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


"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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

That Moment

There’s a reason certain love songs speak to us—because I think they capture that moment—that MOMENT—when you look at someone and know they love you back, or at least that the interest is mutual, and that moment is so exquisite. It’s why we read good romance stories.  It’s certainly why I write them—all for That Moment.

You know the one. My fave author and BFF (in my head) Liza Palmer often addresses this through the one movie that most accurately sums up the hopes and dreams and wishes and anguishes of all the ladies everywhere: Sixteen Candles, in which Molly Ringwald lusts after Jake Ryan who doesn’t know she’s alive (oh but he does!), and she knows she doesn’t have a hope, and he’s got a hot and well-developed senior girlfriend and poor Molly is not only flat chested but a lowly sophomore and her awful family forgot her most special of birthdays. Oh my God! Who hasn’t been right there with Molly? Mein Gott, I spent my teenage years and most of my twenties feeling this way! But Jake Ryan—he notices her and by the time he’s leaning against his Porsche, waiting for her (!!!!) and he says “you” and she looks behind her! Looks behind her! Because he can’t be talking to me her! And she goes, “me?” and then he says, but she can’t hear him, “Yeah you.”

Oh my. That’s The Moment. In my stories, my character always learns and grows as a person, but my stories always, always try to capture That Moment. In fact, I think I write them with that ultimate scene in mind.

Sixteen Candles had a superb soundtrack, and That Moment is perfectly illustrated by the Thomson Twins’ If YouWere Here – who couldn’t listen to that over and over? I think songs do a particularly excellent job of summing up That Moment in 3 minutes give or take—but they’re lucky, they get beautiful sounds to make the job of telling the story of That Moment easier. A really good That Moment song is U2’s All I Want Is You (I melt inside when I hear this song). In my stories, I make it as difficult as possible for my love birds to get to That Moment, but when I do, I spend a lot of time on the scene because it’s just as much fun to write as it is to read. Here are two of Those Moments from a few different stories I’ve written: 

  • The guy arrives by train and they’re running to meet each other at the station, and she watches him walking toward her, and has to wait and think about him and look at him, and lust after him, and worship him, but she’s not sure he feels the same way back. After all she doesn’t want to presume anything and he’s so fine and wonderful (obvs), how could he love her back? But then he finally gets to her, and of course he loves her back! He’s Jake Ryan! (This is from my current manuscript.)
  • The love birds are separated by their own pigheadedness and due to other circumstances, my heroine is running away from other people. She runs out in the snow, poorly dressed (of course) and she’s running and can’t feel her toes, and all her boogers have frozen in her nose and just when she thinks she’ll be one of those human popsicles that litter Mt. Everest, only on the side of the road in an American town (because she would be lame like that), she finds the hero’s house and he’s there! With a fire! And although they’re not speaking to each other, he takes her in and nurses her back to feeling her digits, and she’s not sure how he feels but by golly she knows what a massive mistake she’s made by leaving him. And of course he tells her he loves her. In fact, That Moment comes and she doesn’t even believe him because he’s such a Jake Ryan, and he has to do something in order to show her—he has to throw away an object that had plagued their relationship, and then she sees he means it.
I have more in older stories, but in general, I try to build up to That Moment so it's as full of relief, realization, growth, and truth as possible. Do you love That Moment too? What are some of yours? Or favorites in movies or songs?

Oh, and can I just say that I did have a total Jake Ryan once, but he was basically repulsed by me or something--I don't know, but he never leaned against any Porsches for me. So that didn't turn out well, and now I write to make up for it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Monday, July 2, 2012

6 Tips for a Friendly Author Website

I've done a lot of posts on web sites for both unpubbed and pubbed authors on why you'd need one or not. For some reason I simply can't fathom, I haven't been heralded as the next web site theory oracle. :) (jokey joke)

But: I do design web sites for many types of businesses, including pubbed authors. Here are 6 tips to making your website more user-friendly, with the goal of retaining your readers and gaining new ones.

6 Tips for a Friendly Author Website

Tip #1: Be Friendly to New Readers
I recently visited the web site for an author I hadn't heard of before. She writes in a category I love to read (women's fiction), so I was interested in her books. But on her home page, her books weren't front and center. Instead, praise took up the main space, and her books were listed by title out of site. Praise is good, but I don't care how much people love the book until I've seen whether the book is something for me. Praise comes second in my decision making factors.

The Solution: Make sure your home page is simple and draws the reader in for more first. Make things clickable. Don't make them wade through your reviews or bio first.

Tip #2: Make it clear what your books are, and provide links.
Put up pictures of your book covers, and make them clickable, because people expect to click on book covers. One author's website listed her book covers--but the covers themselves weren't links. The only way to learn more or --ahem-- buy one was to click on a "buy" link no where near the actual cover images. But there, only book titles were listed and no cover images! I didn't know the difference between her books, and I hadn't taken the time to memorize her titles after being shown covers, so I was frustrated with nothing to click on. 

The Solution: provide pictures of your book covers, and let me click on them right away. Or, give me a "Books" link. This author had neither. I couldn't figure out how to get at her books easily. I left her site.

Tip #3: Don't use alternative terms for standard navigation items.
One author's site I visited recently used "Profile" for the author bio link. Use something simple, like "About" or "About me." The word "About" is understood instantly by everyone. So is "Bio." But "Profile"-- what is that? Profile of your books, or you?

The Solution: Don't make your site visitors think. Give them what they expect so they will click on things. When you make people stop to figure things out--even for a second--you lose their already short attention spans. Use web-standard terms. If you're not sure what those are, check around other websites and make a note of the terminology.

Tip #3: Don't separate out information that should be grouped. 
This echoes the linking tip above. One mega best-selling, household name author, who has upwards of 20 books published, made a fatal mistake on her website. She has a Books page with her huge list of books. You can click on each book cover for more info. Is there a buying link on the list of books page? No! Is there a buying link on the specific page for the book? NO! Instead, there is a nearly useless separate page called "Where to buy books." Why? Why? I'm not looking in the menu bar for that. I'm looking on the book page for a link to buy. Give me what I expect, and I'll click it. Make it hard to find, and I won't. Not out of spite--but because it's harder.

Note, too, that if you make your visitor open up a new web browser, type in, and then cut and paste that book title into Amazon, you've already wasted three steps that didn't need to happen if you'd just provided a link. And guess what? No one likes doing the work.

The Solution: Just add links everywhere. It's not hard and links aren't obtrusive.

Tip #4: Make sure all your links work.
Nothing is more frustrating then clicking on a "subscribe" link and getting a page full of code. Hey, things go wrong. But quality check your site. It reflects personally on you if things are broken. Sad, but true.

The Solution: Whether you're doing your own site or having someone do it for you, perform a quality check by clicking on all links and playing with your pages. Links get broken. Sometimes a single letter is off in a link and it doesn't work. Pay attention--your website represents you.

Tip #5: Make sure your name is the largest piece of text on the page.
Why? Because if you make everything the same size, I can't pick out who you are. And you want me to. You want me to remember your name. 

The Solution: Stand back about five feet from your screen and see what jumps out at you the most. If it's not your name, get back in there and fix it. Look at my name on this blog. Are you confused as to who writes this blog? Look at my website. Are you clear whose site it is?

Tip #6: Think through who might visit your site.
When I design web sites for clients, I always ask who they think their target audience is. This is a really hard question to answer, because you have to open your mind to varied scenarios. For example, you might think you need an author web site for potential readers, and therefore potential sales. But you'd be ignoring other types of visitors: people who are already fans and want to learn more and connect and tell other people about your work, or people who are writers but not necessarily readers, and writers want to share your info and further your name. Or, journalists writing an article and your name came up in a search.

Or, did you know your website might be useful enough to serve as a resource for people? Do you look at your site differently if you knew it could be seen as a reference tool? Likewise, let's say you have a list of recipes that you've posted from your books, which feature characters as chefs. Now readers might want to visit your site specifically for the recipes. You've built a cooking site and you didn't even know it. Those visitors may be readers, too.

The Solution: Brainstorm and make a list of everyone you can think of who might visit, and why. What can you do to give them what they're looking for?

BONUS Tip #7: Provide an index for information that you regularly feature.
This is really applicable to blogs--but again, blogs are seen as part of the greater website, when you've incorporated it in. What's an index? It's a list of your content. Let's say you have a running series of a certain topic--say, books you recommend. You do a series of blog posts about the books, and even tag the posts with a "Recommended books" tag. But you don't have an index of the books, and someone might want to use your blog or site as a reference tool because you regularly reference bloopers in Star Wars films (see tip #6 above). Give them an index of those references. Don't make people wade through tags or other convoluted info for your content.

You might be wondering, "How does providing lists of recipes result in more book sales for me?" A good website is about providing information that people want. You have a good website with good content, and people will be more likely to buy your books, because they like you. Make it easier for them.

The Solution: Create simple, bulleted lists of things you have a lot of.

Hope these tips help. Let me know if you have any questions.