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29 posts from July 2006

July 20, 2006

Semi-Serious about Writing

Nancy continues our series, Seven Semi-Serious Questions About Writing, in which the Book Tarts add to the morass of internet advice for writers by contributing their own forays into dumbassery* for your edification....

What was your worst mistake?  You mean besides the time I left the Baggie in the trunk of my car and the campus police----Go to fullsize image

Oh, I get it. Sorry.  My worst career mistake was probably staying too long with a publisher because I felt the editors were my friends and had my best interests at heart. Maybe this is a girl thing, I dunno. For years I stayed with those friends even after I learned that other houses were paying twice what I earned for the same kind of book. Once I finally made the jump, I realized there are friendly, talented editors everywhere, and I shouldn't have been afraid to leave my comfort zone. Publishing is, after all, a business.

What advice do you wish someone had given you? To keep working on my craft. I was an English major, a moderately well-read person, and after college I taught grammer on the high school level. Plus I every manuscript I'd ever finished was published as a book. For a long time, those credentials helped me delude myself that I knew it all. I even had the hubris to believe I didn't need to read the "how-to" books or attend seminars about writing---and I had some good reviews (mostly by amateurs who knew even less than I did!) to bolster my misplaced self-confidence. Maybe I thought learning more might jinx me or douse my creative spark. But being obstinate for so many years really held me back. Now I recognize that I will never know everything about the art of writing. Plus, the nature of what's good keeps changing. (Yes, Virginia, it does.) To stay in the game, I should constantly work at my craft and pay attention to the marketplace.

Who told you you'd never be published, and what would you say to them now?  I never told anyone but my husband that I was writing my first book--to avoid exactly this scenario. I didn't want anyone sneering at me, so I kept my work a secret even from my mother until the first manuscript was finished.  When it sold, I took everyone by surprise. (Yeah, okay, some people were dumbfounded.) But a few years later--after I'd written and sold a number of romances--a former teaching colleague said to me, "I've decided to write a book, too.  I mean, if Nancy Martin can do it, I certainly can!" At the time, I wished her good luck.  Twenty years later, I still send her the very best wishes on finishing that book of hers.

If you could steal ideas from someone, who would it be? Nora Ephron. And Carrie Fisher. Or, more likely (!) from a newspaper piece like this one.

Commas. Does anyone really care anymore?  You're letting me vent just to get on my good side, right?  Look: Just because you can speak the language doesn't mean you can write prose that's acceptable to a $25+billion-a-year industry. If a manuscript has spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors in the early pages, agents and editors have every reason to believe the rube---er--submitting writer lacks the skills to get to the top of the heap.  Commas are a good example. Maybe America doesn't care about commas anymore, but if you want to be welcomed into the publishing profession, you need to learn the rules of punctuation. Especially if you're not a trained writer, journalist or English teacher, you need to educate yourself! For crying out loud, take a class at a community college. Buy a punctuation textbook. Keep ELEMENTS OF STYLE on your desk and read it once in a while. And trust me, you'll still have a lot to learn about writing. But at least you won't look like just another clueless wannabe on paper.

That said . . . my personal philosophy when it comes to commas is, "when it doubt, take 'em out." Because pop fiction readers prefer clear language whenever possible. If I have too many commas in a sentence, I know I should find a simpler construction to convey my meaning. That doesn't mean my ideas should be simple, of course.  But my writing should be.

What do you do when your career isn't going well? Mope. Then I kick myself in the head and start reading. Yes, there's a lot of schlock selling out there, but that should give me confidence.  And reading the really good stuff gives me inspiration. It's easy to blame your agent for lack of forward or upward motion in your career.  Or your publisher for poor sales. But the heaviest responsibility for success rests on the shoulders of the writer who creates the product. No agent can market a book that isn't written. No publisher can make a blockbuster out of a novel that's derivative. Or lacks fresh ideas. Or features a concept that's muddy. If I feel I'm falling behind, I know I need to open my eyes and look at what's happening in the world and in the business. Like all popular culture, the publishing biz changes every week.

If you could start all over, what would you do? I'd get much faster to writing what I can write uniquely well. Once I stopped trying to write like everyone else in my genre and went with my own voice, my own stories and my own tone and sensibility, things took off for me. (It took a hell of a lot of pages and the input of readers, editors, agents and reviewers to help me recognize my own strengths, though!) It was a long time before I realized that trying to follow the rules, stay within the confines of the so-called "conventions of the genre" or copy other writers just creates mediocre writing. Added plus?  Now that I'm writing what I love, I'm really enjoying myself!

Stay tuned for more enlightening words of wisdom from the rest of the Book Tarts!

* Dumbassery: Acts of dumb ass stupidity. (Etymology: Those brilliant minds at Smart Bitches. Points awarded to the first person to get this word listed in Wikipedia with proper citations to SBTB.)

July 19, 2006

Seven Semi-Serious Questions about Writing

By Elaine Viets

The Internet is abuzz with authors handing out useless, outdated and downright wrong information about writing. Why should the Lipstick Chronicles be any different? In the next few weeks, our mystery writers will take a stab at these literary questions.

(1) What was your worst mistake?

I didn’t have a lawyer go over my first agent’s contract. I was so thrilled to get a big-time agent, I signed it.

A year later, when the agent hadn’t sold anything and didn’t answer my letters, I wanted out of the contract. That’s when I went to a lawyer. I found out the agent was entitled to commissions on all my work "in perpetuity" – whether he’d sold it or not.

It took $2000 in legal bills to get out of that contract. It would have only cost a couple hundred if I’d gone to a lawyer in the first place.

That agent has gone to his reward (I hope he’s somewhere even hotter than South Florida) and can’t do you any harm. But there are plenty of scams for unwary writers, including agents who recommend dubious "editorial services" and rake off tidy commissions

If you’re thinking about signing with an agent, check out Predators & Editors, a site every professional writer should bookmark.

http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/peala.htm

Want to know how an ethical literary agent should behave? Check out the Association of Authors’ Representatives at

http://www.aar-online.org/mc/page.do

My agent belongs to AAR, but he made me swear on my next royalty check that I won’t reveal his name.

Want to know how a real literary agent thinks? Read Miss Snark’s blog at

http://misssnark.blogspot.com/>

(2) What advice do you wish someone had given you?

Keep reinventing yourself.

If you want a long-term career in publishing, you’ll have highs and lows. There’s a good chance your series will be dropped, you’ll be asked to write a stand-alone or start a second series.

Don’t cling to your first character as if you’ll never invent another. Embrace change. You’re a creative writer. Remember, they’re killing your series, not you.

(3) Who told you you'd never be published, and what would you like to do/say to them now?

A college English teacher gave me a C on an essay. He said I should give up writing because I had no talent. The prof turned out dusty academic prose but fancied himself a "popular writer" because he reviewed for the local paper. Gossip said he was looking for a New York publisher, but they weren’t looking for him.

When my first hardcover, MURDER UNLEASHED, tied with Harlan Coben on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association list, I wanted to send the prof a copy.

But that would be petty.

I have only three words to say to him: Neener, neener, neener.

(4) If you could steal ideas from someone, who would it be?

Sue Grafton.

(5) Commas -- does anyone really care anymore?

I love commas. They’re the cashews of punctuation. I sprinkle them generously throughout my work. The copy editors at my publishing house regard them as cockroaches, and ruthlessly stamp them out.

(6) What do you do when your career isn't going well?

Whine and blame the publisher.

(7) If you could start all over again, what would you do?

Everything right.

This time, I would understand that writing is a business as well as an art.

The first time, I thought when I turned in my novel, my work was done. Now I know it’s just started.

I didn’t have a marketing plan. I didn’t know what my sell-through was. I didn’t visit enough bookstores. I didn’t go to the big mystery conventions until after my book came out. And when I did go, I attended all the panels and avoided the bar.

I learned everything the hard way.

July 18, 2006

In Memory of Robert H. Brooks: Man with a Vision

(Editor's Note: Robert H. Brooks, founder of The Hooters restaurant chain, died this weekend of undetermined causes. We at TLC managed to sneak a peek at the draft of his eulogy written by Mandi Lykemen, his first waitress and, not coincidentally, Miss Citrus County, 1982. We hope you'll be as deeply moved as we were.)

Friends, family, loved ones, we gather on this most somber of days to honor a man I consider a mentor, a guide, a visionary. A man who possessed the rare talent to not only remain erect in all ways upon encountering a pair of youthful double D's, but to see dollar signs - as well as owl's eyes - in that most glorious of glands, the mammaries.Hoot

Yes, whether on a chicken or a cheerleader, Robert H. Brooks knew the value of a meaty breast. Oh, I know what you're thinking. What man doesn't? But let me ask you this  - how many men knew to put them together? Deep fried and dabbed with hot sauce and ranch dressing or squeezed (perhaps padded) in Spandex, no breast was ever treated with such reverence as those displayed under the 456 Hooters roofs across the globe.

More_hooters Though Robert H. Brooks - Bob - traveled the world, he was firmly American. Who can forget Monday "Cammo" nights when we Hooters' girls - as Bob so creatively insisted we be called - stripped off our trademark white Spandex and orange shorts for heart-stirring cammouflage duds. Surely the boys oversees knew that we girls back at home were with them on the front line, bending real, real low for that big, big tip. Why, I had more than one customer who saluted, nay, fired his own gun, in patriotic fervor. God bless America and we'll take Freedom Fries with that, not baked potato.

Now, I don't mean to be critical. Robert wouldn't have liked that. He wanted all "his" girls to be upbeat, entertaining caterers to the male whim. But I must pick a bone, ha, ha, with those who've implied that perhaps Hooters was not a classy chain. If "class" means male waiters of questionable sexual orientation suggesting Mousse a l'Avocat with a Balsamic reduction, well then, guilty as charged. So what that the men were better-paid cooks and that the only wine choices at Hooters were simplified to fizzy versus fizzy? We still had Friday formal nights when Bob demanded we dress in black. I challenge anyone to claim that the tradition of Black Fridays was anything but classy.

Then, of course, there was the ongoing controversy about exploitation of women. Oh, please. Bob didn't exploit women. He LOVED women. He loved all parts of them. Well, at least the parts you could see, and for that I say, thank God! Because it was pretty grim before Hooters back in the early 1980's, what with women in string ties and navy business suits storming the work force, bumping their heads against the glass ceiling. As Bob used to say, the only glass his girls should be worried about was the one they forgot to refill.

So as we say goodbye to Bob today, let's not forget the many charities Bob founded in an attempt to salvage his tarnished name. And let us be grateful that when he died he was 69.Hooters_logo  We should all be so lucky.

July 17, 2006

I CAN'T TALK ABOUT IT

I CAN’T TALK ABOUT IT

By Harley

My husband claims I have two qualities that lawyers hate in a client: I’m honest, and I’m chatty.

What he means is, you don’t want me wandering around unattended in a deposition or interrogation. Or, for that matter, a poker tournament.

But honesty and chattiness are issues this week because a very special invitation showed up in the mail last month: Jury Duty.

I blogged about this once, about how no one wanted me on a jury, just because I’m the wife of a lawyer, and the sister, daughter, sister-in-law, and friend of lawyers, and also, the daughter-in-law of a federal appellate court judge.

Last week, though, I was happy with that resumé because my au pair went to

North Carolina

, my cleaning lady/backup babysitter went to

El Salvador

, and my agent suggested that my manuscript was not yet fit for human consumption, despite an August 1 deadline. Last week I was a wee bit busy, with no time to fritter away on the justice system.

Happily, we have new rules in

California

. You show up at the courthouse one day only. Plug in your computer, drink free coffee, answer e-mail, get herded into a courtroom, answer some questions, get rejected, go home.

The judge even says, right off the bat, “This trial may take x number of days/weeks/ months. Anyone have a conflict?” Naturally, lots of people have conflicts. The catch is, our conflicts are not their conflicts. Here’s what they consider conflicts:

1.DIRE financial difficulty (e.g., you’re the sole support of 14 children and a grandmother in an iron lung, and you took the bus to the courthouse.)

2. You breastfeed.

3. You’re dead.

Oh, they’ll LISTEN to you. My group had fascinating conflicts, which unfortunately, I’m not allowed to talk about. Heartrending problems, imaginatively explained, far better than missing cleaning ladies and looming book deadlines. Yet we all made it to the next round: Voir Dire, for those who don’t watch Law & Order.

At 4:45 pm, it happened to me. “KOZAK! You’re up!”

I was asked if I knew any lawyers. I went through my “lawyers-R-us” litany and guess what? Four minutes later I was sworn in.

Now here’s the shocker: a number of upstanding, responsible friends/relatives cannot believe I didn’t lie to avoid this. Starting with my favorite lawyer.

“THEY DIDN’T DING YOU?” My husband yelled over the cell phone, as I drove home from my undisclosed courthouse location. “HOW COULD YOU LET THAT HAPPEN?”

Others shared his response. Why not claim clinical depression, membership in religious cults, belief in conspiracy theories?

Answer: I can’t. I was shaking like Jell-O, just stating my name and professions, former and current. Fellow jurors must’ve thought, “Actress? She can’t have had much of a career.  Her voice is all quivery.” Impossible to say, “I’m a bundle of biases and will be unable to render an impartial verdict.” I, so comfortable acting that I’ve literally fallen asleep onstage am paralyzed with stagefright when playing myself.

Friends also inform me that only geeks adhere to that “do not discuss this case with anyone” admonition. I am a geek. Judicial Awe has overriden my natural Chattiness. I live in monk-like silence.

So here I am, having adventures I can’t talk about, while my children run around the house naked and my manuscript cries for attention. Civil case? Criminal? Can’t tell you. Death penalty? My lips are zipped. I’m allowed to disclose the emergency phone number of the courtroom, but I think, with this readership, I better waive that right.

Happy Monday!

Harley

July 16, 2006

What's Your Avatar?

What's Your Avatar?

Blog_wonder_woman

And now, for the latest in current pick-up lines: What's your Avatar?  If you're on line, you don't even need to ask, because it should be right there.

Let's back up a second - if you, like me, are saying to yourself - Self!  I know what an Avatar is, it's the bodily manifestation or incarnation of a higher being on to planet Earth.  Used primarily in Hinduism, the word was most commonly used to refer to one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, which include the fish, the tortoise and the man-lion.  Uh, yeah, I looked that last part up.  I did know the meaning, but I always associated it  with the classic Rick Moranis speech in Ghostbusters, that went something like this: 

Blog_moranis_ghostbusters

"During the rectification of the Vuldronaii the Traveller came as a large, moving Tor. Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex supplicants they chose a new form for him-that of a giant Sloar. Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day, I can tell you."

What golden moments in film, huh?  But that's not the point.  The point is that Avatar no longer means what it used to mean.  It now refers to the little symbol one uses to identify oneself on line.  Avatars can be simple, like a stick figure of a man or woman, or complex, involving animation, music and sound.  So, for example, if you were choosing your Avatar, you'd want to choose something that represents who you are.  Or perhaps who you would like to be.  As they say, "No one is a dog on line." 
For example, if you are a cat lover, you might have a cute little kitten that makes a nice purring sound.  If you have a thing for the Dukes of Hazard, you might have a drawing of the General Lee, wheels spinning.  An author might choose a picture of a book, or an old fashioned quill pen.  A politician might choose a bag of small, unmarked bills left on a park bench.  You get the drift.  And don't start with the political bullshit, it was just illustrative.
Any place that requires log-ons usually provides the resources to place your Avatar.  I am advised by those in-the-know about such things that people don't even need to check for your name - they just look for your Avatar.
Get it?  If I were going to design my own Avatar, it would be the Queen of the Universe, or something like that.  Not sure how I'd convey that - perhaps a queen sitting on a throne looking down over the Earth or something.  Or perhaps Wonder Woman.  I always liked her, what with that lasso of truth and so forth.  But then again, Superwoman had the invisible plane, I think, so that's a tough call.  Or Anita Blake, Vampire Executioner, but no one really knows what she looks like, so probably not.

Blog_superwoman

So - what's your Avatar?

July 15, 2006

Summer Hair Cuts

by Nancy                                     Go to fullsize image

I'm getting desperate.  The thermometer on my porch hit 90 degrees today, and my hair nearly drove me crazy. You know what I'm talking about, right?  Hot, frizzy, steamy-scalp summer hair.  Two minutes outside, and I start looking like Phyliss Diller on her worst day. I'm telling you, the temptation to call the Super Cuts Emergency Hotline got very strong today.

Go to fullsize image

Last week I visited my brother's summer lodge on a lake, which is a beautiful place, gorgeously decorated, loaded with toys to play with.  And the thing I kept envying most....was the dog's haircut.

My brother has a huge Newfie mix, and for the summer, Bear got a haircut.  Almost a shave really, and the dog clearly loved the cool, comfy, I-don't-care-what-I-look-like look. 

Me, I have hair as thick as any Newfie's, and a few years ago I was wearing it short.  Okay, it got a little wild on humid days. (Our contractor glanced at me one windy morning while we were studying the cinder block foundation and said, "Oh.  The Rod Stewart look.")   But the heat was nothing compared to now when I've got a mop down to my shoulders. As the heat index rises, it's like wearing a fur hat at the beach.  Then two hats.  Then three hats with a George Foreman Grill on the top.

A certain Book Tart says she eats right and exercises every day, an admirable commitment she says she's made with the understanding that she must go through life with wet hair.  Which looks quite charming on her.  Kinda touseled and sexy. But me? If I didn't spend 20 minutes with a hair dryer every morning, I'd be walking around steaming all day.  Or mildew would set in.

The Today Show's fey hairdresser (surely that's a toupee he's wearing, right?) counseled that I not load down my crowning glory with a lot of "product" this summer but maybe tie it back fetchingly with a bandanna.  A BANDANNA??  You want me to have heat stroke as soon as I hit the sidewalk?

A baseball cap, you say?  Why not just spend the afternoon in a sauna?

Ponytails.  Okay, yes, but when is a woman too old to wear her hair in a ponytail?  45? 50?  Uh---53?  I understand scrunchies are too, too tacky for words, dahling, but what is a chic slave to fashion like me supposed to use? Those little rubber bands wrapped with colored threads?  You mean the ones that cause split ends? That get tangled up in my--uhm--tangles and require scissors to remove?

And those plastic clampy clips that Wal-Mart sells in the 3-packs.  I'm told those are considered too--well, Wal-Mart to be worn by anyone who worries about the fashion police.  Which means I use 'em every day, of course, but I know I'm risking exposure in those magazine pages where the people have black boxes across their faces because of their style faux pas. If Publisher's Weekly starts printing photos of authors, I'm doomed.

What's a girl to do when the heat rises? 

Go to fullsize image

July 14, 2006

Red Card Insults: Yo Mama and Other Fightin' Words

Red Card Insults: Your Mother, Yo Mama and Other Fightin’ Words

By Rebecca and her daughter

Zidane_headbutt_red_card

The world was shocked when France’s captain and soccer star Zenedine Zidane head-butted an Italian defenseman in the final minutes of the World Cup Championship Game and found himself facing a red card and ejection from the last game of his wonderful career. It was one of the few red card calls from the tournament that no one questioned. For non-soccer fans, it is the rough equivalent of Bobby Knight throwing a chair on to the basketball court, resulting in a Technical Foul and immediate ejection from the game. Disgraceful and absolutely unacceptable.

Even given Zidane’s history of passionate play, this one was stunning, and so the speculation began: what would cause one of the sport’s greatest players to make such a bone-headed move at such a critical time? The replays showed the two players jawing at eachother - talking trash, presumably. Just like in American football, that’s part of the game. What could one grown man say to another that would generate that kind of response? After Marco Materazzi (the Italian on the receiving end of the head butt) flatly denied using the word terrorist, the conclusion was unanimous - the Italian must have insulted the French player’s mother. This, the sports world concluded, would be the only possible insult worthy of such a reaction. Thus ended the discussion, at least as to subject matter.

Now, I love my mother - but I have to admit that I don’t get it. Maybe it is gender based, and I say this with all sincerity - this is not a sexist thing, I don’t think. It goes back a long way. For those of you who are confused, here is a summary timeline:

The Yo Mama phenomenon is a direct descendant of the Your Mother Wears Army Boots period, and a predecessor to the Your Mom category of insults today.

Depending on one’s age, Your Mother wears army boots was a catch-all description of insults directed at one’s female parent. In current adult parlance, it’s more like: "Yo Mama is so fat...." or "Oh, yeah, that’s the sound your Mama made last night when I was..." For the early teen set, it’s "Your Mom...is an idiot....goes to college." or whatever. For more on this subject, my daughter referred me to www.en.wiktionary.org, wherein one can search for "Your mom".

So where did it all begin? I guess you’d have to start sometime after Cain and Abel, since they had the same Mom - and it just don’t play that way if you’re serious about calling somebody out.

During the early days of civilized society, the two most serious insults one could levy - without resorting to directives on anatomically-impossible sexual acts - were to call someone a Bastard, or a Son of a Bitch. Both invectives are directed not to the recipient, but to his Mother. I believe that this is because both parties realized that hurling insults at eachother would be subject to the Truth is a Defense Doctrine - you can’t really object if someone calls you a jackass, since you probably are one.

The practice was further refined in connection with The Dozens, a taunting game that often included jibes that impugned the opponent’s Mother’s weight, appearance and IQ. The Dozens is one of the foundations for the lyrics in rap and hip-hop music. You know:

Yo Mama’s so fat that the last time she went to the beach, kids kept running around her in circles yelling "Free Willy!";

Yo Mama’s so ugly that when she tried to take a bath the water jumped out; or

Yo Mama’s so stupid that she asked for the number to call 911.

I only know about evolution of Yo Mama to the Your Mom usage because I have two kids - both under 15. In our house, it’s a running gag - usually accompanied by a "Ooohh, you’ve been schooled/told/owned!" It goes something like this:

Kid #1: "Your bedroom lamp is really ugly."

Kid #2: "Well, your MOM is a lamp."

Me: "Huh?"

Kids #1 and #2, simultaneously: "Ooohhh! You’ve been schooled!"

See, you expect it to be another Yo Mama so ugly retort, but no. Blog_napolean_kip

Thanks to the movie Napoleon Dynamite, the Your Mom retort is no longer limited to insults. Any statement whatsoever can be returned with a Your Mom. If you say to someone, "I’m going to 7-11 to get a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew," you may hear any one of the following responses: "Your Mom goes to 7-11"; "Your Mom is a Big Gulp"; or "Your Mom drinks Mountain Dew." Completely nonsensical. These kids are going to grow up and write great dialog some day, eh?

So there you have it, a short primer on Mothers as insult targets. Apparently you can call a man the most awful thing imaginable, but don’t bring his mother into it. Mothers are sacrosanct.

Does anybody get this?

July 13, 2006

First Critique Partner

by Nancy

When I didn't get a Christmas card from Mary Kate this year, I wondered what was up. But I figured she'd send it soon enough. Some years, we don't get around to sending cards until February, so it didn't seem unusual. Eventually, we'd catch up with each other.

4th grade: We met walking into the first day of Miss Burkhardt's class---Mary Kate having left the local Catholic school under a mysterious cloud of secrecy.  But our names were mixed up on the class roster.  Suddenly I was Nancy Conwell, and she was Mary Kate Aikman--a confusion that made her burst into tears. In short order, I realized those weren't tears of sorrow or dismay, but outrage. Mary Kate had a temper, and she wasn't afraid to use it. Hence her departure from Immaculate Conception Elementary. She was also a practical joker and an instigator of more trouble than the sisters really wanted to cope with. Me, I was the quiet and obedient student Miss Burkhardt thought would be a good influence.

Uh, it didn't work that way.

Despite our different temperaments, through elementary school we were frequently confused because we looked alike.  We, of course, didn't see the resemblance, but now that I look at those ghastly class photos, I can see it clearly--nearly identical thick glasses balanced on pug noses, big teeth destined for the orthodontist, unkempt brown hair. We both loved horses, and we read every Walter Farley book until we could quote long passages to each other. By 7th grade, however, I was 5 inches taller and she was filling out in ways that attracted the boys. Although small, she had the big personality--the Irish temper, the cackling laugh.  Born in November--a Scorpio. In our high school production of Camelot, she played a very sexy Morgan le Fay in a gold bodysuit and trailing chiffon. (In the lobby, my mother overheard a scandalized ticket holder whisper, "I hear there's nudity in the second act!") Mary Kate loved causing a stir.

My own family was a cliche of WASP repression.  But hers--! Dirty jokes and dinner! Racy cartoons printed on the toilet paper! Playboy magazine openly left on the coffee table! Mary Kate introduced me to the Angelique books by Sergeanne Golon--hot stuff in those days.  For me, visiting her house was a trip to another world (they voted Democract!) and I soaked up all the details. Her mom--very sophisticated with an evening cocktail in one hand, stockings on her legs at all times--was entirely different from my own athletic, frugal, peripatetic mother. Once on a shopping excursion in Pittsburgh, my jaw dropped when we stepped out of Gimbels and Mrs. Conwell smoothly hailed a cab to make the 4 block trip to the next department store. Even in a heavy downpour, my mother would never have considered such an extravagance.

Mary Kate's dad--Dr. Conwell, a devilish leprechaun of a man--was more a playmate than a father. He teased, told jokes, brought us candy befor dinner. Mary Kate adored him.  She claimed she had him wrapped around her little finger, a statement she made while waggling her pinkie and one wicked eyebrow.

Science projects, Latin class, concert choir--we did it all as a duo. The triumphs and the low points as well as the ridiculous and the humiliating stuff that growing up together is all about. She was the one who tied my bra to the car antenna and make a late-night, horn-tooting circuit around the drive-in movie theater with it waving in the wind. She gave me a haircut in her bathroom with cuticle scissors, and the punk result (in the era of Carnaby Street) made my mother snap, "Well, I hope you're satisfied!" Senior year, we skipped school a lot and went shopping. Underage drinking--oh, yeah.  Under her tutelage, I stopped worrying about term papers and started figuring out ways to get away with murder. Also how to be a friend. How to grow up.

Mary Kate and I started writing together, too. In 8th grade algebra, we sat in the back row behind a couple of tall boys, and we wrote stories in ring-bound notebooks. (Explains my PSAT math score.) After class, we switched notebooks and read each other's chapters on our respective bus rides home. Each evening, we'd telephone to discuss our favorite passages. I realize now she was my first critique partner, and without knowing the "rules" of critiquing, she got it all right.--Lots of praise, but plenty of questions, soo.  What did I mean here? Was this sentence some kind of foreshadowing? What was going to  happen next? She triggered my very first writing epiphany--that writing was about entertaining not myself, but my reader.

We rarely finished our stories, but started new ones when we felt the creative urge. More likely, when the stories weren't working out.

Of the two of us, she was the better writer. Flamboyant and dramatic and colorful. But after high school she went into nursing, and she became the nurse manager of an outpatient oncology unit at a prestigious, big city hospital. Not long ago, she said, "It's work I love. Nothing could be more fulfilling." Part of what she found so fulfilling was talking to people about death. About how to fight it.  When to let nature take its course.

My mother says that people who die young will always be remembered as they were in their youth.

I think that's very small consolation, but I'm working on accepting it. Mary Kate died suddenly last week of an aneurysm brought on my some surgery. She hadn't been feeling well since January when I should have called to find out why I didn't get a Christmas card. She has three sons--they all look like her and enjoy devilment---and a loving husband, who's a bit of a character, too. Her brother and her dad also survive her.

I keep wanting to telephone Mary Kate to talk about it all. How it doesn't make sense for her to be gone when our story isn't over yet.

I guess it's time to start a new one, but I'm  having trouble doing that.

I know it's self-indulgent for me to write about this. Maybe I need to make  my grieving official, just to accept it. I'm pitiful, huh?

So I don't want a lot of "I'm sorry for your loss" from everyone, please.  I'd much rather hear about something wild and crazy you've done with your best friend, okay? Because I think a few laughs would be exactly what Mary Kate would call for on a day like this.

July 12, 2006

The Devil Wears Aerosoles

The Devil Wears Aerosoles

By Elaine Viets

I tried, folks. I really tried to feel sorry for the twenty-something assistant to the evil boss in "The Devil Wears Prada." After all, I am the queen of the lousy job. I’ve worked more low-paying jobs than I can count for my Dead-End Job mystery series.

In "The Devil Wears Prada," poor Andrea Sachs has the boss from hell at "Runway" magazine. The novel details the cruelties she endured. Andrea was forced to drive her boss’s $84,000 Porsche convertible, and she couldn’t handle a stick shift. She had to wear loaner designer clothes and shoes and not wreck them. Andrea had makeup and hair stylists to keep her looking good. And this took place in Manhattan. Oh, and her boss was crazy-mean.

I wanted to bleed for poor Andrea, but all I could think was: what a whiner.

Try being trapped with a crazy-mean boss in the Midwest. No $84,000 sports car there. No fear, either. We Midwestern women know how to drive a stick. I started street racing at sixteen.

No fabulous parties or weekends in the Hamptons. In the Midwest, on an assistant’s salary, your entertainment choices include getting drunk at a bar, getting a video, or getting a pizza.

Designer clothes for insignificant assistants? What a fairytale. In the Midwest, the Devil wears Aerosoles. And shops at Marshalls. At least my Devil Boss did. She thought Prada was a city in Poland.

She might be a frump in New York, but my Devil Boss destroyed careers with style. She knew we were stuck. There were miles of cornfields between us and the next good job.

Here’s what life is like when you’re twenty-two and the Devil wears Aerosoles.

One day I wore a red dress to work. "Oh, Elaine," the Devil Boss bawled in our nearly all-male office. "I saw a survey that women wear red when they’re having their period. Is that true?"

I wished I had a snappy comeback. But I was young. I turned as red as my dress.

The company sent me to New York for business. I was shocked by the prices and tried to cut my expenses. When I turned in my expense account, the Devil Boss called me into her office.

"I can’t accept this." She slapped the expense account on her desk.

"What’s wrong?" I was terrified. I’d lived on bagels to save money, but I knew she’d attack.

"You didn’t spend enough money," she said. "You’ll make the men look bad."

The Devil Boss ordered me to pad my expense account to save the guys swilling martinis at the Four Seasons. She protected and promoted her "boys."

A few weeks later, I was called on the carpet again for my expense account.

"Why did you put down ten miles for the trip to the Berner Corporation?" the Devil Boss said. "It can’t be more than six miles."

"I got lost in the one-way streets," I said.

"We don’t pay you to get lost," the Devil Boss said. "Take four miles off."

Like the devil boss in "Prada," mine had more mood swings than the kid in "The Exorcist." She was scariest when she was nice. Then I knew she was plotting something. I just didn’t know what.

"Oh, Elaine," she said. "You have such good ideas. Would you make a list of your future projects?"

Now, I’d turn in a dummy list. Back then, I dutifully wrote down my best ideas. She retyped them, gave them to the top boss, and got herself a promotion.

The Devil Boss lasted for years, creating a swirl of intrigue, accusations and insults. She drove off the best people – or at least the ones who weren’t tied down with debts and family obligations. They found better jobs in other cities, including New York.

Others hit the bottle. A brave few tried to tell management the truth about this terrible woman. They were stunned when they realized the bosses knew she was awful. They liked her that way.

Eventually, as profits and productivity sank, management changed. The Devil Boss was given a dreadful punishment. She had to work with the peons.

The Devil Boss taught me two valuable lessons:

(1) A woman can discriminate against women.

I’m amazed when people say, "It can’t be discrimination. The boss is a woman."

The courts don’t buy that. But people who should know better maintain a touching faith in sisterhood. Men cheerfully sell out their brothers for money, power, or even the pathetic approval of a higher up. The Devil Boss showed me women were equally eager for success.

(2) Dumb corporations do not get smart.

The Devil Boss was replaced by a Preppie Prince, then a Bubba Boss, then a succession of nameless losers. The customer base hit the skids, the company was sold, and the owners made millions.

I’ll say one thing: The company didn’t practice sexism when they chose their managers. All those bosses, male and female, were equally bad.

July 11, 2006

College Girls Gone Wild

By Sarah

It appears we have a serious crisis on our hands involving the young women of today and it has got to be stopped. Is it drugs? Promiscuous sex? Low self esteem? Rampant, wild hamster partying?

College_women Nope. It's that women of today are becoming too smart for their own good. Shocking, no? I knew you'd be worried. Let's put on our thinking caps and learn more.

Not only are women graduating from high school with better GPA's and better SAT scores (except in math, though they're getting closer), they are zooming ahead of their male counterparts once they get to college. They are winning more awards, more internships, excelling academically and just basically blowing past the boys, many of whom prefer to party rather than study, cold leftover pizza imprinted on their foreheads.

Fortunately, colleges are right on top of this, doing what they can to make sure that the white guy - the poor, overlooked, never-can-get-a-leg-up white guy - comes out ahead. As nature intended. And, unlike Affirmative Action - which the poor, overlooked, never-can-get-a-leg-up white guy has been trying to undo since its inception - our institutions of higher learning are making no bones about their efforts to push women back to 1950, when the only academically superior female in the family was your quirky Aunt Emilia, the bookish spinster with the wrinkled hose and questionable sexual orientation.

For example, while Harvard, bless them, compiles an incoming class based on the gender Brown percentage of the applicant pool  (if 40% of the applicants are male, then 40% of the class will be male), Brown is keeping to a strict 50-50 ratio, even if the boys applying are not quite up to par with the girls. Which means somewhere in small-town Indiana, for example, there is a teary-eyed girl who was turned down by Brown for a guy who wasn't as smart as she, who didn't work as hard in high school and who probably won't do as well at Brown as she would have done.

Yes, that is fair. Go, Brown!

Other schools are beefing up their football programs to bring on the boys who can't tear themselves away from the latest Xbox version of Call to Duty unless they have the opportunity to bang their heads against other heads for real. Proving once again that the penis apparently is mightier than the pen is.

We always knew this day would come, of course. Oh, sure, the powers that be gave lip service to the concept that girls should be encouraged to voice their opinions, build their brains, not their busts. Remember REVIVING OPHELIA? How could we forget? Mary Pipher's clinical observations about how girls were shutting themselves up and off triggered a wave of propaganda aimed at encouraging girls to think of themselves not as vessels for boys, but as independent, smart women to be. There were even Ad Council sponsored radio spots urging us to raise our expections about what our daughters can achieve - like a rejection letter from Brown.

What's really going on here? I mean, men still earn more in their first jobs after graduating from college than women. So how come they're whining. Hey, I know. Maybe they're wimps. Maybe because they're getting beat by the girls, they have to run to the admissions department, bawling, asking for extra special treatment because the icky girls are tooooo tough.

Just a thought, only a theory.

I'm furious about this on a number of fronts, particularly because I have a smart 15-year-old daughter who is a straight A student, who plays tennis, skis (and skis and skis) and writes beautifully and who thinks politically and who is absolutely, one-hundred percent screwed. Her graduating class will be the largest class nationally, ever. That's right, ever. And it is loaded with girls. (What was in the water back in 1990?) I have no doubt that she will be rejected from a university because some admissions director feared the campus would be short of Bob Lunkheads.

See, Mary Pipher was wrong. Girls knew what they were doing when they hit adolesence and shut up, started obsessing about boys (sexually, since that's all that matters) and makeup and hair. Why bother studying? Why bother striving? It's so much easier to let go and focus on the tan so you can be pretty and get the guy, Bob Lunkhead, who graduated from Brown with a 2.0 GPA but whose frat brother got him a great job on Wall Street.

Who needs a Ph.D. when an M.R.S. is the only degree worth having? College Gils Gone Wild? Idiots

Oh, yeah.

Sarah