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.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Dangers of Genealogy

Full disclosure:  when I discovered last year, I literally did nothing else for the span of a month.  I had all kinds of fun tracing some of my mom's ancestors back to the 1630s in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  I've been getting back into it slowly this summer, wary of letting it suck away every living moment.

But tonight, I learned a good lesson that's also applicable to writing.  Here's what happened:

I traced a line back from my mom to the Gridley/Humphrey family in Connecticut in the 1600s. An immigrant from England, Michael Humphrey (1620-1695) married Priscilla Grant (sister to Ulysses S. Grant's ancestor, Samuel Grant).  Most of the other online family trees listed Priscilla's parents as Matthew Grant (1601-1681) and Priscilla Grey (1601-1644).

Hmm, I thought.  An English family named Grey.  Well, that's promising.  Even if it didn't end up being the Earl Grey tea guy, maybe they'd be related to Lady Jane or Elizabeth Woodville's kids from her first marriage.  Following the Greys backward, I found a cavalcade of names any Anglophile would drool over: Percys, de Hollands, even a Beaufort...and for you genealogy enthusiasts, you know Beaufort is the holy grail for linking oneself to the Plantaganets.

Of course, I started drooling.

But then a funny thing happened.  I came across several sources debunking the "Grey" myth for Priscilla Grant's origins, lamenting the fact that this mistake has made it into so many trees and published histories of the Grant family.

It bummed me out.  My visions of tiaras and castles crumbled like an overbaked snickerdoodle.  The diligent authors, of course, proved their point entirely:  Matthew Grant clearly stated his first wife's birth and death dates as 1601 and 1644.  The real Priscilla Grey, daughter of an earl, lived in England her whole life, never emigrated, was born in 1615, and has a monument in England that mentions her husband, John St. Nicholas--clearly not a dude named Matthew Grant. She is clearly not the Priscilla who helped Matthew hack out the wilderness of Connecticut.  So there went my dreams of a direct link to John of Gaunt.

Damn it all.

But then I realized something else.  Two things, actually.  First, it's still pretty freaking cool to be distantly related to Ulysses S. Grant.  Second, much like writing, genealogy should never be attempted with the end result already determined.  You have to give yourself breathing room and the space to discover what lies ahead.  You might think you're going to end up one place, but a magical breath of inspiration may want to redirect your footsteps.

Let it.  Let go of what you want and give yourself over to where the universe (and proper research) take you.

After all...who needs John of Gaunt when you have Ulysses S. Grant? 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Woo-hoo! Success! many of you write stories about the devil?  No?  Well, me neither.  Not usually, that is.  But I wrote one last semester for a creative writing class where the devil was a stray dog.  It was cute and funny and had lots of 80s references (like Garbage Pail Kids, Wheel of Fortune, and Fun Dip), but at its heart, I meant for it to be a modern version of the medieval morality play, Everyman. I don't think anyone in the class got that, so maybe I didn't convey it very well.

Or did I?

I submitted the story (called "And the Devil Said, Wait") to the Library of the Living Dead Press, for its upcoming print anthology entitled Hellology.

And guess what?  My story is one of 13 chosen for the anthology!  Woo-hoo!  When I got the email, I told my husband and tried to persuade him to buy me a donut.  It didn't fly, but I did get a hug.

Just to give you guys a little taste, here's the story's opening:
I met the devil when I was seven years old.  He came to me in the shape of a dog, a bony brown mutt with a long face and two missing teeth.  I pet him, called him a nice boy, and then turned to go back inside.  He cleared his throat and said, “Wait…”  That was all it took.  I was his.  I would have done anything for a dog that talked. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Happiest Place on Earth

No, not Disneyland. I'm a broke grad student, too poor to get in Disneyland's door.

I'm talking about Tahoe.  Yesterday, we drove up to Emerald Bay and hiked the Rubicon Trail.  You know, the one that descends one hell of a steep mile to Vikingsholm, and then winds its way to to Emerald Point and then up to Calawee Cove.  We had a Camelbak and two saran-wrapped homemade burritos, which we ate at Calawee Cove, perched on an enormous rock formation above the blue-green water.

It was the most perfect lunch I've ever had.  

It made me remember how lucky I am to live here, in a place where going to Tahoe for lunch is do-able.  Sitting at the top of the world, on those granite rocks, feeling so close to the clouds and the sky...all the small problems of life fell away.  Agents, queries, rejections, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of bitterness melted away, if only temporarily.  So while I'm waiting for the sea of rejection that will surely follow the ocean of projects and queries I sent out this spring, I'll always have the memory of that one perfect moment where none of it mattered.  Where I felt small.  Where I knew that the mountains and the water and the man beside me didn't care at all how many times I get rejected.  They will all think of me in the same way.  And that helps me to think of me in the same way.

So, in terms of writing advice, this post boils down to a single idea: get out there.  Don't stay wrapped up in the fog of words and writing all day, every day.  You have to remember what wet wood smells like, what rushing water sounds like, the way lizards come out into the sunshine and do push-ups if they think you're not watching them.

Writing is beautiful and fulfilling, if not always rewarding.  But it can't sustain your soul, not on its own.  You have to see what's out there.  You have to feel small.  You have to realize that the rocks and sea and air have been here for millions of years before you and will continue to be there for millions of years after you.  What's a rejection (or even 60 rejections) in the face of that?

Always write what you want.  Always do what you want.  And always remember, you are the best possible way.

(I didn't take this picture's actually from years ago, but it still gives you a good idea what the place looks like.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Revising 101: Axe It Like a Lumberjack

Revising.  Some of us hate it.  Some of us love it.  But in reality, it's the lifeblood of writing.
Anyone can write a first draft (really, anyone can...have you seen the Smashwords home page?).  But what marks you as different is the time you take to polish every sentence, the care you take in inspecting every word to make sure it really needs to be there.  This is how you show the world you're a craftsman, not just a hobbyist.
To give you guys some really funny examples, I've dug up some sentences from the first novel I actually finished.  These little gems have never seen the light of day, and with good reason.  As crappy as they are, they totally prove my point.  Even bad writing can get crisper and tighter and more effective.
Example 1
Original: He cast one final glare at Jean-Gabriel then turned and stalked back toward the ballroom.
Revision thought process: Why is the phrase “then turned” there in the first place?  If the glaring character stalked back to the ballroom, *obviously* he turned his back on Jean-Gabriel.  This useless bit of movement doesn't need to be stated.  Also, stalking “back toward” the ballroom is overkill.  Why not just “stalk toward" or “stalk back”?  No one needs three words when two will do.
Revision: He cast one final glare at Jean-Gabriel and stalked back to the ballroom.
Example 2
Original: Judging by the dull roar coming from inside, his brother’s guests were more than halfway through the cognac.
Revision thought process: Why does the noise need to be specified as “coming from inside”?  Why not just say “inside”?  Come to think of it, based on the context of the paragraph (not included here), you already know this character is standing outside a closed door.  Why give any locational descriptor?  
Also, does the meaning of the sentence change any whether the guests are “halfway” or “more than halfway” through the cognac?  Nope.  They’re drunk off their ass either way.  I'm also not happy with "dull roar."  It's a cliche. I could replace it with "raucous laughter," but even that feels tired. Let's go with something more descriptive (and also alliterative).  It's still not perfect, but it's better.
Revision: Judging by the shouts and slurs, his brother’s guests were halfway through the cognac.
Example 3
Original: Louis-Philippe obeyed, tying back the velvet curtains and opening the casements.  A cold breeze wafted through the room, swaying the curtains and ruffling the pages of a book open on the escritoire.  The cool air felt like water poured over him; he drank it in and felt it whisk away his fevered body’s sweat.  The fog began to clear from his brain and he could think clearly once again.  “Something happened out there, brother,” he began.
Thought process during revision:  Wow.  Talk about a bloated paragraph.  Is it really necessary to say the breeze swayed the curtains *and* ruffled the pages of a book?  People get the picture, already.  Plus, if you read this paragraph in context, you’d know that in the previous line, Etienne asked his brother to open the window.  So we don’t need the play-by-play informing us that Louis-Philippe tied the curtains back, etc.  
Also, sentences three and four say exactly the same thing.  Why the heck are they both there?  Come to think of it, who needs them at all?  Wouldn't it be creepier if the breeze led straight to the confession that something happened?  And what’s up with the unnecessary dialog tag at the end?  Axe it all.
Revised: Louis-Philippe obeyed.  A cold breeze whispered through the room, ruffling the pages of a book open on the escritoire.  “Something happened out there, brother.”

Revision on this level is a big pain in the ass.  But it's a necessary evil.  Once you get used to it, this kind of thing can actually be fun.  Picture yourself as an explorer, hacking your way through a jungle with a machete.  Get those annoying fronds out of your way so you can see the path in front of you! 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: Satori by Don Winslow

Let me just start by saying that even if you don't know anything about Trevanian, Shibumi, or Nicholai Hel, you can still read this book.

Shibumi is Trevanian's opus, a super-spy thriller featuring Nicholai Hel, the son of a White Russian emigre who has lived in Asia (China and Japan) for most of his life. The book combines sophisticated action, martial arts, Eastern philosophy based on the game of Go, courtesans, and nifty ways to kill people if you don't have a gun.  Shibumi means "understated elegance" in Japanese, the concept Hel wishes to live his life by.

Don Winslow is also a thriller writer. If you haven't read his The Power of the Dog, read and it marvel at the way Winslow moves the action forward and makes you give a crap about some very unsavory people.  However, Winslow's last book, Savages, missed the mark for me, big time, despite having one of the best opening chapters ever.  So this latest offering, combining Trevanian's character and Winslow's terse style and action-packed plots, looked to be a rip-roaring good time.

And it was.  Most of the time.  But this was always going to be a bitch to pull off, and here's why.

Winslow is at his best when he writes incredibly short chapters that move the plot ahead at lightning speed.  Trevanian's writing was longer, breathier, almost floating over itself.  These two styles aren't easy to intertwine.  The beginning of Satori, set in 1951, details Nicholai Hel's release from American custody and his briefing/training for his new mission: go to Beijing and kill a Russian diplomat, Yuri Voroshenin.  The first hundred pages emulate Trevanian's style.  Once the action picks up, Winslow's style takes over.  Then the rest of the book is a bit of a mash-up of the two.  The parts where Winslow writes as himself are where the book shines.  You will flip pages like a madperson trying to find out who's controlling whom and whether Nicholai's hit on Voroshenin will happen.  I dare you to walk the dog or make dinner while Hel tracks Voroshenin and the US operatives watch behind the scenes.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the murder.  That particular plot point comes and goes (see how I'm cleverly avoiding a spoiler by not telling you how it all went down?), and you're only halfway through the book.  What the hell is the rest of it going to be about?

This is where it turns into a mash-up of things you've already seen in James Bond movies.  Actually, one of the James Bond elements happened during the lead-up to the scheduled assassination.  Remember the part in Casino Royale that made every man cringe?  Yeah, that's here, too.

Remember that other part in Casino Royale, where the spies gather to play poker, all attempting to take down the big baddie?  Yeah, that's here, too, with Hel as Bond and the American spy, Haverford, as Felix Leiter.

Remember that part in The World Is Not Enough, where Sophie Marceau's character drops a million in a casino as a clever way of paying a gangster for services rendered?  There's a version of that trick here, too.

This is where the novel starts to feel a bit tired.  Basically, Hel gets dragged into the spy game that preceded the American entry into Vietnam. The mechanics of how and why are fuzzy, even though I read the book in just three sittings.  That's part of what kept me from going Power-of-the-Dog-crazy for this book.  The motivations for the entire second half of the book still feel hazy to me.  Oh, yes, staying alive is always good motivation.  But there are so many sides to the puzzle and then characters turning traitor and others turning tricks that I sort of threw up my hands and told myself to stop trying to understand it and just go with it.  Of course, I read much faster after this...but without as much pleasure.  I would have needed a freaking wall of index cards to help me keep track of this in the way I would have liked. A few moments of reflection on Nicholai's part might have been able to solve this problem, providing convenient recaps and refreshers for those of us who don't speak spy.

In fact, Nicholai's character seems to grow simpler as the book goes on instead of becoming more complex.  Maybe it's because he's finally getting the hang of this spy thing, or he's learning to keep his emotions under wraps from everyone, including the reader.  But I missed hearing his thoughts and watching him reason his way through every move he makes, which you get up through his flight from China.  I suppose he's evolving, but it feels like it's happening off the page...or that we're just not told about it because the plot events are more important.

Which they're not.  The ending is predictable.  You'll see it coming a mile away.  I won't spoil it for you, but by two-thirds of the way through, there won't be any surprises left.  It's just a slosh to the end, juiced up by a little napalm.

Overall, however, it's still definitely worth a read.  The cloak-and-dagger stuff in Beijing is wonderful.  I felt like I was in Beijing.  The descriptions, the mannerisms, everything feels spot-on.  I can't imagine how intimidating a project this must have been.  Winslow's author's note at the end acknowledges this, and he sounds like a genuinely nice person who truly cares about his work.  I tip my hat to him for even taking on such a big project, and for bringing a new generation of readers to Trevanian's books.

Now, Mr. Winslow, can you please write me a solid female character who is NOT a hooker, courtesan, slut, or drug dealer? Please?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Are you a Hobbyist or a Craftsman?

With eBooks becoming so popular and authors like Amanda Hocking making a killing, I keep thinking about the quality of what's being put out there. I looked at the Smashwords site yesterday, and four of the six books on their "newly published" page had egregious typos in the descriptions (one book even spelled the main character's name two different ways in that single paragraph). This makes me a little sad and a little embarrassed.

I've seen blogs that recommend eBook authors hire an editor, and others (like Amanda) who freely say that editing is their greatest weakness. I have mixed feelings about all of this.

Personally, I'm an editing freak.  I am *never* done with a project.  Never.  I will agonize over a sentence for days if allowed.  While I know that's not great for productivity, it's really great for my finished product.  It makes me look at prolific authors and ask...are you a hobbyist or a craftsman?  Do you love writing first drafts or do you love the whole idea of writing?

To me, a hobbyist is someone who loves the rush and thrill of writing, who puts the first draft on the page at lightning speed.  He or she revels in forming characters and whisking them in and out of plot points, whether it involves danger, romance, or what have you.  This was me in middle school and high school.  I didn't give a crap about polishing or revising.  I just loved the thrill I got when I wrote the part where the hero and heroine finally got together.  I got my high from giving my characters their high and I didn't need anything else to make me happy.  But did that mean I was producing publishable work?  Hell to the no.

In contrast, a craftsman is someone truly dedicated to the art and soul of writing--whose interest doesn't flag after the first draft.  Craftsmen read their sentences aloud.  Craftsmen agonize over passive voice, past tense, present tense, verb tense, and the alarming presence of adverbs.  Craftsmen are willing to work with a single sentence or paragraph until every word contributes to the whole, making it greater than the sum of its parts.  It's a different kind of high, and it's the kind of writer I've evolved into over the past decade.  It makes me cringe at some of the older stuff I've written, but it also makes me realize just how hard writing is when you take it seriously.

I'm not saying every writer publishing these days must be a craftsman.  Plenty of writers making beaucoup bucks aren't (and I'm totally envious of their millions).  I suppose I'm just lamenting the fact that some of the grace and beauty of writing is being lost in the mad rush to produce eBooks and earn the label of "published writer."