Monday, December 31, 2012

10 Things About Sierra and 2012

I love doing my annual year-end posts. That's because I've done them for three years now and it's really fun reading over the past years. Here's 2009, 2010, and 2011 if you're interested (and because they're all about me, why wouldn't you be? I mean, I totally am.)

P.S. If you're looking for the final Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge wrap up post, check back here tomorrow.

1. I found a happy medium in my diet and shed 15 pounds.
One day last summer my friend and I and our kids were at the community pool. A woman walked by wearing bikini bottoms and a halter top bathing suit. She looked fabulous, with a pert, perfect butt. I said, "Even if I worked hard and trained all summer, I'd never have an ass that size." My friend suggested we join Weight Watchers online together. (In retrospect, was she calling me fat??) I agreed mainly as a lark to see if it worked.

It didn't.

I found the points thing rather unbalanced for actual nutrition  That is, they heavily penalize you for eating a handful of almonds, but I found that my body thrives on the nutrients and healthy oils in almonds. I don't eat 50 million of them, but I do eat more then then paltry 5 you're allotted by the WW fascists. They also say brown rice is as bad as white rice--same point penalty. That makes no sense. So I should just eat sugary starch then? Worst of all, when I went to cancel my account, they charged me the full month even though I cancelled 2 days into the month. When I complained, they said "tough toenails." I remarked that this policy was very bad marketing and quite bad customer service. Their whole business is based on people failing diets and then returning to WW in shame, and now I wouldn't be returning, I'd direct my shame elsewhere. They didn't care. This is too bad for Weight Watchers since treating people badly doesn't induce them to return. Ah well. Not my problem.

Where were we. Anyway, then I read This is Why You're Fat by Jackie Warner. Because I wanted to understand what was going on in my body. The book is great--it helps you understand why and what happens. And I started eating right. In particular I stopped allowing sugar to be my main food group. Et voila, fifteen pounds. (Oh fine, I walked too and I ate right. But the sugar was the main thing.) I have some work to do from my holiday sugar binge, but I'm all right.

The old girl in better times. :(
2. I lost a cat. 
My cat Ally passed away in February (or March...oh it's all a blur) at age 17. I'm not sure what she died of, but she probably had multiple problems and when something went wrong (namely, she started puking one day and couldn't stop), her body starting shutting down. She died at home with me. I would say peacefully but it wasn't really. She suffered all day, and was scared and upset. This was better than being furious and insane in the car and the vet's office, however. And my other cat wanted nothing to do with her, treating her as though she were a pariah who would spread a death virus if he got too close to her. And I had to bury her in the rain and her stiff body toppled into the hole in an ungainly and unseemly fashion...it was all awful. Just awful. But the main thing here is that I had her for a really long time--all my early adulthood. And although I found her really annoying at times, she was with me through good and bad. So she gets a spot on my list. Poor Al. In a house full of boys (even our remaining cat is a boy), she and I were the only girls.

3. My most listened-to song of the year was...
'Blue Skies' (Unquote remix) by Blu Mar Ten. If I heard this song every day for the rest of my life I'd be a happy girl. Every time I hear it, I fall in love, then I feel soul-searing pain and loss, and I emerge hopeful and alive. That's a rather tall order for a song, don't you think? Have a listen. I'm listening right now as I type this! When it's finished I'll replay it. 

4. I have a baby who sleeps.
Can you believe this? All year, he didn't sleep. Six months ago, here's what I put on Facebook:

BABY FOR SALE

Pros:
  • is fourteen months today
  • thinks dogs make the world go round 
  • fat and juicy
  • says "moo" and "hisss" fetchingly
Cons:
  • screams all night long-- last night most of the night
  • has massive molar coming in that makes him--and everyone else--unhappy
  • has a really ugly scream when it reaches hysterical levels (frequently at night)
  • does not travel well
But! In the nick of time, sliding in right before the year is out, he is finally sleeping. Not always, and not entirely consistently, but no more waking 3-4 times at night. No more screaming like a banshee! The funny thing is, a mere two weeks ago I posted this out of sheer despair describing him scream and my accompanying pain. 

But we've really come a long way since then. I've taught him to put himself to sleep and he's learning well.
So. So! Heaven. 

5. I was on TV. 
It was a show on HGTV, I don't want to say which one in case adoring fans start clamoring for autographs and the like, you know that can get dreadfully tiring darling. We actually filmed in 2011, but the show went on hiatus and we were on their new season, which they didn't air until April 2012. It was fun. The glamorous hosts were exactly the same off camera as they were on, which is to say, fun and sweet. (The main host was actually a bit of a diva, but nice when you spoke with him.) When we filmed the show, Rainbow Puppy (now 20 months) was a month old, and I wore the only shirt that fit me and didn't look like a shapeless bag. I also had Rainbow Puppy in the baby carrier. I didn't realize until later that I was bouncing him up and down like a lotto ball non stop in all my scenes. (I totally just said scenes as though I filmed a movie. Where's my SAG card?!) I was sure I made awful TV--who wants to watch a constantly bouncing lady, you'd get a seizure. When it aired, Mr. Sierra and I sat and watched, cringing, but even though I'd my own worst critic, it wasn't so bad. It really wasn't! And our house has noticeably improved as a result of being on the show. Win-win.

6. I was reminded that despite blogging pretty heavily for about five years, I still have no clue what works. I tried different things this year: I tried to start a blogfest (no one participated), I tried not to post very frequently (no one cared), I tried to post pedantic writing posts (retweets were high and blog stats showed these got a lot of traffic, but no one commented, How to Write a Great Climactic Scene was a huge hit getter), and I tried being more personal and less writingish (no one commented and blog stats were low, although these posts - "5 Things I like" are some of my favorites). So I still don't know.

7. I wrote, revised, revised more, queried. I slaved over my query letter to death (let's just say I owe Janice Hardy and Kristen Lippert-Martin a kidney each; please don't simultaneously collect), and then pushed my baby out into the world. I got traction but not the winning kind. I pulled it back, had a long, long talk with myself and then did what I wanted with the manuscript, not what I thought everyone else wanted. The result? Something that works. Really, really works. There's a lesson in all this. When I discover it, I'll let you know.

8. I worked a LOT. 
This was the year of slaving away on my freelance graphic design and technical writing business. The previous year I worked hard too, but I'd had Rainbow Puppy, and that event kind of dominated everything else. This year, I worked hard and designed a ton of websites, met wonderful clients (like the lovely Lorrie Thomson), and learned lots of lessons, some of them painful--like the one where you think you and the client have discussed what they want only to find they don't want that at all, and there was nothing you could do about it. Or you could, but they didn't want to deal with you. Anyway, I am so lucky to be able to do what I do. So lucky that it earns a solid place on this list.

9. I came to terms with my family's political preferences.
As we all know, this year was a huge election year and my, how divisive it was. One of the biggest shockers was discovering that most of my paternal family are Republicans, including my dear dad and my closest cousin. No offense to anyone, but I believe so strongly in compassion for all, and other basic female reproductive rights, and loads of other things that I think make our society better, and that they don't support those things does my head in a bit. I wondered, who are these people? But I had to realize that Republicans are like everyone else -- they're even loved ones I've known my entire life -- and they probably don't think their views are odious. They probably feel the same way about me in reverse. So you have to let these things go. Or just stop thinking about them in connection to the person. And be thankful that it doesn't actually matter how they voted, because California was never going to be a Republican state in the vote count anyway because I love them.

10. I realized how happy I am.
I had a hard time thinking of major things that happened to me this year. I stewed in the lameness of this for a few days until I realized it was a more subtle year full of many small joys, excepting the not sleeping part. This year my baby learned to walk, talk, and turn one. He grew into a little person. Quite a difference from where we were this time last year. I also watched my six year old son grow into a little adult, bounding into a whole new world of reading and writing and psychologically out-maneuvering his mother, and shouting "Booyackasha" at every opportunity. I read a ton, and I played lots of games. I worked a lot (see number 9 above) and I walked a lot. And I felt comfortable with my goals and where I am with them, even if that means I'm still working on them.

Happy 2013 guys and thanks for reading my slaver.



Friday, December 21, 2012

Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge Week 3 Check in

Oh my! Like many of you, I completely forgot to check in and post our Week 3 check in. I blame having gone out of town for pre-Christmas family visiting earlier in the week. But I'm back now and it's time to check in for Week 3 of our Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge.

I have to say, I haven't done nearly as much as I wanted to.

However! I am also taking a few days off work this weekend and next week, so I plan to devote serious time to rewriting. I put some time in this evening and it felt good.

So, where are you? Are you taking time off for the holidays? Sure, go ahead. But don't forget to do something, and check in here. Prizes are at stake!

Monday, December 17, 2012

What I Read This Year

December means doing all my year-end wrap up posts, which is a lot of fun if you've been blogging for several years. It means I get to re-read older posts from years past and see how far I've come...or not come, since some of what I've written makes me go "ha ha ha! God she's funny! Oh wait, that's me." How much of a sad sap must I be if my younger self amuses my older, clearly boring self? Not to mention how narcissistic it is to think yourself funny. Well, I've always been a fan of my own humor, which is nice when no one else is. (I'm an only child. You have to be your biggest fan when you're an only child.)

Anyway, each year in December I go into my Goodreads account and see how many books I've read and what they were. Last year, I read 26 books. In 2010 I read 25 books. This year, I've read 33 books! Whoo hoo! Here's what I read. As you can see, I was the queen of reading multiple books by the same author this year. Well, hey. I found some damn good authors. Liza Palmer and Anna Maxted reign as my most favorites ever. I liked Canadian author Catherine McKenzie a lot, and I discovered and enjoyed Susanna Kearsley quite a bit, who specializes in a nice combo of paranormal and women's fic.

I also read a ton of what is classfied as chick lit--and I enjoyed every bit of it. It was smart, hilarious, and so far removed from the chick lit of old featuring heels and NYC. Today's chick lit is smart and clever.

And I'm buying it.

  • Running in Heels by Anna Maxted
  • The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
  • The Good Woman by Jane Porter
  • Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins 
  • How Lucky You Are Lewis by Kristyn Kusek
  •  Being Committed by Anna Maxted 
  • Arranged by Catherine McKenzie
  • Conversations With the Fat Girl by Liza Palmer
  • The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant
  • A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents by Liza Palmer 
  • Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy, #2) by Deborah Harkness
  •  A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy, #1) by Deborah Harkness 
  • Behaving Like Adults by Anna Maxted
  • Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews
  • The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger 
  • The Uninvited Guests Jones, Sadie
  • Getting Over It Maxted, Anna
  • The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley 
  •  Mariana by Susanna Kearsley
  •  Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer
  • More Like Her by Liza Palmer
  • These Girls by Sarah Pekkanen
  • The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley 
  • Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
  • Crash Into You (Loving On The Edge, #1) by Roni Loren
  • Homecoming by Cathy Kelly
  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  • Dead to the World (Sookie Stackhouse, #4) by Charlaine Harris
  • Club Dead (Sookie Stackhouse, #3) by Charlaine Harris
  • Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse, #2) by Charlaine Harris
  •  Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1) by Charlaine Harris
  • The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd
So, what did YOU read this year that you loved?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge Week 2 Check in

Hey peeps! It's time for the Superstatic Winter Writing Challenge Check in, Week 2!

If you aren't familiar with what this is, there's plenty of time to tune in and join in. See this kick off post for information; then see this post for a list of the great prizes at stake.

So, how are we doing in week 2?

For my part, I've completely lost my head to the holidays and I haven't been writing. But! I also got feedback from certain awesome critique partners last week that my new first chapter is working, so I'm thrilled. I have two major goals now for the remainder of December, and then some big plans for pushing this baby out there in the world in January. My goals:

  1. Revise midpoint scene
  2. Re-read whole novel for POV changes and continuity. 
That's it. I'm close and I'm thrilled! I have to say, this writing challenge and Meghan's original one at Writerland have been hugely motivating. Even if I did very little, I felt like I was doing something.

So where are you? How are you doing?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Struggles

I am sitting at my desk right now, listening to my 20-month old son scream.

He's in bed, and it's naptime. He wants to take a nap--he's a great midday napper--but he does not want to take a nap if he has to know about it. What that means is that he prefers for me to hold him until he is completely asleep, and when I put him in his crib, he is already in the deep, wonderful waters of sleep oblivion. He never knows a thing. And that's the way he likes it.

Problem is, this has led to mucho night waking, where he wakes 3-4 times a night because he doesn't know (or conveniently forgets) how to put himself back to sleep when he wakes. Which, as you might guess, is insufferable.

So we have begun this: I finish our bedtime routine, and then instead of putting him in bed when he's asleep, I put him in when he's awake, which is what I should have &$%#@ing done when he was a newborn. (I didn't, because he would immediately scream then.)

So. It's pretty bad. He is objecting strenuously to the plan.

I didn't want his sleep to be this difficult, but I also know that if we're going to get anywhere near him falling asleep on his own, unassisted, then we need to start somewhere. I dislike this in the extreme. It hurts. I can't even eat -- although I am eyeing the wine cabinet. It's incredibly hard. It's really, really hard. It's hard like childbirth was, like toddler tantrums are -- even like how almost two years of sleep deprivation is hard.

Normally I'd never make a comparison to how hard writing and editing a novel is, but I'm totally going to, because you may already know how very, very difficult it is to create a marketable novel that is good enough. And by good enough, I mean one that someone else wants to a) sell and b) buy.

And good enough takes a lot of sweat and tears, just like baby-raising does. That is, raising of stubborn, extremely insistent babies -- not those little angels who sleep through the night from day 1 and give you nary a second of sass, tantrums, or struggle. Probably those babies are made of clay, but you get my drift. We all have a friend who has that baby. None of us like her.

Anyway, back to the novel writing. In the past two, no three, years, I've worked so hard on my current ms. I've discovered several times that it has problems that needed complete rewrites in order to fix. I've spent countless hours fixing them and thinking about the story, the characters, the plot. I've lived with this story, I've loved this story. I've dreamt it. This is how it goes. This is what you do with a baby, non?

But you do it, because the end result is a happy, well-adjusted novel that will put itself to sleep unassisted.

Well, I'll let you know how that part turns out, anyway.






Thursday, December 6, 2012

Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge Check in

Thanks to all of you who are taking part in the Superstastic Winter Writing Challenge! You can join in any time for this month.

I announced the Challenge on Monday and we're supposed to check in every Thursday, but a week hasn't technically gone by today so this is just a quick cheerleading post to say hi and how are you and how's it going so far?

And I also wanted to announce the super awesome prizes. At the end of the month, on December 31, I will randomly choose a winner--but you have to had commented on the first post to say you're in, and you have to check in on the last post to say how you did. The prizes? The following FABULOUS baking cookbooks:

  • Williams Sonoma Essentials of Baking
  • Home Baked Comfort
  • The Art of the Cookie



I have all three of these and I have to say, I freaking LOVE them.

So, how are you doing so far? Follow along daily and check in via Twitter. Use the hashtag #TTWC. We were going to change that, but it hasn't happened.....so just keep the same hashtag.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Important: If you write women's fic, no RWA

If you write women's fiction, you might belong to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) association; maybe you belong to the women's fiction chapter. If you do, you need to know what's happening with that. Basically, you're out of the RWA.

Last summer, RWA changed rules for its national contests--contests that are prestigious, and can and have gotten many writers notice from agents and editors as well as national accolades within the very large organization that is RWA. Heck, being in RWA by itself shows you're professional and smart about your career. The changes to the contests essentially excluded fiction that didn't adhere to romance guidelines. Put simply, people who wrote women's fiction--defined very well by author Therese Walsh as fiction that "focuses on the woman's journey as opposed to the journey of a couple in love"-- were excluded from participating in the contests, which are one of the reasons people join the RWA.

The women's fiction chapter of the RWA is a huge chapter. I've been a member for several years and met wonderful ladies in it at all stages of their careers. 

Recently, it came to light that RWA will no longer support the bylaws that governed the women's fiction chapter; in essence, RWA does not support chapters of members that write fiction with romantic elements. As a result, the women's fiction chapter is disbanding from the RWA. Where it ends up is not yet determined, but the chapter is strong and the members passionate, so it will likely emerge in a new incarnation.

If you write women's fiction, this is important information. RWA has been a great resource, but if you join the RWA you need to write romantic fiction, not fiction with romantic elements or any other type of fiction that isn't defined as romance.

As the WF chapter evolves, I will post information about how to find them. 

There is a post on this from last year's chapter president Laura Drake at Writer Unboxed, which is positive and focuses on the fact that these things evolve and there's no hard feelings.

Personally I have decided not to renew my membership with RWA as it hasn't been as supportive as I would have liked; the exclusion of my work in contests and chapters is a bit rough as well.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Supertastic Winter Writing Challenge

A challenge for December!
Every year in November, writers all over the world take part in National Novel Writing Month, or NoWriMo. And also all over the world, writers don't take part it in. Our reasons are varied. Mine have always been that I don't want to write a whole novel in a month--and if I had to write one that fast it wouldn't be something I loved. But more specifically, it's usually because I'm working on something already and I want to keep working on it.

So when my friend Meghan Ward hosted the Writerland Challenge over at her blog, Writerland, as an alternative to NaNo, I was in. Her rules were easy: Everyone who participated in the Writerland challenge could set their own goals, and we'd all check in every Thursday on her blog and report how we did for our weekly goals. We also regularly checked in with one another on Twitter and cheered each other one. At the end, Meghan chose a random winner to receive some of her delicious toffee.

Many of the people who participated in the Writerland Challenge want to keep doing it. So I said I'd host the challenge this month, with a name change: The Supertastic Winter Writing Challenge.

Here's how it works:

  1. You'll set a goal for yourself for the month of December. This can be anything you want, from writing a whole novel to finishing revisions to writing an outline. The idea is to set a smaller goal for yourself that is realistic but challenging and fits with your long-term writing goals. 
  2. Stick with your goals this month. 
  3. We'll report back here every Thursday to check in and log our progress--and hold each other accountable.
  4. At the end of the month, I'll choose a random winner from the participants to receive a prize, which I haven't yet decided on but trust me, it's going to involve books and it's going to be good.
Let's go!
Leave a comment below if you're in. To get you going, I'll do what Meghan did. The first 5 people who sign up and COMPLETE the challenge get to be interviewed by me on here the blog, celebrity style, where you can talk about your work and your process.

Support!
Follow, cheer, and support along with the new Twitter hashtag, #SWWC. (We were going to keep the #TTWC hashtag for consistency's sake, but the Table Tennis World Championship hijacked the tag a few times.) 

Monday, November 26, 2012

How to Write a Great Climactic Scene

I recently removed a major element of my WIP. Removing major plot elements always leaves holes you have to apply mortar to and brick over, but this one was so massive that it required an entirely new climatic scene. Which was fine.

Except I didn't have a replacement climactic event.

There I was, with a heroine all set to apply newly-realized lessons, and to finally discover the last important pieces of information she needed to know, and with her ready to put the smack down once and for all on her antagonist....and I didn't have any place for them to do it.

The creative well was dry on this one. I needed a setting for all those above items to happen, but no place jumped out. Nothing. I had nothing. So I did what any stuck writer does: I turned to the Internet and watched the kitten web cam. After that, I watched some Limmy videos for a while. When I was done with that, I checked Facebook and Twitter...well, you get the picture. When I had exhausted all my usual diversionary tactics, I got down to work and researched what to do. And I came up with:

3 Important Points about Climatic Scenes

[1] The first point is a quick recap of what a climactic scene needs to accomplish. The climactic scene is a final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist. And the outcome must prove your story's moral premise and theme; it must contain a "moment of truth." A crappy or weak climactic scene will not accomplish the point of your story and it will leave readers feeling let down and disappointed.

So, after that little picker-upper, the next thing to do was refresh myself on the second point, which isn't actually a single point, but more of a header of many points.
[2] What should a good climactic scene contain? (this list is culled many other blog posts and books)
  • It should be an epic confrontation with a clear winner and a clear loser.
  • The hero must confront the biggest adversary.
  • The hero must save him/herself.
  • The scene should be resolved with action and conflict.
  • The climactic scene represents the dramatic highlight of the story.
  • The hero directly affects the outcome.
  • Often, this is done in a location we haven’t seen yet.
  • Sometimes there is a figurative or literal arena in which the showdown will occur.
Good. Now that I had those basics, it was time for the third point:
[3] The details of a good climatic scene. How to get the details? Well, I have to supply those, unfortunately  But you get those by asking yourself these questions (thanks to Stavros Halvatzis for this):

1. What is the primary strength of my antagonist?
2. What is the primary weakness/fear of my protagonist?

Oh, now we're getting somewhere. Stavros (fab Greek name, Stavros, in case you were wondering) says the answers to these questions need to play into my protagonist’s chief weakness\fear while promoting my antagonist’s primary strength. I also need to ask myself what setting best enhances my antagonist’s chances of winning, while simultaneously increasing the chances of your protagonist’s failing.

Whoa. That hardly seems fair. And yet, that kind of conflict is going to make a great climatic scene.

Stavros adds, "improve your writing by exploiting an appropriate setting that strengthens the antagonist while simultaneously weakening the protagonist."

So whatever setting I end up choosing, I'll need my antagonist to be comfortable and on even footing when my protagonist catches up with him, so that the antagonist things he's on Easy Street. Then my protagonist can pull the rug right out from under him and triumph. Tribal drums may or may not be involved (probably not).

A Note About Settings for Climatic Scenes

All of the above was great for grounding my head in what the scene needs to accomplish. But I still needed to primarily consider the setting. A Writer's Digest article on plot and climatic elements recommends the following for choosing a setting:

"There’s nothing that says your climactic moment has to be in a different location. If it’s a sports story, for instance, the climax may occur in the same place as much of the rest of the book: the court or field. If the characters have been trapped in an elevator for the whole book, the climax will most likely take place in the elevator. So long as you cover all the elements, you’re fine. But why not take it to a new fun location?

Think about your story a moment. You may have a good idea for where the big showdown needs to happen. And even if you’ve thought of a place, considering other options will help you find surprising wonders or can verify that you have, indeed, found the right place for this crucial action.

 What is the ultimate setting for the final conflict in your book? If you’re writing a thriller about a killer who preys on children, could the final standoff occur on a playground? If you’re writing a romance about flirtatious ornithologists, could the final will-he/won’t-he moment take place in the world’s largest aviary? If it’s a pirate story, the climactic scene had better be on the high seas.

There’s an appropriateness about your story regarding the “right” location for the big scene. Where is the perfect place for your book’s climactic sequence? If you’re still not sure, perhaps looking at each element of the climax will help you decide."

Hope the above helps. I put this post together primarily to help organize my own thoughts about climactic scenes. I hope it helps someone.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

3 Writing Questions Answered

Some of the things that help us grow as writers have nothing to do with the craft of writing at all. It's those periphery questions surrounding the process of writing, getting feedback, and how to handle a manuscript before and after you've written it that help you learn so much more than the mechanics of storytelling and wordsmithing.

Recently, I got an email from a blog reader who had three really great questions. Asking questions like these is how we learn how to navigate the novel-writing world. No questions are stupid. Thanks to this reader for asking, and finding a way to ask, these questions.

The reader, whom we will call "Terry" said she'd just finished writing a book in a particular genre. Through a family connection, she knows an established author who writes in a different genre. Terry said she asked the author if he would read her novel and let her know how it is.

Terry asked me*, [1] "Is it wise to ask someone who writes in a different genre to read your stuff before it is published? [2] I know people send stuff to authors to hopefully get a blurb on a book cover...Which I really don't care if he "blurbs" it or not.... I just want him to let me know if it publishable. [3] I wonder if it is a good idea to send out an unpublished manuscript to anyone."
*I have edited her actual words for the blog

First, let's answer the big one.
1. Is it wise to ask someone who writes in a different genre to read your stuff?
If the person you asked is a published author or a seasoned writer, then yes, having them read your stuff is going to be helpful for you. They'll bring a whole host of knowledge to your finished product, including plot, character development, mechanics, voice, and flow. It doesn't matter what genre you writer in and the author writes in, he or she is going to be able to give you seasoned feedback honed by years of his own experience.

However, it is true that someone who is steeped in a genre different from yours is going to have less applicable feedback when it comes to plot elements that are specific to your genre. And that's where you need to be careful. My old writing group had a few members who wrote in a different genre, and who didn't read my genre, and in fact didn't particularly like my genre. Their critiques of my work consistently asked me to do different things with my character that were inconsistent with my genre.

That being said, there's no reason why a writer who writes in a particular genre wouldn't also be a reader of several genres--and maybe even tried his or her hand at other genres.

So, be careful, but go get that critique. If the person critiquing your work is a die-hard romance writer, she may not have the insights you need for the greatest success. But she will have a sense of other writing elements, and for that reason every critique partner offers a good opportunity for feedback.

2. How do cover blurbs work? 
Terry said, "I know people send stuff to authors to hopefully get a blurb on a book cover...Which I really don't care if he "blurbs" it or not.... I just want him to let me know if it publishable." This isn't really a question but I wanted to mention here that cover blurbs are something that are typically negotiated by your publisher unless you are self-publishing, in which case you are likely approaching authors yourself for endorsements. You should definitely care if an author blurbs your cover, because he's putting his name on the line for your work. But of course, asking for a cover endorsement and asking for an is-my-work-shite-or-not critique are two totally different things.

3. Is it a good idea to send out an unpublished manuscript to anyone?
Yes! A thousand yesses! So many yesses that it sounds like a room full of snakes! This is how you get valuable feedback that will make your work better! If your worry is that someone will steal your work, you really shouldn't. This is not something that typically happens. Send it! Grow!

Thanks for the questions, Terry. I hope these helped and I hope others will chime in on these in the comments.






Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Next Big Thing

My friend, the inestimable Meghan Ward (www.writerland.com), asked me if I'd like to participate in the The Next Big Thing blog chain in which authors get to talk about their work. Well, of course I did! I was highly pleased that Meghan asked me, because the last time we had a play date (meaning, we pretend our kids play together while we actually talk nonstop), we met at a park that was situated in the middle of a freezing cold fog. Meghan came from her house, which was not in the fog, so she had no idea it was going to be the Arctic circle just a few blocks up. I knew it, however, because my house is near the park, and I'd been freezing all day in the fog. Anyway, I wasn't sure Meghan forgave me for her kids getting frostbite on their toes (her son sure as heck didn't: "Mama! I'm freeeeeeeezzziiiinnnnnngggggg!"), but perhaps this is a sign things are looking up.

Be sure to read Meghan's Next Big Thing post, too. (But only after reading mine! Got it?) At first when I read the questions I was a bit intimidated, but actually this was a lot of fun to fill out. Especially when I pictured myself in a comfy armchair being interviewed Babba Waltas style.

What is your working title of your book? 
Lost at Home

What genre does your book fall under?
Women’s fiction

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
This is a toughie because I'm not up on all the actors out there, but I'd like to see a few different guys audition for the role of my main love interest. I would invite Joseph Fiennes to please audition. Also Johnny Lee Miller. A private audition may be necessary for them. For my heroine, anyone except Keira Knightly is welcome to audition. I'd like to say the role would go to someone like Natalie Portman, but she's way too polished for my character. Someone a little rougher, a little scrappier. Maybe Mila Kunis?

And I just revised a scene with a new character in which a guy was clearly fixed in my mind as Thomas from Downton Abbey. So he'd have a bit part. He doesn't have to audition. The role is his.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
A woman returns to her native country after her estranged father dies, and spurred by mysterious letters that hint at the existence of another family, she stays to find out who the man was--and in the process, herself.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be represented by an agency.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It took about eight months, the longest I ever took with a manuscript. It's a little hazy because I was writing it while pregnant with my baby, and revisions were affected by the dementia brought on by sleep deprivation. A minor setback. But I'm not having any more children.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
I say my style is like Catherine McKenzie, and I aspire to be like Anna Maxted or Liza Palmer. (died and gone to heaven if so)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
This story is at its heart about a father and a daughter and their lack of communication due to misunderstandings and lost chances. With my own dad, there remain misunderstandings and disagreements about the past. We have let them lie and moved past them, but they're there. I wanted to write a story about what happens when you don't clear those up. I also wanted to write a story about how parents continue to affect their adult children no matter how much the children might think they've distanced themselves.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 
By the end of my book, my heroine falls in love with her guy--and I did, too. This is pathetic to admit. But I wanted him too. Every time I read the end, I feel satisfied. The very last chapter? Oh yeah. The best. Ever.


Here is the place where I list 5 other people I've tagged to do this. But in fact, I haven't, because I didn't get my butt in gear fast enough, and quite frankly, Meghan stole the first person I'd ask. I took this, naturally, as further sign of her intense resentment about the foggy park incident.

So, would you like to play? Leave a comment and let me know and I'll update this post with a link to you so everyone knows to go to your blog. You'd just need to post this next week. Let me know and we'll sort out the deets!


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

5 Things I love

1. Call the Midwife on PBS. You are watching that, right? If you loved Downton Abbey, you will like this. Sadly, this British series appears to finished airing its first season, but that matters not because you can watch all the episodes on PBS.org. Even better? You can watch them on your Kindle or any tablet that connects to the internet. That is heaven.

2. The Paper Source catalog. Paper Source is a store with lovely things and great design, and their catalog is like crack, I tell you. Here are a few things that inspire me out of their catalog:



There are many, many more things I love (and need) from Paper Source, but I am not a Paper Source catalog, so you must browse for yourself.

3. Walks in the November sunshine. Here in California, it's still sunny, but the light has an orange quality to it, and there's a slight kick to the air. It's sort of spicy and windy and promising of crappy, cozy whether to come. The time just changed, and you sort of know good things are ahead.

Here's a picture of the walk I took last weekend. I thought I was the luckiest girl alive. I still do.


4. Sandwich bowls. These were invented by my husband for our 18 month old son, who likes sandwiches, but not actually eating them. That is, he likes the ingredients but a sandwich is too much for him unless it's cut in bite-size chunks. And then, he just takes those apart and makes a grand mush of it all. So Mr. Sierra cut the bread, turkey, and cheese up and just made a bowl of it. It went over so well that I tried it myself and loved it. Probably I just like the idea of the name sandwich bowl. But how awesome is it not to have to pick up a drippy sandwich and have it slop all over? I can eat it with a fork like a civilized girl.

5. The election results. My worry with the presidential race was that people weren't bothered by the lying and cheating from Romney's camp. I personally don't believe that any person who wins the biggest job in the world is free from a certain amount of ego and spinning and pushing, but I do believe that Obama comes across as a honest guy who does genuinely cares. I also think he acts within his means--which sometimes doesn't seem like enough. Overall, I feel that I was served. I know others don't. My own dad is heavily conservative and thinks Obama will change us all into a communist country. So he's pretty angry. But from where I'm sitting, I'm rejoicing in the ideology of hope, change, and movement, and I saw none of that with Romney. And well done to the states that legalized gay marriage-- Maine and Maryland. Well done, you! Well done!



Monday, November 5, 2012

The Writerland Challenge

Every November, I get a little antsy because of NaNoWrMo. Mind you, I have never participated in NaNo because I was always working on something that required my full attention, and I was never in a place where I wanted to bang out a novel in a month without stopping to pause or sleep or feed my children. But I always secretly wanted to do it, because I liked the accountability it offered. Anytime there's a program with deadlines, I respond well.

That's why when I read my friend Meghan Ward's post on her blog Writerland about the Writerland Challenge--an alternative to NaNo that actually allows for flexibility--I jumped at it. This was a program I could get with, that let me work on the project I'm working on now, and do what I needed to do on it rather than write new content. 

The way it works is you that you leave a comment on Meghan's post and you're in. Follow along on Twitter and check in daily with the #TTWC (Take the Writerland Challenge). If you tweet to me (@sierragodfrey) with the hashtag as well, I'll dish out some sass, free of charge. On Meghan's blog, note what your daily or weekly challenge is. Meghan has some cool prizes for participants, too.

My goal for the month is to finish complete revisions on my novel, which means a weekly goal of about 8.5 chapters. 

So, what do you think? Are you in?
 

Monday, October 29, 2012

5 Steps to Ensure Your Novel Isn't a Piece of Crap

I got an email last week from a writer who'd stumbled on my blog after searching on Google for "How to tell if your novel sucks." Oh yes, and she got this disgusting toenail post I did back in April.

The writer, whom we will call "Trina," said that she had just finished writing a novel, and was wondering how to really tell if it sucks (my toenail post didn't help all that much as it was mainly about toenails). She said she would be really unhappy if her completed novel turned out to be a piece of crap. I totally understand. After all that hard work, how can you bear it if it's not bestseller quality?

So I humbly present 5 Steps to Ensuring Your Novel Isn't a Piece of Crap:

Step 1. Adjust Your Expectations.
If you have just written a novel, the sad truth is that it will most likely be a bit crappy. I'm sorry. You don't want to hear this, I know. Sometimes it takes writers years to come to terms with this fact. Some writers never make it beyond the first novel, so great is their disappointment. But if you want to get published, you absolutely must face the fact that writing well takes practice. I'm talking years of toil. "Oh, yes?" you say. "What about all those authors who say in the back cover bio on their books that it is their first novel?" They mean it's their first published novel. They probably wrote four or five novels before that one.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. But another cold truth is that you are probably not going to be that exception. I know, I sob with you on this point, because I too believed that my first novel was going to defy all odds. I planned an elaborate five continent book tour for myself, so sure was I. Good thing I didn't book plane tickets.

Step 2. Find Feedback in the Right Places.
As I told "Trina," if you have your mother and your best friend read your novel, they will lie and say it's really good at best. At worst, they will say nothing. No, at worst they'll suggest that you look into self-publishing, and that everyone's doing it nowadays, and how great it would be if you did that too, after all,
then you could have a copy of your book, and how cool would that be?

It's not cool.

That isn't to denigrate self-published books whatsoever. Rather, self-publishing should not be used as a way to avoid making your book better because you think it's your only option. Where were we? Yes, get feedback from people who don't love you. This is essential. That means:

  • Finding a writer's group in your area
  • Join online forums like Absolute Writer or Backspace
  • Join local chapters of national writing organizations like RWA (if you write romance)
  • Pay for a professional critique (if you can)


Step 3. Study and Learn the Way of the Writer.
Reading widely in the genre you write in is a must, as is reading widely on the craft of writing. You must do these things. There are lots of lists out there on good books to read on writing, but I recommend starting with:

  • Stephen King's "On Writing"
  • James Scott Bell's "Plot & Structure" 
  • Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"
  • Robert McKee's "Story"
Those are just a start. Get a subscription to Writer's Digest or The Writer. Read writing blogs. There's so much wonderful information out there--but you need to make the effort.

Step 4. Accept that You Must be Patient.
You must come to terms with the fact that you need to be patient in your journey. Give yourself time to learn. Give yourself time and room to write more. You won't want to hear this if you've just finished a novel that took you a year to write and longer to revise, and you ignored your spouse that whole time, stopping watching television and shaving your legs, and became a recluse and never spoke to your children all that time because you were busy pouring every ounce of your soul into your novel. I get that. I totally do. But just because you tried hard doesn't mean you don't have to stop and take stock of what you're doing and where you're going. And if all indications point to a novel that isn't quite there yet, then you need to go on. It doesn't mean you've failed, it doesn't mean all that passion was misplaced. It just means that you had no idea that this was a much bigger thing than you expected it to be.

Step 5. Write, Revise, Revise, Write.
If you want your novel to be good, you can't just type "Finis" and save and close the file. Keep working on it. Revise the living daylights out of it. Set it aside for a long time and then come back. Travel, and then come back to it. Think about it all the time. Read books in the genre and then come back to it. But don't walk away from it and assume it's perfect, because it isn't, and books take much massaging and working before they're saleable. Sometimes this means that after two years of revisions, you discover that you have to rewrite the whole thing because a fundamental plot element never occurred to you until just now. If you're devoted to making your novel a success, then you have to accept that revision never really ends, and you need to be open to it at all stages.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to add any items of wisdom in the comments. Or, just leave a comment and tell me about your experience with your first novel. I want to know!


Friday, October 26, 2012

Thanks for sticking around

My blog has been bombarded by spammers recently, none of which get through on comments because Disqus does a decent job of filtering them out for me. Nonetheless, I wondered about the uptick in spam. Is it because my activity on the blog has fallen way behind and posting has become sporadic? My blog traffic is steady, but I think a lot of that is drive-by readers or spammers.

Whatever it is, thank you to everyone who has stuck by me and continues to read my drivel. Having a baby 18 months ago really threw a wrench in my world-domination plans (if the Nemesis reads this, he need not infer that this gives him a leg up in the slightest). Some moms have angel babies who sleep 12 hours a night straight through from day 1, and some, like me, suffer horribly even now.

So, thanks. I have amusing post plans starting Monday.

Have a great fall weekend. And please enjoy the return of my Halloween pumpkin head up there in the header of the blog.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

This is not the way to tweet

The other day while on Twitter, I noticed a graphics company tweeted to me:

“@sierragodfrey Love your stuff! Hope you'll return the follow and follow us. Need anything done? Call and mention 'twitter' as a thank you!”

Well! I thought. How lovely! What a lovely, lovely tweet! Someone I don’t even know contacting me to tell me they love my design work! How random and sweet—especially since I only just recently thought to set up a company facebook page for my freelance graphic design business (go on, like me), and I even more recently decided to set up a dedicated Twitter account (@sierrafong) for my design business (go on, follow me). I gave myself a huge pat on the back for getting positive response through social media for my business.

Then I looked at it again.

They weren’t tweeting to my design Twitter account, @sierrafong. They’d tweeted to my writer account, the one where I don’t censor anything I say and I tweet back and forth with other writers and authors and publishing folks. They were tweeting to @sierragodfrey, which has been around for years, and which has lots of followers, most of whom are authors trying to up their follower numbers but whatevers (you know those types, they're slick looking and they are promoting a recently published book and you don't know them, but they think because you're a writer following other writers, you'll follow them; note that I am not talking about authors who actually use Twitter for conversation), there are tons and tons of people who I love talking to on this account, my main account, which has over 10,000 tweets because I’m really gabby.

So why were they tweeting to my writer account?

I clicked on their Twitter account (I use Tweetdeck) and lo and behold, all they do—every single tweet that gets sent out—is the same exact one. "Love your stuff! Hope you'll return the follow and follow us. Need anything done? Call and mention 'twitter' as a thank you!"

I tweeted back to them, “But you say that to everyone!”

And although everything they’d done so far suggested they were randomly tweeting to people whose tweets popped up in the Great Stream, or were listed on somewhere, and that all they ever had to say was “Love your stuff! Hope you'll return the follow and follow us. Need anything done? Call and mention 'twitter' as a thank you!” like a big massive tweeting magpie, and although this is the worst of the worst business offenses, and violates the whole point of Twitter for businesses, which is to have meaningful, authentic conversations with your customers, and even though tweeting the same thing to people is smarmy and fake, they replied back almost instantly:

“Only to the friends we were following and thought that to be true. =)”

Aside from the fact that this is complete bullshit, I was floored that some human was actually there. (Well of course there was, someone had to follow everyone they could and tweet the same tweet to them all.) Another check on their stream revealed that when people tweet to them, they actually respond back right away with a “thanks!” or something similar.

All the same, I blocked the bastards. We both knew we weren't "true friends" because they'd never heard of me and I'd never heard of them. And therein lies their mistake.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but when you tweet the same fake things to everyone, regardless of who they are (because it was pretty clear these guys didn’t know about my designer self), no one wants be to be your friend. It absolutely amazes me how many people—especially published authors, who, granted, might be told by their PR people to go blast vomit all over Twitter in the hopes that some people will think they’re being sincere and buy their book—these people are not genuine. And even though you can see right through them every single time, they persist.

For that, I’m thankful. Some spam and nasty marketing is hard to spot and fools lots of people, but fake tweets like that—they’re pretty clear.

So what about you? Have you noticed these fake tweets and what have you done about them?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

5 Things I love right now

When I did a birthday post a few weeks ago on 5 things I'm loving right now, I kind of fell in love with the format. I love a good list. I've been known to create elaborate lists in layout software just so I'll have organized, pretty templates for lists. That's sad. Lists are sublime. You can never go wrong with a list. Sadly, I've just quoted one of my own characters who said that, but lest I turn into one of those people who quotes my own unpublished writing, I've removed the line from the ms...wait, where was I? Right, I like lists. And I therefore love writing lists of 5 things.

It turns out that doing this little exercise of posting 5 things I love isn't that easy--sometimes it's hard to pick out 5 things I'm loving right now. Isn't that pitiful? I could come up with a list of 5 things I can't stand like a snap. So, in the spirit of being happy and positive, even if I have to work at it, I present to you now 5 things I love, a regular (possibly the only) blog feature. (If you missed it, here's the Birthday Edition.)

5 Things I love, October 9 Edition

1. This existential angst cat video. I admit: my snickering turned into guffaws when it got to the butt hair trimming bit. http://www.cbc.ca/news/offbeat/story/2012/09/02/cat-video-winner.html

2. These Clarks boots. I hesitate to even post these because I love them so much and only want them for myself. And I'm not even a shoe-girl. Meaning, I don't own expensive designer shoes nor a massive collection. But like all females, I do possess the genetic marker that is a shoe disposition. Anyway, I need these really, really bad. Look at the heel! Look at that smooth ankle thingy! Really need this boot. It is $90, alas.



3. Author Catherine McKenzie. Just discovered her. Loved her fast, entertaining books. Loved "Arranged." Catherine is a women's fic writer and a Canadian (both pluses in my book) and I'm so happy to have found her books. Her new one, "Forgotten" just came out (or does for the Kindle 10/16) and I can't wait. New fan! Here's her website.

4. Peter Facinelli. This has nothing to do with Twilight. And quite frankly, I'm on Jennie Garth's side.  It sounds like (in the Court of Sierra where I preside and am also the jury) that he did her wrong. I was reading Jennie's story in People (it pains me to admit it but I do, I read People, although "read" is a bit loose as mostly it's just looking at the celeb pics; is this the female equivalent of "reading" Playboy?) and while Jennie is lovely, man that Peter. Hot. Mind you, not when he's blonde, and possibly not when he smiles. I like the dark and broody Peter.  Here's a link to his picture.

5. Trader Joe's Halloween JoJos. Do I even need to explain this? Okay, okay. JoJos are nothing more than Trader Joe versions of Oreo Cookies, but somehow, the packaging for the Halloween JoJos is so charming that I am persuaded instantly of their superior quality and fine ingredients, as opposed to the fake, chemical-laden, pure sugar rot gut that are holiday Oreos. Who could possibly fault these darling little Jack-O-Lantern cookies? And the vintage packaging! Design raptures! Plus, they're quite tasty. I mean, look at these things!

Next week I may post 5 things I don't like (loss of Internet connection is number 1, always), or you know, 5 things about writing that I do. Thing is, you're getting a lot more of these 5 things because I freaking love them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

5 Things I Love: Birthday Post

So today is my birthday and I thought in honor of my birthday, I would post lovely things that I like. Happy birthday to me!

1. Eos Lip Balm. Yes, these lovely egg-shaped little wonders are great on the lips and smell good, too. Packaging is a complete win--the second my 6 year old saw these, he wanted them too. Smell is a win, too with flavors that hearken back to the awesome old tin Lip Lickers-- remember those? How awesome were those?


Photo is from Gen Xtint.com


Anyway the Eos lip balm eggs above are available in tons of flavors, but I especially love the Alice in Wonderland pack of blueberry, vanilla, and watermelon. Not sure why they're Alice and Wonderfuland but I don't care, and the packaging comes with the delightful quote: "Very few things indeed were really impossible." Sublime.

2. Any magazine with Kate Middleton on it. Except the photos of her nekkid. Because I don't agree that we need to see that, especially when she didn't put her boobies on display for us all to see--just her hubs. But apart from all that, I freaking love reading about her and looking at her because she is so calm and collected and always put together. Doesn't she ever throw a strop and get really PMSy? Doesn't she ever have the runs? I know she does, but we never see it, and that's the way I like it.

3. The Communication Arts Design Annual, which comes out every fall and gets delivered to subscribers in a BOX. This issue is chock full of winning entries in Comm Arts' design entry categories like packaging, identity, brochures. I got mine the other day and have been guarding it and petting it and calling it my Precious. It's pretty much crack for designers.

4. The Grey's Anatomy season premier this week AND the series premier of Elementary. I've watched GA for years now and while it's getting slightly stale, having to wait all summer to watch more of the dramatic plane crash was annoying, so it's nice that it's back on. Elementary, now, oooh. Lucy Liu--YES. Johnny Lee Miller of Trainspotting fame? YES YES YES YES. Mr Ex-Angelina Jolie? Snore! Let's remember him as Sick Boy, shall we?

5. The start of fall. It began officially on 9/22. God, I love fall. Colors, smells, and cozy nights. I got out all my fall decorations right away. I'm ready for smoky chimneys and hot cider, aren't you?



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bad Bookstore Behavior

Although I have no money to spend on books, I do anyway--because what is life if not filled with books?  So the other day I took the baby and went to Barnes and Noble. We spent an enjoyable 45 minutes there, leaving with several books to our delight, including several new books for the baby and one delicious book on logos for me.

As I wheeled the kid out in his stroller, struggling and cajoling him to keep his remaining shoe on, I found myself checking furtively over my shoulder to see if any store employees would tackle me. You see, I had been a bit badly behaved.

Naturally, none of it was my fault. And upon reflection, it's the stuff I do almost every time I'm in there.

First, I was waylaid and detained by the New Fiction shelf. Surreptitiously, I pulled out my phone, shooting the baby a look to keep his yap shut about this. *Snap!* *Snap!* Yes, I took pictures of the covers so I could download them later on my Kindle. I committed the most egregious sin to bookstores everywhere. (Henceforth to be referred to as Bookstore Sin #1.) But the thing is, the covers are gorgeous! And I simply can't read hardbacks in print anymore! But Mein Gott, what a lovely bunch of cover art that's being produced these days! Look at this!



And to close up, here's what I was in design raptures about:

That is so cool, I totally judged it by its cover art and am going to read it. Then I'll be reading this one:


Here's a gorgeous use of typography on a cover, although I don't think I'll read this one--historical novels are not my cup of tea:



Alas, I didn't get more photos because an employee walked by. So I scurried away to hide among the fiction aisles. There, I committed Bookstore Sin #2. I used my superior powers of alphabetization and made a spade where my own book will go once it is published. That's right. I shoved Gail Godwin aside and a slim Goethe volume (which completely didn't belong there) and made room on the shelf for myself. I should have taken a picture, but the picture author Linda Godfrey took a few years ago on my behalf using a Chinese take-out menu will have to suffice:



That accomplished, I moved on to the Romance section, where I like to commit Bookstore Sin #3: checking for the published copies of my friends and acquaintances. This isn't a sin, no, you're right. But I am not a huge category romance reader so going over there with the sole intent of checking seemed wrong. Plus, one time I did it with my 6 year old whippersnapper in tow and he was all, "oooohhhh" when he spied some overflowing bodices and bosoms on the covers. 

Anyway, I found Roni Loren's latest novel out, facing out on the shelf in the New section, no less!


I didn't want to commit Bookstore Sin #4, which is my baby chewing the toddler books with abandon, so we made our purchases and got out of there before further offense could be made. 

How about you? What naughty things do you do in bookstores? And I don't mean having sex in the back corner next to the SAT guides, either. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ahem. Back to regular programming.

Hi! You may have noticed a great absence from blog posts. Or not. There was one. I was...I...oh, I'll just say it: I had blogging ennui. Yes, it's like a form of blog cancer. I even stopped reading other blogs in my trusty and well-loved Google Reader. But I think I have successfully treated the disease and I'm back from my little lacuna, with new and improved ideas for blog posts that mostly involve me talking about inane things that are designed to amuse mainly myself.

You'd think taking a little bloggy break would be no problem--isn't most of the publishing industry supposed to take the month of August off? And gosh, it wasn't even that long...I posted something in August. But I found that taking a break, whatever the reason, isn't that simple. When I logged into Blogger to clear my throat and dust away the cobwebs, I found an extremely angry blog awaiting me with a pitchfork and a barrel of hot tar ready to dump on my head. A few years ago, I did an interview with my blog for its birthday, and discovered it drank Jack Daniels and smoked cigars, among other unpleasant habits. Disgusted, I've avoided discussing much of anything with it since, except to make idle threats now and then about switching to Wordpress, and how would it like that?

It turned out after delicate questioning that my absence had infuriated the blog. It reared up like Cerberus, snapping and spraying a mist of spittle. 

"Where have you been?" it asked. "You don't neglect me. I will not be neglected."

"I was tired," I said. "And busy. Had a lot going on. That baby I had last year? Still not a reliable sleep-through-the-nighter. Anyway, you were fine--I checked in on you. People were still commenting on posts."

The blog pointed a spindly finger at me. "Don't presume to know how it was. I had emails from hordes of people, writing in about all kinds of things....and you just left me to deal with it all. How do you think that makes me feel? I wanted to delete myself!"

"Drama queen," I told it. "What emails did you get? Show us one."

"Here's one right here," the blog said, holding up a stained and crumpled piece of paper. 

"E-mail doesn't come on stained and crumples pieces of papers," I pointed out. 

"You're talking to a digital concept that you've anthropomorphized," the blog spat. "I hardly think an email on an old scrap of paper is the thing to be questioning here. Anyway, this one is asking you questions about all kinds of things--all the e-mails you got asked questions. Like, what are the best books on grammar and style that you recommend. What kinds of books or classes might a person take if they want to become a technical writer. Which fall television shows you plan to watch. What music you listen to. How your little boys are doing. How the writing is going."

"Those are a lot of questions," I said. "It will take me time to answer them all."

"Well, get on it," the blog snapped. The top came flying off a fresh bottle of Jack. 

"This conversation...."

"What?" the blog asked.

"This is so ridiculous. You think people want to read this silly exchange? No one's going to sit around for this."

The blog nodded knowingly and leaned back in its massive leather executive chair. The chair swiveled back and forth a bit as the blog considered me.

"What am I here for?" it asked.

"Here we go." I sighed. "You're getting philosophical again. Last time you did this, I stayed up all night redesigning you. Honestly, I don't have the energy for that again. I'm only just starting to get full nights of sleep."

"That," the blog said, "is lunacy. How old is that baby of yours? And he still doesn't sleep through the night?"

"He does, mostly. Anyway, to answer your question, you're here to serve as a place to talk about writing. And to plug in with the writing community. And to share ideas. And to work through ideas. All of that. And, of course, you exist to amuse me."

"See that you remember it," the blog said, and faded away into a mass of CSS code, other incomprehensible characters, and the lingering fumes of Jack Daniels and cigars. 




Monday, August 27, 2012

Crushing your Designer Anything

Just a quick little thing today.

Some months ago, a high school friend of mine with whom I'm connected on Facebook had this to say (thereabouts; exact language unsure):

"Just rolled over my expensive designer sunglasses in the driveway. Yep, there goes a ton of money. But I'm totally fine about it. I'm not hurt. It's just glasses. Going about my beautiful day."

At the time, I was appalled, like a curmudgeon, that she'd be so cavalier. What if they were prescription sunglasses (as mine are)?! They probably cost upwards of $300! Maybe $500!

But she didn't care. (Let's not go into the psychology of it and how posting it on Facebook might have been a way to show the world she didn't care. Benefit of the doubt, here.)

The idea stayed with me. Rolling over designer (easily $700) sunglasses, destroying them? Totally fine.

A good way to look at life, don't you think?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Summer Reading List

I love this time of year—late summer, when nights begin to come a tiny bit sooner, things are noticeably drier, the quality of light fades somehow and turns slightly orange as opposed to the burning-bright yellow of summer. And fall seems just around the corner. The air smells good, and the air—at least where I live—is slightly chillier.

I’m partly noticing the change because the new school year starts early for my whippersnapper, who begins first grade today. Today! First grade! No, it’s not year-round school! It’s just crazily early! I’m still being lulled by the beautiful screech of scrub jays and the woosh in the trees!

So even though we’re still in summer and the only school district in the country that violates the sacred tradition of not starting until after Labor Day, and even though all the agents and editors are still sipping their frothy pink daiquiris from their curly straws on a beach chaise in the Hamptons, I’m starting to reflect on my summer. It’s been a good one. I’ve worked hard and been much busier than I ever expected. In a good way. I also—and this is the best bit—got to read a ton of wonderful new books:

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. Loved it. Loved Susanna Kearsley, whose books all deal heavily with some paranormal aspect: ghosts, time travel, reincarnation—while all still being firmly women’s fiction. Score!

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley. See above. One of the grandest luxuries of summer is reading through an author’s catalogue.

Getting Over It by Anna Maxted. Listen. Listen. Anna Maxted? Freaking adore. Like, she’s in the number one slot shared by Liza Palmer. (Sorry Liza--you're still there, though. But I am sure you have read Anna and you will understand.) Liza and Anna, Anna and Liza. Love. Sadly, I had not heard of Anna Maxted before this summer. I know! Living under a rock! Under a quarry of rocks! And I read this book because some reader wrote the following review: “So snarky that I couldn’t stand it and didn’t make it past the first six pages. Awful.” Yes! Score! I picked it right up and freaking loved it.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones. How to describe this in a word? Weird. But deliciously dark, too. The hook? A good one: starts off as a sort of old timey British class story, ala Downton Abbey, and then turns totally dark with a great twist. I was never quite sure if it worked or not, but it was great fun reading it and that’s all that counts.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. God, what an exquisite story. The type we all wish we could write. Gorgeous, delicate, powerhouse characters, seriously great writing, unique and lovely story. Just a fantastic read. Read it. READ IT! What was the hook for me? I think it was the promise of a strong, secure-minded heroine in Bangladeshi immigrant Amina, who is an Internet-order bride to her American husband. It’s just so good.

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. I read this for research purposes. That is all.

Behaving Like Adults by Anna Maxted. Yes! Even MORE delicious than the first! Yes, Anna! Yes!

Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews. I love Mary Kay and always appreciate her slightly campy, very authentic southern (Georgian) settings and style. This one was full of awesome drama, and a good August read.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I’m actually still reading this. And really enjoying it. So there. What have YOU read this summer? Tell me so I can add the books to my fall list!

Monday, July 30, 2012

5 Books that Influenced Me

In this month's issue of O magazine, author Jennifer Weiner did an interview called "5 books that influenced me." I believe she meant influenced her writing, but doesn't every book a writer reads influence their writing? I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read 4 of her listed books. But! I have read many others! Et voila!

5 Books that Influenced Me

1. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. 
When I was kid living in Greece (on Santorini), a friend of my mother's gave me a copy of Durrell's awesome memoir about the years he and his family spent on Corfu in the 1920s. Gerald was the youngest by far of his three siblings; he was about 10 or 11 and his two brothers and sister were in their early 20s. The book (and its two sequels) are hilarious, mostly thanks to Gerald's family and a succession of visitors, all of whom were eccentric and hilarious. Gerald was an early naturalist, madly into creature collecting of all kinds. (As an adult, Gerald started his own zoo, the Jersey Zoo and dedicated his life to conservation.) This book and its sequels were written so well, with such humor. I still have the books, and remain impressed. I related at the time, but even as an adult finding the silly in everything is still relatable.

2. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
I love epic British wartime dramas, and Coming Home is exceptionally good. It's so good that I re-read it every few years--I make myself wait a few in order to forget parts so I can rediscover them again--and the love story, the plucky heroine, and the cozy, bucolic setting always get me. Pilcher plots the story wonderfully--and for an epic, it never gets boring.

3. Watermelon by Marian Keyes
This was the first book by Keyes I'd read and also her debut novel. It's not her best or my most favorite (and I've read all her books, I adore her so), but the first line got me like no other--and that's when I started paying attention to first lines. Her first line goes something to the effect of "The day I gave birth was also the day my husband left me." Man! I had to read about that!

4. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is an American who transplanted to England in his twenties and stayed there, married, had kids. He's proof that the dry, always delicious British wit isn't bred in. Notes is Bryson's memoir of his adopted country, and he tours it from bottom to top. At times the humor can come across as too cynical and harsh, but overall he's makes me giggle, and he inspired in me a whole new way of writing and seeing the landscape. You can't go wrong with any of Bryson's books, and I venture that A Walk in the Woods is better than Notes, but Notes remains my favorite because at the time I read it, I was actually traveling across England and Scotland so it was timely and I have great memories of it and the trip. I didn't read it on purpose, that was the great part--it was given to me at just the right time.

5. Toss up: Light a Penny Candle or Echoes both by Maeve Binchy
Hmmm. Looking at this list of books, I see either English or Irish writers, and one American who turned into an Englishman. What does that say about me? It says I like British wit and settings, but there's more to it: when I was about 9 I read every thing I could get my hands on--and because we were living in Greece at the time, that meant all the holiday reading the tourists left behind. The hotels would keep the books in a basket and I (and other ex-pats) were welcome to raid it anytime. Most of the tourists were English, and that meant I read a ton of British authors at a time when I was learning story cadence, grammar, and other fine writing points. Maeve Binchy's two epics, Light a Penny Candle and Echoes, are superb and I've reread them since I was a kid. As with Pilcher, Binchy (hmm, another common demon: the ch in their names) put heart into her stories--and that's more elusive than you think. Heart is what made both authors massive worldwide bestsellers, and it's not that easy to duplicate or else everyone would be doing it.

* Special edit: I didn't know when I wrote this post and scheduled it for publication on July 30 that Maeve Binchy died on July 30. I am deeply saddened by this news. (Link goes to a news page with more info about her life.)

So those are my most influential books. What are yours? I'd love to know! Please share in the comments.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reponsibility

"You're being rude."

"No, you're being rude!"

Uh oh. You can tell a lot about the speakers in that conversation. And one of is firing back with a pretty silly reply. Why? I have theories...


Over 4th of July, we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a lovely and humongous aquarium in the San Francisco Bay Area (well, Monterey Bay actually, but SF counts it in). Just outside the seahorse exhibit, one of the staffers was putting on a magic show. People began to assemble, and I sat down at the end of a bench with my sleeping baby in the stroller next to me, against the wall and out of the way. My 5 year old whippersnapper sat on the bench with me. 


Meanwhile, a lady and her baby in an obnoxious stroller, the $1000 Stokke upright (yes), came along and parked herself and her ensemble right in front of the magician, right in front of all the people sitting on the bench including me. 


I assumed she would move as soon as it got more crowded; it was pretty clear she was blocking people. 


Silly me. 


More people gathered, and it became clear the Stokke lady had no intention of moving. A bold older lady sitting next to me said, “Excuse me, can you move your stroller to the side so we can see?” 


The Stokke lady, who also had a massive diamond ring on her finger—2 or 3 carats—at first pretended not to hear. But my seatmate was strong. She repeated it loudly until Stokke lady turned and said, “What?” 


“We can’t see,” said my benchmate. “We’re sitting here, and you’re blocking our seats.” 


Stokke lady smiled broadly and said, “Oh yes, I’d love to sit down, thank you.” 


My mouth fell open in shock at such a countermove, but my benchmate was quick. “No, we’re sitting here. Can you please move your stroller over to the side so we can see?” 


Stokke lady – I mean, a $1000 stroller!—said, “I was here first.” 


Me, again, mouth open in shock. Strong benchmate lady said, “It’s very rude not to move so we can see, no matter who was where first.” 


Stokke lady, in a predictable but nonetheless disappointing response, said, “You’re being very rude.” 


I could see where this was going. I began calming my innate fear of public confrontation in preparation for jumping in. Luckily, I didn’t have to (although I would have! I think!) because the lady sitting next to my benchmate said to Stokke Lady, “No, she’s not being rude. We’re just asking you to move so your [massively expensive yet having money doesn’t mean you’re more intelligent!] stroller so we can see.” [Bit in brackets is mine, obvs, but she was totally implying it.] 


Defeated and unable to think of a clever retort, Stokke Lady capitulated and began moving her stroller over toward my sleeping baby. To save face, she said rather stupidly, “I don’t know where I’m supposed to put the stroller!” 


Ah! My chance! “You can put your stroller against the wall there, see how I did? See how that’s out of the way?” I said, in a masterly stroke of passive aggressiveness. I made sure to keep my tone helpful but clear, but I was prepared for battle should she make further comment or jar my baby (she didn’t). 


The show started and all was well. Stokke Lady left after the show, all smiles, as though she’d never behaved badly. Upon later discussion with Mr. Sierra, I felt that it all boiled down to the fact that Stokke Lady was in the wrong and it was too much for her to admit it. All she had to do was accept the request gracefully (“Oh! Sure! Sorry!”), but her aggression and ridiculous argument made me think she must have known she was in the way, and was hoping no one would call her out on it. Maybe she feels entitled and isn’t used to getting called on her greediness. She did have that ring and that stroller. There was no reason for her put up such a fight, and then degrade herself by calling my benchmate rude. (Mr. Sierra tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, saying maybe it wasn’t up to Stokke Lady to accommodate every person who decided to sit behind her, especially as there hadn’t already been a crowd behind her when she got there; I refuted this because why not move so everyone can see rather than dig in your heels and act like an asshole about it? Mr. Sierra finally agreed because he had spotted Stokke Lady coming out of the Jellyfish exhibit, which is clearly marked “no strollers.” Entitled. Greedy.)


One of the major themes I’m working with in a new story is taking responsibility for your actions after you’ve done something wrong. It seems to be such a painful thing for people to do that most of us don’t. How many times have you honked at someone in the car as they barely avoid hitting your, or veer into your lane and narrowly miss slamming you, and then they honk back at you, as though you’d done something wrong? How many people do you know who have steadfastly ruined their lives because they were too stubborn to admit they’d made a mistake, or a bad choice, and were too proud to say they were sorry? How many young people have you seen fail to understand the concept of humility? How many lies have you told to avoid the truth, which will get you in trouble? Coming back from a low place and taking responsibility isn’t pretty and it’s bound to be painful. My guess is that the pain is so great that most people shy away from responsibility instead.


One of the best recent examples of taking responsibility comes from author Roni Loren, who went through a pretty bad time recently of nearly being sued for a picture she put on her blog. If you haven't read her post on it, you need to. It'll scare the bejeezus out of you, but after you're done obsessively combing through your blog for all pictures whether they're unauthorized or of your cat, you don't care, they're all going, please pay attention to the way Roni owns up to the whole thing. Look at what she says. This lady had to pay serious money for something she shouldn't have had to pay for...but she did it, and she says "I was wrong, there's no getting around that." 


That's class. And that's strength of character, too, because she admits where she is wrong even though she made her mistake in innocence, and honestly tried to correct it once it was brought to her attention. She has every right to be indignant, angry, sad, and hurt that she still had to pay even though she'd corrected the situation--that goes against everything we're brought up to believe--but she still accepts responsibility. 


Have you had to take responsibility even though it's painful? Please share. I'm really interested in people's stories about responsibility because it shows such strength of mind and character. It's something I try to drill into my older son's head because I want him to know that owning up to your nonsense is the way you grow.