to choose one person for each letter of your middle name to tag. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

This will be easy because, like at least half of the little girls born circa 1960, my middle name is ANN. (I used to wish it had an "E" at the end to make a very plain name--Judy Ann Merrill--a tad more exotic.)

Here goes - -

A--I'm an Author. As a little girl I dreamed about being an author. Then, I spent years (oh, say, 7!) thinking it would never, ever happen. Then, when it did, I couldn't fully wrap my brain around it. But, man, the first time I wrote it on my tax form, I was thrilled. And I've finally gotten so that it rolls off my tongue (right along with "novelist") when someone asks what my job is. Totally cool.

N--I Notice things. Details, oddities, you name it. I have a head full of trivia and tidbits that I can draw from when I'm writing. My kids have learned, sometimes much to their dismay, that they better not change their story because I'll call them on it. My husband refers to this as my "spidey-senses." Whatever it is, it serves me well.

N--Never say Never, Never give up. I can't help it, I'm a glass half-full person. I've had too many times where I've thought, that's it, I'm throwing in the towel, but I could never actually do it. Like when I told my sister, late in 2000, that I'd had it with dating and I wasn't going to even attempt it again until my boys were out of the house (in 5 or 6 years). Then, less than 6 weeks later, a friend told me she had a guy for me to meet. That guy? He's now my husband. Or a manuscript I'd been working on for years. The one I had almost relegated to the trash heap. Yeah, the one you can now buy in bookstores across the country (and in a handful of foreign countries). The world is too full of possibilities and surprises to ever give up.

There you go--3 facts, one for each letter.

Now I need to tag three other bloggers (I hate this part of memes).

Therese at Making it Up
Daisy at Compost Happens
Melanie at Refrigerator Door

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Writers in their own words-GCC

Allison Winn Scotch joins us today to talk about her wonderful, warm, witty debut novel, The Department of Lost and Found. In this book, Natalie Miller, the novel's heroine, is faced with questioning everything she knows when, on the very same day, her doctor gives her the shocking news that she has breast cancer and her boyfriend dumps her. So she decides to take on her cancer the way she does everything—with steely determination. But as she becomes a slave to the whims of chemo, her body forces her to take a time out. She gets a dog, becomes addicted to The Price is Right and, partly to spite her counselor’s idea to keep a journal, Natalie embarks on a mission. She is going to track down the Five Lost Loves of her Life and figure out what went wrong.

Here is just some of what reviewers are saying:

"Funny and frank. A serious comedy that shines light into the darkness." - The Tampa Tribune

"Smart and well-written.” - Marie Claire

"Too good to pass up. You'll laugh a lot (and cry just a little) as Natalie rebounds from the big C and reinvents her life." – Cosmopolitan

"Scotch handles the topic of cancer with humor and hope, never dipping into the maudlin. The changes and realizations that the characters make are profound and moving. An impressive debut." – Booklist

"A bonbon of a book." - Publishers Weekly

And now, let's hear from Allison in her own words. . .

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?
I lost someone close to me to cancer, and that was definitely the emotional spark for the book, but from there, I took it and created fiction. I’m definitely driven more by character…I swirl the characters around in my head and see where they lead me. Rarely do I start out with an overarching plot with everything filled in. I mean, I have an idea of where I need and want to go, but my characters are the ones who take me there, and sometimes, much to my surprise, they deviate from where I thought they’d go…which is why I let them lead me in the first place!

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

Great question! Hmmm, probably Sally, who is the protagonist’s best friend. She’s a little batty and sardonic, but she’s also a voice of reason and a loyal friend, and on all of those fronts, I related to her. She also infuses her scenes with a much-needed levity, and I always had fun writing her.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?
I write fast and furiously…I procrastinate and procrastinate and then I finally can no longer procrastinate, so I force myself to spit out as much as possible as once. Usually, this involves setting a daily word count for myself, and I have to keep writing until I reach it. (Which means a lot of clicking on the “Word Count” button in Word!) I can write with a lot of distractions – my kids screaming in the background, my husband constantly IMing me (even when I tell him to STOP!) – but my ideal environment is my home office with my door closed and my dog snoring at my feet. In other words, quiet, but not eerily so.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?
The last chapter! And yes, I’m being serious. I’ve discovered that I don’t actually enjoy the process of writing as much as I enjoy creating characters and the worlds they live in. What I mean by that is that I create dialogue and scenes in my head all day, but then when it comes to the effort involved in getting these things down on paper, well, as I said above, I procrastinate because it’s not as much fun as the “creating” part for me. So, to that end, the sense of accomplishment I feel when I bang out those last pages and last words is unmatchable!

5) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?
It’s okay to fail at it. Actually, I don’t know if anyone specifically told me this, though I’m sure that I’ve read anecdotal advice that says something similar, but it’s certainly something I’ve learned along the way. My first book was decent enough to get me an agent but not good enough to sell, and in retrospect, that was such a blessing because, man, I read it now, and it just STINKS. But writing that book taught me so much about how to craft a novel and what not to do, and hey, you know what? That’s all good info to have. There’s no shame in it for me. It lead me to where I am now – a published author with a second novel on the way – and so, I’ll own that failed attempt and consider myself luckier for having it.

Sounds like a perfect pick for your holiday shopping lists!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Moments of Thanks

"You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine."

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Thirteen years ago, just before dinnertime on the Monday of Thanksgiving week, my seven-year old son was hit by a car. Now twenty, he'll be arriving home from college tomorrow; his twenty-one year old brother the next day. We have much for which to be thankful. But that night, for a few moments, I wasn't sure I'd ever breathe a thankful breath again. When the neighbor boy burst into my house, yelling, "Eric just got hit by a car!" my world froze. I wasn't sure I could face what awaited me just outside my front door. Somehow, I propelled myself outside, after tossing the phone to the neighbor and telling him to call 911. When I hit the porch steps I heard my son's cries and I thought, Okay, he's alive. When I knelt by his side, I saw his feet moving and told myself, Okay, he's not paralyzed. And I knew right then we were incredibly lucky. And I was thankful beyond measure.

Later, after the ambulance ride, after the X-rays, after the doctor shook his head and said, just before releasing him, "He's fine. He shouldn't be but he is," I remembered the above Stegner quote. The salt had been just ready to pour down on me, on us, on our life. And then it didn't. But I knew how easily it could have rained down over our world. A different driver. A bigger, faster car. A shift in the trajectory of my son's body as it flew through the air. But, even now, I have to turn my mind away from those awful possibilities.

Our lives are full of such moments, but many times we don't even know it. We don't know what we've narrowly escaped, what's just missed us. And so, for what we know and don't know, I am thankful. For the times the salt didn't pour down and for the strength to continue when it did, I give thanks.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, but even more, I wish you a spirit of thankfulness as you go about your lives everyday.

(Next week, back to posting about writing--and even connecting the Stegner quote to my revisions. But for now, I have a family to start cooking for!)

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Bit Off Topic. . . .but not Entirely

Last Saturday morning I realized once again how incredibly lucky I am.

Lucky to have people in my life who love me.

Respect me.

Lucky that the choices I've made, even the ones that didn't work out, have ultimately made me stronger.

Lucky that I have friends and family to lean on.

I tried to remember the last time anyone ever hit me. I'm thinking it must have been my brother when he was about 14 and I was 9. I'm sure I cried and he was sent to his room.

I tried to recall when someone I love has said demeaning, hurtful, threatening things to me. I couldn't come up with anything.

And then I tried to imagine what if? And the prospects horrified me.

Last Saturday morning I attended a Community Conversation called "Why Didn't She Leave Him?" put on by the Women's Initiative for Health and Safety. It dealt with domestic violence and explored what we as individuals and in community with one another can do to empower women who are in abusive relationships. It was stunning, painful, instructive and powerful. And I realized how much I don't know about what goes on behind closed doors.

The manuscript I've just completed deals with some aspects of domestic violence--mostly emotional abuse. I attended this conversation because I wanted to be sure I was striking the right note in my characters. I wanted to be sure I was accurate in my portrayals. What I came away with was so much more than the fine-tuning of characters.

Here are some of the statistics:

~somewhere in America a woman is battered every 15 seconds
~in the US, there are nearly 3 times as many animal shelters as shelters for women and their children hoping to escape domestic violence
~22%-35% of women who come to emergency rooms are there for injuries related to ongoing partner abuse
~40% of girls age 14-17 report knowing someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend

One of the issues in my manuscript is how we often don't see or sense abuse going on nearby and how hard it can be for women to speak out about it going on in their own lives. And ever since last Saturday I've wondered what I can do, what anyone can do. It seems so foreign, so far away from me, but I know it isn't. I'm just lucky. And perhaps a little naive.

I came away from the morning wanting to help spread the word about what can be done.

One of the handouts I received listed 5 statements that women say helped them to break the cycle of abuse:

1-I am afraid for you
2-I am afraid for your children
3-It will only get worse
4-I'm here for you; let me know how I can help
5-You deserve better than this

Other things you can do? Don't look away if you suspect something is wrong. Offer to help out at shelters or organizations in your community.

And if you're being abused, make a plan, tell someone you trust, get help. You deserve better. As a society, we all deserve better. Our children deserve better. But mostly, you deserve better.

Here are some web resources:

The Battered Women's Justice Project

The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project
Family Violence Prevention Fund
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
National Domestic Violence Hotline
National Network to End Domestic Violence

Without a doubt, this is the most important blog post I've ever written. Feel free to pass it on to others. As a matter of fact, I'm imploring you to do so.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Writers in their own words-GCC

What the hell? To hell with it. The road to hell . . . . Go to hell.

As a writer, I've used these phrases often over the years. Usually under my breath (or even better, just in my head). In all sorts of situations. They fit a whole range of moments. Like when I decided, what the hell, I am going to write a book. Or, when said book wasn't panning out just as I'd imagined it. Or, when I'd done all sorts of nice, good things and wasn't getting appreciated. Or, the last one, maybe for the reviewer who termed my baby "maudlin".

Ah, but I digress.

Look at the pictures above. The lovely young woman on the left, Jackie Kessler, has gone to hell. And back. And keeps going back for more. And, in the process, has created quite the buzz with reviewers. (I know, her picture looks so sweet. You wouldn't even think she'd know words like Succubus and Incubus, now would you?) For example, "Kessler's raunchy blend of heaven, hell and eros makes for a wild thrill ride, and hot, tough-talking Jesse has gumption and sass." — Publishers Weekly.

Jackie's newest book, The Road to Hell, is in stores now and she's offering a chance to win an iPod Nano and three iPod Shuffles just for visiting her website and checking out the HIT THE ROAD section.

Let's hear from Jackie in her own words:

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?

I wrote a short story published in FROM THE ASYLUM back in 2005, which was about a demon who gets downsized to hauntings. That, and Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN series, was the springboard for me thinking about changes in Hell's management, and that got me thinking about the purpose of Hell in the first place. And so the situation behind the Hell on Earth series came about. As for the heroine, Jezebel: I knew I wanted to write about a demon who leaves Hell and becomes a human -- and for me, there's only one sort of female demon, and that's a succubus. :) Jesse herself sort of pulled an Athena and sprang fully formed from my head.

The Hell series is very character dependent: it's Jesse's voice that carries the stories. Of course, the plot is vital...but it's how the plot is conveyed that makes the difference.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

As much as I love writing as Jesse...I adore the incubus Daunuan. He's not plagued with human emotions (or a human conscience), and being an incubus, he's very one-track minded (cue cheesy 1970s porn music here). But he does have very strong feelings, and it's a blast writing about him struggling with those feelings, because he (and Jesse) insist that demons don't feel. They're both wrong. (No one ever said demons were the smartest creatures out there...)

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?

Write, write, write, get kids and husband ready for school/work, write, write, write, do my day job, lunch/write, do my day job, pick kids up and get dinner ready, family time, get kids to bed, write, write, spend time with Loving Husband, write, write, write, collapse into bed. Repeat. (At times, "write" is loosely defined as "ego surfing" and other Internet activities.)

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

Getting lost in a scene -- that's when the words just fly from my fingertips. Sort of like being possessed, I'd imagine...

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

For the actual writing process? That came from Martha O'Connor, author of the fabulous Bitch Posse. She once told me that we should "write like no one's watching." And yeah, that's really it in a nutshell: be true to the story, and don't self-censor. There's time to make it purty, and marketable, after the bones are down.

So, check it out. What the hell . . .

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Incredible Journey

Last Friday, I drank a few cups of strong coffee, took a deep breath and headed out to the mall. I was determined. I was resolute. I was going to find some jeans that fit, that were cute, and that wouldn't require a home equity loan. Seriously. That was my plan.

Jeans used to be easy. In the 1970s, and even into the 80s (until I had my first child), I would glide into any jeans store, grab a few pairs of Lee jeans, size 28w x 34l (I liked them long. Heaven forbid my socks would ever be seen.), plunk down my money and head out to wash them 4 or 5 times before wearing them. Easy peasy.

Then, through much of the 1990s, I'd order straight out of the Eddie Bauer catalog.

But, somewhere this millenium, jeans became complicated. Expensive. Oh, and something happened to my hips and thighs. I felt like I needed a 12-Step program. "Hi, I'm Judy and I need to shop for jeans." "Hi Judy." I'd watch Oprah or "What Not to Wear" and I'd nod and take it all in. And I'd think, well, if Oprah says Lucky Brand jeans fit everyone, they'll sure work for me. So I bought a pair. And they were okay. But, not day to day jeans. (Good lord, they cost $100+. That's not everyday for me.)

I wanted jeans that were comfortable, were cute, and didn't make a statement.

And so I grabbed jeans from every rack, from every pile and shlepped to the dressing room. (Can I just take a minute to say three-way mirrors combined with that sick yellow light should be outlawed. I don't need that view.) I tried on, I winnowed and sifted. I shlepped some more. At one point, when I was making my 3rd or 4th trek to the dressing room, I thought I might be having my first hot flash, but decided that I was just overexerting myself. Too bad I didn't bring along a sherpa.

And, miracle of miracles, I found a pair that worked. And, they were on sale. So I grabbed them in dark wash and regular wash. Then I grabbed a 3rd pair. Just for good measure.

I know what you're asking: "WHAT KIND? SHARE THIS INFO!! IT'S NOT CLASSIFIED, DAMMIT!" But, here's the problem. They might not work for you. Because you don't have my thighs (but, if you want them . . . ). So, you'll have to do what I did. Set aside a few hours, and try on 20+ pairs. Look at them from all angles (yes, even that angle). Squint. Try on another pair. Try on the first ones again. Then grab a brand you've never worn and just see. Revise. Edit.


It's like writing. No one brand works for everyone. What worked a few years ago (or decades ago) might not work now. What you first think is right might not be right when you look at it from another perspective. Just like writing. Some people write on the computer, some write in longhand. Some outline. Some wing it. There's no one perfect style or size or cut or brand.

It's work. Writing and jeans shopping. It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes sacrifice. But, when it all falls into place, when the conflict sets up the perfect plot point, when the character swims into view, when the jeans fit just right, it's a beautiful thing.

And now, I'll share with you the jeans that worked for me--I found them at Macy's in the Style & Co. department. They are Levi's 512 Perfectly Slimming (that might be hyperbole) Stretch Jeans. The tag even mentions that they "flatten your tummy." According to the tag they are "New" which makes me feel very cutting edge.

So, have no fear, if I could find some jeans, so can you. Same for that whole writing gig. Have at it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Check out this other blog

Last week I was invited to participate in a group blog. . . . I guess it's called a grog. I suggested we call it a CLOG (community log), so that when we ran out of other things to chat about we could discuss shoes, but I believe I was outvoted. Anyway, it's called Mid-Century Modern Moms and we'll be posting and talking about being moms of older kids. And I'll occasionally discuss shoes.

If you're so inspired, check it out.

Never fear, I'll still be here a few times each week. Tune in tomorrow when I'll be posting about successfully shopping for jeans and writing.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Happy Halloween . . . and Writers in their Own Words

We're getting good, crisp Halloween weather here in the Heartland, and I love it. The nights are nippy, the furnace rumbles on in the morning, and the leaves are turning all shades of red and gold and orange. My husband and I were running some errands over the weekend, and our drive took us up on some of the bluffs near where we live. I kept oohing and aahing over the colors. I finally turned to him and said, "Oh my, I just became my mother." Such is autumn. I am also fully immersed in fall cooking. Brisket. Apple Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce. Then, Apple Pear Spice Cake (which needed a bit more spice flavor, but I'm going to pick up some cinnamon ice cream today which should be just the ticket).

And with all this home cooking and chilly air, what you want is a good book to enjoy when you wrap up in an old quilt with some tea, isn't it. Well, here you go . . .
Jana DeLeon's book UNLUCKY fits the bill. It's getting reviews such as this, “With original, smart and comedic writing, DeLeon delivers a three-dimensional hero and heroine, a community of offbeat secondary characters, a complex and intriguing plot with a hint of the paranormal and a fascinating peek into the world of casino poker.” – Romantic Times Book Reviews 4 ½ Stars!

Now, let's hear Jana in her own words:

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

My husband and I got married in Vegas in 2000. Before we left, I studied and studied blackjack combinations, determined to beat the house. Unfortunately, I have absolutely, positively NO LUCK. In fact, my luck is so bad that when I sit down at a table, not only don't I win, everyone else starts losing too. So I came up with Mallory Devereaux, the unluckiest woman in the world, who needs to make some money fast and decides to do it by "cooling" cards at a poker tournament of criminals.
Are you more driven by plot or by character? I'm definitely more character driven although plot plays a major role in my books since I write mystery hybrids.

Who's your favorite character in this book and why? My favorite character is the heroine, Mallory, because she took what most would deem a disability and made her life work with it.

What's your writing process/writing environment like?
I come up with an idea – a what if. Then I develop characters and a plot around it. My writing environment could be anywhere. Since I'm a morning person, I do a lot of writing in cafes.

What's your favorite part of writing?
Definitely the letters from fans

What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing? Don't quit your day job

Visit Jana at her blog, too.

And, in the spirit of Halloween and eating, how do you solve the halloween candy conundrum. Do you buy stuff you won't eat, or do you tempt yourself and buy stuff you do like?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Working far from Home

I recently spent a week in California. Ooh, I hear you thinking, nice gig. Ocean breezes and all. Not quite. I did get to drive up the coast (from LA to Santa Barbara) before it burned up, but I was there getting my first real taste of being a member of the Sandwich Generation. My dad was having surgery; I was there to help him and my mom.

(The most important news--the surgery was successful and went very well. Which is not always a given when the patient is nearly 80. We've been lucky--earlier this fall my husband and I went to help out his mom (almost 90!) after surgery and she had the same results--successful and fully recovered.)

On the plane ride out, I read through my "finished" MS--it's only finished until my agent mentions the revisions I need to make--and discovered a few tweaks and minor scenes I needed to write. One morning I stayed at the hotel for a few hours to finish things up, then took a deep breath and hit SEND. About 14 seconds later, panic set in. And doubt. It sucks, I thought. My agent is going to be disappointed and then scour through our contract to figure out how to drop me as a client. I'll need to find a real job (not one I can do in my PJs).

Around that time, my mom called and I realized I should head over to the hospital, a quick two-block walk away.

And when I arrived, my dad was resting comfortably, so I urged my mom to take a break. I'll hang out here, I said. You go get something to eat. And that's when the characters started showing up. No, not the folks who wander around in my head. These were real flesh and blood folks who gave me lots of material for future characters. The wack-job nutcase in the next room who kept insisting he wasn't the patient, just a stand-in, so the rules didn't apply and no procedures could be done on him. Or the nutcase wack-job across the hall who kept trying to escape his room. So they took his clothes away. He showed them. He wandered around in his boxers. (I swear, it was just a surgery floor, not a section 8 ward or anything). And the sweet stuff. The nurses who showed such kindness and patience. Watching my parents, and the ballet between them, after being married for 56 years.

Here are a few other things I learned:

~security guards don't like it when you walk past them and say, "Hey Buddy" to their guard dogs and hold out your hand for them to sniff (the dogs, not the guards).

~The Tater Tot folks have been keeping something from us. The cafeteria had these amazing tater tot "logs"--even better than the hash browns at McDonald's. (I know. Tater Tots are sorta low-class. I love them anyway. But, I also work in my PJs.) It was very good I didn't discover them until the last day.

~And finally, when I saw Matt Lauer at LAX (he was out there for the fires) I do believe I was much more tickled to see him than he was to see me. I daresay he might not even be aware that he saw me.

It's good to be home.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Writers in their own words-GCC

Remember being in junior high? Unless you were one of the "it" girls, nothing felt right--even your skin felt like it was designed for someone else. Renee Rosen has written an amazing book, Every Crooked Pot, partly, at least, drawing on her own experiences from those days.

Here's what folks are saying about this fabulous debut novel--

“… a beautifully nuanced tale about an extraordinary family and an even more extraordinary young woman. Not since Myla Goldberg's Bee Season has a first novel so deftly captured the complexities, joys, and frustrations of daughters and their families. It's hard to believe this is a debut – Rosen's voice is already as good as it gets. Keep an eye out for this rising star." Sara Gruen, New York Times #1 bestselling author of Water for Elephants

“In a debut novel that could easily have been published as a…memoir, Rosen looks back at the life of Nina Goldman, whose growing up is tied to two pillars: a port-wine stain around her eye and her inimitable father, Artie. The birthmark, she hates; her father, she loves. Both shape her in ways that merit Rosen's minute investigation....”
Booklist (starred review)

And here's Renee, in her own words:

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Even though Every Crooked Pot is somewhat autobiographical, I never thought to write about growing up with a strawberry birthmark over my eye until I enrolled in a week-long writing workshop with Michael Cunningham. Michael gave us an exercise about childhood memories and I jotted something down about how my father once used my eye to get out of a speeding ticket. That incident is what inspired the opening scene of the novel. That was the starting point and from there, the characters took over and starting telling their own story.

Are you more driven by plot or by character?

Definitely by character. The entire story in Every Crooked Pot grew completely out of the characters. They ran the show from start to finish and each time I tried to impose something on them, they wouldn't go for it.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

Without a doubt it's Artie. Just the fact that he's a color-blind carpet salesman makes me smile. Even when he's making Nina crazy, she can't help but love and adore him and I felt the same way as I was writing about him.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?

In terms of process, I've been told I'm an 'organic' writer in the sense that I never outline. I start with a group of characters and let them lead the way. I'm also a chronic reviser. My first few drafts are choppy at best. It's only after I go back over the material time and time again that I can get the texture I'm looking for. As for my environment, I do most of my writing at home--though the past few months, I've done my share of wrting in airports and hotel rooms and the occasional friend's couch.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

Once I have a working draft down I love revising. I can revise forever. For me that's where the nuances come in along with the little telling details.

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

An agent once told me that if you hear the same criticism about your work three times, you have to pay attention to it. But, if you get three different responses to your work, then you're probably onto something!

Check out Renee's blog, too.

Happy reading!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Telling Stories

This morning, I drove 200 miles with a cracked windshield. Once I got over the worry that it was going to collapse in on me as I drove, I'd find myself looking at it and thinking of how stories get written. (Okay, backstory here--I'd been visiting my younger son at college for Family Weekend. Saturday night I took him and one of his buddies out to eat. I was reminded once again of how no one enjoys eating with more gusto than college boys who aren't paying for it. We walked back to my car to discover some hooligans had decided to wing an empty beer bottle at my windshield, leaving it with a lovely bulls-eye design. Disclaimer #1--my first words were "Holy F---!" Disclaimer #2--this was not the first time my son had heard me use such language.)

But as I looked at the cracks emanating out from the middle (the point of impact I surmised, using all my best CSI powers), I would notice how some wended one way and others a different way, but there wasn't always a logical pattern. And some of the lines criss-crossed and I'd wonder which original crack they belonged to. (Okay, it's a pretty dull drive. And there was very little traffic). I was also listening to some good storytelling music (Sugarland, Mary Chapin-Carpenter and three Springsteen CDs). I like all those artists (okay, I like the first two; I'm a complete fanatic for The Boss) and one of the things I like best about them all is the way their songs tell stories. And the stories, through details, make me wonder and think. The stories aren't neatly packaged, they aren't all tidy and happy. Sometimes they raise more questions than answers. (Stop now and go buy Springsteen's new CD, MAGIC. It's that good.)

And I thought about my WIP--which is done, but not quite. I've written the ending (which I chatted about doing a few posts ago), and am now in the "filling-in" stage. Going back and adding texture, adding layers, making sure the lines criss-cross as they should and wander out from the point of impact. I love this stage of writing a novel--I know the characters, know what caused their cracks and broken edges, know which ones have healed and which ones never will. I get to polish things up and make sure nothing collapses in on itself.

As I drove I also thought about another story--this one true, so true, as a matter of fact, that if you wrote it people wouldn't believe it. And it's full of broken edges and criss-crossed lines and things happening as they should even when the fissures are so deep as to seem insurmountable. I had Jeremy in my ninth-grade English class. And while I guessed at some of his challenges, I had no idea what he was going through. He kept a smile on and he did his work (okay, not at first, but when I explained that yes, I too believed he could play college and maybe even pro football but no matter what he needed to pass 9th grade English), and the other day when I read this in the paper I cried and smiled and thought, this is the sports story I want to hear--not about Michael Vick or steroids, but about a good kid and good people who helped him become who he is.

Stories--the true ones, the ones we make up, the songs--they all start with a single point of impact, and where the lines travel and twist and intersect is what makes each one unique. The power is often in the journey and the connections.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

It Takes a Village

In June 2006, I resigned from teaching high school. At the time, I was ready. I'd taught for 15 years, and while I'd loved it, I was ready to embark on my next career: Novelist. Ever since, I'm often asked if I miss teaching. Honestly? I don't. But I always feel a little guilty about that. And it's more complicated than a simple yes/no answer.

Here are some things I miss--the energy of teenagers, watching them "get it", the funny anecdotes I was sure to come home with, getting to talk about books and poetry I love.

Here are some things I don't miss--standardized tests, helicopter parents, checking up on kids' whereabouts, grading essays, some administrators, the hours.

Before I quit, I already knew all of the above. But there was one thing I was really worried about leaving behind, and that was the camaraderie with the other teachers. Dishing with my buddies in the hall during passing time. Knowing that there was someone next door or down the hall whose room I could burst into and who would get it, whether I was exhilarated or frustrated. Talking about a lesson that worked or didn't. Laughing about another lame excuse from a kid.

I worried that writing full-time would leave me lonely. I'm a social person. I was afraid that not only would I have no one to chat with, but that I wouldn't have anybody to talk to who "got" my job. Who understood the joys and irritations and fears of it (and, believe me, writing is full of all of those. Publishing is a wacky business).

But, I've discovered a writing community beyond my wildest dreams. I've always got somebody to jabber with if I want. And much of it is because of this really cool blogosphere I hadn't even known existed.

I've got links to my buddies over on the left--and what started out as just commenting on other folks' blogs has segued into e-mail correspondences and "blind-date" phone calls. I've met writers at conferences and festivals. We cheer each other's successes; we talk each other down from ledges. We share scoop. We know the lingo; we get the details. We read each other's WIPs and we offer insight.

And sometimes I know I need to pull myself away from the computer and get some writing done, just as when I was teaching I sometimes had to hide out so I could get papers graded.

Just this week, a whole community of girlfriends has been "touring" my book on their blogs as part of The Girlfriend Cyber Circuit (links on left). I've only met one of these women in person--but we all are there to support one another's efforts.

So, to Therese and Kristen and Lisa and Larramie and the great gals at The Writers' Group and Carleen and The Good Girls and Melanie and The Debs and everyone else, thanks for your support and friendship . . . and to those of you who are lurking or wondering if this community is for you, kick your shoes off, pull up a chair, and join the fun. The village is richer because of each of us.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reading is FUNdamental

Does anyone else remember this slogan from childhood? I recall thinking, well, yeah, duh. I always loved to read; I couldn't fathom anyone needing to be convinced or coerced to do so. Maybe I was the dorky little kid my big brother always told me I was.

Anyway, Carleen Brice and Kristen both tagged me with this meme for book lovers. So, hey, I'll play.

Total number of books? Whew, I can't count that high. I'm not sure if it means books read, book owned, books I still want to read. . . but between being an English major, my husband being a journalism major, then me being an English teacher and now being a writer, can I just say all of our book shelves are jam-packed and we can never have enough. Plus, we still have boxes of them we haven't unpacked yet. Lots and lots and lots.

Last book bought? For my own reading pleasure or for somebody else's? I'm not exactly sure but new ones that have floated around the house lately include Jacqueline Mitchard's Still Summer and Ellen Baker's Keeping the House.

Five Meaningful Books
The first book I remember rereading and waking up early so I could read before school was a book about a girl and a horse titled Taffy's Foal. I think my neighbor had lent it to me. I've never seen it since. I was 8.

Then, To Kill a Mockingbird. I've probably read it more times than I've read anything else. It's what made me want to be an English teacher. It also started my love affair with Southern writers.

The Sound and The Fury. I remember reading it and thinking, sheesh, either this guy is an absolute genius or he's nuts. And I also remember thinking, I'll never understand this. But I read it, read it again, and slowly the pieces started making sense and I realized it was a book about love and loss and beauty and dignity and sadness---everything that matters. Thinking about Caddy can still make me weep. And nobody can draw you into a story like Faulkner.

The Grapes of Wrath
. Man, I love this book. Steinbeck didn't get all those awards for nothing. He weaves a story about simple folks who are caught up in something so much bigger than themselves and he shows how we're all part of it, we all have responsibility, we all can make a difference.

Finally, The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. It's a story about Vietnam, but it's so much more than that. It's about truth. It's a book that will make you look at war differently no matter how you feel about it before you read it. And in the end, it's not about war at all. And the language? My God, it'll blow you away.

Now, I'm supposed to tag five other bloggers--but most of the people I'd tag have already been tagged--so, I'm going to veer away from the rules (there's something I've never done before!)

My friend Melanie Lynne Hauser has issued a challenge to her readers to buy two or three books a month. She thinks we could start a book buying movement and I'm all for that. So, go buy a book (or four or five) and then chat about it on your blog.

Tag . . . everybody's it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

You Gotta Believe

As a kid, I learned the truth of this statement through sports. No matter what, on any given day, any team can win, any player can be a hero or a goat. Last February, my husband and I had a few days in Las Vegas, and true to my optimistic nature, I bet $5 on the 2007 World Series winners and the 2008 Superbowl winners (Yeah, I'm not a real big spender.) The guy at the betting booth chuckled when I told him my teams. I could just hear him thinking, "Yeah, right, Lady. The Cubs and the Packers?" But they're my teams. And while there's no guarantee (and my fingers are firmly crossed which makes it hard to type), the Packers are 3-0 and the Cubs are looking at a magic number of 4. You Gotta Believe.

3 years ago, I had just signed with my agent after writing and querying for 5 years.

Then, 3 months later, she sent it out to editors and within a few weeks we'd gotten a great offer from Random House. (To be honest, she assured me it was a great offer. At that point, I would have signed for a few copies of my book.) There had definitely been moments in the preceding years when I'd been ready to pack it in. Give it up. I was an unknown middle-aged, single mom, school teacher from the Midwest. It really doesn't get more out of the loop than that. But, my agent believed in my book (God bless her) and I had friends who never let me give up (Bless them too). And, deep in my heart, I knew I believed in my story, in my writing. And then other folks did too. The publishing house. Bookstore owners who handsold it. The marketing folks who got it out there.

And finally, the readers who found it, talked about it, and got others to buy it.

I had to believe
. That's one of the mantras of published writers--if you give up, the only thing you know for certain is that you'll never be published. Every published author, even the huge bestselling ones, were at one time unknown debut wannabees.

You don't have to just take my word for it, Therese Fowler writes about this more eloquently (natch) than I can here.

Just when I thought I couldn't be surprised any more, the foreign contracts started to come in. To be honest, it seemed like Monopoly money--Germany? Finland and Sweden? Most recently, the Netherlands and China. No languages I can read, of course, but to think that there are people in countries I've never even set foot in, where as far as I know my mother has no pull, who will stumble across my book and read it--I still can't completely wrap my brain around that. Somebody (or several somebodies) believes in me all across the globe. It's pretty cool.

So whatever it is, a contract, an agent, a spot in the playoffs, an amazing record-setting season for Brett Favre, you gotta believe. It's easy. Just do it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Last Things First

A week or so ago, I sat down all revved up to finish the manuscript I've been working on since January. I'm excited about this story--I'm stretching some writing muscles with it, trying out some new things. And like any new endeavor, it's not without some aches and pains. (I went back to the gym for the first time in two months yesterday too--so I know whereof I speak regarding sore muscles.)

But, I've been enjoying, for the most part, this journey. My first novel came to me with a clearly defined final scene. So in writing it I was filling in the arc from A to B, but I always had that final scene pulling me forward. It was comforting. With Unexpected Grace, that final scene has been much more nebulous. I'm telling the story (or is it stories?) through two narrative lines, one in the present (2002-03) and one in the past (1958-1971). Two very different narrators, but they're connected. But, I'd spent lots of time dinking around at the 50,000+ word mark. I didn't want to admit that I was stuck, so I revised the heck out of the first two-thirds of the book. (Yup. 2/3s. I write on the short side. My goal is always to get to 75,000 words.) I wasn't moving forward, though and was getting frustrated. I talked to one of my agent's readers who acts as an editor (God bless her!). We worked through much of my wanderings. But her final piece of advice hit home the hardest. "Finish it. Get to the end." I knew she was right. I needed to finish the damn book before I could start revising and polishing and rearranging. All I'd been doing for a few weeks was, as my husband would say, rearranging the deck chairs on The Titanic. (Not that he'd ever say that to me about my writing.)

So, I told myself, get to the end. I sat down two days after Labor Day to write. I now knew how it was going to end. I was excited about it. I had those final scenes in mind. I just needed to write 20,000 words before I could write the last 5,000. But those 20,000 seemed insurmountable.

That's when I took a flying leap and went right to the end. And it worked. Amazingly well. The ending scenes kept getting longer (that's good) and sharper (even better). I now know what will and what won't work between what came before and what comes last.

So, sometimes, it seems, in writing and in life, it's good to break a few rules, shake things up, get out of the comfort zone. Eat dessert first. Write the end before you've finished the middle.

Now, I need to head back out to the porch (we're having beautiful fall writing weather) and finish things off. I have to kill a character I adore, and I get to help another character figure out some big things about herself.

I love this stuff. All that middle mumbo-jumbo? It doesn't seem so daunting now.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Writers in their own words and GCC

Last Thursday I had one of the best experiences I've ever had as a writer: I was the guest speaker at Ursuline Academy because they'd selected my novel as their whole school summer read. As a former English teacher, this was an honor and a thrill. I talked to the 600 students about writing and dreams and then visited several classrooms. I apologized to them that they'd had to take a test over my book on their second day back, but they didn't seem to be holding it against me. Their questions were thoughtful and smart and made me look at the story I'd written through their younger eyes. Perhaps one of the best comments came from a girl who said she hoped I wouldn't write a sequel (I assured her I have no intention of doing so) because she said the story was perfect just as it was. I wanted to kiss her. I still think that there's nothing cooler as a writer than to meet readers with whom my words have made a powerful connection. It was a day I'll cherish.

And now, here's a writer you might want to connect with-- Toni McGee Causey author of Bobbie Faye's Very (very, very, very) Bad Day.

Here's a short description: Bobbie Faye Sumrall is a dead-broke Cajun living in a broken-down trailer in Lake Charles, Louisiana. When criminals demand Bobbie Faye's Contraband Queen tiara-- the only thing of her mama's she inherited-- in exchange for her good-for-nothing brother, Bobbie Faye has to outwit the police, organized crime, former boyfriends, and a hostage she never intended to take (but who turns out to be damn sexy), in order to rescue her brother, keep custody of her niece, and get back in time to take her place as Queen in the Lake Charles Contraband Festival (think Mardi Gras, with more drinking and pirates). Luckily, she knows how to handle guns, outwit angry mama bears, drive a speedboat, and get herself out of (and into) almost every kind of trouble. If only that pesky state police detective (who also happens to be a pissed off ex-boyfriend) would stay out of her way . . .

And, now in her own words,

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?

The inspiration was wanting to write a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners heroine... a woman who has bad luck, but who rises to the occasion when her brother's life is in jeopardy.

I think character drives plot. Story = a character's choices when under pressure. If you don't have stakes and obstacles, you just end up with a slice of life, which isn't really story. So both.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

Bobbie Faye. She's tenacious, bold, independent, irrascible, ascerbic and funny. And she loves her family, in spite of what major screw ups they are, so much so that she'll put her life on the line to save her brother.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?

I have an office (which used to be the formal dining room), and there are wrap-around bookshelves (filled to overflowing). I tend to write in the evenings until very late because there are fewer distractions and interruptions and it's easier to ignore the housework (have to be quiet! people are sleeping! can't clean now! oh, darn!)

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

The actual, daily exerience of writing. I love the words stringing along, creating a world. I love that I can go back and edit. I've been writing so long, I cannot fathom my life without it.

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

Read everything you can; read widely across genres.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I'm nice . . . Who knew?

My buddy Kristen, writer of From There to Here and Back, just nominated me for a "nice" award:

This award is for those bloggers who are nice people; good blog friends and those who inspire good feelings and inspiration. Also for those who are a positive influence on our blogging world. Once you’ve been awarded please pass it on to 7 others who you feel are deserving of this award.

I was especially tickled since I was coming off of a week (or maybe even ten days) when I hadn't been feeling particularly nice. It's good to be reminded that niceness is a quality to celebrate. So, I get to now nominate seven other bloggers who are richly deserving of this award . . .

Bev Marshall, St. Tammany Writers Group

Larramie, Seize a Daisy

The Fun Women at The Good Girls Kill for Money Club

Melanie Lynne Hauser, Refrigerator Door

Therese Fowler, Making it Up

The wonderful women at The Writers' Group

Mary Evelyn Lewis, The Virtual Wordsmith

(I would have also nominated Lisa at Eudaemonia, but Kristen beat me to it!)

So, there you go. I'll close by quoting some advice my grandmother gave at her 100th birthday celebration: "Be nice. It makes a difference."

P.S. I just read a nice review of my novel; you can read it here

Monday, August 27, 2007

Writers in their own words-GCC

On this August Monday, how about a flight to France?

Laura Florand's "semi-autobiographical" debut, BLAME IT ON PARIS, has been called "hilarious" by Booklist and a "frothy, French confection" by Publisher's Weekly.

Here's Laura in her own words:

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?

It generated itself. I was living this absolutely crazy, fun, rich story, and I had always written (usually fiction), so one day I saw a travel anthology was looking for travel stories on wine, and I decided to write a travel essay about one little bit of what was going on. Then the same publisher had another anthology, on Provence, and I had a funny story about that. And then I realized that I didn’t have just little bits of funny stories here and there, but that everything that had happened from the moment I first spotted that handsome Parisian waiter was a wonderfully funny and romantic true story that could really reach people.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

S├ębastien. He’s so cute, that’s why. Also, the first time I met him, he gave me his chocolate mousse.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?

My writing environment is a complete mess. My writing process is really to just sit down and write. I will write scenes that come to me for no other reason than I love the imagined scene. For some of those, a story arc develops in my head, and I go for it. I have others, though, absolutely beautiful scenes that I just love, and which keep sitting there, because the story arc for them just won’t come to me. Maybe it never will. Many of those scenes I eventually forget, but there are some I would just love to see develop into a story.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

The dreaming part. Sometimes re-reading something and realizing that it’s very good, that I really nailed it in those few pages.

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

To write. Write, write, write. But don’t forget you’re writing for people to read it. Unless you don’t care if people read it, in which case, just enjoy yourself.

So, check out Laura's story--sounds like a perfect way to while away the long weekend ahead!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

We Just Want to Go Back

"What do you think of this Cabernet? Is it better than the first one?"

"Should we take our nap at 3 or 4? I guess it depends on when we're going to dinner."

"Do you mind getting me another mimosa?"

"Would you rather picnic up on this hill or down by the river?"

These were the sorts of questions we bandied about during our five+ days in the Napa Valley. Far different from the questions that define our more mundane (and stress-filled) everyday life.

We reveled in the trip. We relaxed more easily than I'd ever thought we could.

We began our trip tooling around in a silver mustang convertible. Completely impractical in our real lives but a blast on vacation. And perfect for driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on our last full day on vacation. After awhile I ran out of superlative comments for each new ocean view, finally settling on a whispered "damn."

If you've never been there; go. Go now. Stay here. You will not only stay in a gorgeous room where you'll have a fireplace and a complimentary bottle of wine waiting for you, but every morning you'll get to dig into an amazing champagne brunch (at no extra charge. This is NOT your typical free hotel breakfast.).

If you stop in to the St. Supery Winery, I promise you will not be the first to ask, "So what percentage of the people here spit rather than swallow?" I was relieved that when my husband posed this question, his attention was focused on one of the lovely spit buckets, so it was clear to all in the tasting room what he was referring to.

Following a tour of Mumm's makers of champagne, we wandered along the road to V. Sattui. You can't buy their wines anywhere but here, so pick up a few bottles. We also availed ourselves of their deli and put together a great picnic. Later in the week, we stopped at the venerable Oakville Grocery for picnic supplies.

It's hard to rank the different restaurants, so suffice it to say you'll eat well at any of these places--Mustards, Tra Vigne, Hurley's, Uva, and Annabelle's (in San Francisco).

One of the best wine tasting/tours we went on was at the Robert Sinesky Winery where they have culinary tours where they pair food with the wines. Both were superb.

But we weren't only gluttons for food and wine (just mostly). We visited one of the three Old Faithful geysers in the US where we made some not too terribly original jokes as it prepared to spew and tried but failed to startle the goats into fainting. I also read 2 1/2 books (4 hour plane rides are good for that!): We Need to Talk About Kevin, Never Change, and Forecast of Evil.

It was a hard trip to bid goodbye; tough to admit it was over. Tomorrow a new work week begins, but we're now 48 hours into re-entry and we're no longer grumpy about being back, but rather we're happy we went (I realize that sounds pretty hallmarky, but I guess I'm still feeling the glow.).

I promise my next post will be all about writing. I have a book to finish and then revise after all. But, I have a hunch my mind will be wandering often in the next few weeks back to a picnic at a table on the grounds of a winery, or watching the sunset over the vineyards, or smelling the tang of the ocean spray as we come around another turn south of Half Moon Bay.

Great trips and good books have that in common, don't they? The ability to take you far away, take you back, take you to worlds removed from your everyday life.

A toast, then, to books and travel.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Real Quick . . .

Check out this new review on Virtual Wordsmith.

That's it for now. I'm on vacation and there's a champagne brunch calling my name.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Getting Organized

Some of my nearest and dearest will be laughing themselves silly with the title of this post. I tend to be cluttered. I have good intentions, but I've always been able to ignore mess if I have a good book to read or the NYT crossword to solve. I straighten up the coffee table in the family room, but within a short time it's crowded with my stuff. I'm often asked if I outline my novels and I laugh and respond that only if post-it notes stuck on my laptop and various legal pads counts as outlining (and, as an English teacher for 15 years I know it doesn't).

I do try. I have a file for all my 2007 tax receipts. I just can't always find the file. (Oh, and yes, I know I should put it in my file cabinet. I'm not stupid.)

And, I'm not a slob. I just keep things. And I have yet to find the perfect organizing system.

In some areas, though, I have systems in place. In my classroom, each class was color-coded. Red handout? Fourth hour. Grading sheets? Green. But I frequently lost my keys under the mounds of papers and files on my desk. My recipes are neatly divided in my recipe box. But, sometimes I use a recipe for a bookmark in a cookbook.

All that said, I love having a structure, a rhythm to my day. I get the coffee ready the night before and I make sure that there are four cans of Diet Mountain Dew (ick. yuck. gross.) in the fridge for my husband who, while not a coffee drinker is a caffeine needer. I not only make a list before I go to the grocery store, I plan out the dinner menus for the week. I do crosswords in ink.

So, that's why I love this time of year--we're about to get back to school. Structure. Set schedules. Every June, along with the kids, I celebrate the arrival of summer vacation--no nagging about homework, no late night runs to Target for posterboard. No pleading with the school custodian to please, please, please let us in to the part of the building where a certain locker is with a certain chemistry book inside of it.

But . . . by the end of July (and maybe a tad earlier) my husband and I start whispering to each other, "When does school start?" Because the kids, as kids do, view every night as Friday night. Their alarms aren't going off at 7 a.m. But ours are. And we still ask our kids to wake us up when they get home. And that ranges from midnight to 3 a.m. And teenagers are nocturnal nightfeeders. And we're tired. I'm ready for the house to be empty for 6 or 7 hours every day.

So, right now, I'm rejoicing as much as the kids are grousing. The schedules have arrived. The summer reading is 50% done. The college books are ordered. I'm taking one back to school tomorrow. (And the next day, my husband and I take off for our last gasp of summer--6 days in Napa Valley. By ourselves.) And on August 22, I will have a quiet house by 8 a.m. and will be able to gather all the post-its and other scribbles and get down to the business of finishing my novel so I can then revise. I'll post about that process in time, but right now laundry calls. Hope the buzzer on the dryer doesn't wake any of the sleeping kids.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Writers in their own words-GCC

Today, I'm offering another installment from The Girlfriend Cyber Circuit--today's guest is Ellen Meister author of Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA.

The paperback version will be in the stores this Tuesday and it's the perfect almost-back-to-school-but-not-just-yet summer read. Meet Ellen through my interview below:

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?

The idea for the book came to me at a PTA meeting. I had only recently decided to stop procrastinating and pursue my dream of writing a novel, and as I smiled at all the other moms, it occurred to me that no one had any idea I had this great dream. In fact, no one in the room knew I had an inner life at all. Then it occurred to me that everyone there could be feeling something pretty similar. As soon as I had that thought, I knew I wanted to write about these types of women--to explore the pain, passion, heartache and joy hidden beneath facade of the perfect suburban housewife--and do it with humor and compassion.

From there I set out to construct a plot around an event that could affect the community as a whole and the women as individuals. Eventually, I got the idea to bring a Hollywood movie studio to their town, and select their schoolyard as a possible location for the filming of a George Clooney movie.

As far as your second question, I do think my writing is more character-driven, despite the fact that the book is plot heavy.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

Well, I have three protags and choosing a fave would feel like singling out one of my children. I will tell you that the one who surprised me the most was Ruth. She's the brash, wealthy character I created to show that even the women who seem to have to all--designer house, designer clothes, designer car, etc.--can be hiding unimaginable pain. In some ways, she represented the type of woman who had always intimidated me. But as I got to know her, I found that she had this giant heart, and I really came to love her. Talk about cathartic!

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?

I admire writers who can bang out a messy first draft and then go back later and edit. There has to be a certain freedom in that. My process is a bit more ... let's say, "retentive."

I always compose on the computer, and try to get each paragraph as perfect as I can. Once I have the draft complete, I print it out and edit it again in hard copy.

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

Those two words: THE END. Talk about satisfying!

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

Write the story you most want to read. That's a paraphrase from J.D. Salinger, and of course it wasn't directed to ME, but it felt like it was.

So, there you go . . . another great pick for your reading fun!

Friday, August 3, 2007

All Things Jane

I don't know about you, but I've always thought Jane Austen is the British writer from the 1800s who would be the most fun to gossip and drink with. The Brontes would be a bit too brooding. Jane would make those perfect killer comments about the bimbo at the end of the bar and would have just the right retort for the too-slick guys with overworn pick-up lines. I just always felt like she got it--that the right guy is out there (but not where you think he'll be and not even WHO you think he'll be). And, she's having quite a revival these days. I wonder, when she sat in her room a couple hundred years ago, writing without any of today's modern conveniences, if she could even conceive of the possibility that in 2007 she'd still be read and considered hip? Cool? That she'd have writers turning to her for inspiration? You go girl!

Well, my fellow writer and friend Laurie Viera Rigler has written a fabulous, fun book Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict which combines this love of Jane, a fascination of that time period, a fed-up-ness with looking for love in today's world, and time travel in a book that's funny and sweet and will keep you curious until the very end. I kept wondering how she was going to pull it all off and she did it masterfully. This is a perfect book for your end of summer vacation (or, if you're not getting one of those, it will whisk you away anyway.).

Go buy it. Thank me later!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Just a Little Nuts

That would describe me and the week or so we've just had around here. Even in a normal week it's often chaotic. Living in this house are two adults, five kids who range in age from 14-22 (all of whom occasionally think of themselves as adults most often when exhibiting non-adultlike behavior), a three-year old golden retriever and a twelve-year old diabetic cat. These numbers alone caused me to dub our house (if we were the kind of people who named houses and lived in the kind of house that got named) "Blathering Heights" when our Brady Bunch group (sans Alice) moved in two years ago.

In the past week we've added:

~a broken refrigerator (diagnosis: dead compressor. I'd have thought compressors had longer lifespans than two years) which won't be fully functioning for another two days. For the first day, we lived out of a cooler. Then, we spent two days living out of my son's dorm refrigerator (oh, and had house guests at the same time!), then I broke down (not like the fridge or anything) and scrubbed out the old fridge (that's twenty years old and still has the compressor it was born with!) that had been in our basement (unplugged) so we could at least use it for cold beverages, necessities and ice. I've discovered I'm a huge ice addict.

~a leaky toilet. It wasn't leaking on the floor or anything, but, had a slow leak (caused by a bad flapper) which meant every few minutes it would refill just a tad. If you were on it when it happened, it was startling. If you were in the other room trying to finish writing your next novel it became akin to chinese water torture.

~a stalled air conditioner. Not good in St. Louis in July. Turns out the electricians installed the wrong kind of switch two years ago which made it a tad touchy. Sort of like my husband and I were when we were trying to get to sleep the night before it was repaired.

I know that in the whole scheme of things, these aren't even blips, but they've tended to keep me from more important pursuits--so, I apologize about the lack of insight (or even amusement) in this post.

Also, in the next few weeks we'll be getting one son packed up and back to college, another son packed and off to a vacation with his girlfriend and her family, both daughters geared up for their first and last years of high school (one of each) and my husband and I packed and ready for six days in Napa (the convertible rental car is already reserved!). And I'm still trying to finish that book I've mentioned a time or two. So, my posts might be a bit hit or miss and more book reviews than anything else, but I'll try not to have many more like this tale of domestic woe.

Oh, one last thing: GO CUBS!!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Writers in their own words

I was recently invited to join The Girlfriends' Cyber Circuit, which is a group of 20 or so women (hence the "Girlfriend" in the title) writers who take turns "touring" each other's books on their blogs. I was flattered to be asked to join and think it's yet another great opportunity for writers to support and learn from one another all thanks to the wonders of the internet.

Today's guest is Deborah Leblanc whose new book is MORBID CURIOSITY.


It seemed like the answer to Haley’s prayers. The most popular girl in her high school promised Haley that her life would change forever if only she performed certain dark rituals. And if Haley can convince her twin sister to participate, their power will double. Together they will be able to summon mystical entities they never dared dream of. But these are powerful, uncontrollable forces, forces that can kill—forces that demand to be fed . . .


“One of the best new voices of supernatural thrillers!”
--Cemetery Dance

“It’s now official: Deborah LeBlanc has become a master not only of good spooky stories, but also of crafting great characters to fill them!”
--Horror Fiction Review

“An imaginative chiller. Riveting!”
--Publishers Weekly

“Ms. LeBlanc’s tale is a powerful, gripping read, with an ever increasing intensity that forces you to the end without laying the novel aside.”
--Who Dunnit


Deborah LeBlanc is an award-winning author from Lafayette, Louisiana. She is also a business owner, a licensed death scene investigator, and an active member of two national paranormal investigation teams. Deborah’s unique experiences, enthusiasm, and high-energy level make her a much sought after speaker at writers’ conferences across the nation. She also takes her passion for literacy and a powerful ability to motivate to high schools around the country.

She is the president of the Horror Writers Association, president of the Writers’ Guild of Acadiana, and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the National Association of Women Writers, and International Thriller Writers Inc. In 2004, she created the LeBlanc Literacy Challenge, an annual, national campaign designed to encourage more people to read. Her most recent novels are: FAMILY INHERITANCE, GRAVE INTENT, A HOUSE DIVIDED, and MORBID CURIOSITY. Deborah’s next release, WATER WITCH, is scheduled to be on bookstore shelves in August ’08. For more information on Deborah or the Literacy Challenge, visit

I had the chance to ask Deborah a few questions about her book and writing . . .

1.)How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?

Definitely character driven.
Morbid Curiosity is about a set of sixteen-year-old twin girls whose lives are turned upside down after their father dies and their mother is committed to a hospital after she attempts suicide. Without parents, the girls are eventually shipped off to Mississippi to live with grandparents they hardly know, and it’s there they decide to take control of their lives by way of Chaos Magic. The one thing they don’t count on conjuring up, though, is their own death sentence.

The inspiration for this story came while I was doing research on shamans for another book. I found a link on a website marked ‘sigils’, and curiosity sent me clicking away. The information I discovered on sigils and Chaos Magic blew me away. The intense measures that many practitioners (most of them teens) use to ‘charge’ and ‘feed’ their sigils is nothing short of horrifying. Some claim to have gone so far as committing murder. I couldn’t NOT do a story on that.

2.)Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

My favorite character wound up being Buck Thurston. He’s a feisty old fart, who has a heart the size of Montana. It just takes him most of the book to realize it.

3.)What's your writing process/writing environment like?

My process is pretty simple. I get an idea for a story, start asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, then invite the characters who are supposed to be involved in the story to come along. As for my writing environment, think organized chaos. I usually have stacks of papers everywhere, along with sticky notes, research articles, half-filled coffee mugs, a week-old bottle of water, and a box of toothpicks. The toothpicks are for chewing when I get stuck on a scene. J

4.)What's your favorite part of writing?

Finishing the book!

5.)What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

There are two actually—1. “Just write the story, dammit!” 2. “Read, read, read—write, write, write—and never give up!”