Friday, April 30, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

Lots of links for you this week. Hope you find them useful.

  • The Adventures in Children's Publishing blog has a pretty outline-heavy (but informative) post on a plotting worksheet. Warning for pantsers: it's a hardcore outline.
  • Best Amazon review ever, for The Secret...I mean, I just love picturing the person who sat down to write this fantastical story one day. God love the tinterwebs.
  • I wonder if this very timely and sensible post from Jessica Faust at Bookends about the Internet and your writing career has anything to do with a certain blog out there that had some unflattering information on it regarding agents, which quite possibly torpedoed the author's publishing future.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thursday 5: Things I hate about spiders

Spring means an explosion of spiders in my house, both full grown and freshly-hatched babies. The whippersnapper and I had a discussion about spiders this week. He opined that they were all bad. It was a Teaching Moment and I was forced to practice tolerance, so I said they weren’t all bad; they eat bad bugs (but that the brown recluse and black widow were always bad). But in fact, there is plenty to hate about them, and here are five:

1. The unnatural way they crawl.
Yeah I know, you say “but their crawl is natural; they’re spiders.” The answer is no, it is not, it is creepy and disgusting and calculated. There’s a reason the uncut version of the Exorcist had the girl creeping down the stairs like a spider with her head on backwards. Because it’s gross and horrible.

2. They don’t mind – and even prefer – crawling in your sheets on your bed, or among your unfolded laundry.
I don’t even need to say this, but will: those locations are not acceptable for spiders to be in. ever.

3. They spin webs right outside your front door at night.
They do this so they can catch you when you walk out in the morning on your way to work, leaving you with sticky web all over your clothes and face, while the spider stands by and laughs at you.

4. They require work.
I don’t squish spiders in my house unless they’re in the bathtub, in which case that is their mistake and they get washed down the drain. Instead, I escort them outside in a glass with a card over it. This requires that I stop what I’m doing, grab a glass, which I hope is nearby, and catch it. In the past week, we have caught an average of 2 per day. I could be spending that time writing. And if you think cats catch them for you, think again. Only kittens do, not my fat lazy old cats who are busy plotting how to kill me. Spiders are passé for them.

5. They are soft.
Too soft, if you ask me. Did I ever tell you about the time I was peeking around the whippersnapper's door to see if he was asleep? My hand was on the molding around the door and I remember thinking, "Hmmm, that feels really soft." I stroked it with my forefinger. Very soft. Stroke, stroke. Then I closed the door and then it occurred to me to see what was so soft on a door.


I had caressed a giant wolf spider to death. That's right -- I had killed it by petting it. My stomach has never really stopped heaving about that.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Word Up Wednesday: Obsequious

I was on a conference call last week and a sales guy on the call said, "Sorry if that wasn't clear; I didn't mean to be obsequious."

The pedantic grammarian in me (totally fallible, but we won't discuss that right now) went "Ha HA! That is NOT what obsequious means!" Because you see, he is terribly arrogant and thinks he's smarter than everyone else and likes to use big words, except he was wrong, wrong, wrong (la la la!) in this case. Who's Mr. Smarty Pants now! Not you! (I'm sorry. But he's bad.) And also, he said the word in a snooty tone. But I said nothing, choosing instead to sit in a smug little stew. What Arrogant Sales Guy meant to say was "obtuse."

And then I thought, "Oooh. Obsequious would be a good Word Up."

Obsequious means to be compliant with someone else's orders or wishes, in a expedient way. A servant is obsequious. Sometimes obsequious has a dark side to it. To what end is the servant really obsequious? Is it because he or she is paid to be, or because he or she really wants to do the master's bidding? Unless it's a dominatrix situation, I'm thinking most people aren't sincere when being obsequious. I mean, I totally wouldn't be.

Perhaps the subtle alternate meaning of obsequious -- that of insincere biding of time until one can rise up and overcome -- is best defined by this little gem of a web site:

So here's the funny part: I have to play nice with Arrogant Sales Guy, because in the end, I need to be professional. So when it comes to supporting him in the sales process, I am obsequious. Yes, that's right, my righteousness has bitten me in the arse.

That's what I get for being all uppity about it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Editing Workshop Recap

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take a weekend-long (and by that I mean 16 total hours) self-editing workshop with Catherine Ryan Hyde, bestselling author of Pay it Forward and 16 other novels. The workshop was held in a remote coastal California town that was hell to get to (6 total hours of driving for me, after sitting in disgusting Friday Bay Area traffic). But the whole weekend was worth it and more. Catherine was gracious, personable, and generous with her information.

The workshop was small -- seven total people, and the idea was to learn by repetition how to edit out common problems in your work, especially in those crucial first 20-30 pages. We started by having Catherine read our work aloud so we could hear it as a reader -- not how we intended it to be read in our minds. Mine was up first and I could hear where readers caught up on things, and I learned that I am apparently obsessed with pee, since I counted four instances of it in the first two chapters. (I've since reduced the number of pee-mentions to a respectable three. That is a dry jokey joke, but is actually sadly true.)

For me, hearing what Catherine had to say was valuable because she’s got the publishing and writing experience. I can honestly say she, along with the group’s comments, helped show me that my beginning needed reworking in the right way.

Here’s a broad view of what I learned:

Have a personal list of things you need to do a search and destroy for in Word.
Most of us already have a list like this, but it's probably filled with adverbs, right? What I learned was that if you have a single instance of a punctuation problem, like in a dialogue tag, add that to the list because you probably have more of it. Take the time and put everything you can think of on there. When you edit and correct a mistake, put that mistake on the list.

Make sure your character’s thoughts and reactions are in the story.
It can make the difference between an audience feeling empathy for your character or not. Your character's motivations don't just make the story work -- they hold the attention of the reader.

Have someone read the thing aloud to you.
There's just no substitute for hearing your work this way. You might never catch multiple pee references if you don't, but best of all, you'll be able to hear where people light up in your story. Having someone read the first 20 pages to you should make a difference.

Take workshops and go to conferences.
If you're committed to a career in writing, then taking time out to attend conferences and workshops will help put you in touch with like-minded writers, established authors who can impart the wisdom of their whole careers, and other publishing professionals. Make the time. Spend the money. It's worth it.

Thanks to the workshop and Catherine and the other writers in it, I have reordered my first 30 pages to something that I think actually goes to a new level. I understand now just how important it is for everything to mean something in your novel. I hope that makes sense. I can't adequately communicate all that I learned in the workshop (this will sound selfish, but I don't want to communicate it, either -- because everyone's experience is different. Mine was very personal to my own story). But I hope the above points serve as reminders for things you should do.

One last important thing. When you are presented with opportunities to study with successful authors, TAKE THEM.

(Special thanks to Anne Allen for encouraging me to do the workshop and for working hard to get the word out for Catherine. I know Anne gets how valuable an experience it was.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mothering and Writing

Hey ho! I had a fantastabulous weekend at my editing workshop, and will tell you all about it in tomorrow's post. I learned a lot, and more importantly, enjoyed every second of it.

Today I'm talking about being a mother and a writer. There have been many blog posts written about mothering and writing and the balance it requires, especially when the kids are babies. And by babies I mean until 18. It's hard. We don't always have the time, energy, or focus that we need to produce usable material for a novel or short story, because we give the best of ourselves to our children (or we should, anyway). Note: I'm sure you dads out there do the same.

I don't know how many of you moms out there who write novels also work full-time, as I do. But I get asked a lot, "Where do you find the time?" And in fact, a week or so ago Tawna Fenske asked "How do you do it?" So I shall tell you.

I write when the baby sleeps.

This means that after the whippersnapper goes to bed, around 8 pm, I have an hour and a half to pound out/revise whatever I can. This also often means that the kitchen isn't as sparkling clean as I would like it, and sometimes I don't speak to my husband until bedtime. (Balance is key there; my own scientific observations have revealed that that my husband will only tolerate so many nights in a row of no sounds except those of my fingers on my laptop keyboard.)

I also write when he naps. I admit I am starting to despair at the idea of losing those two precious hours in the afternoons on weekends, because the whippersnapper is beginning to show signs of outgrowing his nap. So I have instituted "quiet time" whereby he plays quietly in his room and "rests," while I type away. This seems to work well for right now. I know it won't work forever.

I think and plot when I am on my own.
Mostly, this is to and from work in the car. It's also in the shower. There's really no other time.

I write fast.
I have to. And yes, I wrote this post when I should have been overhauling my protagonist's mother. And I will.

I schedule things ahead of time.
This means blog posts (I always schedule posts a day or two ahead of time, sometimes a week or two ahead of time), this means being organized about what revisions I'll make in a night, and sometimes, it means not writing at all. This is particularly true during pregnancy. When that late first trimester exhaustion hits and you have to go to bed every night at 7:30, writing gets put on hold. And if it's your second pregnancy and your existing whippersnapper's bedtime is 8 pm,'ll be writing another time.

If you have more than one child, you really have to scramble. That might include not writing at the pace you were used to for a while -- maybe even months or years. That is the sacrifice we make for having babies.

Some people get up before the kids to do to write. I will not get up at 5:30 willingly, so that's never going to happen. Balancing out my evening time is key.

I do things in stages.
After the whippersnapper was born, we could no longer watch a movie in one sitting. There just wasn't that kind of time. And now that the whippersnapper is a little older, he wants to watch full length movies, but I don't like for him to sit for two or more hours in front of the telly at one time. So we break things up. We took two weeks to watch Wall-e. Had to. Did we mind? Not really. There isn't really an alternative and we don't have that kind of concentrated time. This post is a good example. I've written this in a few stages: I started it one night, left it for later finishing another night, and now I've given it a final edit it the night before it's scheduled to post. (For those of you thinking, "Interesting. Then why are your posts so poorly edited and written?" I can only say "Pbbbbbtttthhh!")

So likewise, I write and edit in phases.

I don't dwell on my pre-parenthood days.

I don't sit there and think "Holy Krakow, it was soooooo good when there were no kids to think about and I could sit here and write and write and write." Because thinking along those lines will only bring bitterness along the lines of "If only I were independently wealthy." Not going to happen. Right now anyway.

Bottom line: I'm passionate and committed to writing. So I do it. That means missing Glee and 30 Rock and all the other shows I know nothing about (truly), and it means making time to write at the expense of a cleaner house or other leisure activities. And of course, it means being very organized about time and finding that thin line of balance.

It's really all about priorities.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

I'm super excited...this weekend I'll be away taking a self-editing workshop with author Catherine Ryan Hyde. I've never done this type of thing, so I'm really looking forward to it, despite the guilt trip the whippersnapper has already laid on me for going away for the weekend. Tuesday I'll post a recap of my experience. But for now, the Roundup! It's a bit short this week because I seem to have been absent from the Reader and Twitter most of the week, but I honestly can't tell you where I was...I don't remember what I was doing. How sad is that, that it's Thursday night and you can't remember what you did all week, and there aren't any new tattoos that give you a clue? Dang. I think I need to get a wee bit more sleep than I've been getting, yes?

  • Via Nathan Bransford's week in publishing roundup last Friday (just in case you missed it, likes) is this great article of the richest fictional characters. Carlisle Cullen from Twilight wins. I'm still trying to figure out how Sir Topham Hatt's fortune was calculated, but I always knew he was rich.
  • Tina Lynn has a timely rant about religion and politics and social networking. Now, Tina and I do not see eye to eye on politics, but I can't agree more with her when she says, "This does not make me less intelligent than you or vice versa."
  • Rachelle Gardener has a guest blogger, Becky Levine, who has a good post on choosing the critique group that's right for you. She wrote the book on it, so you'll want to read this. And I'll be doing a post on this in the next few weeks (which I also personally and in a totally unconceited way believe you will also want to read, even though I haven't written it and I have only a vague idea of what I'll say).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thursday 5: Earth Day 2010

I work in the renewable energy industry and I would be amiss if I didn't post some tips for reducing your carbon footprint today. We say this term "carbon footprint" often, but it's not terribly clear what it means. So first, a quick definition. A carbon footprint is the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an organization, event, or product. Now, initially, you might think, "Bahhh. I'm not flying across country every day and I take the train; I have no carbon footprint." But in fact, you are carbon footprinting even when you sit on your arse on the couch typing away on your WIP. Yes! Because you use energy, and that's really what it comes down to. Here's a quick carbon footprint calculator.

And here are five greeny tips:

1. Sign up for the carbon footprint free website/blog badge.
Sign up with this mostly German site, do a post, and they'll plant a tree in California's Plumas forest for you. Pretty dang easy to get a tree planted. Why wouldn't you? Then you can offset your blog's carbon footprint. Go here.

2. Change your printing methods.
We probably all print out our WIPs, but think of some alternatives first. Print front to back. Print two-up to a page. Print on at least 30% recycled paper (this is a pretty standard recycled content). Print on the back of old WIP pages.

3. Abstain from something.
Everything takes energy to produce. Abstain from the stuff that you know is awful. DOn't eat fastfood for a period of time (even if just for today) -- the industry is rife with disgusting processing practices. Don't eat meat for a day. Don't take such long showers, don't use disposable products. Use environmentally-friendly cleaning products. Don't use cleaning products that have phosphates in them -- like dishwashing detergent. Did you know that Spokane in Washington state has a law against using dishwasher detergent that has phosphates in it because the phosphates have decimated all the dish in their river? Here's an article where a resident drove three hours out of state to buy dishwasher soap with phosphates in it because she felt it cleaned glasses better (It doesn't. We've made the switch and phosphate-free detergent is AWESOME). What an arsehole -- she'd rather waste gas and drive far, pollute the environment, and kill Spokane's ecology. Phosphate-free detergent is widely available in stores now.

4. Pay your bills online.
Easy and free, and perfect for those of who you always wait until the last minute to pay because you were too busy writing. (Um, me. Online bill pay saves my life.)

5. Clean something up.
It's okay if you don't have to go do a beach clean up or whatnot. Just pick up that vile piece of litter you see on the side of the road next time. Or check your city's clean up program for Earth Day (likely to occur this weekend). I know my city emailed the activity out to residents rather than post fliers and mail stuff; check your city's web site for info. Usually cities organize clean up crews and some provide lunch, too.

Please contribute what you'll do in the comments.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Word Up Wednesday: Grateful

I had a different word for you today, but so often when I start writing these posts, what I really wanted to talk about came out loud and clear.

I hope I don't come across as an angry writer here on this blog. I'm passionate, but not angry, definitely not about publishing, agents, queries or the query process, or my writing. I'm happy about my own path, and I really enjoy the writing and revision of my novel. I am not a tired writer, or a bitter writer, or one that is very angry about my interactions (or lack of) with publishing professionals. I'm a joyful writer. (Let me know in the comments if you think I come across otherwise. I'd like to hear it.)

Your Word Up this week is really the word that I feel about the things I have in life, and about the whole writing process: grateful.

It's a funny word because if you say it five times really fast, the "grate" part of the word starts sticking in the back of your throat. And we all know we should be grateful for things, but we rarely are, because being grateful is harder work than being all bitter and angry about stuff.

Like everyone else, I try to remind myself every now and then to take stock of all the really amazing things in my life and be glad. I could do that, but what I'm most grateful for is nothing physical: it's the fact that I have the luxury to be grateful. I'm not hurting, or wanting, or grieving, or in a bad place with no way out. I've got a job with health insurance, all my arms and legs, a healthy husband, a healthy and really cute and smart whippersnapper, AND on top of all that? On the very top, where it shouldn't even be, but is? The luxury to do what I love doing most of all: writing stories.

Cripes, yeah, I'm grateful for that.

More than grateful, I freaking LOVE it.

I'm also grateful for a lot of beautiful things in life: sunshine. Fresh air. A modicum of freedom. The fact that I can read a good book. The simple beauty of a California poppy in the sunshine and wind.

On the writing side again: I'm super grateful for all the readers of my blog, even those who don't like what I say all the time, and my bloggy friends, and twitter friends, and my writing group. I'm grateful that I have the tools available to me to write, learn, and research. I'm grateful that I don't have to write longhand. I'm grateful for where I am in the whole process: obvi I want to publish stories, but I want to do it on my own time, when I'm ready, when my book is ready, for the right reasons.

What are you grateful for?

Monday, April 19, 2010

More Query Don'ts

Happy Monday! This weekend was gorgeous and sunny without being too hot, and we spent Sunday at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. We'd never taken the whippersnapper before, so it was a new one to him. He loved it. He especially loved the trolleys that frequently passed by, and the garbage truck we saw, and also the firetruck that went blazing down the street. Life is so simple when you're a small boy.

Right then! More query don'ts! (I posted 5 do's and don'ts before here.) The other morning I got this in my e-mail inbox at work:

Good morning,
Due to a series of unfortunate events, [Major California College]'s 2010 [industry] Career Fair has been cancelled. Apologies to the companies and organizations that have already registered and made plans to attend. Please look for invitations to next year's [Fair]in early 2011. If you have any questions or concerns please email me.
(Frank isn't really the name.)

Now, I don't know about you, but I had a few thoughts about this:

1. Pretty unprofessional to inform companies that had already committed time and money (because participating in these things takes a crap load of time and money, even if it's just a table top). "Apologies" doesn't cut it. "Please accept my apologies at canceling and please contact me for more information about refunds" would have been much better.

2. "Due to a series of unfortunate events." Are we living in a Lemony Snicket novel? What on earth happened? I know, right, you don't even need to tell me. An alien mother ship landed SMACK in the middle of the exhibit hall and my GOD those little octopus buggers could NOT be caught. A few are still loose, and that isn't even the half of it. They got into the heating ducts and a few died, and the smell was atrocious and of course it was piped into all the administrative buildings. The career fair staff smelled it, and promptly began vomiting everywhere. They couldn't get three feet without vomiting, and I'm talking pea soup exorcist projectile here. What a clean up job! Fortunatley, there's janitors -- oh cripes, not anymore! Cause the alien ship landed right on them as they were having their morning see how this domino effect has led us to cancel the Career Fair, yes? Yes?

3. This email was basically spammed to me. There's no way to tell if my company was actually exhibiting at this event. I choose to believe no, since I can't remember signing up for it. Nonetheless, that smacks of a) sending it to the wrong list and b) being too vague.
In case you don't see where I'm going with this, you want to make sure all your professional correspondence, particularly that surrounding your query letter, adheres to some basic courtesies:

Don't assume things
Ranging from wanting to read your work to representing you, to the fact that the agent remembers anything to do with prior correspondence or having met you.

Don't use cliches, book titles as sentences, or vague and rather dramatic statements (unless as part of your book pitch).

Make it EASY to contact you
Don't make them search. In the case above, if we had been an exhibitor, I would have had to spend time finding the name and number of the person in charge, who may or may not be the same person who e-mailed despite their invitation to respond with questions by e-mail. And in any case, what if I'd gotten the e-mail on my phone? I hate responding via e-mail on my phone! These are all small quibbles. Just cover all bases and put all methods of contact.

Do not spam the agent/editor!
Again, it doesn't speak highly of the college to have sent me the notice when we hadn't signed up for the Career Fair and had no intention of attending, so obviously they spammed their entire contact database. Don't do that.

You all know these things already, of course. Just using a little real-life example to help point these things out.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

  • Non-sharky (not that sharky is bad!) query critique from Rachelle Gardner. Don't know about you, but I learned something from this, mostly to do with character personality coming through.
  • Author Kathi Oram Peterson writes about the end of a novel, in terms of plot structure. Great post if you love plot structure, as I do.
  • Meghan Ward has a timely reminder to BACK UP your work! With some good suggestions for tools to do it with.
  • Amberspice Tidd Murphy has SOME NEWS...or does she?? Take note peeps: she knows how to build a story, make you laugh, and THEN LEAVE YOU HANGING. Someone get this girl an agent!
  • Elana Johnson has some helpful blog tips, which incidentally, I agree completely with.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thursday 5: Beautiful Things

I fear that I am too negative. I get stressed you, you see. I work at a job that is very full and also, I rarely have any idea what I'm doing, which is par for the course in that particular industry and job. And I fear that it comes out on the blog or on Twitter. So today's Thursday 5 is a list of five things I find beautiful (aka peaceful). Sometimes it's important to make sure you stop and think of beautiful things in life, because tomorrow you could be run over by a bus and you'd miss them. Also, who has time for yoga and other mind-clearing things? I don't. (I'm writing!)

1. California redwood trees.
These magnificent trees are the largest in the world. They smell good and they're super pretty. Also, they're home to raccoons, blue jays, squirrels, and other nice animals (although squirrels are borderline nice, as they are basically rats with plumy tails).

2. Cupcakes

A really good cupcake is hard to beat. I'm talking freshly made, with loads of thick buttercream frosting -- and don't give me sub-par grocery store fake stuff either. Give me THICK BUTTERY goodness, and make it nasty.

3. A nice fluffy kitty cat.
Petting a cat reduces stress, they say. Especially when you come home after sitting in traffic where you were cut off repeatedly, after a long work day in which arrogant sales people said truly outrageous and egotistical things, and you go "Did you really just say that? Why is that okay? It's not okay. I won't forget. I'm going to hold it against you now." Petting that fluffy cat and feeling him arch up to meet your hand -- well, that's pretty good. This is my cat Mixo.

4. A really good book.

I'm talking the ones that you eschew all other forms of entertainment for. The one you take into the bathroom with you, the one you go to bed early for, just so you can lie in bed and read it for two or three hours. This one, Coming Home, is my favorite one ever. It's got everything I like: sweeping epic, coming of age, set in England during WWII, strong females who make their own way in life, and of course, a really good and unexpected love story.

5. Time
You know those rare, rare days when you get the day off -- from everything? Your kids aren't home, your spouse is at some all day meeting, and you don't have to answer to anyone. You can sit on the couch in your stinky jammies and write all day and NO ONE will tell you to get off the computer, and you can eat bowls of macaroni and cheese and then leave the bowls on the couch instead of putting them in the sink, and write, and write, and no one will say anything. That is a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Word Up Wednesday: Fortitude

I just got a haircut. I usually get a haircut around this time of year. Not to say I don't cut my hair the rest of the year, but every year I tend to cut it very short. Right now. And inevitably, it makes me feel old and fat. And I look in the mirror and go "CRIPES ALIVE! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?" And then I begin a period of self-loathing that includes feeling old, unintelligent, sloppy, washed up, and terribly bitter towards young published authors who did not waste half their lives toiling away writing boring technical manuals about air ionizers (yes) and instead had the fortitude to get up on it and start writing.

So this week's Word Up is going to have to be fortitude. It means courage; mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger, or temptation courageously. Sometimes I think it's not so much that I have fortitude, but that there's just no other option that I find acceptable.

When I was eight months preggers with my whippersnapper (who is now three), my husband had a lymph node in his neck that started to swell. It grew quite large and the doctors drew lots of blood and gorged themselves on tests and couldn't figure out what it was, so they put him on massive doses of antibiotics. My belly got bigger; his neck got bigger. Then one day, one of his eyes wouldn't move. Then, his tongue stopped moving. Both eye and tongue were paralyzed, and he lost an obscene amount of weight over the course of a few days.

They admitted him to the hospital and put him on IV. This was in August and it was hot, and I required like thirty pounds of fresh fruit a day. I would visit him in the hospital and then on my way home in the evening I would stop by the natural foods store and buy thirty more pounds of fruit for the next day. Nectarines, especially. Delicious. Meanwhile, the arsehat doctors found NOTHING despite doing every test imaginable.

"How can they not know?" people asked me.

"I don't know!" I said. "I can't believe it either!"

"Well, can't they...." (insert every suggestion known to mankind)

"No," I said, because I was exhausted from staying vigilant at the hospital all day, and it simply wasn't that easy to try some new test. That isn't how doctors work.

Then they inserted a feeding tube into his stomach, which was hideously awful. He came home, and now I was nine months preggers and had to feed the poor guy a can of vanilla flavored meal-in-a-drink several times a day through his tube. And he couldn't even taste the vanilla.

This is where you might think fortitude comes in, but really, I had no choice. Everyone said, "You're so good." And I went, "Why? This what you do." It wasn't like I was going to leave him.

Then, he got a fever. A bad one that gave him the chills all the time. And this fever lasted two weeks. We went back to the doctor and she's like Um, yeah, we're admitting you, Fever Boy. This was my worst fear realized. I was terrified that he would miss the birth. So in the hospital he goes, and the next morning I go into labor. A soft, gentle labor, contractions 20 minutes apart. I told my mother, who lives two hours away, "You might want to come down today, and pack extra clothes." So she did. And I went out and bought a #0 paint brush, because suddenly, I really, really needed it. To finish all that fine-detail paint work that I wasn't doing, obviously.

The contractions increased throughout the day. I was like "This is totally doable." And my doctor said she was on vacation for the next three days, and I said "No probs. I'll wait."

At 9:00 pm that night, right during the Grey's Anatomy season premier, the contractions were kind of painful. I ignored them; I had a Grey's Anatomy season premier to see. Then I went to bed and they became terribly painful and then my water broke. Actually, things took longer -- there was some pacing and showering, and some other stuff I don't remember. I do remember my mother driving us through Berkeley at 3 am and the traffic lights were on red blinky status and I said "JUST RUN THEM" because all the stopping was making me demented.

My poor husband had to listen to the birth over the phone from his hospital (different insurances), and my mother and mother-in-law both went down to the end of the delivery table so they could full view of everything I had on offer. Fortitude.

The whippersnapper was born and all was well, and my husband relaxed from his spa-like bed while I did all the work (fortitude), but he was give a day-release and allowed to come see me, which was very nice. Of course, he was feverish and all he could do was nod and smile.

He slowly got better. They released him from the hospital and pretended to run more tests and send his file to fancy clinics and the like. They removed the tube. He could eat again. His eyesight returned. He had two surgeries to remove the golf ball lymph node. He spent the first two months of the whippersnapper's life at home with me. They never found out what was wrong and concluded "auto-immune disorder."

When I think back on that time, I just feel ragey and roary and full of enough fortitude to share with you, if you need it (here, have some). It's kind of good to remember that fortitudy-time because now, at times like these short haircut ones, I need to remember that I am capable of it, no matter how old I am now or what I'm doing. (At least I'm not writing technical manuals about air ionizers anymore.)

My husband has not gotten sick like that since.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I hear many things around the tinterwebs. I know Roni, who is often my blog post muse these days, is experimenting with a different kind of story structure. And torrid affair Carrie mentioned that she's interested in gaining knowledge on how to write a kick ass sex scene, just in casers. It got me thinking. While I do think I've grown as a writer in the past few years, most visibly in my current story, (and I vivaciously defy you to disagree; Nemesis need not supply commentary on that), I also think I stick to a relatively predictable formula. Likely this is because getting that formula right is a pain in the chorus and verse (=erse = arse). But I still wonder when I'll be ready to experiment and play a bit.

I'm pretty sure that super smarty pants people have no problems with this, but I'm only smart enough to realize how much I don't know. When I read twist-o-flex stories that contain plot twists you never saw coming, or awesome, mind-bending tricks that make my head spin, then I know I'm reading the fruits of a genius brain. It's one of the reasons I cannot write mystery: I simply can't solve the mystery.

In women's fiction, there tends to be a pat formula: woman has problem + meets guy / loses guy and must confront issue = gets guy and solves problem. Add in a dash of shoes if it's traditional urban chick lit, if you must. There's nothing wrong with this formula, but it gets way old after a while. I need a little somethin'somethin' to make it stand out for me. That is why I particularly like my BFF Marian Keyes' books -- because she adds in "real issues" like drug addiction, depression, and domestic abuse.

So I began to think about the ways in which one might experiment with story:

Multiple POVS
Multiple POVs are probably the most often used alternate construct. This is hard. I've never tried it because it's hard. Having several people tell the story means making sure several plot threads stay connected, get solved, and are well-developed. Frankly, I'm not ready for that, but God knows I love a challenge, so one of the stories cooking in my head involves multiple POVs.

Time travel or time split
Dividing the story arc between two times, either by time travel or by past and present, isn't easy. Your times must eventually mesh, and doing that elegantly will be trick-ay.

Unconventional POVs
This is where you write from the point of view of a cat, or someone in heaven looking down, or someone in hell looking up, or a moose with a brain tumor or something.

Alternate formats
Novels written in e-mails, tweets, text speak, memos, or other non-traditional formats. The problem with this is that once it's been done once, it really doesn't need to be done again. I don't think I've seen a novel written in semaphores. I might do that.

Themes with a Higher Cause
This is tricky. Ian McEwan's new novel Solar purports to tackle climate problems. Apparently, the main character tries to get a solar farm in New Mexico going, even though that would not happen because New Mexico's state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are not that great for solar, and also the lower population in the state do not currently make solar very viable there despite the excess of sun and heat. #justsayin. Where was I? Oh yes, novels might have characters and plot lines and arcs and all the rest, but its real purpose is to caution or preach.

Have you experimented with any of these? How has it worked? Can you add to this list?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Negative Comments Survival Guide

The week before last we talked about how to give negative feedback nicely when the material you're critiquing isn't very good.

But it struck me that everyone reading this blog, and probably everyone in my blog-o-rama-network, already knows the value of being professional and polite when giving feedback. So maybe what we need are some tips on how to deal with the ogres who aren't kind -- the ones who are downright rude. I'm not sure if it was a full moon last week, but at least three people I know mentioned on Twitter that they'd gotten blatantly rude critiques lately, ranging from having your work called boring, to comments that had to be deleted off blogs.

This article, which seems to be written from the perspective of a company running blogs, has some tips on responding to negative commentary. I'm going to adapt them and add them to my Survival Guide of How to Deal with Rude Comments.

Step 1: Vent.
Oh yeah, I know. Your blood boils when you get rude comments. Definitely take time to let it out, but do it amongst friends and support groups. Twitter is a good place because you know you'll get love back from your regular friends, and it's instant to boot. But it's also public. Remember when you vent on Twitter, people can see it.

Step 2: Understand what happened.
The rude commenter/critiquer has a personal agenda, flat out. That may (and often does) include needing to make him of herself feel better by wounding others. Writing is especially susceptible to this because people love to feel superior about their writing skills. It's usually not personal. It's the opposite -- the rude person has issues of their own and this is how it came out.

Step 3: Decide if you should respond.
This is a toughie. In the end, it's probably best to respond with as little as possible, or nothing at all. Don't engage in arguments because the person already demonstrated that they are a simian asshat, which tells you that you're likely to get more rude responses. If the rude person is a family member or friend, go ahead and never speak to them again. I mean, honestly.

Step 4: See if there's anything to glean from the situation.
You know that particularly wounding wording that rude person used when they slammed you? Resolve never to use that yourself. See what they picked up on and picked apart? Turn it around and ask yourself if, in the grand scheme of things, what they picked on was even relevant. (One of you said that the rude critiquer said they didn't like first-person POV. That's, quite frankly, useless feedback.)

But apart from what the rude person actually said -- you really should think about whether there's anything in their critique. No, I totally know you hate them, but there might be something in there worth thinking about.

Step 5: Compare the rude comments with others who have gotten rude comments and see who has the worst one -- but only after you've calmed down.
This survival tactic is one of my favorites. Got a good one? Share it with others who've gotten hurtful comments. Then you can all go "OMG!! WTF!!" And you'll feel better.

Step 6: Remember that this is nothing compared to what you're going to get when you're published.
From nasty Amazon reviews to personal letters detailing all the ways in which you've offended the reader, despite the fact that they finished reading your book, you're going to get the full brunt of the Crazy Public. And those letters will pale in comparison to a negative review in a magazine or newspaper. Ouch. The remedy: eat chocolate and hide until it's forgotten.

Have any to add? Plus, what is the rudest thing someone's said to you?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

  • My newest secret BFF (secret meaning only in my mind), Tawna Fenske, writes with usual humor and flair about how writers stay organized and keep notes...even if it's with a broken piece of soap on the shower door.
  • Roni asks if you can learn to be funny. She flattered me by linking to me in the post and pointing out how sarcastic I am. Strangely, and perhaps tellingly, she regularly has 30+ comments and has a million followers, and linked to me twice this week, but I'm not seeing the uptick in blog traffic. I am not bitter. I love those of you who follow and comment (really). But I would be a fat, filthy liar if I said I didn't want at least 3/4 of her followers. kthx.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thursday 5: My Own Checklist

I said on Tuesday that I would list my top 5 known writing problems -- you know those little buggers that come up again and again in critique groups? Yeah, I haz them. So here's my own personal checklist of things to make sure I don't do. What are yours?

1. Smiling too much.
She smiled. "You know this one already."

2. Using the word "was" too often.
Passive voice! Passive voice!

3. Adverbs.
I let some stay, but I have to go through and get rid of far more. "Suddenly" is an especial problem.

4. Events that have no relevance in the scene or plot.
My husband has gotten good (a little too good, some might say) at pointing out scenes or elements that are extraneous.

5. Logic problems.
Sometimes I find lines that assumed something happened when it didn't. Theses are like little ticks seeding the page. Really hard to find and pull out. I leave little notes to myself in red when I find them and then go back and fix them. Some require rewriting whole scenes, and some (the worst) require changing a detail or story element.

Leave your known issues in the comments!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Word Up Wednesday: Vivacious

When I was ten years old, my mam and I were living in Santorini, Greece, we knew a young Greek woman named Alexandra. Alexandra was beautiful and funny and full of life. Her English was extremely good, good enough to hang around with the ex-pats, but every now and then she would slip an odd word into conversation. One of my favorites was "cooks" for "cookies." I remember when she said cooks, I said "What is that?" and she said, "It's a quicker way to say cookies." Obviously!

One time my mother was sweeping the cement floor of our villa and I really wanted to do it, for some odd reason that would certainly not be replicated today, and I think I was being kind of obnoxious about wanting to do it (I know that may come as a shock to many of you). Alexandra was there and she said, "Oh Sierra. You are so vivacious."

My mother said, "I don't think you mean that word. I think you mean, obnoxious, insistent, perhaps even vociferous."

"No, I am sure she is vivacious," Alexandra said.

"But vivacious means lively and high-spirited, and while Sierra is those things, I think what you mean right now is naughty," my mother said. I did not appreciate her correction of Alexandra's beautiful word.

"I am sure she is vivacious," Alexandra insisted. I think we were surprised she knew the word, because the context was off. But in Greece, I ran around like a little sprite and was terribly independent. And if truth be told, twenty years later, vivacious sounds like a pretty good thing to be called. I think I was vivacious back then, and I like to think I am somewhat now, too. Vivacious, based on the Latin viva for life, means sounds energetic and active.

And as a somewhat sedentary beast these days, I can tell you I have a whole new appreciation for those vivacious days in Greece.

At right is Alexandra. I am posting her picture with great hesitation since this is a public forum and I don't have her permission, but we neither remember her last name, nor she ours, and we haven't seen or spoken to her in over twenty years. This photo was taken probably in 1983 or so.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Character Reactions

One of my known problem areas is using too much of the same physical descriptions for reactions*. I know Roni said, possibly during our late-night Twitter discussion on body parts (you missed a really good one if you missed that), recently how this was a particular problem in romance writing. There's a lot of leaning in and out going on, apparently. I tend to use "smile" way too much. "He/she smiled" shows, in my mind, a variety of expressions: a joke, sarcasm, bitterness, sadness....except the reader doesn't know that!

Writing physical description can be repetitive and strangely challenging. There's only so much smiling, leaning, lip curling, and inclining of the head you can do. It would seem as though movies and telly would have it easy in this department, but I say they have it harder.

In writing, you have a much richer world of description: the senses. I think we rely on sight because it's easy, most of us are visual, and let's face it -- it takes some work to come up with an alternative that captures the essence of a character. And if eye-rolling and sighing are cliches, that should tell you something: they're overused. The following work well:

Smell can convey mood or setting in a wonderfully subtle way. Maybe your character detects a hint of lilac when she's scared or upset, or perhaps she associates the smell of clean linen with her most comforting memories. If you've built it correctly, a character's reaction can incorporate smell and serve as a great cue to the reader that the character feels a certain way.

Instead of eye-rolling, smiling, frowning, or brow-raising, maybe your character reaches out to touch another character on the shoulder, or taps his fingers nervously on the table, or his knee bumps against the table in agitation.

This one can be easily overused too, but still has lots to offer. A character can blow air through his lips in frustration, or hear a high-pitched whine like a mosquito when upset. Of course, the character might hear music or reaction as though music is playing, depending on the mood.

Do you use any of these senses for reactions? Can you add anything to the list? What physical description pitfalls do you try to avoid?

*For this week's Thursday 5, I'm going to list my top 5 known writing problems. My own personal list of check points.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Revealing Yourself

The enigmatic Lt. Cccyxx over at his blog Skullcrusher Mountain wondered last week if he should come out to the world with his real identity -- aka, his writing identity. I wrote a long, impassioned response (summary below). Many of you will not worry about using your real name, because you already do. But some of us may hide the fact that we blog or write to our friends, family, and colleagues.

I told the Lt. that I'm not secretive about my writing, but I don't discuss it with people who think I'm "playing" or who condescend to me about it. I made a decision a few years ago that I was going to commit to making writing a solid, real part of my life. It felt right to me to do that. I asked the Lt. what he was afraid of: Questions? Condescension? Vilification? Failure to get approval? I know I was afraid of all those. All of those worries are valid. You're going to have to be public about yourself in some form if you want to be published. Gone are the days when writers could hole up in a mountain cave and never give interviews and never come out.

Here seem to be some pros and cons to being public about your identity and your writing:

  • Branding your name prior to publication
  • Building an online community
  • Possibly getting attention from agents based on your wit and charm (this has recently with one of you out there, too.)
  • You may never be published and everyone will see your efforts and then laugh at you
  • Childhood friends and people you went to high school with who Google you will find your blog/web site and….laugh at you, or know what you’re doing, or otherwise know something
  • Is time-consuming and unmanageable
My stance is that if you manage yourself correctly, then you can use your name on all forms while still maintaining some privacy. The Lt. argued that he feels going public with his real name will close some doors – I wasn’t sure which doors those were but he might be referring to professional doors. Then I realized: I totally cheat at this. I use my married name at work. My work colleagues could easily find me, but aren’t likely to if they don’t know my maiden name (Godfrey). I still hide the fact that I write from people I work with. Well, hide is a bit strong. I just don't mention it, but then I also don't mention when I'm running low on toilet paper, either.

But I put to you this question: if the world knows you write, how bad is that really? What are you really losing by people knowing that? The Lt. suggested that he’s be interrogated with questions like “Are you published yet” and “Why not,” but those are just annoyances. The answers can be as short (“No”) or as long as you like (“Not yet but let me tell you how awesome my story about Stanky McStankstank is!”).

In the end, I know full well that I'm findable. And I had to get to a place where I was okay with that. I’m intensely private and paranoid by nature, but almost a year ago I registered the domain name and then I started this blog. And now lookit. I have BFFs, I have a nemesis, I have friends. I have a network. I have support that I never dreamed of having.

For those of you who use your name, are you afraid of being found by….someone? What are you privacy concerns? For those who use not your real names, what are your fears? Do you tell people you know that you write? Do you keep it all to yourself? And perhaps most importantly, do you think that will aid or hinder you in your goals?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Google Reader Roundup

Before you get into this week's Google Reader Roundup, I just want to say thank you for all the love this week in comments and on Twitter. I may not be as nice as some, but I get the sense that many of you are not repulsed by me (with exception of the nemesis, which is a given), and that truly makes my world go round. Thank you.

  • Then Meghan talks about the concept of commitment, a topic I feel passionately about.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Oh my! Here's what was in my in-box today!

Dear Sierra,

We noticed you have a wonderful blog, and you post frequently to it with topics that your commenters appear to find somewhat interesting. And they are -- except that you rarely reach double digit comments, and your follower count seems to be far lower than other equivalent blogs. Still, we liked your red theme. And, as we are a full-service literary agency representing women's fiction with numerous best sellers and a track record of scoring our authors 7-figure advances, even (and especially) for debuts, we have decided to reach out to you based on the fact that you seem reasonable, and also because you're a Hibs fan. You've hinted enough about your novels, both the one set in Greece, and the one you're writing now, and we all thought those hints sounded decent enough. In fact, I'd go so far as to say please send pages at once. That's right, I'm requesting a full, now, of everything you've got. My personal email is [redacted]; please send me an attachment there in order to bypass the slush. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. (We'll get you way more than $200!)

I'll tell you what else: your list of internet BFFs is impressive, as well as the fact that you've already got a nemesis, a secret lover, secret husbands, and a torrid affair. Damn, girl. Either you get around, or you're super cool. I'm just going to go ahead and say it...I'm ready to offer you representation. I know a star when I see it.

Now, I know this sounds all a little fantastical and unorthodox. And it is. That's why I'm going to go ahead and say April Fool's right now, but tell you this: persevere. And keep your head up. And keep laughing. Cause you'll get there. Soon.

[Redacted], at [Redacted] Literary Agency

P.S. I'd like to be added to your BFF list, and possibly start a new category of our own: the April-Fool's Agent. La la la!