Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dear Santa...

Every Christmas, the entire population of Portland engages in mass wishful thinking. This year, for the first time in maybe ever, our wish came true... snowed!

Cozy as we were inside, the moment we saw the big flakes coming down, my sweetie and I knew there was only one thing to do. Scarves, gloves, hats, and two dogs on leashes later, we were outside basking in the wonderment. Here are Ginny and Inja, (aka Virginia Pearl and How Now, Brown Cow, aka Blondie and Brownie, aka the Most Wonderful Sweet Girls in the World) racing through the snowflakes.

Good thing we carped the diem, too, because a short while later, it was over. A couple of hours after that, all had melted...*sigh* But it was magical while it lasted. Thanks, Santa!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Cheer Bonus Pack

If you believe in Santa Claus—or wish you still did—check out this beautiful Christmas essay by Kerry Madden. (Kerry is the author of two wonderful young adult novels, Gentle's Holler and Louisiana's Song; her next, Jessie's Mountain, will be available on Valentine's Day, 2008.)

Ever wanted to write a novel, and wondered, "Just how does one do it?" Then skip on over to Libba Bray's blog. (Libba is the author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels; the final book of the trilogy, The Sweet Far Thing, will be released tomorrow. Libba has more comedic talent than the entire population of most small countries, and she's also an accomplished dramatic novelist, which means I would hate her if only I didn't admire her so damn much.)

More on my own adventures in novel-writing next week...for today, it's eggnog, calling family, lolling on the couch watching hours and hours of costume drama DVDs, and spending quality time with my sweetie (who gave me the most gorgeous earrings even though we agreed not to get each other anything, and I would be mad at him if only I didn't adore him so damn much.)

Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 13, 2007


At the beginning of a new project, I’m in love.

The idea is not only brilliant but emotionally gripping. The main character…oh, I could swoon over her, she’s so alive and complex and unique. Snippets of dialogue and scenes start writing themselves in my head. The settings are Technicolor bright. Everything is exciting, busting with possibilities.

This euphoria lasts until I actually start writing.

When the project is contained entirely in my head, it’s perfect. The moment I sit down and commit words to screen, though, that sense of shiny-apple newness wears off faster than the bath I just gave my dog. Because once the work actually starts, problems start poking their ugly little fishy snouts into my vision.

Exactly how was I going to manage the—? Which point of view—? If you have main character X doing this, then she can’t go there, because—No, maybe she can, if I just—Why was she doing that to begin with? Wait a minute, now I’m confused. Where are my notes?!

This is never going to work. This idea is stupid. Whoever said I could write, anyway? Oh, look, Star Trek is on. Aliens with funny foreheads, now
that’s a good idea! Maybe I should write science fiction instead. Yeah, science fiction, that’s it.

Get. Butt. Back. In. Chair.

Stare at computer screen. Type a few words. Delete them. Hunt for my notes. The notes don’t help. The vision in my head is still there, but trying to capture it feels like catching butterflies with a sledgehammer.

This is when a writer is confronted with Two Choices.

1) The sledgehammer.

2) Hold onto the dream of perfection forever.

If I choose 1), trying to club this thing onto paper, I know that my perfect dream of a book will sprout warts and grow twisted limbs and disappear, for long stretches, only to reappear looking like something out of Tim Burton's nightmares. But…it’ll be real, it’ll be out in the world. It will exist.

If I choose 2), the vision stays in my head. Forever perfect, and never taking on a life of its own. And I get to go back to work full-time.


Where did those notes go, again…?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Blast!

When it comes to book promotion, sometimes you just don’t know which small action might lead to big results. A few months ago, I read on someone’s blog about a new website called The idea is that authors sign up for a profile that lists all their scheduled events. Readers can then search for their favorite authors and find out when they’re coming to town. Readers also get a weekly e-mail which lets them know what other author events are going on in their area. Well, dang, sign me up! I filled out my own author profile and then—I admit—I pretty much forgot about it.

And then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from one Bart King, author of the popular Big Book of Boy Stuff and Big Book of Girl Stuff, as well as An Architectural Guide to Portland, not that architectural guides to Portland are not popular, but it’s more of a niche market than boys and girls, if you see what I mean, and maybe I just better get on with the story lest I dig myself a deep hole from which I will never emerge. Anyway, Mr. King had seen from my profile on that I was a local YA author. So he invited me to join him and some other authors for Book Blast, a literacy event at Cedar Park Middle School here in Portland. Of course I took him up on it. And the Book Blast was, truly, a blast! I had so much fun with my student volunteers, M. and J., whose names not only rhyme, but who talked up my books to anyone stopping by our table. Thanks to their enthusiasm and energy, we sold all 20 copies of Tallulah Falls and gave away all 12 advance reading copies of Ten Cents a Dance. The best part, though, was the time we spent talking books, not to mention meeting and chatting with the other kids and their parents, and the other authors in attendance (shout-out to Annie Auerbach!)

So thanks a million, Bart King, M. and J. and all the students, and everyone at Cedar Park Middle School, for a fun and beautifully-presented evening of books and literacy. I’m already looking forward to adding Book Blast to my 2008 events on!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wordstock 2007!

Whew! This past weekend was the 3-day extravaganza that is Wordstock, Portland’s Festival of the Book, and I’m still recovering. We kicked off the fun Thursday night, when my good friend and comrade-in-arms, Sally Nemeth (she of the funny and poignant YA novel, The Heights, the Depths, and Everything in Between) arrived fresh from the Hollywood writers’ strike. First on the agenda: catching up over pub food and some fine local microbrews. Then, Friday morning, Sally went off into the hills with a wild-food expert, part of her research for her new YA novel (check out her blog for more on her adventures in untamed NW cuisine).

In the meantime, I was having my own adventures. As part of Wordstock’s publicity blitz, those madcap book folks thought it would be fun to have authors sit in a store window in downtown Portland and read to folks passing on the street. When I first got their call for volunteers, I thought, No way. Never in a million years.

Whatsa matter? Chicken?

No, I’m not chicken! It’s just…

Bra-a-a-w! Braw-braw-bra-a-a-w!


So do it, then. Dare you. Double dare you.


I shot off an e-mail to the Wordstock organizers: Sign me up! And then spent the next two days wishing I could take it back. I was only joking. Someone sent that e-mail without my knowledge. I have a family emergency. My house burned down. I lost my book. I lost my voice.

But when Friday afternoon arrived, here I was:

Wordstock did a bang-up job, not only making a cozy author space in the window, but setting red Wordstock armchairs outside so folks could take a load off while they listened. People would be hurrying past, on their way to wherever, and they’d glance up with puzzled looks (where is that voice coming from?) Then they’d pause. Sometimes just for a few seconds, but often for a few minutes or even longer. It was, as another author-in-the-window told me later, “Weird and wonderful!” By the end, I was wishing I could read some more.

Other festival highlights:

Here I am at the authors’ reception with Sam Moses (for an absolute nail-biter of a true story, check out his book At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Mariners Turned the Tide of WWII) and Sally Nemeth.

Sally’s reading on the Children’s Stage:

And then my own reading, Sunday afternoon. I shared the stage with my friend and mentor Karen Karbo, who read from the third book in her YA mystery series, Minerva Clark Gives up the Ghost.

I can't stand still long enough to speak from a podium. Even when I was teaching, I always had to move around. Plus, I talk with my hands. Drove some of my students nuts. Get over it, I'm Italian--I can't help it.

The inimitable Karen Karbo. When I grow up, I want to be just like her.

And finally, last thing on Sunday night at the festival's close, a photo session in the big red Wordstock chair:

I already can't wait until next year. I'll be reading from Ten Cents a Dance--and if any store windows are up for grabs, get out of my way. I'm there!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Knitting and Brewing and...Writing?

My cousin Jenne Hiigel e-mailed me recently to let me know about her new book project, A Knitter’s Guide to Beer. Now that, I thought, is one intriguing title. Equally captivating are Jenne’s thoughtful and funny posts about knitting, homebrewing, and the process of craft. I especially loved “The Value of Ripping and Dumping.” When her knitting students are daunted at the prospect of having to rip out stitches and redo them, Jenne tells them that’s “more knitting pleasure at no additional cost!” Mistakes, she points out, are an essential part of learning the craft…and that the process itself should be valued and enjoyed, not just the finished product. After all, if you’re not having fun, why do it?

My first writing teacher, Verlena Orr, told us that most beginners have to produce about 10,000 pages before their work is good enough to publish. My heart instantly sank. At that time, I was lucky if I could produce one page a week. Compulsive geek that I am, I quickly figured that, at that rate, it’d take me one hundred and ninety-two years­ to get published!

Whether the 10,000-page-rule is really true or not, I don’t know. What Verlena was trying to get across to us beginners is that writing is a craft. Like any other craft, it takes learning and practice. It also takes a willingness to recognize when something isn’t good enough. When the work needs to be rethought, re-imagined, redone. Or even scrapped entirely. At that point, it’s tempting to get discouraged and give up. Or to hold on even more fiercely to the work, blaming everyone else when it doesn’t get the recognition we think it deserves.

Part of craftsmanship is never resting on your laurels. It's striving to always improve, to tweak a little something, get a little better, a little more original. That’s what keeps it from getting boring. That’s what makes it fun. It's how all of us—eventually—get to where we’re headed, slipping and tripping though we might.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What Do You Believe?

All my life, I’ve been bothered by the nature of truth. Who gets to say what’s true? And how come, anytime somebody declares something to be True, everybody else starts shouting Untrue! at the top of his or her lungs? Even as a little kid, I reasoned there had to be a way to figure out, once and for all, what was True. And then we could all stop arguing.

No wonder I took to the scientific method like a duck to water. From the very first I learned about it—in sixth grade, I think—the scientific method felt logical and right. As a way to make sense of the world, it…well, it makes sense. It’s simple and elegant and, if followed with integrity, its results are untainted with superstition, personal bias, or emotion. In a twisty world, it’s the straightest ruler we’ve got.

And yet, even the staunchest scientist has beliefs he or she can't explain with the scientific method. And that’s the premise for one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty. This gem of a book was sent to me by my good friend Walter, and from the first essay, I couldn’t put it down. The essays are short—a few pages, at most—and in each one, a prominent scientist or expert describes something he or she knows to be unproveable, and yet believes to be absolutely, incontrovertibly true. That intelligent life is unique to Earth. That intelligent life is spread throughout the galaxies. That there is life after death. That there isn’t. That God exists. That He doesn’t. That there is an external reality. That nothing exists except our own consciousness.

The essays are fascinating in and of themselves, but what I love best about this book is their tone. The writers may be scientists steeped in the scientific method—logical, rational, show-me kind of folks—but they write with such passion, such optimism and hope, that the book as a whole becomes much more than a collection of random musings. It’s a shout-out of human curiosity, spirit, and endeavor. It’s a distillation of everything contradictory, wonderful, frustrating, and inspiring about the search for truth. It doesn’t exactly have a three-hanky moment—it is written by scientists, after all—but for this geek, it’s the feel-good book of the year.
What do I believe that I cannot prove? That we are not the only sentient beings on this planet. That some animal species are intelligent, feel emotions, and are conscious of themselves as individuals.

What do you believe that you cannot prove?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Writer-Geek Heaven... two days spent bundled under an afghan in a rocking chair , with my manuscript, a sharp pencil, big pink eraser, a cup of coffee, and the Chicago Manual of Style. Outside, it rained; inside, kitties snoozed on the bed. A cozier, nerdier time could not have been had.

It was time to review copyedits.

As I mentioned in my last post, I adore copyeditors. First, I strongly suspect that they are even geekier than I am. Second, as I noted before, it’s the copyeditor’s job to keep me from making an idiot of myself in public. As I went through the manuscript, one thing became clear: me and proper comma use, not so much acquainted. What can I say? I put them where the pauses sound in my head.

So if the copyeditor is catching all the mistakes, what is the manuscript doing back on my lap, the person who made the mistakes to begin with? Because my job, at this junction, is to go through every change suggested by the copyeditor. The author may not have final say over the cover or the title, but s/he has absolute, final say over the actual writing. If I felt it was utterly essential that those commas stayed where I originally put them, then all I needed to do was indicate so on the manuscript. Take that, Strunk and White!* My word is law!

Then again, my manuscript was blessed with a wonderful copyeditor who really knows her stuff. That, and I’m not an idiot.

Reviewing copyedits isn't all coziness; it's also stressful, and not only because I'm never sure if I'm making the little squiggle at the end of a line deletion correctly. This is crunch time, the last chance an author has to make any significant changes. By this time, I have so many different versions of certain scenes in my head, it's hard to see the words fresh on the page the way a reader will. And there's not much time to ponder. One week to turn the manuscript around. But by Monday afternoon, I was done, the sun was out again, and the manuscript was winging its way back to New York--in better condition, I hope, than when it arrived.

*"Strunk and White" is the nickname for the book The Elements of Style. It was originally written by William Strunk, Jr. a zillion years ago, added onto by E.B. White only a million years ago, and is the one essential reference on written English that everyone should have. Everyone. It's only about 80 pages long and it's plain, clear, common good sense and a masterpiece. So no, I don't really defy Strunk and White. But I could. If I wanted to.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

From Manscript to Finished Book...The Journey Continues

So my editor has read the revisions, and my agent, too, and they love them. Whew! Can I just tell you what an incredible relief that is? I mean, you think the book is good, and that you’re making it better, and you hope so, but you’re never sure until someone objective reads it. So that enthusiastic thumbs-up from the Powers That Be means a lot, and it feels heavenly.

If the manuscript needed more revisions, my editor would have sent it back to me. But since it didn’t, it’s now gone on to the copyeditor. The copyeditor’s job is to catch mistakes that everyone else has missed so far. Those can be as minor as using the same word twice in a sentence, to as major as chapter structure and pacing. Copyeditors also do a lot of fact-checking, looking for inaccuracies. Yes, it’s a novel…but one grounded in the real world, amid real events. In short, the copyeditor is a sharp-eyed perfectionist, whose job is to keep me—the author—from making an idiot of myself in public.

I love copyeditors.

Meanwhile, work proceeds on the cover art. Just as with a book’s title, the publishing house has full control over its cover. Most authors are shown the cover art, as a courtesy, but we often have no input into the design. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can draw, but I’m awful at graphic design, and when it comes to color, well, let me just say that if it weren’t for my highly multi-talented friend Laura, my house would now be an awful shade of chartreuse instead of the lovely muted earthy green it is. At the same time, though, my agent and I had some ideas of how we wanted the Ten Cents a Dance cover to look. My editor, bless her heart, has been completely open to our input. I can’t wait to see what magic the art director at Bloomsbury conjures to convey the spirit of the book.

And what am I doing, during all this activity in NYC? Enjoying the brief lull before I get the copyedited pages back—catching up on house stuff, brainstorming the next novel, and of course practicing veterinary medicine. I expect the copyedits to arrive any day, and when they do, I’ll let you know what’s involved on my end. Let’s just say, it’ll be time for my inner geek to shine!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Last sentence, last period, done. Stare numbly at the computer screen for a few minutes. Attach manuscript to an email and hit Send. The book flies away to New York City. I collapse on the couch with a big juicy comfort-food-style novel and turn off brain. Meanwhile, in NYC, my editor goes to work.

Several weeks later, the manuscript—printed, this time, rather than electronic—arrives at my door via the wings of FedEx. I open the package with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, riffle through the pages. Penciled in the margins are brief notes from my editor: Wow! and Great line and Tighten through here and, in several places, See ltr.

Ltr. means the editorial letter accompanying the manuscript. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that editors don’t edit anymore. If that’s true, then I’ve hit the publishing jackpot, because my editor is amazing. My first draft, like all first drafts, had its creaky places—the action in one chapter not quite tracking with what came before, the emotional pitch a little off, the characters’ motivations gone a tad wonky. Most of those, I thought I’d fixed, or convinced myself, No, it’s fine, really. But my editor has an uncanny nose for spots like this—she nailed every single one I knew about, and some I didn’t. If you’re having flashbacks of English comp class, getting your paper back with red marks all over it like a mouse after a cat’s done with it, fear not. The editorial letter is thoughtful, detailed, supportive, and encouraging. It's not criticism, it’s collaboration. Reading it left me inspired and enthused to tackle the rewrite, full of new ideas and possibilities for the story.

Inspiration and enthusiasm are key, because rewrites are tough. I heard this bit of writing advice once and never forgot it: “The first draft is the writer telling herself the story. The second draft is the writer telling the reader the story.” Meaning, the first draft is where we figure out what happens and what the book is really about. In the second draft, the job of revision is literally that—re-vision. Seeing the story again, but this time from the reader’s perspective. Almost every scene is re-imagined to streamline the action, heighten the intensity, get to truths that weren’t quite realized before. Some scenes are tossed completely. (Another classic bit of writing advice: “Be willing to kill your darlings.” Painful—but necessary.)

From the arrival of the the manuscript on my porch to a finished, revised draft: six weeks. Ten or twelve hours a day, five days a week (I work my day job the other two days). That last week, I was at the computer sixteen to eighteen hours a day. And then...

Last sentence, last period, done. Stare numbly at the computer screen for a few minutes. Attach manuscript to an email and hit Send. The book flies away to New York City. I get dressed, grab a protein bar, rush to my day job. Meanwhile, in NYC, my editor goes to work.*

*To find out how the revised manuscript continues on its way to a finished book...stay tuned.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

And the Title Is...

Ten Cents a Dance!

That's the newly official title of my second novel. A lot of people are surprised to find out that authors don’t get final say over what their title is. That’s not to say that the publishing house won’t go with what we suggest; for my first novel, I was really attached to Tallulah Falls, and fortunately the folks at Bloomsbury loved it, too. Simple as pie, warm fuzzies all around.

In her book The Forest for the Trees, former editor Betsy Lerner recounts the story of how Peter Benchley’s first novel got its title. How to convey the terrror of a great white shark hunting humans at a popular coastal resort? They tried Death in the Water and Leviathan Rising and just plain Leviathan and The Jaws of Death and, Mr. Benchley estimates, perhaps a hundred other suggestions. Even his dad got in on the act, with What Dat Noshin on My Laig? But whatever someone’s favorite was, someone else was sure to hate it. Finally, with the book about to go into production, a choice had to be made. The only title that everyone didn’t absolutely loathe was…Jaws.

Which now, of course, seems the one and only perfect title for that book.

Titling my second novel, while not as straightforward as the first, was thankfully not nearly as agonizing as the Jaws experience. The whole year I worked on this book, I called it Taxi Dancer, mostly because I had to call it something besides Second Novel and I couldn’t think of anything else. I kept waiting for inspiration to strike, but then in March the manuscript was finished, it was time to hand it in, and still lightning eluded me. Nobody at the publishing house was crazy about Taxi Dancer—which was OK with me, I didn’t like it, either. My editor came up with Ten Cents a Dance, and that proved to be the winner, to everyone’s great satisfaction!

Next week, I’ll write about the editing process (which I just finished—whew!—and which is why I’ve been absent a while from this blog!)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Guest Blog over at Bookseller Chick

If you’re a writer, you know there’s tons of books, workshops, and advice forums for those struggling with their first novels. But what happens between books #1 and 2? Bookseller Chick invited me to guest blog on that very topic, and you’ll find it here. As I told her, guest blogging feels kind of like throwing a party in someone else’s house, hoping no wine gets spilled on the carpet. Thanks, BSC, for letting me set up a tent in your space!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

English Only?

The other day an acquaintance sent me an email which said, “Where Do I Order Mine??” above a picture of this shirt.

My first thought was, I guess he would’ve kicked my great-grandfather out.

I used to ask my grandmother what Sicily was like. “There was nothing there,” she always answered. But if Sicily had nothing, America had everything, and her father, John Rio, grabbed for it. He opened a cobbler’s shop a Sicilian neighborhood in the South Bronx, where many of the immigrants didn’t speak, read or write English. He made enough money to bring his four children over. They worked, married, raised their own children, kept working. His granddaughter—my mother—spoke Italian before she learned English. She became the first in her family to go to college.

My great-grandfather died at the age of ninety, having spoken no language in his life but Italian. And yet he’d been granted citizenship by a judge, who declared that America needed people with his kind of spirit.

The “English-only” movement isn’t new. In 1780, John Adams proposed that an official academy be created to "purify, develop, and dictate usage of," English. Interestingly, his plan was rejected by the Continental Congress as undemocratic, and a threat to individual liberty.

The “English-only” camp maintains that our country is united through a common language. I have trouble with this notion. Languages are fluid. They evolve and change, year by year. What unites us as Americans isn’t any one individual language. What unites us are the ideas on which the United States were founded. Those ideas aren’t bounded by English. They’re immutable. They go deeper, and will last longer, than any one tongue.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

Say these words—or these—in any language, and they remain uniquely American. The judge who granted citizenship to my great-grandfather understood this. Now more than ever, instead of short-sighted, reactionary slogans, we could use more of that kind of insight.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Celtic Tour 2007, Part II

Cows and cathedrals. What better introduction to Ireland?

Actually, our real introduction was trying to find our hotel in south Dublin. The directions estimated 40 minutes from the airport. It took us almost 3 hours. Maps don't help when only about 1 out of 8 intersections bothers to have a street name attached. Frazzled? Let's just say a pint of Guiness didn't go amiss, once we'd found the place and settled down enough to venture out to a pub.

The next day, though, we were on the road again, heading south. We stopped at the Rock of Cashel, which in ancient days seated the kings of Munster. In later years, ie, around 1100 A.D. (adjust your chronometers--we're on historical time, now) the land was given to the Catholic Church, and a cathedral was built, along with an archbishop's residence and various and sundry other establishments. All picturesque ruins, now. That's the Rock of Cashel, above, taken from the vantage point of a much smaller, ruined abbey in the cow pasture below.

This is one of the very cool things about Ireland--you're driving along, or walking, and you see a ruined stone tower, or abbey, or some such, out in the middle of a pasture, or tucked behind a modern farmhouse. The cattle must be used to tourists tramping through for a closer look; like Bessie, above, they mostly didn't turn a hair.

From Cashel we made our way to the southern coastal town of Kinsale, in County Cork. I've seen some pretty towns, but Kinsale is so adorable you want to pick it up and tuck it in your pocket. It is that cute. We stayed at the San Antonio B&B, the same place my sweetie had spent a night about 6 years ago. The room was comfortable, the food glorious, and conversation with Jimmie, the proprietor, was best of all. Global politics, the euro, the recent Irish elections--fascinating, intelligent, and funny as hell, and besides that, Jimmie cooked the best breakfast we had in Ireland (and second only to Linda and Dave's in Edinburgh). On Jimmie's advice, we walked to the Spaniard Inn that night to hear traditional Irish music. Three musicians in a corner of the pub, the whole place packed. Occasionally, an older person would come sit by the musicians and start to sing, and those moments were magical.

We did some exploring, around Fort Charles and Kinsale Harbour, but mostly we relaxed, enjoying the food, the scenery, and the wonderful warmth of our Irish hosts. We didn't have long--just two days--then we headed back to Dublin International Airport, and home. It felt like time--I was missing my critters, and the easiness of my own house, and my friends. And so Celtic Tour 2007 ended. I hope it won't be long before we can go back.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

It's Kitten Season Again!

This photo totally swiped off Bookseller Chick's blog...what can I say? I'm a cat fanatic, I couldn't resist. Head over there for all kinds of book news--she's awesome!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Now THAT's Grrl Power!

Last Saturday, Rags to Riches became only the 3rd filly (that's a girl horse) in 140 years to win the Belmont Stakes. The Belmont is the third and last leg of the Triple Crown races, and at 1-1/2 miles, it's also the longest. Plenty of horses sputter and fade long before the end. But this tough gal not only hung on, in the final homestretch she turned up the heat, burned up the track, and made horse racing history.
Work that day was crazy--not two minutes to spare for the race. But I caught the replay at home, including the head-to-head battle between Rags to Riches and Curlin (the only colt who could keep up with her) here.
Three Triple Crown races, and this year, three different winners. No single champion to sweep them all. Almost 30 years since the last one, Affirmed, in 1978. Still, in terms of exciting races, all three this year were knockouts. And what a way to end! Just look at the determination in our girl's eye as she holds off Curlin at the wire--she'll be damned if she'll let anybody past her.
Now THAT'S grrl power!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Celtic Tour, 2007

OK, so about that whole Scotland/Ireland thing. My sweetie had a veterinary conference in Edinburgh, and he asked if I’d like to go along. Heck, yeah!

Do you want to sign up for the conference, too? he asked.

What? Go to Scotland to sit in a hotel watching PowerPoint slides with a bunch of dorky veterinarians?* Are you insane?

I mean, um, No, but thanks anyway!

So for 5 days, while the sweetie watched PowerPoint slides, I bummed around Edinburgh. I am in love with Edinburgh. First of all, it’s gorgeous. It’s got tons of dark snaky passageways winding between 16th century buildings just begging to be explored. And the castle. Edinburgh Castle sits atop a massive extinct volcano rising over the city—jaw-droppingly beautiful in daylight, and at night, when it’s lit up against the sky? Seriously…damn.

We stayed at a wonderful little B&B just outside the city, and every morning we were plied with Scottish breakfasts. The full Scottish breakfast, as presented by our hosts Linda and Dave, included porridge, eggs, bacon and sausage and black pudding (you don’t want to know what’s in it, but man it’s good), tomatoes and mushrooms, potato scones, toast, juice, and tea or coffee. I never ordered the whole thing; if I had, I’d have had to lie around like a stuffed crocodile for at least 2 days.

Once the sweetie was released from conference duties, we rented a car and took off for the Highlands. I’ve seen some beautiful places, Oregon—my current abode—being one of them. But I’ve never seen country so beautiful as the Scottish Highlands. Here in the American West, the peaks are higher, the wilderness far more wild. But there was something about the raw light sparking over the water of the lochs, the impossible shades of green, the farmsteads white specks under the looming dark mountains—I can’t describe it well enough, but it swept my heart away.

The sense of history is everywhere. We explored Stirling Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI. Visited the grave of Rob Roy. Stood on the bridge where William Wallace (he of “Braveheart” fame) won a stunning victory against the English, in the cause of Scottish independence. We laid our hands on the stones of Castle Urquhart, ruined and brooding beside a gray Loch Ness. We walked across the battlefield of Culloden—an open, empty moor, dotted with stones carved with the names of the clans slaughtered at the hands of the English in 1746, buried in mass graves under the heather. I’d read the history, but to stand on the moor in the freezing wind, to read The Well of the Dead, Clan MacKenzie, Clan Fraser, Clan MacGillivray, one stone after the next—brought the reality home in a way printed words never can.

We stayed at inns in tiny towns, ate tons of amazing food, ignored the rain and delighted in the sunshine, and met many wonderful, warm, hospitable Scots. Too soon, we found ourselves back in Edinburgh. I wasn’t ready to leave, but only a few days remained on our trip, and Ireland called. More on that, later...

*Some will dispute my assertion that veterinarians are dorks. But if you ever find yourself in Las Vegas in February, or Reno in October, look for the folks carrying conference tote bags and wearing khaki Dockers with either cowboy boots or Birkenstocks. See? Dorky, every last one of ‘em. Just like me. I rest my case.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tallulah Falls Paperback Contest

I’m giving away five paperback copies of Tallulah Falls in June! If you want a shot at winning one, head on over to the Teensreadtoo website, click on "Contests," and enter your name. Winners will be drawn at the end of the month!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A New Look for Tallulah Falls

The brand-spanking-new paperback of Tallulah Falls hits the bookstore shelves this week! Check out the new cover—light and bright and beautiful. One of the reasons I’m glad to be published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books is that they take such care to make their books gorgeous. Between this and the fabulous hardcover design, I feel like one highly pampered author.
I just got back from a two-week tour around Scotland and Ireland, and am jet-lagged beyond belief. More on that later...

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Secret

Oddly enough this past week, it seems every blog I read or radio show I listened to had the same theme: What’s the secret to getting published? Miss Snark, The Rejecter, and a Q&A with author Francine Prose on NPR all fielded variations on this question from aspiring authors. The writer calling in to Ms. Prose seemed especially jaded: You can’t get published unless you know somebody!

Not true. I’m a slush pile success, myself. (For those of you not into publishing, the “slush pile” is the mountain of unsolicited queries and manuscripts that teeter in the offices of agents and editors--see pic at left. Slush piles are often dealt with by assistants, who read through quickly, pull the letters/manuscripts that they think will interest their bosses, and dump the rest with rejection letters). I didn’t have anyone pulling strings on my behalf with my agent-to-be; I simply wrote a query letter and sent it off. A few months later, she asked to see the manuscript of Tallulah Falls. The rest, as they say, was history.

But here's the rub: if sending the query was simple, the road leading up to it wasn’t. I had no idea, when I signed up for my very first writing class, that it would take me twelve years to get published. I had no idea that first I had to learn my craft, and then write a novel good enough to get noticed. I certainly had no clue that getting published takes an entirely different set of skills than writing the novel! Each step has been a new challenge and a new learning curve.

It’s easy to look back on it now, and counsel patience. But I remember how impatient I was. How convinced I was, at times, that you can’t get published unless you know someone! Which, translated, means: I’ll never get published!

But I did. And if you’re an aspiring author, you will, too. If you write well. Tell a good story. If you seek out good critique and are willing to learn from it. If you never rest on your laurels and always strive to improve. Because in the end, if you’re a writer, you’ll write. If your first novel doesn’t sell, you’ll write a second. A third. You’ll get better and better, and you’ll never stop writing.

If there’s a secret to getting published, that’s it.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Street Sense and Serendipity

I work every Saturday now. Which is OK with me, as it’s part of my Very Cool Schedule that allows me time during the week to write. Like most anything, though, there’s a downside, and it rolls around every year starting the first Saturday in May.

This is because Saturdays in a veterinary hospital are incompatible with watching the Kentucky Derby. Sigh.

Yesterday, I worked the “fourth doctor” shift. While 3 other veterinarians saw regularly scheduled appointments, I fielded walk-ins and emergencies with my fabulous partner-in-crime and one of the best certified vet techs in the world, Amber. (I’m not saying this just because I think she’ll read this. Amber kicks serious ass as a CVT, and not only that, she’s fierce on skis, a surfboard, or a bicycle, too. You see her on the road, all you’ll see is her dust). Yesterday was a typical Saturday—there's no end to the trouble critters get up to on the weekends—and so we’re bulldozing along from eight AM until three PM. Then we find ourselves looking around for our next emergency. What’s this? Nobody waiting to be seen. Five minutes until the next patient is expected. We haven’t had a chance to eat lunch yet, and…post time is 3:04.

Heat up the frozen tamale, grab a glass of water, race upstairs where the little TV lives. They're off! A colt named Hard Spun leads almost from the start. Actually pulling away from the field, too, just when most early speed sputters and fades. Rounding for home, and it looks like Hard Spun for sure, when out of nowhere charges a dark brown horse: Street Sense, coming from far, far back in the pack, 19th in a field of 20, then he turns it on and passes 18 horses in an eighth of a mile. Catches Hard Spun, and wins going away.

Can I just say? Damn.

Along with the excitement came a little bittersweet, too—because watching Street Sense’s walloping performance, I couldn’t help but remember the brilliant Derby run last year. And to realize again how much the world of racing lost when it lost the great, gallant Barbaro.

No time to reminisce much, though. The race over, we ran back downstairs, just as our next patient walked through the doors. Of all Derby Saturdays for the stars to align, I’m glad it was yesterday, because that was a helluva race.

And at the Preakness, two weeks from now…could the stars possibly align twice, for us as well as for a beautiful dark brown colt? We’ll see…

Monday, April 23, 2007

Grief and Anger

For the past week, I've been struggling to write my thoughts about the killings at Virginia Tech. The massive media coverage hasn't helped. Instead of gaining any kind of clarity, I've become angrier and angrier, listening as everyone with an agenda and a soapbox hijacks this tragedy and twists it to suit his or her own ends. We’ve heard endless “reasons” for Seung-Hui Cho’s actions: video games, legalized abortion, gun control, not enough gun control, school bullying, liberalism, the Devil.

Seung-Hui Cho was mentally ill. Were there other factors that led him to shoot 32 people? Probably. But none of those factors made Cho psychotic. His mental illness made him psychotic. Psychosis is not a product of society. It’s not an “excuse.” It’s a product of brain chemistry, a biological disorder.

But people want someone to blame. And they adore pointing fingers. So the eagerness to politicize this tragedy, and ignore the bare fact of its cause, is not surprising. But it is reprehensible. If we truly want to prevent this from happening again, we must focus on the issue at hand—mental illness—and how best to get treatment and help to those who need it.

My heart goes out to the families of the murdered, and to Cho’s family, who lost their boy before he ever picked up a gun.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Blast in St. Helens

A big shout-out to St. Helens High School in St. Helens, Oregon—you guys rock!

Yesterday, I was invited to SHHS for their first-ever visiting authors’ day. Sharing the stage with me was Graham Salisbury, multiple-award-winning YA author and truly nice guy. For each presentation, Mr. Salisbury gave his talk (wonderful stories of growing up in Hawaii, which form the backdrop of his novels), and then I followed with my musings on writing, living in Tennessee, and Tallulah Falls. The students were a fantastic audience—responsive, sharp, funny, and smart. You guys made the day fun.

Thanks to the faculty and administration of SHHS for your hospitality and for putting this program together—your dedication to your students is wonderful to see, and your plans for future programs is truly visionary. And many, many thanks to the students, for your enthusiasm, hospitality, and grace. I enjoyed meeting you all, and I hope to have many more opportunities to talk writing with you again!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


The most surprising thing has happened the past couple of weeks. I finished my novel, sent it off to my editor and my agent, did my happy dance. Then I sat back down at the computer. Now that I had a little bit of downtime, I planned to blog at least twice a week. Write articles. Work on a short story I’ve had simmering on the back burner for months. I was raring to go. But it was as if someone had turned a tap off in my head. All the words that, these past many months, had come pouring out of my fingertips into the keyboard onto paper just…vanished.

No. Vanished isn’t the right word. They’re not gone. It feels, instead, as though they’ve gone deep. As if my brain is earth. Waiting. Warming in the spring sun, recharging. Gathering energy.

In the meantime, I’ve been out to see my friends. Lots of laughing, lots of catching up. Working my day job, of course. Cleaning my house. All the while, soaking up everything around: the smell of flowers that hits as soon as I step outside my front door (Oregon in the spring is not only beautiful, but beautifully fragrant), the way a person in the coffee shop crinkles her eyes when she smiles. Everything. Instead of churning out, my brain is taking in. Watching and observing and listening and turning things over. I can feel it, just below the surface. Thoughts and fragments of ideas float up, sink again.

It sounds odd, probably. It’s as if the subconscious puts up a sign: QUIET. WORKING. I think about writing, I sit at the computer. I type. I don’t say much.

But the past day or two, I’ve become irritable. A sure sign—I’ve learned—of words building up. Wanting to break loose.

A little rest, a fallow time. And now we begin again.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Light of Day


I composed an e-mail, attached a file, hit Send, and away flew my manuscript to New York. My second novel is now in the hands of my editor and agent.

Second novel—but the first one I’ve written under a deadline. This is the thing about novel writing: Your first novel, nobody cares. I mean that literally. Nobody cares. Only you, the writer, care. You have to care enough so that it doesn’t bother you that nobody else cares. For years, if you’re like most of us.

Harsh? Maybe. It’s just that so many people start writing novels, and not many finish them. One out of a hundred, is the going quote, although how someone came up with that number, I’ve no idea. Anyway, there’s a lot of half-written books out there. So, when it comes to fiction, agents and editors don’t want to see it or hear about it until it’s finished and polished to a bright sterling shine.

The upside? You can take as long as you want or need to get that polished gleam in your manuscript. For my first novel, Tallulah Falls, it took three complete drafts written over something like 3½ years. Then another major revision for my agent, then another set of revisions for my editor. This doesn’t count all the minor fine-tuning that went into it along the way.

For my seond novel, Taxi Dancer, I had one year. Because this time, lots of people care. My agent, my editor and all the wonderful folks at my publishing house, Bloomsbury. They’re on a schedule. Taxi Dancer is on a schedule. And none of them can do the jobs they do so well, until I turn in the manuscript.

Gotta make the deadline.

And I did.

Now I’ve got a little breather, and I’m catching up. With my friends, most of whom I haven’t seen or talked to in weeks. With my blog (sorry, blog readers!) With my house, oh, the poor house! With my sweetie, who bore all my anxiety and neglect and took me out for margaritas when I knew, just knew, that I’d written the plot into a hole it’d never get out of. (Plot problem solved halfway through margarita and some very fine tamales).

I feel like a bear coming out of hibernation—squinty-eyed and blinking in the sunshine, sniffing the air. Looking to see if the old neighborhood still looks the same, and if there’s any early berries to eat.

Mmm, yes. Blueberries. Time for a snack. More later…

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Welcome to the World!

Congratulations to my niece and nephew-in-law, Monica and Kenji, on the arrival of their second child and first daughter: Julia Concetta! Welcome to the world, baby Julia!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Goodbye, Barbaro

Eight months of trying. Eight months of fighting. Never a question in anyone’s mind that the odds were long. Was the fight worth it?


From the beginning, Barbaro’s owners were clear: They would continue only as long as Barbaro was comfortable. “We just reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on without pain,” owner Roy Jackson said. “It was the right decision, it was the right thing to do. We said all along if there was a situation where it would become more difficult for him then it would be time.”

This is one of the most difficult decisions: how far to go. Not just for a champion thoroughbred, but for any beloved animal. Over and over, I hear people say: This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. We talk together about quality of life. We discuss signs to watch for: of pain, of joylessness, of the animal giving up. More often than not, when the owner makes the decision, they tell me: I knew it was time. He told me. I could see it in his face.

“He was just a different horse,” said Barbaro’s chief surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson. “You could see he was upset. That was the difference. And it was more than we wanted him put through.”

They came close. So close that last month, Barbaro’s doctors were beginning to talk about releasing him from the hospital this spring. But in veterinary medicine, the tide turns with quality of life. Acute pain that can be managed, where there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, yes. Pain that is ongoing and can’t be controlled—no. You can’t explain to an animal, Well, we’re just going to keep pushing ahead, see if we can turn this thing around. Hang in there.

As long as Barbaro was comfortable and fighting, then it was a good fight. The moment that changed, the fight was over. Barbaro was fortunate to have had owners and doctors who understood that, and who were willing to let him go.

“Grief,” said his owner, Gretchen Jackson, “is the price we all pay for love.”

Godspeed, Barbaro.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Snowing! Snowing!

I may be grown-up, but when it snows, I still clap my hands in pure happiness.

I didn’t listen to the weather forecast, so it was a beautiful surprise to get up at 6 AM and find flakes drifting down. It doesn’t snow much here in Portland—once every year or two—and often not more than a dusting. Right now, though, we have about 4” at our house. Which I know isn’t a hill of beans compared to what some of you have endured recently (hello, Denver!) but I’m thrilled nonetheless. Especially since today is a writing day. I’ve been snuggled up for hours with four furry animals, a mug of coffee, a fleece robe, and my laptop, while the snow fell and everything outside gradually disappeared.

Unfortunately, not everything in my fair city was so peaceful. Seems Portland’s drivers have made the national news. Don’t laugh! We just don’t get enough real winter weather to cope well. Like in ’93, when a freak storm dumped 18” of snow in less than 24 hours over Knoxville, TN. At that time we lived about 20 miles outside the city. It seemed like EVERYONE took out their 4-wheel-drive SUVs and promptly got them stuck in ditches. (The best part was how cheerful everyone still was, even when they had to walk home. Snow in unexpected places does that for people.)

Two thousand words written today (that’s about 8 manuscript pages.) The snow has stopped and it’ll be dark soon, so time to take a break and take the dogs for a walk. I hope wherever you are, winter’s treating you well.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Listen Up!

A little while ago, I was interviewed by senior NPR correspondent Ketzel Levine for a story on outerwear for urban dogs. If you've had enough of grim war and politics -- and especially if you're a dog lover -- tune in for Ketzel's delightfully charming take on canine winter fashions. I'm supposedly the "expert," but I had far too much fun being interviewed to be taken all that seriously. The story is airing today on NPR's Morning Edition (or click here to listen via the Web.)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy Ruby New Year!

Yes, I've been neglecting you. I never write...I never call. In the spirit of starting the New Year right, I'm going to come clean:

I've been spending time with a girl. Her name is Ruby Jacinski. She's 15 years old, and she lives in 1941.

Yeah, you guessed it. Ruby's the leading lady of my new book, and the reason I've been neglecting this space. Not to mention the household chores, balancing the checkbook, spending time with my sweetie, and sleeping. Ruby's the sassiest hepkitten this side of the Savoy -- she wants her story told, and she wants it told right. Last night, 2006 clicked over to 2007, fireworks sparkled outside my office window -- and on the page, Ruby was sparking some major fireworks of her own.

Deadline is March 15, 2007. So, if it's a little while between posts, you know where I'll be. I haven't forgotten you, I've just been in high gear -- and kicking higher, now that we're in the final stretch.

Happy New Year, everyone! Now, where did I leave off last night? Oh, yes...

At first I kept my mouth shut, for Ma’s sake. Maybe if I hadn’t had Paulie on my mind every second, worrying about where he was and who with, I might’ve held out longer. Or maybe not.

I never was good at taking guff from anyone.

Say on, Ruby.