Thursday, December 02, 2010

Purr and Prejudice

Now, you all know I like me some Jane Austen. And I do adore cats. So this recent discovery, which I am about to impart to you, made me squee with delight. Yes, for those of us who like a little purr with their prejudice...

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

...we now have AustenCats. In the words of site founders Debbie Guyol and Pamela Jane, Chick Lit has finally met Kit Lit; in others of their words, this is where the adorable meets the absurd. Go to gawk, but don't be shy; they've set up the site so you can join in, too. If your cat is a Pride and Prejudice character reincarnated (in a higher form, naturally) you can upload and caption a photo of your own. They're even hosting a Mr. Darcy-cat Contest. If you're an Austenite or a cat fanatic, or you simply like a little preposterousness with your afternoon tea, skip on over. And may Austen Mania--in all its endless variations--continue to reign!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Club Love

One thing I'm thankful for: A really vibrant, enthusiastic online community for young adult lit. Today, I'm thrilled to be the visiting author at one of the best all-around YA sites: Kudos to TRT founder Jen for asking delightfully original interview questions, designed to bring out the inner weird (admittedly, not too difficult to do with me.)

If you'd like a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Ten Cents a Dance, stop by and leave a comment. Or if you'd rather, just relish the weird.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pilgrim's Progress

When I finished the first draft of my new novel back in September, I issued myself a challenge: Finish the second draft in 2 months.

As any of you who still follow this blog can attest--and as anyone who knows me in real life can certainly attest--the past 8 weeks have been spent either at the day job or writing that second draft. I have not blogged. I have barely emailed. Facebook has forgotten who I am, my Twitter account is adrift. Don't even start with me about letters. Go Fug Yourself has not been perused for fashion disasters, the cats of ICanHasCheezburger gambol in vain for my attention. New Yorker magazines pile up unread; yea, even unto the cartoons they are ignored. As far as the house goes...well, thankfully, none of us are allergic to dust. It's cozy here under my rock, is what I'm saying. And yet...

...I'm not done.

If writing this novel has a theme, it's me giving myself crap deadlines. Not that two months isn't a reasonable amount of time for a second draft. I picked two months because a) I finished the second draft of Ten Cents a Dance in that amount of time, and b) two months would make it exactly one year since I started the novel. What can I say? I like a nice round number.

What I didn't count on, this time around, was how much brand-new writing would be involved. All revision drafts include some new stuff. But thanks to an epiphany late in the first draft, the front end of the current novel needed some seriously heavy-duty overhauls. New scenes, new chapters. A whole new character. Not that I'm complaining, heaven forfend. On the contrary, I'm loving it. Loving the process, loving the results. Every writing day, I sit down at the computer with mug of white hot chocolate and am just stinkin' grateful that I get to do this.

So what's the new deadline, you ask? Ah, I won't say. I do have one. I'll let you know when I get there. One foot in front of the other, avoid the Slough of Despond, and I'll see you at the finish line. Oh, and here too, in the meantime. Cool stuff to tell you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Where the Magic Happens

Hm. Bit quiet around here lately. *dusts off chair* In the 4-1/2 years of this blog, it's rare that I've gone a whole month without a post. Lots of reasons why, which I'll tell you about soon. But I'm jumping back in today because this Wednesday, fellow writer Melissa Marsh will be blogging about the places writers do their work, with links to everyone's posts on their own personal writing havens. As a devotee of HGTV (what can I say? I can't resist poking my nose in stranger's houses) I'm curious to see how other writers arrange their work space.

Which means, of course, that you get to peek in mine.

Virginia Woolf wrote about a room of one's own. I feel most fortunate--I have not just a room, but a whole house to write in. We've lived here my entire writing career, and in that time I've wandered quite a bit.

I started out in the logical place: my office.

The office is home to two overcrowded bookcases, cat beds, dog beds, cases of printer paper, stacks of books that don't fit in the bookcases, stacks of novel chapters with comments from my writing group, office supplies (my 3-hole punch and paper cutter are dear to my heart), stacks of research materials for whatever novel I'm currently working on, a footlocker stuffed to bursting with research materials from previous novels, an old scratched up dresser containing our paltry selection of house linens, a sloping ceiling, cat hair, dog hair, and a desk with computer and peripherals. It has only one window facing north, which in Portland means that it's dark in here most of the time. (I've spent years dreaming of a skylight. Someday...) This office is where I wrote the many drafts of my first novel, Tallulah Falls, plus a chunk of my second novel. And then...

...we purchased a new laptop. A laptop that was actually functional. And suddenly, the entire house was my oyster.

I wrote most of the second book, Ten Cents a Dance, on the futon couch in our living room with my feet up on the coffee table. I liked the open space and the light pouring through the windows.

My animals liked the fact that they were no longer on measly pet beds on the floor, but now up on the couch with me. Before:


As far as they were concerned, this was definitely an improvement in the daily routine.

The abandoned third book was also mostly written here. When I set it aside, and moved on to the next third book, a change in venue seemed in order. (Plus, that couch was starting to hurt my back.) So I migrated upstairs.

My sweetie gave me this rocking chair, complete with cozy afghan, for Christmas one year. I've done copyediting here, and for years, whenever I got stuck and couldn't figure my way out of a writing dilemma, this was my go-to spot. I would leave the laptop behind, grab my notebook and a pen, and head up here for a brainstorming session. The chair is magic; the chair always works.

These days, this corner of our bedroom is my writing space. With the afghan pulled up over my lap and a mug of hot white chocolate on the windowsill, I'm in writing bliss. The animals aren't sad over my defection from the couch, because they simply moved onto the bed. (Less crowded for me, which is a relief. Typing with a cat draped across your wrists is a serious challenge.)

If I need a change, I'll pop back to one of my old haunts. Occasionally I'll set up shop at the kitchen table. But the rocking chair is where my third novel sprouted and continues to bloom. (Speaking of which--and thank you for asking!--I'm well into those 2nd draft revisions. More on that later.)

So this is where I work. If you'd like to take a gander at other writers' spaces (I know I do!), don't forget to head over to Melissa's this Wednesday, October 20th!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Last week, I typed these two little words--


--and completed the first draft of my novel-in-progress.

Big deal? YES. Because I've been in first draft hell for 3 years, more or less. (When it comes to these sorts of things, a slightly fuzzy memory is essential to one's self-esteem.)

I spent the bigger chunk of that time wrestling with a historical novel I just couldn't make work. I still love the story idea. I still think it could be a good book someday. But in its current form, it's missing something deep and vital, some unknown thing that would set my heart pounding. My gut knew this almost from the beginning; but for a long, long time, I refused to listen. Even after I did start paying attention to that uneasy feeling, I spent months more agonizing over what it meant, while still hammering away at that first draft. Meanwhile, I rained my doubts and fears onto my writing group (bless you, good and stalwart people, for putting up with my weekly fits of anxiety), my sweetheart, my friends, and my wise and very patient agent, who has always believed in me and whose cool, calming advice was like the paper bag to my hyperventilation.

I finally decided to put that novel aside, unfinished. Part of me felt like an absolute failure. But my gut--which had been telling me all along that the book wasn't right--was jumping up and down, squealing, "Start the next novel now! Start the next novel now!" The thing was, I'd come up with an idea as different from the historical as could be...and whatever the historical lacked in the heart-pounding department, this idea made up for. In spades.

So: the same day I made the decision, I cleared every trace of the abandoned historical from my office. Eighteen or so library books went back to the library. I filled an entire footlocker to bulging with all the other research material I'd collected: dozens more books, plus WWII-era magazines, pamphlets, letters, and other eBay finds--one of which I'd spent 2 years searching for, and had finally acquired less than a month previously.

I clearly heard the universe laughing at that one.

The next day, I threw myself into the new book with a firm resolution: to have a first draft complete within 6 months. Now, I've never written a first draft that fast. But I have friends who can and do (heck, I have friends who can write a first draft in 6 weeks), and I reasoned that if they can do it, so can I. I would be a writing machine.

And I was. But guess what: it still took me 10 months.

Lots of writing lessons learned, these past few years. Among them:

ALWAYS listen to your gut.

Everyone writes at their own pace. What works for other writers may not work for you.

On the other hand: outlining actually CAN be useful.
Sort of. (Oh heck, let's just make that its own blog post, shall we?)

So now what? Going to Disneyland, right?

*sigh* I wish. The first draft is the literary equivalent of the half-baked cake. A distressing amount is comprehensible only to me, at this point, because I know what I meant, but it's sort of not actually on the page. Yet.

That's the job of revisions. And so, after a brief gulp of fresh air...

...back into the story I go.

Second draft deadline: 2 months. Can she do it? Stay tuned...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Crime and Punishment = So Not YA

The most rewarding part of any presentation I give is the give-and-take with the audience, especially the Q&A afterward. Most of the questions are light-hearted and fun ("How long did it take you to write the book?" "Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?"). Often, the questioner will share an insight or personal experience. Sometimes, a question will make me stop and think, and dig deep for an answer.

And every once in a while, I get thrown for a loop.

Earlier this year, I was invited to give my Hepkitten presentation to an adult book club which had read my YA novel, Ten Cents a Dance. During the Q&A, a woman who wanted to be a YA author asked me why I'd ended the book the way I did. I wasn't sure what she meant, so I asked for clarification. She said that here I had a main character who had made bad decisions, disobeyed her mother, gotten herself into some pretty sketchy situations...and in the end, she comes through it all and goes on with her life! Where were the consequences for her actions?

But there were consequences, I replied. Because of her choices, the character severely damaged her relationship with her mother, which she now has to try to rebuild. She lost the trust of her sister. She lost her best friend. She realized that she threw away the last bit of her childhood, and that she can never, ever get it back. She can make amends, but she can never go back to the person she used to be.

Yes, the woman said, I realize all that. But why didn't you punish her more?

Punish her more? You mean like, because of what she did, her life is ruined forever?

Yes, the woman said. Like that. Don't you think that would be a better message for teens?

was the first thought that jumped to mind. Before I popped off with the easy answer, though, I asked myself: Why not?

I paused and gathered my thoughts, and I realized: It's because I believe in hope. Not just in life--I knew that about myself already--but in my writing. For my characters. And for my readers.

We all make bad decisions growing up. Some of us, worse than others. I believe that, if we're lucky, we can come through those choices--and their consequences--and be better for them. Wiser. I believe that we can redeem ourselves. That's why I ended that novel the way I did.

I don't think my answer satisfied the woman; I'm pretty sure she'd still vote for punishment and ruined lives. Still, though, I'm glad she asked the question, because it got me thinking about this in a way I hadn't before. It made me realize that pretty much all YA fiction--even the books that deal in the darkest, grimmest subjects, the books that get banned because adults think that teens shouldn't be allowed to read about hard issues--ends on a note of hope. Of growth. Of new and hard-earned wisdom.

Isn't that what coming of age is?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Oh, Jane...What Will They Think Up Next?

I don't often get the Monday blahs, but today they're all over me like slippery on squid. Much as I'd like to loll on my couch and watch "LoTR: The Return of the King" again, though, no such luck. Too much to do.

But even in my ennui-ridden state, this made me squee with glee. Whether you're suffering from your own Monday malaise, or bounding through the world in high cheer*, I highly, highly recommend.

*If you're bounding, kudos to you and stay away from me. If you're my compatriot in the doldrums, courage! A good night's sleep, and tomorrow all will be well. And if it's not, at least it will be Tuesday.

Monday, July 26, 2010

We Interrupt This Blog for Cats

Blogging about writing and life is all very well. But in the middle of summer, when it's too hot to think, sometimes all we want is a story.

This is a tale of a teeny-tiny orphaned kitty named Molly Brown, who lived in a house with a big brother-cat named Albert.

Albert: Oh, cripes. Here's that lady with the flashy-thingy again. Listen, kid, here's the drill. Hold still and look cute and maybe she'll go away.

Molly: You're in my light.


Listen, squirt, you'd better behave, or I'll...

Or what? Huh? You're not the boss of me! Or what?

...or I'll bury you.


Say "uncle."




Right in the kisser, bam! Nyah-nyah!

OK, that's it. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Oh. Hi. She, uh, she got something in her eye. I'm helping her get it out.


My boyfriend is convinced I will eventually become a crazy cat lady. I have no idea why he thinks this.
Oh, and Molly Brown and Albert?

BFF. Even when Molly was all grown up, they were still inseparable.

Now let's go have some lemonade and cookies.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

First Draft Hell

There comes a time in every first draft--well, every one of my first drafts--when little voices begin jabbering in my head. Shrill, almost hysterical voices, saying things like:

This book is terrible.
Nobody will want to read it.
Your idea stinks.
Your execution of the idea stinks.
Your characters have all the life and spark of reanimated zombies.
Your plot is spinning out of control.
Your plot is running aground.
Your prose contains not one original phrase.
You're not writing fast enough.
You're not writing deeply enough.
You suck.

The funny thing is, the voices aren't there in the beginning. No, they wait. They bide their time, and when I'm closing in on the end of the first draft, when I only have another quarter of the book or so to write, that's when they pipe up with their terrible little naysaying songs.

I've been through this enough times now that I've realized a few things.

The first thing is that the voices come from fear. They don't show up in the beginning, because in the beginning everything is wonderful. The novel bursts with endless possibility! Every story arc is deep and profound! Every character is charming and unforgettable! Every plot twist is shocking and original! In my head, because none of it has actually been written yet.

By the time I'm in 250 pages or so, that illusion of perfection has died a messy, messy death. The real thing--with all its flaws--is staring me in the face. Plot holes big enough to swallow a small planet! Character motivations that make no sense at all! Story arcs that are going nowhere! I've jotted down note after note about what needs fixing, come revision time. Enough notes to fill pages.

The reason the voices kick in now is because what they're really saying is, Maybe it can't be fixed.

The second thing I've learned is the answer to the voices. It's very simple. The answer is:


When I hit a snag--like I did yesterday--I have to remember to take a breath. Don't panic. Realize that the snag is my cue to dig deeper into motivation, into character, into the possibilities of the scene. Yes, the swoony honeymoon beginning is wonderful. But this, the wrestling to the end, when all seems unwinnable...this, I know, is when the real magic happens. But only if we earn it. Only if we keep faith with our visions, and with ourselves as writers.

Only if we keep going.

P.S. For a really good comparison of the inner critic vs. the inner editor, and what to do with both of them, I recommend this by YA author Malinda Lo.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Books on the House...And She Does Mean "On the House"!

Back in town,* and a whole lotta book stuff happening on these interwebs.

First up, exciting news: Ten Cents a Dance is the featured book at Books on the House for Kids & Teens! The founder of BotH, Misa Ramirez, is an author herself, and she was looking for ways to bring authors and readers together. The answer is her website: Books on the House, and Books on the House for Kids/Teens. Every week, readers can visit the sites and enter to win free signed books. Win-win for everyone!

Four reasons to trot on over and check it out:
--This is your absolutely, positively, last chance to win a signed paperback of Ten Cents a Dance (that I know of)! So throw your hat in the ring, already!

--You can see a video interview, done specially for BotH, in which I talk about why I started writing; my mother's horror when she realized I was going to make public a family secret that had been under wraps for three generations; and my current novel-in-progress (never before discussed anywhere!) Also, I make funny faces when I talk. Not helped by the fact I'm trying to look at the camera, not my computer screen, because I didn't realize they should both be in your line of vision. (I was mostly concerned with making sure that the cat litter behind me wasn't visible. Which, BTW, thank you Miss Molly Brown, for NOT peeing in the box until thirty seconds after the interview was over.)

--You can also see the Ten Cents a Dance book trailer. Didn't know there was one? Neither did I, until last week when Google Alerts tipped me off. The trailer was done by Adriana, a teen librarian in California. This is one of the most astonishing things about being published...that people will read your book and be inspired by it to create something completely new.

--Seriously, you need a fourth reason? BOOK TRAILER. CONTEST. FUNNY FACES. Ye gods, people.

*The wedding was gorgeous, BTW...sunshine, ocean breezes and rose petals, the bride and groom crazy in love, and yes, this auntie did shed tears. Bellissima!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Quest

To some people, shopping for a dress is the most perfect possible way to spend an afternoon.

I am not one of those people.

However, several undeniable facts have been staring me in the face:

Fact #1: When it comes to attending weddings, jeans just don't cut it. Not even my best boot cuts.

Fact #2: The most suitable dress I own was last worn to the wedding of the current bride's older sister. Two weddings a few years apart...aunt in exact same dress. Question: Do I want to be that aunt? Answer: No.

Fact #3: My next most suitable dress happens to be ten years old. Still cute. Still fits. But, realistically, how long can one drag out the millennium?

Fact #4: Even if one decided that the millennium could stretch one more year (a sketchy proposal at best), that means buying new shoes, since the old ones that went with said dress are now kaput.

Fact #5: As much as I dislike clothes shopping, I would almost rather pull my own head off than venture out for shoes. Oh, you 6 mediums who prance through shoe departments plucking pairs of cuteness right and left...pity the poor 10 double-narrow, who slogs from store to store, the inevitable refrain ringing in her ears: "We're sorry, that style doesn't come in your size. But we do have this" *displaying the shoe equivalent of a wart with hair growing out of it* "Would you like to try it on?"

No. No, I wouldn't.

So. Goal: Buy cute dress in a good color, suitable for a late-afternoon wedding, that goes with existing shoes and doesn't break the bank. Really, how hard could that be?

Fast-forward through 4 hours, 8 stores, and a crosstown drive chasing down a dress in a bigger size which a sales associate assured me was available at another location, and yet...was not. I am now a wee bit cranky.

May I ask the designers of America just one question? What is so difficult about providing dresses for grown-up people? Seriously. I would like to know the answer to this question. The few dresses I found that didn't make me look like I was trying to be 18 again (believe me, I'm not--been there, ain't going back), and also didn't make me look like someone's aged mother (which I also am not) invariably cost upwards of $200. Am I the only 46-year-old in America on a budget who wants something other than a thigh-high skirt in garish cheap jersey or pleated navy polka dots? I think not. Where are our dresses, o designers of America?

Bereft of answers, I found myself, at long last, wandering through Nordstrom. The budget is why I didn't go there first, but I love Nordie's, and will always love Nordie's, for one reason: they absolutely refuse to put up any Christmas decorations--not a single strand of tinsel, not the tiniest star--until the day after Thanksgiving. In a day and age when we're subjected to Rudolph and his damn red nose two weeks before Halloween, a store that hews to traditional seasons is dear to my heart.

And then there's Desiree.

Desiree saw my frustrated, worn-out self and took me in hand. I gave her all my criteria--including the one I haven't yet mentioned, which is that this hypothetical dress needs to be on a plane with me in less than 24 hours--and she ran with it. In ten minutes, I had eight dresses to choose from. In twenty minutes, I had a dress. A great dress. The dress. AND it was on sale.

Desiree, I wish you kittens and rainbows and your own personal enchanted genie who will wash your car and clean your house and cook you scrumptious dinners forever.

Now: if only I can get everything into the carry-on, so I don't have to check luggage. I know, I know...I already have the moon, must I want the stars, too?

Yes. Yes, I must. Off to pack, darlings.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reading for Comfort

To everyone who stopped by and left a comment last time--thank you! I appreciated all the sweet thoughts.

One thing I've noticed, when I've got a lot going on or I've hit a rough patch, is that my reading pattern changes.

Some people eat for comfort. Me, I read for comfort. (Not that I have anything against comfort eating. In fact, best of all is a combination, with the eating portion preferably involving bacon. Or cheese popcorn.)

I'm much less likely to start new novels, even if they're by authors I know. Instead, I go to my shelves and pick down old favorites. These are novels I've read anywhere between five times and, I don't know, maybe twenty. Some are books I first read when I was a teen. As far as genre, they're all over the map, but they have one thing in common: From the first page, I feel like I've slipped into a sweet, familiar place.

In the past couple of weeks, I've reread The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord, and I'm just finishing Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck.

After that, I think I'll be ready to dive into new waters again. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is already on my nightstand, waiting.

How about you? Any favorite comfort reads? Or, when you have a lot on your plate, do you prefer to plunge into something brand-new?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To Ginny

You were six months old and you'd already had three homes.

Your first people didn't want you; their son's girlfriend brought you one day and never took you back. They kept you tied you to the porch. The only time they untied you was to bring you to the humane society. They'd had you for months, but they couldn't tell the staff whether you liked cats, kids, or other dogs. Unwanted, that's all they knew.

Your second family gave up on you after only a few days. We don't know why. But when they brought you back (an adoption failure!), that's when my sweetie met you. He described how cute you were and how you'd snuggled and pressed your head against his shoulder and gazed up at him with brown puppy eyes. (Twisted around your little paw, right from the start.)

We went to get you. But you were gone, adopted once more. So disappointed! But we were happy for you and wished you a glad doggy life.

Three days later, we visited the humane society again.

And there you were.

A second-time failure. You'd jumped on the third family's little girl. It turned out you adored kids. But you didn't know not to jump. Of course not, you'd had no socialization, no training, hardly any human interaction at all. But no excuses! Back to the humane society you went.

I knelt to say hi. You pressed your head against my shoulder and gazed up with brown puppy eyes and your funny little underbite. An hour later, you were in our car headed home.

Home to stay.

The name you came with was Mamacita. You didn't answer to it. We renamed you Ginny. Virginia Pearl, for formal occasions.

You couldn't stand to be left alone. You weren't housebroken. Every time we fed you, you frantically leaped and knocked the food bowl out of our hands, as if you didn't trust we'd actually set it on the ground. You had no idea how to play with our other dog or the dogs at the park. Let's just say you had issues.

But you wanted to please so badly. In a few days you were housebroken and you sat politely for your meals and you'd figured out a chase-me game with Jerry, our elderly German Shepherd, and you'd learned not to chase the cats.

But for the rest of your life, you couldn't stand to be alone. Well, who would, if they'd been left tied to a porch and ignored? So when dear Jerry passed on, we brought home Inja. And with your new best friend, you discovered the world.

Running in the snow on Christmas Day...

...and in Utah on vacation...

...and when you were tired, turnabout's fair play when it came to being a pillow.

You patiently kept me company while I wrote my first novel...

...and my second...
...and my third.

Being in the water was the only time the Labrador part of you ever kicked in. On dry land, your idea of "retrieving" was: The Toy is MINE If You Want It You Have to Chase Me But You'll Never Get It HA HA HA!

Your very favorite thing was to flaunt your toy-of-the-moment, lay it delicately on our knees or drop it on poor Inja's head, then snatch it back and run away laughing.

When we babysat Fergus the Sheltie puppy, you wanted his favorite fleece toy so badly you practically bled out your eyes. All other subterfuges having failed, you suddenly ran to the window barking. The moment Fergus jumped up to see what was out there, you swiped the toy and snuck off with it. Like stealing candy from a baby.

But when baby Molly got a trouncing from her big cat brother Albert, you hurried over to see if she needed saving. If we were upset, or unhappy, or sad, you'd press your sweet head against our shoulders and gaze up with anxious brown eyes, and if we needed to hug you, you'd let yourself be hugged forever.

When you were six years old, you got sick. That's when we discovered your liver cirrhosis. (Hadn't we told you to lay off those margaritas?!) Oh, and you had congenital kidney disease, too. Double whammy. The liver disease alone gave you a life expectancy of six months.

But you pulled through that episode. And another one. And a few more. But surely you were a bedridden invalid?

Ha! That's you at eleven. (Photo by your friends Kim and James at Stay Pet Hotel.) We began joking that you would never die, because then Inja would get all your toys. I half-hoped it was true.

It wasn't. You'd just turned twelve. Almost six years late, but it finally came.

Six extra wonderful years. I know we shouldn't have hoped for more. But we did.

Your ears stuck out to the sides and when you trotted, their tips bounced up and down in a way that made random strangers laugh. When you were sleepy, or you really, really, really wanted something (like begging to get on the couch..."But look, you've got sooooo much room up there!!") your underbite showed.

You were adorable. You were smart. Your sense of humor was better than some humans' I know. We count ourselves the luckiest people in the world to have had you.

Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears
But laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you
I loved you so...
...`Twas heaven here with you.
--Isla Paschal Richardson

We love you, sweet Ginny. We miss you.


Monday, May 17, 2010

GetGlue on a Monday

In the Good News and Heads Up, Y'all departments: GetGlue is featuring Ten Cents a Dance as part of their Monday giveaway!

For a shot at winning a copy, head on over. Good luck!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

F-Bombs Away!

Blogger mi over at i know, write?!? has posted a great piece discussing the issue of cursing in YA fiction. On the one hand, it's realistic for our characters; a lot of teens do curse, after all. On the other hand, do we want teens thinking that by writing about it, we condone swearing...or drugs, or sex, or whatever undesirable behavior our characters engage in?

mi's post got me thinking. I started writing a comment, but I soon realized it was going to be such a long comment, it might be better as its own blog.

When it comes to writing, I'm a realism gal. I don't like sugar-coating things or glossing over them. I believe if we're going to write, we ought to write as truthfully as we can. I guess that comes across in my own work; reviews have called my novels authentic, gritty, even hard-boiled. (I hope that last one was a compliment; when it comes to reviews, oddly enough, sometimes it's hard to tell.)

But as much as I love realism, it doesn't reign supreme. What does? Story. The story is king; the story trumps all.

When I was writing my first novel, I knew my main character, Tallulah, was rebellious and short-tempered and just generally difficult. I wrote her voice the way I heard it in my head, and the F-bombs dropped at an alarming rate. Later, people who read the manuscript told me it was like getting smacked in the face every other page. When I went back and read the manuscript, to my surprise, it was like getting smacked in the face. It was hard to see past the cussing to the character underneath.

In fact, I realized, I didn't have much of a character underneath. That's when I learned that realism isn't the same thing as transcription. I was using the swearing to convey that Tallulah was a tough girl. But instead it made her seem more like an unpleasant caricature than a flesh-and-blood person. And it wasn't helping the story; in fact, it bogged the story down.

So I dropped the profanities. (Most of them, anyway. At one point, Tallulah gets struck in the chest by a horse; having had the same experience myself, I can vouch that this is one instance that absolutely justifies swearing...just as soon as you manage to suck the breath back into your lungs.) But getting rid of the swearing, I discovered, left me with enormous character holes to fill. I had to go back and figure out how to get across Tallulah's tough-chick attitude with inflections and tones, body language and action. More importantly for the character, and the story: I had to figure out what she was really feeling...and why.

Once I did that, Tallulah took on dimensions and shape. She became real. And as she took on more depth and complexity, so did her story. I realized I'd been using the swearing as a shortcut, as if to say, "See? See how rebellious she is?" But I hadn't actually shown it.

Some years later, I was listening to an interview of a punk rock band. (Don't remember who, unfortunately--I'm terrible with names.) Anyway, the two guys who wrote the songs talked about how one night they were brainstorming lyrics, and one of them wrote, "F*** this s***," and they were both like, "Yeah, dude! F*** this s***!" and then one of them turned to the other and said, "So like, what s*** are we talking about, specifically?" And they realized they had no idea. So they thought about it, and they began writing about what they felt was wrong in the world, and why, and how it made them feel, and how it might change. That, they said, was the turning point, when the band took off. I can't for the life of me remember who those guys are, but I've never forgotten that story, because it's absolutely true: if you say "F*** that s***," you ought to at least be clear on what s*** it is you'd like to get f*****.

All this rambling isn't to say that there's no place for swearing in YA fiction. I believe there is, depending on the character, depending on the story. In fact, there's some in my current WiP. (Gasp!) Bottom line, the way I see it--Story is All. If it adds to the story, through rich characterization or meaningful conflict or other fabulous story-building s***, have at it. If it detracts--or if it's serving as a placeholder for something the author hasn't figured out yet--take the axe to it and dig deeper. Same goes for everything our characters say and do. If it doesn't serve the story, it's gone.

One other thing about cussing (and other disreputable goings-on) in YA. If there's swearing in adult books, nobody cares. If there's swearing in YA novels, lots of people care. People like librarians, teachers, and parents. (Just take a gander at this list of books banned in 2009. The first thing I noticed: Damn, that's a long list. The second thing: "profanity" or "vulgar language" is one of the most-cited reasons for banning.) So, could it be an issue? Like all else in publishing: Maybe. Depends. (Another thing to notice about that banned-books list: How many award-winners and literary classics are on it. Being banned isn't like being shunned when you're Amish. Lots of people will still come out to play with you.) Agents and editors can, and probably will, weigh in with their advice. Still, in the end, it's up to the author to decide how best to tell his or her story.

Story is All. Story is King. Long live Story.

(Thank you, mi, for writing such a thought-provoking post!)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Discovering Marilyn

One recent evening I was browsing Netflix, waiting for my sweetheart to come home, and I came across Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I remembered seeing bits of it on TV when I was little, although the only part I remembered clearly was when Marilyn Monroe's character, Lorelei Lee, meets the owner of a diamond mine and fantasizes a big old diamond where his head would be. I must have found that pretty funny when I was a kid, because that's all that stuck with me, other than a general impression of silliness.

I'd just finished a long and sort of bruising day at the day job. I was in the mood for silly. I zapped it to my TV and settled back. And from the opening number--"Two Little Girls from Little Rock"--I was in a state of wow.

This isn't a movie review, because I unabashedly adore this movie. Yes, the male stars are completely forgettable. Yes, the plot is entirely predictable--its main concern being the number of skin-tight outfits it can smoosh our heroines into. (Marilyn's co-star is Jane Russell, the actress for whom Howard Hughes engineered a new kind of underwire bra to achieve the exact right cleavage for his movie The Outlaw.) Yes, it has dialogue like this:

Anonymous Male Character 1: (gesturing at Marilyn and Jane)"If this ship sinks, which one would you save?"

Anonymous Male Character 2: "Those girls couldn't drown!"

And yes, Marilyn does get stuck climbing through a porthole.

It's that kind of movie. Dumb. Cynical. (Have you ever really listened to the lyrics of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"?) And silly beyond all belief.

And yet. Love, love, love. Jane Russell is at her wisecracking best. Marilyn's Lorelei Lee is absolute perfection. If it's true that it takes a smart actor to play a dumb character, Marilyn must have been a freaking genius.

Before this, I've never seen an entire Marilyn Monroe movie. For some reason, I had the impression that mostly she stood around and looked...well, like Marilyn. Before this, whenever I thought about Marilyn Monroe, I mostly thought about drugs and Kennedys and tragic death. But when she launched into...

"A kiss on the hand may be quite continental..."

...I literally got goosebumps. There's a reason that performance is iconic, and it's not because of the dress, or the platinum hair, but because Marilyn was just insanely talented.

I realize everyone else in the world is probably already aware of this. I'm embarrassed to admit it was a revelation to me.

I'm a newfound Marilyn fan. And if you see me driving around, singing in my car, it'll either be "Two Little Girls From Little Rock" or "Ain't Anyone Here for Love" (which, BTW, if you thought beefcake was a recent invention, think again), or "Bye Bye Baby," or the queen of them all, "Diamonds."

Every last cynical, scintillating syllable of it.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Buy Books--Help Teens

If you love reading--especially if you love reading fiction--you can probably point to one or more books that made a difference in your life. Maybe it's a book that introduced you to a whole new world; maybe it's a book that gave you comfort or escape when you needed it; maybe it's a book that fired your imagination.

If you love books, try to imagine what it would be like to grow up without them.

One of the cool things about the YA lit community is that it's crammed with folks who not only love books, read books, review books, and write books for teens, but who also actively work to get books into teens' hands. Guy's Lit Wire, YALSA, Readergirlz, and If I Read I Can Do Anything have teamed up for Operation Teen Book Drop 2010. One of the goals for the book drop this year: provide two Native American reservation schools with much-needed titles for their libraries.

Colleen Mondor, of the Chasing Ray blog, writes very eloquently about the schools, their needs, and details of Operation Book Drop here. I can't say anything about this topic better than she can, so I'll leave you in her capable hands. If visual is more your style, here's a video.

OR, if you're one of those spring-straight-into-action types, then jump over to Powell's Bookstore wishlist page, enter in the search box, and choose a title (or two, or three, or however many you like) from each school's wishlist. (Be sure to bookmark Colleen's blog post first, so you'll have the schools' addresses handy.)

I was lucky. I grew up in a household that could afford books and had a lot of them (almost 2,000 at one point.) My parents sent me to private schools that had small but well-stocked libraries. Books have had such a tremendous impact on my life, I can't imagine where or even who I'd be without them.

Not everyone has to be an avid reader. But everyone who wants books should have them available. If you can, help put a book in the hands of a teen.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Blog Contest Winner!

Thank you to everyone who stopped by to comment on Once More on the Dance Floor! I'm delighted to announce the winner, chosen by a random number generator, is jpetroroy.

The consensus definitely swung toward the new cover, although the old one got a lot of love, too. I like them both in different ways. I agree with the commenters who noted that each cover emphasizes a different aspect of the book: the new one more on the romance (although the book isn't a romance novel, there's definitely a bad-boy-love angle), and the old cover on the historical aspects. Since I'm a history buff, I must admit I lean a weency bit more toward the old cover. I just love that red fingernail polish and the pinstripe suit!

Thanks for playing, everyone, and for telling me what you think!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Once More on the Dance Floor

Today is the release day of Ten Cents a paperback, with a brand-new look!

My first reaction on seeing it? OOH, PRETTY!

This brings up a question that ikw asked in the comments on a previous post: "i was wondering why your latest novel has two different covers. do you, as the author, ever get to have any input on cover design?"

It's true that a paperback often has a different cover from the original hardback. The paperback cover is an opportunity to change the focus on the book; to attract a wider or a different audience; to help bring new attention to a title that's been out in the world a while. But whether or not to design a new cover isn't up to the author. The publisher is the one who makes that call.

As far as author input, that's also up to the publisher. Some authors get no say about their covers at all. In that regard I'm really lucky, because my editor at Bloomsbury has always asked my opinion about the cover designs for my books. (For more insight into the process, check out my previous post about the Ten Cents a Dance hardcover here.)

New edition. New cover. It's like my book is all grown up and leaving home...for the second time. And I'm the mom waving from the doorway, dabbing my eyes, calling, Have fun! Make lots of friends! Be sure to write!

(OK, maybe not that last one. But you get the idea.)

So, blog readers, what do you think? Do you prefer the old cover,* or the new? Vote in the comments by 12 AM Wednesday, April 6th, and you'll get a chance to win a copy of your choice: either hardcover or paperback! (No fear, I'll be picking the winner randomly--so be free with your opinions!)

*old cover:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

To Kindle, Or Not to Kindle? THAT is the Question

This year, for my birthday, I got an unexpected surprise: my friend Walter sent me an Amazon gift certificate. In the amount of a Kindle. Get yourself one, he said. Or, if you'd rather, spend it on books instead.

Cue dilemma.

I love physical books. Can't imagine life without them. Can't imagine me without them. And yet I find e-readers fascinating. Hundreds of books at one's fingertips? The ability to travel without half my luggage weighted down with paper? (Because of course I can't take just one novel. There are the two or three I'm currently reading. Plus an old favorite, in case I need a comfort read. Plus the one I always buy in the airport bookstore, because no matter how resolved I am not to buy a new book, invariably one will beckon from the shelves, cooing, "See how shiny I am. How intriguing. Come to me, and discover in my pages a new world of depths and delights," and it's not my fault that Powell's Books has an outpost in the Portland Airport, and yes I suppose I could just not go in, but then this blog would be written by a completely different person in an alternate universe and that seems, I dunno. Unlikely.)

So back to what I was saying. Fascinated. And yet torn. Because of course when you get a Kindle, you need to download books onto it. E-books. From Now, I don't dislike Amazon. In fact, I harbor a kind of distant fond admiration for it, the way you do something that's all gee-whizzy and technical and really, really good at what it does, and yet is essentially soulless. (Like Avatar. But that's a whole different post.)

And yet...

...every e-book I might buy would be one less actual book bought from a real, live, independent bookstore. And I love indie bookstores. I adore the hand-written shelf cards telling me which books are staff favorites. I look forward to seeing the same people every time I go in, and getting to know them, and picking their brains for book recommendations. I love the sense of timelessness that envelops me as soon as I walk in the door. The feeling that all cares and worries belong to another world, and here, in this small place, the only important things are the stories. Best of all, though, is noticing a cover, or a title, and I've never heard of the book before or the author, but something about it catches my eye so I lift it down. Turn it over. Scan the blurbs and the back copy. Open it and read the first sentence. Sometimes I think "meh" and I move on. But sometimes that first sentence flicks over me like a noose and cinches tight and I'm thinking yes yes yes I must find out everything now please and I buy the book and take it home and immerse myself in its world and then go out and rave about it to everyone I know.

How would I have found A Suitable Boy on Or Babe in Paradise? Or An Instance of the Fingerpost, or A Northern Light, or Wives and Daughters, or The Man in My Basement, or The Once and Future King? How do you stumble across a gem that's not in the top 50 in sales rankings and not by an author you've previously read and not the latest book club fad? When you don't know a book exists, how can you type its name into a search box?

You can't. Which is why you go to your local bookstore and wander the stacks to discover the next unknown book you're going to love. Which means that the bookstore has to be there, and the only way it can be there is if people keep going and buying books.

And yet...

And yet...

Back and forth. Up and down. And finally Walter was like, what are you doing, and I'm like, I dunno, dude, and I realized I just had to decide. So I did.

When the Kindle arrived, it happened that I was re-reading one of my favorites, a 1946 edition of Pavilion of Women by Pearl Buck. I'd bought it used from an indie bookstore a few years ago. The dust jacket is long gone. Some previous owner had amused herself by penciling over parts of the cover illustration. Its edges are worn and dented in places. It feels handled and much, much read, and its pages have that sweet, dusty, woody scent of old book paper. (Old book is like puppy breath--one of the great, immortal aromas of life. Whatever happened to it? I miss it.)

The Kindle isn't flashy; like the book, it doesn't draw attention to itself. I charge it, turn it on, and navigate to the Kindle store. There on the home page, practically the first thing I see: Margaret Atwood's latest, The Year of the Flood.

IwantIwantIwant. I click. Less than a minute later, the book is here in my hand. I won't lie to you: that is beyond cool. I start the first chapter, but it's hard to lose myself in the flow; I'm too aware of what I'm reading it on. But after a while, the words catch me and I go under, immersed in Margaret's world, and it's not until I finish the second chapter that I realize: the Kindle has disappeared. The same way a physical book disappears, when the story takes hold and we slip into the dream the author has created.

So here I am: a lifelong book lover, with overflowing bookcases and teetering stacks all over my house, eleven novels on my nightstand right now, a passionate believer in bookstores...and a Kindle owner. The Atwood novel is the only one I've bought. All the others I've downloaded are free. They're works in the public domain--classics--that I've already owned or already read.

If we vote with our dollars, I've decided that mine will continue to vote for bookstores.

I'm still reading two to three books at a time, but now, one of them is on the Kindle. (Current pick: Tess of the D'Ubervilles.) Every time I turn it on, the idea of reading 19th century literature on a 21st century device makes me smile. But then the words appear, everything in the real world vanishes--including the device that brings me those words--and I'm in England, on a summer evening, slipping into the dairy with Tess.

P.S...Many thanks, Walter, for the shove into the future!

Friday, March 19, 2010

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

How to Become a Hepkitten in 5 Easy Steps

On Sunday, I had the honor of giving my Hepkitten* presentation as part of the Winter Reading and Arts Festival at Cedar Mill Community Library. A hepkitten what they called a girl who was crazy for dancing, back in the day--like the main character of my novel, Ruby. The Hepkitten talk is a blast to do, and what makes it even more fun is dressing the part.

Now, as anyone who knows me will attest, I am not a girly-girl. Makeup and I are barely acquainted, nail polish and I are strangers, and most days, my hair runs rampant. But after some practice, I've mostly got the process down. So here, for the first time ever, I present to you:

How to Become a Hepkitten in 5 Easy Steps

Step 1: Gather raw materials: big round brush, rat-tail comb, foam rollers, long & short bobby pins, setting lotion, hair spray, setting lotion, artificial flowers, freshly scrubbed face and a head of frizzy hair. Oh, wait. That last bit might just be me.

Step 2: Make a deep side part (de rigueur for 1940s hairstyles); then gather hank o' hair for first victory roll. Use big round brush and setting lotion to get it all nice and smooth and ready to roll. In theory. Some days, my hair behaves. I love those days. Most of the time, though, the dynamic goes like this:

Me: Okay, hair, remember how we do this? Remember how much fun it is? Whoo-hoo, here we go!

Hair: Oh, yeah. That thing you make me do sometimes. I'm not doing that.

Me: You start behaving right now, or... *threatens hair with hairspray*

Hair: Now you've made me mad. You're gonna be sorry.

*Scene deleted due to graphic violence*

Ah, victory! Big roll on the left: Done.

(Tip: If you're seriously interested in learning vintage hairstyles, search YouTube for tutorials. People have posted instructional videos for everything from finger waves to beehives.** My fave for victory rolls is here.)

Step 3: Roll the right side. This is a smaller roll, and goes much better when you use the setting lotion instead of super-hold category-5-hurricane-proof hair spray, like I accidentally did on Sunday. (Can I help it the bottles are the same color?) Too late to wash my hair and start over, so (mild cursing deleted)...

...I remind myself that this is why God made artificial flowers.

Step 4: For the back: If I have time, I'll set pin curls, let them dry and brush them out into '40s curls. If not, then a little setting lotion, foam rollers, sit 20 minutes, then swirl into one big uproll. Quick and easy.

Another tip: If all else fails, this is why God made snoods. Also 1940s authentic and perfect for almost any hair disaster.

Hmm. Rolled, flowered, made up and mascara'd. Seems like I'm forgetting something, though...

Step 5: Ah, yes...that red, red lipstick. If you ain't got a red lip, you ain't 1940s. Wartime, baby--it was all about the bold.

Add a vintage suit jacket, vintage skirt, seamed stockings and high-heel oxford shoes...

...and voila! You are now a bona-fide hepkitten.

Many thanks to the Cedar Mill Community Library for hosting me, and also to the folks who came to hear me speak on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We had a great time and the audience was fab!

Full title: A Hepkitten's Guide to the War. Oodles of vintage photos, video clips, and stories about what it was like to be a teen in the 1940s, with jitterbugging, taxi dancing, and the upheavals in homefront life brought by WWII.

**Click here to see the horror that is the making of a beehive. If I ever write a historical set in the early '60s, I am NOT doing this. Just watching makes my scalp whimper.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Art of Critique: Baby, Give It to Me Straight

In the fall of 1997, I got a flyer in the mail. Nothing fancy; just a single yellow sheet announcing that Portland novelist Karen Karbo was starting a weekly fiction writing workshop. If interested, please contact.

It was one of those lovely moments in life that happens when you've committed to a drastic course of action, subsequently decided you're insane, and then the exact thing you need to see it through falls smack into your lap.

See, two months earlier I'd quit my full-time job so that I could finish my first novel. I felt exactly as if I'd jumped out of a plane without a parachute. Okay, not in the
I'm going to splat to my death in less than a minute kind of way, but in the gut-gnawing, have-I-just-ruined-my-life insomniac kind of way. (Same terror--just slower.) I didn't know how to write a novel. All I had were eighty manuscript pages and a vague idea of what might happen on page eighty-one.

Then the flyer arrived. On the first evening, I was one of ten writers sitting around Karen's dining room table.
Over the next few years I did complete my novel, and get it published, due in no small part to what I learned there.

Karen's wasn't the first workshop or critique group I'd been in. But it's been by far the best, which is why, twelve years after that first class, I still take my place at her table.
If you're looking to join or start a critique group yourself, here are a few things that you might want to consider:

Critique is specific.
No wishy-washy "I really liked it" or "It didn't work for me" without reasons to back it up. Pinpointing why a piece works--or doesn't--can be surprisingly hard to do. And the higher the skill level of the writer, the harder it gets. A really good writer can hide fatal flaws under dazzling wordplay...which means it often takes a lot of thought and effort to put your finger on what exactly isn't working. But the payoff isn't just for the writer; the better your critique, the more you yourself are learning about the craft.

Critique isn't just pointing out the flaws.
It's also important to acknowledge what the writer is doing well. Writers need to recognize their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Plus, we all need to hear that our pages aren't pure crap.

Critique what's on the page. Don't impose your vision on someone else's work. In one early critique group (long before Karen's) a fellow "critter" told me that the premise of my book was all wrong and that instead, my two female characters should set aside their differences and form a friendship that would be a testament to female bonding in a society that doesn't value women's relationships. (Gee, projecting much?) Which not only missed the entire point of my book, it bore no relation to anything I'd already written.

I've also been in workshops in which the instructor's critique mostly centered around getting students to write in the same style as the instructor. A good workshop leader isn't interested in creating copycats. Instead, like Karen, she recognizes each student's individual style and works to help her students develop their own unique voices.

Work with people at your ability level or slightly higher. If you're far and away the best writer in the room, it's easy to start thinking you're God's gift to literature and that you know all there is to know about writing. You'd be wrong.

I'm not the best writer in my group; in twelve years, I never have been. These people are wicked talented, which means I'm always striving to up my game. In the same vein...

...Try to find people with similar goals and work ethic. This doesn't mean everyone in the group should be gunning to get published. But if it's important to you to keep learning and getting better at your craft, you'll save yourself frustration if you're not the only one.

Likewise, members need to pull their weight. That doesn't necessarily mean bringing in new chapters every week (although of course that's great.) Members of Karen's class have gone through long periods--months, even--with not a single page. But they still show up, week after week, and give honest, thoughtful, and insightful critique. Does that count? You bet it does. Good critique is damn hard work. In fact, the least welcome member of any crit group is the one who shows up only when she has pages. Critique is a two-way street: if you want to get, you have to give.

Keep the focus on the writing. In some groups, critiquing gradually takes a back seat to snacking and discussing each other's personal lives. When a critique group turns into social hour, its demise soon follows.

And finally, if you want to have a quality, longstanding writing workshop or critique group, there is one thing you must never, ever overlook:

Give yourselves a catchy name. Us? We're the Writers of Renown.

Damn skippy, as Karen would say.

Next time: Receiving critique (aka, You've Shredded My Precious Like Soggy Kleenex And I Think I Might Hate You Forever.) In the meantime, you writers out there: what's your dream critique group like?