Thursday, December 25, 2008

Now THIS is a White Christmas!

Portland lies under a blanket of snow. A goosedown comforter of snow. This isn't our usual precious one inch, which releases gleeful kids from school and shuts down the entire metro area for a day. No, this is a history-making, record-breaking, eleven-days-and-counting Snowzilla wonder, and it's snowing again as we speak.

I love watching the flakes drift down. I love walking a mile and a half to the grocery store for provisions, seeing how magically my dear familiar neighborhood is transformed. I love how the snow makes people happy, so that everyone I meet smiles and calls hello. I love it that we're going to have lox and bagels for Christmas dinner, because that was what I could fit into the backpack. I love it that nature has given us a gentle kick, letting us know that no matter how hard we try, we don't have nearly the control over our lives that we think we do. It's a good reminder.

And now, a carol from our own Lisa Nowak, fellow Portland Kidlit writer and cat lover. (I also highly recommend her beautiful essay on snow, Christmas, and community...including some fascinating Christmas history, which pleased the geek in me no end).

A very merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The New Yorker Trashes...I Mean, Talks YA

Last week, while we were celebrating Girl Week on Reviewer X’s blog (strong YA heroines! Fabulous YA authors!) came this post from the pinched-nostrils section of the internet litsphere. As if Part I wasn’t enough, it was followed by parts II and III… because when it comes to disdain, ignorance, and wrong assumptions, more is of course better.

The posts discuss Kathe Koja’s latest YA novel, Headlong. This ought to have been exciting--one of the premier book-celebrating magazines in the country, talking YA! And yet, not five seconds into the discussion, I can tell you: none of the panelists knows anything about young adult literature. Unfortunately, they don’t let this stop them from spouting insanely incorrect generalizations about the entire genre.

Q: Did you have certain expectations of “Headlong,” given the Y.A. label? Did it confound or surpass those expectations—or prove them right?

A: The book totally surpassed my expectations. I tend to think of young-adult fiction as sort of facile—a straightforward style, uncomplicated themes and morals—but this had a complexity, an ambiguity, that surprised me, and I loved Koja’s sentence structure, how she interweaved dialogue and exposition so fluidly.

What?! Complexity and ambiguity in YA fiction? A YA author who is an accomplished writer? Shock and amazement! The mind reels! But wait…the panelist isn’t done:

It fit my expectations in terms of length and enjoyableness, though: I assume that anything branded “young adult” needs to have a plotline that captures a teen’s attention, and also needs to be not too long or challenging.

Honey, I’ll put this as gently as I can: You assume completely bats**t wrong. Have you ever set foot in the teen fiction section of a bookstore, even once? Ever heard of M.T. Anderson, Sara Zarr, Laurie Halse Andersen, E. Lockhart? Not challenging? Are you kidding me?

More amazement from another panelist:

It was far more subtle and experimental than I expected, and Lily is a complete character…A potentially boring heads-tails vision of morality is mercifully absent, and the book isn’t sanctimonious, much. And the plot was unpredictable. I don’t know that I’ll be reading a lot of Y.A. in the future, but I don’t feel that I wasted my time.

Well, thank God for that. Crisis averted! By the way, a “boring heads-tails vision of morality,” sanctimoniousness, and predictable plots went out with those 1970s After-School Specials…which you would know, if you read any YA fiction at all.

The discussion continues:

Well, of course we do demand of “great” writers—literary-fiction writers—higher moral and philosophical stakes. Like I said, I think the Y.A. genre is typically defined by very straightforward moral messages, ones that are deemed “suitable” for children, even if the subject matter deals with more grown-up topics (like sex or drinking).

At this point, I’m sputtering in incoherent indignation. The panelist “thinks” the YA genre is defined thus. She doesn’t know, but she has assumed, and therefore it must be so. And yet she is so wrong, on so many levels, it makes my head hurt.

From the third blog post:

Q: What did you guys make of the italicized sections throughout the novel, where different adult voices (of the swim coach, Lily’s mom, the dorm R.A.) would give their general comments…

A: I hated those sections…They’re perfect evidence of another characteristic of Y.A. literature: condescending to the reader.

My aching head has now exploded.

These people not only don’t know YA fiction, I doubt they know any actual live young adults. In my YA reading, none of the novels, no matter their sins, committed the sin of condescension. It’s not hard to understand why. Any YA author will tell you that teens have a fantastically honed bulls**t detector. Young adults expect a novelist to be scrupulously forthright. Any author who condescends to a teen audience is an author who is unpublished. Period.

Indeed, the only condescension I’ve seen in the YA world is the condescension directed at us from the so-called “serious” lit folks. Sherman Alexie, who has written nineteen books for adults and one YA novel, said, “I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing YA.” This was after he won the National Book Award for young people’s literature for his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Friends, he said, worried he was “dumbing down,” and asked him if he wouldn’t have rather won the award for one of his adult, “serious” books.

Look, New Yorker Book Bench blog: I think it’s fabulous that you’ve discovered the world of YA. Kudos to you for picking Kathe Koja, who is a lovely author, and for recognizing the quality of her work. But please—please—before you discuss YA in public again, do yourselves a favor. Know what you’re talking about, instead of blatting assertions that are to reality what sheep are to quantum physics. (No insult intended to sheep.) You’re New Yorkers, for God’s sake. Take a YA editor out to lunch. Peruse the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books for the Teen Age, and (gasp!) read half a dozen or so. Take advantage of this newfangled thing called the internet and touch base with an actual YA reviewer/blogger. Venture a tippy-toe into the Teen Lit section of the bookstore.

Scary, I know. Don't worry, we don't have cooties...and you won't lose IQ points. In fact, it's very likely you'll gain some.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

It's Girl Week at Reviewer X!

Reviewer X (aka Steph, YA book reviewer, blogger, and all-around awesome gal) is hosting a Girl Week extravaganza over at her blog all this week. She's featuring book reviews, guest blogs, book giveaways, author interviews, and more. The best part? She invited me to be part of the celebration! Here's my guest blog on how historical YA heroines in corsets can beat the pants off their contemporary counterparts any day of the week. And here's Reviewer X's very, very kind review of Ten Cents a Dance. While you're there, check out Stephanie Kuenhert's ruminations on the perjorative slut, an interview with the fabulous Lurlene McDaniel, Jody Gehrman's contention that Shakespeare was a feminist, and way, way more.

Thanks and many kudos to Reviewer X for putting this amazing lineup together--and for inviting me to jump in with so many great YA authors. They're a strong, thoughtful, gracious bunch (a lot like their heroines), and I'm honored to share the stage with them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chatting With Mary Castillo

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Mary Castillo, author of the wonderful romantic comedies Hot Tamara and Switchcraft. She'd just finished the first draft of her new novel, and as a reward, read a book she'd recently bought. (She has a rule: No reading other novels while writing her own. Now that's self-discipline--way more than I have, let me tell you!) The book happened to be Ten Cents a Dance, and Mary emailed me even before she was done to tell me how much she loved it.

Was I thrilled? You better believe it. Getting validation from a fellow writer is Christmas and birthday rolled into one package with a big ol' cherry on top. I was even more thrilled when Mary asked if she could interview me for her blog. She asked great questions that made me think (ow!). Click here to read. Thanks, Mary--this was a lot of fun!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

It's NBBBAGITSNB Month! And I Have Video to Prove It

Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey (which has been optioned for a Lifetime movie--way to go, Carleen!), has declared December to be National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month.

What? you ask.

Watch the video: all will be explained. As for me, I'm starting with Orange Mint and Honey. The book sounds as delicious as its title, and an author who can come up with something as original and hilarious as this video is someone I definitely want to read. (And yes, give to someone else!)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Journey Continues...Book #3

Before we went to Colorado, I got the first six chapters of my new novel finished, prettied up, and sent to my agent. Which started me thinking...while there’s a ton of information out there about getting that first book published, few people talk about what happens after that. What about books two, three, and more?

I used to assume that once an author got that first book deal, she’d be in like Flynn—her publisher would snap up the manuscripts as quickly as the writer could scribble `em down. Once published, always published, right?

As it turns out, there’s a reason most agents tell their writers to hang onto the day job. Writing—especially novel writing—is not even close to a stable way to earn a living. Just because someone wanted one of your books doesn’t guarantee they’ll welcome another. As New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerrittsen has said on her blog*: “A writer is only as good as his last book.” Ouch.

But the process does change. Most significantly, I have my amazing agent on my side. Some months ago, I told her my idea for book #3 to see what she thought. She gave the thumbs-up, and so I plunged forward. What would’ve happened if she thought the idea was a dud? Then we’d talk: does the concept just need some tweaking, or does it need to be scrapped altogether? This is one of the reasons a writer really, really needs a good agent. Someone who is interested not only in your first book, but in your entire career. Someone who knows the market and how your work might best fit. And someone who can sweetly push you to do more than you ever thought possible. I’m lucky—my agent is all those things, and more. She’s the bee’s knees.

So, backed by her encouragement, I wrote the first six chapters. I also wrote a synopsis—my vision for the book as a whole, including major characters, conflicts, and narrative arc.

Now what happens? My agent will read what I’ve written so far and give me her opinion. Do agents ever reject work from their clients? Sure they do. If your agent doesn’t think the book will sell, then it’s her job to tell you, so that you don’t spend a year or more on a futile project. Bookends Literary Agency has a great blog post on that subject here. (Do authors ever disagree with their agents? Yes. Sometimes spectacularly so, as when Garth Stein’s agent rejected his novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. Stein believed in his book so much, he rejected the rejection and sought new representation. The book has been published to great acclaim and translated into 26 languages. This is a huge exception, but it does happen.)

What do I do while I wait to hear back from my agent? Keep writing, of course. My goal is to have a new chapter ready for my writers’ group next week. And I’m putting together two presentations for media events early next year. I'll fill you in on that sometime later. Perhaps when I have a clear grasp of what I'm doing...although I'm finding that that usually happens only when the whole thing is over. (I guess that's why they call it a learning curve...)

*If you want to know what it's really like to be an internationally best-selling tours, insomnia-producing anxieties, warehouse book signings (did you even know there was such a thing? I didn't), then you've got to visit Tess. She's gotten flak for not being all sunshine and roses, but she says hey--if you don't want the truth, don't read the blog. Publishing is a weird, weird industry, and Tess--having published twenty books in twenty years--is one of the best tour guides ever.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's a quiet day for us chocolate and laundry in the morning, dinner at a friend's in the afternoon.

Me: What can I bring?

Friend: You don't really like cooking, do you?

Me: (slight hemming and hawing) Um, I don't mind cooking. I mean, sure, I like cooking. Well enough. I mean, I'd be happy to bring something. I mean...

Friend (taking pity...and possibly remembering the pie I brought last year, which I thought came out OK): Don't worry about it. Seriously.

I'm grateful for friends who understand me. For conversation and warmth and camraderie, which I'll remember long after the the turkey and trimmings are gone. For my sweetie especially. For my family. For everything on this roller coaster publishing journey, ups and downs alike. And for things too many to list but which I hold dear in my heart.

And I'm grateful to you, too, for stopping by and spending a little time. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tayshas! (Gesundheit!)

I recently got some great news from my editor: Ten Cents a Dance has been named to the 2009-2010 Texas Library Association’s Tayshas Reading List. Yippiee-cai-yay! This means that librarians will be recommending TCAD to high school students throughout the entire state of Texas. I am incredibly honored. Congratulations to everyone who made the list…and thanks a million, Lone Star State!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fat Cat Lips and Other Calamities

So we got home from Colorado Springs to find one of our cats, Seamus O'Leary, with a big fat lip. (Pictures at the end of the last post). Now, I'm a huge weenie when it comes to my own pets. Not to mention that when it comes to my animals, my imaginoscope goes all wonky. A scrape that on a client's pet looks like a scrape will, on one of my critters, transmogrify in my mind to something horrendously malignant. I once looked at a weird, irregular lump on the gums of our eldery German Shepherd and within seconds jumped to a diagnosis of mouth cancer. I bent closer to get a really good look, caught a whiff...and realized the lump was actually kitty poop from him raiding the litterbox. I've learned my lesson. So the next day, off Seamus went to work, where one of my colleagues could examine him with proper objectivity.

Tentative diagnosis: An abscessed lower tooth.

Treatment: Examine under anesthesia, and if confirmed, then yank that sucker out of there.

You can probably guess that if I don't do well examining my own animals, I'm sure not going to do surgery on them. Fortunately, the practice where I work has a top-notch surgical team. Amber, one of our superb certified veterinary technicians, did the work while I held Seamus's little paddy-paw. Once Seamus was under anesthesia, an ultrasonic cleaning (to remove the tartar) and dental X-rays revealed not just an abscessed incisor, but also two teeth with resorptive lesions. Resorptive lesions are roughly the cat version of cavities. We have no idea what causes them, but we know what they do: eat away at the tooth from the outside in. When the lesion gets deep enough, the cat is in a great deal of pain. Seamus's lesions weren't terribly deep--yet--but there's no way to stop a resorptive lesion once it starts, and filling them (like human cavities) doesn't cure them. When we see them, we usually extract the tooth (with the owner's permission, of course). Many owners tell us that afterward, their cats are running around like youngsters again. Anybody who's had bad tooth pain knows what I'm talking about!

We couldn't tell by looking which tooth was infected and causing the lip swelling; on the surface, everything looked hunky-dory. But a dental X-ray fingered the culprit: the root of a teeny little incisor. At this point, Seamus isn't feeling a thing. He's under anesthesia, breathing through the tube at the right of the photo. The gray tube that looks like the end of a ShopVac is the dental X-ray machine; the white gauze in his mouth is holding the X-ray film in place.

Here, Amber is cleaning Seamus's teeth. Removing the tartar revealed one of the two resorptive lesions. That green thing over him is a heating pad; he has another one underneath him. Without heating pads, little animals get very cold under anesthesia.

I didn't take photos of the extractions. I figure we're flirting with TMI already. Suffice to say all went smoothly.

Five minutes after the anesthesia is turned off, the breathing tube is out and he's already trying to lift his head (and get his tongue back in his mouth). Poor kitty!

Don't feel sorry for him too long, though. The next day, the swelling is already going down, he's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and indulging in all his usual shenanigans:

Cuddling with his favorite dog, Inja, in front of
a heater vent...

...helping himself to my lunch...

...and skedaddling like the wind when he gets caught.

So let's see: Wordstock...a trip out of teeth...and...ah, yes. The new, as yet untitled book. And some lovely news about Ten Cents a Dance!

Next time...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Airports and Other Adventures

So Saturday evening I dashed home from Wordstock, kicked off the darling vintage-y heels, and packed a suitcase.

Now, I’m an airport fretter. I’m not scared of flying--I love to fly. But I’m the one who always wants to leave for the airport four hours ahead of time. In case of, you know, traffic jams. Or long lines. Or no spots in the economy lot. Or who knows. (You know you’re a champion fretter when you don’t feel you have to come up with specific scenarios. You just know something will happen, and if it’s an invasion of killer bees that shuts down the interstate, you can still turn to your partner and say, “I told you!!”)

But that Sunday, for some reason, I was zen. Dogs at kennel at 8 AM. Plane leaving at 9:57 AM. Plenty of time. Besides, we were already checked in for our flight, thanks to the wonders of teh internetz, as they say on LOLcats. What could possibly go wrong?

And at first, it all went so very, very well. We dropped the dogs off at Stay (is that not the best name ever for a boarding kennel? The folks who run it, Kim and James, are fabulous. Our dogs didn’t give a rip that we were leaving. They know the way to the play yard, and they were all, “Come on, Kim, let’s go play! Let’s play, Kim! Now, Kim! Kim! Kim!” Not one little whine, not a single mournful look. “Yeah, whatever, see ya. Whoo-hoo, Kim! Play!” Ingrates.)

Off to the airport. Lovely spot in the econo lot. Less than two minutes to wait for the shuttle. Disembarked at United and found, in the middle of an otherwise empty airport, the Line From Hell. But no problem, right? We’re already checked in. All we have to do is check our bags. YOU MUST CHECK IN 45 MINUTES PRIOR TO DEPARTURE, the sign warned. Yawn. Magic of teh internetz. We’re golden.

Got up to the counter. Self-help computer terminal won’t check me in. See a United representative for assistance, it says. It is, I kid you not, forty-four minutes to departure time.


Am directed to a second line. Get up to the counter for the second time. Am informed by a very nice, extremely harried United ticket agent that I have missed my flight.

Missed my flight? The flight doesn’t leave for thirty-six more minutes! But, no—wait for it—

“Your bag wasn’t checked forty-five minutes prior to departure time,” the agent tells me.

That was the unforeseen circumstance, the fret I should have been fretting. It’s not good enough that the actual live PERSON checks in 45 minutes prior. The BAGGAGE has to check in, too, and unlike the actual, live person, the magic of teh internetz DOES NOT COUNT.

The sign neglected to mention that part. Also the part about how you can no longer fly separately from your bags, as in, Can’t you just let us trot onto this flight and the bags can follow us later?



I fly a lot, and I’ve never run into this before. Maybe because I rarely check bags—I’m a carryon girl. But we weren’t the only ones, that morning. It seemed like half the line missed the same flight for the same reason. So if you were on the Portland to San Francisco at 9:57 AM on November 9, and your supposedly full flight had a bunch of empty seats and you were able to stretch out in luxury…you’re welcome.

The ticket agent (and she was really a lovely person, sweet as could be to us, although you know that part in The Fellowship of the Ring where Bilbo Baggins lunges to take the ring from Frodo, and his face turns, for one instant, wicked goblin-like with fangs? Whatever supernatural talent that is, this ticket agent has it. Some other passenger tried to skip the second line and sneak in directly behind us, and I swear the agent got ten feet tall and bared a mouthful of shiny danger. It was scary. I almost got back in line again) got us booked on another flight, WITH bags, to Colorado Springs, and all was rainbows and puppy breath, and we were happy, especially since we then had time to get coffee and lemon poppyseed scones.

Can I just say? Colorado Springs is DROP-DEAD GORGEOUS. Pike’s Peak, the Garden of the Gods. Sunshine. Three hundred days of sunshine a year, those people get. They get as many days of sunshine as we Portlanders get of overcast and rain. I can’t think about that too much, or I’ll get depressed.

And the wildlife... We saw at least a dozen mule deer grazing in people’s front yards. A most beautiful fox scampering across a pasture.

And coolest of all, this fellow:

The person we were with said that in 35 years in Colorado Springs, he’d never seen a bighorn sheep on the side of the road like this. We watched him for several minutes, until he jumped the guardrail on the far side of the highway and meandered, safe, to the creek below.

We visited for 4 days, then headed back home…only to find our own wildlife up to shenanigans while we were gone.

This is Seamus O’Leary.

This is Seamus O’Leary’s fat lip.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wordstock 2008...and Other Excuses

Oh noes! No posts for almost two weeks! The wonderful folks from September’s Kidlit Bloggers Conference are shaking their heads in dismay.

Wait! Wait! I have an excuse! A couple, in fact. First, Wordstock. Last weekend was Portland’s fourth annual book festival, and Saturday afternoon found me deep in the vintage—including these fabulous new shoes.

They’re not original vintage—I only have one pair of those, inherited from my mom, and those are in trés delicate condition. So these are reproduction, but are they not a 1940s dream? (Best of all, I managed to get onstage and off without breaking my neck in front of dozens of people. Score!)

Up right before me was the amazing Susan Fletcher (no relation, oddly enough, considering that we both live in Oregon and write YA historical fiction). Susan’s latest novel, Alphabet of Dreams, is the story of a teenaged girl, Mitra, who struggles to find sanctuary for herself and her younger brother 2,000 years ago in Persia (present-day Iran). It’s a beautiful book loaded with tons of historical detail…including three particular magi trying to solve an astronomical mystery. Susan presented a wonderful slide show of the trip she took to Iran researching the book. A tough act to follow, let me tell you.

After my reading from Ten Cents a Dance, Susan and I joined another YA author, Heather Vogel Frederick , for a panel discussion about writing historical fiction for young adults. Melissa Lion, an award-winning YA author herself, moderated. Melissa asked great questions: about how we did our research, if we’d altered historical events for the sake of our stories (none of us had, but none of us completely ruled it out, either), how we dealt with un-PC attitudes like racism and sexism in our old-timey characters, what other historical YA we’d recommend for readers. It was a lively discussion—Heather and Susan are both charming, smart, and funny—and, to my delight, our panel was very well-attended. Considering that Wordstock has multiple stages going every moment, that put the whipped cream on the hot chocolate for me.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see many other authors at this year’s Wordstock. After our panel discussion and book signing, I headed home to de-vintage and pack. For where, you ask? Ah, that’s the next blog post. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

All Is Possible

1. A ridge of high land dividing two areas that are drained by different river systems. Also called water parting.
2. The region draining into a river, river system, or other body of water.
3. A critical point that marks a division or a change of course; a turning point.

However any of us voted, there is no doubt that this is a watershed moment for America. For the rest of my life, I will never forget where I was when the election results were announced, shortly after 8 PM Pacific Time. (For the record: in my living room, having just pulled the made-with-my-own-hands chicken pot pies out of the oven.)

This excerpt from President-elect Obama’s speech moved me the most deeply. Perhaps because I live, and write, in awe of history--not just the grand events, but the lives of the ordinary folks who witness them. Perhaps because I’ve marveled so many times about the incredible changes seen by my own grandmother in the 89 years of her life: from a tiny, poverty-wracked Sicilian village at the turn of the last century, to the the splendors and opportunities of America at the cusp of a new millenium. Whatever the reason, I listened to this with tears:

“…This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. Shes a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing—Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

“She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldnt vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

“And tonight, I think about all that shes seen throughout her century in America—the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

“At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

“When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

“When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

“She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that We Shall Overcome. Yes we can.

“A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

"America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves --if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?”

In their speeches last night, both Obama and McCain emphasized what I most admire and love about this country. That we are a nation founded, not on accidents of genetics or geography, but on universal and enduring principles. That, in service to those ideals, our founders conceived a system of government able to encompass societal changes that they themselves probably could scarcely imagine. That for all our flaws and mistakes, we strive still to be that more perfect union...and when we disagree on how best to attain that goal, we do so peacefully, publicly, and without fear.

That as watershed moments like this attest: In America, all is truly possible.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A PSA for You and Your Dog: Xylitol and Halloween

Have you heard about a food ingredient called xylitol?

Do you know it can kill your dog?

If not, keep reading.

Halloween is almost here. Friday night, the goodie bags are gonna come home full. Saturday, I—and thousands of veterinarians across the country—will be at work, fingers crossed that this year, we won’t see any poisonings.

First on my hit list: Xylitol. Xylitol isn’t the most common pet poisoning out there. But it made the top of my list because it's the least known, and incidents are increasing at an alarming rate. In 2002, only 2 cases were reported to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. In 2007, that number jumped to almost 2,000 cases.

Xylitol is a sugar substitute, found in a wide variety of sugar-free foods, gum, candy, toothpaste, mouthwash, and other products. It’s harmless to people. But in dogs, even a tiny amount causes severely low blood sugar, which can lead to seizures, coma, and possibly death. A slightly larger amount can lead to liver failure, which can also be fatal. How much is a tiny amount? Only one to two sticks of xylitol-sweetened chewing gum can poison a 20-lb dog. One stick of gum killed this little 9-lb terrier.

Since dogs, like us, have a sweet tooth—and since the number and variety of xylitol-containing products is growingplease, please, please keep these products far out of reach. (When I say far out of reach, keep in mind my clients' dogs have rifled purses, wormed into cabinets, chewed open plastic containers, climbed on counters, and--in one case--figured out how to pry open the refrigerator. As one very wise veterinarian I worked for said, “They’ve got nothing to do all day but figure out how to get what they want!”)

And please—spread the word. Here’s a great article that sums up xylitol poisoning, symptoms, and treatment. If you suspect your dog has gotten into xylitol, get off this blog and call your local veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435. Minutes are critical in poisonings. Don’t delay!

Next up: Chocolate. A lot of people do know about this one, but did you know why it’s toxic? The ingredient theobromine. At high enough doses, theobromine causes vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, seizures, and heart arrhythmias. Severe poisonings are potentially fatal. How much chocolate triggers these signs depends on the size of the dog and the type of chocolate. About 8 oz of milk chocolate is toxic for a 20-lb dog, compared to less than 1 oz of baking chocolate.

How common is chocolate toxicity? I don’t have any hard numbers, but I can tell you it’s one of the most common poisonings we see, and it’s surely the number one holiday-associated toxicity. For more information, here's a good article. Although lots of people know about chocolate, lots of others don't, especially kids. So again, keep those Halloween bags way out of reach and spread the word! And again, if you think your dog has ingested chocolate, call your veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center immediately at (888) 426-4435.

Okay, enough spooking of the blog folk! Here's wishing you all happy—and safeHalloween. Bwah-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!!

Monday, October 20, 2008

I, Claudius

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to grow up in a famous family? What privileges and riches you might have, and—more ominously—what expectations you’d have to live up to?
What if you were born to one of the most famous families in history? What if your grandfather was Mark Antony…your step-grandfather, Augustus Caesar…your uncle, Tiberius Caesar. Yeah, no pressure there. Not to mention your father, brother, cousins, and even nephews, all of `em busy morning til night trouncing Germans on the battlefield, being appointed to high office, and generally running the whole damn Roman Empire. While you…oh, my. How to put this gently?
You’re the family idiot. Your own mother treats you as an embarrassment. In a family of massive overachievers, you stammer, your head twitches uncontrollably, you have a congenital limp, and you can’t enter a room without breaking or tripping over something. Your uncle Tiberius quips you could wreck the empire simply by strolling through it.
Unloved by all but a few, the butt of every family joke, and the least likely person anyone can imagine ever ascending the imperial throne, you are Claudius…the fourth emperor of Rome.
Never heard of him? Neither had I, until the first time I saw the BBC miniseries I, Claudius on DVD. I loved it so much, I immediately 1) bought the DVD set for myself, and 2) read the novels on which the series is based: I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves.
Imagined as an autobiography, Claudius tells the story of his family and his own role in it. And what a story! He begins before his birth with Augustus Caesar and his wife, Livia. You think Scarlett O’Hara was sassy? You think Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington was a bitch? Claudius’s grandmother Livia could eat both of them for lunch and not break a sweat. Sweet grandma she was not. Oh, she’d bake you cookies, all right…and then cry convincingly at your funeral. Her one goal: to have her son, Tiberius, succeed his stepfather Augustus as emperor. Here is Tiberius belittling her grand plans:

Tiberius: Anyway, where does all this get us? There's not only Marcellus, there's Agrippa too. And Augustus prefers both of them to me.
Julia, Marcellus’s wife: [Screams off stage] No, noooo!!
Tiberius: Ye gods, what's that?
Livia [calmly serene]: It sounds as though there is now only Agrippa.
And that’s just the first episode. I, Claudius is packed with intrigue, betrayal, passion, and a galaxy of unforgettable characters—the most compelling, Claudius himself*. His only goal is to survive his murderous family and live quietly as a scholar. (Hard to do when one of your nephews grows up to be the infamous Caligula). Not only does Claudius not want the throne, he’s opposed to the very idea of the monarchy. He longs for the vanished days of the Roman republic, when the people ruled themselves, free of king or emperor. How he ends up exactly where he doesn’t want to be—and what happens when he gets there—makes for 10 hours of some of the best television ever made.

Senator: You're not fit to be Emperor.
Claudius: I agree. But nor was my nephew [Caligula].
Senator: Then what difference is there between you?
Claudius: He would not have agreed. And by now, your head would be on that floor for saying so.
Having seen it now approximately eleventy-three times (I’m watching it again as we speak) I can tell you with authority: I, Claudius is a gem you cannot miss.
*Claudius is played by the amazing Derek Jacobi (before he was a Sir). And yes, that is Patrick Stewart—Captain Picard himself—in one of his early roles, the ambitious and dastardly Sejanus. If I ran the universe, though, the biggest award ever made would go to Sian Phillips. Her Livia is a masterpiece: pure ruthlessness seething under a façade of grace, modesty, and impeccable moral rectitude. Livia insists everything she does is for the good of Rome. She truly believes she is right…and that, somehow, makes for the most heart-chilling evil of all.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Pop Quiz: Romance Novel Edition

OK, everyone, quiz time: What's wrong with this cover?
If you figure it out, and you want a shot at winning the actual book (or a gift certificate to the online bookstore of your choice) then skip on over to Smart Bitches Trashy Books and enter their caption contest. (Think fast...entries close tomorrow). Best caption gets the book. Second and third best get the gift certificates. (Which begs the question: If you're not a romance novel fan, how do you engineer a caption to be the almost funniest?)
If any of you win, let me know and I'll post it on the blog!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Word a Day...Here to Rock Your World

If you’re a word nut like me, you need to know about A Word A Day. Sign up for its newsletter, and every morning a new word arrives in your email inbox. (yay! hands clapping)

The subscription is free, and it runs forever until you tell it to stop. AWAD is a veritable fountain of verbal fun—plus, you learn stuff you never suspected. Take yesterday’s word:


MEANING: noun: A design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary. For example, the click sound of a shutter in an analog camera that is now reproduced in a digital camera by playing a sound clip. (boldface mine).

That familiar, comforting click…is a sound clip?

My world is rocked. I know the word for those useless metal rivets on my jeans. Hmmm. We'll call it a draw. (Apple fritters are still real, right? I can deal with fake clicky noises...just tell me the apple fritters are still genuine.)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Cybils

So you know all those kidlit blogger types I’ve been telling you about? Seems that a couple of years ago, they organized an award for children’s literature. Called the Cybils (Childrens’ and YA Bloggers’ Literary Awards), the competition is designed to incorporate the populism of the internet with a celebration of literary merit. The public is invited to nominate their favorite children’s or YA books, but to keep the award from being a mere popularity contest (like the late Quills), panels of children’s and YA lit bloggers then read the nominated books and choose the ones they feel are the best. I checked out the 2007 list and found books I’d never heard of—but which look amazing. (My next trip to the bookstore, I have my list, and Boy Toy by Barry Lyga is at the top.)
The Cybils is only in its third year, so if you or someone you know is a fan of kidlit, spread the word. And if you read a children’s or YA book this year that you adored, skip on over to the nominations and let them know. Nominations close October 15th!*

(In case you’re wondering, Ten Cents a Dance has already been nominated—thanks for asking, and whoo hoo!)

*Here’s the Official Fine Print, but in short (read the following very fast, in the tone of one of those prescription medication commercial guys): To be eligible, the book must have been published between Jan 1, 2008 and Oct 15, 2008, must be in English (or bilingual), and only one nomination per genre per person. Books may be nominated in these genres: Easy Readers, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fiction Picture Books, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade Novels, Non-Fiction Middle Grade/Young Adult Books, Non-Fiction Picture Books, Poetry, Young Adult Novels. The Cybils will not cause drowsiness, headache, intestinal distress, hair on your palms, dropsy, or myopia.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Kidlit 08, Part II: In Which Our Heroine Imparts an Epiphany

In no particular order, here are some things I absorbed at the Kidlit Bloggers Conference last week. This is far from a comprehensive rundown of All I Witnessed, as I didn't want to go all book-report-y on you…but it’s a pretty good sampling of what the conference was about.

From Mark of Just One More Book on podcasting:
Most people have 3 concerns that keep them from podcasting: content, context, and delivery.

Podcasting is simple and doesn’t require a lot of fancy equipment. In fact, Mark and his wife, Andrea, record their podcasts at a local coffee shop.

From Gregory K. of GottaBook on self promotion:
Set yourself up for the happy accident. Meaning, small things can lead to big results—you just don’t know when or how.

When titling your blog posts, use strong words that people might be searching for. For example, Gregory posted a poem about soccer and titled it “Goal: A Soccer Poem.” This post gets 8000 hits a year from people searching for soccer poetry. (Which leads to a whole different set of questions…but I digress).

Above all, add value for others. Offer something without expecting anything in return.

From Pam of MotherReader on kicking your blog up a notch:
Blogging is about being part of a community. In order to foster conversation, bloggers should be reading and actively commenting on other blogs in their community. (In other words, don’t ignore everyone else, then complain about how nobody comments on your blog.)

That said, MotherReader noted that overall, comments are way, way down. Theories abound, but she speculates it’s due to the mushrooming number of blogs out there.

Focus on: “I have something of interest to offer,” not “I’m interesting—look at me!”

Discover your niche. Who are you, and what can you bring to the conversation?

Of all the topics at the conference, this is the one that resonated most for me. I’ve blogged before about the purpose of an author blog, how I got started, why I keep going. But I felt that the blog lacked focus. I’d heard the advice “find your niche," a dozen times, but it hadn’t really clicked. This time—maybe because I was spending the entire day with people who think about this a lot—it did. Who am I…besides veterinarian or writer? Underneath those things— the rock-bottom reason I ended up in both those careers—I love to learn. When I come across something that interests me, I get all fascinated and geeky and start talking really loud and waving my hands, because it doesn’t ever occur to me that everyone else won’t be just as thrilled as I am that dinosaurs turned out to have four-chambered hearts, which is HUGE evidence that they are the ancestors of birds, not reptiles (because reptiles have only three chambers in their hearts. AHA! God, that’s cool.)

I love to share what I learn, too, which is how I ended up teaching part-time at a community college for ten years. And the best thing is, I can think of at least a dozen different ways to take that sharing into the blog, which is good because, while I am easily fascinated, I am also easily bored. (My posts will not all be about dinosaur hearts, I assure you).

We'll see what happens. Don’t be shy about letting me know what you think.

What better way to close out this post than a kidlit fashion video, from Betsy of A Fuse #8 Production? (No, I’m not in it. Maybe, by next year, I’ll have learned something about fashion. Doubtful...but stranger things have happened.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Kidlit 08!

I can't even remember now how I found out about the 2008 Kidlit Bloggers Conference; but as soon as I did, I asked for that day off work so that I could attend. Because:
1) I've been thinking a lot over the past several months about how I can improve this blog--especially how to make it less random and more focused, and thus less like my actual brain tumbling out onto the internet, complete with dust bunnies and odd knick-knacks, like that tiny china box my best friend in 7th grade gave me for my birthday that's too small to put anything in and yet which I can't bring myself to throw Focus! *ahem* Carrying on:
2) It sounded like a great opportunity to meet children's lit bloggers in the actual world, instead of just reading and lurking in their online haunts, which is what I normally do; and:
3) It just so happened to take place in my hometown of Portland, OR.
So, bright and early Saturday morning, I joined several dozen folks in a hotel meeting room and settled in for what turned out to be a fabulous day of blogtalk and kidlit. I've attended a lot of conferences (both veterinary medicine and writing), and this was the one of the very few I've been to in which every presentation was both informative and entertaining. Not to mention, these folks are smart, funny, opinionated, and passionate about both children's literature and the art of spreading kidlit love in the online world, and consequently they're a kick and a half to spend time with.
Who are these passionate people? The Kidlit site has a list of attendees (with links to their conference blog posts, complete with photos!), but in general they're a delightful mix of children's literature book reviewers, librarians, book illustrators, and authors (both published and pre-published). Most wear more than one hat, some work in day jobs far removed from children's books, and for almost everyone, blogging about kidlit is a labor of love that pays back only in intangibles.
I'll post some specifics about what I learned a little later...but for now, major kudos to Laini Taylor and Jone Rush MacCulloch, the conference organizers, and to all the presenters. Next year's conference will be in Washington D.C...I'm already scheming ways to get there!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Summer of A Suitable Boy

I remember summers not so much by what I did, but by what I read. I read a ton, usually two or three novels going at a time...but almost always, when the summer is over, one will stand out in my memory. There's the summer of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. The summer of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. And then there was the summer I read hardly anything, because I was under a deadline, but every day when I reached the point of brain fry-age, when all original thought had been dredged up and consumed, I watched one of the “Making Of” videos on myLord of the Rings DVDs. There are a lot of them. Then, when I’d seen them all, I watched them again. For some reason, at that point in my life, listening to screenwriters and actors and directors and artists talk in endless detail about story and the creative process and setbacks and breakthroughs was both soothing and inspiring. (Especially since, of course, it was LotR, and you knew it was all going to turn out great in the end.)

This summer has been the summer of A Suitable Boy.

I plucked the book off a bookstore shelf in June. I hadn’t heard of it before, I didn’t know anybody else who’d read it. Entirely impulse. Skimmed the first two pages and was instantly entranced. So what if it had 1,472 more pages after those first two? What else is summer for?

A Suitable Boy is set in 1951 India, just a few years after the country won its independence from Britain. It's about a young woman, Lata, and her family's search to find her "a suitable boy" to marry. (Lata has ideas of her own, of course--and thereupon hangs the tale.) The novel follows four families, at least a dozen major characters, has I don’t even know how many plot threads...and yet the author, Vikram Seth, weaves it all together so beautifully that not once did I confuse characters or storylines. Almost every page is a marvel of storytelling. And, an even more amazing feat—Seth wrapped all those storylines into a beautiful, fitting, and entirely satisfying ending. A Suitable Boy is now one of my favorite all-time books. It’s made the desert-island list, and that’s the highest recommendation I can make. If you love a big, gorgeous family epic, a fictional world you can immerse yourself in for a long, thoroughly enjoyable time, then run do not walk to your nearest bookstore and get you a copy and take it home and dive in.
If you don't think A Suitable Boy will float your boat (hey, no judgement here--I'm one of two people in the entire country who didn't like Cold Mountain) then check out The Chick Manifesto's list of "Top Ten Hopefully Unfamiliar Books," parts one and two. Any list that contains both Rosemary's Baby and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has to have something for everyone. (Plus they included A Princess Bride, which is another personal desert island pick, and if the island has a DVD player, I'm bringing the movie, too, because this is seriously the best book-to-movie adaptation ever made. Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright (before she was Robin Wright-Penn), the best swordfight in all of moviedom, and the immortal line: "I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.")
Compelling characters. Fascinating worlds. Action. Passion. What's not to love?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Wop Bam Boom!

One of my best adventures in book promotion has been getting to know local booksellers. Now, Portland authors are lucky. Most places I’ve lived, there’s one national chain bookstore and (maybe) one used bookstore. Here, in addition to the usual suspects (Barnes & Noble, Borders), there are at least a dozen indies: St. Johns Booksellers, Broadway Books, Annie Bloom’s Books, Looking Glass Bookstore, In Other Words, and A Children's Place, Portland's indie bookstore just for kids. Not to mention we've got bragging rights to the biggest, baddest indie in the whole worldPowell’s Bookstore, which takes up an entire downtown city block in four-story, rambling, book-lovin' grandeur.

Everyone advises new authors to go out and build relationships with booksellers. When Tallulah Falls pubbed, I had no idea how to do this. My idea of shopping for anything--books, clothes, dog food--involves the least amount of interaction with actual people. I’m introverted, shy, and convinced that merely asking the location of something is inexcusably bothersome. In other words, I have a classic author’s temperament. Introduce myself? Couldn’t I just jump off a bridge and save everyone the trouble?

But to my relief—and delight—the booksellers I’ve met have been nothing but kind, encouraging, and supportive. At A Children's Place, Kira loads me up with recommended titles to expand my YA reading education. Roberta at Broadway Books hosted a Tallulah Falls reading for dogs and their owners which was a woofin’ good time. The good folks at Powell’s made both Tallulah Falls and Ten Cents a Dance recommended staff picks. And wonderful Nena and Liz at St. Johns Booksellers not only threw the launch party of my dreams for Ten Cents a Dance, but have continued to handsell the book to success; it’s now the #2 bestselling hardcover in the history of the store, second only to one of the Harry Potters. (Confound you, J.K. Rowling!)

The thing is, very few authors break out on the national scene. Most of us have to work just to become known locally; with luck, more books, and a lot more work, we hope to gain wider recognition and a wider audience. Good relationships with booksellers help. But that relationship is a two-way street, something we authors sometimes forget. Bookstores don’t exist to support our egos. They exist to sell books, bless ‘em, an increasingly difficult endeavor in the age of and videogames. I subscribe to 2 daily newsletters, one on the publishing industry and one on the bookselling business, and almost every week yet another independent bookstore gives notice that it’s closing its doors.

What's the best thing an author can do? Support his local brick-and-mortar store. Buy books there. Attend author events besides her own. Get to know the booksellers. Not just as a means to promote one’s own titles, but because booksellers are some of the coolest, sharpest, most knowledgeable folks you’ll ever meet. And they love books.

Authors and booksellers...we go together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga a dong, We're for each other like A wop ba-ba lu-mop and wop bam boom!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wait...I Know It's Around Here Somewhere...

One assumption I think most aspiring authors make is that when their book is published, bookstores will carry it. That’s the whole point, right? Writing the manuscript, landing an agent, signing a contract with a publisher…all milestones on the road that lead to an actual book in an actual bookstore which a real, live, actual reader (or ten thousand) will pick up, fall in love with, and buy.

Fadeout to unicorn puppy heart rainbows.


Reality hits when you, Newly Published Author, walk into your local bookstore (trying to look casual—will the booksellers recognize you from your jacket photo?) and saunter to the shelf where your book will be. You know where your book will be, of course, because you’ve pictured it a thousand times in the months leading up to this day. You scan the titles, and…hm. Scan again, this time looking for your name.

Wait a minute. Where is it? You ask the clerk, who looks it up on her computer. “We’re not carrying it,” she tells you, “but we’ll be happy to order it for you.”

“Um, no, thanks,” you say, and you flee.* And then you email your agent in a panic. “What happened?” you electronically wail.

What happened, O Best Beloved,** is that bookstores can’t carry every book that’s published. They simply don’t have room. Shelf space is limited, and the number of books vying for that space is huge.

Huge? you say. C’mon, now. You’re a novelist. You exaggerate for a living.

OK, smartypants, get this. On the day Ten Cents a Dance was released, thirty-four other young adult titles were also published. Thirty-four. Not in the same month, or even the same week. The same day. And we’re talking only young adult titles. That’s not counting adult mainstream, mystery, romance, sci-fi, or any variation of non-fiction.

You see the problem.

If you’re an aspiring author, know that your publisher’s sales reps and your editor will go to bat for you. But if a big national chain declines to carry your book, what then? Weep copious tears, rend your garments? Gnash teeth? Curse the universe?

Please. Get over it. And get busy. That goes for you, too, Miss My-Book-Is-Being-Carried-In-Every-Bookstore-In-The-Country. You don’t get a pass; in fact, your work may be even harder.

Next post: Authors and Booksellers, or, What Have You Done For Me Lately? (Hint: I’m not talking about the booksellers.)

*Not that this ever happened to me. Well, OK, yes. It did. Pretty much just like that, except I was too embarrassed to ask the clerk, so my sweetie had to do it.

**Apologies to Rudyard Kipling. If you haven’t read the Just So Stories, then do. Kipling plays with the English language like a puppy with a ball, and the result is whimsical, magical fun. But gee, where's the best place to get a copy? If you're an aspiring author, and you can't guess the answer to that one, you most definitely MUST read the next post. There may just be a pop quiz.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

This Is How I Know I'm Not From Here

Yesterday’s weather forecast from Oregon Public Broadcasting:
“Very pleasant at the coast today: Overcast, with highs 65 to 75 degrees.”

Leave it to the state that invented the term “sun break” (as in, “showers most of the day, occasional sun breaks in the afternoon”) to consider "very pleasant" a cloudy, cool day at the AUGUST.

Off the beaten path. That's Oregon.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Worducopia Review & Interview!

Last month I spoke to Willamette Writers , Oregon's largest writers' organization, about writing young adult fiction. Afterward I had the pleasure of meeting several of the members, including Ali, who is currently working on her own novel. After Ali read (and reviewed!) both Tallulah Falls and Ten Cents a Dance for her blog, Worducopia, she asked if I'd be willing to do an interview. Ali had a singular knack for zeroing in on the issues I struggled most with while writing this book. Kudos to her for asking in-depth, thought-provoking questions...this was one of the best interviews I've had.

Thanks, rock!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"God Bless You and All Your Loved Ones"

Until last week, I never knew Roger’s last name. He’s always just been Roger, the guy who sells Portland’s Street Roots newspaper in front of Trader Joe’s. My sweetie and I have seen him every week, in every weather, for the five years we’ve been shopping there.
"Good morning, you two,” he says, as we walk up to the store.
“Morning, Roger,” we answer. “How’s it going?” or “Nice weather, huh?” (in an appropriately ironic tone—this is Portland, after all). On the way out of the store, we stop and buy a paper. Street Roots is a local, grassroots newspaper covering issues relating to the homeless and working poor. Its vendors are homeless; selling Street Roots gives them an income. Vendors have established spots around town, and if you’re in Portland any length of time, you’ll meet them. “Sorry, I bought this one from Roger at Trader Joe’s,” I always tell the guy at Powell’s Books. He nods and smiles. Roger has some loyal customers.
“I’ve got a poem in this issue,” Roger might tell us. “Page five.” We shoot the breeze for a couple of minutes. He tells us about his family sometimes, how his parents are still going strong in their eighties. We tell him what we’re up to the rest of the day. As we turn to go, he says, without fail, “God bless you, and all your loved ones.” It never sounds rote; it sounds, every time, as though he means it from his heart.
“You, too,” we say, and wave. “See you next week.”
If only one of us shows up, Roger invariably sends his regards to whichever of us is missing. The only exception came at a time when, between my writing deadlines and my boyfriend's work, our schedules were so nutty that only one of us could get away do the shopping. Roger still said hi just as warmly, but after a couple of weeks, he stopped asking after whichever of us wasn’t there. After almost two months, things finally calmed down, and we again appeared at Trader Joe’s together. Roger was visibly relieved. “There you both are!” he said.
“Thought we broke up?” my boyfriend asked.
“I was a little worried,” Roger said, and grinned.
Last week, a different vendor was in front of Trader Joe’s. On the way out of the store, we stopped and bought a paper. “Where’s Roger this week?” I asked. The vendor was handing me the paper; he turned it over, and pointed to a headline.
Roger had passed away in his sleep, in the downtown hotel room he’d occupied for years. When he didn’t show up at Trader Joe’s, his customers left messages at the Street Roots office, asking if he was OK. It’s only now, reading articles about him, that I’ve learned he was a star pitcher in high school with the talent to go pro, and alcoholism that kept him from getting there. I’ve learned he was only 60 years old. I’ve learned his last name was Gates. I still don’t know the rest of his story, beyond the bits and pieces he'd shared with us over the years. I know that he’d endured hard miles; that you could tell by looking at him. I know he had a patient and gentle kindness that he extended freely; I know he believed all people were worthy of love; I know he looked on each day as a gift.
We miss his warmth, his smile, his humor and his unshakeable optimism. We’re grateful that our lives intersected, if only briefly, once a week in front of Trader Joe’s.
God bless you and all your loved ones, Roger. May you rest in peace.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Public Service Announcement Brought To You By...

Spent a lovely morning being the guest author at a summer creative writing course for middle graders. Creatures after my own heart! I would’ve loved to have taken a class like this when I was that age. Writing might’ve given veterinary medicine a run for its money years earlier…

This was the second presentation I’ve given this month. In August, I’m speaking to a women’s philanthropic organization; in October, at a school librarian conference; and I’ll be reading at Wordstock, Portland’s literary festival, in November. With the help of my publicist, I hope to line up several more gigs in the next year. I'm an inveterate introvert (say that five times fast) but oddly enough, I love talking to groups. Good thing, because public speaking is a great way for authors to raise awareness of their books.

Supposedly, more people are afraid of public speaking than death. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know lots of folks who would rather clean cat litterboxes ad infinitum rather than step behind a podium.

Much of what I learned about speaking in public came from ten years teaching part-time at a local community college. Lectures are, after all, a form of performance art; present them well, and you’ve got your students hooked. (I once briefly considered a career in veterinary epidemiology based solely on one professor’s lectures, which were mostly riveting stories about fighting pestilence the length and breadth of California. He made it sound like modern-day knight-errantry, and I was ready to snatch up the banner…until I found out it would take an additional two years of graduate school. That took the shine off the sword pretty quick). On the other hand, if you present your material poorly, you can actually hurt your cause. So if the thought of public speaking leaves you a-shiver, these tidbits might help:

1. First, foremost and always: Remember that your audience wants to like you. After all, who goes to an event hoping to have a bad time? You have their goodwill from the start; meet them at least halfway, and they’ll be pulling for you to do well.

2. Tailor your talk to your audience. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Earlier this month, I spoke about writing YA to a writers’ organization. In October, I’ll be speaking on the same topic to the school librarians. Two different audiences; two different sets of audience expectations; similar material, but presented two different ways to meet those expectations.

3. Keep eye contact. Don’t just gaze aimlessly in the general direction of the audience, but actually catch and hold individuals’ eyes for a second or two each. Never forget: you’re talking to them, not at them. Eye contact is huge.

4. Which means: you simply can’t read from notes. Practice ahead of time, and then practice some more. This doesn’t mean memorizing, because trying to recite from memory will kill your presentation. But know your main points. Certainly you’ll want to bring notes; I print mine out in 18-point type, one or two paragraphs per page (makes it easy to glance down if I need a memory jog). But be familiar enough with your material that you don’t need to read directly from them. Head up, eyes on your audience, and…

5. Please, for heaven’s sake, don’t speak in a monotone. Are you interested in your own material? I certainly hope so—because if you’re not, nobody else will be. Let your interest show through your voice and expression. Passion is contagious! Don’t be afraid that you might look funny. I’ve had pictures taken of me in which I look practically certifiable—hands thrown in the air, mouth wide open and eyebrows halfway to the moon—but people consistently tell me how much they enjoy my energy.

6. I learned early on with students, and the same holds true now: your audience doesn’t expect you to be perfect. But they do expect you to be genuine.

7. People love stories. Stories are gold. Funny stories (pertaining to your material, of course) are whole big treasure chests. If you’re not sure the story is funny to anyone other than you, though, try it out first on your most honest friend. Better to leave the funny out, rather than have to explain it to a bunch of confused-looking people.

8. When you’re practicing, time yourself. Know to the minute how long your presentation is. Another practice tip: visualize yourself giving the talk. Speak out loud to get used to the sound of your voice; use the inflections and gestures you’ll use during the presentation; practice your breathing. The more prepared you are, the more you’ll be able to…

9. Relax. You’re prepped, passionate, and rehearsed. The audience is on your side. Step up to the podium, take that first deep breath…and take it away.

Monday, July 14, 2008


OK, it’s been a little more than a week. And this post is not about public speaking, as I’d previously promised. Mice and men and gang agley and all that. It’s summer. Go with it.

The ins and outs of public speaking will be coming soon. But first, Melissa Marsh of Grosvenor Square has nominated me for a Blogging Excellence Award. I’m flattered, and really don’t think I deserve it. But—never one to turn down a pat on the back—I’ll take it!

Here are blogs that I nominate in turn:

Smart Bitches Trashy Books. I’m not currently a romance reader, although I’ve devoured a few in my day. But this blog is on my daily rounds, because these gals dish it up straight and are hilariously funny to boot. In addition to reviewing romance novels, they provide insights on pop culture, snarky analysis of romance covers (Warnings: Has Profanity. Not Work Safe. Do Not Read While Drinking a Beverage or You’ll Be Replacing Your Keyboard), and even, when warranted, investigative journalism into plagiarism and the mating habits of the black-footed ferret.

Pub Rants. Written by Kristen Nelson, a very nice woman who happens to be an up-and-coming literary agent. Her daily (or rather, nightly) take on the business of publishing is a must-read. Other literary agents’ blogs that are top of the heap: Nathan Bransford and BookEnds Literary Agency.

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. J.A. Konrath is a mystery writer, and no, I don’t read mysteries, either. But if you want to read about book promotion from an author who’s dived in feet-first and not yet come up for air, this blog is it. Konrath is the inexhaustible king of self-promotion, and he doesn’t just talk about it. He does it, and invites his readers along for the ride, whether he’s figuring out how to get on the conference circuit or engaging in a three-month, cross-country quest to personally visit 500 bookstores. He dispenses tons of information, his opinions are strong, the comment threads can go from fawning to contentious in the blink of an eye—all ingredients for great blogging.

barista brat. I don’t even remember how I discovered barista brat, but I’m a devotee. As a longtime Starbucks employee, her take on the world of the green apron is often amused, sometimes annoyed, occasionally bitter—but always fresh. On hiatus for three months, she’s back at last. If you’ve ever worked (or you currently do) in a service profession, and you’ve ever longed for karmic justice to be dispensed on an unpardonably rude customer, you must read this post.

The Heart of the Matter. Barry Eisler has been a lot of things: a corporate executive, an attorney, a covert something in the CIA (what exactly isn’t clear from his bio—I imagine that’s the covert part) and a writer. He’s the author of the John Rain series of thrillers (um, no…I don’t read thrillers, either. Stop asking me) but his blog is not book- or publishing-related. It’s about politics, and far from the ever-popular pasttime of slinging insults and reducing complex issues to soundbites, his blog posts are well-reasoned and insightful. I don’t always agree with him, but I’m always interested in what he has to say.

Up next: public speaking. Pinky swear, I promise.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Get on the Bus, Y'All--It's Adventure Time!

If there’s one thing that new or aspiring authors hear over and over again, it’s that we must actively promote our books.

But wait a minute, many authors say. Promotion is the publisher’s job, not mine.

It’s true that your publisher will put together a publicity and marketing plan for your book, just as it does for every title it produces. But plans vary widely, depending on—among other things—the subject matter of the book and the amount of time and money the publisher has to spend. At a minimum, your book will be included in the publisher’s catalog and sent out for reviews. The in-house publicist might be able to arrange some media coverage, maybe some local events. But if you’re a new author with no audience (yet), don’t start packing your bags. That national tour most likely ain’t happening.

So then what? The answer from most publishing folks these days is: take off the writer’s hat and put on the self-promotion one. Because now that your book is written, rewritten, edited, rewritten again, designed, and on the shelf…it’s time to get to work.

Not everyone is unanimous on this point. Well-known agent Donald Maass, for example, dismisses the notion of authors promoting their books. In his writer’s guide, Writing the Breakout Novel, he contends that the best way for a writer to sell books isn’t by going around tooting her own horn, but by focusing on writing the best damn books she can manage. Write a novel people want to read, he says, and the rest will take care of itself.

Donald Maass notwithstanding (and I love ya, Donald, really I do—yours is a refreshing, soothing voice, and lord I wish I could believe you), most of us grit our teeth and roll up our sleeves, if for no other reason than we believe in our books and we want to give them the best chance possible. The problem is, most writers—myself included—start out having no clue what to do. (If we did, we’d probably be in sales, and making a lot more money). The possibilities seem endless—and endlessly expensive, in either time or money. Should I spend $2000 on a book trailer? Another $1500 on a website? Scrape together thousands for a freelance publicist? Devote hours every week to MySpace and Facebook? Write a blog? An article for the local paper? Comment on other people’s blogs? Drive to every bookstore in a 50-mile radius to sign stock and meet booksellers? Should I bring cookies? Homemade or store-bought? What about milk?

Having now studied these burning questions for two years (and having actually done some of them) I herewith inaugurate another periodic series* on this blog: My Adventures in Book Promotion!

And just to kick the series off right: Watch this hilarious book trailer from author Dennis Cass (hilarious, because it is so painfully true...)

Next week: The One Thing People Fear More Than Death, and How to Deal (without actually dying).

*In case you missed it, the first periodic series was called From Manuscript to Finished Book. Click here for the first post in that series.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I'm Still Gadding About...

...being interviewed by the wonderful Tasha at her blog, And Another Book Read. Click here for the interview, and here for her review of Ten Cents a Dance. Thanks Tasha, for the fun questions!

Next week I'll give my social butterfly wings a rest, and settle back home a while...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Guest Blog over at the RAVENous Reader!

The RAVENous Reader invited me to guest blog for her, and I was delighted to oblige. Trot on over for my thoughts on inspiration, and the story of how Ten Cents a Dance got its start. You can also check out RAVENous Reader's review (suffice to say, she has impeccable taste. Thanks, RAVENous!)

Monday, June 09, 2008


That's what they're calling the outcome of last Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

If you follow the blog, you know I've watched the Triple Crown races ever since I was a little kid. Now that I work every Saturday, "watch" takes on a slightly different meaning. Getting a break during work almost never happens, so most times I catch the race later that night on the Internet.

But this past Saturday, I actually had the day off. (Long story). At 3:30 PM I was settled on the couch, surrounded by snoozing animals, watching Big Brown lead the parade to the post. His most serious rival, Casino Drive, had been scratched from the race that morning, and none of the other horses were thought to be a threat. After a 30-year drought, it seemed almost inevitable that in just a few minutes, the Crown would fall onto Big Brown's big, handsome head. Finally!

Sure enough, shortly after the start, his jockey got him positioned in the number 3 spot on the outside, perfectly poised to make his move when the right moment came. As the horses came around the final turn, you could see the jockey asking for the tremendous, track-eating burst of speed that was Big Brown's hallmark in the previous two races.

Nothing happened.

The frontrunner, a long shot named Da'Tara, began opening up his lead. Three lengths...four...five... and Da'Tara swept under the finish line, having led wire-to-wire over the entire 1-1/2 miles, a rare feat in a race this long.

After Eight Belles lost her life in this year's Kentucky Derby, and Barbaro his after a devastating injury in the 2006 Preakness, my first thought (and I'm sure, everyone's first thought) was that Big Brown had been hurt. Thankfully, he wasn't. In post-race interviews, his jockey said that he had "no horse" under him; when he asked Big Brown to move, the horse simply didn't have it in him. At that point, the jockey--wisely, in my opinion--eased him up. Big Brown finished last.

Was Da'Tara that superior a horse? Nope. The only other time the two had raced together, three months ago in the Florida Derby, Big Brown had beaten Da'Tara by 23 lengths. So what happened Saturday? Big Brown showed no sign of lameness or soreness after the race, so the patched quarter crack in his left front foot doesn't seem to be to blame. Was it the heat? Getting dirt kicked in his face for the first time in his career? Could he just plain not handle 3 grueling races in 5 weeks? We'll probably never know; even the people closest to him may never know.

And that, my friends, is why they call it horse racing.

In all the hoopla before the Belmont, and all the head-scratching afterward, though, an important issue came to light--the use of anabolic steroids in racehorses. They're legal in most states, and Big Brown's trainer routinely uses them.*

Should racehorses be given steroids? I say no. It ought to be illegal, and I'm glad that more states are now considering banning their use. I have a few more suggestions for the racing industry, but if the steroids get thrown out, that's a start.

So the Triple Crown drought continues. And while Big Brown's people are surely sorely disappointed, one of his owners, Michael Iavarone, had this to say: “I love this horse. I’ve grown tremendously attached to this horse emotionally. I wanted him to know he could run dead last or first and we would still love him.”


*Although he withdrew Big Brown's usual dose a couple of weeks before the Belmont, in order to prove that his horse could win without the drug. Did that contribute to Big Brown's defeat? The equine veterinarians I've listened to say probably not. Still, it's another thing we'll never know.