Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Restless without a book you're sunk into?

I'm reading a couple of books (always, a couple of books, it seems) I'm enjoying (The Artful Edit and Claire Davis' Labors of the Heart), but when I'm not deep into a book, I feel ... restless.

I came across Marisa de Los Santos' Love Walked In at my local Barnes & Noble. I wrote down the title and contacted the publicity department. I wanted to talk to Santos on my show. This week I've been restless without a book I'm crazy about and today her book arrived (she's on the show next month). And now that I have a book I feel I may love, I feel more relaxed.

Do you go through this, too? Without a book you're mad about, you feel at loose ends?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bookstore report

People are not reading as much as they use to--or at all--so say the reports on reading and the Internet and book sales, but I'll tell ya, I've been to my local Barnes & Noble a few times in the last couple of weeks and it's busy! It's New York busy! Lots of people milling about, looking at books, buying books, and hanging around. I love it.

What's your bookstore like? C'mon....time for bookstore reports! (And I hope books are making up at least a portion of your holiday gifts.)

Have a great holiday...!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach

Seems I pick up so many books these days--for the show, mostly--that I just can get into. I don't know if it's me or the book. Probably a combination of both.

But I have read one that I loved: On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan's new book. It's received mixed reviews, and I think part of the problem is that it's a book for older readers who've made choices that in retrospect may not have been the best choice.

If you haven't read the book and plan to, then don't read on. What's to come is a SPOILER of sorts.

But the main character, Edward, makes a decision on Chesil Beach that changes the course of his life, that he regrets to his dying day, and realizes if he hadn't been stubborn, if he'd reached out to Florence, if he'd been more patient and loving, he might have lived out his days with the girl of his dreams. But he wasn't.

I don't think younger readers can relate to that and maybe that was the problem. When you're young, you think you'll live your life with no regrets, that the choices you make are all valid, good ones. And later you find that perhaps not all of them were.

So what are you reading that you love? I ask this question a lot, don't I?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Too busy to write?

I love the holidays but I'm with everyone else: Things become so busy and accelerated that it's hard to find time to write. Not to write emails, of course, and Christmas cards and this invitation and that, but to work on fiction--it's the last thing I put time into doing. After my ongoing deadlines--The ASJA Monthly and teaching, there are cookies to bake, shopping to do and costumes to construct. (Tonight my one class is having our annual party, and this year we're going as literary characters. Brian and I rented costumes yesterday so I think we're going as characters from a Dickens novel or The Count of Monte Christo.)

So this is one more thing I love about the holidays, this year, anyway: I'm too busy to work on my book. So Starletta awaits me, and I dwell on what I want to do with her and the story when I return to it. Which is good because I've hit another wall and need to figure some things out.

Are you finding time to write?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Grammar/style guides

One of my online students feels she's lacking in the basics and asked me which books I recommended she read.

Here's my short list:

Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Spunk & Bite by Art Plotnik, a great follow-up to Elements

Woe is I
and Words Fail Me by Patricia O'Connor

And if you're interested in writing fiction, Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and Ron Carlson's Ron Carlson Writes a Story would make for a great beginning.

What are your recommendations?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Books into movies

Interesting article in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review on how Hollywood is affecting novels.

Some worry that movies and the desire to have your book made into a movie negatively influences the writing, but Diane Johnson said screenwriting has helped her sense of structure.

And Tom Perrotta said, "Writing screenplays has the paradoxical effect of making me a more literary writer, much more conscious of what I can do in a novel that I can’t do in a script: the ease of a flashback within a flashback, how you can have immediate access to any event in your character’s life.”

A movie just came out about a novelist that I want to see: Starting Out in the Evening.

But movies made from books: Accidental Tourist worked well. I can't say I finished The English Patient, but I'm thinking the movie worked better than the book (don't hit me, all you readers who loved the book; I loved the writing, but I just wasn't compelled to finish). I liked Wonder Boys very much. I didn't like Perrotta's Little Children as a film, though I loved it as a book. What other movies translated well--or didn't?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Writerly links

A few sites to peruse to eat up your writing time. Kidding! You should only visit web sites and waste time when you've doneyour writing. (Uh-huh...)

The Quality Paperback Book Club. I used to belong and I'm thinking of joining again (like I really need more books). I found editions of books I didn't see anywhere else. A little compendium of Hemingway quotes which I still use.

A Los Angeles Times story about the graying of protagonists in fiction (thanks, Elle, for the tip).

And a blog with writers' tips (submitted by Allison Johnson).

That's all for today. Time to get out of these PJs and go to an event at a Barnes & Noble in Covina. Other speakers will be Susan Kandel and Lisa Fugard. Maybe see some of you there?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book proposals: a question

Rob says....

"One more question, if I can. I am also looking at a non-fiction work. How much information will I need in my proposal before sending it off? Is there a good on-line resource for putting together the proposal/query?"

My book proposal for Pen on Fire ran around 50 pages. Parts include the overview of the project, a bio, marketing plan, comparison survey, chapter outline and three chapters or 30 pages or so of text from the book.

I don't know if there are online resources but I'll tell you what book served me well: Michael Larsen's How to Write a Book Proposal. I followed it pretty much to a T and my agent garnered a great deal for me. There may be other good books on writing book proposals but this one worked for me. (Larsen is an agent in San Francisco.)

Novel revision

My buddy said, But what if you don't want to change the story, what if you want to remain loyal to your original premise or the characters/people you're writing about?

It's a dangerous thing, to want to control the show, if you ask me. I tend to follow the story and not try to remain loyal to what really happened. As someone who likes to base fiction on real life, for me, that's just a starting point. My original draft looks far different than what my 7th draft looks like. For me, this is a good thing.

I know authors, though, who say they don't put their projects through a zillion drafts, who say they work to get the sentence, paragraph, page perfect before moving on and then do minor revision. Interesting way to work, but it's not me.

Revision styles are as individual as voice. How do you revise? (Post here, for others to benefit from. I love getting your private emails, but then everyone here can't benefit....)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A question from a listener re: novels....

An email from a podcast listener (who gave me permission to post it here):


I discovered your podcast about a month ago and I have been listening to the old ones first. I am still in September but I am absolutely loving the show!! It is so refreshing to hear writers talk about their writing process. When I first thought about writing, I took up a conversation with a "writing" friend of mine. The friend said I needed to sit down and outline my story, define my characters and so on. The very process became frustrating such that I put my pen down for nearly three years. Then, I decided I would just sit and write--with no idea where the journey would take me--I found this process exciting and I could write and write and write. And now, after hearing some of your interviews, I find that I am not alone--many of your writers have said they use the same process--how exciting!!!

So, thank you. The interviews with agents has also been very illuminating. I am really getting excited about the novel writing process.

I have a question; From some of the interviews you've had with agents, I am thinking that it is possible to sell a novel without even having a completed book to show--is that true? In other words, I can write the query, maybe an outline and a few chapters. If this is true, and a sale is made, then how much time does the author have to produce the entire manuscript? And, is any money disbursed before the entire manuscript is delivered?

Thank you so much for the Podcast!

Rob Rainey


Okay, an answer for you, Rob...
These days, even for most published novelists, partials are no longer possible. Just about all novelists I talk with must write the entire book and before submitting it to their agent. Nonfiction books are most always purchased without being finished, but with a book proposal. Even many memoirs. But novels, no. I wish! It's so hard to know how the writer will pull of the story and characters and ending, without reading it in full.

If any authors reading this have a different experience, please, post it here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The 7th draft

A friend on sent me an email and said, "I'm fascinated. Tell me about the sixth draft of a novel. How does that process work? When can you decide that you've said what you wanted to say? Why didn't you say that the first time? What changes between drafts, when is it finished and, when it is, is it the same novel?"

Great questions. I'll see if I can answer them.

For me, the process of writing a novel is a matter of finding the story, chipping away. I'm not an outliner. The one time I actually tried outlining a novel, by the time the outline was done, I was so bored with the story. So now I write to discover what I'm trying to say. An instructor of mine, Judith Beth Cohen, once said this, that she didn't write because she had answers but because she had questions.

So the first draft is the discovery draft. I kept about 30 pages--the last 30!--of the very first draft of Starletta's Kitchen (working title). The next draft had all sorts of things going on in it that I later realized didn't belong, or were story lines, or characters, that bored me. If I'm bored, then my readers will be bored. Chris Bohjalian has said this, that he'll stop writing 100 pages into a book if he's bored.

A couple of my drafts were read-throughs. Another draft was comprised of carving. And now this draft....I'm cutting, streamlining. The story is coming into focus. I doubt that this is the final draft.

So many of the novelists I respect go through many, many drafts. First (and second and often third) novels are on the shelf, in storage. The novel I end up with will not be the same one I started. But...why should it be? A novel is written over a few years. You're not the same person you were when you started it. A novel will change as you change.

When is it done? Someone said a project is never finished, but abandoned. Or published. I could tweak my first published book, Pen on Fire, still. It can be painful, seeing things you'd like to change but it's published! So you know you're done when you feel you've done the best you can do or you have no energy left or an agent likes it and shops it and it sells.

A way to keep organized, by the way, is to type subsequent drafts on different colored paper. My 7th draft is on blue. I'm going to buy pink paper for the 8th draft. Maybe it will be a happy! But who can say?

Friday, November 09, 2007

James Frey

Every so often I listen to an old show of mine and yesterday I listened to the James Frey show when he was for My Friend Leonard. (He shared the hour with Roxana Robinson, one of my favorite essayists who also writes short stories and novels.)

Frey talked about how he was doing what Kerouac and Kesey and others had done before him--taking their life and embellishing a bit. He talked about how he had come to his own voice. As I was listening I was thinking how I liked him and liked what he had to say, and how no one would have ever lanced him over A Million Little Pieces had it not become such a mega-seller.

I wondered then--and I wonder now--how his publisher might have saved him (and themselves) a ton of tears had they simply classified his book as a novel. But of course the fever for true stories was festering, and he went along with whatever they wanted. A big mistake. When I listen to him on this recording, I think: He was an innocent guy who was grateful for a publishing deal and would have said it was a cookbook if that's what they had wanted.

What's wrong with a novel based on truth? Often that's how you have to do it, and for me, I enjoy these types of novels--sometimes even more than memoirs. And how many authors make it all up, anyway?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tomorrow's show: Emily Listfield and Tom Perrotta

On "Writers on Writing" tomorrow, Marrie Stone and I will talk to Emily Listfield, author of Waiting to Surface and Tom Perrotta, author of The Abstinence Teacher. You can listen at iTunes (go to Public Radio, look for KUCI-FM) or go to and listen live. If you're in the O.C., it's at 88.9 FM.

Listfield based her novel on her husband's disappearance. Perrotta did some research into abstinence at a Christian church or community in NJ, and is author of Little Children, so he should be interesting as well.

You can hear a ton of shows at

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Vegetable plagiarism and Nanowrimo

Did Jessica Seinfeld crib recipes or not? Mr. Seinfeld, on the David Letterman show, seems to be a bit wacky over the whole thing.

I don't know about anyone else out there, but when Travis was a wee tot, I mushed up vegetables, too. I haven't seen the cookbooks so I don't know how close the recipes are, but the books came out at the same time, so I don't see how Ms. Seinfeld could have cribbed--unless the publisher cribbed for her. Now the casserole thickens....

What do you think?


Also it's Nov. 1 and that means it's Nanowrimo month. Who's writing a novel this month? Only have to hit 50,000 words, a book the size of Brave New World or 1984. On your mark, get set, go!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I don't think a Halloween has gone by when I didn't dress up. Well, maybe in college (but why not??).

A couple of years ago I was a pirate and looked like Johnny Depp. Last year a plastic surgeon (surgeon's aqua costume, wrapped plastic wrap about my head, waist.....). This year a repeat of the silver siren with a black wig, silver makeup, black and silver big drapey costume with a high collar. (I'll post a pic tomorrow.)

When I was a kid, I'd start trick or treating three days before Halloween. My mother would drive me. We’d begin with the far reaches of the neighborhood. I had three costumes, one for each night.

People would open their front doors and look at their watches, look at each other and say, Is it Halloween??

Just about, I’d say.

They mostly gave me money and apples. I didn’t know that you should confine Halloween to just one night and apparently neither did my mother.

Who has Halloween anecdotes out there? Let's hear them!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Voice, and Maira Kalman

If you get the Los Angeles Times, then this morning you most likely read the book review and perhaps noticed the review of Maira Kalman's new book, The Principles of Uncertainty. I love Maira Kalman--her voice, her art. I discovered her way before Travis was born when I worked at Rizzoli bookstore at South Coast Plaza and saw Max Makes a Million about a dog who longs to be a poet and ends up getting a million dollar contract. (Uh-huh, right, you say.) The artwork was fabulous--Matisse/Chagall like--and the voice of the writing was singular.'s what impresses me, in the end, more than plotting, I must say (but this could be because plotting is not a virtue of mine).

So, for your Sunday entertainment, here's a little video from Kalman's site. It's so Kalman.

Friday, October 19, 2007

James Baldwin

I'm reading the Paris Review Interviews, Part II, the interview with James Baldwin and about the essay, he says, "....An essay is essentially an argument. The writer's point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or play you're trying to show them something..."

So true. When I'm compelled to write an essay, I need to convince the reader (and myself) of something.

Essayists, and those studying the form, what do you think? Why do you write essays? Any essayists you love?

And of talent, Baldwin says, "Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance."

I love the Paris Review Interviews.... All of the collections....

Friday, October 12, 2007

Arthur Plotnik Q&A

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Art Plotnik, his columns in The Writer and his book, Spunk & Bite.

So the other day I emailed him and asked him to be a guest blogger.

BDB: I'm known as someone who advises against using adverbs but now that I've read Spunk & Bite, the right adverb can make all the difference. Where did we get this idea that adverbs were bad?

AP: It’s the old story--a few rotten apples putting the reek on whole adverbial barrel. Among the rotten pomes are these: the tired and limp (really good); redundant (cleanly laundered), the cliché (greatly exaggerated), the hedgey (somewhat terrifying, differently abled) and the excessive (marvelously, gorgeously attired).

Such stinkers obscure the point of adverbs; for, you see, vee must haff vays to get more information out of adjectives and verbs. Adverbs are the best means of doing so. For example, in a story by Antonya Nelson, the teeth of a homeless girl are described as “flawless.” But here comes more information: They were “orthodontically flawless”--an important clue that the girl was from a high-society family.

BDB: Your writing is so liquid and lively and has such voice. Do the words pour out of you effortlessly?

AP: Excuse me while I slurp up that bubble drink of praise. Ahh. But word flow? About as effortless as breaking out of San Quentin. Writing! All those trite and tired habits of expression to escape, all that tunneling between too much and too little, all those police to circumvent--grammar police, PC police, thought police, trend police. Most people can gab effortlessly, but gab is the antithesis of writing. Writing is the gift you give of agonizingly crafted language in a thrillingly felicitous assemblage that somehow sounds effortless.

BDB: Have you always had a distinct voice or did you work to develop it?

AP: I’m not sure that, outside acting, you can work at voice. Okay, maybe I’ve always gone for the odd yok, and maybe I’ve habitually mixed my dictions. But what I’ve worked at is being liked (which I suppose can influence voice) and getting heard. I think that most writers, as they read, get a ton of stylish voices in their heads--the voices that say “literature” or “journalism” to them. Into this mix come the diction and locutions acquired from family, certain teachers and peers, pop culture, and assorted role models. This melange, if one is not too self-conscious about it, can give rise to a distinctive voice, a personality, even as one concentrates on the fundamentals of writing.

BDB: If someone wants to strengthen their voice, what do you advise?

AP: A good start is to jettison all hackneyed expression, especially clichés, catch phrases, and trendy locutions that make writing sound like cellphone patois. When you replace generic expression with something inventive, your particular brand of inventiveness will help distinguish your voice. Consider how Michael Chabon invents a fresh way of saying “Landsman wakes up and smells the coffee” in his novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: "The coffeemaker begins its expectorations around seven. A few thousand molecules of coffee vapor tumble into the bedroom and worry the hairs inside Landsman’s beak." And there you have that personifying, comic-bookish- yet-literary Chabon voice.

BDB: How do you revise--or do you?

AP: All I do is revise. Write three words, revise two, and revise all three the next day. Why? Because, in writing (as opposed to speech) I can do so! Because opportunities are always out there for more concise, more evocative turns of phrase. Because when I’m finished with a piece of writing, I don’t always have to feel “I shoulda said this, or I should said that,” as I so often do after opening my mouth.

I revise as I go along, which may be a deadly method for anyone who hasn’t been a career editor. Editing--questioning how something will strike an audience--has made me the compulsive reviser I am. I revise e-mails, notes to my wife on who telephoned, everything I write. But an editing/writing career has enabled me to work right and left brains in tandem, like walking a pair of rambunctious terriers. The better way for most people, of course, is to write freely, tell their story; then, donning the merciless-editor’s hat, go back and revise.

BDB: Tell me, and everyone who visits this blog, one thing they shouldn't forget.

AP: To writers: Either tell your readers something they don’t know, or tell them something they know in a marrow-churningly inventive way.


I love this guy....

Monday, October 08, 2007


My friend and former student Jordan, who goes by many names here (don'tcha, J?), keeps bugging me for a new post. Seems a few days go by and he needs something new. When I tell him to start a blog, he says he has nothing to say electronically. But he has lots to say in the comments portion of my blog. Okay. Whatever.

So I'll talk about voice, because that's how I knew it was him, commenting, just under a new screen name. I always know when it's him. Because of his voice.

I've talked about voice before, but it seems you can never say too much about voice. Voice is the writer's fingerprint. Take away the name of the writer and if you still know who wrote the piece or the book, that writer has got a strong voice.

Ron Carlson has a strong voice. So does T. Jefferson Parker. And Hemingway. And Melissa Bank. And...and...and...

Who do you think has a strong voice? Names...we want names!

Friday, October 05, 2007

The leaf blowers....

...are making a racket next door. Can't the gardeners just use a broom? Are leaf blowers prevalent in other areas of the country, or just here in the O.C. where autumn leaves aren't seen as beautiful but seen as a mess on the sidewalk and yard? You won't find O.C. kids jumping off swings into piles of leaves because there are none!

I'm really not in a bad mood.

It's just that Jordan (I'm gonna out you, J., and tell everyone you're "Sweetness" in the comments section) just wrote to me accusing me of laziness for not blogging lately. But I've been working on an essay this last week, J.! That doesn't matter to J.; he's just sick of checking back here and seeing the post on the Helen Schulman podcast (he doesn't listen to podcasts but wants me to transcribe. Uh-huh, right....). I understand, though. When I check blogs and it's the same old stuff, I become frustrated and if I knew the blogger, I'd do just what Jordan did, and I'd write to him or her and say, Whassup?

Just so this blog post isn't complete nonsense, I have one discovery for you. As I said, I've been working on an essay the last week and when I started the essay, I didn't know what it was about. I just knew I'd been wanting to write about this thing that happened about 15 years ago. And I had a first line. But I didn't know where it was going.

The piece started out as a five page sketch, swelled to a 12 piece essay, and shrunk to eight pages, and in the meantime, I discovered what it was about and found my ending. So my tip for you is, regarding essays, don't wait until you know exactly what it's about to begin writing your piece. The discovery is in the writing. I love essays and I love discovering along the way what I mean to say.

Okay, Jordan, happy?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Helen Schulman show is up now

My podcast expert Rob Roy just posted last week's interview with Helen Schulman, author of A Day at the Beach. Click here for the link.

Also, just so my friend, J., won't think I completely lost my mind and am lost to baseball, as well as teaching and editing and working on articles, I've been working on a piece (an essay? a story? depends on how much I embellish....). And yesterday I punched holes in every page of my novel and put the pages in a big white binder with the cover that says Starletta's Kitchen, so now I can easily go through the pages and continue my revision. (Okay, J.???)

One more thing: If you've been visiting this blog for a while, you know I categorize some books according to color. Check this out (thanks to Lacy, who sent it to me).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

West Hollywood Book Fair

Always a fun literary way to spend a Sunday: The West Hollywood Book Fair. I'll be on a panel at 3:00, moderated by the wonderful book publicist (and person) Kim Dower, called something like, "Making a Book a Success."

Say hi if you're there...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Angels clinch American League West title

This has nothing to do with writing, or does it? It does and it doesn't. What I mean is, lots of male writers are sports fans but what about female writers? Joyce Carol Oates is into boxing--or used to be, a sport I Just Do Not Get At All. Male writers wear baseball caps, write about sports in their fiction (The Sportswriter, etc.) but what about women? Where are the stories and novels in which sports play a part?

That's not what I meant to write when I started this post. What I meant to say is, I encourage my students to read the sports page. Even before I was so deeply into baseball, I read the page now and then, to refresh my approach to verbs. Sports writing has to move, can't get bogged down in passive verbs. But when I became an Angels fan(atic) this past spring, my sports page reading progressed from once in a while to every day, first thing, the first part of the paper I look at. I love Bill Plaschke's commentary and Helene Elliot's, too.

When baseball season is over, I imagine I'll enter a state of withdrawal, like I did with Diet Coke and coffee (both of which I drink again; all those headaches for for nothing). I will look at the sports section for any mention of my Angels. And my TV watching will decline by a ton of hours a week. The upside: More time for writing (although I rarely write at night anyway). Actually, there will just be more time with a hole in it where a baseball flew through. Until April 2008 when baseball season begins again. (I looked on the Angels web site; it doesn't say....)

So I keep thinking I need to incorporate baseball into my writing. Justify all the time I spend on the game. As if it needs justification.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Book autopsies

These are incredible....

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Raymond Carver

An article about walking where Raymond Carver walked.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A conference, a dilemma

Just returned from a writers' conference in San Luis Obispo, on the coast midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco where I did a couple of workshops. What an interesting group of writers I found, and nice people, too. (Eric Maisel was the keynote; I also sat in on literary agent Laura Rennert's workshop on YA novels.) And the central coast is a dream, the way I imagine California used to be, lots of sensuous hills with only nubby bushes and occasional trees. Lovely.

This is definitely one to remember for next year, this time. And quite affordable for attendees, too.

What's on your list of conferences--to do or to recommend?

(I tried to post a link and Blogger isn't accepting the URL. Just Google Central Coast Writers Conference, San Luis Obispo, and you'll easily find it.)


Also, what you would do ...

There's an author represented by an agent I quite like a lot. If I wasn't with my current wonderful agent, I would want this agent; that's how much I like him/her. This agent told me a story about an author who, if the story's true, acted unethically toward my colleague. (I'm assuming the story is true because I've never known this agent to lie, and he/she has a good rep in the publishing biz.)

Okay. The author's publicist sent me the author's book for my show. I had been musing over inviting this author on--until I heard the story. My interest vanished--because of my agent friend.

So, my question is, do you let loyalties influence the interactions you have with others?

On the one hand, it's so high school.

On the other, the opinions and experiences of the people you know help you make decisions. This agent didn't say, I'll be upset with you if you have her on the show. He/she would never do that. In that way, it's so not high school.

And on the other, when you let your emotions and loyalties color your decisions, you're never approaching anything or anyone fresh.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I published the following op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times following 9/11/01:

"Out of Sight, but Never Out of Mind"

In the weeks since the Sept. 11 attacks, a few New Yorkers have complained that the rest of the country has forgotten about them and no longer cares.

We may live 3,000 miles away, yet how could we ever forget? Granted, we don't have the glaring reminder New Yorkers have: That space where the Twin Towers once stood must shock them daily. So while the attack may no longer be a major topic of conversation for some, our hearts remain broken.

Since Sept. 11, most everyone I know has experienced two--rather than six--degrees of separation: Everyone knows someone who knew someone who died or whose life was changed in untold ways.

As we drive the streets and freeways of our county, flags continue to fly from car antennas and houses. People wear flag pins and clothing with flag designs, and plaster their car windows and briefcases with flag decals.

They're flocking to blood banks and donating auction items on eBay. It's enough to choke up the most formerly nonpatriotic person.

Surely, the children remember.

Since Sept. 11, at daily opening ceremonies at my 7-year-old son's school, groups of children hold flags high as everyone recites the pledge of allegiance. They sing patriotic songs. And when I asked Travis what he did at school one day, he said his class drew pictures. His was of a beach in Hawaii. "A plane flew into the sand, but sand doesn't burn, so there wasn't a fire," said Travis.

Later he asked how we would know if his dad were bombed where he works.

"If he's not home by his usual time, I'll call," I said.

"What if they don't answer?"

"Then I'll call the police. But it's unlikely Daddy will get bombed at work. We're lucky that way."

At least for now, I thought.

Travis appeared satisfied with my answer, yet I couldn't help wondering how parents--or relatives and social workers--told those children who lost a parent in the attack that their mommy or daddy wouldn't be coming home because something horrible happened at work.

Often, it's the simple things that serve as sad reminders of what others have lost.

For me, my intact family reminds me of too many families who are no longer together. Since Sept. 11, our prayer before dinner now includes the words: "And God, please take care of all those people who need your help now, more than ever."

In a picture my husband took of Travis and me in New York last May, the Twin Towers stand in the distance, directly behind our heads. That image is now the desktop on my computer, the first thing I see when I turn it on in the morning, and the last thing I see when it goes off at night. It's my own personal reminder.

The Sept. 11 events inextricably bind everyone in this nation together. Someone from Illinois said, "We are all New Yorkers now."

I would say it better if I could.


Friday, September 07, 2007

coffee, again, and what you did this summer

Last week Brian accidentally brought home flavored coffee. Brian hates flavored coffee. I tried it. I liked it. I made some for me. He bought his favored French roast, leaving almost a pound of hazelnut-flavored coffee beans. Of course I don't want to waste it? So every morning, after a modest breakfast of a slice of wheat toast and jam, and maybe a fried egg, I make a cup. Black. Love it. I still have tea first thing, though. So far.

Switching topics...a piece in today's Wall Street Journal about summer vacation and what folks did or did not do.

I had grand plans. I made a list on a legal size piece of paper. We were going to go to the East Coast and go to a Mets game. We were going to go on a road trip to San Francisco and maybe Portland. We talked about Tuscany and New Zealand. I kept cutting travel pieces out about Iceland. We were going to go to the Getty and the La Brea tar pits and Julian. We were going to do a bunch of things.

Some friends and relatives did. They went to Hawaii, St. Barts, Italy, France. They saw the world.

So what did we do?

We went to Sea World, went to Angels games ("and sometimes had really good seats," said Travis) and hung out a bunch. We had fun, a good summer. A summer of days with no alarm clock, late nights, a lot of laughs.

I think I'll keep the list for next summer and plan early.

What did you do? Did you fulfill your goals for the summer (and what's your morning drink of choice)?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Reclusive authors

Did anyone see the story in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday about reclusive authors?

Sometimes I think I'm too public, other times not public enough.

What do you think? Are you more interested in authors whose lives are a secret, who don't tour, who are hard to find, or do you like authors who--ahem--have blogs, tour, go on radio, etc.?

Or is it ultimately about the writing anyway, so it matters not whether an author is reclusive or public?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

I feel the earth move under my feet

We were just jolted. I moved toward the doorway. Then that was it. Just one big bump.

Brian, getting up, said, "Well, it's earthquake weather."

Hot, muggy, the sun almost too bright.

So I went here and read that a 4.7 quake was epicentered in Lake Elsinore.

I thought, I'm glad I'm dressed, in case I have to leave the house. But I should wash my face and brush my teeth, too, put on a little make-up, just in case.

Now Brian's in the shower. Soon as he's done, I'll get in there and make myself presentable, just in case.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Do you eat alone and read?

Brian is off to a gig and Travis is with a friend, so I made dinner for one.

Dinner was:

Basmati rice
One sheet of nori seaweed, toasted
Green salad with Aunt Teresa's house dressing (wine, olive oil, spices)
Zucchini broiled with grated parmesan and butter
A glass of Estancia chardonnay


This is a meal that Brian would like. Travis would like the nori and rice. I loved it all.

And I read, fittingly, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone by Jenni Ferrari-Adler, who is going to be on my show next week. I love the essays in this anthology, and I loved my meal.

For dessert, mini peanut butter cups from Trader Joe's.

What was the last meal you ate alone and did you read? If so, what was it? for writers

Seems all I'm doing these days is posting links here, or pictures. (That's okay, right?)

Here's a link to a New York Times article on how myspace works for writers.

It prompted me to work on my myspace page, which is

I don't even know if the link works! But I did a search on my name and my book title on myspace and found someone listed me as their hero. Me! And at least one other person was alternating reading my book and James Patterson. And that also prompted me to work on my page.

Then I went to and signed up there. There's no end to networking as an author, and it seems it could very easily take over doing any actual writing.

Travis is back in school next week, which is when I dust off the cobwebs from Starletta's Kitchen and get back to work.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Writers Block Party

My Thursday night critique group, in the front yard. So many of my students here have been with the group for a long time, progressing with their work. A really bright, fun, bawdy group. Tonight was Peter's birthday and Holly's last night (Holly's in the pink sweater). She's going back to NY/CT for the fall/winter/spring and will return next year. We will miss you, Holly!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Annie Dillard

Grete Semb Kempton sent me this link to a New York Times essay by Annie Dillard on writing till you drop.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Yellow stack

...and here is Pen on Fire, Danielle, quite rumpled and used.

More Grace

I like this Salon interview with Grace. A lot of great stuff here on process (voice, content/context). What an interesting writer she was.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Green Shelf

More on Grace Paley

A lovely essay about Grace.

I got out two of her story collections last night. Plots may not have figured highly in her work, but man, does she have voice, that most elusive--and vital--of all writing elements.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grace Paley died

I've loved her writing since I discovered it in the late '70s. She has died of breast cancer. Here's her obit

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My wonderful students

In the summer when it grows too warm to sit around my dining room table, we meet in the front yard. Here is my essay class, now over, though some of my students will continue in the fall with the memoir class. We do have fun.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Are you more cat or dog?

Light Sunday fare....

I'm a sucker for these sorts of silly quizzes. You can click on the link below to take the test. Here are my results:

You Are: 40% Dog, 60% Cat

You and cats have a lot in common.
You're both smart and in charge - with a good amount of attitude.
However, you do have a very playful side that occasionally comes out!

Report back with your results.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Harry Potter Harry Potter Harry Potter

At an Angels game last night, as we took our seats, I turned around and saw yet another person reading the latest Harry Potter.

Am I the only person I know who has not finished an entire Harry Potter novel? It's great that J.K. Rowling gets kids reading, and entrances adults as well, but I just cannot get into these books. I don't tend to not go for fantasy or science fiction (though I loved Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land) and never have. Not that I haven't always had a ton of things in my life from which I'd like to escape.

When I read fiction, which is most always, I'd rather spend my time with realism (however far-fetched): a literary/main stream novel or suspense. (I just read Diana Abu-Jaber's Origin, which fits both of those categories. She was just on the show. I loved the book.)

I have a good friend that adores Harry Potter. She is bright, funny and well-read. We talk about how reading inclinations evolve.

You Harry Potter fans out there--is this your favorite type of writing? Has it always been? Or was there a transforming moment where one minute you were, say, a lover of D.H. Lawrence or Lawrence Block, and the next moment it was Harry Potter? Seriously....! Inquiring minds want to know. This mind, anyhoo.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A few writerly web sites

If you are in need of prompts, here's a great site. Check it out.

Also, are you familiar with Writers and readers talking about books. I quite like it. Click here.

And (thanks to Judy) is a great place to request books and swap them for books you want. Read more here.

At the site for the American Society of Journalists and Authors, you can read the public section of The ASJA Monthly, which I edit. Click here and scan down the left side for The ASJA Monthly.

I know I missed a ton. I will post more in the coming days. And if you know of one you like, or even your own, please post it here.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Subscriptions survey

The other day as I was going through old Utne magazines, it occurred to me, once again, how much I love this magazine. I always seem to find articles that are priceless, and because Utne reprints articles found in other articles, I discover new journals--new to me, anyway. Brick is one such journal. In this particular Utne, I was reading about what Annie Proulx would be if she wasn't a writer. Cabinet maker was one. The article pointed to the issue of Brick that it was originally published in, so I went to the web site (Brick's) and ordered the 2003 journal. love Utne.

Then I began thinking of the magazines and papers that find their way into this house:

Los Angeles Times
Wall Street Journal
Poets & Writers
The Writer
Writer's Digest
Country Living
Interweave Knits
(a gift subscription from Noreen)
Boy's Life (Travis' magazine)

I used to subscribe to the New Yorker, but they arrived too quickly. I still have a pile I'm trying to get through. I also recently subscribed to The Atlantic Monthy, Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure but let them lapse.

What do you subscribe to, and what do you love most?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fantasy writers wanted

I can't remember where I saw it--it was on one of the publishing reports, yesterday, I think--but I read that agents and publishers are looking for the next Harry Potter/J.K. Rowling. If you're a fantasy writer for adults and children, this may be your time.

I was thinking of my former student Lacy, who now lives in Colorado. out there? How's that novel coming, the one that we loved so much?

Did anyone else see that write up? Where was it?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Back to Starletta's Kitchen

In Mosley's book, This Year Your Write Your Novel, which I mentioned in the last post, he talks about why it's important to work every day. I've also talked about his essay on writing in which he says you must visit with your work daily, and if you let three days go by, the dream of the work evaporates. (Google "Walter Mosley New York Times Writers on Writing" and you will find the essay I'm talking about.)

Starletta's Kitchen sat untouched for three weeks or more while I worked on the proposal and so when I picked it up this morning, it took a while to realize where I was at. I saw the blue pages of the new draft (Ron Carlson said he types different drafts on different colored paper so he knows what draft to grab for readings) and realized I had already gone through the entire mss., crossing things out, deleting, making notes for places to add, and had already begun typing out a new draft. Duh.

And so was reminded of Walter Mosley's advice to visit your work daily, else lose the drift, lose your place, and lose motivation.


Travis and I were watching the Food Network last night and Bobby Flay (and if you watch the Food Network, you know who he is) said, "If you're not nervous about your passion, you're not passionate about it." I ran and wrote this down to share with you. So true. Often we misinterpret nervousness or anxiety and stop doing what it is that makes us anxious rather than throwing ourselves into it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cross your fingers

I spent the last three weeks or so getting another book proposal finished and in the mail. It's an illustrated journal, a spin-off of Pen on Fire. After Pen on Fire was published in late '04, I began receiving emails from readers who wondered if a journal was in the works. No, I'd say. And then more letters arrived and I started thinking, Hmm.....Maybe there should be.

So I teamed up with Andy Mitchell, a longtime student and illustrator (, and put together a proposal. Of course it took longer than I would have liked. Doesn't everything?

But I got it into the mail last week and Delivery Confirmation confirms that the proposal was delivered.

It's a longshot. (Everything's a longshot, when it comes to publishing.) So we're waiting. Crossing fingers and waiting.

And tomorrow I will return to Starletta's Kitchen. In the hours before my son wakes up, that is. (I let him stay up late so he'll sleep in and I can use those early morning hours for writing.)

I feel so far away from the book now, having been away from it since June.

Have y'all read Mosley's This Year You Write Your Novel? I love that book. I should read it again.

How're your projects progressing? Do things slow down for you in the summer?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A letter

Every so often you receive an email from someone who was affected by your writing, and it serves to remind you of why you do what you do. Emails like the one below are one of the perks of slogging through and seeing your work get published. It brought tears to my eyes.

"After our correspondence last week I clicked over to your blog and finally (finally!) decided to read Pen on Fire. I’ve been resisting for a few years now, sort of like how you should go to the doctor and solve your health issue, but knowing that when you bite the bullet and do it you’ll have to make lifestyle changes that you’re not quite willing to make yet? Yep, that’s why I didn’t read it for a long time, but finally I was ready and I just could not put it down. Every chapter touched on something important that either reassured me or taught me something new. You’re a terrific teacher and a talented, honest writer, and I appreciate it so much. Good luck with your novel." - Gretchen Roberts,

Nice, huh?

Emails can go either way, of course. You can receive something that can dent your day, too.

Any recent emails in your life that simply made you glad?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Those who can ... teach!

Susan's comment on my last post got me thinking.

Every so often you still hear the cliche: Those who can't, teach.

Not true.

I know so many accomplished writers who teach not because they need the money but because they enjoy teaching or they feel teaching allows them to give something back.

Sure, teaching can be a drag. But after an all-day class like the one I taught today at UC-Irvine, I remember how much fun teaching can be. I have such respect for my students who could have been doing so many other things on this beautiful summer day but they chose to be sitting under florescent lights progressing their writing. There was gobs of talent in the classroom today, so much so that I felt invigorated.

This goes for all of my students. I'm lucky I get to help them along their path.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Desert heat

We're in the desert for our annual end-of-school vacation. Yesterday, as we left the Blue Coyote in Palm Springs, the car's thermostat said 120 degrees. Or was it 122? I can't remember; I was delerious.

Actually, it's not that bad. It's balmy at night in the pool.

Here are Brian's glasses. Well, his old glasses. Because the sun and the heat cracked them like marbles dropped in a kettle of boiling water.

My first summer vacation book: Sideways by Rex Pickett. I loved it. Absolutely loved it. Laugh out loud funny and a tearjerker at the end. Enjoyed the movie and have been curious about how the book was. Some of the writing wasn't great but overall I loved it. A guy's book. Very enjoyable. Anyone else read it?

What are you reading and recommend?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Amy Tan snippet

Today, Reuters has an interview with Amy Tan.

At the end of the interview, she says, "I never talk about what a new book is about as it will leave me. There is a story in Chinese where a man goes to a magical place and is overwhelmed by the beauty and the peace. He has to leave and they tell him that if he tells anyone where this place is he will never find it again. That is the metaphor for writing. You are in a secret place and discovering it but once you tell people it is gone."

I write about this very thing in Pen on Fire, how talking about a work can cause it to evaporate. I used to talk about my works-in-progress so very much. Dangerous stuff.

Hence, shhhhhh........

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Real quick.....

Have you donated to Darfur yet? I just did. I've been meaning to, but you know how it goes.

So my class just ended, Trav is at a friend's, Bry is at a gig, and I turned on the TV--wishfully hoping for Angels baseball snippets? Instead, my attention is captured by images of a refugee camp accompanied by a Tony Bennett soundtrack and then Tony comes on and urges the viewer--me!--to donate to the cause, and I got right up and marched to the laptop and did it. TV rarely moves me to do a thing. I was moved.

Only $100, but it's something.

It's serious over there. I can't even imagine.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A cool web site I just discovered

I just came across this portal to all sorts of literary links. It's called New Pages.

Utne Magazine, one of my very favorite magazines (to which I subscribe), says, ", the best overall Internet portal to the alternative press, independently organizes pages of links to hundreds of magazines, independent publishers and bookstores, literary magazines, newsweeklies, and review sources. also publishes unique book and zine reviews, and an interesting weblog broadly covering the world of arts, publishing, and libraries."

Check it out! (Just don't spend so much time there that you forget to write.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fee-charging agents

A friend wrote to me and said a friend of his was interested in an agent who charged a "registration fee." This wasn't a fee to read the manuscript, the agent said.

Sounded like a crock to me.

So I asked Linda Konner, a literary agent in NYC that I met through ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors), and here's what she said:

"Registration fee? Hmmm... What precisely are you registering for? It does sound like a convenient variation on a reading fee which, as we know, isn't charged by respectable agents, eg, members of AAR (Association of Authors Representatives). Some agents will charge clients minimal expenses fees associated with the submission and follow-up of proposals and related author materials. But unless this agent is promising something beyond the standard agent duties, no up-front fees should be paid."

Enough said?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Can you spot a fake smile?

(If you tried this link the other day and it didn't work, try again; I re-pasted it.)

I don't generally go for tests and such, but this one was fun, and gave me much to--ahem--smile about.

Click here to take the test.

Report your results. I got 12 out of 20, which surprised me. I thought I knew fake smiles!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cormac McCarthy and Oprah

There's an article by Eric Miles Williamson in today's Los Angeles Times about Cormac McCarthy and Oprah's concern with moral fiction.

Click here.


Anyone else see it?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Through the second draft--or is it the fourth?

I've reached the end of the second draft of Starletta's Kitchen, or is it the fourth draft? In his new little book, This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley says that reading through your novel completely is considered one entire draft. I've read through it twice, outlining it, making notes, following Carolyn See's directions on revising, so I guess that means I'll be going into draft number five.

Done through chipping away, every day, an hour or two, sometimes more. Making it a priority.

I have so much work to do! But the book is coming into focus. I need to take a look at the plots/subplots. Make sure enough is happening, make sure the structure is solid.

So, actually, there's still no end in sight...

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Endings are hard

I'm at the end of the draft novel--the last four chapters or so. I've been spending days on it. Endings are so important. The climactic scene is here and trying to decide, Should it go this way or that? How much to tie things up, or not? I like when books don't end entirely neatly, when there are some things left undone, left a bit vague.

I'm also working and reworking a love scene. How it should go--should they get together or not? What's enough and what's too much? If this were a romance novel, it seems that it would be easy. I could have heaving bosoms and rippled chests and purple prose. And that would be fine.

But what the protagonist ends up doing with her high school sweetheart is telling, in terms of her character, and his, and so I keep tweaking.

Love scenes are--ahem--hard to write. Elizabeth Benedict's book, The Joy of Writing Sex is so good. Benedict is a literary novelist and essayist. I always enjoy her writing.

I never planned to read The Horse Whisperer, but I saw it in the UCI-Extension lending library and I borrowed it. It contains a very short but strong love scene close to the beginning. I was impressed with how Evans handled it. I've only read a little bit of the book, but I can see already why Redford bought it to make into a movie.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Complex characters

So I'm down at the beach, it's low tide, and I'm searching through the rubble of shells and rocks and sand for seaglass when this man, late 60s, yellow teeth, with a little white dog, and rich (I think this because I saw him leave one of the multimillion dollars up on the hill as I descended the path; he didn't look like the help), and asks me what I'm doing.

It's illegal to pick up shells or sea life at this beach and I figure that's what he's going to ask me about, but he's aggressive and wears a scowl (and as I said, his teeth are yellow) and so I say, "Why?"

"Because it's illegal to take shells from this beach!" he says.

"I live here; I know," I say, "I'm picking up glass--"

"--I live here, too," he bellows.

I tell him I'm offended and he says, "You're offended because I asked you that? You're offended? Well, that's too damn bad!"

Which is when I say, "I think you had better get out of my face," and he backs off, huffing and puffing. He goes away, joins a woman wearing a visor, and I continue to pick up glass (which is what you see here, my find for the day), and all the while I'm thinking, If only he'd had a better tone. If only he'd been nicer, we could have had a conversation about how horrible it is that people come down to the beach and steal sea life and are wrecking the tide pools. I find myself feeling sorry for the woman, and the little dog, thinking: If this is how he treats strangers, how must he treat those close to him?

And I also begin thinking about tone in general, how so much is in the tone of how you say something.

E-mail can be a problem because the tone just does not come across. You think you're being funny and someone takes offense.

And in fiction, tone is vital. Without scene setting, gestures, the facial expressions of our characters, the tone can be a problem.

The man wore a permanent scowl. Had probably been a bigwig at a corporation, used to ordering people around, used to being a pain in a butt. And so now he felt he needed to rule his beach because he no longer had a company.

But he was also picking up trash, not just being a jerk, and so there you have a complex character....a nasty person who cares about the environment. Which is also what we need to do in our fiction: create complex bad guys that are difficult to hate.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thoughts on self-censoring

I tried to get a parking space at the Starbucks in my neighborhood (it's close, but not close enough to walk carrying a laptop and files and books) but it’s street cleaning day so while one side of the streets are empty of cars, the other side is full.

So I drove back here, to the Starbucks near UCI, and I settled in. Mid-morning is even nicer—sunny. It’s spacious, light, and I like the music, which is loud, Latin. I hear voices but I can’t make out what they are saying. Some of the same faces, some different. Saw someone I know from the radio station and he stopped to talk for a minute. I like talking to John, but it was writing time and I began to worry that the morning would be taken up with conversation. My mind darted about: Where else could I work that was close to home but not too close? And then he returned to the counter to pick up his snack.

I have been thinking about self-censoring, how writers are so prone to that. My post yesterday about the downside of the Starbucks in my neighborhood….I considered deleting the part about the surgically enhanced boobies. I don’t want to offend and it’s also such a personal opinion. Then I thought: But it’s what you feel and think about working at that Starbucks. So I left it. We’re too often worried about offending—to the point that we drain the life of our work because we’re afraid to say what we think.

So I left it. No disclaimers, no apologies (almost none, anyway).

These photos are from my beach walk prior to writing. That sign in the first one is a bit nerve-racking.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A different Starbucks, and later

So after a couple of weeks of going to The Office (Starbucks or Gypsy Den) like a job, every morning after I drop Trav at school, I realized that I was getting no exercise--unless you count carrying the laptop from the car to the table. I used to walk first thing and then tried working at home, to no avail.

Which is why I started working at a cafe.

But then, no exercise.

So I've adjusted things a bit. Now I walk as soon as I drop Trav at school, come home, shower, dress and then go to Starbucks. And a different Starbucks at that. One right up the street. I didn't want to go there because I don't want to be recognized by people in the neighborhood. But in mid-morning, I doubt that will happen. (Most moms from school--and dads--get their Starbucks fix right after they drop off their kids. There are no other writers that I know of...)

So while this Starbucks up the street has lots of women with surgically enhanced boobies in workout outfits prancing by on their way to the rest room, it doesn't have the corporate workers wearing ID tags around their necks, marching in to get their coffee. It's always something, right?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Friday at Starbucks

I almost didn’t make it today. I awoke at 4:00 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep until after 5:00. When some orchestra or another on the clock radio blasted me awake at 6:21, what I really wanted to do was go back to sleep.

Then Travis came into the bedroom, told me he was going to take a shower and I willed myself to get up and start his breakfast.

But I mulled not even getting changed, driving him to school in my polka dot pajamas and fuzzy pink slippers, come home and rest.

But then I told myself: Only two hours. You only have to work for two hours. Walter Mosley was in my head. He was on my show yesterday talking about his new book, which I love: This Year You Write Your Novel. His work ethic can make the best of us feel guilty. He says you should write every day. You should not miss one day.

I agree in theory, but on weekends, it doesn’t work for me. There is weekend stuff—things with Travis, church, the flea market, schtuff, and more schtuff.

So this morning, after I made Travis breakfast, a PP&J sandwich for his lunch (that’s all he wants!), washed and dressed and got myself and my writing things together, I took him to school and let my vow to work five days a week on my novel draw me to Starbucks near UC-Irvine.

I ordered Awake! tea, took it to a round cherry wood colored table and sat before my laptop.

Next to me a student was online. That’d be easy, mindless, fun, I thought.

But I vowed to not check email here at The Office.

And so I got to work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Starbucks Chronicles

Wednesday morning at Starbucks.

A wall of windows opens onto an expansive courtyard with tables, benches, and red geraniums that pop out against the gray day. Beyond, on the street, commuters flock to the companies that surround this Starbucks and to UC-Irvine, just down the street.

“He’s So Fine” blasts over the speakers.

The sounds of barista's voices: “Rachel!” “Emilio, Nonfat mocha grande!” “Tall nonfat cappucino!”

Across the room a man in a white shirt and groomed beard tears the paper sleeve holding his slice of zucchini bread, smears butter on the bread, and takes a bite. Then he sips from what looks like iced tea on his left as a steaming double-cupped coffee sits to his right. He dunks his bread into the hot drink and chews as he wipes his fingers with brown napkins. He dunks another piece, chews, gazes through the window, and dunks again.

I should stop studying him, and turn my attention inward to my novel. But I have been working since I arrived. I copied all of my chapters to one file because it has been a major pain in the behind trying to find certain scenes or lines of dialogue: Did the mother character say that, and if she did, where? Does Starletta’s friend, Madeline, ever show up in the flesh or only over the phone? Does Quinn have a blond hair to his chin or gray gelled porcupine-quill like hair?

So many things to lose track of in a novel. Flannery O’Connor said fiction is messy. Indeed. I still have separate chapters, too, but each time I revise one, I will copy it to the “entire revise” document for when I need to search, and find.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Publishing Perks

One of the perks of publishing a book is meeting people you would probably never otherwise meet. My new friend Sherry, a talented writer whom I met at an event where I spoke last year, asked me to speak to a group of professional, fundraising women in La Habra.

So last night I drove north—sometimes crept--on various freeways and streets, past Disneyland, past Angel Stadium.

The din of the group flowed onto the sidewalk as I headed up the walk to the front door.

The group crowded in the living room and kitchen of a member’s home. There were prominent women in the community—some whose families had streets named after them.

And they wanted to hear what I had to say. Sometimes, when I’m speaking to certain groups, I have a sort of out-of-body experience. I flash back to being lil Barb who almost quit high school, who, for a time, circled the drain, who, for a time, had friends who were bad to the bone, getting arrested, being sucked down the drain.

And somehow I bypassed—ahem, was plucked?—away, rescued from the nowhere path I was on, from that sort of life. (Was it grace or my Guardian Angel? Was it serendipitous? I tend to go with grace...) And somehow I made something of myself. Something more than what I was headed for, anyway, even if I feel I still have a ways to go.

One of the best parts of speaking to groups is inspiring people to follow a dream, whatever that dream may be. It sounds so hokey, so corny, and yet, it’s hard to figure out what the point of it all is without dreams and aspirations, without something to aspire to, however simple. Because even if I never move any further along my path, never attain that which I wish to attain, what I’ve been given is more than I ever expected I’d have, and I'm at a better place than I expected at my lowest point.

And now, the next morning, at Starbucks, as I write this (and save as a Word doc to upload later), as I drink white tea bought using the gift card that the group gave me, a sweet token for coming to speak, I feel grateful for small kindnesses, and large. New friends, the chance to inspire, gift cards—all perks of publishing a book. Thanks, Sherry….

Monday, May 14, 2007

Back at Starbucks and bestsellers

I’m back at Starbucks. It’s not so perky here today. An old gray sheet hangs below the Southern California sunshine, making it cozy inside with the South American music playing, lights hanging from the black ceiling, the clink of cups and din of conversation. It helps that there are no waitpersons here as there are at the Gypsy Den. No one walking up to me asking if I’m okay, if there’s anything I want. Just to write, I want to say, willing to pay to just sit without being bothered by the nice woman with the short hair and skimpy top, so young and worried looking.

I felt guilty at the Gypsy Den for not buying more so I’d leave a larger tip than was required. But here, at Starbucks, you step up to the counter. You order. You hand over your Starbucks gift card, drop a quarter into the Plexiglass container, and you’re done. No one comes up to you as you revise revise revise and asks if you’re okay. No one cares.

Oh, both places have their advantages. I love the eclectic quality of the Gypsy Den. I like the soft cushiony booth seating here at Starbucks. Like how there’s more room to spread out my papers.

It makes me all the more want that writers’ space. I will call a Realtor this week and see if such a place is possible

On another note, here's an interesting story about bestsellers in theNew York Times. It reminds me of what's been said before: that no one knows why some books make it and others don't.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Writing someplace new

Today I bypassed Starbucks for the Gypsy Den (as Catherine mentioned in a comment yesterday), which is an indie coffeehouse/restaurant near South Coast Plaza. And instead of white tea, I’m drinking a cappuccino. How daring!

It's 7:40 a.m., just opened and there are few people here. Instead of a black Starbucks tee shirt, the barista/waitperson wears plain black with a red and black scarf around her head. On her feet--white high-top Converse. The floor is sandblasted cement and little birds—sparrows?--hop about, pecking at crumbs which are pretty much absent at this early hour.

“Place is fate,” said fiction author Ron Carlson at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books a couple of weekends ago. He was talking about writing fiction, but I wonder how this place, the Gypsy Den, will influence my fiction.

I’ve begun thinking, again, that as well as starting an author speaking series here in the O.C., I want to find a building to make a writer’s space, to rent desks and space, a place away from home to write--for me and for all the writers who really need to get out of the house to work on fiction.

Anyhoo, here’s what I see from where I sit at my table in the corner….

So then I left, to use the rest room, and brought all my gear. (the rest room is on the compound, but not in the cafe). This waterfall sculpure is out back on the way to the restroom, so I thought I'd continue working here, but it was so noisy and bright.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

From where I sit

I know you're all dying to know about this Starbucks that I go to each morning like it's work. So today I bought zee camera and shot a few from where I sit. See...I really do go to Starbucks every day.

If you have a site, post pictures of where you work and post your link under comments. I want to see!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Coffee houses

I'm still at it, going to Starbucks after I drop off Trav, but I do wish there were other coffee houses to choose from. Berkeley has something like 70+ independent coffee houses to choose from and we have a handful in the O.C. The independent ones I can think of that are nearby have tiny tables and uncomfortable chairs.

What's a girl to do?

Keep going to Starbucks, I s'pose.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I think about it all the time

Diet Coke.

It's sad but true. I gave it up. Again. Over the years I keep giving it up. Why should it be so good? A bunch of food coloring and artificial sweetener. Oy. Vey.

So it's Sunday afternoon and I'm watching the Angels vs. White Sox, my other addiction--the Angels, that is. (Yesterday went to the game with Brian and Travis. The two of them went today...)

When I'm watching a ball game, or when I'm writing in the afternoon, I want a Diet Coke.

Now I drink water. And white tea or green tea or black tea without the caffeine. I love the smell of coffee but I won't drink it. Makes my heart go all aflutter. One of the best things is sitting down to write with a cup of dark roast coffee. When I lived in Vermont, I drank espresso with a sliver of lemon peel.

The Diet Coke habit came later. I don't use artificial sweetener in anything, but I love it in Diet Coke. Bizarre.

What do you drink when you write? Or have you given up something (like coffee) and are developing a habit of something else?

Friday, May 04, 2007

A Starbucks regular

You know you've been showing up at the same place for days on end when you step up to the counter and the barista says, "White tea?" and gives you a little smile. I hand over the aqua insulated cup that I bring every day and she hands it back with steaming tea.

I am more than halfway through the revision. Flannery O'Connor's words, that writing a novel is a messy business, pong about my head. Sure is messy! So many pages, so many scenes, characters and lines of dialogue to keep track of. Where is that scene? I wonder. Did so and so say such and such to so and so, and if so, where???

I refer to my notebook where each chapter is sketched out, according to Ms. Carolyn See, and that has helped keep track. I can see the value of having a couple of huge files containing all the chapters so when you wonder these sorts of things, you can easily do a search, but I didn't do it that way. Each chapter is its own document.

It takes time, revision does. And patience. And lots of white tea.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Writing at Starbucks

It's still working. I started last week, and so far have been there each morning this week for two hours. The noise isn't even as distracting as email. (I've kept my vow of not checking email while I'm there.)

This morning a huge group of older adults, mostly dressed well and wearing jewelry, came in and pushed a bunch of tables and chairs together and took over the place. The din rose to the point of when I was on the phone with my chiropractor, I had to go outside to hear the person on the other end of the phone.

Still, I found that noise less distracting than the distractions at home when I'm working on fiction.

A few years back I was diagnosed as being an ADD adult so I wonder if the noise makes me focus in.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Too personal...or not personal enough?

I have a friend who thinks I'm being a bit too personal about my writing woes. This friend thinks I should zip it, and just write away. And if I'm dealing with any obstacles, to just keep them to myself. This friend also doesn't think I should go out to a cafe to work. He/she thinks I should just stay home and buckle down.

So tell me, does it make you uncomfortable when I, or any other writers with blogs, talk about what they're dealing with, whether it be procrastination, writers block, or not being able to write at home? Seriously, i want to know.


The LA Times Festival of Books was stellar, as usual. My friend Allison and I decided we liked the humor panels best. The panelists on the one I moderated (Allison Burnett, Merrill Markoe, Pamela Ribon and Amy Wallen) were hilarious. The other two humor panels we went to were great, too. Allison and Amy are going to come on the show in July, methinks.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leaving home.... write. Well, to work on fiction. I've done it sporadically over the years, but finally realized I had to do it like a job. So I went out and bought a new battery for my iBook, one that lasts almost four hours.

It works like this: I drop my son at school and go to a cafe. One morning it was Kean, the next Starbucks near UC-Irvine. I work on the revision of Starletta's Kitchen for two hours and then I leave. I vow not to check email, although my original intention was to work at cafes that are not wireless. But now the world seems to be wireless and it's difficult to find a place that isn't. Maybe the beach, or a park. But I want to work at a table. Monday through Friday, unless something comes up that I have to take care of, this is what I plan to do.

At home it's too difficult to not get distracted. And as Dennis Palumbo has said, email is death to writers.


Today is the first day of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA. I'm moderating a panel this a.m. on fiction and humor. So many great panels. I believe BookTV will be broadcasting some. Anyone going?

The ASJA conference in NYC last weekend was stellar. Great panels there, too. (They're for sale at


I like what Melissa Bank said at the panel on Voice at the ASJA conference. She said she has a drawing of a rhinoceros being airlifted and it reminds her that writing is difficult.

What techniques do y'all use to get writing done?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The ASJA Annual Writers Conference

Are any of you going? I'm leaving on Thursday for the three day affair in New York City. I love New York. My father grew up in Harlem, then the Upper East Side (he was from Sicily, but took a ship to NY as a teen and never looked back). In the 11th grade, we bussed up to the city from my Pennsylvania hamlet and went to Times Square and Radio City Music Hall. One New Year's Eve when I was 17, I went to Times Square. A man grabbed me and kissed me. Yuck.

Such a people watching city. Great food. Great shops. Personality.

Mostly, I'll be at the conference, which I'm co-chairing. Great panels. Great people. Friends I haven't seen since last year this time. But we also plan to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Little Italy.

And next week, as you know if you've been reading this blog for a while, is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I'm moderating a panel on humor and fiction on Saturday morning. Another great event for writers and for readers.

Writers conferences and retreats and talks and panels are food for writers. I always come away with inspiration or new ideas or new contacts and new friends. In the summer of '92, I went to Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, one of the best West Coast conferences for literary writers. I met one of my idols there: Clarence Major. Of course, me being me, I didn't introduce myself until my last night there; he so intimidated me. Later, when I had a show, he came on my show and after that, our interview was published in a book about him.

Beginning in June, for those in Southern California, we're starting a speaking series called Novel Voices. I started yet another blog where I'll be posting info as we get it (

If you know of any stellar events for writers, wherever you are, post them here.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut died

He influenced so many writers. I love these Vonnegut quotes:

"Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be."

"Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why."

"Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae."

"Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops."

"Human beings will be happier - not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That's my utopia."

"I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."

"I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center."

"People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God."

His books--Slaughterhouse-Five, Sirens of Titan, Player Piano and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater--affected me. I was in college, becoming a writer.

We should have memorial services for Vonnegut all over. Read his work aloud. Remember.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Dolor de cabeza

When I have a migraine, which seems to be more often lately, there's little I want to do. Cooking is hard. I can read okay, but it's hard to concentrate on writing most anything at all, except for e-mails. So I apologize for being remiss and not posting.

My librarian said she's been to the ER three times with migraines. Mine have never been that bad, fortunately.

I also had a student who rarely made class this last session because of migraines. The best she could do was get to work. I feel for her.

Today I took Excedrin Extra Strength and the migraine is at bay. It's there, lurking, like a parking meter cop, waiting to swoop down at the first chance it gets. I even said a prayer to St. Jude, the saint of lost causes.

I cannot think of one man who gets migraines. They seem to be a female thing.

What do you do for migraines?

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Book abuse

In the New York Times last week, an essay by Ben Schott in which he talked about abusing books*. You know, turning down the corners, leaving them splayed open, marking them up.

I love it when readers of my book tell me their copy is all marked up. I don't consider it abuse. I consider it love.

Although I did loan a friend a brand new book and it was returned to me, abused. Coffee stains, wrinkled. And it made me unhappy.

But I must admit to you here and now: I am a book abuser. An inadvertant abuser.

I left the book that you see on the table on the back patio last summer. I brought it out to Travis who was on the chair hammock and we never brought it back in. I figured others would look at it, namely Brian's guitar students or their parents. It seemed, of all the books I own, the one book that should be available to the public, to kids.

Through the searing sun, through the rain, through the Santa Ana winds and the itinerant cats in the neighborhood, and who knows what else, the book has remained on the patio table. Sometimes it's positioned in such a way that I'm sure someone has been looking at it, maybe even reading it.

I suppose I abused the book, but look how sturdy it is, for a mere paperback.

How are you with your books?

* If you go to the NYT, you probably won't be able to access Schott's essay unless you pay. I found it on this blog, unabridged.