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.