Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Yay...I slept in....

Well, I slept till 6:30, which is like sleeping in for me. Went to bed at 10 (we were watching Fahrenheit 451, which Trav has never seen, but I just couldn't stay up any longer). Hit the sheets and slept straight through, with dreams, even. Realized I hadn't remembered a dream in days, weeks.

So maybe Dr. Ron was right; he usually is. I was excited (i.e., stressed). We go all out: Christmas eve Mass and a family party, then gifts galore under the tree.

Now that Christmas day is over, those knitted gifts I didn't finish don't matter. It was a good day--a great day--though a bit bittersweet, as good days often are. It's as if I'm in the future, as well as the present, looking back, remembering. And now Travis is off school till Jan. 8, which I'm jazzed about.

I have a Jewish friend who said Christmas is just a bit odd and uncomfortable--all the hubbub that doesn't include her. I bet, I said. I tried to imagine living in Israel or somewhere where Christmas is a teensy blip on the calendar and Hannukuh or Ramadan is like a Kleig light against the darkness.

How has the holiday been for you?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

It's happening earlier and earlier....

Waking, that is. This morning Brian had just come to bed (in from a gig at one). I lay there for a bit and was too awake; my mind was pinging about, thinking of this thing I had to do and that thing. I looked at the clock. Four a.m. My feet found my slippers and I went out to the living room and read The Glass Castle (by Jeannette Walls, who's going to be on my show on Jan. 4), which I like very much. After a bit I turned out the light and tried to sleep on the sofa. Wasn't happening. Got up, made a cup of tea and worked on a guitar strap I'm making for my son for the Big Day. The black sky lightened to gray. Soon Travis got up and we went to Trader Joe's and came back to make cookies and caramel corn.

My acupuncturist, Dr. Ron, said, "Maybe it's because you're excited."

"About what?"

"The holiday!"

"Oh! Hmm. Maybe."

I actually like that my day has become longer. It reminds me of the few times I returned home from India and I was awake when everyone else was sleeping. It was fun, but only for so long.

Tomorrow's Christmas eve.

In Travis' words, Happy ChristmaHannaKwanzika....to you all....

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Is anyone sleeping?

It's 5:14 a.m. here in Southern California and I've been awake almost an hour. I awoke with my heart beating hard and fast. I did some deep breathing and soon the heart calmed down. But I was still awake. So I did what I always do when I can't stay asleep--I got up, fed Rosie (JoJo is in absentia), made a cup of tea and sat down at the computer to prepare for my show (Michael Datcher and Francine Prose are on) and catch up, before I take Trav to school and go to Dr. Ron the acupuncturist and do more holiday shopping and hope that the appliance repairman comes today to fix the oven so I can actually bake cookies.

I just don't sleep the way I used to. Too much on my mind? Too much caffeine (tea?)? Too much to do? I dunno.

I tend to not write when I wake up earlier than I would like. Although this may just be a recent thing, since my plate, which has turned into a platter this fall, overfloweth with work/tasks/obligations other than writing fiction, which is sheer luxury.

One resolution for the New Year is to scale back onwork work, and finish my novel. Maybe another should be to sleep more. Although perhaps 6 - 7 hours sleep is enough for me.

What are your sleep habits? Do you wake up earlier than you would like? And when you do, what do you do?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I don't know that I would call it a resolution, but I've been so busy with teaching and deadlines and Christmas that I've hardly worked on my novel in weeks. Things will be slowing down in the next week or so and not speed up till around the third week of January, so I really really really really really hope I can finish the first draft of Starletta's Kitchen.

Anyone have any writerly--or otherwise--resolutions brewing?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Oh, I've been remiss....

.....without intending to be. Just have been so busy. Teaching five classes has winnowed down to two, which helps free up time. But it's busy as ever and in my ongoing search to cut back, I've come up with nada. Anything I'd pull back from I fear would make me flakey. I used to be tres flakey. Got a lot of people mad at me because I'd flake at the last minute or break a date with a girlfriend for some guy. Oh, bad bad behavior.

As it is, I look forward to the next month and a half when things will be on the light side and I can perhaps finish the first draft of my novel. Still hovering at the 350 page mark.

How are all of you about now?

(Anyone else love pomegranates? I do, but all those bothersome seeds....!)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

What are you reading ...

... and what books have you read this year that you'd heartily recommend?

I just finished On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which I Loved. I'm now reading White Teeth, her first book, which I like but don't love. She's a great writer but her first book isn't as compelling to me as her current one.

Any books you read that you wanted to get into, but couldn't?

Monday, November 20, 2006

An exercise

What is your earliest musical memory? Is there a song that stands out from when you were sixteen? Who were you with? What were you doing? What about when you were twenty-one? Thirty-three? Forty-six? What played at your wedding or when your child was born? For fifteen minutes, write down these musical memories.

Experiment. Play different types of music and write. Write to silence as well. How does what you listen to—or not listen to—affect what you write?

Put on music you like, set the timer for fifteen minutes and write whatever comes through. Don’t try to make it into something else. Not yet, anyway. Let the music take you and your writing with it, and see what happens.

Work with similes, too. Set the timer for fifteen minutes and start with what you hear right now. What does what you hear remind you of? What does the rain sound like to you? What do tires moving past your house sound like? the whistle of the teakettle? Pay attention to sounds as you sit and write, as you walk, as you do what you do, and bring those sounds into your writing.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Don't buy new books

This isn't my advice, but AOL's advice, yesterday, on their home page, I'm told. This is such lousy advice. Anyone who doesn't know the publishing biz may not think this is bad advice, may in fact think it good advice. Yet, how could anyone not know that an author makes no money on used books. Buying used books counts in no way toward an author eventually getting royalties.

A couple of weeks ago a friend--bless her heart--told me she found my book online at a great price. I was speechless. She thought I'd be happy and I could see she truly did not know that I'd much rather her paid a little bit more for a new book at that same online store.

So listen....if you want to keep the publishing industry alive, buy new books. Go into bookstores--indies, chains, even online--and buy new books. Only buy used books if the book you want is out of print or way out of your budget. It's sort of like poetry; so many people are budding poets but they never buy poetry books and the poetry market is rolling in the dust.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Stranger than Fiction

Go see this movie if you haven't already. It's wonderful. This is a writer's movie. Great acting, moving, inventive. That's all I'm going to say. No spoilers here. Just go see it so we can talk.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Start with a photograph

It's an exercise I often give to my students, to start with a photo--preferably an old photo--and see what it sparks.

This is an early photograph of my parents. I hadn’t planned on writing the poem below, but this photograph--along with another photo of my mother, years later--inspired me. This is what I wrote:

Fading Pictures

In the photograph, Mom and Dad sit on naugahyde
chairs. Mom wears that wide smile, now mine,
that she hates so much because her gums show. Dad
glimmers like a secret that yearns to be told
and squeezes a cigaret between two erect fingers.
A gold-framed photo of my brother
sits on the table between them.
I have not yet arrived.

They seemed so happy then, before Dad spent
his money on women. Before my brother
grew too old for his dreams. Before I married
beneath an ancient oak tree, sure that I would save
my children from the earth by having none.

Dad is long passed and Mom is far gone. Encased
in her tract home with an upstairs she never
uses. She boils chicken wings for her
Pomeranian that spins as it barks.

In the latest picture of Mom, she sits at her
kitchen table. Clutching a cigarette, she gazes
through the blinds at the barren winter landscape.
Empty chairs surround her table and I have to look
away from this already fading Kodak color.

The sadness in her eyes, the brittleness
of her crooked index finger. I cannot help
but wonder where the woman is who once tempted
any man who came near, who embarrassed
this daughter with her sexiness. Mom’s diamond
pendant, now mine, stuck in her cleavage. Men
just could not look away. With my small chest,
I cannot offer any place in which to wedge
that stone.


I ended up sending this to a local literary contest a bunch of years ago. The poem was a winner and was printed in Poetry Flash, a Bay Area literary journal.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy halloween!

Everyone reading this dresses up tonight, right, and goes trick or treating? Or stays home to treat the tricksters--in costume?

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. When I was a kid, I convinced my mother that we had to begin three days early so we could visit all the houses in our somewhat rural neighborhood. I had three costumes, one for each night. Rather than stocking up on candy, I just wanted to be able to celebrate for longer than just one day.

Three nights prior to Halloween, my mother would drive me to the far reaches of the neighborhood. A typical scenario went like this:

I knock on a door. The light goes on and someone answers. They see me, alone, in costume, at their doorstep.

"Trick or treat!" I say, and hold out my bag.

The homeowner (nobody rented back then, not in our neighborhood) looks confused. "Is it Halloween?" he or she says.

"I begin early so I can visit everyone," I say.

"Oh...well....let me see what I can find." Inevitably, they throw change or a piece of fruit into my bag. Few are ready, yet, with candy.


My mother had no idea, and I suppose I didn't either, that trick or treating was only done on Halloween. My mother was raised with eight siblings by parents who were from Italy, who never even learned English, and couldn't have known the ins and outs of the American custom of Halloween.

These days I only dress up on the 31st, instead of two and three days prior, and so does Bry. We accompany Travis trick or treating. My costume tonight: a plastic surgeon. I bought an emergency room doctor's costume and plastic wrap to wrap about my body, here and there.

Should you dress up but stay home, try writing while in costume. See how it affects your writing. Or become the character you are dressed up as and write from that character's point of view.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Richard Ford in today's New York Times

Richard Ford talks about his new book, The Lay of the Land in this New York Times story.

Also...I've been thinking a lot about why authors live where they live and how you find writers in certain areas more than in other areas.

For instance, where I live, in Orange County, California, there are few authors. UC-Irvine is here, with the MFA program that most writers would kill to get into and when they don't, no matter how talented they are, it scars them for years, it seems. But when writers graduate from UCI, most leave the area. They go to Los Angeles, Northern California or far away. Is it just the cost of real estate in these parts, or is it something else?

A friend from ASJA said there are some 500 writers, agents and editors who belong to a group in Montclair, NJ, who get together and do events. 500? There was a piece in the New York Times a while ago about how Brooklyn is overrun with writers.

I've been wanting to leave the O.C. for some time, but I doubt it's for the same reasons that other writers don't stay.

Just mulling.....if you have any thoughts, let them fly. I want to hear.

Friday, October 20, 2006

What I see from where I sit

A map of Vermont hangs above my desk. (One is behind it, too.)

A glass of wine, a framed photograph of Travis.

A birthday plant from Elle.

Our cats, doing what they do best.

The mini-waterfall we bought at Ace Hardware that constantly runs and whispers to me that what I long for is the sound of a creek just outside my window. The aqua toaster burns toast but reminds me of a different time. So we keep it.

I want to see what is on and around your desk, what you see from where you sit. If you have a blog, take some pictures and post a link.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Raining cats and dogs

You know how I feel about contests. Still, I saw this in Publisher's Weekly and thought I'd pass this on to you. If you have a dog or a cat and you're so inclined....

(This is our Rosie, who loves boxes, bags and, well, empty water bottle cases.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Anne Tyler's Digging to America

You know how when you read a book that you love, you are elated and then when it's over, you're sort of depressed, because you think there will never be another book that you'll love as much--and then there is, and you're elated all over again?

I'm reading Anne Tyler's newest novel and I will say, I love it as much as I loved Accidental Tourist, which was not only a great book, but a great movie adaptation.

This book also interests me because I sense Tyler infusing the book with her life, and I'm always interested in how we translate bits of our lives into fiction.

(Actually, I'm listening to it on CD, with Blair Brown--Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, with the wonder David Strathairn--doing a stellar job reading.)

What are you reading that you love?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Life simulates art ....

...or TV, in any case. Ever see the Showtime TV show, Weeds? More specifically, the intro in which a line of SUVs (Range Rovers, I think) are exiting subdivision? I saw this this morning, the Corona del Mar version, that is.

I went for a walk and on my way home I was coming down the alley and at opposite ends of the alley, black SUVs were pulling out of their garages at the same exact moment, same angle, everything. Then they passed one another. One guy was on a cell phone. Of course.

Remember that old Animals' song with the lines: We gotta get out of this place / If its the last thing we ever do / We gotta get out of this place / 'Cause girl, there's a better life / For me and you ...

Uh, yeah.....the song is very much on my mind. The show is interesting, but I don't want to be living it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Stayin' alive, stayin' alive...

In today's Los Angeles Times, there's a story about how independent bookstores that want to stay alive pretty much need to do more than just sell books. They need to sell food, hold performances, form membership programs, and hire employees who can talk books--imagine!

Interestingly, the piece also talks about how there's been a turnaround, that indie bookstores are opening at a rate of "60, 70, 80 stores" each year.

Sounds great to me.

What do you think about bookstores needing to take on additional roles, other than just selling books?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

When you no longer care so much.....

....it happens. Or seems to. Your story, essay, book sells. The other night Melissa Bank came on my show and talked about how she worked on The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing for 10 years and endured a ton of rejections and it wasn't until she had given up, until she just didn't care anymore, in a deep way, about being published, that her book sold. She was as committed to writing as ever--it was what she did--but she no longer had that deep, longing need to be published. Everyone who has been published and who hasn't been published, but wants to be, knows what this is. It's horrible.

I was at that point with Pen on Fire, too. I had been making jewelry and my web designer was putting together a web site because I was no longer banking on getting a book out there. We were thinking of moving back to Vermont and planned a trip to New England right after I sent my proposal off to my agent. Not long after we returned to California, with thoughts to move and with my designer putting together a web site, my book went to auction and sold.

When we are feeling needy for anything, whatever that thing is, it seems to elude us. When you're not in a relationship, and you just have to have a relationship, there are no relationships to be had. It's when you say, Screw it, I'm through with men/women, that someone seems to magically appear.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Books to help you along the way

I just heard from a writer who was dealing with a rejection and the discouragement it brings. And I thought, as writers, we so need to keep the faith. Of course hearing authors' tales of woe and ultimate success help. So do writing books. So here's my short list on writing books that will help you keep the faith. And help you with craft and all that, too.

Actually, here's a picture of them. First, an almost toppling stack, then closeups so you can see titles. I regularly recommend all of these titles.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On short story collections

Kathryn A. posted a question in the comment area of Sunday's blog on lengths. She wants to know about short story collections, what does "full length" collection mean.

I would think it means that the publisher is looking to publish book length collections of short stories. So if your stories are a page long, then you'd probably need at least 200 stories to make up a collection and if they were 50 pages long (too long!), then you'd need at least four.

What I hear over and over from agents and authors of short story collections is that unless most of the stories that make up your collection have been published in prominent literary journals and magazines, it will be almost impossible to find a publisher. Even well-known short story writers are encouraged (prodded) by their agents and editors to write novels.

Nothing's impossible, though. And if a short story writer is what you are, then that's what you have to do.

Work to get them placed in respected journals: Tin House, Granta, Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, New Yorker, etcetera etcetera. A story in Pig Farmers Quarterly just won't impress.

Does this help, K.?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Going to great lengths--or not

A former student who now lives in Hawaii wrote to me and asked me about the word lengths of short stories, novellas and novels.

The last short story I wrote when I was at Goddard College ran 9,000 words. LONG. My instuctor, the novelist Kathryn Davis, never talked about word lengths. She was more interested in the art of the story, and in craft, and figured a story would run as long or short as it needed to. I, of course, had no idea that it would be considered too long, though I did end up placing it in a literary journal. Short stories run typically 1,500 - 3,000 words, with some as short as 250 words. Amy Hempel has some very short stories--a couple of paragraphs--and there are anthologies called Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction with these very short shorts. I also always say, whatever works...works. If you are writing a story that is running long, let it. Let it be what it is going to be. From writing that long short story, I came to realize I was more interested in book length pieces.

A novella, even more difficult to place than a short story, said the wonderful short story writer Antonya Nelson when she came on my show, and tend to run around 20,000 words to 40,000 words give or take a few thou.

Novels usually begin at 50,000 words and go to 100,000. For first novels, to go longer than that, I hear, is taking your life into your own hands. At 50,000 words, picture Brave New World, picture Animal Farm.

But again, if it works, it works, no matter the length.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Joe Eszterhas and serendipity

I've been hosting, producing and engineering my radio show for something like nine years; truthfully, I've lost track. My son was a toddler when I began--I know that because when he would come with me to the show, I would often hear him clomping and jumping and screaming happily in the lobby and in the hallway. He is 12 now, and when he comes with me he is much calmer, doing homework or reading or skateboarding outside and every so often he looks at me through the window in the door to the studio, checking in, telling me he's there and that everything's fine.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with doing the show along with everything else that I do (which is why I've been using my guest host Debbie Keith more and more) but I keep doing it because of the people I meet, most of whom I would not meet otherwise. I've never been the sort of person who emails or calls someone and says, "Hey, I'd love to pick your brain. How about I take you to lunch the next time I'm in town?" It's just not me.

The great thing about my show is I pick who I interview. No one is foisted upon me. And last week I had the good fortune of interviewing Joe Eszterhas, the very successful, rebellious, anti-Hollywood screenwriter. He wrote Basic Instinct, Flashdance, Music Box and Jagged Edge. I met him through his daughter Suzanne Perryman who had written to me after she read my book and started listening to my show. At some point she said she was his daughter and would I be interested in having him on my show when his new book came out?

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. OF COURSE I WOULD BE INTERESTED, I told her. I'd admired the guy for years and years, his independent spirit and ability to not become a part of the Hollywood clique while becoming immensely successful.

The interview is now in the archive and you can listen to it at http://writersonwriting.blogspot.com.

As an afterthought, I must say that this blog post was inspired by another PA host at KUCI, T.R. Black. After my interview with Joe, T.R. wrote and said, "I especially enjoyed (all of your interviews are good) your conversation with Joe Eszterhas on Thursday. I have always liked his screenwriting and find him a compelling character. In that I see over 200 films per year in theatres, I have seen nearly all of the films with which he has been involved (sans Big Shots). I too, think The Music Box is his best effort. It is complimented by an A-list cast featuring a strong performance by Jessica Lange. He has been written about in the LA Times on many occasions, and featured o television and radio, as well. But, I thought you evoked some original answers and really had a special rapport with him. Very illuminating."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Beware contests

Sigh...yet another contest for unpublished novelists has been announced. Lest you think I am recommending this contest, I am not. I'm cautioning you about this contest and all contests that charge reading fees.

The very wonderful short story writer Ron Carlson (and contest judge) said that contests do one thing: They get you out of bed.

But they do little else. Because they get you and every other aspiring writer out of bed to write, the competition is fierce. So you send off your story or your chapters with your fee and you wait and hope and wait.

Many contests don't even have to award the prize if the readers feel that no one qualifies.

Listen, it's hard to publish fiction, but it's still possible. Look at all the novels coming out, all the short stories. You do need a combo of great writing and sheer good luck. Doesn't hurt if you have some great publication credits or a famous writer who knows and loves you.

But contests, they make you feel like something is happening when nothing necessarily is.

If you insist on submitting to contests, though, search out the good ones. Look on the acknowledgment pages of novels for the names of contests that the author is thanking. And then make sure your story or novel exerpt (or entire novel) is stellar--as stellar as you can possibly make it. Those first paragraphs/pages mean so much.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Reading phases

Deborah's comment yesterday got me thinking about phases my reading has traversed.

In high school I read a few books of merit, but mostly I read--um--trash. One title was Swing High Sweet Pussycat. I suppose it was romance. Amazon doesn't list it so who knows. Toward the end of high school and in the years between it and college, I read essays (Paul Williams--the writer, not the singer), Jack Kerouac and the Beats, bought Swann's Way by Proust though I never finished it, and tried to read Rod McKuen but it didn't work. I read The Prophet and lots of books about California, especially Haight Ashbury. I wanted to travel to L.A. and do Primal Scream therapy, but I was too young. (Remember Janov?) I read books on gestalt therapy and read Jung.

At Goddard, I discovered Raymond Carver, the poet Stephen Dobyns, Michael Ryan (whom I later came to know), and the magical realists. Borge struck a chord. So did James Baldwin. I loved all of his novels, especially Giovanni's Room. I loved Margaret Atwood's Edible Woman and Surfacing. I admired Virgina Woolf and I believe I wanted to be her, though her writing wasn't my favorite. Henry James' Portrait of a Lady I liked very much.

Later, Terry McMillan's first novel Mama impressed me, and so did Clarence Major's first novel (he's mostly known as a poet), Such was the Season. Joan Didion.

Then writers like Amy Hempel and T. Jefferson Parker (my favorite crime writer) and Don DeLillo came onto the radar screen. And now....now there are too many to mention. I've made lists on my Web site, penonfire.com and at Readerville.com, on my author's page, but they are inconclusive lists because they just keep growing. I just finished Lolly Winston's Happiness Sold Separately and LOVED it.

I hate writing about my favorite books because as soon as I say what one is, another pops up.

What are you reading and how has your reading changed over the years?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What Hemingway might have to do if he were writing today

My friend Jordie called me yesterday about an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times: "What Hemingway didn't have to do." The piece was by Michelle Slatalla who wrote about how authors, these days, must do promotion. Jordie is upset at the state of publishing and wishes things were different, like in the old days, when writers wrote and publishers promoted.

I don't know what to say about this. It depresses him, this state of publishing, Me, I accept it. Doesn't hurt that from '89 to '96 I had a small publicity biz and thought it was fun to get a client's name in the paper or get a reporter to call him/her just because I wrote up a press release and sent it to the paper.

I'm not an extrovert and yet I do find it fun to give talks and teach. I mean, you can only write so much, and then it's time to get off your butt and get out of the house.

Jordie's an extrovert so I doubt this is the problem. Maybe he's too much an extrovert and longs to be able to sit at his desk and muse and write; he's a wonderful writer. But he's disgusted with the publishing biz and I wonder if this discouragement causes him to just not write so much anymore.

I can see it from the publisher's point of view (the problem with being a Libra is you can see things from not just both sides, but multiple sides--from each facet!).

Publishers publish books and need to make money doing so. Publishers aren't exactly big business. So what should they do? If they publish a book and it just sits there, who's fault is it? It's theirs for not promoting it, but isn't it also the writer's fault, for not doing what he/she can do to get it out there? And if no one is buying, who's fault is that? Good books do sell via word of mouth, so a writer can do virtually no PR and if readers love it, it will sell.

It's a complicated issue with no easy solution. There's so much else to take up a reader's time. You're reading this blog, yes? At one time there was no blog and no Internet and so you'd read the paper or--ahem--a book.

On the other hand, maybe you read as many books as you did before the Internet. I do. I just don't watch TV anymore--except, of course, for the Turner Classic Movie channel. Yes, I've seen To Kill a Mockingbird numerous times and I will continue to, so shush.

What do we do, as writers, to support the publishing industry? Buy new books or used books? Borrow books from the library or a friend? This doesn't really support publishing. Or, if you write poetry, do you buy books of poetry? Or look up poems on the Internet? We've got to buy books to keep the machine lubricated.

Don't we? Or do we hide out heads under bushel baskets and chairs, like Rosie is doing above? Slatalla came up with a creative way to promote her book--by writing a piece for the L.A. Times. The piece might be construed as complaining or whining about publishing, when in fact she's having fun with it. No?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Books on the mantle in September

The shades of fall--fall back east, that is, or up in the mountains--are back on the mantle. Here in the O.C., a few blocks from the beach, yards and trees glow green. If you want to see evidence of fall, you look to the hills. The South gets hurricanes; Southern California is headed into fire season.

It's Friday afternoon. Travis is at the beach with a friend and his mom. Brian's out doing errands. I just worked on Starletta's Kitchen using the timer; the timer works over and over again, no matter how long you've been writing. Once you set it you just can't turn it off. You've got to write till it goes off on its own.

I bought a paper shredder today. TC Boyle's novel (Talk Talk) and his words on my show--"I shred, and then I burn"--are fresh in my mind. It shreds credit cards, staples, paper. Cross-cut shreds.

Travis is shredding his workbooks from the 6th grade, now that he's veering into 7th.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Billy Collins' poem, "The Lanyard"

Brian needed a guitar pick and Travis was reluctant to give up one of his 100+ guitar picks from his pirate box. I thought of Billy Collins' excellent poem, The Lanyard. I cannot read this poem aloud straight through without getting a little choked up. It's in his newest collection, The Trouble with Poetry and I believe he reads it on the show (accessible at http://writersonwriting.blogspot.com).

Billy continues to be one of my favorite poets and certainly one of my favorite radio show guests. He has the rare ability to be whimsical and moving about an item as seemingly simple as a lanyard.

Here is the lanyard Travis made for me.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


These last days of summer always make me feel a bit bittersweet. But it's been a good one. Travis turned 12 a couple of weeks ago and still likes to hang with me and Bry.

We spent the last few days in the desert--swimming, mostly. Temperature was 120 degrees at 3 p.m., down to 95 at night. Last night at eight-something, after dinner at the Blue Coyote and a stop at Vons where a checkout woman recognized Brian--went to high school with him, actually. She said, "Brian?"--we went to the pool. Night surrounded the aqua pool with pockets of underwater light and a quarter moon burned yellow, sinking into the San Jacinto Mountains. Standing in the water, swimming around, Brian and Travis threw a ball back and forth. I lay back on a chaise longue and watched them, and watched the sky, pocked with stars.

They got out for a moment.

"There's the tail of Scorpio," said Brian. We three looked up.

I like novels and stories that take place in the desert. My friend Allison has written one and we're hoping an agent bites.

Cicadas during the day, crickets at night.

Has anyone ever seen a cicada?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Reading Plaschke's sports writing

I've written about this before; I'm writing about it again. The Sports section has some of the best writing in the entire newspaper. It's active writing, often with anecdotes, often that tell a story.

We root for the Angels baseball team in this house. We're not fanatics, but we've gone to games and we watch games on TV. So I scan the Los Angeles Times Sports section for Angels stories.

Yesterday (8/27/06), a piece by Bill Plaschke caught my eye and got me reading: "Angels Win This Battle by Choosing Not to Fight."

The piece begins like this: "They scored a dozen runs, slapped around 16 hits, slid into half a dozen doubles, sprinted to a couple of stolen bases, ran around Angel Stadium like kids trying to outrace the last shadows of summer."

I love that beginning. What a wonderful lead. It's visual, active; it's got the beat.

I suggest to my beginning students that they read the Sports section. You'll find few passive verbs and dull, abstract writing in the Sports section. Pieces like Plaschke's demonstrate active, visual writing.

I read the Sports section--to improve my writing as well as to read about our Angels.

Find Plaschke's columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

(The photo above is from a Friday night Angel's game in Anaheim.)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Well, it's a Friday night and I....

Remember that old song, too? It goes on: "....ain't got no money...."

Great grammar. But in songs, especially blues songs, the grammar is off--has to be off--and wouldn't sound right if it was proper grammar.

Grammar can be so difficult, though, esp. if you grow up with parents who don't speak the language, as I did. Italian was both of their first languages and so often, around the house, they'd be speaking Italian slang--I later learned--which they didn't want me to learn. It truly wasn't until I was into my 30s that I understood when to use lay and lie! Or what the difference between go and come.

It's true.

Everyone, it seems, hates grammar. A few good books, though, make grammar fun. Spunk and Bite by Plotnik. Sin and Syntax by Connie Hale. Woe is I and Words Fail Me by Patricia O'Conner (I think that's her name....)

Any other you recommend?

The image is from our trip to Catalina last week, Travis and me. This tile is vintage Catalina tile. Gorgeous, don't you think?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Here we are

It finally worked....Here we are....from the left....that's me, then Travis and Brian, Paul Williams and on the right, Elaine, at Brussels Bistro last Thursday night... Mariana is taking the picture. (Elaine, if you see this, send me the photo I shot of the group so I can post the one with Mariana.) See the post below for more on this night.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Rainy days and Mondays

It's not rainy and it's no longer Monday. I tried to post this yesterday and blogger.com kept crashing on me when I went to upload the photo. So let's see if it works today.

Last Thursday Brian was playing at Brussels Bistro in Laguna with Elaine Miles, his every Thursday night gig.

Paul's wife, Mariana Williams, and I had been emailing a bit. She's a writer and was given my book. Turns out she's married to Paul Williams who wrote many wonderful songs, including "Rainy Days and Mondays," a Carpenters hit. We decided to finally meet. And because Brian and Elaine are major fans of Paul Williams, we decided to converge on Brussells--Mariana and Paul, me and Travis.

It's great when you not only have admiration for someone's talent but for them, too. It was a wonderful evening.

I asked Paul where the song, "Rainy Days and Mondays," came from. He said his mother had come to live with him in Hollywood where he was getting acting parts, but on this particular day was an out of work actor. His mother was moving about the apartment and he heard her say something like, "Nothing to do but frown," and the song began finding its way to paper.

I'd love to have him on the show, to talk about songwriting. Songwriting mystifies me. It's the one form I've never quite gotten. I've written poetry--and still do on occasion--but it's just not the same.

Even Travis had a better time than he expected, though the only food he liked were the French fries.

(I'll post a picture when blogger.com stops crashing on me when I try...)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Creating a Web site

People keep writing to me about the October issue of Writer's Digest magazine in which my article, "Setting Your Sites," is running. It's about how to set up a web site and blog--I think. It's been so long since I submitted the piece and got paid for it, I can no longer remember the exact specifics. But from the emails I'm receiving, it sounds as if it's been useful to writers. No hate mail yet. ; }

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lovebirds who met in my class

I heard from a former student, Chad Moore, who took my class at UC-Irvine, a few years ago. He told me he met his wife, Deanna, in my class.

He says, "She was very quiet. Took a little while to get to know. The first day of class was the first time we had ever seen each other... and it was a couple of months before we got to be friends. By the time the class ended, we were finally speaking regularly and emailing, but then she moved to Portland before we could even go on a date! So, then we started racking up lot of long distance calls. She finally came down to visit her family (she's from OC), we went on our first date, spent the weekend together, and the rest, as they say, is history. We were married almost two years ago, and live up in Echo Park. Life is good!"

I love it when that happens.

Here's Chad's blog address: http://blog.deresolution.net

Monday, August 07, 2006

And here's my memoir workshop...

As well as a critique group, this summer I've been teaching a memoir class. Like my Thursday night group, Writers Block Party, my memoir workshop also meet outdoors. A talented group of folks...some have been in other workshops of mine and some are brand new. First up, Cynthia and Diane, then Joe, Judy and Julie (who is looks like she has a wine bottle for a nose, but I'll make up for that down below)....

Laurie and Ruth....

Laurie and Kim (Ruth, who was between them, had to leave)

Kim, moi and Cynthia ....

Julie and Rebecca ...

Joe, Judy and Julie, as it grows darker ...

Julie and Rebecca, with JoJo between them. He's a cat who likes writers. What cat doesn't?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Makes you want to write romance fiction

Long ago when I started writing fiction, my older brother and I had a conversation that went something like:

"Why don't you write a romance novel?" he said. "They always sell."

"But I don't read romance novels," I said.

"So what? Write one anyway."

"I can't!" I said.

He could have done it, no doubt--he's always been a talented writer, but he's never been that moved to write. He just reads a ton.

Over the years the romance genre continues to be one of the strongest selling fiction markets. The romance writers met in Atlanta last week, their 26th annual conference. Here's the stats the Los Angeles Times cited:

In 2004, romance novels generated $1.2 million in sales (40% of fiction sales).
Romance novels have expanded into sci-fi and military tales, increasing male readership from 7% in 2002 to 22% in 2004.

Readers and writers of romance novels are a tight-knit group, enviably so. When PEN ON FIRE came out, I spoke at the Romance Writers of America-Orange County chapter's monthly meeting. (Debbie Macomber was the main speaker.) There were a ton of enthusiastic members present, and some were writers in other genres who enjoyed the community.

There's community in the mystery field, too. Lots of mystery bookstores, lots of events and conferences for mystery writers and readers.

Wonder why that's not so for literary fiction writers. Any guesses?

Monday, July 31, 2006

The weight of words

This was in the Los Angeles Times yesterday (reported by the AP): "In Iran, Pizzas Will Now be Called Loaves". They're getting rid of foreign words that have inundated their language. "'Chat' will become 'a short talk.'"

Also, a photo ran of a man in Tyre, Lebanon, gathering his books strewn about from a bombing. There is so much about the war that saddens me, but I had to cut this image out of the paper. It's on the wall above this computer. Such a visceral image.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Writers Block Party workshop

Here's my Thursday night class, which we held in the front yard on Thursday since it is SSH (So Stinking Hot) in the house. It was lovely, really, and fun to be outside with all the night sounds and this group of folks. We may make it a habit to meet out here, as long as the weather permits.

In this photo, Andy, our cartoonist/graphic novelist, is making us laugh (as usual). That's Barbara to his left, and Connie, to her left, all long-time members of the workshop.

Here, Diane, Lacy and Marrie are trying to avoid the camera but realize there's nowhere to turn.

Robin, Peter and Andy ... always upbeat folks, ready for a laugh ...

Marrie, Elle and moi...

Elle and moi. We have fun. Does it show?

Dianne and Lacy are focused on the work at hand. Marrie is into the food. And she's so enviably svelte!

It grows dark....

And darker...

Goodnight! Until next time.....

Thursday, July 27, 2006

When your husband hears about your cold bath

Brian says to me, "You wrote about your cold bath on your blog???"

"How'd you hear that?"

"One of my student's, his mom. David's mom. She was laughing about your cold bath."

"Well, that's good she found it funny."

Brian gives me a look that says, what else did I write about on my blog and is there anything that he maybe should be concerned with? He won't read my blog--in part because he's a luddite, when it comes to computers, happily so, and can think of a ton of things he would rather do than sit in front of a computer. But also, I'm sure, a part of it is he's afraid of what he might learn. Which is why it took him so long to read Pen on Fire; yes, he had read many pages early on, way before they were even a book, but once his friends, who'd bought the book, started telling him things about him that they found in the book, he was afraid to look.

It can be a wild, hairy ride, living with an author who might quote you or write about you at any turn. Yet it could be worse. Imagine living with a trial attorney and getting interrogated about your every move. Or living with a dentist, who is always checking out your teeth. Or an ob/gyn who's sees it all.

So Brian says, "You didn't write about....."

"No!" I tell him. "I wouldn't write about that." At least not in my blog. Now in my fiction where I can disguise people and places, well, you just never know.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Me and George W.

I'm sitting here working on The ASJA Monthly and I'm reading Media Bistro's Newsfeeds (www.mediabistro.com). I come across George W. Bush's name, last night's dream flashes by, and I mouth the words: Oh. My. God.

Last night I dreamed George W. and I were dancing. I was infatuated with him and he was infatuated with me, although when he looked at me, he didn't quite look in my eyes, but focused somewhere near my eyebrows. I don't recall Secret Service or Laura Bush or even Brian. We were simply dancing.

Now, the one thing I like about George W., I admit, is that he wears cowboy boots on occasion.

I've begun keeping a notebook of dreams (again, after years and years). Perhaps my subconscious has decided to entertain me.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A cold bath and There Will Never Be Another You

I have never before in my life taken a cold bath. I'm from back east; I'm not a wimp when it comes to experiencing heat. I've spent August days in the desert when it was 100 degrees in the shade.

But I've never been so moved to take a cold bath as I was tonight.

So I filled the tub, affixed the suction cups of the bath pillow, and settled in to read Carolyn See's There Will Never Be Another You, which just came out. I'm halfway through. I love this book. LOVE this book. She's going to be on the show in a few weeks. Her last three books have been winners: Handyman, then Making a Literary Life and now this. I'm enamored.

So if where you are is as hot as where I am, consider filling the bathtub with cold water and spending an hour or two with this book--or any book you love, really.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Here's me, blathering on--well, it's only a minute so I guess that can't be called blathering--about podcasting. The woman doing the intro is my student, Laurie Sullivan. This was very impromptu, after class one night.

Click here and then click on "Tools of the Trade" on June 10.
You'll find it under "Tools of the trade, part 2."

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A little bit every day

Just a little bit every day, at least, accumulates. I'm up to page 313 and I wish I could say there's an end in sight for my novel, Starletta's Kitchen, but there's not. Here's where an outline would come in handy. But outlines haven't worked for me. I've tried outlining. I get bored. I want to write.

I return to the idea of writing a book on craft. A blog I read this morning prompted that thought--again. Someone ... Gail.... (Here is her blog...) said wonderful things about my book, especially for someone who doesn't like books on writing, but said it didn't go deeply enough into craft for her, and I thought two things: One, it wasn't supposed to--and Gail knew this and indicated such--and two, there's so much to say about craft so that it gets through and isn't loaded down with verbiage, y'know? I've been wanting to do such a book, to take up where Pen on Fire leaves off.

Pen on Fire skims craft and focuses more on getting started and staying on the path. It's good for that. Craft, though, is the next step. There are few books on craft that I recommend. And none that I can think of that quote authors other than the author of the book itself, as I would.

I mean, is there a good chapter in any writing book that covers filters? Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction goes into filters more than any book does, though she could go even more into them. And I'm not talking about the filters that you use in your fish tanks or swimming pool, but the filters we insert in narrative that diffuse the power of the sentence, of the image: "I could see the car in the alley emitting a cloud of exhaust that choked the birds, the bugs, and me" instead of "The car in the alley emitted a cloud of exhaust that choked the birds, the bugs, and me." Remove the filter and you have a stronger sentence, no?

Or a writing book that talks in depth about the various types of outlines there are and how you pick one that reflects your personality? Or how you should choose none because that's your personality?

Anyway, I was sitting here working on my book before Travis wakes up, wearing a black hat befitting Zorro that belongs to my son (Why a hat? If you have Pen on Fire, somewhere in the book, author Kelly James-Enger talks about putting on a hat when she writes fiction so everyone, including herself, will know it's time for fiction) and I thought to blog while I was thinking (again) about this book idea on craft.


If you're here in Orange County, and want something literary to do today, come down to the Huntington Beach Barnes & Noble off Edinger and Beach at 1:00 for Jo-Ann Mapson's signing and talk. Her new book is The Owl & Moon Cafe. You can also listen to the podcast of the show with Jo-Ann.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

July is still green...

....and so are the books on the mantel.

And regarding the lilies, they look like silk flowers, don't they? But nay, no silk flowers in this pad. There are never enough flowers in a life.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Write first thing

I say this to my students all the time and it's true. Most of us have to do it first thing.

This morning I said screw it to exercise and I sat down to work on Starletta's Kitchen. (I must admit, I first polished our silver butter dish and four pieces of silverware that were left sitting on the island--long story...)

I fed the goldfish--two new little ones in the tank this morning that Travis and my brother-in-law won at the Orange County Fair yesterday-- filled the kettle, turned on the computer and DID NOT check e-mail, but opened Word and opened my last chapter, the one I was working on before my hard drive crashed a few weeks ago--Chapter 23--and started tweaking. Then I continued writing and now I'm back into it.

That's the thing about momentum; once you lose it, it's so hard getting it back. You have to force yourself. First thing in the morning is what works for me. I know this, but when I start making exercise important, I tell myself I have to do that first thing, too, or it doesn't get done. But both can't be done first. Maybe I'll alternate mornings ... I don't know. Or keep mornings when everyone's sleeping to write fiction and get Travis to ride bikes with me or something during the day. Maybe during low tide today--4:30?--we can walk to the beach and look for sea glass.

But it's the doing of it every day, or most days, that keeps you locked in. And like most things, being half in and half out is being nowhere.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Don't write the entire book....

...if it's nonfiction. Y'all know this, yes?

I met someone last night who didn't know this, who is writing a how-to book on educating kids. He thought you had to write the entire draft.

That's really only for fiction and memoir. Forms where the dramatic arc is vital.

How-to books, service books....you do a book proposal. About 50 pages. I sold Pen on Fire on the basis of 50 pages. Of course I had many more because I had been working on the project for years. But I only submitted the best chapters with the proposal.

New writers--authors-to-be--think it's more impressive to an agent and editor if they've writtent he entire book. But no. An agent may want to shape the project differently. And your editor will need something to do.

One of the best books on how to write a book proposal is called just that and it's by Michael Larson. It's been in print for years. I used it for Pen on Fire.

There are exceptions to every rule, but unless you are an exception, follow this rule.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Monday, Monday ....

I woke up at 6:30 with a start, remembering that I'd forgotten a student's housewarming party yesterday. Then another friend--a former student--just wrote to me and scolded me (lovingly, I hope) for not posting something meaty to my blog. (I'm a vegetarian--what can I say?) He wants something controversial.

Well, what's controversial in my life is how I'm hardly working on my novel. Brian (Mr. Focus) thinks I should be able to avoid everything--mostly email; "I haven't checked my email in three years!" he says--and write fiction and just not think about the rest.

Dennis Palumbo said email is the death of writers. YES! We think, What did I do without email? But I remember my focus of yesteryear, when email was not on my radar screen.

Okay, here's my day. I wake up early, feed the cats, feed the fish, and if it's early enough--6:30, say, before the sun glares--I go for a walk. Got to keep the bulge at bay, but so far it's winning.

Back at home, I make a cup of tea. I add a drop of soymilk. And then I deal with emails.

And then....there's my parttime gig editing the ASJA Monthly (www.asja.org), which I'm on deadline for. There's the 2007 ASJA conference, which I'm cochairing. There's my online students at Gotham, there's my two workshops I teach privately. There's my web site, that needs updating, and my radio show, which I book. There's, of course, updating my blog. And there's more.

And there's my son, my number one priority. He's 11. When gets up, forget about writing fiction.

Yesterday I told Brian I think I need to rent an office. A room empty except for a desk. NO INTERNET ACCESS, no email. Maybe have a computer that stays there and it's only for fiction.

Actually, this is something else I've been thinking about doing: Opening a Writers Room-type place where people rent time/space to write. Only write.

I use a dayplanner and meet my deadlines. Fiction tends to be the thing that suffers. Brenda Ueland said writers need idling time, time to dawdle, meander about. I had that once. And it was great. My life is different now. I don't have idling time. But I also enjoy what I do and feel grateful to be able to make a living writing and teaching.

Or maybe it's that I'm at the 300 page mark and am losing interest in my story.

I sound confused. That's enough about me. Tell me about your discipline and how you are able to write fiction in the midst of your busy lives.

(This meaty enough for you, J?)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fourth of July stack

I forgot to post my holiday mantel books. Here they are--and about to change for the orange of this steamy summer surrounding us. (Sorry...I couldn't resist.)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Harper Lee

In O, the Oprah Magazine, Harper Lee also writes for the first time in ... how many years? Since To Kill a Mockingbird. In her letter to Oprah, she says, "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."

But where are the books? Ms. Lee, please ... we have been waiting.

Her letter to Oprah is short but I'm a Harper Lee fan and anything at all will do.

(I'd give you the link to the magazine, but the letter's not online; you have to buy it--or go to the newstand to read it. It's on page 151 of the July issue.)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

They'll help you put your rejections behind you

A great use of your rejections letters. Toilet paper!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Are you sitting down?

We're on vacation, in the desert, and Brian is finally reading my book, one year and eight months since it was published. I can prove it. Here are photographs.

Lest you get the wrong idea, he read many pages, many chapters over the years I was working on it, but after it was published, he says he didn't read it because he felt like he had already read it. I think he didn't read it because he was afraid of what he would find. Friends of his bought it and told him what they'd learned about him from reading my book.

I just asked him why was he reading it now and he said, "I don't want to be on the Internet."

Travis said, "Put that quote in!"

Ah, but when you're married to a writer, well, you don't have much choice. You're wherever your writer chum puts you.

Monday, June 26, 2006


We're going away for a few days for sun, sand. No, not Hawaii. We'll be roasting in the California desert. Our annual after-school-is-out-get-out-of-town trip. It's become a tradition, one my son won't let us forget.

Actually, I'm glad he won't let us forget. I love that about him. I grew up with few traditions so now I welcome them.

After getting my computer back from Apple, it seems like it's been nothing but catch up on projects that should have been done weeks ago. And I'm still catching up. One big OY VEY on this end. So it'll be good to get away. Get some writing done, too.

Thanks so much to those of you who are promoting my book in airports and to friends everywhere. Every little bit helps, as you know. Harcourt seems happy with me and says the book continues to sell, with very few returns. My editor told me there's something like 40% returns!

If you want, I'm happy to send you a few postcards of the cover of the book for you to give out. Harcourt had a ton made and gave me a bunch. Email me (penonfire at earthlink.net) with your address and I'll send them to you, with a lil surprise of thanks.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

License plate holder speaks

You know those license plate holders enclosing your license plate? Most of them say the name of the car dealer where you bought the car. Mine says "Pen on Fire" along the top, and along the bottom is says, "www.penonfire.com."

I bought it before my book came out with the hopes that it might have some effect.

Yesterday morning I pulled into Albertson's Market and parked. The white SUV behind me parked, too. I walked up the ramp to the store behind the woman from the SUV, who had damp hair and looked dressed for a corporate job, turned around and said, "What is pen on fire?"

I told her it was a book I had written and she said, "Is it a novel?"

"It's a quirky book about writing," I said.

She nodded and smiled.

In the checkout line, she was before me. As she picked up her bag to go, she turned to me and said, "I'm going to buy Pen on Fire."

I thanked her and wondered how many other people have wondered what "pen on fire" was and if it prompted them to visit my Web site or buy my book.

A license plate holder is space to be used. Don't let it be free advertising for a car dealer.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Have you seen Victor Infante's November 3rd online journal? The Summer 2006 Edition is up and I'm one of a handful of writers/poets taking part in a Q&A called "Nobody's Heroes." It's a fun read in which we talk about heroes in fiction.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Mystery writer Pat Guiver died

Pat Guiver, author of the Delilah Doolittle pet detective series that began in the late '90s, died a few days ago. She was from Surrey, England, and had a dry sense of humor and a great laugh. I was in a critique group (The Fictionaires) with her until a few years ago when I left the group. She was a wonderful critic and writer. I hadn't seen Pat in quite some time, but already I miss her presence on this earth. Here's a link to her obituary.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Mac is back

Apple is quick. I sent my laptop to Apple late last Thursday and it just arrived home. Impressive, the turnaround time.

Now, I have to load software and bring back all that lost data from the external hard drive. Hopefully that will all happen today.

So, y'all have been backing up your disks, right? What did you use?

Friday, June 16, 2006

The upside of my hard drive crash

It's 8:20 on a Friday morning. I'm in my 11-year-old's room, which is dark and cool in the morning (and glaringly hot in the afternoon when the sun switches places in the sky). He's at school (one week left in the 6th grade ... eeek!) and so I sit at his desk, which is an IKEA angular job that fits in the corner. The PC's monitor takes up a quarter of the desk space. I really must buy a flat screen for this computer, or get rid of it--when my iBook comes home and when I buy a back up Mac. I'm not complaining; at least I have a computer not so vintage that I can at least get online and work some.

One thing I love about being in this room and working at this computer is the lava lamp that sits to the left of the monitor. In the morning, when I come into this wonderfully dim space, I turn on the computer and I also switch on the lava lamp. As it begins to heat up, the purple globular mass begins to shift, and within an hour and a half transforms from looking like a brain to, well, looking like lava. That's a wonderful moment, when the wax or plastic or whatever it is in side the liquid becomes almost liquid itself.

Who ever has occasion to watch a lava lamp do what it does? I didn't--until my Mac crashed and I was forced to work on this computer again.

On this computer is where I wrote those early drafts of PEN ON FIRE (they're backed up on floppy disk--remember those?). I used to work in this room before Travis was born. Actually, I worked in here after he was born, too, because he slept in our room for a Long Time. Nursing...the family bed(a la Dr. Sears), etc..... I always liked it here.

I asked Travis if, when my Mac comes home, if I can use his desk to work. It will be summer. He'll have little occasion to use the desk. He said he'd rent it to me, then he went on to say that he'd be happy to move into the living room if I wanted his room.

That's doubtful, I said.

Wherever I end up working, the hard disk crash gave me the experience of remembering how I so liked to work in dark spaces facing the wall, how too much sun in a room, and too big a room, can cause my thoughts to become diffuse.

It was an expensive way to learn this simple fact. And to learn that wherever I work, I want a lava lamp with me, too.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

C'est la vie

So now, $1680 later, the laptop has had its data recovered--something like 497,000 files--and I have a new external hard drive holding all that data, and laptoppie-poo is on its way to Apple for a new hard drive.

An expensive lesson, for sure. But with all the minor and major horrors going on all around us, I feel lucky that that's all it was. Odd reaction, maybe. But I'm not freaking out.

My back up plan for my new hard drive is in place, though.

More on backing up

It's going to cost $1580 to recover data from my iBook--more than the iBook cost. What a pain. But what is there to do? For a minute I felt the way I've heard people talk about feeling when they lose everything in a fire: They feel free. No more garage to clean out (because the hardest part of cleaning out a garage is making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of).

So I felt free there for a minute. But then, like those fire victims, I remembered all the photos we have stored on iPhoto and berated myself for not printing them or storing them online and thought, that would be the worst part of losing all the data (along with a email and Word docs, of course).

So I approved the work and any second, transferred money, and any second I will be $1580 poorer and my computer will be on the so-called road to recovery.

The data recovery company will give me my data on a hard drive and I can then use that to back up. My friend, tech guru Elizabeth Crane (writes the Tech Talk column for the ASJA Monthly, which I edit and which can be read at www.asja.org) says she has software that is on her Mac and once a week backs up to a hard drive that is always connected.

As for photos, I've started uploading photos from 2001 from this vintage PC that I'm typing on right now that sits on my son's desk onto Kodak Gallery and I'll pay them something like 15 cents a print. When I get the iBook back, I'll do that as well.

Like so many things, you don't know what you got till it's gone.

Did I say, save-yourself-the-hassle, back-up-now, lately?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Don't put off backing up your hard drive

It's not the worst thing in the world, but for a writer, I suppose it's right up there with "among the worst things." The hard drive of my iBook crashed. My computer is now at a data recovery company. Cross your fingers for me. Say a novena.

I haven't backed up in a few months--well, it might be more like 6 months. Now, I've had blank CDs beside my laptop, and I meant to--just a few weeks ago. But I didn't. I plunked the CDs in my recycled paper briefcase from the Czech Republic to bring to my show.

Oy oy oy.

So I have a mantra I've been running through my mind. It's, "Don't sweat the small stuff. It's all small stuff." I wish I could remember who said that. It's an author who writes those little books...

UPS just delivered the empty box from Apple that I will use to return my iBook to them for a new hard drive. The laptop is under warranty, but still. All those pages and photos and emails on the hard drive that are irreplaceable. (Not to mention deadlines I will now have difficulty meeting because of what's on my hard drive that I need.) The box makes it real. The computer is only a little more than a year old, and I knew that a hard disk can fail at any time, regardless of age. Still. You think it won't happen to you. And then it does.

My advice to you? You know what it is. Finish reading this and then back up your hard drive.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

No Snail Likes Stale Beer

Here's a chapter that didn't make it into Pen on Fire. I can no longer say why because I can't remember.

“I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then,
do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a
customs barrier?” - John Steinbeck

No Snail Likes Flat Beer

In Southern California, slugs and snails are about as plentiful as cars on the freeways. Nurseries devote rows upon rows to shelves of snail bait, you'd think the gutsy gastropods were the plague. Actually, in my garden, they are. My poor polka dot plant, shredded all because of a slug. Red, ripe strawberries, now inedible because they were some snail's idea of a snack.

Still, I put off buying the bait. Call me superstitious; I didn’t want the word death on any product in my house. It’s hard enough having books with that word on them, though I do own a few: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Death in Slow Motion by Eleanor Cooney.

I heard that snails and slugs like beer, so I popped a can of Budweiser left over from a surprise party I threw for my husband, Brian. (Someone brought over a six-pack and Brian, a Coors man, relegated the Bud to the garage.) Then I robbed empty jars of their lids and strategically placed the lids about our teensy garden adjacent to the strawberries and tomatoes. I filled the lids with beer and hoped for the best. At least the slimy creatures would go on to the next level feeling no pain.

The following morning I went outside just as a slug was dragging itself out of the lid onto the dirt. Only one measly slug had drowned.

“You need deeper bowls,” a friend said, “so they can’t crawl back out.”

“Will everyday dishes do?” I said, “or do they only like China?”

That night, after my son went to bed, I crept outside. Holding the flashlight between my chin and neck, I crouched on the ground and peered through leaves, under plants. When I found a gastropod, I sprinkled salt on it and watched it shrivel up. Torturer! Once was enough.

I took to picking up the snails and tossing them into the street. That was no good either. The crunch of their shell on the pavement got to me.

I reverted to beer. Because that gave the snail or slug a choice. When Brian had a beer, I’d swipe the bottle when there was only an inch or so of flat beer left, and pour it into a little plastic container. But I caught no snails. And then it occurred to me: like most humans, no snail likes flat beer.

Three days ago I broke down and went to the nursery to buy snail and slug bait. After watching the pests decimate flowers and vegetable seedlings, I had to make a choice: the plants’ life or the snails'?

I still feel pangs of guilt.

There’s so much to feel guilt over. Not writing is right up there at the top of my list. If you’re trying to decide if you’re a writer, take a look at your guilt quotient. Do you feel bad when you don’t write? Do you ride yourself endlessly about how you should be writing more? When you do write, do you feel the burden lift? Do you breathe a sigh of relief, feeling good that you got something done?

Neal Shusterman has published more than 15 young adult novels, wins awards, and writes for TV and film. He's one of the most prolific writers I know. Yet, he feels guilty if he doesn't write, or doesn’t do something writing-related during his workday.

"I have a strong work ethic," he says, "and want to feel that writing full-time is a 'real' job. I keep track of the hours I spend writing--even if they're unproductive hours. Forty hours spent working through a writer’s block with no pages to show for it is still a full work week. I don't feel guilty about that, because I know I'll also have a week where in forty hours, I'll be on a roll and get two weeks of work done."

I can always count on novelist Jo-Ann Mapson to reduce things to their essence, including guilt. "I don't feel guilty when I don't write," she says. "I just feel as if someone cut off my hands. Incomplete. Inarticulate. And mopey."

Whether you’re published or not, feeling like you haven’t gotten anything done unless you’ve written even a paragraph is a good indication you are a writer. Snails can tell the difference between fresh and flat beer just as writers know the difference between meaningful creative work, and just work.

Set Your Timer

Most writers feel lousy and guilty when they don’t write. By now you know that if you make a commitment and goal, you'll feel guilty if you don't do what you say you're going to do. Everything in the universe is on a schedule. Those snails in my garden know that late at night, when it's dark and damp out, it's time for them to mosey about the plants. Nature's schedule is solid; there's a proper place in time for everything.

Working first thing is idea because you’ve at least put in your time. But do your work before you go to sleep if you must.

If you find that the actual time you sit down to write isn't working for you—and not writing anything is a good indication--then try another time and place.

Try locations outside the house, too: the cafe in the bookstore, the park, the mall, in a Denny's or Coco's or another restaurant by a freeway or turnpike exit where there’s interesting people-watching.

The main thing is to stop feeling guilty and the only way to do that is to correct the balance. When you're writing the right amount for you, guilt will cease to be.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Daily deadlines

So I stopped my whining and remembered how I like to finish things, and so daily, before I do other fun things (namely knit), I write. It helps having a reward.

I hit the 300-page mark the other day. I don't know if what I'm writing is good or is crap. It doesn't matter. What matters is getting the words on the page instead of letting them loiter in my brain. What matters is getting the first draft done. Without that, there's nothing to revise.

I make myself remember that Pen on Fire was revised a jillion times.

And while I like Pinot Grigio, Jordie, drinking and writing doesn't mix for me. I have a glass of wine and suddenly I feel too expansive, too relaxed. And I tend to write early in the day rather than later. When I keep my writing for later, it rolls over onto the next day. My nights are about hanging around with Travis--and Brian, if he doesn't have a gig or a rehearsal, and if I'm not teaching.

Mornings or afternoons work best. The other day I took the laptop, went into the bedroom, sat on the rocker in the corner of the room, and wrote.

I just dropped Travis off at school and am back and ready to go.

Hey, don't forget the show today: Dennis Palumbo, therapist to those at odds creatively, lit agent John Ware (5 p.m., www.kuci.org).

Signing off.....till later....

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Funny....what my radio show does...for me

Here's basically what I wrote this afternoon to two writer friends who are are my critique group:

I am So unmotivated to work on my novel right. I have almost 300 pages, but I find my story boring and I'm not quite sure what to do right now. Or what to do with it.

I've tried thinking of what I would tell my students.

I would say, you've got almost 300 pages! Oy vey! Just finish!

Or I'd say, take a break. Maybe you need some time away from it.

Thing is, I Have been taking a break. I have been knitting. And reading (just read Aria by Susan Segal. I LOVE this novel. If you love opera, or even if you don't--if you love literary fiction, read it!).

What can you say to someone who feels like they have all the answers, who can rationalize up the Empire State Building and back down, and still have more reasons why?

I've written two unpublished novels, prior to Pen on Fire (which obviously did get published, after a million months and a ton of work and a ton of faith that it would. Does faith weigh anything?).

My two unpublished novels....thank God they never were. Now I would consider them embarrassments.

Oh, and I have one novel, 100 pages in, a mystery, that I stopped when I learned I was pregnant and was afraid of continuing because I feared I would scare my baby in utero. So I started and finished my 2nd complete but unpublished novel.

So now I'm 300 pages into a new novel and I think, so what? I think: But publishing is so harrrrrrrd.....



And then I left to do my radio show. I talked to Susan Segal, author of Aria, the novel I mentioned above that I like so much, and Diana Abu-Jabar, a talented novelist and memoirist whose work I also love, and who has such a great sense of humor--in person and in her writing.

And after my show I felt rejuvenated. And felt like I wanted to work on my novel some more. Strangely, I imagined I felt the way people feel who listen to my show, or to the podcasts of my show, and write to me and say how much they love listening.

Today I loved listening.

(The show will go up next Tuesday.)

I asked Diana what happens when you get bored with your own work and want to quit?

She laughed. She said I must have been in her office with her today.


It's a great show. Do listen, esp. if you ever feel this way.

You just have to keep the publishing industry at bay and you have to write because you have to write. So simplistic. And so true. Writing is the antidote to all these crappy self-loathing feelings.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Literary agent John Ware

New York City literary agent John Ware has been on my show a couple of times (and is coming on, again, on June 1.) I did a print interview with him for my feature in The ASJA Monthly (July/Aug. 2005). Here it is:

Voices on Writing
"Boutique Agent John Ware"

John Ware is the agent I would want if I didn’t already have one. In fact, we first met five or so years ago when I queried him about an earlier incarnation of Pen on Fire. He turned it down; he wouldn’t know how to sell a writing book, he said, but he did say yes when I asked him to come on my radio show.

Since then, he’s been on my show three times, on an ASJA panel I moderated, in a couple of articles (for Poets & Writers and Pages) and I quoted him in my book. He’s one of the most articulate speakers I know; I was not surprised to learn that he has a poetry background (a poem of his came close at the New Yorker). And he has a range of eclectic interests: He has sung in a choir, studied Italian, is a baseball fan, goes to museums and racetracks. He also has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Cornell and attended graduate school in English literature at Northwestern.

He started the John A.Ware Literary Agency in New York City in 1978 after eight years as an editor at Doubleday, seven of which he taught the industry-wide editorial workshop at NYU. He also spent a year as an agent with James Brown Associates/Curtis Brown Ltd.

BDB: How did you become an agent? What attracted you to the profession?

JW: I had been an editor at Doubleday for eight years and got this offer from my friend, James Brown, and it appealed to me because agencies are smaller than publishers and because there’s more autonomy in the decision-making. I also liked the fact that there were just plain fewer meetings, as funny as that may sound, and I liked dealing with two communities: writers and editors. I don’t mean it disrespectfully to the art department and others, but I didn’t want to be the hub of the wheel to all the other departments as editors must be. As an agent, there’s also a greater opportunity for financial gain because you have a part of the books. This is all speaking from the editorial position I was in [when I became an agent], not from a standing start.

BDB: What do you like to handle?

JW: That’s an easy one. My colleagues, I think, would give the same answer: We bring our private tastes to our work. I don’t think anyone pretends to be full service. We are all boutique operators—even editors in big houses. I have an odd amalgam of tastes: I handle investigative journalism and current affairs, history, biography, and then, a whole realm of the offbeat, to include memoir that has some larger purchase because it touches larger issues. In my opinion, unless you are a big name, your memoir must sell to the broader market, that is, your life must be in touch with issues that speak to the larger society. I like offbeat books that have some broader grab—I guess you could say pop culture of a kind. I do a small elite health and medicine corner. And a small corner of fiction, which I do it for my soul.

BDB: What do you mean by, “We are boutique operators”?

JW: When I talk with editors, I encounter very few who say, “Send me anything.” Nobody can be interested, let alone knowledgeable, in every single kind of book that’s published. I’m frankly suspicious when an editor says that to me, and then I refine it and say, “But what do you love, what really gets you going?” It’s the same as with any private reader: No one reads everything.

BDB: Do you pay any attention to trends?

JW: Absolutely none. I rate it book by book. For instance, my client, Jon Krakauer set off the outdoors genre, so I have categorical awareness, but it’s not something I ever give extra points to or take points away from if something is or isn’t one of a kind. If it’s the 24th biography of Bernard Shaw, and it’s great, there’s room. If you have the genuine article, even if it can be nailed generically, it doesn’t matter. We all love the original fresh ideas; I’m just saying, you can’t have that in every book. If you come across something in a familiar area, that’s not a plus or minus for me. I really encourage writers not to pay attention to trends in choosing how to spend their time and work. For ex, I’m getting so many queries now in the direction of the Da Vinci code, and I think that is completely dangerous. Just do what you want to do. But don’t write conscious of trends. It’s really important for writers to not give themselves over to writing trends.

BDB: Then, just how much attention should you pay to the marketplace?

JW: I don’t think you can. You have to write what you have to write. You can’t write for that angle. Some books last longer than others. You can’t choose your genre by that which has the greatest shelf life. That’s like writing for trends.

BDB: What if you’re published in one area, with one or many books, and you want to change focus. How do you do that?

JW: I just sold a novel today by a woman who’s sold two nonfiction books. We took a pay cut, and she is using her name. You do get pigeonholed. Some writers use another name for another genre. It’s difficult. Branding does happen and it’s not something that publishers engineer. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.

BDB: Do you seek out writers in journals and magazines?

JW: I don’t tend to. Frankly, I’ve gotten too busy—and my pleasure reading—the Atlantic, Harpers, the New Yorker—use writers who are taken anyway.

BDB: While query letters are usual the port of entry, when you’re seeking representation, they can be difficult for writer, in terms of capturing tone, the scope of the project. What’s your take on query letters?

JW: The goal of a query letter, first of all, is no selling, no hype, no advertising. Just a simple, succinct, one-page description. Those adjectives can be flavorful without being advertising. An enticing description of what the book is about. And a little bit about yourself, credits if any. Keep it to one page. The leaner, the more economical—while still being flavorful—the better. We can tell a lot about how a writer writes from a query letter. Novelists say that doesn’t apply to us, but you can tell with a fiction writer, too—style, flow of words—absolutely. I don’t like pages included. I will ask for anything else I want. I like the query to come in the mail with an SASE. And if a writer wants a reason why not to call, which is the worst thing to do, this is why: It’s not that the call is taking our time but that we work with the written word, not the spoken word. You can’t tell anything writerly from a phone call.

BDB: Is it important to take the long view, when you’re starting out as a new author? Do you talk about a new writer’s path when they’re starting out?

JW: I do. As much as they’re able to, writers should look at the long term.

BDB: How do you feel about someone who is thinking about switching from their current agent to you?

JW: I listen with incredible care to what they have to say to see if the complaints seem utterly fair or if I’m walking into work with someone who is difficult. More editors know agents than agents know agents. We don’t’ have large coteries within our own community. I do have some friends…Elaine Markson is one of my closest friends and if someone left Elaine, there’s no way I’d take him or her on. There are fair complaints about agents and there are unfair complaints.

BDB: Should they have ended their association with that agent first?

JW: It’s preferable. I will talk to them, if they are considering such a switch. But I won’t go much further than an introductory chat as a preamble. They have to make a decision first. I don’t want to be a factor in it. I don’t want a nice talk we might have to affect what they might do with that person. I’m an ethical person and I don’t’ want to be near a possibility of stealing a writer. I would never ever do that nor have I ever. I like a writer to have made up his or her mind that they’ve left so and so and now they want to talk.

BDB : How long should someone wait to hear from you after they’ve queried you?

JW: Two weeks.

BDB: Do you read everything?

JW: Everything. Every letter. That’s how important queries from the unknown are.

BDB: Where do your clients come from?

JW: A mixture of refererals and query letters. Writers’ conferences, some from acknowledgments in books. Some are old associations—I sold a book last year by a guy I went to high school with, a book for adults on the Pledge of Allegiance. We were on the student court together. I was chief justice and he was associate justice. I speak for every agent in this city: We read our mail, and the cream does rise to the top.

BDB: Speaking the cream rising to the top…..Does good work always make it to the bookshelves? Or are great books stuck in drawers and on shelves?

JW: We are such a small condensed community, the publishers’ heart being here in New York. The story about A Confederacy of Dunces is so rare; there is so much editorial talent in New York, it’s hard to believe that the literary community could miss a talent.

BDB: How important is chemistry when you’re deciding on an agent?

JW: It does add to your excitement. You still can hang in there with a project—and more than that, because you’re in love with a book and a book’s notion—but it sure helps if you like the writer and he or she likes you. It comes up in the long run; in that sense, it’s like a marriage. It’s not to say you can’t do excellent business on a number of books without a good feeling about each other, but it isn’t as good. And I do believe, somewhere down the road, after the first or 12th book, it will not last because of the lack of human chemistry. And it’s just not going to be as much fun. It just isn’t. And you can tell a lot on the telephone. People are far flung—they live all over the place. If you’re interviewing agents, you can tell a lot when you get off the phone and see how you feel. If someone wants to come to New York to meet me that’ fine, but most of the time they can tell from the phone if it clicks or it doesn’t.

BDB: Any last words?

JW: My injunction to writers to keep the faith. We are not a hostile, alien community. We are looking for them. Our lives are inextricably connected with their efforts. In the face of long odds and rejection letters, don’t give up. Readers around the country and world are counting on them and are waiting for them. Perfect your craft. Write what you want to write and do it as excellently as you can.


You can find more interviews like this one at www.asja.org. Click on The ASJA Monthly.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Maya Angelou and Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day, to everyone who mothers....

Here's what I walked out this morning to find:

Here's a wonderful Maya Angelou clip, celebrating mothers and reading a poem: Click here. Angelou is so elegant.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A new Q&A in Writers on the Rise

Writer Christina Katz did a Q&A with me for her online zine, Writers on the Rise. I continue to meet exceedingly lovely people since Pen on Fire came out a year and a half ago--one of the major perks in publishing, I have to say.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Publishing woes (whoa!)

A student, friend and talented writer, Marrie Stone, emailed me yesterday morning, concerned with something she heard talked about on a publishing panel she recently attended.

She said, “Basically, the message was that even if you write an amazing book, it's no longer enough. People are no longer buying or reading much literary fiction (or fiction in general). And when they do, they do so because there's a big name behind it or something compelling about the writer: the writer has a TV show or has otherwise marketed herself to a fair thee well. Of course, they said, there are exceptions. But unless a publisher thinks it will be a blockbuster book, they don't have the resources for the little guys anymore. There seem to be plenty of examples to the contrary, so I don't know how much weight to give it all. But it wasn't a feel-good panel. In fact, it so clouded my view of the weekend, that what usually is an inspiring and high energy event that makes me want to run home to my computer, really left me numb and depressed and caused me to leave the weekend early. I know these are the ups and downs of this business and it takes perseverance (which is certainly fine), but I was interested in your take on this and how much credibility to give the agents and publishers. If it is like they say, unless you're one in two million, you're wasting your time.”

I asked an agent I know about this, and she said: “Tell your student not to give it another moment's thought. It does help to have a platform, and that's not going to go away, but writing an amazing book still does get you somewhere. There aren't that many amazing books around.”

I also ran Marrie’s quandary by my editor at Harcourt, Andrea Schulz, who said, “During my entire early years in publishing, everyone said, ‘No one gets to be an editor. Go into sales and marketing.’ And they weren't wrong. But it’s what I wanted to do and I stuck with it until I did it. There are more novels written every year than there are people buying and reading them--all of us who've ever stepped into a bookstore know that's just a fact--but if you know the worst and still have the drive to bring your stories to readers then you've got the passion that will help make you stand out. No, publishers can't make your book a success without your help, you do have to be involved in marketing, but think of that as an opportunity--you can get to know your readers. Talk to clerks in bookstores. Ask them about themselves: Are they writers? What's the last best thing they read? Be interested in them. Remember their names. Write them notes. Be as passionate about reading other people's novels as you are about selling your own, then write to them to tell them how much you loved their work. It all pays off. I try not to think of the publishing industry as dire. All of us are still looking for the truly great book."

So, the publishing industry may seem as if it's in dire straits, but publishers are still buying books. The bar may be a bit higher than it used to be, but maybe that's a good thing. There are a ton of bad books that get published and you gotta wonder about that, but great books do find their way into the right hands. And it's like Andrea says, you've got to be passionate and driven to get your writing out there.