Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Taking the Yellow Crocs on the Road

Pretty soon, we'll be packing up for our annual Pilgrimage to Pinellas County (Florida, that is).

The first time we did this particular drive, our adolescent was less than two months old. THAT trip involved several nights' walking the colicky babe around roadside motels hoping we weren't keeping the whole place up.

There were two-baby trips (imagine a toddle with a stomach flu and a looooong fruitless Christmas morning search for a tube of Balmex), three-baby trips with endless Raffi sing-alongs, blizzards in New jersey, and buckets of toys, logy 2 AM passes through Washington DC and even a Christmas eve in which we broke down on the side of the road in Jacksonville.

I guess you could say miserable-yet-oddly wonderful road trips are now a holiday tradition with us. It just wouldn't be Christmas if I wasn't waking up in a Cracker Barrel parking lot after an all-night drive, shuttling the kids through the chachkas and into the bathroom to pee and brush their teeth and arguing over how many hot chocolate refills might make up for their hellish night in the car.

Anyways.... I'll try to update my query tally when I have more to say. So far.... silence.

Oh, and a holiday gift: one very nice rejection that pinpointed the thing I most worry about in my manuscript. (The start of another hellish holiday tradition, perhaps?)

Alicia over at Slice of the Blog Pie had a great post about the writing-towards-publication journey. It cheered me up, anyway. Check it out!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

One Hit Weekend: Somebody's Knockin'

Terri Gibbs

This was one of those big 80's country crossovers.

Terri Gibbs was blind from birth. She had several country and Christian hits, but nothing as spectacular as "Somebody's Knockin'"

If you were around in the 80's, admit it, you sort of liked this one.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Random Book Review: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" by Steig Larsson

I'm always a little wary of tremendously popular books.

Perhaps this is because the hype often snowballs way beyond what any ordinary novel could deliver. I never was one for peer pressure, spent my high school years railing against the popular kids with their banal yet popular tastes. So it came as no surprise that "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" disappointed me.

Don't get me wrong, I was thoroughly engrossed in the mystery of Harriet Vanger's disappearance. I page-turned with the best of them. I liked the characters, especially the girl with the dragon tattoo, who is fresh and interesting and very real.

But by the time I finished GWTDT, I felt like I'd involved myself in an overly long, Swedish version of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit". Exactly like that. The novel has enough tawdriness and sex crimes to fill a whole season of SVU and the financial wheelings and dealings (the other big plot point) are rather dry and uninteresting.

Mostly, I guess I felt manipulated by this book, and a bit like I did in high school when everybody and his brother thought Journey was the best thing going.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Another One Hit Weekend!

What ridiculously catchy, totally inane, avian-themed hit stormed both the British and American airwaves in 1970 and 1971?

Why, "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" of course!

I was four when the Kisoons, a brother and sister team, made it big with "Chirpy". I believe it was the first pop song I ever liked. Being the kind of song ONLY a four year old could like, it quickly faded. But there are TONS of versions out there.

I always thought this song was about a "little baby boy" abandoned by his parents. But it turns out the Kissoons are singing about a bird, or, a "boid" anyway.

There are no videos of the Kissoons performing "Chirpy". Just this kind of boring photo montage:

But here's Lolly Stott, the song's composer. One of the comments on YouTube said that Stott looks like "Robert DeNiro's hippie brother" and it is SOOOO true. The video is all around interesting, in a Candid Camera outtake sort of way: a random group of people standing around singing about some baby bird and clapping all out of sync at the prompting some random looking guy on a street corner.

The Scottish Band "Middle of of the Road" also had a hit with "Chirpy". Although band leader Ken Andrews had this to say about the song: "We were as disgusted with the thought of recording it as most people were at the thought of buying it. But at the end of the day, we liked it."

If ya just can't get enough, here's Middle of the Road's rendition:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Just Keep Swimming

No news to report on the queries and manuscripts out there in the agent ether, but lately I've been thinking about the oft-shared advice to start something new while querying.

The new project is supposed to help me keep focused or less crazy or something. I have tried to do this. Really, I have. But there are a few problems with the "just keep swimming" approach:

1. There are three different books I've considered starting. Which do I start on? I know from experience that, like dating, it's hard to predict which is THE one from a few brief hours over coffee. So I've been bouncing around between the three totally radically absolutely different potential novels but haven't fallen head over heels for any of them yet.

2. I am totally preoccupied with the query process. At any given time, it's taking up about 35% of my attention. (That is when it's not taking up 100% of it)

3. I am sort of driven to return to the safety-net of revision, any revision. I have even considered returning for the umpteenth time to my first novel and reworking the plot (again!)

So, my question, fellow writers, is how do you keep sane during the query process?

If starting on something new is the answer-- how do you move past the old-shoe comfort of the novel you've finished?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

One Hit Weekend!

Gary Numan: Cars

1980. Synthesizers, eyeliner and brooding. I used to think this song was put out by "The Cars" but no, It's one-hit wonder Gary Numan.

In this awesomely bad video, Gary appears in a pyramid, a tambourine, and a red plastic jumpsuit

but not in his CAR.

Go figure.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Big Ol' Zipline to Query Hell

Every year, I get the opportunity to engage in some staff and student "team building" at work.

I love this sort of stuff: low ropes elements, in which we have to work as a team to get all members across imaginary crocodile pits and over six-foot walls, high ropes elements that involve balancing on tree branches and leaping into thin air...

Well, I don't like that part of it so much. You could say that I have a more than healthy fear of heights... and also that I'm not athletic enough to pull myself up a swinging rope ladder contraption without looking totally ridiculous.

But I have to set a good example for the students and so I do my best, wheezing however many feet upward and as far above the ground as I can manage before I lose my nerve. Most of the time it's a good experience all around.

But several years ago, I got myself in a little too deep, er, high.

It all started with one of our soon-to-be-graduates. He'd struggled through three previous team-building days and, seriously afraid of heights, hadn't made it to the pinnacle of the high ropes course: the dreaded ZIPLINE. This particular zipline required you to climb about 60 feet up a tree by clinging to giant staples in its trunk, stand on a teeny tiny ledge high above the ground and step off into a nothing that lasted 300 feet or so (Probably not the exact measurements here...suffice to say it was high, long and scary)

I truly believe that facing one's fears is one of the most worthwhile and life-affirming things a person can do, especially when done in relative safely. The ropes course thing has been a life-changer for many struggling students and with all good intentions, I promised this student that if he did the zip line, I would too.

THAT's how I ended up clinging to the tippy top of a tall tree in a helmet and rock climbing harness, whimpering something like "I'm the mother of three children! I can't do this!" in front of the entire school, students staff everyone.

I knew what was coming, knew I'd hate that stepping-off-the-edge-feeling-like-you-are-going-to-die moment and that probably, afterwards, it would all be okay. But the stepping off part loomed like you can't believe. I finally womaned up and did it. And really it wasn't so bad.

Fun? Eh, not so much. But definitely worthwhile.

Why the big long story about ropes courses, you ask?

Because I got one of those , ominous self-addressed-stamped form letter rejections today and looking at that sealed envelope, I experienced the same clinging to the top of the tree dread as I did during my zipline experience. I had gotten myself into this, gone and stepped off that teeny platform into a long, terrible (well, not soooo terrible) slide. The all consuming query and wait, hope and dashed-hope thing I (now) remember so well.

As with the zipline, I will learn something, face what I didn't know I could and, maybe, end up hanging 60 feet in the air from a crotch-hugging harness while the "team" finds a ladder and gets me the hell out of here.

At any rate, thanks for being the "team" part of this team-building activity. I really do appreciate all of your kind words.

Here's the updated Query Tally:

Queries sent-- 5
Fulls Requested-- 2
Fulls Rejected-- 0
Partials Requested--0
Form Rejections--2

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Updated Query Tally

Queries sent-- 5
Fulls Requested-- 2
Partials Requested--0

I'm an optimist. I choose to believe that no news (especially with the holidays and whatnot) is good news.....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Its been a sort of funny year, 2010. Lots of stark raving good and some pretty serious lousy too. Our family tradition is to make "Thankfulness pictures" to share before dinner, but this year they seemed too... much. We needed a new tradition, one that would sum it all up without the obligation to gush. (Gushing, by the way, is fully appropriate at Thanksgiving. I can do it. I love doing it. But for extended family, gushing just didn't cut it this year)

And so, the Thankfulness Pinata was born. We stuffed it with anonymous notes of thanks. And then bashed it with a baseball bat.
The kids thought this was a lot more fun than obligatory art. And the grown-ups too. And when the bag finally cracked open, all our THANKS spilled out onto the damp fall dirt and the kids rushed them as if they were candy.

All fun aside, here are some things I am truly thankful for:

My husband, the calm in my storm and the true heart of this crazy lifelong enterprise.

The kids, each so much who he/she is it makes me cry sometimes

The extended family and friends that bless our days

Work. Hard, meaningful, often joyous work.

My other work, writing. I am thankful I've been able to carve out the space for my inner space.

The everyday comfort of our hilltown home

Dogs, sheep, chickens etc etc

The luck and hardships that led me here to all of this

Happy (slightly belated) Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Newsweek has an interesting article about Mark Twain, an author I never gave much credit to when I was yawning my way through Huck Finn back in 10th grade, but one I think I ought to revisit now.

Here's what he had to say about word choice:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I just love that.

Thanks to Edittorent for mentioning the Twain article.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I Did Something Today!

I mean really did something.

I sent out my first full and two queries. The process was a long one; I revised the full manuscript then agonized about my overwritten beginning until my eyes bled. Then I scooted down to the ending, returned to the beginning (more bleeding eyes) and finally, once all perspective had been lost, I took a deep breath, wrote an official-looking "the End" and sent the darn thing out.

All in all I cut about 6,000 words. Family, Genius, Species is now a svelte 86,010 words. Woohoo!... or Whew! anyway.

I plan to send snail mail copies to the other two agents who were near-misses the last time around.

I have hurried up. I am waiting.

They say the best thing to do during this tension-filled wait-and-see-and-send phase is to start on the next thing ("They" being sensible non-emotive people, highly competent people) and yes, I have been thinking through some new ideas...

But really, what else can I think of now that the gibbon is out in the world?

Here's my infant tally:

Queries sent-- 3
Fulls requested-- 1 (This from the conference I attended)
Rejections-- 0 (Well, the search is a few hours old)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nick Lowe: Cruel to Be Kind

Yes, this is a one-hit-wonder. But Nick Lowe IS actually sort of cool. Anyway, one of my chapter titles is taken from this song, so I thought I'd post it.

Odd video, eh? It baffles me.

But the hair, the hair is classic.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Your Novel's Soundtrack?

This may sound sort of funny, but there's a soundtrack that goes with my novel.

I don't mean that I expect there to be a soundtrack for the (not even imaginary) movie or sold along with the book. No big dreams here, world. I just want to write the best durn book I can. Rather, I find myself sort of obsessed with particular songs, songs that connect in one way or another to "Family Genius Species"... or at least to my idea of it.

This happened with my last novel too, but that one was almost totally country alternative, Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams, etc.

Some of the tracks on my Family, Genius, Species playlist are obvious-- One hit wonders abound. Most of the ones I've posted here, in fact. "Brandi" by Looking Glass, "Magnet and Steel" by Walter Egan, "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. But then there's "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones (Which is actually a good song) and most perplexing and persistent of all.... "Missed the Boat" by Modest Mouse.

I love "Missed the Boat" although it has nothing at all to do with the 70's or one-hit-wonders or anything directly related to my novel, it captures a certain something, a mood and Zorro-esque outlook that is totally spot-on. I am not ashamed to admit that I have listened to this track (the whole album in fact) hundreds of times while driving to work mulling over plot twists and characters.

Does your novel have a soundtrack?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Random Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan's Atonement is Literary Fiction (Capital L, Capital F). Serious, ambitious, about something waaaayy beyond entertainment.

But is it any good?

The first third of the book reminded me of all the the reasons lit fic is an endangered species in the publishing jungle. McEwan starts us off with a little girl writing a play. The details about the play and family and the house drag on and on and I couldn't figure what was important in the endless-seeming decription. Don't get me wrong, the writing is beautiful. McEwan is a master at grounding abstractions with such precision you want to go "Oh... aha! Of course!"

There is a passage when the girl, Briony, is sitting at a window looking at her hand and considering the moment of volition between her thought of moving it and the actual muscle movement. After quite a bit of abstract and beautiful prose, she likens this to the act of writing itself.

This sort of thing fits the worst stereotype of lit fic. If not actual navel-gazing, it is indeed hand-gazing ala Wittgenstein (Yes, my husband is a philosopher).

The first section of the novel moves on and on like this (I started to get that snarky "Okay already" attitude when several pages were devoted to the fall of sunlight in a room) but stick with it. All those seemingly excessive and incidental details have significance. By the end of the first section, Briony's cousin has been assaulted and Briony's mistakenly accused her older sister's lover, Robbie, of the deed. He is arrested and sentenced to prison.

The plot, as they say, has thickened.

The second section follows Robbie after his release from a three year prison term. His future much diminished, he is a member of the British infantry retreating to Dunkirk. This section, also beautifully written, moves at a totally different pace. It is a war story, more or less, and totally engrossing.

Then we are again with Briony. Now an adult, she realizes that her false testimony (the result of her youth and imagination) sent an innocent man to prison. She enters nursing school, seeking a way to atone for her sin. She has sent a novella about the day she accused Robbie to a magazine. The manuscript, as the reader comes to understand, is more or less the first section of Atonement (The long drawn out one with all the details). The critique she receives from the magazine is that the manuscript lacks narrative drive and is heavy on the navel-gazing (!) So clever! The reader is left hoping Briony will have a chance to atone, that Robbie and older sister Cecelia will be reunited, all standard happy ending fare.

The last section is a surprise (Spoiler alert!) Briony is now in her 80's, a well-known writer. We discover that Atonement is the novel Briony wrote in response to the critical moment in her life and that much of it-- the whole section about Robbie in the war-- was invented by Briony. She invents a happy ending as well. (I am not going to go into much detail here, in case you choose to read atonement). But, Man! It's a pretty amazing ending, especially when she also hints at a less-happy truer ending and we are devastated at the thought.

Also, this last section plants us right back at the play and the house and what it means to be a writer.

This is all to say that Atonement is exquisitely-- exquisitely!-- plotted, beautifully written, about big subjects near and dear to any writer's heart... and totally engaging once you get past the first section.

Thanks, Mr. McEwan. My faith in the power of literature is restored.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Happy, Happy, Yikes!

I attended the WriteAngles conference last Saturday and, first off, would like to say a big thank you to all the local folks who made the conference possible. WriteAngles is a not-for-profit event put on by writers, and it was refreshing to see the proceeds go to support local arts programs. Makes me extra glad to be a part of it.

I went to this conference in a (relatively) Zen state. It was local and reasonably priced, and I'd lucked upon it just a few weeks ago. I was determined not to get my hopes up. I sent my query in to the waiting list (in case a slot with an agent should open up) and submitted my first page to a public critique panel.

I woke up and went. No fanfare. No fuss. This in itself was something of an improvement. I'd worried myself into a sinus infection several years ago while attending one of those pricey, stress-central pitch conferences in New York (Definitely WON'T do that again!). I managed to maintain my Zen even when I had to backtrack home to drop off a birthday present I'd taken off with (Three kids= at least one kids' birthday party a weekend). Kept my balance even when I got lost in the wilds of Holyoke and arrived with not a minute to spare.

The speakers were fantastic. Magdalena Gomez and Andre Dubus III inspired me with their focus on writing as art and the mystery that is at its core. (I will have to dedicate another post to the content of their keynote addresses.)

I enjoyed the panel on internet publicity, although all this twitter, goodreads, podcast, vlog, content, link, etc world is churning a bit too fast for me. Here I thought I was doing alright maintaining my two blogs, plugging away at the novels, raising a family and working. Evidently, we writers have to do more, a lot more. And if we can't, we maybe should hire someone to get our names out there in the blogosphere, make the rounds of comments and content and..... um. Well, that was the gist of it anyway.

I enjoyed hearing Ellie Meeropol, Elinor Lipman and Richard Michelson talk about their processes and purpose.

And then I had my agent meeting. I was still in my Zen mode, more or less. But I experienced an absurdly irrational brain fart when the wonderful agent I met with asked me to tell him something about myself that wasn't in my query bio. Um.... all I could come up with was "I commute two hours to get to work." (Really! I have a slight blush of PTSD just thinking about it.) This could have been a sort of interesting tidbit, maybe if I described what it's like to be driving down the dark highway at 4 AM, working through plots and characters, scrawling illegible notes on the notebook beside me before heading into the heat and clamor of Seaport Academy. But I didn't I just sort of stared. Blankly. (The Zen had dissipated by then, let me tell you.)

The agent, an incredibly kind man, moved on. "Tell me about the book" he said. And I did. Things went smoothly from there. In fact, we had a great conversation. I could tell he appreciated the quirk factor (big in this book) and he said he liked the details. At the end of the ten minutes, he asked me to send him the full manuscript. Forget Zen, I was giddy with excitement when I walked out of the place. (Whew!)

During lunch, I met some lovely writers all at various stages of the process. Three of the conference's four agents sat at our table, and we got to chat with them (though I could not bear to pitch, it just seemed so crass). Instead we talked about Western Mass and the lovely town of Shelburne Falls. And I got a chance to thank Jenny Bent for her wonderful blog post about pitching.

Things were just so darn perfect!

Then there was the public critique panel. (If this post was a movie, here's where the music from Psycho would start up). In this panel, the agents comment upon first pages of manuscripts submitted by the audience and read aloud. The agents loved the first submission and liked the second and slowly, slowly, they started to look at the pages with a more critical eye. Mine was last. The very last one in the conference.

They said it was overworked. Which it totally was. In my enthusiasm to grab an agent's attention I had gone back and added enough verbal pyrotechnics to choke a horse. I had, like, three metaphors in that thing. And a lot of... well, convolution. Though I was blind to this fact back home, I could hear it immediately. I waited, heart pounding in my ears, for the specifics of my failure. Two agents were totally not into it (These were the two that I figured weren't a good fit anyway) and the other two agreed that it was overworked but liked the tone and the writing (I wish I could say more about this, but the notes I took-- of course!- were all about the bad things).

And that was the end. Whew! I wasn't crushed by the agent panel. Not totally anyway. Instead, I tried to be thankful that I now knew what to fix, that I had a chance to pare down the showboat writing before I sent it out.

On the way back home, I was supposed to pick up a pizza for the houseful of kids and frazzled husband. And so eager was I to fix that durn first page I sat in the pizza place and tore into that thing while the pies cooled on the counter.
I'm better now. Really. (And, yes, I do have the most wonderful, understanding and supportive husband in the world.)

So that was the WriteAngles conference. If you are attending a conference for the first time, my advice would be reign in your expectations, make the most of every panel and discussion, meet some new writing friends and just, basically, be a little Zen.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Tad Creepy...

This is the one hit wonder Exile with "Kiss You All Over"

When I was 11, I thought this was a pretty cool song. But now it just seems creepy. And the video doesn't help.

Exile spend decades trying to get the magic back. They went country for a while (back when country was cool, I guess) and, pop once more, they're still touring.

Here's the website: http://www.exile.biz/

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Conference Call

Next Saturday, I'll be attending the WriteAngles Conference at Mount Holyoke College.


Though I found out about the conference and registered last minute, I'm pretty excited about it. Andre Dubus III is one of the keynote speakers and some terrific agents will be there as well. I've submitted my first page to an agent panel (sort of like a kinder gentler version of Grub Street's Agent Idol") so I'm also experiencing a slight anticipatory nervousness. How else could it be, really?

I'm not much of a a Writer's Conference veteran yet, but I have been to Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace and long ago attended the Stonecoast Writer's Conference, which is much more workshop focused.

I have to say there is nothing finer than networking with a bunch of writers! We tend to be quirky, kind people, starving to talk of our secret literary passion. Many people hope to write a book someday, but the writers at conferences have taken more than a few steps in that direction and can identify with the immense, giddy joy (and also the profound misery) of the enterprise. Also, I don't really get out much.

How do you feel about conferences?
Anyone else planning to attend WriteAngles?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Possibly the Worst

This may well be the number one cheesy 1970's one hit wonder

Morris Albert. "Feelings"

Bill Murray has this terrific "Nick the Lounge Singer" version of this cheesy hit but I can't find it anywhere on the web.

If you find it, please, please please send the link.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: "His Illegal Self" by Peter Carey

Here’s another “adult forms meaningful relationship with kid not his/her own” story, but one vastly different from “About a Boy” in focus and intent. I didn’t read this book as “research” but rather found it on the library’s scant audiobooks shelf and thought it sounded interesting. Little did I know, I was wading back into Zorro territory, if only slightly.

“His Illegal Self” is the story of 7 year old “Che”, the child of 70’s underground radicals, raised by his WASPy grandmother on a ritzy upstate New York estate. One day, a woman who Che takes to be his infamous and long absent mother shows up and absconds with him. At first Che is eager to join his notorious parents on the run, but the woman is not who he thinks she is, and the two end up in the Australian rain forest in a sort of subsistence level hippy commune.

This is the first of Peter Carey’s books I’ve read and I found the writing stunning. Descriptions of the Australian jungles and beaches are achingly beautiful, so lush and tactile I felt as if I knew these place down to the bones. The characters are interesting—though they take some time to know and understand. Perhaps this is intentional on Carey's part-- our initial impressions as confused as Che's as he sorts out the truth of his situation. It's a complex sort of truth, the characters are, in a way, as densely mysterious as the bush.

In fact, the whole book is structured so that the readers’ emotions mirror those of the boy as he sets off hopefully, becomes increasingly confused and frightened, before finally coming into his own sort of understanding.

From a writer’s point of view, I found the meandering plot really interesting. It had a deus ex machina feel to it in places, and was wide ranging and loose ended, but totally engrossing just the same. Some of the subplots seem to lead off into the dense brush and disappear, others are left shadowy, never quite resolve themselves. But the boy’s developing relationship with his unwitting “kidnapper” – and with a feral, paranoid hippie they encounter (Of course, this character sort of stole the show for me)—is complex and so well-depicted, the loose ends hardly mattered.

Carey is an established and well-respected writer. I wonder if a debut author would have been granted the space to be this sort of sloppy with the plot. Probably not. But I'm glad he was able to; "His Illegal Self" would have been a different book if he'd been forced to hack this wild and fertile jungle into neat little garden row plot strands.

Has anyone else read this one? Comments?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seasons in the Sun!

Here's another one-hit-wonder that reduced my child-self to tears every time:

What was with those 70's anyway?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

An Unknown Current

Last week, I had a wonderful writing chat with friend. We met at a coffee shop and spent close to three hours talking about the process of fiction, the books and ideas that fascinate us, the how-to of taking an idea and turning it into a manuscript then into a polished manuscript.

I rarely get the chance to leave my own head and talk about this stuff with an actual person. And I left the place with a sense of purpose, practically humming with ideas... Here's one of them (Pardon the giddy nature of this post, my writer-self doesn't get out much):

Novels have long been compared to children. There's that "kill your darlings" thing, and the "sending it out into the world" thing and, yes, there are so many, many ways that a book is indeed like a child that we birth and raise and tidy up. But the comparison doesn't quite work for me. Kids are so tangible, evidence of the sloppy, sweet, grubby, constant, push and pull nature of the world. They connect us to the "now" as nothing else can.

But the writing process is different, a strange and mysterious alchemy, ethereal to its core. Writing is not about the "now" at all.

I have no actual memory of writing my novel Family, Genius, Species. The book is 300 some pages long and... poof! nothing! I don't mean it was an easy process, just that I don't remember it in much the way I don't remember the pain of childbirth. (You'd think it'd be impossible to forget birthing three children without the aid of epidurals, but no, I assure you it IS, in fact, possible, and probably the reason I have three kids in the first place.)

But to have forgotten the span of time it took to birth 80,000 words? How can that be?

I remember some tangential parts-- the many days I ditched my family to stare at my keyboard (really, I can't type with out looking). I remember the guilt involved, and returning to household chaos, feeling as wrung out as a damp towel. I remember, vaguely, the countless cups of coffee I consumed, the scrawled notes left while driving through the early morning dark on my way to work. But the moment of creation is a howling blank, a sort of indefinite hum.

I mean, where did the idea for FGS come from?????? Until I wrote the novel, I had no real interest in cheesy 70's music... or gibbons for that matter. I couldn't imagine writing from the point of view of a middle aged man. I mean, really.

As it was originally conceived, the book was a mother-daughter story, about a mother (Carla) so ambivalent that she does something horribly neglectful. I had a first scene in mind-- The mother, sitting in her boyfriend's car watching her daughter cross the street on her way home from school and deliberately NOT picking her up. I spent a few weeks of commuting-time trying to iron out the plot-- what would happen between the mother and daughter from that miserable starting scene? How would they reconcile?

But when I began to write, something crazy happened: The barely-worth-my-notice boyfriend hijacked my imagination! And that mother-daughter story I thought I was writing became something else entirely.

I have no idea how this happened. It was as if I'd dipped my hand in a pond, cupped an unknown current.

An although I remember all the re-plotting that occurred from this point onward, the cerebral sort of exercise of developing setting and plot and character detail, I don't remember the actual writing at all.

Writer John Gardner describes the reader's experience of fiction as a "fictive dream". He says writers are to suggest enough detail to allow for this dream. But it seems to me that the writing process itself, can be a sort of fictive dream. That writers experience their own fiction in much the same way.

So... am I just off-the-deep-end crazy? Where do your words come from? What's your process like?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Then and Now: Michael Martin Murphey

This one isn't from an actual one-hit wonder. Murphey had some other hits in the country music world.

Wildfire is so over-the-top its painful. But when I was 9 year old, there was nothing more romantic than a story of a girl searching Yellow Mountain for her lost pony, dying in a "killing frost" and forever after haunting the night with her calls. A confession: The emotions "Wildfire" engendered must have set some pretty deep roots, because listening to this cheesy video gave me goosebumps. (Embarrassing, I know, but I'm trying for blog-honesty)

I guess I wasn't alone in loving "Wildfire". It was one of the biggest songs of 1975, and fits pretty well, with the similarly melodramatic "Brandi" and "Shannon".

They must have liked to cry back in the 70's.

In 2007, David Lettermen invited Murphey to play Wildfire on his show:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Heightened Tension, Lost Ambiguity?

So, after hanging onto the Netflix version of "The Prestige" for close to a month, my husband and I have finally gotten around to watching the thing. We loved the book and had heard super things about the movie, and so this was, like, the big movie night of the season. (Woohoo!)

Now, I should start by saying that it will be nigh impossible to talk about these works without giving something away. I will do my best, but if you are planning on reading/watching "The Prestige" you should consider this paragraph a long-winded spoiler alert.

"The Prestige" is about two feuding magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. These two obsess over each other and expend much energy ruining each other's acts. Borden, a man of many secrets, creates a trick called "The Transported Man" and Angiers, a less talented magician but better showman, upstages him with his own version of the trick. When Bordon destroys this trick, Angiers' quest to one-up his enemy leads him to the real-life scientist Nikola Tesla and to the creation of a gruesome new "trick", "The Real Transported Man".

The novel details the escalating conflict between the magicians from an ambiguous event in which one holds the other responsible for the ruination of his career and the death of his wife. The great-grandchildren of Borden and Angier investigate how their own lives have been affected by their ancestors' conflict. The events of the past are revealed primarily through the the magicians' diaries. The novel also examines the nature of magic and of magicians and has some very creepy, surreal scenes. It is grand in scale and broad in subject. The relationship between the magicians and their ancestors is constantly shifting about, each is justified and not, standing on principles that are uniquely his own.

The movie was interesting, not only because it was well done, but because Director Christopher Nolan took this complex and multi-layered novel and-- rather than try to duplicate the reading experience on the screen-- simplified the plot, ratcheted up the tension, raised the stakes, and the re-drew the conflicts between the characters so that they were less ambiguous.

The movie version eliminates the magician's ancestors altogether, adds Borden's beloved little daughter (to raise the stakes considerably), a court scene and death sentence (raised stakes again!), and, most importantly of all, shifts the gruesome nature of the "Real Transported Man". The trick was creepy in the novel, but in the movie it is down-right dastardly! The movie also adds a much less ambiguous and satisfying ending-- serious spoiler alert-- with the two magicians basically killing each other off.

So... why am I taking all this time to discuss a book/movie without a single gibbon, purple Buick, or cheesy song? Because it seems to me that the movie version of "The Prestige" did what we as writers are often asked to do: it took a wide-ranging, "deep", ambiguous "draft and created a much tighter, clearer "product".

At first, loyal to the awesome book, I thought this made for less of a satisfactory experience. But I am not so sure now. The movie was so much more defined. The conflict between the magicians had a very clear and unambiguous root, the ending was dramatic and very much earned.

Do we want all our novels to cut out all the extra and ambiguous stuff? No... at least I don't. But I could see how one version derived from the other and so clearly was edited for all the stuff we are told to look for when working with our own drafts.

It was a truly helpful exercise to compare them.

What do you think? Are there other movies out there that seem like better edited versions of the real thing?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

One-Sentence Wonderful

Sigh..... Yoda was right.

There is do or do not. There is no try. (I am probably misquoting the great green sage, but my Star Wars crazy kids are not here to double check for me.) Try sucks. Try is driving me a bit crazy these days.

I've spent a lot of time this beautiful labor day weekend tweaking my draft and query letter, researching appropriate agents, tweaking some more... researching, rereading, revising and so on.

At this point, my query is the literary equivalent of marshmallow fluff-- an amorphous mass that can be pulled a little one way or another but has stubbornly refused to be sculpted into anything close to a work of art. Or at least that's the way it seems when I've been so gosh darn close to it a while.

If ever there was a thankless and miserable task, it's putting together a pithy, slam-bang fantastic query letter. There are a hundred great resources out there to help, and yet... the thing just isn't falling into place.

Perhaps if my novel were more high concept, the sort of one-sentence wonderful that would sell itself I wouldn't struggle along like this. But it isn't, or at least doesn't seem like it to me. In fact, after staring at my 3rd draft for a few days and at my lousy query version #73, I have no idea what it is!

So, in desperation, I'm asking you guys -- all 12 of you... :) -- to tell me what's wrong with this query. (Please!)

Here it is:

"Roger “Zorro” Weitz has it pretty good, slumming off the scant profits from Hate You (Gonna Eat Cheese), a hit second only to Muskrat Love in the cornball-rich scene of 1976. But when a near-death experience leads him to a rare moment of introspection, Zorro decides to make a more tangible impact on the world. Believing “cool” is about all he has to offer, Zorro commits to helping his girlfriend Carla’s timid, obese daughter find the attitude and style that could bring about her own hip transformation… even if it means going behind Carla’s back to do it.

Eleven year old Dawn, a budding zoologist and certified genius, is puzzled by Zorro’s sudden attention but intrigued by his mention of a band mate’s long-abandoned gibbon. While she makes no progress whatsoever in “cool” she does learn a thing or two about blackmail, and before he knows it, Zorro is involved in a vaguely illegal rescue attempt, a slow-speed car chase and—most unexpected of all— he’s actually starting to care for the kid.

Readers of Tom Perrotta and Nick Hornby will enjoy Family, Genius, Species, a sort of reverse Pygmalion, replete with cheesy music references, a lesser ape, and a lot of heart. The book is 90,000 words and ready for perusal."

(I've left off the chummy and agent specific greeting and short bio as the crux of the matter is this middle part.)

Any ideas?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Looking Glass: Then and... Well, Just Then

Okay, I sort of like this cheesy song that just screams (Screams!) 70s at the top of its lungs

But Brandi really needs to pick up the pieces and move on.

Anyway, Looking Glass broke up two years after "Brandi" and that was that.

Interestingly, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers covered this song in the 90's and it sounds pretty much the same

Friday, September 3, 2010


Monkey adopts Kitten: A long tailed macaque monkey adopted a kitten in Bali, Indonesia

In Bali, this wild macaque has apparently adopted a stray kitten. Aside from the neat factor, (which is incredibly high) this sort of thing highlights the the unknowable nature of the natural world.

Its hard to understand the motives of other humans, even those that are figments of the writerly imagination, but animals? Fergedabout it! My first assumption is that the monkey, a male, is caring for the kitten as he might a baby, out of love, or emotional need or something human and understandable. But, really, who knows? This monkey has a whole inner world that we can not even begin to guess at.

During this summer's vacation, our family went on a whale watch off the Northwest tip of Newfoundland. We encountered a pod of Orcas that were new to the whale watch thing, and these whales spent over an hour inspecting us and our small-seeming boat. They nudged its hull, "spy hopped" at the bow to get a better view, blew their seafood breath up into our faces, lingered just beneath the water-- less than 6 feet away-- watching. It was easy to imagine some sort of kinship between us, intelligent mammal to intelligent mammal. Then they took off, churned the water 100 yards away and returned to the ship with a dead seal, all but turned inside out in their jaws. When the gazing and nudging and eye-to-eye continued, there was a different feel to it. There was no knowing the minds of these creatures. We'd imagined we were forging some sort of bond but the whales, well, for all we know, they were trying to figure out how if we would be lunch!


We, humans, imagine that if we could teach an animal (perhaps, a gibbon!) to communicate using sign language or symbols on a board or ESP or whatever, we could know this animal, discover an intelligence, thought process and soul much the same as our own.

This is a pretty huge assumption. It seems these experiments tell us more about ourselves than they ever could about the animals we are studying.

I think I prefer the mystery, the knowing there are ways of being so different from my own that I can only glimpse them momentarily, in the calm black oval of a whale's eye, for instance, or this oddball macaque.

Monkey adopts Kitten: A long tailed macaque monkey adopted a kitten in Bali, Indonesia

*whale picture us from National Geographic (Camera died on the whale watch!)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Then and Now: Walter Egan

Walter Egan pioneered Yoda-speak ("With you, I'm not Shy") and this song (however awful) totally sticks in your mind, doesn't it?

When I was a kid, I could swear he was singing "You are a madman and I am a steal". But the Magnet thing -- "You are a magnet and I am steel"-- is much better. Can't count the number of times I've told my honey this very thing.

Walter is still touring some, and also works as a substitute teacher in Tennessee.

Here he is:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Review: About a Boy

by Nick Hornby

About a Boy

Last May, I attended Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston and met with agent Rachel Sussman. She was quite kind and mentioned that my writing style was hip, funny and spare (news to me!) and also that I had something in common with writers Nick Hornby and Tom Perotta.

Now, I'd read some of both these authors ("High Fidelity" and "Little Children" respectively) but the comparison hadn't really occurred to me because, Hornby and Perrotta truly are hip and spare and (quite) male and I figured my work was more in the quirky, square and decidedly female vein. So before I added the comparison into my query, I I thought I better read a little more from these guys.

I started with "About a Boy" because it seemed the plot had similar elements to my own (An adult male layabout develops a positive relationship with a kid). As I read, however, I began to worry that indeed, not only my style and general topic were similar to Mr. Hornby's, but the novels had some eerie synchronicities as well: First off, the main adult character benefits from his father's one hit ("Santa's Super Sleigh") and is slumming in much the way that Zorro is. Also, the kid is a quirky misfit with a challenging single mom.

As I read, the novel began to terrify me a bit. I began to wonder if I should drop the "readers of Nick Hornby and Tom Perrota" line from my in-the-works query for fear of calling attention to the similarities. What if someone thought I was copying or something? (Of course, I've just discussed the similarities on the world wide web so, there it is)

It's a strange thing to come across a novel that is, on the surface, so closely related to the one you've been in-the-dark struggling with for for nearly two years. But having now finished "About a Boy", I can say that although there are those surface similarities, the novels aren't really much alike.

Now. Having gotten THAT out of the way, here's the review:

It took me a while to get into the spirit of "About a Boy". The characters seemed, not slick exactly, but so surface-smooth I had a hard time relating to them. This was less so for Marcus, the "boy" of the title. He is endearing from the start, quirky and sweet and so clearly trying to figure out the adults in his life. Marcus' mom, Fiona, is particularly hard to fathom and her depression-- a crucial element-- is never clear or real-seeming. (That said Hornby uses one small habit-- Fiona's annoying need to sing with her eyes closed-- brilliantly.) Will, the slumming product of a one-hit-wonder, is quite shallow and remains more or less this way. He does develop some over the course of the novel, and there is some lovely prose describing Will's newfound vulnerability, but it felt to me as if the "heart" of the novel was somewhat missing.

Perhaps this is why I found "About a Boy" so slow initially-- There was little to care about. But eventually, the novel pulls us in and I found myself fully engaged in Marcus' clueless striving and Will's selfish attempts to capitalize on his relationships with single mothers. (He invents a son so that he will be more attractive to them.)

The novel is very much fixed in the early 90's, and the demise of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana is at the heart of the plot. And the plot itself isn't typical in its trajectory.

"About a Boy" is funny though, in a witty, very-English way and I feel I understand 30 ish 90's hipsters much better than I did when I myself was 30ish and unhip in the 90's. Hornby has a real skill at describing abstract emotions in with clarity and humor.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Back with a Vengeance

Okay. I hate to do this to you, but if ever there was a song that screams "bad 70's music", it's this one. I remember my sister and I bawling in the back seat of our gigantic station wagon with the fold-up, backwards-facing back-back seat when this one came on the radio. Or, anyway, alternating between crying and arguing about what kind of dog "Shannon"might be.

So.. be forewarned: This one is extremely, hazardously awful. AND it includes equally awful cute doggie pictures.

Go ahead. I dare you not to cry.

Here's a current picture of Henry Gross, self described "One Hit Wanderer"

Thursday, July 22, 2010

We'll be right back after these messages...

Well, there are no messages actually. But I'm going away for a bit-- vacation-type away. WooHOOO!

Mostly this is a vacation from work, and the hot, slobbery dog of a summer we are enjoying here on the farm. But it's probably a good idea to take a break from the manuscript, too, and especially the recalcitrant query monster, which, in my mind has grown to look something like this:

(Okay, that's actually a scene from "Sigmund the Sea Monster" but how else to describe a 450 word query that is just too damn much?)

And the manuscript itself is feeling a bit monstrous lately as well. I am trying to get a new handle on one of the more minor (but crucial to the plot) characters. He started off sort of cartoonish (intentionally so, I'm afraid) and now I realize I have to understand him, even care for him if its going to work. And he's sort of a tough guy to like....

If you are a fiction writer, you probably have all sorts of little tricks to get to know your characters, sort of like ice-breakers for the party in your mind, right? If you are not a writer, this whole post probably seems one step away from schizophrenia.

Anyway, this is one of the exercises I do while I am driving or otherwise semi-engaged: I imagine I am talking to the character, and he/or she is telling me about a childhood incident, a guiding principle, an ex wife, etc. etc. Again, if you're a fiction writer this is all great fun. If not, call in the straitjackets!

So, what sort of exercises do you (writers) do to get to know your characters?

I hope to check in and read about some cool, helpful writing practices. But this is a new blog, so mostly, I hope to keep the flame going while away.

So if it's slow around here, no worries. I'm probably still here:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Just in Case You Were Wondering...

These guys from my post way back on July 13th?

They're the Pipkins, a pre-Monkees, pre-Menudo, non band. Evidentally, the guys on the album cover didn't even try to mouth the words. But they sure did rock the look.

The kids jump around so enthusiastically they injure themselves when I play this one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Flash in the Pan

Some of you might recall "Careers" the old board game in which you start off setting a goal for yourself, particular amounts of money, fame and happiness, and then win by reaching it. There's a handy dandy score card to let you know how the old career is doing:

Well, my husband excavated this game from his childhood home early this summer and we've been playing it.
Careers Board Game
Sort of a lot.

I find I am big on the happiness goal. Also money is nice. (Living hand to mouth for a few hard years taught me that happiness is much harder to come by without the comfort a little money provides. Also nice not to have the electricity turned off on you every few months.)

Fame? eh. I have a student who had a brief brush with YouTube "stardom" earlier this year and he says notoriety gives you "the itis" ...as in a sort of disease-like need for more. An perhaps this is the case. I just don't know what I'm missing.

Regardless, "Careers" got me thinking about fame and how odd and unpredictable it is. What makes something (a Freakin' Old Spice commercial, for example, or "I write like" application...) "go big" while a much more substantial, interesting, unique, offering (say, a PBS special or something) enjoys an audience of a maybe few thousand?

The literary world is chock full of this sort of thing. Why The Da Vinci Code? or The Lovely Bones? Or Jonathan Livingstone Seagull? Are these "big" books products of luck alone? Or is there a clear and predictable reason for their sudden and skyrocketing success?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference explores the sociological aspect of this question. I haven't read this book (yet) but Wikipedia tells me that "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts." [p33] He goes on to describe these super-influential folks as "Connectors", "Mavens" and "Salesmen".

I will certainly update this post once I have read this book.(Sure sounds interesting!)

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

But for now, it seems to me that things just resonate.... or they don't. There are millions of Vampire books but for whatever reason Twilight meant something to a whole lot of someones. (Maybe those darn Mavens had something to do with it!)

And of course, there are all those One-Hit-Wonders! If they don't bring to mind a weird, fleeting and arbitrary synchronicity, I don't know what does.

How else can you explain this:


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Then and Now: Nick Gilder

If you are of a certain age, you might recall this one:

Technically, Gilder is NOT a one-hit-wonder, but this song says 1978 to me. (Whether that's a good thing remains to be seen)

Here's Mr. Gilder nowadays:

Technical Difficulties!

Has this ever happened to you?

You revise your manuscript, adding a new and important scene that drives or improves the plot in a truly significant way and then SOMEhow it gets lost in the MILLIONS of versions of your manuscript floating around in your hard drive.

I am not the most organized person around, but really, this is ridiculous!

It all started with the dropbox. My saintishly-tolerant husband suggested I save my mss in this dropbox thingy so that if the computer crashes I'll still have it. Plus, I wouldn't have to be emailing the thing to myself every few days.

Great idea (He is full of them). So I did. But-- here's where the law of unintended consequences comes into play-- I got all tangled up, saving some versions in my traditional documents file and some in the snazzy new dropbox and now, I've lost the version that has the cool new scene.

....Either that or I dreamed that I wrote the cool new scene (which seemed to solve all the weaknesses and warts in the manuscript....hmmmm......) That's possible too. It's been a sort of bleary summer.

Officially, I'm on version number 31 of Family, Genius, Species. Although there have been many more less radical alterations and edits along the way. I need a better system, clearly.

How do you organize your drafts?