Sunday, December 27, 2009

Conversation with a Half-Finished Novel

Hi, novel? We need to talk.

See, the thing is...I mean, it's like this... Oh, crap. I'm just going to say it.

It's over.

No, no, it's not you. Not at all. You're wonderful. Amazing. You're deep and layered and evocative and...and... Well, you know, I admire you so much. And love you, sure. Of course. It's just...I'm not in love with you.

I have tried. You know I have. I was there for you, wasn't I? Every day for a year and a half--

Oh, here we go again. Complaining that I have a day job. How many times do I have to explain this to you? The laptop, the flash drive, you think they grow on trees? I worked for those. I gave you the best, I busted my butt for you. You can't deny that. I've worked so hard but it's just not...

No, don't cry. Come on. Please. I swear, it's not you. It's me. Really. I'm not good enough for you. You deserve someone better. Someone who can do you justice. You're so intricate, I already say layered?

What? No! How can you even think that? I mean sure, there have been blog posts, but they're nothing compared to you! I would never--

Okay, now you're just talking crazy. When would I even have had the time? Five days a week, who was I working on? You. What do you think, I had some other file open on some other computer? That in between typing on you, I'd sneak away and dash off two sentences with someone else and then sneak back? Do you hear how crazy that sounds?

Those were games of solitaire! Look, I swear to you, I never once cheated on you. What are you talking about, "other novel"? What other nov--

Oh. That.

OK, look, just calm down, all right? It's not what it looks like, I can explain. See, there was this...

Fine. You want the truth? OK, then. You're right. I am leaving you for another book.

No, it did not start back in Chapter 3! I didn't even know the other novel then!

See, this is what I'm saying. We've always had problems. Right from the start, fighting over every single word. I kept thinking it'd get better, that if I just hung in there we'd hit that groove, we'd start making beautiful music...

As if I need you to tell me that. You're not my first trip to the fair, you know. I know it gets hard. I know there are rough patches. Times we want to quit. But where was the magic? We didn't even get a honeymoon. That exaltation, the joy of beginning, when you feel you can scale mountains and cross deserts, like you can conquer the world... You don't even understand what I'm talking about, do you?

Why yes, if you want to know. The other novel does understand.

I didn't mean for this to happen. It's not like I went out looking for it. The other novel just popped into my head. And we started spending time together, and it just, I don't know. It made me feel so alive. Like I could do anything! I admit it, I fell. I fell hard. I couldn't help it.

Oh, sure, throw that in my face. "Once a cheater, always a cheater." You think once the going gets tough I'm going to dump the new novel, too. Well, I won't.

I won't.

No, I won't.

Fine. Believe whatever you want. But this isn't some whim. I've agonized over this decision for weeks. Months. And I've decided it's for the best. For both of us.

No, wait, let me explain! What I mean is, maybe I'm just not ready for you yet. In a year or two, when I've got this other novel out of my system...I mean, I'm not making any promises or anything...

So hey, we're good, right? Because I hate to do this, but I've got to go. Thanks. For everything. You taught me a lot. I'll never forget you.

Um, yeah...the other novel is waiting.

Okaaaay, well. Awkward. So, um, take care of yourself. It's been great. And we can still be friends, right?

Oh, wait, I almost forgot. I, uh...I'm going to need that flash drive.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

From Virginia, With Love

I recently received the most delicious news: Ten Cents a Dance has been named a 2009 Jefferson Cup Honor Book by the Virginia Library Association!

Each year, the Jefferson Cup Award Committee selects one winner and four honor books that are "distinguished American biography, historical fiction or history book for young people." Of Ten Cents, the committee said: "Chicago life in the 1940s is described with such accuracy in details of speech and slang, clothes, transportation, and clubs as to lend unusual veracity and authority to a work of teen fiction. Ruby is believably portrayed in her time and place as a feisty young woman doing her best with a difficult situation."

Without the resources of our own magnificent Multnomah County Library, with its wonderful and ever-helpful librarians, I never could have achieved anything close to that veracity. Most writers love libraries and I'm no exception. And that makes recognition by librarians very sweet indeed! Many, many thanks to the Jefferson Cup Award Committee for selecting Ten Cents a Dance as one of their four honor books this year. Love ya, Virginia!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Have Pink Glove, Will Dance

A friend of mine sent this to me and I loved it. Maybe because, amid all this politicized, polarized health care debate, it's good to be reminded that health care is people. People dedicated to helping other people beat disease.

Not to mention...dancing with pink gloves.

The guy with the mop is my favorite.

One of the many things I'm thankful for is that I live in the same town as these dedicated, professional, pink-gloved goofballs. Love ya, P-town!

A very, very Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday Funnies

This week, Internet people have been making me laugh. I must share the bounty!

Go Fug Yourself: a mock trial in which you, the jury, must decide whether Carrie Underwood committed fashion fug in the first degree at the CMA Awards. From Exhibit A: "The prosecution frowns that this mirrored dress mostly eliminates her waist, and reflects the red carpet in such a way that it becomes an artistic interpretation of internal bleeding." Go! Vote! Carrie's fate is in your hands!

Prefer your scathing wit in a literary setting? Here, then, are the winners of
The Rejectionist's challenge to write the "THE MOST AMAZING Form Rejection in the History of the Universe." That's right, people--the universe. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Ha! Apparently Hell hath never seen rejected writers unleashed...on themselves.

What's that? You're too lazy to read or vote, you want to loll on the couch and let the funny pour into your eyes? Behold, just for you: Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" music video...
the literal version.*

Which brings us, as always, to the eternal, unanswerable question...who are these people, and where do they find the time to do this kind of stuff?

*Discovered via my friend Jenny's blog...thanks for the mirth, Jenny!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Geek Fun

Wanna write a novel but the idea of slaving for years over deathless prose leaves you cold?

Baby, welcome to NaNoWriMo.

If you're a writer, you probably know what I'm talking about. If not, then consider yourself hereby informed: NaNoWriMo is shorthand for National Novel Writing Month.

National Novel Writing Month is not, as some people assume from the name, a month set aside for the appreciation of novel writers. (Although that would be nice--can we talk about that? I nominate the month of May, and further stipulate that said appreciation be in the form of cheese popcorn and/or Skittles. But that's just me.)

NaNoWriMo is about writing. Specifically, writing an entire novel (minimum 50,000 words--which is actually a pretty skimpy novel, but I digress) in the month of November.

Is it a contest? No, because there aren't any judges. Are there prizes? No, except for the glory and honor of completing a novel in 30 days. Am I participating? No, for a variety of reasons, mostly because I'm already deep in a novel and that doesn't lend itself to the kind of madcap seat-of-the-pants invention you need to write 1,666.67 words per day, every day. But hey, just because I'm a stick-in-the-mud doesn't mean you have to be. Limber up those fingers, put on the thinking cap (never mind, forget the thinking--there's no time for that!), click here for some inspiration, then let `er rip!


In other late breaking news, one of the Words of the Day this week (courtesy of A Word A Day, a site so insanely geeky it makes my heart flutter):


Noun: meaning the part of the body one cannot reach to scratch.

Pull that one out of your linguistic hat the next time someone asks you to scratch their back. Instant awe and admiration! Right? Am I right?


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Elizabeth and Darcy and the Undead, Oh My!

Outside, the first storm of the season. Downed trees and power lines, an early dark. Inside, sore throats and Theraflu. All the while, Halloween approaching on black cat feet.

Perfect time for a little zombie talk.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.”

Thus begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Not to fear, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, beloved by generations (and me), is still here; in fact, most of the book is word-for-word identical to the original.* But, as the back cover copy of P&P&Z so eloquently puts it, this “expanded edition” features “all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.” Yowza!

England, it seems, has been struck by a terrible plague. For fifty-five years, a horrific pestilence has infected the dead, animating them into flesh-seeking zombies. If a living person is bitten by a zombie and survives, that person will suffer a slow, slavering descent into zombie-hood.

One of the cleverest things author (or more properly, co-author) Seth Grahame-Smith did was start the zombie plague a couple of generations before the book begins. What this does is drop us into a Regency England torn between timeless British tradition (tea in the afternoon, charming country dances, warring with France) and a harsh new reality of fighting for survival—both one’s own and the country as a whole.

This contrast is highlighted beautifully between the five Bennett girls and their nemeses, the sisters Bingley. Mr. Bennett, acutely aware of the threat a zombie plague poses to England, sent his daughters to China to be tutored in the so-called “deadly arts.” Upon their return, the five sisters took a solemn oath to defend England by killing the undead wherever they may be.

Caroline Bingley and her sister, Mrs. Hurst, on the other hand…well, they hold the attitude you’d pretty much expect, namely, that all this running around slicing off zombies’ heads with one’s favorite katana is a most ungenteel activity for ladies. And sweaty, besides. After all, they've never had to engage in mortal combat with the undead; London, where they live most of the time, is fortified by an enormous, zombie-defying wall. It’s not until the Bingleys move to Netherfield that they find out first-hand what Night of the Living Dead really means.

But Darcy…ah, Darcy. It should come as no surprise that the smoldering, brooding Fitzwilliam is a martial arts master and zombie destroyer extraordinaire. In fact, his only match may be…Elizabeth herself.

Don’t sit there and claim you saw that coming. You’re shocked, admit it.

Events unfold more or less the way they do in the original (they have to, after all, given that most of the text is Austen’s) but there are some delightful surprises along the way. Darcy’s skill is not unique in his family; in fact, it’s rather expected, given that his aunt—yes, the redoubtable Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself—is renowned throughout Britain, yea, even Europe, for her unparalleled deadliness against the manky dreadfuls. Her estate, Rosings Park, gains a few enhancements in P&P&Z that are quite funny—and which add unexpected twists to the conflicts between that formidable lady and the headstrong Elizabeth.

(By the way, new favorite phrase in the house? “Manky dreadfuls.” Calling the dogs: “Get in here, you manky dreadfuls!” Neighbors fighting: “The manky dreadfuls are at it again.” Really, we’ve found very few situations where the term “manky dreadful” isn’t appropriate.)

So is it all horror and hilarity? Well, not quite. By about halfway through the book, the zombie gimmick becomes a one-trick pony. There are only so many ways they can be dismembered, after all. Worse, Grahame-Smith—after doing a decent job of setting the parameters of this altered world—has characters break the rules of that world willy-nilly in an attempt to get more laughs. The chuckles aren’t worth the annoyance that comes with flipping back and forth, saying, “Hey wait a minute…why is she…that makes no sense at all!”

Which raises the question: should you really expect a book that inserts undead monsters into classic literature to make sense?

Why, yes. Yes, you should. Or why go to the trouble of all that world-building to begin with?

I ask you.

Most telling, though, is that when my sweetie read the book, he kept saying, “Listen to this—this is hilarious,” and invariably he’d read me a quote that was pure Austen. Not a zombie in sight.

In sum: Yeah, the zombies are amusing enough. But even after two hundred years, ain’t nobody can match the master. If you’ve never read Austen and are pretty sure you never would without kickass manky dreadful action, then definitely pick it up. On the other hand, if you’re such an Austen purist that the expansion of Margaret’s character in the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility offended you mortally, then, for your own sanity, stay far away.

But if you’re an Austen fan who can take some tongue-in-cheek fun with a beloved masterpiece, I say give it a whirl. Be sure you read the author’s notes at the end—for me, they were the funniest part of the whole shebang, and made me (almost) forget all my earlier gripes.

*Having originally been published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice—like all of Austen’s works, not to mention Shakespeare’s, the Brontes, et al—is considered public domain, and thus isn’t protected by copyright law. In other words—have at it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Chicago, Round 2

One of the upsides of writing historical fiction is all the research I get to do. (If this doesn’t sound like an upside, then you are probably not a major geek. Me, on the other hand...)

The downside is, I learn a lot more fascinating stuff than I can possibly shove into the pages of a novel. Not without expanding it to four volumes, complete with footnotes and a fifty-page index, at which, no longer a novel. So…what to do?

Why, create a multimedia presentation called A Hepkitten’s Guide to the War, of course. And then take it on the road.

Back in February, I went to Chicago—the setting for Ten Cents a Dance—to present A Hepkitten’s Guide to a few groups there. I had an absolute blast…which is why, when two of the venues asked me to come back, I enthusiastically said YES!

First up: Chicago Public Library. Like most writers, I adore libraries. I especially adore libraries that have enormous gargoyles. Ain’t nobody going to mess with their books, not with these fierce creatures hovering from the roof!

Robin Willard, Young Adult Specialist and Librarian Extraordinaire, set up a wonderful tour of three CPL branches: Back of the Yards, Beverly, and the Harold Washington Library downtown. Robin, you rock!

This is me in all my 1940s regalia with Migdalia Jimenez, children's librarian at the Back of the Yards branch. She gave us such a warm and wonderful welcome, she made us feel instantly at home.

After the Back of the Yards talk, with some of the students and their teacher. It was a privilege--and a ton of fun--meeting these smart, charming kids and talking with them about their vibrant and unique neighborhood...the same neighborhood my character Ruby lives in, back in the day.

These wonderful women drove two hours to attend the Back of the Yards event. Their book club read Ten Cents a Dance over the summer, and I met with them via speakerphone to discuss the book. Thank you, Lynn and friends--your coming such a long way to meet me in person touched my heart.

Speaking at the brand-new, fabulous YOUMedia space, dedicated exclusively for teens, at the Harold Washington branch downtown (home of the gargoyles). These high school students came from three different schools--Hyde Park Academy, Kenwood Academy, and King College Prep. They were a fabulous audience, not least because they asked some seriously sharp, insightful questions. They kept me on my toes, and as a speaker, I can tell you that makes an event outrageously fun.

No photos of the Beverly branch gig, unfortunately (camera snafu!) But a big shout-out to children's librarian Kimberly, and to the teen book club who came out on a Tuesday night to hang with me and Ruby!

The last presentation of my trip was to the seniors group at the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. What an honor to talk about Chicago, the Back of the Yards, and the homefront during World War II to people who had actually lived it first-hand...truly, an amazing experience. After the talk, this lovely group invited me and my sweetie to stay for dinner. Better even than the food (and oh yeah, it was good) was hearing stories of the real Back of the Yards, back in the day.

At some ungodly hour the next morning, we were back on a plane to Portland. A whirlwind trip, but this one left me more in love with Chicago--and Chicagoans--than before. Sure, yeah, this time it wasn't 20 degrees and blowing snow, like February...but more than the gorgeous fall weather, it's the people. Can I just every Midwesterner nice? Is it something in the water, or what? And can we ship it to, oh, I don't know...L.A.?

One of these days, we're going to plan a trip that gives us enough extra time to really explore the city. Until then, I'll leave you with a picture of world-famous Sue the T. rex, in her abode at the Field Museum:

Roawrrr!!! Thanks, Chicago...see ya next time!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Gentlemen...Start Your Engines!

There’s the kind of dream vacation you think about for years, cutting out pictures of pink beaches and pinning them on your bulletin board, sighing, One of these days…

And then there’s the other kind of dream vacation. As in, Never in a million years would I have dreamed anyone could talk me into this.

Well, gentlemen (and ladies): Start your engines. This last weekend my sweetie and I flew more than halfway across the country to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place I’ve never in my life thought about for more than four consecutive seconds. Why?


MotoGP is motorcycle racing. The GP stands for Grand Prix. The riders compete against each other at races all over the world for the annual MotoGP championship. (Three days at Indianapolis, and those are pretty much all the hard facts I know.)

My sweetie was concerned that before the weekend was half over, I’d liquefy into a festering puddle of boredom. (Like the two women we saw sleeping in chairs underneath the stands, behind the Indy Dog vendor.) But this is the thing about that other kind of dream vacation: discovering stuff you never knew existed. The T-shirts alone are another whole subculture. Lots of black, lots of old English font, lots and lots of skulls. The T-shirts supplied information…

Hell yes it’s fast


Those who dance are considered insane
by those who cannot hear the music


Ride it like you stole it

…and often, a powerful simplicity:

Your bike sucks

And then there are the brolly girls. Brolly girls hold umbrellas over the riders so that they don’t get hot/rained on/otherwise inconvenienced. Here’s a brolly girl practicing:

If you’re imagining four men to every woman at MotoGP (including the brolly girls), you’re about spot-on.

But if you’re also picturing bad mullets, chrome studs, and leather fringe, a la a Harley Davidson rally...nope. If Harley Davidson is the pit bull, MotoGP is the greyhound. Sleek. Stripped down. MotoGP isn’t about chrome. It’s about speed, baby.

Sunday—Race Day—dawns. After nodding off during the qualifying runs and practice laps the day before, I’m taking no chances. My satchel is crammed with a netbook computer, two novels, a magazine, and a newspaper crossword.

The thing is, I’ve never understood motor races. Horse races, yes. Horse racing is spirit and muscle and power and skill and immeasurable, limitless heart. In comparison, motor races always seemed so…well, mechanical. And loud. And endlessly repetitive, with all that going around and around and around. Yawn.

But it turns out that a motorcycle flashing past at nearly two hundred mph is…well, it’s like this:

Wow. Okay.

I got the crossword partly done. And then I couldn't help it. The motorcycles hooked me in.

Three laps into the race. The cyclist in the lead, a Spaniard named Dani Pedrosa, crashes his bike. Long skid over the grass, but he gets up. Whew. Then he gets back on the bike and rejoins the race. From the lead he's now dead last, by an enormous margin.

A few laps later, the next guy in the lead, Valentino Rossi, also crashes. Also rejoins the race, but his bike is too damaged, and he drops out for good.

That leaves one rider, Jorge Lorenzo, waaaay in front. Unless he crashes, too, it’s now a race for second place.

Bikes flash past. Zoom. Zoom. Last of all, Dani Pedrosa on his orange Honda Repsol. He’s by himself on the track, the rest of the field literally a mile ahead, but he’s flying. He has no hope of finishing anything but last, he’s already crashed once, and yet he’s not letting up one iota. Even a rank amateur like me can tell.

The field comes around again. A mile back, Dani Pedrosa. I squint. Look at the field. Then back at Dani. “You know," I say, "I think Pedrosa is catching up.”

“No way,” says my sweetheart. Another lap. “Damn, you’re right," he says. "He is catching up.”

Now we’re not watching the battle for second. Everyone's watching the battle for last. Every time Pedrosa flies past—gaining, always gaining—the crowd cheers. When he catches the rider in front of him and passes, the stands erupt in roars. I’m whooping right along with them.

Twenty-eight laps. The checkered flag comes down. Jorge Lorenzo wins. Good on ya, Jorge.

And Dani Pedrosa? Tenth, in a field of fifteen. Crashed his bike, ended up more than a mile back from the field, and still passed five other riders.

Yeah. That’s heart. From this out-of-left-field vacation, I found a new hero. And something to remember the next time things get tough.

No matter what, keep on flying.

I ought to put that on a T-shirt.

For some of the action, click here...I tried to embed it, but MotoGP won't let me. But it's a great video. And if you're dying to find out about engines and highsides and lowsides and what all the flags mean...then this is for you.

Many, many thanks to my brother, who invited us out for the MotoGP, and to all their family for putting us up... especially my nephew Michael, who bunked with his brother Ryan so we could have his room. You guys are the best!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Today's Culture Report

Channel surfing today. Saw an ad for vitamins. For teens. More specifically, one version of the vitamin for teen boys: “For healthy muscles!” and another version for teen girls: “For healthy skin!”

Maybe the heat is clogging my brain. But…

…do not girls also need muscles?

…do not boys also need skin?

…does anyone in the year 2009 really think this crap will fly?

Where, oh where, is Don Draper* when you need him?

*Mad Men. MadMenMadMenMadMen. Loooooove Mad Men. This vitamin ad campaign, it needs some Mad Men. There would still be outdated, blatant sex stereotypes—but they would be subtle. They would whisper. Because Don Draper, he understands how to wake the fears and wants of our subconscious in a way that higher brain functions can’t decipher. That is advertising genius. Vitamin people, pay attention. Or, better yet, join us in the 21st century. It’s true—girls have muscles here. But we’re not scary. Much.

P.S. Speaking of stereotypes…the best stereotype-busting, genre-crossing, hilarious irreverence of a book I’ve come across in lo these many months is…

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (subtitle: The Classic Regency Romance--Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!)

Just started it last night. First four chapters, snorting and chortling and giggling. And I'm not even a zombie fan.

Full report upon completion.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Be the Cat

Miss Molly Brown sez: HOTTTTT!
Note that Molly is also maximizing surface area for optimal cooling. (One could argue that lying on a rug wouldn't help with this..but then again, one doesn't argue with cats.) Why is Molly (that's Miss Brown to you) doing this?

Because it IS hot. 103 on its way to 106 hot. Record-setting hot.

Last night, with all the scorchiness, my sweetheart and I couldn't face any form of cookery. So we--very cleverly, we thought--headed to a local pub for dinner. Where the waitress informed us that the wait for our food would be at least an hour, maybe more. Because it turned out everybody ELSE in the neighborhood had already decided the same thing and gotten there before us.


Before all of you who live in searing locales start snickering in your iced tea, consider this: you most likely have air conditioning. Most of us in Portland don't, because fifty-one weeks out of the year, we don't need it. Besides, most of us in the city live in old houses, and when you live in an old house (and I'm talking old like 1906, not 1972) installing air conditioning ranks pretty much dead last on the priority list. (At the top is "find out why the hot water in the upstairs bathtub comes out of the wall instead of the faucet," followed by two dozen items ranked in order of how loud we screeched "Oh, my GOD" when we discovered them. We old-house owners prefer to think of these things as "character." Until we scrape together enough money to fix them, after which we refer to them as "that disaster the previous owners thought was such a brilliant idea which could've electrocuted us in our sleep.")

Heat waves in Portland are kind of like snow in Portland. We get a week of each every year, more or less, and it rocks Portland's world.

Be the cat, Portland. Maximize cooling. And buck up--after all, it's bound to rain again soon.*

*weeps quietly at the thought

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I’ve been meaning to write the counterpoint blog to Writing and Leisure, and I haven’t gotten around to it because I’ve been, well...writing. Which I guess is the counterpoint right there. That is, while it’s true that writing requires room and time, what’s even more true is that writing requires—first, foremost, and always—BiC.

Butt in Chair.

Once, years ago, I was invited to attend a support group/networking meeting for women in the creative arts. The moderator went around the room and asked each of us to visualize and describe a perfect workday. One aspiring writer described her day in such wondrous detail, I’ve never forgotten it. First, she would wake up to the sound of birds singing and sunshine streaming through her gauzy white curtains. Then, after a delicious breakfast, she’d spend the day sitting under a venerable oak tree, listening to the wind and the bees; following this, a horseback ride through a meadow, capped by gathering wildflowers. She would then cook a fabulous dinner for friends and spend the evening, eating, drinking wine, telling stories, laughing and sharing. Then, at long last, she would...fall into bed.

This, she said, would be just the ticket to put her in the frame of mind necessary to create.

I never went to another meeting. I was a total newbie, but I already knew enough to realize that was two hours I could have been writing.

Frame of mind has nothing to do with it. Having the right computer software, the best computer, the most organized desk, an ergonomic desk chair, a certain allotment of hours has nothing to do with it. Even that most-oft-invoked prerequisite, inspiration, has very little to do with it.

Just about the only thing that has anything to do with writing is actually writing.

In a lovely bit of synchronicity, as I was thinking about this post I stumbled across this poem by novelist Charles Bukowski.

air and light and time and space

"–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to

no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.

baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

© Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press

Butt. In. Chair. Fingers on keyboard or pen or pencil or sharpened quill. Go.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

First Drafts for Dummies

Yeah, I know. I wrote a post called Writing and Leisure, and then I disappeared. But I am not in Tahiti. Not even DisneyWorld. I’ve been parked on this couch writing, and the writing goeth swimmingly, and all is right with the world. More on this later.

For now, behold: This is me writing the first draft of a new chapter.

Step One: Read previous chapter to get the flow of the story so far. Resist impulse to change “just this one word.” That way madness lies. Not to mention the rest of the day.

Step Two: Sit in rocking chair with notebook (spiral, not computer) and pen. Jot down thoughts about new chapter: setting, action, conflict, characters’ motivations, brilliant flashes of insight. If no brilliant flashes of insight, draw arrows between notes. Arrows make me feel smart.

Step Three: Go downstairs. Heat mug of milk for Ghirardelli white chocolate drink. This is a Ritual and must not be skipped under any circumstances. If we’re out of milk, whine. Get over it and pour a glass of cranberry juice instead.

Step Four: Boot up laptop. Open new document. With great efficiency, format header and page numbers. Type chapter title. Realize with small shock that now I actually have to start writing.

Step Five: Go back to chapter title and underline it.

Step Six: Get up to let dogs out.

Step Seven: Type a paragraph.

Step Eight: Delete paragraph except one phrase that’s kind of cool.

Step Nine: Delete phrase.

Step Ten: Let dogs back in.

Step Eleven: Stare at laptop screen. Decide that what I really need to do is more research. Immediate burst of happiness. Realize that happiness means that research is, in fact, the last thing I need to do. Stare at laptop screen some more.

Step Twelve: Remove cat(s) from napping position across laptop and both forearms (an attractive position to cat because arms have been so motionless as to seem completely inert.) Push away when he/they try to climb back on.

Step Thirteen: Phrase in character’s voice floats through head. Scramble after it, pin it down. If dog starts barking or phone starts ringing and concentration is lost, woe betide. WOE. That means you, Ginny.

Step Fourteen: Write next sentence. Resist impulse to immediately delete. Repeat until manage to string together approximately 1000 words. When stuck,* go check email on upstairs computer. Come right back. Resist impulse to play “just one game” of Scrabble.

Step Fifteen: Save document. Savor feelings of achievement and virtue. Proudly report word count to spouse when he gets home from work.

Writing the first draft of a new chapter, Days Two to…?
Step One: Read the previous day’s work. Delete approximately seven hundred of the thousand words.

Step Two: Drink most of hot Ghirardelli white chocolate drink. Feel marginally better.

Step Three: Repeat Steps Five through Fifteen until chapter is complete. Resist impulse to spend most of each day polishing first three pages to a high gloss while ignoring the fact that the rest of the chapter isn’t yet written. As needed, buy new tins of Ghirardelli. Try not to run out of milk.

Now that you’ve seen how to write the first draft of a chapter, the next stage is writing the first draft of an entire novel. Which you might assume would be simply repeating the above process over and over. But wait, grasshopper! Flaming eyes of danger lurk in that tall grass. Stay tuned.

*The varying levels of stuck are commonly recognized as:
Level 1: Five minutes spent checking email or wandering aimlessly through the house is enough to achieve unstickage. Writer returns promptly and happily to manuscript. Some experts believe that this is not actual stickage, but simply a pause to refresh.

Level 2: Writer cannot resist urge to play Scrabble game. Writer vows to return to manuscript after one game. Okay, two games, because the computer opponent cheated. Writer wins. Order to universe is restored. Writer smugly returns to manuscript.

Level 3: Writer finishes Scrabble game(s). Realizes it’s been over an hour since last checking previous novel’s ranking. Writer checks. Writer becomes surly. Writer spends an hour reading blogs and/or updating Facebook +/- Twitter. Writer reluctantly returns to manuscript.

Level 4: Writer decides checkbook must be balanced without delay.

Level 5: After balancing checkbook, writer willingly cleans bathroom and/or cat litter.

Level 6: Writer’s house is spotlessly clean. Lawn is mowed, dogs are bathed, bills are paid and this year’s tax receipts are sorted and filed. Oh look, it’s late. Time to make dinner.

Level 7: Some experts believe Level 7 stickage does not exist. (No doubt these are the same cockeyed optimists who doubt the validity of Level 1.) Among novelists, however, it is commonly believed that no one knows what happens at Level 7 because no writers so afflicted have successfully found their way back to their manuscripts. Keep a candle burning in the window for these lost souls. (Metaphorically, of course. No sense setting fire to the drapes.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writing and Leisure

June. Roses bloom, strawberries ripen. Graduating seniors swelter in their robes while somebody important urges them to do, to strive, to achieve. Nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, as graduating seniors have been urged since time immemorial.

Unless they happened to be from Hiram College, Class of 1880. No fiery speech exhorting them to get out there and give it their all. No, what they heard instead was this:

“It has occurred to me,” said their commencement speaker*, “that the best thing you have, that all men envy, is perhaps the thing you care for least. And that is your leisure. The leisure you have to think in, and to be let alone; the leisure you have to throw the plummet with your hands, and sound the depths, and find what is below… I congratulate you on your leisure. I commend you to keep it as your gold, as your wealth…”

The leisure you have to think in. Even then, a scarce commodity. Scarcer now, what with those 15,000 applications for our iPhones. (Hey, I bet it takes hours to sort through all those).

But what does this have to do with writing fiction?

Fiction requires space. Fiction requires time. What non-writers don’t know—and what writers ourselves sometimes forget—is that the writing itself is only part of the process. An even greater part is simply thinking. Imagining. Listening. Seeing. Paying attention to the story in our heads, paying attention to the details of the world. (Oh, not practical details, like when the phone bill is due. Please. No, I mean like how spiderwebs gleam gold in certain slants of sun. Like how a dog’s eyes dilate just before it bites. You know…critical stuff.)

The leisure to throw the plummet with your hands, and sound the depths, and find what is below… Is there any better description of fiction writing than this? Sound the depths, and find what is below…

The novelist John Gardner once described a scene he wrote in which a character is offered a cocktail. The character had two choices: accept the drink, or decline. It was a simple, trivial detail, with no impact on the action of the scene. But Gardner couldn’t decide if she should accept the drink or not, and it paralyzed him. Unsure if he could even finish the book, he left off writing and plunged into physical chores. After three days, suddenly he knew exactly what the character would do…not only about the cocktail, but about everything else, too. He’d figured out the kind of person she really was. But in order to solve the problem—in order to even realize what the problem was—he had to give himself room and time.

Leisure. Kind of a dirty word in our culture. Brings up a mental image of beaches and funny-colored drinks with little umbrellas in them. In our anxiety to produce—so many words a day, so many pages a week, so many books a year—it’s tempting to hammer out any contrivance that will make the plot work, even if it means selling our characters short. It’s tempting to race to The End and call it done, and ignore the deeper threads and connections that beg to be teased out.

Embrace leisure. Keep it as your gold, your wealth. When the story is stuck, when you feel something isn’t quite right, when you hear whispers of something deeper lurking, step back. Give yourself the luxury of room and time, and let the story speak to you.

Your fiction will be all the richer for it.

* James Garfield, then a presidential candidate, soon to be President of the United States…for four months, until he was shot by an assassin. Not a novelist, but a great lover of books. And, apparently, of free time.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Interview...a Reminder...and a Star Trek Opera

Jone MacCulloch, the fabulous youth librarian who is organizing the auctions for Bridget Zinn, interviewed me for her blog. Thanks, Jone!

Also, to all ye merry Portlanders: the live auction is tomorrow, Friday May 29th, 6:30-9 PM at the Lucky Lab Brewpub at 915 SE Hawthorne. More information here. (If you missed my first post about Bridget and why an auction is being held for her, check out my previous post.)

And for all ye merry non-Portlanders, the online auction runs until Saturday, May 30th, 11 PM PST. Check it out, great stuff is up for grabs!

I wish I could be at the Lucky Lab tomorrow night, but due to my work schedule I'll have to miss it. (The upside of working every Fri/Sat: I get to write Sun-Thurs. The downside: I have no social life. Wah).

And now, for no reason whatsoever except it's my blog and this video made me almost fall off my chair laughing, I present to you: Le Wrath di Khan. A Star Trek opera. In Italian, with subtitles. And stop-action action figures. And if that last seems like a paradox, then let your mind be free, my friend, and struggle not to comprehend, but instead admit that yes, you wish you'd thought of it first.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Up a Tree

This was me a couple of weeks ago. You can’t tell from the photo, but I’m thirty feet up in the air, and I’m about to walk across this log to another tree.

Bear in mind that my natural habitat involves couches, novels, and central heating. At any given time, I have at least one knee or shoulder bruised from slamming into doorjambs and/or table legs. In my entire life, I’ve never been able to cross a log without falling off, and yes, this includes logs lying flat on the ground. Crossing one thirty feet up in the air on a cold Sunday afternoon is an act completely foreign to my inclinations, my sensibilities, and my talents (ie, anything requiring physical prowness and a sense of balance.) The number of people in this world who can induce me to do such a thing are few indeed.

Among those few, however, are my fabulous co-workers. So when it was announced that our annual staff retreat would involve a “challenge course” in the woods, I took a leap of faith. If anybody could make this fun, I thought, surely they could.

I was right. Little did I know, though, that the leap of faith would be literal.

First, though, the Camp Tillikum staff divided the forty of us into smaller groups, then led us into the woods to learn about teamwork and problem-solving. My group’s first challenge: move ourselves along a series of four small wooden platforms, using only two boards, neither of which was long enough to reach between any of the platforms. If a board touched the ground, we’d lose it. If any body part touched the ground, the person to whom it belonged would be penalized with a handicap.

We lost one of the boards in the first five minutes. Then Rob’s foot accidentally hit the dirt, and his penalty was having to negotiate the rest of the course blindfolded. But we did it! Here are the eleven of us on the last platform, about a millisecond before we all fell off.

Our challenge course leader told us we made it look too easy. And we were having too much fun, to boot. “My job is teaching people how to work together,” he complained. “You guys aren’t giving me anything to do.”

We’re a veterinary hospital, we told him. This is what we do all day long: solve problems as a team. As far as having too much fun, well, that’s the fault of the guy in the red jacket. He’s Dr. Don McCoy, boss of the whole dang outfit, and he has a couple of key philosophies:

1. Hire the best people and then get out of their way
2. If it’s not fun, why do it?

Dr. McCoy is also a believer in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. So when, after lunch, we were led back out into the woods for the grand finale of tree-climbing, he was the first one in the safety harness scrambling up the pine. Then, one by one, the rest of us gave it a go.

...Climbing (that was the easy part.)
I’m not normally afraid of heights, but I’ll tell you—thirty feet in the air looks skyscraper-tall when you’re standing on a narrow, curving log with nothing but empty air below. Some of my co-workers strolled across that thing as if they were in the park on a sunny day, but me? Ha! After only five or six steps, I knew there was no chance I'd get across on my own two feet. So—bolstered by shouts of encouragement from my colleagues below—I reverted to quadruped form. Hey—if it works, it works.

But simply getting across wasn’t the end of the challenge. Leap of faith, remember? We were supposed to jump off the end of the log—yeah, that’s right—and grab a trapeze bar suspended about five feet away. So far, every else had fallen short (literally.) A few had been too nervous to try. I figured, I’ve come this far…and I thought maybe I could reach it, if I really jumped hard.

But I was terrified. My mind knew I wore a safety harness and that my team had firm hold of the ropes. I knew nothing would happen to me. But no amount of higher reasoning could quiet the racing heart, the shaking, the absolute gut-level conviction that I was about to plunge to my…well, if not death, then at least a whole lot of unpleasantness.

“You’ve got me, right?” I called down to my co-workers. Classic stalling tactic.

“We’ve got you!” they called back. “You’re doing great! Go for it!” Ten voices shouting with such sincerity and enthusiasm that even my gut believed them.

So I jumped.

And my fingertips brushed the bar.

And I fell. A second of sheer terror, and then the ropes caught me. Thirty seconds later, I had sweet, solid earth beneath my feet.

It took half an hour before I stopped shaking. Some folks have experiences like this, and they say, I couldn’t wait to go back up again! I knew I could do it even better the second time!
This was my thought process: I did it, yay, thank God THAT’s over. Is there any potato salad left?

But mostly, I was enormously grateful to my co-workers. Their support made all the difference. I’m incredibly lucky to work with people who are not only the best at what they do, but who are committed—every day, not just at a Sunday staff retreat—to pulling together as a team to get the job done right. Who look out for each other and care about each other. And who never let an opportunity for a good joke pass them by, because—as the bossman says—“If it’s not fun, why do it?”

Here’s to you guys, and to an outrageously fun staff retreat. And here's a suggestion for next year. I vote we push our comfort zones at sea level. Maybe even indoors. Surely, if we can just put our minds to it, we can come up with a challenge involving coffee. And doughnuts. And comfy couches. Don't you think?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

With A Little Help

Last fall, I had the good fortune to attend the 2008 Kidlit Bloggers Conference. That’s where I found out that Portland is practically teeming with very, very cool people who write young adult literature. (Seriously—teeming. Watch where you step.) And now, this fabulous community is stepping out to support one of its own.

Bridget Zinn is a YA librarian and author who recently landed an agent to represent her debut novel. Days later, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. On her blog, she writes: “...I am a super super healthy non-smoking, non-drinking, carcinogen avoiding young vegetarian who wears sunscreen every day. I looked at the list of risk factors for colon cancer and it turn out that I don’t even have one. Not one risk factor. So that was a surprise.”

I think “a surprise” might count as the understatement of the year.

Bridget is currently undergoing chemotherapy. To help raise funds (another “surprise”: health insurance doesn’t cover everything), indefatigble YA librarian Jone MacCulloch has launched an online auction that will run the entire month of May. YA authors, illustrators, family and friends are donating items ranging from original artwork to signed copies of books to signed copies of books that aren't even out yet to getaway vacations. Take a look—I bet you’ll find something that catches your eye!

AND, if you live in the Portland area, be sure to pencil in “Bridget Zinn Live Auction” for Friday, May 29th. There’ll be tons more items up for grabs, including—thanks to my fabulous coworker and certified canine massage therapist Tammy Moody—two gift certificates for canine massage! Got a dog friend who could use some pampering? Then be sure to show up at the Lucky Lab brewpub, bid early and often! (Oh, and there'll be signed copies of Ten Cents a Dance and Tallulah Falls, too.)

To Bridget and her new husband (did I mention she got married the same month she got her agent and her diagnosis? If you want to know how that came about, read here), we wish you much strength, health, joy, and big-time cancer-ass kicking. Many kudos to Jone for organizing the auctions, Lisa Nowak for creating the auction blog site, and all in the kidlit community who are pulling together. You all are amazing.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Best birthday gift ever?

Three days on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i with my sweetie.

I'd never been to Hawaii before. My sweetie has, but only to Honolulu and Maui. Moloka'i is one of the smaller islands--38 miles long by 10 miles wide--and has about 7000 residents. No stoplights anywhere. One small town. Lots of pickup trucks. Anybody looking for the hustle and bustle of a tourist resort won't find it. But if you want peaceful, rural, and unbelievably beautiful--which we did--well, that's Moloka'i. People we met there said, "We don't want to be another Maui." And they mean it. The residents of Moloka'i have fought off development for decades...most recently, a proposed luxury home development on their southwestern shore. They want to keep Moloka'i, Moloka'i. A picture being worth a thousand words, and all that, you can see why we hope they continue to succeed.

This is Papohaku Beach. Three miles long, one of Hawaii's longest beaches. And in the middle of a weekday afternoon, we were the only ones there. It was still too early in the spring for swimming--the sea was way too rough--but it was gorgeous. One weird thing, though: look at how clean that sand is! In Oregon and California, we're used to kelp, driftwood, the occasional dead crab...but none of that on Papohaku. No idea why, but it was amazing.

A few miles away we found Kapukahehu Beach (aka Dixie Maru Beach) and its calm cove waters. Perfect for the likes of me, who can't see six inches ahead--literally--and therefore routinely get knocked over by waves. (I made a lousy Californian.) This was the most crowded place we experienced during our stay...all of about ten people sharing the sun, sand and warm water. I'm not much into sunbathing (not only severely myopic, but also melanin-challenged--yeah, I made a really lousy Californian) but yeah, this was bliss.

Driving the southern coast highway to the eastern tip of the island, we passed a sign warning us of a nene crossing. Nenes are the Hawaiian state bird, and endangered; only about 800 still survive on all the islands. A mile or so later, we came across a group of nenes, and sure enough--they were crossing the road. Now that's an accurate sign.

Looking from the rocky Halawa beach deep inland to the Halawa Valley and one of its waterfalls. Halawa Valley was the location of one of the earliest known settlements in all of Hawaii.
Kalaupapa Peninsula, on the northern shore. This is where Hawaii's famous leper colony is situated. Beginning in the 1860s, people in the Hawaiian islands diagnosed with Hansen's disease (leprosy) were taken away involuntarily from their families and quarantined here. For much of the colony's history, patients were kept on this almost inaccessible peninsula, in virtual prison, for the rest of their lives.
There's a daily tour of the colony, and we were eager to go. But getting to the tour, we learned, is a whole adventure in itself. Even today, the only land access is a 3-mile trail that drops 1700 feet from the top of a sea cliff down 26 switchbacks to the peninsula below. (Did I mention that Moloka'i has the highest sea cliffs in the world?) Two ways to tackle the trail: 1) saddle up with Moloka'i Mule Ride, or 2) hoof it on our own two feet. Since we're idiots, it didn't occur to us to reserve mule saddles in advance. So we showed up at the trailhead early in the morning, got our state permits (required to enter the peninsula), and started hiking before the four-leggeds were on the move.

A section of the cliff trail. This particular bit has a railing; much of the trail doesn't. And yeah, the ocean at the bottom is as clear as it looks. Absolutely spectacular.

A view of the sea cliff and part of the trail cutting across it.

St. Philomena was the first church built by Father Damien, a Belgian priest who ministered to the colony for sixteen years. He didn't just give sermons; he dressed patients' sores, built houses and two churches, and lived and worked alongside the banished outcasts of Kalaupapa until his own death from leprosy in 1889. Father Damien will be canonized as a Catholic saint in a ceremony on Kalaupapa peninsula on October 11, 2009. Our tour guide told us, in what I think is an understatement: "That will be a big day on Moloka'i."

A view of the sea cliffs from the Kalaupapa peninsula.

The cottage where we stayed. Just the most beautiful, welcoming place. From it, we could see the south shore, the islands of Maui and Lanai and--most exciting of all--whales spouting in the ocean between.
The view from our cottage, our last morning on Moloka'i: a rainbow over Maui.
And then: back home, far too soon.
Mahalo, Moloka'i, for reminding us to take it slow.

The resident goofballs. Yeah, we missed 'em.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

All A Writer Needs Is A Little Freedom

All over everywhere, folks are squeeing about Freedom. Apparently, this is a computer program you download from the internet that gives you freedom from...

(wait for it)

...the internet.

Freedom from checking your email every few minutes. Freedom from checking the comment trails on your favorite blogs. Freedom from Twitter, Facebook, your book's ranking...

not that I ever look at my books...umm...hardly ever, I mean...*cough* short: Freedom to do some actual work. The way Freedom works is, you set it for a specified time and during that time, the program prevents you from accessing the internet for any reason--even to check March Madness results (Cher bracket) on Go Fug Yourself. You can't argue with can't reason with it. It knows no mercy.

If that's not a writer's godsend, I don't know what is. It's just too easy, when hitting a bump in the fifth circle of hell known as the First Draft, to say I must know, at this very instant, how to say "hurry up" in French! Before I even know it, Google is activated and I'm knee-deep in French-to-English translation sites. And then I remember that I wanted to know what sort of fabric is crepe, exactly, and by the way, wasn't The Road with Viggo Mortensen supposed to come out last November? Where hast ye been, Viggo? And then...

No! No more! Where do I get this Freedom? I cried, cursor poised, ready to click through to my deliverance. And then I saw the fine print. (Why, why is there always fine print?)

Freedom is for Macs only.

*foam quietly at mouth for a moment*

Fine. Maybe it's just that Mac users don't have the self-discipline that we PC-ers do. So yesterday, I devised a little Freedom of my own: I disconnected my laptop from the internet. (I was surprised at how long I hesitated before clicking "disconnect." As if the mouse was a cleaver held over my sole supply of oxygen.) Every hour and a half, I allowed myself ten minutes surf time. (Okay, fifteen. And once was thirty minutes, but that was lunch.) Overall, I was pretty pleased with myself. And today?

Mm. Well. But look: the 2009 Go Fug Yourself March Madness champion, with video!

And cute cats!

And...and...Aarghh! I can't make it stop! Fred Stutzman, savior of Mac users, hear us! Are we not also helpless in the face of a strong wireless signal? Do we not also have work to be done? Where's our PC Freedom?!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Chasing the Dragon

I once worked with a heroin addict (clean for many years, but he taught me that to say "former addict" is incorrect) who told me that the first experience of heroin is the best. Junkies, he said, are always chasing that ephemeral first time, which will never occur again.

Writing is like that. The first time I hit the zone--that state in which a scene unfurls seemingly with no effort, in which the characters take on life and act with no regard for the author's preconceived ideas, the state in which (as one author once put it) the writer seems to be taking dictation from God himself--I was hooked. Entirely and forever. That first experience was long before I began writing novels, long before I could reliably write even two pages a week for my writing class. But from that day to this, every time I sit down at the computer, I hope that lightning will strike.

It usually doesn’t. But the promise of it always brings me back. Because unlike heroin, the first time for writers is not the only time. Who knows what the zone really is--self hypnosis? Endorphin rush? Whatever brain chemistry is percolating (biologist geek that I am, I'm certain that some physiologic process is involved) the zone is, for me, one of the strongest lures of writing.

This is how I chase the writing dragon: Unfold the scene, starting with the light. I read that once in an author interview, although I can't remember who--Anita Shreve, maybe. Imagine the light in the scene first, she said. How bright it is, where it’s coming from.

Then the sounds. Scents. The touch of upholstery, the humidity in the air. See the characters, set them moving, set them talking. Set a spark, see if it catches. Get it all down. If the zone starts rockin', hallelujah and roll with it. If not, then slog on. The dragon waits to be caught...

...if not today, then surely tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Tough Times Call for Tough (Book) Folks

From today's Shelf Awareness, a daily booksellers' newsletter, comes this report on a new method of bookselling designed for these hard financial times:

"…Craig Wilkins of Best of All Possible Bookshops has an intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level: smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.

Wilkins said he realized last summer, as the economy began to slide, that his problem as a bookseller was "the damned readers. They weren't listening to me and even when they came to the bookshop, they often slipped out with no purchase."

Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. "Essentially, I make them eat their words," Wilkins said. "We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books."

And if his customers think they can avoid all this by simply not coming to the shop, Wilkins has a little news flash for them. "I know where they live and I have a van," he said... "We go to their houses just like Amazon and make them buy books, but with the added incentive of actually being there in person so they have to look us in the eye…"

I was fortunate enough to be in his bookstore during one of these smashmouth handselling sessions recently. A customer entered, and instead of the traditional greeting ("Good morning; may I help?"), Wilkins moved aggressively from behind the counter and rushed the newcomer with an all-out blitz, reaching his foe as the customer plucked a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk from a Staff Picks display.

"You don't deserve that book!" Wilkins screamed, snatching it away.

"Why not?" the customer asked timidly, looking for an escape route. But Wilkins had him cornered.

"You aren't smart enough, pal."

"But I want to read this book. I do!"

Now that Wilkins had his opponent caught up in the game, he went for the literary kill. Holding Snow just beyond the customer's reach, he said, "If you want to read this, you're going to have to buy five books by midlist authors, too."


"Because I said so and because if you're smart enough to read Pamuk, you're too smart to ignore these other books. Deal?"

"Deal." There was surrender in the customer's eyes, but also, oddly, pleasure. Was that the thrill of defeat?

Wilkins observed that while bookstore sales have slumped nationwide during the recession, his have actually held steady. Not one to be complacent, however, he recently sent out a threatening e-mail newsletter warning that if he doesn't see an uptick of at least 10% by the end of April, he will be making more house calls.

I asked Wilkins if he had any words of wisdom for prospective smashmouth booksellers, and he shared his basic, primal philosophy: "Our backs are to the shelf. We have to take this one book at a time. Reading isn't everything; it's the only thing."

At last, the world of bookselling has found its hero. And if you believe that, my dear...

...check the date. And then head over to Shelf Awareness for another April 1 story: the government bailout of the publishing industry.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Victory Garden Redux

Spring. Still cold, gloomy and raining (this is the Pacific Northwest) but at our house, spring means that sometime between the fading of daffodils and the blooming of tulips, the raised beds are gonna get planted.

The beds were here when we moved in. Four big rectangles set in a corner of the yard. We replaced sagging boards, shored up the sides, and amended the daylights out of the clay topsoil they were filled with. (We still occasionally have to take a pickax to particularly stubborn deposits.) The beds have grown everything from corn to catnip, eggplant to peppers, basil to zucchini. Every spring I look forward to planting them, and I say this not as a chlorophyll-addled health nut but as a lifelong vegetable hater. Yes, you heard me: I hate vegetables. On the other hand, I love anything deep fried, high in nitrites, or full of saturated fat. Preferably all three. As far as I’m concerned, the perfect food is bacon. Fried crisp, hot, and lots of it. Mmmm.

And yet I also love the raised beds. It’s primeval magic: plant a seed or shoot, water, watch grow and bear fruit. All in one season’s time, which also satisfies my need for instant gratification, and why I don’t plant asparagus, because it takes two years until harvest which is one year and nine months longer than my gardening attention span.

There have been lots of media stories in the past year about how more and more people are raising their own backyard vegetables. Which warms my vintage heart no end, because it’s like the victory gardens of WWII all over again. Only back then, it was the government urging Americans to get busy with shovels and seeds. Canned fruits and veggies were needed for the military, so the idea was to get citizens to raise and preserve their own food. It worked: during the course of the war, 20 million backyard gardens produced 8 million tons of food…almost half the fruits and vegetables consumed nationwide. Even city dwellers with no land of their own got in the act. Neighbors banded together, cleaned up vacant lots and planted their own community gardens. Grow More in `44!

I love the idea of the modern, grassroots-driven victory garden. Some people are getting into it to save money on groceries; some, because they’re inspired by the local/fresh/seasonal food movement. Here we have organizations like the Portland Fruit Tree Project, which helps people harvest fruit from their trees and also teaches them the arts of canning and preserving—skills that most of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew, and hardly any of us today do. (We once helped friends harvest apples from their half-dozen trees and make hard cider from them. Pressing, fermenting, and months of aging later, we held the ceremonial tasting. As hard cider, it was awful. But if you closed your eyes and pretended it was a strange, dry sort of Chardonnay—possibly from another planet—it almost worked. Hey, at least we tried).

So in the midst of all this newfangled victory gardening, what about the vegetable-haters, like me? Is it possible to turn us to the light side of the Force?

I’ll admit it: I have learned to adore a homegrown tomato. My favorites are the little yellow pear tomatoes, just picked, cute as buttons and still warm from the sun. And have you ever noticed how good a tomato plant smells? Like summer itself: green and fresh and delicious. And artichokes! Have I mentioned artichokes? Yummy in their own right but really—simply to do them justice, you understand—much better eaten with loads of melted butter. Mmmmm.

Baby steps. That's all I'm sayin'.
And what about you? Anything you're planning to plant this spring?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bookstores and Babes

The last evening of my Chicago stay, I had a reading at Women and Children First bookstore. I came straight from the Back of the Yards event and so ended up arriving half an hour early: shucks darn, I thought, guess I just have to browse this adorable bookstore! Good thing I only had half an hour, otherwise I might have bought a dozen books instead of only four. (I think I’ve got this New Year’s resolution thing down…just make resolutions that involve doing something you already love. Like buying books. I’m such a genius!)

It’s a little nervous-making, having a bookstore reading not in your hometown. It’s just too easy to picture nobody showing up…especially on a freezing, snow-blowing night. But people did show up, bless their tough Chicago hearts. And among them came the Babes!

The Babes With Big Books, that is. Almost a year ago, this Chicago-area book club won copies of Ten Cents a Dance through They read the book and then invited me to call in to one of their club meetings. What a blast! These avid readers gave me a warm, open-arms Illinois welcome; it was so much fun to finally meet some of them in person. Thanks, Babes, for helping make the reading a success! Thanks too to my friend Jenny, a friend and fabulous writer whom I met at a writing workshop here in Portland, for coming out in support, and laughing in all the right places.

Here are the Babes and I: That’s Amy, Karen, me, Meredith, and Kimberly. I feel incredibly lucky that these wonderful women won my book—you all are an author’s dream!

A top shot of the victory rolls. (Thank God I didn't write a book set in the early ` WAY I'm EVER doing a beehive!)

Chicago was over, but no time to rest; the next day, I headed to Cincinnati to spend a few days with my brother’s family and do a book signing at a Borders bookstore. A book signing is different from a reading: my role was to sit at a table at the front of the store, greet customers as they came in, and if anyone was interested, talk to them about Ten Cents. Now, most folks see someone in `40s getup at a table piled with books, and they get this kind of spooked-deer don’t make eye contact don’t make eye contact oh look at this incredibly interesting thing way on the opposite side of the store thing going on. Which I don’t blame them for, as I in all my introversion would undoubtedly do the same thing. But I was the author; this was no time to be introverted. I smiled at everyone and offered free bookmarks, and if people stopped to chat, I gladly (and gratefully!) chatted. Marjorie, the store manager, brought me coffee, which helped fend off the cold (twenty degrees outside, and me in front of the big double doors swooshing open and shut constantly; after forty-five minutes, I couldn’t feel my feet). In just over an hour and a half, all the books were sold. Whoo-hoo! Many, many thanks to my brother Matt, Marjorie, and all the staff of the Borders in Mason, OH—you guys rock!

And then it WAS time to rest. Tons of good food (my sister-in-law Janet is an awesome cook), hours of wonderful conversation, intense Scrabble games with my nephews, and my first-ever episode of The Bachelor, which happened to be the finale (Jason, you fickle, fickle man, how could you?)

And then—after a fifteen-hour three-airport two-delayed-flight odyssey—sweet home at last. For now, Chicago, goodbye…but I had an incredible time, and I'll be back--I know it!

Sunday, March 15, 2009


In the last two years, I’ve done so much research on Chicago I feel like I know the city inside and out. But what I know is a black-and-white 1940s version: photographs and movies, maps and books. Which made leaping into the present-day Windy City, in all its glorious color, such an exciting prospect.

I put together a multimedia presentation, A Hepkitten’s Guide to the War: Taxi Dancing, Chicago, and World War II, based on Ten Cents a Dance. (Do I know how to do a multimedia presentation? Ha! I do now. Let’s just say there was a whole lotta learning curve going on. Thank you Jerrod Allen, computer wizard extraordinaire and tutor magnifique.) I went on the hunt and found the most darling raspberry wool `40s jacket and vintage black hepkitten-ish skirt. My fab publicist, Kelly Powers of ObieJoe Media, worked like crazy coordinating events…and on February 23rd, this show hit the road.

Eighteen degrees in Chicago when I landed. Thank heavens my mother, who grew up in New York, insisted years and years ago that I get a heavy wool topcoat. Nobody wears such a thing here; on the West Coast, we’re all about GoreTex and goosedown. But the streets of Chicago were teeming with wool, and snug in my own (thanks, Mom!) I have a deep new appreciation for sheep. Those suckers are warm.

First event: Norwood Park Historical Society. Their headquarters is the oldest house in Chicago, harking back to 1833 (in comparison, our 1906 Portland home seem positively teenagerish). Giving the Hepkitten presentation in its gorgeous rooms was a treat. Even better was discovering that a few of the attendees had danced to the same hot swing as Ruby, back in the day!

Next, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. The Back of the Yards is the neighborhood where Ruby grows up, and I practically had my nose pressed to the car window, drinking in all the streets I’d only seen before on a map: Damen, 47th, Ashland. That’s where the People’s Theater used to be! That’s where Ruby and Angie would have gotten on the streetcar! In Ruby’s day, the Back of the Yards was home to many ethnicities; today, it’s still one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. The BYNC is an amazingly energetic, vibrant organization buzzing with activities: children, teens, adults, seniors. They welcomed me with open arms, and a I had fabulous time talking Back of the Yards history with the wonderful group of kids who came to see Hepkitten.

What with preparing for events (victory rolls still take me forever to do), getting to events (and I thought L.A. traffic was bad), and doing events, I didn’t have a lot of time to go sightseeing. But I walked the Magnificent Mile, and one bright, bone-chilling-cold afternoon, took the world's fastest elevator up 94 stories to the John Hancock Observatory. Isn’t Chicago gorgeous?

And OK, I can’t resist—I have to show you the kitchenette in my hotel room. It was the tiniest thing, but just adorable. I swear I cooed when I saw it. Bliss to come back from an event, brush out the victory rolls, and heat water in the kettle for a mug of peppermint tea.

More to come about Chicago—including a pic of me in my `40s getup—and my further adventures in Cincinnati. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of the video clips I use in my Hepkitten presentation. This is from Ten Cents a Dancethe 1931 movie. (That's Barbara Stanwyck, playing the world-weary taxi dancer!)