Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Yes, we still have mountains in our kitchen

OK, so no mountains, but definite foothills. I exercised some literary license. I'm a writer. Sue me.

Since June 19, when I discovered that my dishwasher's water pump had exploded, I have been living with rumply laminate flooring.

At first, I thought, "OK, so, it's not nice and flat, but it could be worse. Live with it. The insurance guys will come through soon."

But after a few times catching a heel on one of those peaks and being launched into movement that could go along with the lyrics to "I Believe I Can Fly," one ceases to be patient. Especially when one also has a pot of tea in one's hand when one is shrieking, "I believe I can touch the sky" (okay, the ceiling.)

My insurance folks told me that, why, yes, they would cover the floor. All I had to do was get an estimate for the damages.

I had no idea this was some sort of inside joke, kind of like the suggestion to bell the cat, at least not until I tried to get an estimate.

It took me nearly a week to get the first estimate, and I had to pay $51 for the privilege for the first estimate. (No, apparently free estimates are about as common as pink elephants these days, as they SAY it's free, but what it REALLY means is they credit your "account" should you use their labor.)

That guy totally muddled things up by saying that he thought my dining area was messed up, too, though to be honest, I had to really squint to see what he was talking about.

I reported this (including the squint part) dutifully to my insurance agent, who frowned and said, "Hmh. Now we'll have to get an appraiser out to look at it."

I told her that I would get a second estimate. This contractor came out, said, "Nope, your dining area's a-OK. I'll have the estimate for ya tomorrow."

He did. Along with a lovely little postscript that if I didn't use his services, his fee for the estimate would be $75. (See? Like I told you about the pink elephants.)

I forwarded the estimate FOR THE KITCHEN PART ONLY onto my insurance company who forwarded them onto the claims people who were supposed to get in touch with me within 48 hours.

That was Friday. And at least a half-dozen stumbles ago. No phone calls. No appraiser dude. No nothing but the oncoming Fourth of July when contractors all seem to take vacations.

So I called The Insurance Lady back to find that she was Out Of The Office (yes, when the receptionist answered, it DID sound like she said it in caps). The receptionist lady said she would call the claims people and get back to me.

Finally she has called me back. Appraiser Dude has decided to cut a check and not show up. Which is fine with me. But I could have already scheduled Contractor Dude to come in and start ripping out my Kitchen Mountain Range if Appraiser Dude had just called me back.

As it is, with the Fourth coming up, it looks like I'll be tripping over The Kitchen Mountain Range until I can actually con a contractor into actually reporting for duty. Which means I'll be needing back-up music for "I Believe I Can Fly" for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wherein I go all OCD again

I'm not much of a journaler, despite being a writer. I think it all stems back from the way my sister's Dear Diary lock was so easily pickable. Even then I realized, Huh. If I can do this to HERS, then she can do this to MINE.

Still, I've always admired readers who keep journals about what they read when, along with little comments about the book. Plus, it would be very helpful whenever I wanted to read a book again or recommend it to someone. Like, for instance, the novel PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf. I read it several years ago, loved it, and wanted to recommend it. But I couldn't.

Why? I couldn't remember the title, except that it had "song" in it. Or the author, except that it was a German sounding name. All I could remember was that it was about two old ranchers who take in a pregnant teenager, and two brothers whose mom has left them.

Ever tried to google that? The worst thing was, I'd forgotten this title before, and then remembered it, looked it up and realized the book was an award-winner. I told myself I wouldn't forget it ... and then I did.

So that's why I decided to resuscitate my Goodreads account. You can see, way down there in the corner, the widget that shows the books I've read. In an ideal world, that would reflect the books I've just FINISHED reading, but alas, if you click on it, you'll think I've been glomming Dick Francis.

I'm trying to remember my favorite books and authors and put them all in there ... so that's the reason I'm heavy on the Dick Francis.

The best thing about Goodreads is the connection you get with other people who feel EXACTLY the same way about a book as you do. Isn't that weird? How you can meet a total stranger who's reading a book you love, and you find out that SHE loves the book, too, and it's almost an instant connection?

The problem is, of course, that the people I'm following read the most interesting sounding stuff. Tack them onto the end of my long, long To Be Read pile, and the TBR is about to fall over. And then there is that obsessive adding of ALL the books I've ever read.

It is quite a lovely feeling of closure to be able, once you've finished reading a book, to click "read" on your Goodreads account and pass judgment with stars -- 1? no, 2? Oh, you know you liked it -- go for three!

Why, yes, I do know that I'm (just a touch) OCD!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Alarm Clocks are the Tools of Satan

When do you write? What's your golden hour? If you were the boss of this world, when would you fire up the laptop and put the do-not-disturb sign on the doorknob?

For me, it would be when the house got quiet, at 10 p.m. or so. I do my best writing at the end of a day, when I've had that day to ponder on my WIP, my characters, the plot. It settles somehow, and the important stuff rises to the top.

Unfortunately, I do not live in an Owl World. I live in a Lark World, and I happen to be married to a Lark. If I ever achieve World Domination, one of the things on my to-do list would be to make sure that all those early-morning birds had to stay up past midnight and be happy about it.

I've never been a cheerful riser in the mornings. Like The Kiddo, I grump and I growl unless I can wake on my own -- and that is when the sun hits my face. An alarm clock? That's just another name for a diabolical tool of Satan.

But after living four decades in a world run strictly by Larks, and especially after the 10 years of public school that The Kiddo has been subject to, my internal body clock is completely screwed up.

At ten p.m., my brain is raring to go, but my poor body is pushed beyond its limit. I marvel at the way I used to routinely pull all-nighters when I was in college two decades ago -- not because I procrastinated, but because I worked three jobs and took course overloads. There is absolutely no way I could pull an all-nighter now.

At 6:30 the next morning, my eyes pop open, and my body is miserably awake. My brain? It won't REALLY kick in until nearly another four hours.

Now I tell you, what good is being awake if your brain is not engaged?

I've known early morning writers -- lots of writers swear by that early morning time. I've tried it. It frustrates me, though, because if I start writing early in the morning, I make grr noises at the dayjob. I want to stay at my keyboard all day long -- or at least until lunch.

But if I sit down at the keyboard at 10 p.m., I can get so much done in a couple of hours, then crash and go to bed and not resent the call of the Sandman. In an ideal world, the next morning, when the sun wakes me up, I lie in bed and think about what I wrote the night before and start working out the next chapter.

In the real world? I crack open a bleary eye, realize it's 6:45 and I've hit the snooze button twice, and roll out of bed. And by ten AM? I'm dusting off those Plans for Achieving World Domination so that I can turn the world into an Owl refuge.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A few of my favorite things

Al at Publish or Perish gifted me with The Happiness 101 Blogging Award, and I'd promised today that I would share the 10 things that make me happy.

Thing #1) The Kiddo. I'd put a pix of her here, but she's already got to the stage where she rolls her eyes and says, "Don't, Mommy. No more pictures." She is the blessing I never expected, the sweetest, smartest child, my angel-baby.

Thing #2) The rest of my family -- including The Husband and The Sister and The Dad, in spite of the way they all think they know better than I what I need and what I want and what would make me happy. They nag because they care.

Thing #3) My house. Sure, it's 1,100 square feet with 3,300 square feet of clutter in it, but it's paid for and it's mine, and I get happy just looking at the stencil design I put up (not once but twice) in my living room. Navy blue over cheesecake yellow -- that makes me happy.

Thing #4) My pets, even if they do get into the most awful squabbles with each other.

Thing #5) Cooking with The Sister. I've loved team-cooking with her since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and even now I like the way she makes a kitchen -- any kitchen -- a happy place.

Thing #5) A phone call from Tawna Fenske. There's just something so infectiously cheeful about the woman -- I can be in the dumps, and pronto, she gets me on a one-way rocket ticket outta there.

Thing #6) A phone call from the Toronto Twins -- that would be Nelsa Roberto and Stephanie Bose. No, they don't look a thing alike, but I can't think of one without the other after an RWA conference where we all roomed together.

Thing #7) Hearing little children sing in church. Can't explain the joy that brings to me, but it does. Any singing in church makes me happy, but still, the high mark is when I hear a group of children warble out a hymn.

Thing #8) Bantering back and forth with on Twitter. Girl's got a cool sense of humor!

Thing #9) Any call from my editor, especially ones with good news attached.

Thing #10) Writing. Okay, sometimes it makes me insane, but without it I'd ALWAYS be insane.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sometimes I can be a dummy

I am blushing. Out of a mix of embarrassed pleasure and embarrassed, er, embarrassment. That's a lot of high color in an otherwise pale as raw-bread-dough face. It's all because three fellow bloggers have awarded me something recently.

The embarrassed pleasure comes from fellow bloggers Julie Musil and Al at Publish or Perish

Julie, whose blog is just great, gave me the Honest Scrap Award, which looks very pretty and antique-y. I'm not sure of the rules of receiving such an award, so I sure hope someone can fill me in!

Al gave me the Happiness 101 Award -- very pretty, too!

I like Al's blog a lot because of the fabulous pix he always shares. I know I'm supposed to share ten things that are supposed to make me happy -- that comes tomorrow.

The embarrassed embarrassment is due to my overlooking Amanda Kaye Hooper's mom's kind award of a Magical Mention. I garnered the award because to a comment I made on Amanda's terrific blog (seems like I commented another lifetime ago) about Walt Disney World. I had no idea I'd win, so I just sort of assumed I didn't.

To make matters worse, I've been on a blogging diet due to a time deficiency (lead up to The Kiddo's Birthday, Father's Day, & then an exploding dishwasher will kinda sorta do that to you.) There were a couple of days I wasn't faithful about checking back on all my comments. Yikes! I will, pinky swear, from now on!

Anyway, these folks are terrific bloggers, all worthy of your time, all having neat things to share. Follow them one and all! They won't disappoint!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Don't settle when it comes to setting

Every writer has a strong point, something that comes easy, something that rolls effortlessly off the tips of her fingers onto those keys.

For me, it's certainly not setting.

I was BORN to do radio, because I'm all about the dialogue. My poor characters will wind up floating in air, batting zingers back and forth like the Williams sisters at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, there's not much demand for radio plays these days.

Over the years I've learned to improve setting so that I'm not leaving my hero and heroine hanging -- literally. But it's something I have to consciously work on.

Some tips I've learned:

Setting's not passive: in order for setting to be organic to the story, so intertwined that you can't take it out, the characters have to interact with their surroundings. Don't just let them observe the kudzu. Let 'em get all tangled up in it and take a clumsy swan dive.

Setting's not one-dimensional: When your klutzy hero falls into that kudzu, make sure he's not just seeing a lot of green. Let him smell the damp powdery mold of the earth, let the rocks scrape his face (hey, the heroine can bandage him up later on!), let him spit out (in a manly, discreet way, naturally) the dirt he inadvertantly eats.

Setting's not convenient in the large economy size: Like dynamite and perfume, a little dab here and there of setting will do you. Long paragraphs of world-building will make me put down a book faster than almost anything save stilted dialogue. I admire authors who can work in the tiniest of details that tell so much about a scene. Back to the kudzu example, one or two sentences of it are sufficient. Any more, and the book starts to sound like a county extension agency pamphlet.

Setting's not just for narrative: Work details of setting into your dialogue, avoiding, of course, the painful as-you-know-Bob exchanges.

Setting's not just generic background: it's the skeleton of your entire story, what you hang the plot and the characters on, so you should treat it as though it is a character. What's its purpose? Why can't the story take place anywhere else? Until I can answer these questions, then my stories have a vague could-be-anywhere air about them. Once I know WHY my story has to be set in a certain place, and my heroine has to live in a certain house, drive a certain car, work for a certain sort of business, then I know my setting's job.

One of the best ways I learned how to improve my settings was to pull my keeper books off the shelf and read them, looking specifically at ways the writers integrated setting into the story. I never went so far as to mark them with a red pen (sacrilege, writing in a book that wasn't a text book or my personal Bible!), but I did keep an eye peeled for what tricks other writers used. And hopefully it's helped me.

So how do you handle setting? What tricks do you use?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What three words describe my soul?!

After a weekend of torment, I focused on counting my blessings ... like my wonderful surprise win of a new blog design from the uber-talented Tekeme Studios. I won it on Twitter, which has quick links to lots of great contests -- probably the reason I've won two things in as many days.

I was feeling all smug and satisfied that I didn't have to do any heavy lifting on the new blog design ... until Ashley with Tekeme sent me a questionnaire.

Then I realized, Gee, they can't read my mind. Which is actually good, because if they had read my mind, my upcoming new blog design would be blank as the proverbial slate.

Tekeme really puts effort into even a blog design. They want to know, for instance, what emotion I want people to feel upon seeing my blog, and what emotion I want people to feel as they leave my blog. They want to know, and boy, did this make me gulp, what three words describe my soul?

I would have never thought of asking those questions. But I'm having to dig for their answers now, and I know the design Tekeme comes up with will only be as good as the thought I put into this questionnaire.

My purpose with my blog has been to share a slice of my life with readers and fellow writers -- to let you know it's not all cake and ice cream, and that I'm as normal as the next gal. (Well, okay, normal as the next NUTTY gal, but let's not quibble.) But emotions? And boiling me down to three words is way tougher than writing a one-page synopsis!

So ... er ... Help!

For those of you who faithfully follow me, what emotion do you feel when you come to my blog? What do you feel when you leave? Obviously I'm sort of doing something right by y'all, and I'd like to continue that.

My website has been long overdue for an overhaul, but I've concentrated my efforts on my blog. Eventually (after I get through paying for dishwashers and iPods and birthday dinners and a slew of Taylor Swift songs for The Kiddo), I want my website to more closely resemble the upcoming (whatever magic Tekeme has wrought by then) blog design.

But I'm at a loss as to exactly what that design should look like. I know, I know, it should reflect ME. Still, who am I? I'm obviously the person whose voice comes across in these blog posts ... and yet, I have a sneaky suspicion that a picture of a woman wearing a half-dozen hats wouldn't exactly be a great visual.

So help me out. Tell it to me straight ... what three words describe the me you've met over the past few minutes/days/weeks/months/years?

Update on my ruined floor: It appears that while my insurance won't pay for the dishwasher as it was the guilty culprit, my insurance WILL pay for the flooring to be ripped out and replaced. Yay!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Other Shoe Dropped

I’m not a pessimist, more of a pragmatist. For instance, I knew that after two days in a row where I’d won two things – BACKSTREET SAINTS, a book I’d really, really wanted and an out-of-the-blue new banner design for my blog from the uber-cool design service Tekeme Studios, that a shoe was about to drop.

I just had no idea it would drop in a puddle.

Friday night, I went straight from work to get The Kiddo's hair cut and then to her VBS commencement service. We got home late, and we headed, pretty much, straight for bed.

The next morning, I sleep-walked myself into the kitchen with the intentions of putting on tea for me and grits for The Husband. But as I trudged in sock-clad feet across my kitchen floor, a ridge caught my foot.

A ridge that hadn’t been there the morning before.

I have laminate flooring in my kitchen, and I’ve loved it. Sure, I’ve been a water-nazi about spills, but even the few accidents we’ve had have created no problems. So at first, I thought someone had spilled water and let it soak into the flooring.

But then I saw a whole mountain range of ridges.

My heart sank. I traced the ridges back to its foothills … the dishwasher. Unscrewing the bottom plate and pretzeling myself to a vantage point, I saw a puddle of water under the machine’s guts.

The culprit had been found. And since it had been in that hole from 1994, if we pulled that sucker out, it was not going back in. Nope, it was time to find a new dishwasher.

That was easier said than done. I spent Saturday with my poor sister, trying to find a store that (a) had a dishwasher I could afford and (b) had a dishwasher that was in stock. One store clerk told me that I could order one. I asked when the dishwasher would be in.

“Oh, seven to ten days, and that’s to the store. Delivery to your home would have to be arranged once it got here.”

I couldn’t wait a week on a dishwasher – that old one had to come out post haste, and I had no cut-off valve to the dishwasher. So that meant I had to plug the end of the line with something.

I won’t bore you with the catastrophes that we ran into – wrong fittings, leaky pipes, a soldered-in cut-off valve to the hot water tank that suddenly sprang a geyser when we went to close it off. Suffice it to say that I got the new dishwasher loaded and running at about 10:30 that night. And the only way we got it to work was a coalition of the talent and brains of my dad and my sister, with limited help from The Husband and me. Because plumbing? It is so not my thing.

Friday, June 18, 2010

In Which I Get A Little Bit Lucky

I never win anything. Never, ever.

Well, I take that back. When I was an employee of the U.S. House of Representatives, I won so much that I stopped letting my name be entered into doorprize drawings, because when you're a House employee, you have all sorts of ethics reports you have to fill out, and all sorts of hoops to jump through.

But before that? One 12-pack of Peppermint Patties. In junior high. Since I left government work? A delightful book awarded by Harley May. And that's just because she likes me. (I think.)

So imagine my surprise when yesterday, I won something on Twitter -- and not just anything on Twitter, but a most fab book ... a Joshilyn Jackson book, BACKSTREET SAINTS, courtesy of @GCPeditor on Twitter.

I have a confession about Joshilyn Jackson. I really dragged my feet about her first book GODS IN ALABAMA. Everybody said it was great. Everybody said I HAD to read it. So of course I didn't.

I'm contrary that way.

I DID pick it up several times in Barnes & Noble. But every time, I'd say to myself, Eh, if everybody's reading it, I'll wait.

So one day, many moons later, I found an audiobook edition of GODS IN ALABAMA in my library. I was hooked from the moment I heard a real southern accent, none of this Hollyweird version of what they think we sound like.

But it was the words that really hooked me. Jackson's voice, the way she saw things that I'd seen a million times, but saw to the core of them, got me. I loved that book. I loved that book so much that I went out and bought me a copy of my very own.

How is it that I so nearly missed such a stellar author? Why didn't I give her a chance? Why was I so resistant to other reader's suggestions?

I guess it was because I didn't think any book could live up to that much advance billing. I'd read other books that had let me down.

But Jackson's book made me do two things: 1) whisper, "please, please, please don't let me down!" as I drove the long way home and parked in the garage to finish listening to the audio version, and 2) make me seriously wonder if I had any business anywhere NEAR a keyboard.

She didn't, and after a very sweet reply to my gushing e-mail of praise for her book, I got over my keyboard phobia.

So that brings me to my third thing I learned: if someone recommends a good book to you, read it. Give it a chance. After all, what have you got to lose?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Missing a little Zip

The other night, The Kiddo and I settled down to read The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery. We were in a very dramatic part, where three of the kids and the faithful collie Zip go check out the haunted house, which has no electricity.

As a mother with a pilot's license in helicopter hovering, I was horrified. In the story, the oldest kid is 12, one kid is deaf, and the third kid is 10. That their parents actually let them go poke around in a dark house BY THEMSELVES, armed only with a flashlight and waaaay before the invention of cell phones, made my hair stand up. The mother in the story does raise some qualms, but quickly decides it's okay if Zip goes along.

The Kiddo was biting her nails as we read about how Zip breaks away from the three kids after hearing a noise.

The story continues, with the kids racing up to an attic room filled with mysterious dog howlings and groans and moans, and finding the room empty. And I do mean empty: not even Zip is to be found, only the author didn't mention that.

The Kiddo jumped on it like a duck in a junebug. "Where's Zip?" she kept asking. "What happened to Zip?"

We finished reading the chapter and a little bit into the next, and Zip was completely MIA. He didn't show up until the plot needed him again. It worried The Kiddo to no end, in part because she's very tenderhearted when it comes to animals, and in part because she's all about the logic of a situation.

It got me to thinking about continuity in writing.

We writers write in piece-a-block fashion, even linear writers like me. We churn out an 80K MS in chunks, an hour here, two hours there, a scene, maybe a chapter, at a time. And even with professional editors and copy-editors looking over my shoulder, I've screwed up -- in my first book, I'd changed the countertops in my heroine's kitchen from slate to soapstone. But sure enough, upon re-reading the published book, I caught a mention of slate countertops.

So how do we do our best to eliminate continuity goofs? Here are a few tips that work for me.

1) Print out a blank calendar from Outlook of the proposed time-span of the novel. Jot down briefly the time and place of each scene and the characters involved. (You can also use index cards or create an Excel spreadsheet.)

2) If you have room on that same calendar, note the weather (a pet screw-up of mine -- I'll have my heroine outside in short sleeves in the dead of winter).

Now, take a look at the order of those scenes. Are they logical? Do they give your characters the time to get from one place to another? Do you have them eating two suppers in one night? Is the weather as it should be -- no snowing in July unless it's meterologically likely? No darkness falling at 5 p.m. in mid-summer in Georgia?

Then as you're doing your final edits, read for continuity, with a special eye for disappearing Zips. Have your Critique Partners or Beta Readers do the same. You're not looking at your word-smithing. You're looking at the logistical movement of your characters -- think like a detective.

Usually even the most egregious screw-ups are easy enough to fix in process. It's after the book is finished, and when your editor writes in her revision notes, "Uh, wait, better check the time-line on this? When is this happening?" that it's like untangling a knotted fishing line.

But of course, I'm the only doofus who ever does this, right? Me and the author of the Happy Hollisters and The Haunted House Mystery, who somehow lost Zip.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lookie! A secret decoder ring!

I'm sure it's been done somewhere else on the web, but so many folks said that THEY hadn't heard of a phrase or an expression that I used in my post on Writerese in Jumping Over Jargon. So here is your very own Secret Decoder Ring to divine the short-hand we romance writers use.

BICHOK - Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard (the only way to ever type THE END)

MC - Main character (Could or could not be a squint-eyed game show host -- but he has to have the proper GMC and backstory to pull it off.)

GMC - Goals, Motivation and Conflict. What does your character want out of life, why does he want it, and who's the bear with the flashlight in his way?

HEA - Happily Ever After -- because, dadgummit, we don't always get that in real life, but we're the boss of this world.

HFN - Happy For Now -- because we want the fairy tale, but we're pragmatic.

Backstory - what happened before Chapter One, i.e., the Hero's dog died, his house burned down and he got fired for doing the right thing. Then he meets the heroine, and bam, does life EVER get complicated.

RUE - Resist The Urge To Explain -- in which we remember we don't have to tell ALL about how the Hero's dog died.

Show, don't tell -- in which we remember to have our hero turn a vivid green, his eyes go red, and his muscles suddenly split his jeans and shirt off rather than have him mumble, "I am so angry. I am so angry. You wouldn't like me when I get angry."

Synop - Short for synopsis, an instrument of torture designed by agents and editors in a rarely publicized secret meeting as a method to separate the wheat from the chaff. They define it as a short (1-2 pp) or medium (5-8 pp) or long (10-25 pp) summary of your book. No pressure.

Partial - the first three chaps and a synop.

Chap - Chapter. B/c by this time, you're too tired to type it all out.

BM or BBM - contrary to popular belief, nothing to do with bathrooms or diapers, but instead the Big Black Moment where the boy royally screws up and loses the girl or the girl royally screws up and loses the boy. All hope is gone. Hankies are required.

H/h - shorthand for Hero and heroine, or the boy and the girl in "boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back." I know. We romance writers are secretly sexist, because everybody knows that heroine should get the BIG H.

TSTL - Too Stupid To Live - a modifier used to describe the dumb thing the h does because you REALLY need her alone in the basement for the serial killer to attack her so that the H can come and rescue her b/c this is how they get over their BBM. (The H and the h. Not the serial killer. After the H gets hold of him, Mr. Serial Killer is having a totally different kind of BM.)

Organic to the Plot - which means that if you've created an h who is a prima donna ballerina in your romantic suspense, then she better be using some of those emboités and fouetté turns and grand jetés to take down the bad guy, not suddenly develop a black belt in karate.

All rightie, then, what have I missed? What abbreviations/terms/jargon should I add to the list?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On a Chocolate Diet

Patty Blount wrote recently about how chocolate spurred her to new word count heights, and I would dearly like to engage in a study to see if that would help me, too. However, it appears that I'm on a Chocolate Diet for the foreseeable future.

The Kiddo has a cavity. In a practically brand new permanent tooth. And a cavity that sprouted in the past six months since her last check-up.

I spotted it quite by accident, and it can’t be good that it’s big enough that I spotted it with an un-aided eye.

We brush twice daily, and we eat good and nutritious meals at home (okay, so my mom is spinning in her grave like a rotisserie chicken and saying we don’t have greens every week, but still. No Mickey D’s every week, either.)

I don’t buy her junk food. The Husband does, but not as much as he COULD buy, and since sugar and the acid in many candies contribute to the painful canker sores The Kiddo gets, he’s cut way down on enabling The Kiddo's sweet-tooth.

Still, I groaned when I saw that cavity.

I did what a good parent is supposed to do in situations like this: reduce the candy flow to practically nil, tell her that from now on she gets no more Dr. Peppers or Mr. Pibb or Cokes unless she is eating out (we don’t eat out that much), tell her that she has to brush after EVERY meal and snack unless she’s in school or out of the house.

I’ve threatened The Husband with making him go with The Kiddo to get this cavity filled should I catch them sneaking sugary drinks and snacks again. Since he is deathly afraid of needles, I think that will be enough of a deterrent.

The problem is, I have teeth that are practically as hard as diamonds. Even without using fluoride toothpaste (my mom believed in the benefits of baking soda), I wound up with just two cavities by the time I was 18, and that record has stretched on into the current. My solid teeth tend to enjoy chocolate and the rare Coca Cola (you couldn’t force Dr. Pepper down me even with a nasal-gastric tube.)

The Kiddo, on the other hand, was apparently not so blessed. Even with careful brushing from the time she sported teeth, even with my harping on how certain foods may taste good but are bad, bad, bad on your teeth, her teeth are resembling Swiss cheese.

And that means that, in order to be a good Mommy Role Model, I have to do without chocolate, too. Which makes me cranky. VERY cranky. And inhibits writing word counts, I'm certain.

It’s not that we keep a lot of candy in the house. Still, on the bad days, it’s so nice to go nibble on one chocolate chip cookie, or one tiny little miniature Hershey’s Special Dark.

But how do you explain to a kid that it’s okay for YOU to eat chocolate and candy because you won the genetic sweepstakes, and she can’t, because her teeth genes were sub-par? The pain of that would wipe out any calming benefits I might derive out of say, oh, an Almond Joy.

Oh, man. Suddenly I so want that Almond Joy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Jumping Over Jargon

Something Lickety Splitter said in a comment in response to one of my blogs reminded me that I use a lot of jargon. I guess every industry has its own language, but there was a point in my writing career where terms like pitch and synop and POV and Big Black Moment and GMC didn't effortlessly roll off my tongue.

I was green back then, green as little apples that make greedy boys sick. The only education in writing I'd had was the sum total of my college English classes, every book I'd ever read and the amateurish scribblings I'd committed to paper.

I knew the basic plotline of romances, which was what I'd decided I'd write. I knew boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Somehow, when I started out, literally counting words on a page at random in my keeper Harlequin romances and multiplying by the number of pages (figuring in half pages for chapter starts and ends) to figure out wordcount, I thought that was enough.

Thank goodness for the eHarlequin forums. There were so many questions I asked, and so many understanding writers who answered them.

But it was the day that I saw the term BBM on those forums that I knew the infinite boundaries of my ignorance. As a mom to a toddler, I associated the initials BM with, ahem, well, yanno. And BBM? Well, that was a five-alarm-haul-out-the-gas-mask diaper change.

I had an inkling they weren't talking about diaper changes. When some kind soul finally referred to BBM as Big Black Moment, and then went on to say enough to let me figure out that it was the point where boy loses girl -- the cause of that loss, in fact -- a light bulb went off in my head.

(Yes, I am admitting this.) Wow, I thought, they mean you need to PLAN the point where the guy loses the girl. It needs to be part of the storyline. (I wouldn't learn the phrase "organic to the plot" until some months later.) Wow. It can't just be out of nowhere.

That moment was my big moment. It taught me that this writing business was serious stuff, that there was a real craft to it. Sure, I'd been fiddling around on my own for a couple of months, lurking on those forums, reading the few blogs out there by agents or writers. But that moment told me that these writers were craftsmen (craftswomen?), and they worked hard to master their craft.

I dove into learning the biz, learning the jargon, learning how to improve my skill set. I laid aside my pride, donned my humble hat, and I began asking the dumb questions I was thinking.

That's a long way to say that I want to pay it forward. If you ever have questions, about story structure, about the nature of the beast of publishing (at least my little slice of the industry), ANYTHING about writing, ask. I asked these same questions, and some writer somewhere answered them. If I don't know the answer (which I may not), I'll tell you, but I'll point you in the right direction. There are no dumb questions -- just newbie questions.

Friday, June 11, 2010


On the one hand, this has nothing to do with writing, and on the other, it has everything to do with it.

I'm from Backwoods, Georgia, and until I was in college, I'd never traveled to any state except Florida, unless you count a trip to Minnesota my parents and my sister and I took when I was a baby. Since I don't remember it, it doesn't exactly count.

In college, I went to Nashville with a Gamma Beta Phi group, and the college professor who was with us took us to see the the Parthenon there. It was amazing to me. And it completely fueled my dreams to travel to the real Parthenon one day.

Since then, I've logged a few thousand miles -- I've been to DC, to Virginia, to Texas, to Alabama, to Florida again, and to China. I don't count the layover in San Francisco as anything but that. However, I can tell you that when you've been flying 18 hours with a new baby, the Golden Gate Bridge looks gorgeous from an airplane window.

Still, there is so much of this country that I have yet to see. The Husband's job and my dayjob don't lend themselves to long vacations or the money to fund them. Too, with a kid, it's hard to take advantage of those last-minute-grab-your-suitcase-and-go deals.

But travel to me is the ultimate writer's education. Being under a different swath of sky, standing, literally, in another person's footsteps, gives you insight you're not going to get from The Travel Channel.

Some time ago, I created my PTSBIC list -- Places To See Before I Croak.

Here are a few in no particular order -- why, yes, I DO have the Niagra Falls on there. Don't laugh.

1) NYC
2) DC with The Kiddo
3) Philadelphia
4) Springfield/Chicago
5) The Grand Canyon
6) Mt. Rushmore
7) The Caribbean
8) The Bahamas
9) Paris
10) London
11) San Francisco
12) Yellowstone
13) Follow Lewis & Clark’s route
14) Boston
15) Niagra Falls
16) Italy – Rome
17) China with The Kiddo
18) Denver
19) Trip that Tess Gerritsen took to Turkey
20) Greece/Athens
21) The Pyramids
22) Trip down the Mississippi

This is just a few ... but tell me, where do you want to go to feed your Writer's Soul? Or what other great spots need to be on my PTSBIC list?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Going around my elbow to get to my nose

When it comes to revisions, sometimes I resemble nothing so much as a plane circling an airport, waiting for a landing strip to open up.

A departure from my usual "this is step A, this is step B" approach, revisions are rather circuitous for me. Tawna Fenske, Nelsa Roberto and another critique partner of mine, Stephanie Bose, have been privy to my inelegant approach to starting revisions. I've nearly driven them insane with my mumbled, "No, no, THAT won't work," when they offered me a suggested fix.

For me, it's about as fun as being dunked in a croaker-sack full of itching powders.* I keep hitting the same walls, treading the same paths, knowing that there's something that I'm missing, feeling like an ingrate for not seeing the sparkling genius of my friends' fixes. And, most of all, feeling like a pluperfect idiot for having to fix the blasted manuscript in the first place.

My revision process starts with a lot of talking. It's absolutely critical that I rehash the plot with my CPs, preferably by phone. While they may feel that an hour's talk on the subject accomplishes nothing except getting dizzy from following me around in circles and hearing me say, "No, no, THAT won't work," it actually helps a lot.

During the phone calls or the volley of e-mails, I just keep saying, "But the reason he's like that is because ..."

When I have enough "becauses," I finally get a detailed job description of the revision, everything it's supposed to accomplish, every problem it's supposed to solve.

That's when a lightning bolt of a solution will hit me, and I will get tingles because it solves SO many problems that I was trying to figure out. Lovely, lovely tingles. Just when I had practically given up on myself. Of course, then I pound fist to forehead and ask myself why I went round my elbow to get to my nose.

*It occurs to me that I need to translate the idiom "a croaker-sack full of itching powders." A croaker sack is alternately known as a tow sack, a gunny sack, a burlap sack, or a feed sack -- picture the sack you'd be presented with if you were in a sack race. There's no such thing as itching powders, but you can imagine how you'd feel if there were, and it was a whole croaker-sack full and ...

Well, hopefully you get the pix. I'm off to scratch now.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Scrappy Is As Scrappy Does

If I asked The Husband what one word he'd use to describe me, I'd bet it wouldn't be beautiful or funny or intelligent.

Nope. It would be stubborn.

I am. For all the good and all the bad the word connotes, I am as recalcitrant as a mule.

I blame it all on my childhood (of course, doesn't everybody?) and being smaller than everyone else, even babies my own age.

I was reminded of this when Elizabeth Flora Ross, a Twitter bud of mine, tweeted about her uber-climbing 17-month old. She wanted to know when she could expect her toddler to get over this ambition to climb Mt. Everest, and I told her that I still climbed exactly like that.

And I do. When you're 4'10", you have to climb for everything. Top shelves in kitchens are useless without a ladder, and sometimes The Kiddo steals the ladder I have in the kitchen. At that point, getting supper on the table means I have to climb the way I did when back when I was six.

Back then, when I was six, I weighed 36 pounds and was 36 inches tall. I was a shrimp, but a scrappy little shrimp.

Being short gave me a sort of tenacity. I knew everything was going to be hard. I sort of expected it. My parents, for the most part, didn't coddle me. Mama expected me to pull my full weight during her many, many home-improvement projects. Complaining almost always netted me a response of, "Do what you can."

I still remember the summer morning I was helping relocate a stack of 2x4s from the back of the house to the end of the house. With a board tucked under each arm, I marched behind The Sister, wishing I could tote two boards under each arm like she could. She, however, was about 11, four years older than my 7 years, and normal-sized to boot.

I'd reached the end of the house and was struggling to lay the boards down when something else fell down instead -- my elastic-waisted shorts. There I stood, at the head of the drive, my shorts around my ankles, screaming my head off.

Everybody came running to see what snake had bitten me. I still remember the eyeroll Mama gave me. "Put down the boards and pull up your pants, for goodness' sake. And get a string to tie around your waist."

It was cool reactions like that which shaped my ya-got-it-stick-it-out approach to life. No drama. No whining (well, not any more than you can absolutely resist). Just keep on plugging. And if the unthinkable happens, just pull your pants back up.

Ah, yes. Such recalcitrance has stood me in good stead. It's one of my best-kept secret weapons.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

With a little bit of luck

Get three writers together, and pretty soon, you'll have a full-on conversation of craft and POV and their To Be Read piles. Keep them there five more minutes, and they'll drag out their current WIPs.

Five minutes after that?

They are so gonna be talking about luck.

Usually it's luck that they don't have. You know, the Sparks kind of luck or the TWILIGHT sort of luck. The-I-was-plucked-out-of-obscurity kind of luck.

In front of unpubbeds, of course, we published authors are not supposed to talk about luck. It's not specifically spoken, no oath we're given once we're members of RWA's PAN. But nonetheless, it's a sort of general expectation: We're supposed to toe the party line that hard work is all that it takes to get you The Call.


Yes, craft and mechanics are important. Anyone who writes unintentional sentence fragment upon sentence fragment, loaded down with adverbs and a whole lotta of telling, well, she's a far piece from inking a deal.

To ignore the importance of luck, however, is to only examine one side of a coin. Maybe it would be more acceptable if we referred to luck as opportunity, but I call it as I see it.

For instance, Tawna Fenske had about the worst luck in the world when it came to landing a publication deal. She sold her first book and was working on her follow-up when the line closed. One month before her book was supposed to come out.

I, on the other hand, had a glorious bounty of luck. Three months after I decided to pursue publication seriously, I had lucked into (1) a great critique partner, (2) an in-person pitch opportunity with an editor and (3) a new line eagerly searching for authors. If that ain't luck, frogs don't have lips.

Yeah, yeah, the editor changed lines, the line closed, and I eventually sold that book to a completely different line, but I was lucky.

In addition to my one mantra in life (disappointment = expectations minus reality), I swear by another saying: Luck is opportunity meeting preparation.

You will, if you write long enough, see your share of bad luck. You'll be writing ghosts when everyone else is writing vampires, and just as soon as you start writing vampires, they'll move on to zombies. Lines will close, publishing houses will go out of business or merge, agents and editors will retire. Some days, it will feel like a plague of Biblical proportions.

But speaking of the Bible, I firmly believe in the verse that says God works all things to the good. That line closing? It wasn't the home for you. That editor? She might have been a nightmare to work with. Something better, infinitely better, is planned for you.

The upside is that sometimes luck is with you. Be ready. Be prepared. Who knows? An agent on Twitter or her blog might say, "Oh, man, I just got asked by an editor for a ghost story, and I don't have any. If you have one, send me one now."

And that's when you smile, because you've polished that old ghost story to a brilliant shine. You can hit SEND while all the other writers are cursing their luck that editors are no longer looking for zombies.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Sum of Our Parts

You may have read earlier that I am gearing up for The Kiddo's birthday. I'm beginning to think $5 iPod cupcakes are a steal, now that I've tried (and mostly failed) my hand at making my own. Frosting and I get along about as well as Saran wrap and I do, which is the same as saying not at all.

The one thing that the Kiddo really, really, REALLY wants for her birthday is an iPod (hence, the iPod cupcakes.) I have been asking her what songs she would want on her iPod, should she get one, maybe, hmm, for Christmas.

The usual suspects crop up: a boatload of Taylor Swift and Hannah Montana, and of course that irritating song by the Bieberdroid. (No offense to his mother. He is a cute kid, but that song could be considered torture under the Geneva Convention.) The Kiddo is a girl from the South (even though she came via China), and her tastes tilt heavily toward country -- Brad Paisley & Kenny Chesney & Jason Aldean.

But then, as I was wrapping up a list so long that it made my credit card company call me up to see if a tweenager had hijacked my plastic and was smoking it in iTunes, The Kiddo had one more request.

"And Mommy, I've GOT to have Sweet Home Alabama."

My head whipped around. "What?"

"You know, Sweet Home Alabama."

The child is not even double-digit in years yet. How could she know about Sweet Home Alabama? True, it is practically the anthem of the South, and no child of the 70s and 80s was considered grown up until she could at least sing the refrain. Boys were not considered adult until they could air guitar the entire solo, bonus points if they could do the long version.

"Which Sweet Home Alabama?" I asked, not sure if there were another, perhaps Disney, version out there.

Dadburned if The Kiddo did not start belting out Lynard Skynard.

"Let me get this straight. You want Lynard Skynard on your iPod?" I asked.

"Leonard who?" she asked. "No, Mommy, I want Sweet Home Alabama." And she began singing again.

"Yeah, yeah. I know it. Of course I know it. Where'd you hear that song?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "Oh. Somewhere." At that point, she wandered off, sure in the knowledge that her mother, never the brightest bulb in the box, knew which song to put on the iPod that, yeah, right, was coming for, oh, yeah, Christmas.

I tend to view even the most random happenings in my life through the filter of writing. And as I found my finger hesitating over the buy song button by Sweet Home Alabama in iTunes, I thought about the myriad of influences that makes us the writers we are.

The odd bits of life that we happen across, those are the things that make a person who she is. Like coin and stamp collecting, it's the variances, the oddities, that make someone interesting. I know I bring everything I've ever experienced to the table when I write. I'm not -- and I don't know of any successful writer who is -- a sheltered hermit too timid to embrace life.

Yes, we need to work on our craft. Yes, vocabulary and wordsmithing are important. Yes, reading is critical. But above all, we have to live. We have to experience ups and downs, joys and sorrows, the mundane and the exotic. Because without living? Well, the writing would be mighty dull.

And my little writer? Well, one thing she's experienced is the pulsing beat of Lynard Skynard's Sweet Home Alabama. Yeah. The long version.

Friday, June 04, 2010

How quirky is too quirky?

The lovely and talented Tawna Fenske, one of my critique partners, just critiqued a revised chapter of mine.

Her most used word? Ick.

The character is supposed to be icky, but not quite as over-the-top icky as I'd apparently made him. It reminded me of the cardinal rule: in character building, as in life, less is more.

Too many times we writers fall in love with a good thing, a gotta-be-a-sure thing. We're like sous-chefs let loose while the master is away. And like those in-progress chefs, we reach for the obvious and dump in a whole lotta of quirkiness.

We're also -- at least I can be at times -- a lazy tribe. We read a popular book, and we think, "Ha! So you take a quirky character, and you give him a sidekick, and maybe an Achilles heel, and voila!"

I've actually seen this happen. I love Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series. The characters are so vivid and unique and -- yeah -- quirky. You've got a genius recluse detective and a man-about-town charmer sidekick/narrator, set in a brownstone that has a live-in chef in New York.

One day in a book store I picked up a detective mystery that looked promising. The jacket flap blurb reminded me of Nero Wolfe, so I bought it.

I got it home and started reading it, then literally threw it aside in disgust. No wonder it reminded me strongly of Nero Wolfe -- it was a slavish imitation of it, down to the in-house chef, the expensive hobby (tropical fish, I think, instead of orchids) and the man-about-town charmer sidekick/narrator. To compensate? The author upped the quirk factor.

Quirks stacked upon quirks do not an interesting character make. My rule: one quirky character per book, one quirk per quirky character. It can be a big quirk. It can be a hard-to-miss quirk. But it can't be lost in a sea of quirks.

Because, let's face it, real people just aren't that quirky. And real people will be reading my books to see if my characters seem real.

So now? I'm off to dial back the quirky/ick factor of my quirky/ick character.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Well, that takes the (cup)cake

The Kiddo's birthday is this month. I may be 40, I may have graduated magna cum laude, I may know how to fold fitted sheets. But I also know my limits.

Those limits butt nose-to-nose up against cake decorating.

The last time I tried to decorate a cake, it was strictly an emergency job. The Sister had made a wonderful flip-flop shaped cake for The Kiddo's 7th birthday, and I had neglected to properly reinforce the bottom. It flip-flopped right out of The Sister's hand and instantly became dog food.

So I baked a rushed-up square layer cake and tried to decorate it to look like a present. The Kiddo didn't say much. She didn't have to. The pity on her face did not belong to a 7-year-old. I would have much rather have had her sling a fit.

Last year, I screwed up even worse. The hotel where we were staying was supposed to provide a cake. The Kiddo wound up with the rest of a honeybun that The Husband didn't eat.

It was not an ideal solution.

So this year, since The Kiddo's birthday falls on Father's Day weekend & we are traveling out of town AGAIN this year, I thought, Self. Call the bakery. Get them to make some neat little iPod shaped cupcakes.

They called me back with a price quote. Five bucks a pop for a single-serving size of cake.

My mind reeled at that, and I politely hung up. I got all bent out of shape about the cost of that iPod shaped cupcake. I mean, cake doesn't cost that much, right?

But then I thought about how we, as authors, expect, hope, pray that readers will pay five or six dollars for a paperback to nearly $30 for a hardcover. No, we don't see all that money -- barely a sliver of it. But it's what the market asks the reader to pay for our intellectual property.

The reader can't/doesn't have time/doesn't know how to write a book like I've written. I can't/don't have time/don't know how to turn flour and eggs and sugar into an iPod shaped cupcake.

That baker and I are hoping for the same thing: that someone will think the price we're asking is a bargain of a swap.

But as a writer who still keeps the dayjob to keep the bills paid, I can't afford those $5 cupcakes. Not until I go test my limits and see if I can whip up an iPod cupcake of my own.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Do You Speak Southern?

I never knew how southern I was until I sold my first book and had to do line edits and the dreaded Author Approval/galley part of the process -- where you go over each proposed copy-edited change and say yay or nay.

Oh, I had some inkling. My critique partners, including the lovely Tawna Fenske and the equally lovely Nelsa Roberto, would send my WIPs back with little queries such as:

Tawna: People don't really say 'might could have.' Do they?

Me: Uh, yeah, they do. Around here, anyway.

I'm not Southern-centric by any stretch of the imagination. I have non-Southern friends. I've traveled internationally. I watch television. Heck, I watch PBS. So I was surprised to find that my characters' dialogue was causing consternation.

I redoubled my efforts to clean up their language, but it was the narrative that kept getting me in trouble. I'd use expressions that neither my CPs or my editor had ever heard of.

Like (blushing here) "dip her plate."

That jewel of an idiom has some foggy entomological origins. When I share it, some southerners look as befuddled as my editor must have been when she read it. Some nod approvingly and say, "they didn't know what that means?"

My editor surely didn't, and that's what counted.

That's why it's been so incredibly helpful to me to have non-southern Critique Partners. When Tawna reads "wrapped in cotton wool" and starts scratching her head, I know I need to change it, even though it is exactly the phrase I want to use.

I am a southern writer, one who loves the melodic flow of the southern patois, who cut her teeth on Flannery O'Connor & Faulkner & Harper Lee. But I've realized that for many folks, that Southern Patois is almost a foreign language.

If I tilt too heavily in favor of colorful idioms, then what we have is a failure to communicate. And reading is all about communication.

So where does it come from, this mush-mouth of mine? It's nurture stomping all over nature.

The Kiddo, bless her heart, will be at an extreme disadavantage when she grows up -- an Asian child with a thick-as-cane-syrup southern accent. When I correct her, she looks at me, confused. "But Mommy! You say it!"

Aack. That I do.

(Oh, and for all of you folks who don't know what I mean by "dip your plate," well, it's a more economical way of saying, "The meal is on the stove, there's plenty of food to eat, so go and put food on your plate and bring it back to the table." Of course we Southerners talk slow -- we use fewer words, so we have to make 'em last.)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Wherein I Put My Muse To Work

I'm here to say, you can get paint in some pretty strange places. I found that out this weekend after I surfaced from painting my kitchen cabinets.

The Kiddo helped -- and was introduced to her first use of power tools. Since The Husband is a little different and does not get a twinkle in his eye when presented with a new Black & Decker thingamabob, I'm hoping to create an addiction in The Kiddo wherein she wants the same sort of gadgets that I find will make my life easier but am too stingy to buy. She shows all inclinations of being a DIYer.

My muse, on the other hand, is more like me. She came teetering on stilettos through the kitchen and dining room, hands on her hips, and schreeched, "This will never do."

"What?" I asked, concentrating on leaving as few brush strokes on a front panel of a door as possible.

"This! This!"

I looked up to see what 'this' was. My muse was throwing her hands every which way, encompassing the entire mess. " I'm totally not accustomed to such chaos. If you insist on continuing to leave all these paint cans and sand paper and smelly paint fumes, I'll just leave."

"Uh-huh," I said. Now I was trying to move a door out of the way, cursing the thunderboomers that prevented me from using our garage. "It's not like you're any great help most of the time any way. By the way, your feather boa is trailing in the paint tray."

"I never!" She fussed a bit over the ruined feather boa. "That's it! I'm out of here, and then you'll be sorry."

"Don't forget the bon bons up on the top shelf."

The muse just stood there. "You will be sorry, won't you?" she asked in a very small voice.

I'd started in on another door. "I just want you to be happy," I told her.

"Happy? But I'm never happy."

"Could be an interesting change," I said. I laid another wide streak of paint on the door.

"That looks ... fun. Can I try it?"

"Sure. Paint brush over there."

A minute or so later, the muse was sighing pleasurably. "Why, this is fun!"

I chuckled. "Oh, yeah. The first 15 or so are. I'd ditch the stilettos, if I were you."