Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Toast . . .

To a year filled with family and friends, adventures and surprises, health and strength, achievements and goals met . . . for all of us.

Oh, and book sales that blow the roof off!!!

Happy 2009!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Holiday and New Year Musings

It's bitterly cold here in St. Louis today. My husband is at the mall (only 3 shopping days left!), one of my sons is at the Rams game with college buddies, and I'm about to go make another batch of cookies. The crockpot is filled with the makings for White Chicken Chili, and in a few hours friends are coming over to enjoy the chili and cookies and some holiday cheer.

I moved to this town and this house 18 years ago next month, and the two families coming over tonight are the first people I met. They are, literally, my next-door neighbor and back-fence neighbor. At the time, our kids were toddlers. The three youngest of those kids will be joining us tonight, all home from college. It'll be the first party where none of them will have to sneak a beer in the backyard.

Over the years we've worried about teachers and mean kids at school and college acceptances. We've driven carpools, and babysat. We've mourned the loss of parents and buried beloved pets. We've welcomed new puppies and one grandbaby. We all danced at my wedding 3 years ago. We've borrowed eggs and traded recipes and sat up way too late drinking wine. We've brought meals after surgery and driven each other home after medical procedures. We've had health scares and put out one driveway fire.

We try to get together more often, but life gets in the way and we find ourselves running into each other at the grocery store and saying things like "we've got to get together" and we wave from the driveway or holler over the back fence. So, it's a treat to actually have a date on the calendar when we can relax and laugh and reminisce.

And that's one of the wonderful things about this time of year. For one, my house is all decorated and cozy so I want to light the candles and have friends over. For another, it's a time to look back and look forward, and that naturally means thinking about good friends.

When I moved here, so much ahead of me was unknown. Divorce, remarriage. A first novel being published. Teaching full-time and then changing careers. In the past year, even, our three families have weathered sadnesses and celebrations like families all over the world. And I love looking back at the quilt of our lives, pieces here and there of all the things that have made us who we are, woven together in tears and laughter and love.

Who knows what we'll be celebrating at the end of 2009?

But to all of you, I wish you a holiday filled with warmth and laughter and family and good friends. And a 2009 full of joy and surprise and adventure.

See you next year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Writers in their own words-GCC

In this hectic time, I'm here to help you out with yet another book suggestion, courtesy of the GCC: Melissa Clark's Swimming Upstream, Slowly.

Melissa is the creator and executive producer of the award-winning television series, 'Braceface', and has written for shows on the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Fox. She received a master's degree from the writing program at U.C. Davis, and currently lives in Los Angeles. This is her first novel. Let's hear from her 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?

Swimming Upstream, Slowly was born because I was having lunch with a friend and overate. I lifted my shirt to expose my bloated belly and the friend said, half joking, "Are you sure you're not pregnant?" and I said, "Yeah, right, from a lazy sperm." I went home that night and started outlining it for a movie. I decided, eventually, to write it as a novel instead. I am usually driven by character, but this book was very plot-y, so I was driven by both in this one.

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

The Jordan character was initially just a throw-away character, but as I kept writing he became more integral to the plot. It was fun to write those scenes with Sasha and see where they headed.

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

For Swimming... I quit my TV writing job to write the novel. I had the luxury of time and money to do so. I joined a workshop at UCLA and used it as a motivator. I finished the book in a year and three months.

I just finished a draft of a new novel and spent most of my writing time at the Santa Monica Public Library. I teach now, so my writing time is more precious.

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

Coming up with ideas, finessing scenes, watching two characters meet.

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

"The best part of being a writer is getting to spend time with other writers" --Myra Freid, writer.

I love, love, love That last quote. It's absolutely true!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Adventures in Wrapping

Today it was cold and icy outside. I chose to stay inside where it was toasty and cozy.

I baked cookies and made chili and wrapped presents which will soon be under the tree (as soon as we put it up).

I love this time of preparation and waiting.

I unpacked all the Christmas decorations yesterday. The day before I started (and came darn close to finishing) our Christmas shopping. Hence the need for gift-wrapping today.

I had a great time this afternoon. The aroma of freshly baked cookies hung in the air, I filled the CD player with Christmas carols (I just love this David Bowie/Bing Crosby rendition of "Little Drummer Boy"), and I sat at the dining room table and wrapped presents.

And you know what?


They are much easier to wrap than anything else. I mean, Macy's rocks, but their boxes are flimsy. And rarely does the item fit as neatly inside as I'd like it to. And then there are the items that don't fit neatly into boxes. So creative taping becomes important. But, books. Oh my. Even my dog could wrap books (and he doesn't have opposable thumbs). And, if you're like me and have to mail some gifts, well, can I just mention that they're a cinch to mail? Okay, I mentioned it.

I've got a slew of books on my wish list. And at least 5 of the folks on my list (and we're cutting way back this year) are going to be the lucky recipients of books.

So, if you're still looking for that perfect gift, wander into your local bookstore and buy bunches.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Think Fearlessly, Act Locally

So, I spent last week putting the final touches on my MS. Today I'll read it through one last time, tweak a few things here and there, rewrite the synopsis, and send it off to my agent. Yes, I'm well aware that all the news in publishing (and the auto industry and Wall Street, and . . . . ) is bleak. I believe a week ago we had "Black Wednesday." To some, I suppose, it would seem silly at best and utterly pointless/stupid/bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustrating to be sending off a MS in the hopes it'll be published. But, read this journal entry written by my dear, wise author friend Bev Marshall. She gets to the heart of why we write.

In working on this last revision/rewrite I discovered that I was writing fearlessly. Okay, the market might have cratered, but that didn't mean I should give up on my characters. I'm not writing for some vague "market" anyway. I'm writing to tell a story, an important story. I'm writing because it's who I am and what I do. And so my words soared out onto the computer screen. Nobody's buying? Okay, then, even more reason to write from the heart.

And as I went about the rest of my week, I thought how freeing it was to write without fear. And it extended beyond just writing. So, the economy is terrifying? That gave me the freedom to scale back on my holiday buying, but it also meant that I wanted to make what I give count all the more. Distill it down, so to speak. Rather than 6 or 7 wrapped presents under the tree, what are three things that will tell my son I really know him?

And what can I do for the booksellers who've helped me so much? I can get off my couch and go buy my books from them rather than adding to "my cart" with a click of the mouse. And lots of those great indies have web presences, too.

Here are two of my local stores who will get my business:

The fabulous Main Street Books in St. Charles, owned by the wonderful Vicki Erwin

And the classic Left Bank Books in the Central West End (and now also in downtown St. Louis. Yes, they just oepend a new store this fall. You gotta love that!)

Two other indie stores that have treated me (and gobs of other authors well!) are Schwartz's in Milwaukee and The Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans.

Feel free to share your favorite indie store when you leave a comment. And this holiday season, don't let the bad news hold you back.

Fearless. That's my new motto.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Writers in their own words-A Double Dipper!

In keeping with Monday's post about books being the perfect holiday gift, I have a GCC two-fer to offer all of you: Malena Lott (far right)and Jessica Brody!

In Malena's novel, Dating Da Vinci Ramona Elise is in a rut—a 36-year-old widowed mother of two, she can’t seem to find what make her truly happy in life. Making sure her kids are happy isn’t the hard part; Ramona’s looking for the passion she lost two years ago when she lost her husband and her world turned upside down. When a handsome Italian immigrant walks into her English class, Ramona never expects to find la dolce vita (the sweet life) in a younger man—or in her self!

Jessica's novel, The Fidelity Files confronts the thorny issue of infidelity head-on with its controversial main character Jennifer Hunter. Operating under the code name “Ashlyn,” Jennifer leads a double life. Her friends and family all think she’s an investment banker who’s too busy to date. In reality, Jennifer is hired by suspicious wives and girlfriends to test the faithfulness of their partners. Her job has made her pretty cynical about her own love life. But just as she’s ready to swear off men for ever, Jennifer meets sexy, sophisticated Jamie Richards, a man who might just past her fidelity test. However, before she retires her secret agent self forever, she takes on one last assignment – a job which will permanently alter her perceptions of trust, honesty, and love.

Let's hear from each of them in their own words:

First Jessica Brody about Fidelity Files . . .

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

Before I became a full-time writer, I worked in a very corporate environment. And like all corporate jobs, there were a certain number of “alcohol-related” events that I was expected to attend. I would often find myself at work happy hour functions in nearby bars, observing the interactions between single and non-single co-workers as their behaviors gradually declined from professional to something else entirely. Something hardly capable of being described as “appropriate.”

Witnessing these “indiscretions” upset me on a profound level. I secretly wished that someone would tell the “conveniently” absent significant others about what their husbands/wives/boyfriends/ girlfriends/fianc├ęs really did while attending these “obligatory” and supposedly “uneventful” work functions. But I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to do it. I was brave enough to think it…but not exactly brave enough to go knocking on people’s doors with bad news. You know what people tend to do to “the messenger.”

So instead I created a character whose job and purpose in life was to do just that. To reveal the truth to anyone who wanted to know. To knock on all the doors that I never had the courage to knock on. An invincible superhero-esque woman whose quest is to fight against the evils of infidelity. But of course, she soon finds out…she’s not as invincible as she once thought.
I’m definitely more driven by character. I like thinking up interesting characters with intriguing back stories and then forming a world around them. Like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a story about a woman who tests men’s fidelity for a living?” Then I go forward from there. “What would her life be like?” And “What kind of interesting things would happen to someone like that?”
2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

My favorite character is definitely Jen’s gay friend, John. Every scene he’s in was always the most fun to write. And the easiest. He’s definitely the comic relief of the book. I don’t know where some of his lines come from. They just kind of emerge as if I’m channeling a flamboyant and sometimes annoying gay man from another dimension. I would be writing a scene with him and he’d respond with a line that was so him and I would just stare back at it on the page, laugh and say, “Where did that come from?” Needless to say, he was one of my favorite characters to return to in the sequel.

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

The writing process is very random for me. It all depends on the day. Because I tend to be equally right and left brained, sometimes I feel as though the writing process is just a constant struggle (or sometimes clash) between the two sides of my brain to come up with a consistent way to write a novel. I write outlines, because my analytical side tells me it’s the right thing to do, but then halfway through the story, I come to the conclusion that I only write outlines so that I’ll have something to deviate from. I create complicated spreadsheets (a nod back to my days as a strategic analyst) for my storylines and page counts and pacing only to abandon them halfway through. And yet, despite this seemingly random chaos, it all feels perfectly natural to me. As if it was designed specifically for a purpose. So I suppose, my lack of a defined process is a process in itself.

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

My favorite part of writing is definitely the beginning of the story. There’s nothing more exciting and inspiring than a fresh new idea and a blank piece of paper. The possibilities are endless, the promise is huge and the character is brand new. It’s like that first four-hour long conversation with a new guy. So much hope for where it could go!

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

“Finish it.” Okay, I realize some explanation is required here. But when I first started writing my very first book, I had no idea if it was any good or not. I was excited about it but I was so uncertain about my writing. So I showed it to a friend who used to be a literary agent and she said, “This is good. You should finish it.” So I did. Now, mind you, that book never got published. It’s still gathering dust on the proverbial shelf. But it did give me the push I needed to take my writing seriously and keep going. Two years after getting that piece of advice I started on a new book...the one that eventually became The Fidelity Files. And today, I’m a published author. All because of those two words. [Cue the dramatic inspirational music here.]

And now Malena Lott about Dating Da Vinci . . .

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

I don’t recall the exact a-ha moment when the book idea came to fruition, but I’d just moved into a new house in the ‘burbs, my whole department had just been laid off, and I was in a big transition period as a stay-at-home mom and starting my own consulting business. I was definitely in a place in my life where I was thinking: what’s next? And, what does it mean to truly be happy? So Ramona sprung to life, and since I’ve always been a huge da Vinci fan – there wasn’t anything that guy wasn’t gifted at – it all just came together. I’m driven by character as my journeys are within for my female protagonists.

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

I change the answer given the day, because I really do think there are so many fun characters in the book. Today I’ll answer Leonardo da Vinci because he’s new to America and so full of life. He’s good at everything he tries, and he falls for Ramona, a woman who desperately needs to feel joy and passion again.

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

I try to write every morning. If I’m not working on something new, then I’m revising or editing or marketing. I like to get that done in the morning while my kids are in school and my toddler is busy with his breakfast and educational videos. (The Simpson is educational, right?) Not really. My writing environment changes based on where my toddler is in the house and the weather outside. I have two patios so I love to take my laptop outside, and inside I either write in my library on a sleek black recliner or upstairs in the playroom on a mod pink 1950s chair.

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

By far, ideas and dialogue, though I’m really not very heavy on dialogue. My favorite part is usually any part that I’ve gone back and read that I think passes the muster.

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

Learn the craft. I’ve written all my life, but you can always improve and with experience you can get better. So read a lot, write a lot works for me.

So, you heard it here first . . . great gift ideas!

Monday, December 1, 2008

As You Shop this Season . . .

Books, books, and more books. They are always at the top of my Christmas wish list. I love waking up on Dec. 26, knowing the fridge is full of leftovers, there's nowhere I have to be, and I have a stack of new books to dive into. If I want, I can spend the day in bed, cozy under my down comforter, and read the day away.

I also love to give books as gifts. They are easy to wrap (you never have to wait for some surly clerk to find a box for you) and they are always a perfect fit. They never go out of style.

Now, I know, that this year especially, people are throwing their hands in the air and acting as though the book business is dying if not already dead. Well, to paraphrase one of the gods of American Literature, I DECLINE TO ACCEPT THE END OF BOOKS.

Books allow us to visit worlds and lives that are far removed from our own. Books take us on journeys we could never plan or afford. Books introduce us to characters who become friends.

When I was teaching, I'd tell my students that they were to always write about books in the present tense because, as I'd explain, when you open the cover of a book and dive into it, the story is happening right then. Those characters are living their story right at that moment. They are always alive in those pages. Cool, huh? Every time I read it, Atticus is guiding Scout and defending Tom Robinson. And Boo Radley is watching and protecting.

So, you see, books will never die. Elizabeth Bennett is smitten with Darcy over and over again (even though she can't admit it!). Caddy Compson will keep trying to help Quentin even though she knows she'll never be successful. But her love is too strong to give up.

These characters live anew every time someone opens the covers of the book. That's what you give someone when you give a book as a gift.

If you're looking for suggestions, check out all my posts on this blog labeled Book Recommendations or Writers or GCC.

My author buddy Carleen Brice has a new blog full of book suggestions.

And every Monday I'll be posting suggestions, ideas, etc.

Today my plug is for memoirs. I know memoirs have gotten a bad rap because some folks wrote ones that weren't. But real memoirs, good memoirs, are wonderful. They read like novels with the added poignancy of knowing a real live person is behind the story. Here are three that I'm a fan of this season:

~Gail Konop-Baker's Cancer is a Bitch about how having cancer helped her reexamine her life and start living the life she wanted. It's funny and inspiring and not what you think of when you hear "cancer book". Just trust me and read it, okay?

~Kin Reid's No Place Safe, a riveting look at what it was like to be 13 and have her mom leading a serial killer investigation. It's a coming of age tale in every way.

~Kathleen Flinn's, The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry about her experiences at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.