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24 posts from October 2005

October 31, 2005

Harley's Halloween Nightmare

HARLEY’S HALLOWEEN NIGHTMARE
By Harley

This being Halloween, I got to thinking about the scariest thing in my life right now.

The runner-up? Rashly volunteering to host this year’s Pot-luck in the ‘Hood—you’re reading this while I’m readying my house for 25 children, 25 adults, and a fair number of dogs.

The winner? It started last week with a date. As my husband and I drove down the canyon roads to see A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE—great movie, by the way—I cracked open a window.

“What are you doing?” my husband said. “It’s freezing.”

“No, it’s not,” I said. “You must be getting sick.”

(This, for us, is reverse dialogue. He generally dresses for the beach, while I dress for the North Pole.)

Cut to: two mornings later, 6 a.m. I’m making school lunches, and wondering how the house has gotten so hot. I set down the peanut butter, throw off my sweatshirt in irritation, and then remember the window-cracking incident.

Then realize I’m always kicking off the covers in bed lately, except when I’m freezing.

Then it hits me. In a flash. And not just any flash. A hot flash.

OH, MY GOD.

(superimpose Edvard Munch’s “The Scream .”)

I can’t be having hot flashes. Okay, yes, fine, I’m technically old enough, but doesn’t one get some special dispensation for having children still in diapers? Not that hot flashes per se scare me. It’s what they’re symptomatic of that gives me pause. And not just any pause. Menopause. There. I said it.

Menopause.

NooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!

My own reaction startles me. When it happened to my sister Dory, it seemed interesting, her “I’m having a hot flash” announcements. But Dory is my big sister, Sibling #4 out of 7. I am #8. The Baby. This can’t happen to me. I write Chick Lit, for God’s sake. I’m emotionally immature.

I finish the lunches in a blur of existential anxiety, putting the peanut butter sandwich in the lunchbox of the child that prefers cream cheese, and vice versa. What are the other symptoms of menopause? I wonder. Memory loss?

Irritability.

Now I begin to notice how things suddenly make me . . .peevish. Snappish. Irked.

“When do you plan to give those up?” I ask my 3 and a half year-old daughter, watching her change her own diaper.

“When I’m thirty-one,” she replies. Her twin brother informs me he’ll be ready by age 7.

Great.

After getting the kids to school, and noticing how annoyingly young the other preschool moms, teachers, janitorial staff, and bus drivers look, and having hot flashes every 15 minutes, I drive home and do the unthinkable. I go back to bed. I will stay in bed, I decide, until I have a philosophical epiphany. My husband, exiting the shower and seeing me in bed, jumps. I am never in bed at nine in the morning.

“What are you doing?” he asks, shocked.

“Having hot flashes,” I say.

Does he come over, look deeply into my eyes, and tell me I have never looked more beautiful? No. But neither does he announce, “time to get a trophy wife!”

He says, “okay.”

I miss my mom. I (hot)flash back to her in the hospital, after her hysterectomy. She was in tears. “What’s the big deal Mom?” I said, with all the compassion of a teenager. “It’s not like you were planning to have more kids. Like eight isn’t enough?”

30 years later, in bed, I get it. But I do not get a philosophical epiphany. Instead, I nap. I wake to a hot flash.

I e-mail an old classmate and discover the single best reason to maintain alumni relations: Same-age sympathy. Linda informs me that this is NOT menopause. It’s PERI-menopause. Whole different ballgame, she assures me. I can chill out.

For now.

Five days later, the hot flashes are in recession, and my son goes a whole afternoon without diapers and his twin sister, more resistant to change, exchanges diapers for Pull-ups. I celebrate by giving them each an M&M and then knock back a few dozen myself.

And that’s my plan. My philosophical epiphany. To eat chocolate with reckless abandon.

Happy Halloween!

Harley

October 30, 2005

She's Over It

She's Over It

by Susan

This just goes to show that no blog goes unnoticed.  I had posted last Wednesday about Elizabeth Royte's essay in the New York Times Book Review called "Publish or Perish," where authors she interviewed seemed to be whining about book promotion, something that set me off on a rant titled, "Get Over It."  Well, lo and behold, Elizabeth Royte read the column and emailed me.  Thankfully, she's a good sport.  She did want to get a few points across, and she gave me the thumbs-up to share her email here so y'all can read it for yourselves:

Dear Susan,
I saw your blog and its thread about my TBR essay and just wanted to clarify: I like the publicity part too. That's where euphoria comes in: you're cruising along, doing interviews, reading, talking to people who are interested in what you wrote, etc. It's fun and it's rewarding. But eventually it starts to wind down, and you've become used to all this positive feedback, and then it's over. New books get published, the Amazon numbers change, life goes on. For some writers, accepting this reality is hard. As is realizing that financial success -- selling enough books to earn out your advance -- is largely out of your hands. I think many readers have confused the people quoted in the essay with the author of the essay. I'm more than happy with everything my publisher and publicist have done for me. Perhaps I should have inserted the word "some" before every instance of "authors."
At any rate my essay, as you noted, was meant to be funny. It's hyperbole. I used the stages of grief as a conceit that I thought would reveal something about some writers' state of mind as they follow this path. Next time I'll write an essay about what it's like to raise the hackles of so many people in the blogosphere!
All best,
Elizabeth

Hey, the lunch offer is open, Elizabeth, if you're ever in St. Louis!  We can share tips on book promotion...or not.  And, again, thanks for the note and for having a sense of humor.

Please check in on Monday morning, as I'm sure Harley will post something spook-tacular for Halloween!  (Yes, I really did say "spook-tacular.")  I know she's excited about all that candy anyway.

Cheers,

Susan

Jayhawk_1P.S.  I do believe my Kansas Jayhawks beat those nasty Missouri Tigers yesterday!  Rock Chalk!  (Naomi, I'll bet your hubby's happy.)

October 28, 2005

Thin Places and Creepy Authors

By SarahBats

One blustery October morning at the height of foliage season, I stood on a bridge over the deep Quechee Gorge in Vermont and looked down at the rocks below where the body of a young man lay sprawled and distorted, whiter than a fish belly. It was a suicide, of sorts, the end of a long complicated story involving a corrupt Catholic priest, homosexual relationships and a cover-up that my newspaper never permitted me to report. One of the low moments in my career, kind of. But that's not what I was thinking when I studied that body to which rescue teams were carefully inching their way to retrieve. What I was thinking was how haunted the place felt, as though this mortal plane and that immortal plane had momentarily connected.

Later, I would understand the term for when the veil between two worlds is momentarily lifted - thin place.  A thin place can be a temporary state of mind or situation, such as the suicide in the Quechee Gorge or even the moment of birth. Or they can be actual, physical places - mountain tops, sea sides. Mystics will travel miles to visit them. Remote parts of Scotland come to mind when I think of thin places, or the uninhabited, steep Blasket Islands off Ireland. No wonder a group of medieval monks made their barren homes on nearby, rocky Skellig Island. The only time I've been able to completely recreate the thin place feeling at the Quechee Gorge was on a beautiful, clear blue summer afternoon on the Blaskets.

Or it can be a season, fall. Or an actual day like Halloween. All Saints Day. All Souls' Day. El Dia de los Muertos.

I'd be curious to know how people in Southern parts of the country feel this time of year. I mean, if I didn't have the bleak atmosphere around me - Nancy's bare black branches clicking against the window, the desolate New England landscape with its damp, unforgiving wind - I don't know if I'd be so convinced that we were entering a thin place. Then again, El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated Nov. 1 and it's warm in Mexico, so there.

This is when I hunger, no make that crave, rainy days and haunting authors. I believe they can bring us to thin places, too. I'm not talking about gory thrillers. No, what I want this time of year is Shirley Haunting Jackson and The Lottery or The Haunting of Hill House (and may I recommend the 1963 movie The Haunting with Julie Harris - forget the more modern version). I've never been a big Stephen King fan, though I do admire his writing techniques, but I understand Salem's Lot is similarly creepy. My daughter loved and was spooked by Jade Green by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.There's Anne Rice, of course, though the only one that really got me by the throat was The Witching Hour.

(By the way, there was an interesting story about Anne in the New York Times this week and how she lives in a:  six-bedroom villa with 10 bathrooms and an elevator...Ms. Rice spends most of her time in one room. She hardly uses the big library or the study on the second floor, and she doesn't play the grand piano in the living room, though staff members sometimes do. Talk about creepy. You can read more at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/27/garden/27rice.html )

And so, I am proposing a list to which I hope you will contribute. Right now I'm reading Daphen Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, perfect for a fall evening. But I'm almost done and I want to be totally creeped out by Halloween.

Sarah

October 27, 2005

Treats, Not Tricks

By Nancy   Go to fullsize image

Sometimes late at night with bare branches beating against my dark office windows loud enough to scare the headless horseman off his pony, with the lamps turned low (so I can see my computer screen) and the pot of tea turning cold on the edge of the desk ... I consider beating myself over the head with my OED.

Maybe I have struggled to get a paragraph just right or realize I've spent four days working on a character that's gotta go because he just doesn't work for my story. Especially as I work to deepen and layer the books in my series and I battle the same art vs. entertainment dilemma as other crime writers who have ambitions of creating literature, I am often overwhelmed by my self-imposed task. On the brink of despair, I take the dagger from my drawer and ... open a royalty check that makes me wonder why I didn't stick with the teaching gig.  (Hey, I'd be almost ready for that paid retirement by now!)

"Can I write another book? A better book?" I ask aloud.  I can almost hear the voice of the statue of the raven that hovers over my chair.  His answer: "Nevermore."

Yes, writers have low moments like these.  Some of us are more tortured souls than others. But the other night, all alone and feeling as if I'm the most obscure and struggling writer in America, I heard a little ding-dong.  No, not the doorbell pressed by early trick-or-treaters all dressed like Harry Potter.  It was an email slipping into my In-Box.

Hi, Nancy:

I just wanted to drop you a note of thanks for your Blackbird sisters mysteries.  (I just finished #3). When I read the first one, I was especially captivated by the setting -- my husband and I had recently visited New Hope and driven around Bucks County a bit (including a stop at Bucks County Saddlery, where I managed to pick up yet more horsey stuff I just *had* to have -- and I don't even own a horse!) I loved Nora at first sight, and very much enjoyed how you developed her relationship with Michael.

Recently, the books have become even more meaningful. My mother was recently diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.  She's an avid reader (a trait she passed on to all 3 of her daughters), and now more than ever really craves fun reads. I passed along How To Murder A Millionaire, and she really enjoyed it; she passed it, in turn, to my youngest sister (who does chauffeur duty when I fly up on the weekends to see Mom). This past Friday, Book #3 kept me entertained at the airport through the hour-long flight delay and had me giggling out loud as we pulled away from the gate (it was the scene of Spike at the children's benefit Christmas party -- I don't think I'll ever hear "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" without grinning again). I can't express how much I valued that moment of carefree laughter. I thank my lucky stars for you and the other writers who keep me company, make me laugh, and generally help me (and, I'm sure, so many others) through times like these.

You might be surprised how many times I receive this note.  Or ones very similar. Is there a faster way to put a lump in my throat? No. Do these strangers mean something to me? You bet. I think of them often, wonder how they're coping and wish I could do more. I know their names.  I write back.  Sometimes I wonder how things turned out, but I'm afraid to ask. They're not strangers to me anymore.

Here's another classic, but this one makes me grin like a kid who finds the big Snickers bar at the bottom of the trick-or-treat bag:

Hello!  My name is ______ and I am doing a book report on you and there are a few things I can't find.  I was just wondering if you could either give me some sites to look up or if you could just tell me yourself.  The Questions are: What is your date of birth? What is your hometown?, and some stuff about your family.  If you could please email me back before Wednesday I would appreciate it.

A note like this makes me want to bake cookies for this young lady and have them waiting with hot chocolate when she comes home from school. Oh, sure, we get complaints, too. (Even threats. One feisty critic says she won't read any more of my books unless I bring back a character.) But I don't take offense. Usually. Most of the time, I find those comments useful. (Often, they're more helpful than your average newspaper flak.) They're a way of taking the temperature of my readership, learning what works and what doesn't. (Of course, there was that one reader who loved my books but CROSS YOUR HEART AND HOPE TO DIE hadn't reached her library yet and would I please, please send a copy to a certain Georgia public library as soon as possible?)

Maybe Nora Roberts gets this short and appealingly breathless one on an hourly basis and is therefore casual about it, but I doubt it:

Love the new book so far ... cannot wait to read more, I am hooked on your books!! Please keep writing them, you are wonderful!!!

Would such a single, out-of-the-blue email acknowledgment from one caring reader have helped Truman Capote? Changed Hemingway's destiny? Given Sylvia Plath pause? I only know how much they buoy my spirits and send me rushing back to the keyboard, eager to try again, to stretch my skills, give it everything I have.

Have just read your first books of the Blackbird Mysteries and I am on my way to buy the next one. I could hardly put it down. I have never written to an author, but I just had to say that is has been such a delight. I have been bed ridden for a while and these books have been a great escape from this godforsaken bed.  Now I am on my way to health and the first thing I am going is to Barnes and Noble for my next copy.  Just to let you know that for some people your books really mean alot.  Thank You, _________.

Now, tell me.  Is there a higher calling in life than giving people a smile when they need one? I don't think so. 

So it's my turn to say thank you to every reader who's ever sent me an email or passed one of my books to a sister or even asked your local librarian to buy a copy of CROSS YOUR HEART AND HOPE TO DIE for the circulating collection. You're doing me a favor. You might think writing a note to an author is like shooting a lone firecracker into the night sky--one that pops feebly once and disintegrates into the dark void. But it's not like that at all. Communicating with appreciative readers is one of our great joys. Sure, our mothers give us pats on the back, our editors occasionally send kudos, and once in a blue moon our agents take time from their hectic schedules to toss us a kind word. But that's their job.  Your unsolicited messages are pure gold. You make my struggle a happy one.

Keep 'em coming, readers. If you loved a book lately, figure out a way to drop an author an email. (Most authors have websites that communicate directly to the person working on his or her next manuscript.) Don't be shy. If they don't reply, shame on them. (Or maybe your email address doesn't work.  Hear me, ReesesPieces??) I guarantee you'll make somebody's day.  And there's no greater act of kindness.

N

October 26, 2005

Get Over It

Get Over It

by Susan, the Cranky Book Tart

Look, I understand the need to whine.  I can bitch with the best of them (ask my mother—she’s listened to me complain for so many years she's gotta be on the fast-track to sainthood).  But reading Elizabeth Royte’s essay, “Publish and Perish,” in the New York Times a few days ago stepped on my last nerve.  She talks about the “fleeting” excitement that writers feel upon publication of a book, fleeting because of the “tortured journey” one must take to promote, which “can only be described, in hindsight, as self-induced misery.”

So, Elizabeth.  Promoting a book is misery and torture?  No one paid as much attention to you as you’d hoped?  Oprah didn’t embrace you with open arms and let you jump on her sofa yelling, “I’m in love, I’m in love!”  Didn’t have tribes of drooling fans showing up at your every store event?

Well, boo-frigging-hoo.

Bring on the Kleenex, 'cuz I'm crying me a river.

It’s sort of like when my tiara pinches my skull and gives me a headache, and my arm gets tired of doing the beauty-queen-wave from the back of the Book Tart Mobile.  Man, it sucks, it really does.

What, my possums?  You detect a scintilla of sarcasm in my tone? 

Sigh.  You got me.

I’m no good at pretenses, so I’ll be blunt--or maybe just crabby--as usual.  What I’d really like to do after reading this woman’s essay is to grab her (and the other unhappy authors she quotes) roughly by the shoulders, shake her ‘til she’s dizzy, and say, “Lizzie, darlin', get over it.  You’re published, and you’ve got honest-to-God books on the shelves to promote.  Put on your big girl pants and deal with it.”

For Pete’s sake.

Maybe my sympathy is in short supply these days, particularly for authors with big-name publishing houses who act slighted when their realities don’t live up to their dreams.  Hey, this is the big, bad world, right?  If you’re not Donald Trump and can’t pay for the end results, you’ve gotta take what life deals you.  And sometimes it isn’t exactly what you imagined.

As y’all already know, it was years before I finally got published traditionally.  I didn’t take shortcuts (because no one cared to give me the directions, and I didn’t have any relatives in the biz to play the crony card, dammit).  And when I was finally pubbed by a small press that did 2,500 print runs of my books, I worked my ass off to sell whatever copies were out there because my publisher did nothing to help.  (And, yes, Charlaine Harris will tell you that I have no ass left.  Ask her.)

The basis for everything I know about promotion and the publishing business (like how vital distribution is above all), I learned while I was a small press author.  I had to figure out how to market my mysteries because my publisher admittedly didn’t know beans about the genre.  It was hard, hard work, and I spent more time and money publicizing AND THEN SHE WAS GONE and OVERKILL than I should have.  But I felt that I had to do whatever I could.  That might've been my only opportunity to get my foot in the door and pave the way for something more, the career I’d always wanted.

Fortunately, that work paid off. I found an agent and landed a three-book deal with Avon for the Debutante Dropout Series.  "Oh, boy," friends warned. "Look out.  You’re a paperback original author.  No one at your publishing house will lift a finger to help you sell your book."

My God, like that would scare me?  Hello? I came from being unpublished for a decade, to banging my head against the wall daily in small press hell, to getting a series deal with HarperCollins.  Nothing that would happen from that point forward could frighten me.  And I knew what I was capable of, both on the writing and promotional fronts.  (My mama didn't raise no sissy.)

So I used what I knew, and I promoted my Debutante Dropout debut, BLUE BLOOD, while the publisher made a solid effort behind the scenes to earn my book wider exposure.  I traveled like a demon, sat on panels at conventions and conferences, spoke at libraries, book fairs, schools, women’s clubs, and reading groups, anywhere they’d have me.  I’ve learned to do this promo thing year-round, too.  It’s part of my routine.  Strangely enough, I enjoy the hell out of it.  I’ve made friends across the country whom I stay in touch with, no matter if I’m touring or not.  I spend far more time emailing than I should, but, geez, gotta have a vice, right?  I’m not sure how other people handle promotion, whether some only do what their publisher arranges or if, like me, they go all-out and accept as many invitations as humanly possible (even cutting into writing time).  Or if they sit home, light a candle, say a prayer, and hope for book sales.  Whatever works, I say, so long as you smile and do any whining behind the scenes.

The point I'm trying to make, beyond the babbling, is that I take nothing for granted.  I am a published author.  I am living my dream every single day.  If you ever catch me publicly pissing and moaning about how awful it is to promote my books, please, do me a favor and kick my nonexistent ass.  Because I’ll deserve it.

I remember very vividly what it felt like to be unpublished.  To be writing and submitting and getting rejected, and having an old family friend say to me at my grandmother’s funeral, “Are you still writing?”  Like I was the most pathetic creature on the planet.

I will never forget the moment I signed my very first (yes, small press) contract, or when I held my first published book in my hands.  I still feel the same way when I see my books now, or even when I see a cover flat.  I get chills.  I grin like a total idiot. 

Perhaps, I’m odd or strange or just plain weird, but I feel privileged to be out there promoting.  I love speaking to booksellers, librarians and readers, hanging out with other writers, seeing parts of the country I’ve never seen.  It’s an unbelievable journey I’m on, and, yeah, sometimes it wears me out and I feel overwhelmed, but it sure beats the alternative. 

Cheers,

Susan

P.S.  Elizabeth, sweetie, on the off-chance that you actually read this, I do realize your essay was intended to humor, but I needed to rant about something.  So thank you for being my unwitting pin cushion.  And, um, are we still on for lunch next Tuesday?  My treat.

October 25, 2005

I gotta git me a cult

By Sarah

I had the privilege of visiting St. Louis for a signing recently (hi, Susan and Susan's mom) and by the time I hopped the plane out of there, I had come to one rock solid conclusion:

I gotta git me a cult.

I don't know how or where one finds cults. Maybe there are start-up kits on the Internet or I can bid for one on eBay. All I know is that if you look around, you'll notice that cults are popping up everywhere, including in advertising firms which are trying their damndest to figure out how they, too, can start cults. (Desperate Housewives/Dittoheads). The marketing potential is huge.

What got me started in St. Louis was seeing bus loads and bus loads of 30-50-year-old-women, all at least ten pounds overweight wearing clothes I recognized right off as having once graced the rack of J.C. Penney. I mean, these are my people! I know these women like I know the cellulite on my right thigh. Kids? Three. Carpool? Four days a week. Favorite mid-week recipe? Spaghetti. Stir Fry, depending. Biggest worries? The Visa bill and the pap smear that's six months overdue.

And yet, were they coming in bus loads to see me, Sarah Strohmeyer, the poster girl for midlife ennui? NO. They were packing a St. Louis sports arena by the thousands to see Joyce Meyer, a televangical minister who is known for openly asking attendees to donate a million dollars- and getting it. Hallelujah, praise the Lord!

Okay - so what does Joyce offer? According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch: "Meyer keeps the audience standing. She tells them that through her, God will cure their headaches, depression, stomach problems, drug addiction and homosexuality." Well, heck, I can do that: Tylenol. Chocolate. Ginger ale. Just say no and live with it. There. Done. Out the door and it didn't cost you a penny.

Joyce sells her wonderfully written, award winning books (cough) by the six digits. And she's not the only one with a cult taking up valuable shelf space. Ever see Your Best Life Now? I have, in the hands of half of those flying with me last month. It was written by televangelist Joel Osteen, a minister who packs 30,000 people a Sunday into his Texas church. Osteen's been sitting on the New York Times bestseller list for years. No wonder L. Ron Hubbard got on the cult bandwagon. This cult stuff is big, big business.

Even regular, non televangelical authors have cults - often by accident. I sat next to Nora Roberts while she signed books for six hours in her husband's Maryland store. It was August. It was hot. No one cared. The women who showed up were starry eyed and, get this, some had flown in from Texas where they'd just seen her the week before! One woman took an 11-hour drive. Hello?

Diana Gabaldon, author of the time traveling Outlander series featuring semi-unwashed Scottish hunk Jamie ("I kinna help myself, I mest havya noo Claire") has a cult following called Hosers. Hosers? Time-traveling Canadians is all I can think. It doesn't matter. Her first printing of Ashes and Snow was over a million.

Okay, so I have a listserve of 500  plus Bubblesheads. But they'd pitch a hissy fit collectively if you called them a cult. They spend more time talking about Nancy, Susan and Harley and a bunch of authors (Evanovich) than my books. Plus they're independent minded and definitely opinionated. Not cult material at all. Hmm. I'll have to work on them.

No I need slavish followers and I'm willing to take the necessary steps to get them. Got any ideas? I'm all ears.

Sarah - who is at 40,000 words on her multi-draft book and counting.

October 24, 2005

Coincidence? I Think Not

Coincidence? I Think Not
By Harley

My first husband accused me of literally writing him out of my life. He had a point: the week before we got married, we were on a cross-country motorcycle trip, and I started writing a play about a young couple on a cross-country motorcycle trip. By Act 2, the couple was divorced. It was not, in fact, the most promising predictor of marital longevity. But it was accurate.

The play, entitled GARAGE, took place in . . . garages. And when I moved out of the SoHo loft I shared with my husband, a year or so later, I ended up subletting a Midtown apartment with a beautiful view of . . . a garage. A parking garage. The Act 2 midtown parking garage I’d seen in my mind’s eye the moment I began writing the play.

Much later, I wrote a novel that included a Hollywood funeral scene. Among the mourners: a main character, 8 and a half months pregnant with twins, with swollen feet and tent-sized dress, weeping uncontrollably. One year after I wrote the scene, I found myself at the funeral of my friend Robert Urich.  I was 8 and a half months pregnant with twins, with swollen feet and a tent-sized dress, weeping uncontrollably.

Ah, you say, but there are a plenty of apartments in New York City with views of parking garages and plenty of funerals to go to in Hollywood.

True. But in August of this year, I wrote a scene in my current novel where my character, Wollie, unable to sleep, is reading THE ILIAD late at night. Suddenly, her boyfriend’s Trio, that incomprehensibly sophisticated cell-phone thing, practically jumps onto her lap, ringing. She doesn’t answer it, but does stoop to reading the text message, because she’s never seen a text message before, and she’s curious and it turns out to have some significance. At that point in my life, I’d never seen a text message either.

That didn’t happen till 2 weeks later, when, on a family vacation, I was awake in the hotel room, reading THE ILIAD, late at night, while around me, my husband and children slept. Suddenly, on the desk next to me, my husband’s Trio rang. Curious, I looked at it and saw . . . a text message. A message, as it turned out, of some significance.

(cue TWILIGHT ZONE music.)

Okay, these incidents are not breathtakingly interesting. I’m not a walking episode of the X-Files. Also, it’s not as if I’m channeling anything useful, like lottery numbers. I just periodically write things that seem mildly precognitive. I can’t do it at will, and it doesn’t serve any earthly purpose, but I’m curious as to whether other writers do this too. I suspect so. Regular, garden-variety writers, not the kind who wear turbans and take dictation from their cats.

Anyone?

Also, for those of you kind enough to inquire about my sleep deprivation, today I came close to napping during a book festival panel; not all that unusual, except that I was on the panel. Plus, when I left home, I locked up behind me, forgetting that my husband and kids were out hiking, sans keys. The children had to squeeze through the doggie door to get into the house.

And now that I’ve announced how to break into my place, I’ll sign off with another piece of good news: Target Halloween costumes are now 30% off and getting cheaper with each passing day.

Happy Monday!
Harley

October 23, 2005

A Wee Bit O' Sunday Filler

Sunday Filler

by Susan

Okay, Sundays are usually pretty quiet around The Lipstick Chronicles, so I figured it'd be a good chance Maxcat_2to share a photo of Max and let you know that he's completely insane, yet adorable.  How do kittens do it?  They can swing from the drapes, bite your neck, and crawl up your bare legs (causing you to look like you fell in a cactus patch), but you still find yourself going, "Awww, have you ever seen anything cuter?"  Anyhow, here's what the kid looks like, and you'll see why I'm so goofy about him.

I had a great time at the St. Louis Book Festival this weekend.  It allowed me a chance to catch up with friends, which is always good.  If only it had been a little warmer!  What happened to the 80-degree weather we had last weekend?  Of course, I sacrificed warmth for style.   Silly me.  But the waiter who critiqued Elaine Viets' and my outfits at Puck's in the St. Louis Art Museum did like my velvet blazer, though he said he liked my shoes even better.  (See, Daisy, we are making an impression with our footwear!)

Saw a copy of St. Louis Magazine with the "top singles" feature, and everyone looks faboo!  Although my eyes are freaky in the group shot with Steven and Beverly.  Why do I do that?  I love my solo photo, though.  I think I'll see if I can snag a copy from the photographer, as we were told we could, and I'll post it.  Although I might just try to scan the whole page and post.  We'll see what ends up working.  Only subscriber copies are out so far.  The November issue should hit newstands shortly, maybe next week!  I know my mom wants to buy four million copies.  No wonder this issue is always their biggest seller!

Now, I'm off to play with the iPod Nano I got for my birthday.  Wonder how long it'll take me to figure out how to work it?  I am so techno-challenged, it's pathetic.  If you have any tips, let me know.  Otherwise, y'all have a great Sunday afternoon, please.

Cheers,

Susan

October 21, 2005

The Top 25

This week, Time magazine announced the top 100 novels ever written in English.  Naturally, the list is not to our liking Go to fullsize image (for so many reasons!) so the Tarts have devised our own list-making effort as a fun weekend project, and we need your help. 

What are the 25 mysteries written by women you'd consider milestone books?   Books that changed things.  (Can you tell I was watching AMC's Movies That Shook the World special this morning?)  Maybe these books shook your world.  Maybe they changed the genre.  Maybe they have an extraordinary plot or voice or narrative device or whatever.---Let's make up our own category, shall we? Just murder mysteries you think are important.  Milestones.

Let the listing begin!

October 20, 2005

The Writing Zone

By Nancy  Go to fullsize image

Believe it or not, I was a jock.  I started swimming competitively at the age of 11 and by the time I hit 15, I had qualified for national ranking and I looked damn good in a bathing suit.  In college, I was good enough to compete on the men's team. 

A large part of my success was because my tough, demanding, cutting-edge coach was ... my mother.  (Now that I'm a parent, I recognize swimming is the ideal sport for teeangers because it keeps their heads underwater when they could be getting into the trouble to which some teenagers are more prone than others.  My mother is still the smartest person I know.) I trained many hours a day, even during the off-season because Mother was always trying new techniques and training regimes.  Years before it became commonplace, we had a makeshift gym in our home where my brother and sister and I did weight training.  My dad built a machine with ropes and pulleys (we called it The Rack) and for weights we lifted law books. At the age of 16, my resting heart rate was 57. I could eat 3000 calories a day and never gain an ounce that wasn't muscle.

And, as a swimmer, I experienced The Zone.  Not the Zone Diet, but the mental and physical state professional athletes know as The Zone.

If you haven't been into The Zone, I can only describe it as a phenomenon wherein your body reaches its most efficient performance--no, it's more than efficient, it's better, greater than you've ever performed before.  And it's effortless. Your mind is completely focused on what you're doing--nothing can distract you--and yet you feel ... untired. Exhilarated. As if you could sustain that optimal effort forever. It's joyous.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi (in his book, The Flow) says the experience includes a "certain transcendence."

Michael Jordan talks about games in which he couldn't miss, never tired, could see plays happening before they occurred and how he coule perfect them.  I first read about The Zone in a New York Times Magazine article about a young woman archer who could center her concentration so completely that she never missed the bull's eye.  Maybe yoga enthusiasts experience the same phenomenon.  (Me, I always faint in yoga class.)  Maybe it's what pitchers feel when they're pitching a perfect game.

As a writer, I've reached that same state of mental and physical perfection when joy and creativity and--well, maybe obsession combine. It happens when the story flows, the words rise to my fingertips without effort, my mind is completely engaged, the characters take over (a phrase I very much dislike, but I reluctantly admit it does occur) and I rarely have to change a word once it's down on paper.  It's a functioning creative high. 

If we writers can't regularly get ourselves into The Zone, finishing a book can become a long, hard slog. So I've worked on ways of getting myself into that cherished mental state when writing feels effortless and wonderful.

The first step is the old standby: Keeping your butt in the chair.  I wish this were a more inspirational motto, but it ain't.  You have to stick to it to get it done.  There's  just no way around that.  We must train ourselves in order to reach The Zone.  Build our skills and concentration first. Then apply posterior to chair, hands to keyboard.

Beyond that, I have other techniques for getting into The Zone.  You may think these are just ways of hoodwinking myself into writing, and you may be right. But I'm seeking that extraordinary state of productivity, and certain strategies work for me. When I'm having trouble writing (and I'm not talking about the infamous Writer's Block because by now we all know I preach the Gospel of the Outline wherein there is no such thing as Writer's Block, just lousy outlines) here are some tricks I use:

Let's call this one foreplay:  Sometimes it's best to take things slowly.  Walk away from the desk. Pack up a laptop and try making notes or dashing off dialogue in a coffee shop or some bustling, buzzing place.  Don't have a laptop? I often write longhand (I prefer those lovely, smooth legal pads with white paper, but let's not get me started on office supplies again, okay?) and I force myself to concentrate despite the activity around me, actually feeding off the energy of other people.  They cause a distraction that's much different from the dirty dishes in the sink or the beds that need to be changed, so it takes a different concentration muscle to focus in a public place. When I feel myself starting to approach The Zone, I can't get home to the desktop fast enough to write.

Another field trip: I stroll around a bookstore and browse sections I don't normally visit. (Honestly, the self-help aisle is enormously entertaining.) I look at covers, read cover copy.  I chat with booksellers. This can get a girl's competitive juices flowing.  I'm not talking about a competition for sales (which I don't believe exists--another blog topic) but who can be more creative, more clever, smarter, funnier.

Sometimes I get a Diet Coke (I'm just not a latte person) find a comfy chair and read magazines I wouldn't ordinarily read.  (I started subscribing to Vanity Fair for this reason.  It stimulated me.  So do magazines from cities I've never visited.  Long profiles of ne'er do wells in places like Dallas and Anchorage can be very inspiring.) I like magazines with a point of view, maybe a staff writer or two who are loose cannons and can write what they feel. Magazines for teenagers can horrify--yet intrigue--a parent like me. Ditto for magazines that delve into sexual preferences or art forms I don't completely understand.  But magazines are more up-to-date than books.  They foreshadow trends better. 

What writer doesn't like to eavesdrop? Have you see this blog?  It's a good substitute if you're too lazy to get dressed to go out. Some of my favorite eavesdropping locations are the imported cheese department at Whole Foods, a snooty local whine--oops--wine shop, an upscale jewelry store or any coffee shop without Wifi. (If everyone's online, they're not talking.) It's amazing what lines of dialogue you can simply lift from real life and insert into your own story.

Clean out my closets. Okay, this doesn't really help me write. But it makes me feel more productive, and I like to have something to show my husband when he gets home and suspects I've been Tivo-ing Buffy all day. Keeping your hands busy with a task can allow your mind to wander in and out of your story from new directions. Sometimes I hear myself speaking lines of dailogue aloud.  Then it's time to hit the computer.

Normally I keep the television turned off, but if I'm desperate, I watch fifteen minutes of a soap opera. Not one I know anything about--just a story about characters who live in a heightened state of melodrama. Soaps put conflict right out there--in words and action. Sometimes we novelists forget to focus on action and dialogue because it's easier to write narrative.  Soaps can be a good wake-up call.

Another technique to get myself into The Zone is to read a book by ... me.  Weird, huh? But sometimes I just need to read my own voice to get started again.

There's more, but if I keep going we'll get more complaints from the blog police about going on too long. What about you? Have you been in The Zone? What do you do to get inspired? To work yourself into that wonderful state where you hate to leave your computer? Let's hear some ideas for getting yourself Zone-ready.

Nancy