Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Does It Take to Get a Master's in English?

Not much, regretfully.  In terms of a final project, my school requires only 60 pages, either of a memoir, short story collection, or novella.  That 60-page figure is a MAX number of pages.  It used to be that you had to submit a full novel or a complete (approximately 200 page) short story collection in order to have a shot in hell at getting a Master's.  But these days, with budget cuts and hiring freezes, the university staff just don't have the time to read 200-page books from all of us.

So we get 60 pages.  Max.

What the heck is wrong with an educational system that gives people a Master's degree for 60 pages of crappy fiction?  Or memoir?  It's embarrassing.  Granted, I don't have a literary novel lying around that I could use in order to graduate.  (A romance, a spy thriller, a mystery, and a vampire historical--yes, I have those!)  If my school had real standards, I'd have had to finish the literary mystery I started last summer.  I would have had to follow it through instead of letting it rot on my computer, untouched since August.

In a way, I want that push.  Instead of turning in 60 pages of random short stories, I would have had to work harder on what a fiction writer is supposed to do--write books.  Short stories are fun to write, but they're also easy on the relative scale of fiction writing.  Just because you can do it several times in a row doesn't mean you deserve a Master's.  How many of us had to write short stories in high school or our undergraduate careers?  My guess is a lot.  So how is doing more of that supposed to merit an advanced degree?

I shouldn't be complaining.  Next semester, I will turn in my 60-page collection of short stories and hopefully get my Master's degree.  But part of me wishes that school had given me the kick in the ass I need to finish the one that got away.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Want to Write a Memoir? Start Here

Okay, so the semester is winding down and I might finally have a chance to get back to real (read: writing) life.  Yay!  This semester has been a butt-kicker from start to finish, but the good news is that I think I actually learned a few things.

The writing class I'm just finishing is about memoir, a genre in which I'd never written before.  It scared the crap out of me. Still does.  Skeletons should just stay in the closet, right?  I mean, most of us don't really want all our friends, family members, and neighbors reading about our weakest, most vulnerable moments.  But, as I learned, that's only a part of writing memoir.

What I Knew:  Memoir is hard.  Why should the average joe be interested in my life?  What about my personal trauma from, say, high school would make someone else want to put off going to bed in order to read about it?  Even if they started reading it, why would they care if they get to the end?  What's the freaking point of it all?

What I Learned:  Memoir is hard.  There's still no getting around it.  But the point isn't to dig up the worst trauma or your most embarrassing moment.  The point is to describe a person, a place, or a moment that meant something to you in a way that shows your reader what you learned from it.  It's not your high school trauma that's important, in other words.  It's how you deal with it.  It's how you move on.  It's how your narrative voice has changed because of all the things and people you've come into contact with.  So you don't have to write about abuse or rape or abandonment or setting a kitten on fire.  You could write about a day you stayed home from school and did nothing but watch cartoons all day.  But you have to tell your reader why that particular day mattered.  What happened that makes you return to that day, now, in your mind?  What brings you back there?  If you can explain that, you can write memoir.

What I'm Doing about It:  At the urging of my professor, I sent off the first piece I wrote for the class to a creative non-fiction journal called The Sun.  It may be a few months before I hear back from them, but in the meantime, I'm going to keep writing a few short memoir pieces.  I have one more piece due on Tuesday, which I'm about to revise.  Memoir will never replace fiction--not for me, at least.  But I did learn that you can use most of the techniques you already know from writing fiction to craft riveting scenes--it's just that they have to have actually happened, and you have to actually be one of the characters.  (Small catch, there.)   That's actually one of the huge issues relative to memoir, which hopefully I'll have time to write about tomorrow.  How truthful should a memoir be?  Are you lying if you dramatize a conversation?  Can your ass get sued for doing it?  I have a few sources that will weigh in the meantime, think about how you'd approach writing a memoir.  What are the scenes in your life that move you?  When and where did you learn something important?  The memory that surfaces might be the one you least expect.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Know What You Read Last Summer...and It Ain't Critical Theory

Funny story time!

As you guys may have surmised by the grievous lack of entries lately, this semester is kicking my ass.  But I still have time share a stupidly funny thing I did the other day.

For "Literature of the Roaring 20s," we were assigned to read a book called "Critical Theory Today" by Lois Tyson.  In it, she explains about a dozen critical theory lenses and supplies a sample essay that applies each theory to "The Great Gatsby."

Our assignment was to write a brief paper explaining which theories we found most and least useful.

When I got my paper back, I saw there were a few underlined spots and question marks on the first page.  When I looked more closely, I saw what I'd done.  It made me crack up.

Apparently, for the whole first page of the paper, I referred to Lois Tyson as Lois Duncan.

So not the same thing.  Good lord, I need a weekend.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Black Swan: Is It Me, or Was This Just Fight Club for Girls?

So I finally got around to watching the movie "Black Swan."  (Better late than never, right?)  Months after the Oscar hype and Body-Double Gate, all I really knew about this movie was that Natalie Portman was supposed to be really good in it, the Rodarte ballet costumes were beautiful, there was a lesbian love scene, and people generally thought this movie was well done.

I'm left scratching my head at this one.

Natalie Portman?  Great actress?  Check.  She pretty much always brings it, and I have nothing bad to say about her.  Even with less-than-stellar scripts (The Other Boleyn Girl), she does memorable things that transcend the material she's given.

Costumes?  Yeah, they were there.  They were nice.  That's pretty much all I can say about them.

Lesbian love scene?  Sure.  Whatever.

A well done-movie?  I'm not so sure.  The movie felt stale to me, like it could have been something awesome, but it never really cohered.  The strange visions Portman's character had were creepy in a kid-on-a-tricycle-in-The-Shining kind of way, but they started to annoy me about an hour and fifteen minutes in because...nothing else happened.  The tension didn't advance or heighten.  The same weird shit kept happening, yet I'm supposed to sympathize with a character who doesn't take any action when she sees mirror reflections that don't move the way she does or bloody appendanges randomly appearing when she's in the bath?  I mean, come on...she doesn't consult a doctor or shrink or go buy some illegal meds from a guy on the street to see if maybe, just maybe, they make her feel able to concentrate on what's supposed to be her dream?  I'm supposed to believe she just lets all this crap happen?  And if so, I'm supposed to sympathize with someone who lets her world go to pieces without doing anything about it--strictly on the merits of Portman's performance?  No.  The writers must do better than this.

Okay, maybe there's some psychological element here, like her mind fractured under the pressure and she had to become someone else in her mind to deal with it all.  Tyler Durden much?  Been there, done that.

At the end, when we think she's killed Mila Kunis's character, I was finally thinking, okay, this movie is going somewhere.  This poor, pathetic character finally *did* something to help herself.  (Plus, Mila Kunis's character was kind of annoying, so I was happy to see her go.  I'm a fan of Kunis in general, but there wasn't much to this character.)  Then, we find out that not only did Nina *not* off the competition, she offed herself.  Dude.  Again, this is Fight Club, and we've seen this before.  I hated Fight Club, and I'm not inclined to like this version better because it has feathers and tulle.

If the writers wanted to create a movie about a young woman's psychological stressors in the world of ballet and psychotic break those stressors caused, I get the sense it could have been riveting--especially if they made the character a more active participant in her own life.  Poor Nina just had things happen to her.  In a creative writing class, we'd be told this is a bad idea.  Basically, the movie is static.  The weird visions begin to overtake her.  They continue while she does nothing to help herself.  Because of those weird visions, she kills herself, and then thinks she was "perfect" because....why?  Her dark nature fully emerged?  And allowed her to harm herself?  Aren't dark natures usually about getting people to harm others, not themselves?

The whole thing gave me a headache and lingering sense of disappointment.  Just like Fight Club.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Keep on Truckin'

So, it's pretty obvious that grad school resuming has greatly impacted my ability to blog on any sort of regular basis.  But there's another reason I've been keeping a low profile lately.

August was pretty much filled with nothing but rejection, and it started getting to me.  I started getting down on writing and on myself in particular.  Why can't I do this? I asked myself.  Why isn't anything I write good enough anymore?

But that was so the wrong question to ask.  Rejection happens to everyone.  It has nothing to do with how good a writer you are--it just has to do with that moment.  Is that story right for that editor and that journal and that issue in that moment?  If not, it absolutely does not mean you're not a good writer.  It just means the time isn't right.

I started trying to think of it like this.  When you buy a lotto ticket and don't win, do you get down on yourself for not winning?  Of course not.  It's out of your control.  There's a certain element of micro-physics going on here--when it's your time to win, you'll win.  If it's not your time, there's nothing you and your lucky numbers can do to make it happen.  Not winning the lotto doesn't mean you're not an awesome person.  It just means your numbers weren't picked today.  That's it.

I'm still slowly making my way through "The Best American Short Stories 2009."  I got to one story, "Sagittarius," by Greg Hrbek.  (I didn't like the story, incidentally, but its journey to publication has an interesting lesson to teach.)  Hrbek teaches fiction writing at a college in New York, and went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In other words, he's a highly qualified individual when it comes to writing.  In the notes at the back of the book, Hrbek says that the first version of this short story was rejected by "about fifteen magazines and journals."  Fifteen!  (My best story has been rejected by five or six, so far.)  The rejections prompted him to revise the story, after which it was accepted by Black Warrior Review and then anthologized in the "Best American" collection.  Not bad, huh?

This cheered me up.  If a professor can get rejected fifteen times, I can't possibly be upset about being rejected, either.  It just happens.  To everyone.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

My 10 Rules for Writers

I've officially begun my third semester of grad school!  Classes are mostly fun, reading lists are long, and I'm generally having a better time than I thought I would.  While the said reading list doesn't bode well for my free time (or ability to blog), I'm going to keep trying to find the time to write, submit stories, and keep you guys updated.  To that end, here's something interesting that I was asked to do for my memoir writing class.  Our assignment for the week was to write 10 rules for writing.  I had a pretty easy time with this, since I've thought long and hard about this type of question before.

All you writers out there, chime in!  What are your rules for writing?  Here are mine:

Jenni's 10 Rules for Writing

1. Tell a story because you have a question you want or need to answer, not because you want to provide a moral, teach a lesson, or make a point.  Plots, settings, and characters can’t breathe if they’re suffocated by a pre-determined message; things that can’t breathe usually die as a result. 

2. Avoid having your characters answer each other directly or say exactly what’s on their minds.  Characters should almost always hide something, misdirect other characters’ attention, tell half-truths, or flat-out lie.  Clear, precise answers are for police interrogations, not creative writing. 

3. Never tell your reader what you, the narrator, or any of your characters are feeling. Avoid naming feelings altogether.  Describe emotion or reveal it through action.  You lose too much mystery by naming it. 

4. Be archaeological in your descriptions.  Excavate people, places, and things to find out what’s beneath—then describe those things.  Instead of describing skin, for example, think of what’s beneath the skin—blood, bones, atoms, marrow.  Instead of describing the sky, think of atoms refracting, particles shining, ether, matter, etc.  Don’t settle for describing the surface.  Think about what’s happening on the inside of things, not just the outside.

5. Visualize everything as you write it.  You have to be aware of every movement your characters make in a room, what they’re wearing, what they’re carrying, which car they’re getting out of, etc.  Everything, from cars to clothing to positioning in a room, has to obey the rules of physics and logic.  If you describe a character carrying six grocery bags and a cup of coffee, for example, he better have a really hard time ringing the doorbell or digging out his keys. 

6. Describe what’s unique, not what’s ordinary.  If you want to describe a dorm room, for example, modular furniture, dirty clothes, and textbooks are probably a given.  If there’s nothing unusual or important about them, don’t describe them.  Instead, tell us about the things we wouldn’t ordinarily see or the things that we need to know, like the laminated cardboard jewelry box with corners that have been reinforced with three different kinds of tape.

7. Don’t wrap up your ending too neatly.  People rarely exit life-altering moments with complete satisfaction, complete despair, or a complete sense of their place in the universe.  Characters who vow to be different from that point forward, or narrators who learn the true meaning of really big concepts like love, hope, or faith are probably deluding themselves—and you.   

8.  Avoid tricks or cliché endings.  These include the “it was all a dream” ending, the “it could have happened that way, but didn’t” ending, and the “Tyler Durdon is only a personality inside my head” trick.  If a reader invests in your story, these endings can obliterate that investment and make the reader feel cheated.

9. Grammar or proofreading mistakes are never allowed unless they are purposeful, to characterize a narrator or character. 

10.  Revise to eliminate redundancies.  Ask yourself whether multiple adjectives are really necessary—or does naming the object itself already express these characteristics?  (i.e., “soft, fluffy, kitten,” “hot summer afternoon,” “Italian Ferrari,” “obnoxious telemarketer,” etc.).  Ask yourself whether the verb itself already conveys the adverb (i.e., “ran swiftly,” “whispered softly,” “screamed loudly,” etc.).  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Unsolved Mysteries: The Frank Rivers Saga

Unsolved mysteries bug the living crap out of me.  I can't help it.  The human race has put a man on the moon, built skyscrapers, cloned animals, and done all sorts of stuff that seems scientifically impossible...until someone does it.  (Internet, anyone?)  So why is it so hard to figure out what happened to some people?  How can simple things like bones and flesh and minerals just disappear, or become seemingly impossible to find?

Before they found the skeletons of the Romanovs, I lost some serious sleep wondering where on earth they were.  I still occasionally lose sleep over the Amelia Earhart thing.  I've spent serious time pondering where the Ark of the Covenant could be.  These are all solvable problems...or they should be, in my mind.

But in the past year, I've lost the most sleep over one of my own relatives:  my elusive great-great-grandfather.  I've become addicted to genealogy research.  It's my crack.  The computer has to be pried out of my sleepy fingers before I'll shut it off and let go of the elusive loose end that is Frank Rivers.  He's the guy on the left in this photo, with his hand on the dog.  The man you can barely see.  The man I can't find.

Frank Rivers.  Don't suppose any of you know who this guy is?  I sure don't.

According to family information I was given, he lived in Smith's Valley, Nevada in the late 1800s.  This picture was taken there in about 1902.  Based on federal census information, I think he showed up in Cache Creek by 1870.  He sold the Nevada farm and moved south, but I'm not sure exactly when--he died in Los Angeles in 1912.  I don't know how or when he headed west, but he wasn't born here.

He filled out his census information with several different birth dates ranging from 1841 to 1845.  Most of his census answers indicate that he was born in New York about 1844.  One says "L.I.," which I take to mean Long Island.  However, Frank's daughter Hazel (my great-grandmother, the little girl sitting on the porch in the photo) answered her 1930 census with a strange response for "Father's Birthplace:"  Michigan.

Michigan?  WTF?  Why the heck would she say Michigan when in 1900, 1910, and 1920, she said Frank was born in New York?  What did she know that I don't?

Another family member, a second cousin who'd begun a family tree in the 1970s, also lists Frank's birthplace as Holland, Michigan in July of 1842.  That's not New York and it's not 1844.  Why do my second cousin and great-grandmother think Frank was born in Michigan, when he himself told every census taker who asked him he'd been born in New York?  Was he lying?  Did he have something to hide?  Or, if he was telling the truth, why would my great-grandmother have lied?  Or did Frank lie to his kids, but tell the truth to the census taker?  What's the point of that?

It makes my head hurt.

I have spent HOURS on and looking for leads.  This has gone on for over a year now.  For the past two nights, I've been up past midnight tracking down everyone by the name of Francis or Frank Rivers who lived in New York or Michigan in the 1840s.

So far, I've got two "Francis Rivard"s in Michigan, one born in 1843 and one born in 1835.

I've got two "Francis Rivers"s in New York.  One, born in 1844, was in the poorhouse by 1854 and indentured to a guy named William Buchan in Hopewell.  He shows up on the census in 1855 and 1860, but he's vanished in 1865.  Is this my Frank?  Did he head west when he grew up?

The second New York candidate was born in 1844 and lived in St. Lawrence, NY.  I need to go back and see where he falls off the map....if he falls off the map.  Maybe one of these guys is my ancestor.  Maybe none of them are.  It kills me to know that I may never know who Frank Rivers was.

It doesn't seem right that I can't find out who he was.  He was just a man.  An ordinary man.  No king, no oil baron, no one.  Still, he existed.  There are a few pictures of him and a record of a few land deeds and court cases in Nevada.  A man named Frank Rivers lived.  So why is it so hard to find out who he was and where he came from?

I'll probably never know the truth.  And I am having such a hard time with that.  Whoever he was, he's a part of me.  Did he murder someone and flee west, taking a new name?  Is he a humble farmer whose birth was just never documented?  How am I supposed to know where I came from when I can't figure out who this guy really is?

He's the major thorn in my genealogical side.  And it kills me that he's an unsolved mystery.  I feel like there's always going to be a part of me I don't know unless I solve this mystery.  It's silly, because I am who I am regardless of what Frank did.  But I began my genealogical quest in the hopes of finding answers as to why I'm so different from most of my family members.  When I spot others who are different, like Frank, it makes me think I might be like them.  But if Frank was a bad guy, what does being like him mean?  I want to know.  I need to know.  And I can't.  And it makes me want to tear my hair out.

Do you guys have any unsolved genealogical mysteries?  Which unsolved mysteries keep you up late at night?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Social Justice Stories: Good Idea? Bad Idea?

I don't like social justice stories.  You know the kind--stories that are all about publicizing an issue or gaining sympathy for a particular group, like single mothers or veterans or refugees from the Sudan.  I'm all for helping whoever needs it, but I just don't think short stories are the vehicle for helping with these kinds of issues.  I've always thought these kinds of stories come off as preachy and message-driven (as opposed to character- or even plot-driven).

In fact, I'm reading the 2009 Best American Short Stories compilation, and the social justice themes are starting to get a bit on my nerves.  I'm less than a quarter of the way through the book, and I've already encountered a wounded veteran trapped during Hurricane Katrina, a little boy who died of AIDS because of a botched transfusion, a Chinese man jailed because he followed his own career path, a Jewish widow who will do anything to see her husband's works edited and published. The first two stories in the collection were great--filled with normal, identifiable people making choices that define their lives.  And then wham, bam, nearly every story after these played the social justice card.  It makes me want to pull out my hair.  It's like the literary version of Oscar bait.  Want a crapload of Oscars?  Cast Daniel Day-Lewis as a paraplegic transvestite who was abused as a child.  Want to get published in a prestigious anthology?  Write a social justice story.    

So...given all this...why in the hell did I start writing a social justice story yesterday?

It started with Vanity Fair.  If you subscribe to the magazine, flip back to your August issue (the one with Emma Stone on the cover).  If you don't subscribe, just click here.  Alex Shoumatoff's "Agony and Ivory" is the easily the best piece of journalism I've ever read.  I've never been moved to tears by a magazine article before.

The article details the recent rise in African elephant poaching, fueled largely by a resurgent demand for ivory in Asia.  The ignorance and stupidity and greed on all sides breaks my heart.  Apparently, a large percentage of wealthy elderly Chinese believe an elephant's ivory tusks fall out, like baby teeth.  They don't know that the animals need to be killed to retrieve the ivory they pay thousands of dollars for.  The Muslim youth brigade Al-Shabbab (yeah, that's them on the news refusing to allow aid workers into Somalia to help with the famine) is also involved in the ivory trade.

The poachers are going after mating bulls and matriarchs--the exact elephants needed to keep herds alive and full of genetic diversity.  If the words "extinction vortex" mean anything to you, that's what's going to be happening pretty darn soon in terms of Africa's elephant population.  The article describes Kuku ranch group rangers finding a dead elephant.  Its face was hacked off to get at the ivory.  The body was still kneeling on the ground, decaying in an upright position, exactly where it had fallen.

Sometimes poachers shoot the elephants.  Sometimes they stab them dozens of times.  Sometimes they poison them.  Sometimes they do some or all of these things.  It is absolutely cruel the way these poachers go after these creatures.  Occasionally, the elephants don't die--they bleed and limp across borders or national park lines, searching for sanctuary.

The kicker is that I've been to one of the Kenyan parks mentioned in the article.  I spent one amazing weekend on safari at Intrepids Samburu (northern Kenya) in...good grief, could it be as long ago as 2003?  While I was there, I saw an elephant skull resting on the ground.  I took a picture of it because it was so creepy looking (at right). I have no way of knowing whether the elephant died a natural death--even though all I saw was the skull, it could easily have come apart from the rest of the skeleton.  Note, however, that there's absolutely no ivory present.

Anyway, in the VF article, Shoumatoff speaks with Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder and director of a Kenyan NGO, Save the Elephants.  STE monitors the elephant population in Samburu from their headquarters in Nairobi.  I sat next to Mrs. Douglas-Hamilton on the plane back to Nairobi from Samburu.  We talked the whole way about their foundation and what it does and the very small connection my employer at the time had to them.

For me, this made the article hit a little too close to home.  I might have seen some of the elephants they mentioned as being murdered recently.  I just can't imagine any ivory trinket being worth the life of one of these amazing creatures.  It boggles the mind, as they say.  Who would want this little guy to die?  (My boss snapped him in the Masai Mara.)

So, yesterday, I sat down to write and came up with an idea for a six- or seven-part story that gives the reader a glimpse into the entire disastrous cycle, from the buyers to the poachers.  I'm hoping I can avoid the trap that most social justice stories fall into--that they're boring and predictable.  I'm treating each small mini-chapter as a complete story in and of itself.  Hopefully, I can keep the characters and the conflicts interesting enough to hold a reader's interest.  I'm not planning on demonizing anyone, either.  Every story has two sides, and to keep the story interesting, it's my job to find out what those two sides are, even if I obviously don't agree with them.

I'll keep you all updated on how the story turns out.  In the meantime, if you read the article and happen to be moved, please consider donating anything you can spare to Save the Elephants here.    

Monday, August 8, 2011

Anatomy of a Fake-Cation

How many of you guys are headed out for a summer vacation?  How many of you guys can't afford it, but still need a little fresh air?  Allow me to introduce the concept of a "fake-cation."  If you're broke, like me, but still need to get out of your own space to keep your mind fresh for writing, like me, a fake-cation might be just the thing.

Here's how it works.  You go somewhere within driving distance, no more than two or three hours away, and stay one night.  It might be ten blocks from where you live.  It might be two hours from where you live.  But you treat it as if you were in Paris, staying at the Hotel George V.  The hubby and I have done this several times when we just couldn't afford a real vacation.  It works almost as well.

The first time we did this, in 2006, it was to use up a free gift card I'd gotten through work.  We went to a cute lakeside hotel less than 30 miles away.  Still in our own backyard, essentially, but far enough removed from the slightly grimy area we lived in so that we got a mental break.  We went out to dinner and treated ourselves to an in-room movie (I never do this, so it felt like a real treat.  Plus, Miami Vice actually turned out to be a decent flick).  Overall, we came back rested and happy, and feeling like we did something indulgent.

We tried it again yesterday.  On the spur of the moment, we decided to get away to Reno.  Strange destination, I know, but due to a strange combination of factors, there were two errands we needed to run in the neighborhood anyway.  We drove up to Sparks, ran an errand, then dropped back down to Boomtown to blow out a game card in their kids' arcade area that still had about $7 on it.  We played air hockey, skee-ball, and random video games with Fast and Furious themes.

In all seriousness, never underestimate the good that can be done with $10 in a kids' arcade.  It can wake up any slumbering competitive skills, which is always a good thing for writing.  You know that get-up-at-4-am-to-train kind of drive that Olympic athletes have?  We writers need that same kind of commitment.  I know I don't always have it, least of all during lazy summer days.  If you're not a naturally competitive or aggressive person, it can be hard to rouse the slumbering beast.  Getting absolutely trounced in air hockey is a good way to get some of that determination back.  I lost at least three games and ended one in a tie.  Obviously, I suck at arcade games, but that's not the point.  I got a taste of what it feels like to look up at a scoreboard and be down 5 to 2.  Sometimes, we need to look at writing that way, too.  And we need to fight back.  Get that page count up.  Write even though you don't feel like it.  Finish that story even though you don't know where it's going or why it matters.  The only thing worse than giving up is never even playing the game.

Another nifty part of hanging out at Boomtown is the bar and its accompanying lounge acts.  For less than ten bucks, the hubby had a beer, I had a Jack and coke, and we listened to an R&B cover band do strange things like mash up Stevie Wonder with Color Me Badd ("I Wanna Sex You Up," if you were wondering).  Things that might seem cheesy in ordinary life are perfectly acceptable during fake-cation.

Unfortunately, Boomtown wanted $90 a night in order to stay.  Using the lobby's free WiFi, we checked out some other places and booked a room at Silver Legacy for less than half the price.  There's nothing like one of the gargantuan casinos to make you feel like Alice gone down the rabbit hole.  If it's a break from your physical and mental surroundings, I highly recommend some place like this.  There are a ton of people--great for people-watching and forming new plots and characters.  There are a ton of lights and sounds, which can sharpen your skills of observation.  (There's also a lot of cigarette smoke, which turned my eyes so red I looked like I was already drunk or high, but that's a small price to pay for feeling so far away.)

(Brief aside:  Silver Legacy, would it kill you to let people eat for less than $25 per person?  I am BROKE.  I LEFT your casino and went to eat at the Cal-Neva casino because, sensibly, they have a restaurant that offered me food for less than $10 a plate.  Harrah's, Circus Circus, and the Eldorado could not do this.  I have realized this is why you can afford to let me have a room for less than $50 a night--you assume I'm going to drop another $50 on dinner for two.  You assumed wrong.)

Anyway, on our way home this morning, we stopped in South Lake Tahoe and checked out some of the vintage cars at Hot August Nights.  I'm so not a car person, but even I can appreciate the awesomeness of these vehicles.  There was a Ford GT-40, which the hubby says costs at least as much as a McMansion (the photo is from 2008, but it's the same car).  Nice.  There was some purple car (yes, that's the actual make and model) with a mostly naked woman painted onto the front and back of it.  There were 1930s gangster cars with running boards, perfect for ye-olde-drive-by-shootings.   Plus, my personal favorite, a sparkly beige 1962 Chevy Corvette owned by a very lucky woman named Carol.  I also dug the thrashed matte black early 60s Austin-Healey with the skull shifter.  Rock on, dude, rock on.

I do have a point to all this rambling, besides trying to make my life look more interesting than it is.  The point is that as a writer, you have to get out of your own space to get new ideas.  You have to see things you don't see everyday to keep your ideas and descriptions fresh.  Smell things you don't ordinarily smell.  Watch people you've never seen before.  Just look at what America is up to--and then take the bits that interest you and turn them into a story.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Book Review: Rob Roy

So, lately, I've been feeling in need of a little swashbuckling to lift my spirits.  I've had this copy of Rob Roy for years now, but hadn't got around to reading it.  I figured a little Scottish warlord action would be just the thing to take my mind off money worries, rejection worries, am-I-really-cut-out-for-this worries.  After all, these guys had real problems to deal with.  You know, war, cattle thievery, duels, and whatnot.  I can honestly say that I've never had to deal with the prospect of having to pay protection money to a rogue Highlander to make sure my nice, fat herd of cattle stay put.

Warning to those who intend to read this book someday:  there will be spoilers ahead.  Proceed with caution.

Overall rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
I was pleasantly surprised! The writing is fluid, events move quickly, and once the mysterious events are put in motion, I really did want to find out what the hell Rashleigh (the villain) has on Diana (the love interest).

The main character, Frank Osbaldistone, is the straight man here.  Don't look to him for wit or excitement.  He's there as a foil for all the super-interesting people around him. Basically, he decides he doesn't want to take over his father's massive accounting firm; oh no, this guy would rather write shitty poetry all day.  His father sends him to the family estate in the northern wilds of England.  There, he'll basically sit and rot among his lame-ass relatives until his father decides to call him back and give him another shot at the family business.

On the road to his family estate, he travels with another guy headed north named Morris.  Morris is a huge chickenshit who constantly fears being attacked by bandits.  Eventually, Morris and Frank separate and go their own ways.  (This is important later, because some crazy stuff happens to Morris after Frank leaves.)

When Frank gets to Osbaldistone Hall, he meets his lame-ass relatives who obey a simple mantra in life: eat, drink, hunt, repeat.  He also meets Diana Vernon, a cousin.  She's whip-smart, beautiful, and seems to do whatever the hell she wants around the place.  Frank soon notices, however, that there's something creepy and mysterious going on between Diana and one of his Osbaldistone cousins, Rashleigh.  Although Diana obviously has the hots for Frank (as he does for her), Rashleigh is always in the way--this guy pretends not to have a vested interest, but you just know he's working behind the scenes to eff up Frank's chances with Diana.  Not cool, dude.  Not cool at all.

One of the big surprises in the book, for me, is the fact that almost two hundred pages of it go by here at Osbaldistone Hall.  Not in Scotland.  Not a Roy Roy in sight.  (Okay, so technically, he did appear in disguise, but I'm not counting that and neither should you.)  I didn't have a problem with this because the goings-on at Osbaldistone Hall are interesting, and Diana Vernon is a freaking awesome character.  I got the sense that if she lived now, she'd be a Charlie's Angel or the woman Angelina Jolie's character only wishes she could be in The Tourist.

Anyway, after the 200-page mark, the real conflict begins to unfold.  Without delving too deeply into the plot, it goes a little something like this:  Frank-o flees to Scotland and participates in some intrigues relative to his father's business and a coming Jacobite uprising against the Hanoverian crown.  While in Scotland, you meet Rob Roy Campbell MacGregor and his wife Helen MacGregor.  Dude, Helen MacGregor is the reason they invented Valium.  This woman is seriously pissed off, like, all the time.  So pissed off, in fact, that she orders the murder of Morris.

The murder scene was riveting.  I wasn't sure Scott would pull the trigger on this one.  I kept thinking Morris would get out of it, but then the moment happened, and away he went.  I won't tell you how they got rid of him, but let's just say it's not the way you want to go.  Much like Vronsky's horse-racing scene in Anna Karenina, this is a scene that grabs your attention and refuses to let it go.  It doesn't matter when it was written or where or why--it's exciting, it's nerve-wracking, and you can't help but feel for these characters.

My reaction to Rob Roy was harder to define.  He is one of those characters that I didn't appreciate until he was off-stage.  While he was there, he was moderately interesting--balanced, fair, violent when he had to be, determined, and strangely honorable.  But you don't fully appreciate these qualities until you're stuck in a scene with Frank-o, Andrew Fairservice (annoying as hell!), and Nicol Jarvie (pleasant in a non-remarkable, only mildly annoying kind of way).  Then you realize what Rob Roy's character really brings to the table:  the experience and gravity of someone who has really lived.  He's killed, he's been imprisoned, he's escaped from prison, he's stolen some cattle, he's had his own cattle stolen.  Save Helen, none of these other characters can match the depth of Rob Roy's experience and it shows.

At the end of the book, Scott ties up all his loose ends.  You find out what was really going on between Rashleigh and Diana.  You find out what happens with the brewing Jacobite rebellion.  You find out how the major characters end their days.  Because the book was written in the 19th century, modern readers might get the sense that everything is tied up a little too neatly.  This was a convention of the time, though, so don't hold it against Scott.  It doesn't detract from the book's high points at all.

Overall, there are plenty of reasons to read this book:
*Diana Vernon
*Rob Roy
*Morris's murder scene
*Beautiful descriptions of Scottish clan life and Scottish landscape

There are also a few things you're going to have to take with a grain of salt:
*Freakin' long-ass passages in Scotch dialect.  If you're not into the whole "Scots wha hae" thing, you're in for some rough going once the characters make it to Scotland.
*Straight-man main character
*Andrew Fairservice

If you do read this one, I'd love to know what you think!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Some Good Long Last

Finally, I have an uplifting piece of news to share with you all!

My short story, "Croatoa," was accepted into an anthology titled "A Rustle of Dark Leaves," to be published by Misanthrope Press.

I really crossed my fingers for this one!  I have a soft spot for this story. It's a dark, twisted, supernatural version of how the lost English colony of Roanoke might have been wiped out.  If you guys have never read about this colony, it's worth checking out.  Here's a National Geographic article that just might whet your appetite for the subject.

I'll keep everyone updated when I hear more about a publication date for this anthology. In the meantime, keep writing! You never know when good news is just around the corner.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

That's What Friends Are For

This post is dedicated to one of my girlfriends--my best friend, actually.  We've both been having a rough time of it recently, with money and a bright outlook for the future often in short supply. But we're there to support each other as we chase our dreams and that's what matters.  I want her to know that no matter what happens with jobs and money, at least we'll always have each other.  

Here's the kind of friend Yan is:  she willingly agreed to be my date for my ten-year college reunion.  Who else but an amazing friend would subject herself to that kind of torture?

Yan, this one's for you.  

Long-lasting friendships are rare--for me, anyway.  It always seems that misunderstandings over boys, money, and lifestyles get in the way and eventually tear something down that once seemed invincible.  I had one particularly bad split with a former roommate who didn't approve of the guy I was dating (and married), or the fact that I ran off to Vegas to marry him without telling anyone.  While I can definitely understand that she was hurt when I didn't tell her about it, I can honestly say that I didn't even tell my own parents about it ahead of time.  I had to call them after getting back from Vegas and tell them I was *married.*  To a guy they'd met *once.*  In a close-knit family like mine, that call was torture.

I could have been ostracized or yelled at or disowned.  But was I?  No.  My family loves me, and they may not have understood why or how I did what I did, but they rolled with the punches and trusted my judgment. Every grandparent, aunt, uncle, and cousin has accepted Paul into the family with warmth and generosity.  And of my best friends couldn't do the same thing.  That still hurts, to this day.

I don't feel an obligation to live my life as an open book to everyone around me--we all have things we need to work out on the inside, on our own, before sharing them.  Honesty is a good thing and should be valued, but never at the expense of your sense of self.  When it came to marrying Paul, it was this strange but magical moment that just happened.  One moment, in all of life, where only two people exist.  And I took hold of that moment, seizing it for all it was worth.  When it was time to come down from that high, I looked around for a handhold and the people who I'd left behind.  Almost all of them welcomed me back.  Almost.

It takes a special kind of friend to roll with those punches and accept others for who they are--even when they do things you don't like or approve of.  Yan is one of those very special people.

We met when the University of California paired us as roommates.  At first, all we knew about each other was a name and an address.  As we wrote to each other and then finally met on the dorm's move-in day, it became clear to both of us that we were a lot alike.  Both vulnerable, deep thinkers, and self-confessed late bloomers, we went through so many growing pains together during those four years of college.  During and since college, we've had periods where we don't speak.  Sometimes those periods lasted for years.  Even when we weren't speaking, though, I always knew we'd reconnect.  I knew we'd never be out of each other's lives for good.  We were too alike and had been through too much together to throw in the towel.

Essentially, we had to go out and live our lives.  We had to make mistakes.  We had to have opportunities missed, relationships ruined, and tears cried to fully understand where the other was coming from.  But now that we've weathered those storms, I know our friendship is stronger than ever.

That's why I know that even if our dreams don't come true quite the way we want, we'll still be there to help each other through the fallout.  If I never become a published writer, it's okay.  I know she's still got my back.  As long as I want to strive for it, I know Yan is there to tell me she believes in me, 110 percent.  She's my biggest supporter, in fact!  And if her boutique doesn't take off the way she wants it to, it's okay because I've still got her back!  I'll be there to tell her she's still one of the bravest people I know for even trying it.

The great thing about Yan is her ability to grab the bull by the horns (or by the balls, if you've seen Never Been Kissed).  If she wants something, she'll fight for it.  And if it doesn't work out, she'll sit back and analyze the situation to figure out why.  She thinks about things--the causes of things.  She uses what she's learned, about people and situations.  She looks for the positive and the bright side, but she doesn't back down from the darker side of things, either.  She can see your side of the issue even if she doesn't agree with you, but she's not afraid to tell you you're wrong.  

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have Yan in my life.  She's funny, beautiful, smart, insightful, dedicated, and a constant inspiration. There is no one better to have in your corner.  Yan, I love you, girl.  I honestly don't know where I'd be without you.  I miss the days when we'd sit on your balcony in Marin, drinking wine or cocktails, and wondering where the hell our lives were going....after we came back from a shopping spree at Ross or Marshalls, of course.

There's a questionnaire on the last page of every issue of Vanity Fair, called the "Proust Questionnaire." One of the questions asks you when and where you were most happy.  I think those weekends in Marin with you would be my answer.  Shopping, eating, drinking cocktails, analyzing boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, watching Sex and the City...I don't think it could ever get better than that. You, my friend, are when and where I was most happy.

Now, if you've gotten all the way to the end of this post and live in the San Francisco Bay Area, please go say  hi to Yan at her boutique!  Tell her I sent you.

Yan's Fashion Sense at 1324 Noriega, between 20th & 21st Avenue
*on Yelp
*on Facebook

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sewing Project #1: Pajamas

I mentioned in the last post that I'd meant to show you guys some of the sewing projects I've been working on. I finally dragged out the camera yesterday, so here goes nothing.

Sewing Project #1: Pink Pajamas

Why on earth would anyone do this?
My Christmas present to myself was a brand-new sewing machine and the promise that I'd teach myself to sew. My mom sews. My sister sews. My grandma sews. It's just something the women in my family seem to do. For the longest time, I didn't see the attraction. I love to shop.  It's almost criminal how much I love to shop. But that's the funny thing about being broke--I'm no longer able to do what I love, at least not without racking up an unreasonable amount of credit card debt.

Plus, the older I get, the more I'm realizing that clothes really do need to fit well to be attractive. And I have a short torso, which makes all the clothes in my size hang wrong. I don't know if I've started shrinking already, or if I just never noticed this before, or if the clothing manufacturers are making things for longer-torsoed people these days. But it seems that everything I try on has straps that are too long, which cause a bad fit, a sloppy look, and way too much cleavage.  So, for the first time in my life, sewing seemed like an answer.  I can make my own clothes, ensure they fit, learn a valuable and vanishing skill, and still acquire new things for the closet.

So how did it go?
Um, yeah.  The first sewing project I tackled was a pair of pajamas.  Unbeknownst to me, this was probably a bad choice for the first project.  For those of you who also sew, I used McCall's M5992 pattern, shown below.

I made the pants first, figuring they'd be easier than the top.  I was only partially right.  My first mistake was sewing the crotch shut.  Paul still can't figure out how my mental faculties failed to alert me that this was a really bad idea and so not what the pattern was telling me to do.  But spatial imagery and I don't always get along.  In fact, we're barely on speaking terms.  Hence the sewn-shut crotch.  (This issue will rear its ugly head again in my next sewing post.)

Once I figured that out, I had to rip out all the seams and start over.  Then, once I got them together a second time, I realized I cut the wrong size.  I could barely get the friggin' things over my hips.  (Vanity, thy name is first-time sewer!)  Apparently, I am a size medium instead of size small.  So then I had to tear out all the seams again and re-do them with the most minimal seam allowance I could.  The third time was a charm, though, and the pants were now complete.

If you're a first-time sewer, like me, the only thing I can tell you about these pants is DO NOT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MAKE THE STUPID DRAWSTRING THE WAY THEY TELL YOU TO. It is next to freaking impossible to make a spaghetti-sized tube of fabric and then turn it inside out without wasting hours of your life. It must have taken me three or four hours to do, and involved the following equipment: lacquered chopsticks, safety pins, straight pins, and at least four whiskey shots.  I kid you not.  Save yourself.  Abandon ship. Just use ribbon, like any sensible person would do.

So that was the end of the pants.  Next, I tackled the top.

The first parts of this were surprisingly easy. Pocket? No problem.  Sewing front of top to back of top? No problem.  The collar was where I ran into trouble.  I still have no idea how to put a collar on correctly.  I fudged and did it my own way, which is why I have a random rough edge where a clean seam should be.  I don't think you can see it in this photo, but if you look below the neck of the hanger, you might see what I'm talking about.  I'll get another shot at this one, because I bought flannel, too, for a second pair.

Anyway, the collar lays mostly flat, as you can see. There are a few rough spots, but overall, I was pretty impressed that I got the thing assembled and it looks like...well, a real collar.  I was also pretty impressed that the set-in sleeves worked well.  I only ended up with one pucker on one shoulder.  If I was a perfectionist, I would have torn out the seam and re-sewed it.  But at that point, I was just glad to still be alive.  I left that pucker there.

Next came the buttonholes.  I had been dreading these for quite some time.  (The whole process of making this pajama set happened over weeks, if not months.  It was spring semester, and I could hardly find a few spare hours to work on it what with class and homework and reading assignments and all.)  But when I sat down to do them, they were surprisingly easy.  The buttonhole function of my sewing machine worked quite well.  What took forever was ripping the actual buttonhole.  Before I did it, I had no idea that you created buttonholes by ripping the fabric.  That was kind of disturbing to find out.  There is no real clean or easy way of doing it, unless I'm missing something.  It was a backbreaking hour or two of squinting at the lines of thread and praying I wouldn't rip into them with my seam ripper. In the end, they worked--and even better, they lined up almost perfectly.  Phew!  That had been one of my biggest worries for the project.  What I effed up the buttonholes?  There's no recovering from that mistake.

So I came to the end of my first sewing project, alive and well and with a new pair of pink pajamas.  I'll tackle this pattern one more time.  I bought a turquoise flannel print for another pair that I'll do sometime this fall.  Hopefully this time, I won't sew the crotch shut!

Stay tuned for the next sewing project I'll talk about--flannel boxer shorts.  It doesn't sound super exciting, I know, but this time, the hubby gets in on the action and we both get mystified by the pattern instructions.  Good times!  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Key West

I meant to post about something else entirely today (teaching myself to sew), but first I need to iron the things I've sewn so I can take non-shitty pictures of them, and ironing sucks, and it's hot outside, and no one wants to slave over a hot iron when it's hot outside, so I'll try to get it done later tonight, and oh, hell, I guess I can always tell a really embarrassing story instead of posting something useful or educational...

Here goes nothing.

Paul and I drove out the Keys a few years ago for summer vacation. We stayed in Marathon Key because it was cheaper than staying in Key West. We booked a beautiful little cottage-style room for two nights. Once we got there, one of the first things we noticed about Florida, and southern Florida in particular, is the fact that it has bugs. Bugs the size of small children.

I hate bugs the way Indiana Jones hates snakes.  I hate spiders most of all, but really, my hatred extends to any bugs that can crawl into places I might find them. One time, on choir tour senior year, a cricket flew out of my backpack in New Mexico and I almost fainted.  True story.

So. Marathon Key. We check into our room and prepare to relax. It's nighttime and we've already driven from Hollywood, and all we want is to chill out and get a good night's sleep. Paul goes to take a shower.  But first he has to kill the shower's other inhabitant, an enormous palmetto bug.  That sucker was as thick as a carrot and as long as my pinkie finger (I have really long fingers, people).  It hissed at us.  Paul smashed it with his shoe, but some of the guts stuck to the floor.  Really gross. I tried not to look at the wing remnants as I took my own shower.

Afterward, I put my pajamas and flip-flops on and padded over to the bed.  Suddenly, I heard another hissing noise--the exact same noise that freaking bug made before Paul slapped it upside the head with his Vans.  All I could think was that another bug was somewhere in the room, probably near the bed.

I jumped onto the bed and screeched, "There's another one!  I heard it!"  Panicked, I scanned the room for a crawling insect the size of a mini-golf scoring pencil.  I didn't see anything, but I knew what I'd heard.  Paul made a more thorough investigation.  He lifted up the tiny refrigerator, looked under the bed, and moved the nightstands.  He didn't find anything.

Still wary, I decided to put my feet on terra firma.  I put one foot down on the floor and instantly heard the hissing again.  I shrieked, swore, and jumped back up on the bed.  "You heard that, too, right?" I asked.  Oh, yes, Paul had heard it, too.

He redoubled his efforts and checked even more dark corners of the room.  I started freaking out.  How can I sleep in a room where there's a giant roach waiting to share the bed?  I told Paul what I was afraid of, and he said he'd check the bed sheets if I'd get off it.  That meant touching the floor, which I wasn't happy about at all.  Those fuckers moved fast, and if I felt those tiny bug feet crawling over mine, I knew I'd flip out.  For sanity's sake, it seemed safer for me to stay on the bed.

But my husband's sanity prevailed over mine and I got down off the bed.  Slowly, one foot at a time, I came back down to earth.  But as soon as I took one step away from the bed, I heard it.  That prehistoric shitbird was hissing at me again!  The gall!

I ran over to the single chair in the room and jumped up on it.  Then the bastard hissed again!  It would have been funny if I weren't sure it was looking for a way to tunnel into my suitcase for maximum heart-attack impact the next morning.  While I stood like a demented flamingo on a rickety metal chair, Paul duly took apart the bed, pushing the mattress off the box spring and de-sheeting it.  He looked everywhere.  He looked under the bed, again.  He checked inside our suitcases.  He checked the bathroom.  There was no bug to be found.

"But I can hear it!" I whined.  "It's here somewhere!  We have to find it."

But where else could we look?  Paul had already exhausted pretty much every hiding place the small room offered.  He fixed the bed and then sat down on it.  "Come on," he said.  "Let's just watch some TV and try to relax."

Now, relaxing when there's a Jurassic Park-sized bug on the loose is not in my DNA.  But I tried.  Because it was Paul's vacation and not just mine, I tried.  I got down off the chair...and damned if that bug didn't hiss at me again!  This was too much.  I had never been targeted so fiercely by a roach before.

That's what made me wonder.  How could the fucker know exactly where I was and what I was doing?  Was it Superbug?  Did it have eyes in the back of its head?  If it did, I had to catch it and sell it to scientists and retire to Key West permanently.

I took one step forward.  The bug hissed again.  Was I getting warmer?

I stepped again.  Another hiss.  What the hell was going on here?

Then I figured it out.  The bug only hissed when my feet touched the floor.  It only made noise when I stepped toward it.  One more test confirmed my theory:  I was, in fact, "wearing" the bug.

The hissing noise was apparently some defect in my Old Navy flip-flops.  Brand new and unworn until that day, they apparently made evil hissing bug noises when they were wet and then stepped on.

The moral of the story:
*Florida is full of bugs.
*Old Navy flip flops make evil hissing bug noises when they're wet.    
*It is absolutely essential to marry a man who understands your fear of bugs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Books vs. Boyfriends: Finding the One

Have you guys ever had a revelation while working out? I had one today.  I went running by the lake, and about five miles in, I finally saw the connection between the books I've written and the boyfriends I've dated.

Here's the context: I've been ridiculously depressed because my thriller manuscript isn't getting any love. I put my heart into it and I love this book with an unhealthy passion. But it's just not working out in terms of getting an agent.  This is what's put me in such a terrible mood.  But today, I can finally see a bit of light.  Writing books and submitting them is no different than dating. Here's the proof:

Boyfriend, A.: We had nothing in common other than being in the same college. He was on the rebound and I'd never dated anyone in my life.  I fell hard and ended up chasing after him for years, allowing myself to fall into an on-again, off-again pattern that was emotionally destructive and no good whatsoever for my self-esteem.

Book, vampire historical: Everyone else was writing about vampires, so why shouldn't I? I thought it would catapult me into some sort of Stephenie Meyer afterglow.  I wrote and rewrote and rewrote for years, in the same kind of on-again, off-again pattern that was so destructive with A. Instead of realizing I could (and should) move on, I stuck with what was familiar instead of branching out into something new.

Boyfriend, R.: A guy who was fun to be with, actually liked me, and had no problem expressing emotion. He was everything A. wasn't and provided the validation I never got in that first relationship.  Of course, this was a mistake, too. You can't date someone just because they're the opposite of someone who hurt you.

Book, lighthearted mystery:  After the historical vampire epic, I went for a lighthearted romp:  fast dialogue, lots of wisecracks, absolutely no historical research required. It was what I needed to convince myself I could write another book without sucking up years of my life.  This book was better than the first one because of what I'd learned writing the first. Still, it didn't quite fit my style--much like R.

Boyfriend, J.: Smart, funny, British, made a good living, had a cat, turned me on to Kate many great things here.  I thought this man had everything and I fell hard, an elevator plunging from the the hundredth floor with no support cable.  We shopped together, we tried new restaurants, and had lovely times strolling through the Haight or the Mission. At one point, he mentioned getting some of his grandmother's jewelry out for me. True love, right? Wrong. He decided to try and go off his antidepressants on his own, bailed on meeting my parents, and decided he was not looking for commitment. He spent the next two years dating a number of girls, including me. I convinced myself that if I hung in there long enough, I'd be the winner. Not so.

Book, female-oriented thriller: This one is breaking my heart right now. Like J., it was supposed to be the one.  J. was supposed to give me a ring and this book was supposed to give me a contract.  I had such high hopes that agents and editors would love it as much as I do.  Everyone says you're supposed to write the book you want to read.  I did that, but it still didn't work.  Much like the British boyfriend, it can't be forced into generating that commitment. It seems unfair that no matter how much effort you put into a relationship or a book, you are unlikely to get the result you want.  But that's how fate works. You don't control it.  It controls you.  And sometimes you don't know realize any of this while you're living it. You have to get through it and get past it to see what was really happening.

Boyfriend, J.: Another J!  This time, it was a short relationship with a co-worker, someone uncomplicated and fun. We bonded over video games, but had little in common.  Still, he seemed blissfully normal after the emotional nuclear aftermath of the previous J.

Book, category romance:  This one didn't last long, much like J.  I wrote it in two weeks and revised it in one.  It's not literary.  It's not going to set the world on fire.  But it was fun, fast, and easy.  I wrote it as I was querying for the thriller. Of course, I didn't know at the time the thriller wouldn't be accepted, but at the same time, after writing a complicated thriller with a mentally ill heroine, it was refreshing to write something fast, fun, and dirty.

Boyfriend, N.: A college friend I reconnected with at a friend's party later in life. He was nice and very upstanding, the sort of person about whom you could say, "He makes me want to be a better person."  He liked some of the same books and some of the same music, but there wasn't enough of an overlap to sustain a real connection.  There was no spark, nothing deeper that would make me pine for him when he was away. The relationship lasted two years because it was comfortable.  But no one marries comfortable. He took a job across the country. I stayed in California and wondered why I'd let two years of my twenties slip away.

Book, literary mystery: I just started writing this one, actually. This is my first attempt at a literary novel. Now I'm wondering if it will end up like this boyfriend, serious and steady but boring...and also not the one.

Boyfriend, P.: We celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary on July 1st. It wasn’t a given that this was it, believe me.  I broke up with him a few weeks into the relationship, and he broke up with me six months in.  That break-up was on a Sunday. Friday night, he came back to my apartment and asked me to marry him, to run away to Las Vegas for the weekend.  I packed the only white dress I had in my closet and we hopped in my Mazda for a drive into the desert that lasted a whole day.  We went to a pawn shop where I fell in love with the first ring I saw.  He bought it for me and we went to Chapel of the Bells. That Saturday night, we got married.

Book:  I don't even know what this one will be, since I'm still writing book #5.  Does this mean the universe might smile on me this time?  I guess I won't know until I get there....

Realizing all of this has made me more accepting of the thriller's failure. At the time, I felt so bitter and angry when J. and I didn't end up together. I couldn't understand it. It wasn't fair!  But fairness has nothing to do with it. It's about being ready for something, about finding just the right fit.  I guess this book isn't the right fit, even though I want it to be so badly it hurts.  I wouldn't have been happy married to J.  It had to be P. So I guess I'll have to be patient with the books I write, the same way I was for all the men I dated.  They can't all have stories that end like this:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Cheese Stands Alone

Last week was a surprisingly rough one on the writing front. Combined with a perfect storm of rejections and Category 5 PMS, it landed me in the depths of despair. Everyone, it seemed, had something negative to say.  Even things that should have been positive had their negative sides revealed. Suffice to say, it felt like the universe was kicking me in the teeth.

Then, today, I remembered a line from a song I haven't heard since elementary school:  the cheese stands alone. That is going to be my writing mantra from here on out.

Writing is a solitary pursuit.  It is not meant to be done with others.  It is not meant to be done in anticipation of what others might think or say.  Somehow, I allowed myself to be so swayed by what other people were doing or saying that I lost my focus.  I stopped having fun and enjoying the ride.

The problem, I think, has two causes:

(1) I want to be a published writer so badly it feels like it will literally kill me if it doesn't happen.  Every rejection feels like a nail through the heart...or the head.  I know these thing shouldn't be taken personally, but this is my dream.  This is my everything.  There is no way it won't hurt.  I can't just walk away from this.  I have to keep trying.  In essence, it's a torture that may not end.  Ever.  But, much like the Thorn Birds, still I do it.

(2) I spend a fair amount of time each day reading writer blogs, agent blogs, editor blogs, and reader blogs.  This is not good.  Maybe other people can handle all those voices in their heads, all those agent posts wondering why the perfect query hasn't dropped in their lap yet, but I can't.  In my mind, I've sent them the perfect query and been told no.  I've submitted a book into which I put everything I have to give.  If you read lots of agent posts, they repeatedly tell writers this is all they need to do.  It is not.  What they don't tell you is that certain genres are off-limits unless you're a mega-seller.  But then their blog posts repeatedly claim that if you write what you love and write it with heart and skill, your book will find a home.  I'm still searching, so I have to take this with a grain of salt.  It's part of the game, I know, but I can't then sit back and read posts lecturing writers on no-nos that I haven't committed without some degree of bitterness.  Lots of degrees of bitterness, actually.  This is probably natural for lots of writers, and many of you probably deal with it better than I do.  But because I want this so badly, my blood burns for it.  It makes me crazy to read too much about the industry or other people's successes or failures.  It makes me think about having what they have or wanting what they want instead of shutting the hell up and writing.  I start wondering what each successful person did that I'm not doing.  I go mad with jealousy.  It keeps me from being a happy person.  This makes my husband very angry, and I already burden him with a hefty number of personal oddities.

The cheese must stand alone.

I'm going to try limiting my blog reading to one day a week, where I madly skim what's been going on, either preceded or followed by a shot of whiskey.  Being somewhat bitter about the publishing industry and the difficulty in getting an agent is a huge drawback when all I want is to be accepted by both.  The only thing I can do to help myself, in this case, is focus on my writing instead of knowing everything that's going on in the industry.  And if I write what I love and I do it to the best of my ability and it still doesn't happen for me, well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Britney Spears vs. Charlie Sheen

Okay, that's a really weird title...and a strangely disturbing visual, I know.  But this does relate to writing, I promise.

While I was running in the hundred-degree heat yesterday, my fried brain came up with a weird way of viewing the infamous blank page.  I'm about to start a big new project, so the blank page has been on my mind for the past week, in that oh-crap-I-say-I'm-a-writer-but-now-I-have-to-prove-it kind of way.  I view the blank page as my antagonist, something that's going to kick the crap out of me unless I kick the crap out of it first.  Not a very helpful mindset, right?  Who wants to be at war all the time?  Isn't writing supposed to be fun?  Isn't that why we do this in the first place?

So then I remembered a little Britney Spears gem from the album she made before she married K. Fed and went nuts.  "Me Against the Music" is your typical cheesy dance pop song, but it's the concept I find interesting here:
I'm up against the speaker, tryin' to take on the music
It's like a competition, me against the beat
I wanna get in the zone, I wanna get in the zone
It's as if the song, the music, and the beat are her blank page.  She's trying to kick their ass, but in a way that makes the result greater than the sum of its parts.  By sticking with the beat and not caring who's watching, she finds a place where she can be free.  But she has to frame it in an antagonistic way, like it's a boxing match:  Me vs. the Music,  me in the red corner and music in the blue corner.  That's the way I feel about this new project.  If I can stick with it, twist and bump and grind on the page, not caring who might eventually read it, maybe I can get "in the zone" and feel that free and happy abandon all writers chase.

But Britney's not done.  The song goes on:
So how would you like a friendly competition? Let's take on the song.
It's you and me baby, we're the music, time to party all night long.
We're almost there, I'm feelin' it bad and I can't explain
My soul is bare, my hips are moving at a rapid pace
Baby, feel it burn...from the tips of my toes, runnin' through my veins
Okay, Shakespeare it's not.  But the idea, the feeling, are exactly the same as that writer's high we know and love.  Writing is a "friendly competition" with yourself, with your muse, with the idea that made you turn on the computer in the first place.  So take it on.  Feel it bad and never explain.  Bare your soul on the page and let your body (fingers, people, we're typing here) say what your muse has trouble explaining.  Does it burn?  Sometimes.  Oh, yes, sometimes it burns.  But that's the whole point.  That's how you know you're on fire.

So in the contest of Britney vs. the music, what does "winning" mean?  It means staying with the music, creating a fusion of body and beat.  Something artistic, something of the moment, something greater than the sum of its parts.  Immediately, I compared that  to "winning" in the Charlie Sheen sense: making money, making other people pay for the bad things they did to you (real or imagined), making sure your name always gets top billing.  Is that really "winning"?  Not for a writer.  For a writer, Britney's "win" is the only kind that matters.  So while Hollywood may reward Charlie's antics with a crapload of cash and free press, the muse rewards a looser strategy, a more artistic one.

Just follow that beat.
Stay with it.
Don't let it drop.

Okay, now I have no more reasons to procrastinate starting my new project.  Unless I decide to reorganize my music collection...

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Results Are In...And I Won!

Wow, you guys...something really amazing happened.

I won first place in the 2011 RWA Kiss of Death Chapter's Daphne du Maurier awards for category romantic suspense (unpublished division)!

I wrote the book in January, in about three weeks.  It was basically a mad rush of creativity before school started up again.  I thought the book came out pretty well, but I'd never written romance before.  So I entered the contest to see where I was--you know, gauge myself against the field.  It was a long shot.  I'm not an RWA member, never attended any conferences, don't know anyone in the field, etc.  All I know is what I read and the kinds of things I like to see in a romance novel.  Apparently, it worked!

My book, The Cherbourg Jewels, won first place in its category and its division!  You can bet your britches I'll be writing thank-you notes to the judges!  (Yes, my mom raised me to write thank-you notes.  I hated it as a kid, but it really is a nice touch in this often classless and mannerless thanks, Mom, for turning me into a useful and polite human being!)

I can only find one picture of myself hoisting a beverage...unfortunately, it's probably ten years old and I'm drinking what has to be spiked eggnog (hence the hat) at Christmas time.  In any case, cheers!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Would Elizabeth Taylor Do?

I just finished reading "Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor" by Alexander Walker.  It's a terrible book, written by a man who, I suspect, loathes Richard Burton.  But regardless of the writing or the point of view, I've learned something very important:  I love Elizabeth Taylor.  Here's why:

1.  She swore.  A lot.
2.  She drank.  A lot.
3.  She wore jewelry.  A lot.
4.  She was fired from her first studio contract at the age of 10.  Did she let that stop her?  Hell no.
5.  She believed in love.  It was her reason for being, the thing she craved most in all of life but could never keep.  But despite eight failed marriages, she never gave up.  Not once.
6.  No matter how hard a drubbing she took in the press, she never let it change her goals or how she lived her life.  She never gave up.  Not once.

In short, she survived.  And what writer couldn't use a scrappy survivor as a role model?

After she and Richard Burton decided to divorce (the first time) in 1973, she said, "It takes one day to die and another day to start living again."  I dog-eared that page of the book, knowing I'd need to come back to it when I got a particularly stinging rejection (yep, that happened this morning).  The sentiment works, no matter what it is you're pursuing.  Got dumped?  So did Elizabeth.  Got rejected?  So did Elizabeth.  Got fired?  So did Elizabeth.  Every single time, she picked herself up and kept going--one day to die, one day to start living again.  There is no better life-affirming mantra for anyone going through a rough time.

As close as I'll ever  get
to her fantastic jewelry:
holding my copy of her book.
You might also have seen the article in June's Vanity Fair, "Elizabeth Taylor's Closing Act" by Sam Kashner.  I didn't really know what the heck she was up to in the last years of her life, but get this:  did you know she was on Twitter?  I'm not even on Twitter.  Elizabeth Taylor kicked my ass.

The article also shares an intriguing story about Elizabeth, Michael Jackson, and Marlon Brando, all trapped in New York together in the aftermath of 9/11. There are two conflicting reports about what happened.  One report has Michael, Liz, and Brando driving out of 9/11 (all flights were grounded), making it all the way to Ohio, with Brando insisting they stop at a crapload of Burger Kings and KFCs along the way.  The other report has Liz staying behind, doing charitable things like visiting a shelter for displaced people and visiting Ground Zero.  Apparently, there's no proof for either story.  But isn't the first story hilarious?  How cracked out would that be if you're the drive-through worker who tosses Whoppers in a bag for Brando and Liz Taylor?  Priceless!

Here's another gem from the Vanity Fair article.  Elizabeth and Kathy Ireland (the born-again former swimsuit model) both designed jewelry. As they got to know each other, Elizabeth constantly tried to get Kathy Ireland to swear.  The article says Elizabeth offered to donate $10,000 to any charity Kathy wanted, if only she would say the word "fuck."  According to Kashner, the offer was accepted and the money duly paid out.

Okay, last funny story, I promise.  Also in the Vanity Fair article, Kashner writes that at the age of 74, Elizabeth decided she wanted to go swimming with sharks while in Hawaii.  She was wearing jewelry, of course.  Kashner describes her as spitting into her goggles "like a pro."  They took her out of her wheelchair and put her in the shark cage.  When asked by a tour guide to ditch the jewelry because it would agitate the sharks, she said, "Isn't that the fucking point?"

I love this woman.  I can only hope I'm that brave and willing to try new things at the age of 74. This attitude is summed up in one of her favorite sayings:  You might as well live.

I think my new motto is going to be:  What would Elizabeth Taylor do?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Like an SAT Essay for Writers

I took the plunge.  On the recommendation of a friend, I entered a 24-hour short story contest sponsored by  Here's the idea:  you sign up for the contest, receive a prompt at 10 am Pacific time on a certain day, and must submit a short story that fits the prompt within 24 hours.  The prompt is, of course, a secret...and you don't know how long the story can be until you receive it.  According to the website, past word limits have ranged from 500 to 2,000.


I hate timed exercises.  I already feel like I'm taking the adult version of some SAT II essay.  But I'm doing this for two reasons:

(1) I've been focusing heavily on revising lately, which means I haven't written squat that's new.  This sucks.  Big time.  The contest will force me out of my revising mindset and help get me geared up for the NEW BOOK IDEA.

(2) I'm an obsessive reviser.  I am never, ever done.  I'll revise until kingdom come if you let me.  And although this usually results in better work, I feel, there does come a point at which enough is enough.  The 24-hour turnaround time is going to force me to think out my idea very carefully beforehand, and will forcefully limit the amount of revising I can do.  Even if I freak out and spend all 24 hours on this one story, after the deadline...that's it.  Show's over.  Go big or go home.  I really need this kick in the butt, and there's nothing like a non-negotiable deadline to force my brain into high gear.  (Or, Top Gear, if you get my drift....I'm the American female version of Captain Slow!)

The contest begins on July 9th.  I'll keep you all updated on how I do...and how much I drink to do it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Making Space for Writing

How and where do you guys write?  At the kitchen table?  In a coffee shop?  On the couch?

I only ask because I'm curious about whether a devoted space for writing is really necessary.  Space is at a premium in the two-bedroom apartment I share with my husband.  I'm trying to follow the Virginia Woolf method and carve out a space of my own, but it's tricky when combining my shabby chic workspace with his workout equipment, bikes, printer, etc.  It's a decorating disaster fitting all this in one tiny bedroom. In fact, decorating and spatial arrangement of his stuff vs. her stuff is one of the few subjects we still argue about and I struggle with on a daily basis (but that's a whole other post, really).  Basically, I've carved out one wall for my pink, girly things.  The other three walls are all chrome, mountain bikes, and the weight bench.  It's not ideal, but it's a compromise...and I guess that's what marriage is.  Maybe someday I'll mature and feel better about the whole thing, but right now, I'm still immature enough to want a whole room for my writing cave.  Here's what my wall looks like:

The thing is, I do my best work when I'm at this desk, a tiny thing I've had since I was about eight.  It's where I learned to write and I think some of that mojo is still there.  I put it in front of a window so I can spy on the neighbors and watch people do silly things like crash into the automatic gate in front of our complex.  It's probably selfish of me to want more than this, seeing that it basically fulfills my needs.

That's why I'm asking what you guys do.  Do you even have this much space dedicated to writing?  Do you have the holy grail for writers....a whole room dedicated to nothing but writing?  Part of me wonders if Virginia Woolf decided she needed a room of her own because she had the ability to get one.  If she'd been a ridiculously poor street urchin in the east end, would she have scribbled stories on bits of paper she found in the street?  Her talent wouldn't have been buried just because she wasn't of the leisure class, would it?     

Sunday, June 19, 2011

To Dad, With Love

It seems so many people have far more complicated relationships with their parents than I do.  My parents are still married, they've lived in the same town since I was born, and although we do have our quirks, our family is inherently kind, loving, and...well, normal.

The one thing we don't do very well is talk.  About emotions or difficult subjects or what we're up to.  I think it's a Swedish thing.  We play our entire lives close to the vest because embarrassment or shame is a fate worse than death.  We share good news, but only once it's a fait accompli.

That's kind of how I handled my eBook.  When it was all put together and posted on Amazon, I sent a link to my family.  Not before.  Not while I was writing it.  Not when I first thought of writing it.  When the cover, the formatting, and everything had already been done...then I coughed up a confession as to what I'd been up to.

And then my dad wrote me back:

Hi Jen, Just wanted to say that I read your book yesterday. I really liked it. I loved your reference to my Lou Gehrig statement. I cracked up out load when I read it! Of course the pristine white 66 Mustang also got my attention. At one point while reading, I thought to myself I haven't read any reference to Indy. Within a couple pages the first Indy reference popped up. Amazing! How long did it take you to write it? It was quite a thrill to read a book written by someone you know. It really was a unique and fascinating feeling. I'm so happy that you are doing the things that you really enjoy. I hope you continue to do that. Congratulations on your wonderful book. LOVE, Dad  

Dad, sorry if it's weird to be posting this online.  (Of course, being Swedish, I haven't told my family I have a blog...maybe when I crack a hundred views per day.)  I just want the people who read this to know that it makes your family so happy when you do what you love.  For me, that's writing.  Whether I suck at it or make it big someday, they're just happy I'm trying.  So if you aren't doing what you love, stop whatever it is you are doing and think about why.  If you're an accountant and you hate it, why do you do it?  If you're a writer and you hate it, isn't there something else you could do that would make you happier?  Your family knows when you're truly happy.  It shines through.  Wouldn't you like to give yourself--and them--the gift of a radiant smile because you're truly happy for once?

Okay, I'm almost done being mushy.  Just one more small point.  If, like me, you do have a good relationship with your family, be grateful.  Call your dad and say hi.  Call your dad and say anything.  My husband doesn't speak to his father.  He doesn't know if the man's alive or dead.  Granted, that's because his father treated him so poorly as a child it's a wonder the boy isn't in a mental institution.  But still.  If you are in any sort of pleasant relationship with your father, consider yourself lucky.

And, even if you're Swedish, try to tell the big guy how much you appreciate him this Father's Day.  Or any day, really.