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 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, ""

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 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.,

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