Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why you shouldn’t request phalluses from strangers

The other day I blogged about people who lack social filters, and how those awkward conversations are a goldmine for authors.

Now I must confess that I’ve been known to make the occasional joke that turns out to be mildly inappropriate.

Shocking, isn’t it?

The problem when you write humor is that there’s sometimes a fine line between “funny” and “what the hell?”

Case in point, my debut novel MAKING WAVES has a scene in which the hero and heroine are on the balcony of a hotel overhearing the world’s most awkward tryst on the beach below. I was going for a combination of humor and “this shouldn’t be a turn-on but kinda is.”

It was apparent from my agent’s reaction that I’d missed my mark.

“I don’t even know what this phrase is supposed to mean,” she emailed.

“That’s the point – it’s funny, you know?”

Um, no. Apparently it was funny for a few lines. Not for a few pages. The scene got trimmed, and rightfully so.

I’d like to say I only do this in writing and would never have my humor fall flat in real life, but then I’d be both a liar and a pervert.

About a month ago, I was at a friend’s party with several strangers. A gentleman struck up a conversation with me about his friend who makes beautiful, hand-carved wine bottle stoppers, and asked what shape I thought would be most marketable.

“A penis,” I told him for reasons I can no longer recall that probably seemed funny at the time.

There was some discussion about length and girth, and at one point the party’s hostess joined in and we all had a good laugh about it.

A few weeks later, the hostess called. “Remember that guy who was talking to us about the wine bottle stoppers?”

“Um, vaguely.”

“I have something for you.”

Yes indeed, this stranger took it upon himself to go to his artist friend and request a hand-carved wooden phallus for my wine bottles. And the artist didn’t stop at merely carving. As you can see, he hand-stitched this lovely leather scrotum, complete with two disturbingly lifelike testicles.

The creator was very proud of his work, and though I hadn’t actually planned to purchase such fine custom artwork in the immediate future, I was compelled to cough up the cash and admit that my joke had fallen a bit flat.

So now I have a wine stopper that spends most of its time hidden in a drawer, and a more finely-tuned appreciation for my need to think twice when I think I’m being funny.

How about you? Ever made a joke that’s fallen flat? Or one that’s forced you to purchase a hand-carved wooden phallus? Please share in the comments.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I've always been awesome, how about you?

I haven’t seen the movie Precious. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t pick Academy Award-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe out of a police lineup.

But I recently read a quote that made me want to grab her by the face and lick her ear (or something equally affectionate):

“They [the press] try to paint the picture that I was this downtrodden, ugly girl who was unpopular in school and in life and then I got this role and now I'm awesome,” she said. “But the truth is that I've been awesome, and then I got this role."

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

In recent weeks, casual acquaintances who’ve learned of my recent three-book deal with Sourcebooks have asked me how it feels.

What’s it like to know you’re finally good enough to sell a book?

Want to know the answer I can’t give them because I don’t want to sound like an egotistical bitch?

I was always good enough to sell a book. It just took awhile for the right editor to realize it.

Look, I’m not saying I didn’t have a lot to learn, and I’ve certainly written some craptastic stuff over the years. Even the book I originally sold to Harlequin/Silhouette’s Bombshell line back in 2005 is something I’m happy to leave tucked under my bed. I’ve grown a lot as a writer since then, and I’m much happier with the way I write now.

But if I hadn’t believed from the first moment I started writing fiction in 2002 that I was good enough to be published, I doubt I could have held on for the duration of my bumpy ride to publication.*

As an author, you have to believe that. Even on days you don’t believe it, you need to stand there in front of the mirror and say, “Dammit, I rule.”

Or some variation on that.

I’m lucky. My parents bestowed upon me a disturbingly high self-esteem, and my husband & agent believed in me no matter how many rejections rolled in. That’s a big part of how I kept going despite all the setbacks along the way.

That, and a lot of Chianti.

Getting published isn’t about who you know, who you shag, or even how well you write. It’s about believing in yourself enough to keep going no matter how many times someone slaps you on the ass and says, “close, but no cigar.”

So let’s all say it together now, shall we?

I’m awesome. I’ve always been awesome. I’m awesome whether it takes me 12 days or 12 years to get published.

Repeat as often as necessary until you believe it.

*If you’re new to this blog and don’t know what I’m talking about, go here for the full story of my rather lengthy road to publication.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Are you rude? Good, I'm taking notes

Before we get started today, everyone should go visit my Agency Sistah, the hilarious Linda Grimes. Today on her blog you get a double-dose of obnoxious humor as she interviews me for part of the “Pay it Forward” series.

While you’re there, you could also consider reading her excellent post about avoiding the temptation to drown your readers in backstory.

While I agree with her 110% about backstory data-dump, her tale of the uncomfortable airplane conversation forces me to admit I kind of enjoy awkward interactions with strangers. I like to file them away in my brain so I can dig them up later and use them in my books.

One such interaction that’s been simmering in the back of my brain for couple years has been begging for inclusion in my current manuscript. Though I haven’t decided yet whether it belongs there, I’ll share it with you for the joy of embarrassing myself in public:

I was holding a garage sale a few years ago and had just started to pack things in for the day when a woman pulled up in a nondescript sedan. She began browsing, picking up a few items for purchase as her kids fought over an empty cardboard box.

Eventually, she made her way to the table where I was packing up a set of unsold dishes.

“Those are fabulous,” she said. “Where did you get them?”

I held up a mug for her inspection. “They actually belong to a co-worker, but she asked me to help sell them for her.”

She gave me a confused look. “No, your boobs. They’re great. Where did you have them done?”

I stared at her for a few beats, waiting for the punch line. This had to be a joke, right?

But no, she was serious. And she stood there staring down the front of my tank top in a way that made me want to check my boobs for price tags.

“Um,” I told her, “well, they’re mine. I grew them myself. Would you like to buy some dishes?”

She frowned at me. “They can’t be real. You’re so tiny and – ”

“These dishes are great, did you see the pretty silver trim here?”

Apparently realizing I wasn’t going to bond with her over my non-existent boob job, she gathered her merchandise, requested an embarrassingly large discount, and drove away.

I stood there shaking my head long after she’d driven off – probably in search of another garage sale where she could haggle over used undershirts and make inappropriate comments to strangers.

It did make me wonder if there’s a school people attend to learn social skills like that.

If so, I’d like to attend. It would be damn handy for writing.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fake car sex & the realities of romance

I recently shared how Pythagoras is a good sport about plotting love scenes.

He’s been kind enough to extend his good sportsmanship to help my fellow authors in need.

A couple years ago, a writing pal crafted a love scene that took place in the front seat of a car. I critiqued the scene with some skepticism, knowing the author is six inches shorter than me and therefore inclined to assume two amorous adults can fit comfortably behind the wheel of a Honda.

We debated the issue for several rounds, each of us sharing more information than we’d volunteer to our mothers.

Finally, I offered to put the issue to the test.

“Pythagoras,” I called. “I need help with a scene.”

My husband eyed me suspiciously. “You’re not going to make me have fake sex with you on the bathroom counter again, are you?”

“Don’t be silly. This time we’re having fake car sex.”

He sighed, resigned to the fate assigned to him when he agreed to marry a romance author. “On it or in it?”

I led the way to the Mazda, which was parked in the driveway and appeared to be the approximate size and shape of the Honda my friend described in her scene.

“Actually,” Pythagoras objected, “the key differences between the Mazda and Honda for models made between 1997 and 2001 is that the slope of the windshield—“

“Just get in the car,” I told him, pretty sure readers wouldn’t nitpick.

Pythagoras heaved another sigh, settled into the drivers’ seat and looked at me. “Wouldn’t this work better if you were wearing a skirt instead of sweatpants?”

“We’re not really going to have car sex,” I pointed out. “We’re just helping Jane* write a scene.”


“You haven’t met her. Neither have I, technically, but – never mind. She’s an author.”

I ignored my husband’s pained expression and ducked into the car, promptly smacking my knee on the gearshift. I shifted my weight back and banged my head on the rearview mirror.

“When does this get romantic?” Pythagoras asked.

“Shut up and see if you can grab my boob from that angle.”

Pythagoras lifted his hand and stopped, his gaze fixed on a point over my shoulder. “Looks like the neighbors are barbecuing.”

He tilted the formerly boob-bound hand in a halfhearted wave. I craned my neck to study the happy family waving back, looking strangely unsurprised to see us arranged thusly.

I gave them a weak smile. “Should I go explain?”

“You know,” Pythagoras said, “sometimes it’s best if you don’t.”

So we spent another three minutes adjusting the seat position, fiddling with the tilt steering, and determining that it was, in fact, possible to maneuver in an amorous fashion in the drivers’ seat of a compact car.

Not that we were feeling particularly amorous at that point.

“My leg is asleep,” I complained as I peeled myself off my husband’s lap.

“You crushed my testicle.”

I nodded and surveyed the car. “Other than that, it was totally hot.”

He shook his head and waved at the neighbors again, probably wondering why some men are lucky enough to have sane wives.

I shut the car door marched back to the house, eager to report my findings to Jane.

She was pleased to hear it, and wrote a lovely scene that bore little resemblance to my experience.

Sometimes it’s best for romance not to reflect reality.

* Name has been changed to protect an author who probably wishes she didn’t know me.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

You don't suck that out of your thumb

Mom & Dad Fenske
My brother and me
I am not the funniest member of my family. Not even close.

I thought of this yesterday when I called my baby brother for his birthday. Since he’s 33 and about 10 inches taller than me, it’s possible I should stop calling him my baby brother.

Nevertheless, he’s been cracking me up since not long after my mother broke the news that she had not given birth to the giraffe I desperately desired in place of a sibling.

The summer I was 9 and my brother 7, our parents read us C.S. Lewis’ THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. Though the story itself was enthralling, it was the language that captured my brother’s attention.

This was apparent when the lifeguard at the local pool pulled him aside for a scolding. My brother nodded stoically for a few moments before interrupting the lecture.

“Come come now, Joe, we mustn’t start a row – let’s call it pax betwixt us.”

The lifeguard stared at my 7-year-old brother. Then he walked away, shaking his head.

Our father is known more for a dry sense of humor that allows him to deliver absurdities with such a straight face, people who don’t know him generally suspect he’s insane. My parents recently joined a hiking tour in Hawaii, and the guide spent a few minutes cautioning the group about wild boars in the area. My father held up his two-inch pocketknife and informed everyone that he was equipped to spear any boars they might encounter.

The guide was not impressed, leaving my mother to promise sincerely that they had no plans to boar hunt with a pocketknife or any other sharp instrument.

Which leads me to my mother, the physical comedienne of the family. At my brother’s high school graduation, my grandmother sat fluttering a handheld fan to fight the heat. When a man seated in front of her grew annoyed and reached back to grab the fan, my mom snatched it from him and hit him over the head with it.

“You want to rethink that, mister?” she snapped.

He got up and moved.

I think of this whenever someone asks me why I chose to write humorous fiction. Certainly there were points in my long road to publication where I considered other genres. I’ve even attempted to write more serious novels, showing one to my agent at a point when we were struggling to find a home for my comedies.

“That’s not your voice,” she told me. “Writing comedy is harder than most people realize, and it’s something you do well. Don’t give that up.”

As always, she had a fair point.

So that’s where I’ve settled, not that I had much choice. I’m pretty sure I was genetically predisposed to write humorous fiction.

How about you, dear readers? Is there something you’re genetically wired to write? Please share in the comments!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bung holes and book research

Michael Lundeen, Winemaker for Illahe Vineyards,
tries to pretend I'm not the most immature
person he's ever met as I snicker about
bung holes.
I arrived home late yesterday after three days of touring the Willamette Valley drinking wine and taking such copious notes that I required more wine to ease my aching hand.

I know I’ve blathered before about my great passion for book research, but this trip reminded me why there’s no substitute for getting up close and personal with the subject of your novel.

Sure, I could have opened a bottle of my favorite Sineann wine at home and jotted my impressions about the flavors and aromas.

But I would have missed seeing owner/winemaker Peter Rosback’s face light up as he discussed 100-year-old Zin vines and glass corks and the feeling of rain slithering down his neck in the crush bed.

I could have perused online photos determine that Van Duzer Vineyards comes closest to my mental picture of the setting for LET IT BREATHE.

But I wouldn’t have heard the squawk of Canadian Geese and the thrum of rain on the roof as tasting room guru Danielle Blanchette kept my glass filled and viticulturist Rebecca Sweet explained the delicate balance involved in combating vineyard threats like powdery mildew while remaining Salmon Safe and LIVE Certified.

I could have learned wine terminology by reading a book on winemaking.

But I would have missed watching Illahe Vineyards winemaker Michael Lundeen struggle to keep a straight face as he showed me how to remove the “bung” from the “bung hole” on a barrel so he could use his “wine thief” to sample an aging Pinot Noir.

More importantly, I would have missed sampling said Pinot Noir.

Now that I’m home, I have a pile of notes covered in wine-stains and hair that smells faintly of fermenting grapes.

I also have a renewed appreciation for a passage I highlighted in Steve Roberts’ WINETRAILS OF OREGON before we embarked on this trip:

“Most people don’t realize that winemaking involves hundreds of decisions: when to pick the grapes, what equipment to use, what strain of yeast to inoculate with, when to rack, and when to bottle.”

It’s true for both winemaking and writing.

Some of an author’s decisions are small – what color is my heroine’s hair? What is her house like?

Some decisions are bigger – who are her family members and how does she relate to them? What challenges are they facing in their vineyard and how do they impact her life?

I’ll figure it out as I go, but I know this is a part of the process non-writers don’t really appreciate. To be a good writer, you not only have to arm yourself with research, but use that research to make a million little decisions each time you sit down at the keyboard.

For now at least, I feel well-armed. I’ve got pages of notes, hundreds of photos, and 12 bottles of excellent wine.

That should hold me for at least a couple days.
Heading into the tasting room at Van Duzer Vineyards.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Living the dirty dream

I'll be doing a lot of this for a few days.
I’ve held down a full-time job since I was 18. Even in college I washed dogs, sold donuts, and wrote newspaper articles to keep a roof over my head and Chianti on the table.

If at any point in my adult life you had asked me what my dream job would be, I’d probably snort and give you a semi-smartass, semi-serious answer:

Well, I’d like to get paid to travel, hang out with my pets, drink wine, and write about it all.

So I’m a little stunned to realize that for a few days anyway, I get to do just that.

Pythagoras and I are currently traveling through Oregon wine country doing research for the third novel in my three-book contract with Sourcebooks, Inc.

I’ll be visiting some of my favorite wineries and vineyards including Illahe, Adelsheim, and Sineann to learn the ins and outs of what they do and how they do it.

And yeah, I might have a glass of wine. Or twelve.

Since LET IT BREATHE is already under contract, that technically means I’m being paid to do this research and write this book. Pretty mind-blowing, considering I’ve spent the last eight years researching and writing with only the faint hope that my books would eventually be read by someone besides my mom and my agent.

I’ll be back to blogging on Wednesday – and back to bills, back to reality, back to the knowledge that I have to write a helluva lot more books for this to be anything close to a livable wage.

Or maybe I’ll sell a kidney on the black market.

But for a little while anyway, I’m living the dream.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Brainstorming makes my butt feel good

As I shared yesterday, brainstorming makes my butt sore.

I was pleased to receive so many kind emails and tweets from readers wishing to share how brainstorming affects their butts. It was a day filled with joyful butt-bonding, which made my butt quite happy.

Since this is clearly a topic that deserves more than just one blog post, I’m now going to tell you how brainstorming makes my butt feel good.

When I first started trying to write fiction eight years ago, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I did, however, have a jetted soaking tub in my master bathroom, and a husband who could be lured there easily enough with the promise of nudity and warm water.

Once trapped with me in the oversized tub, Pythagoras was forced to stay and participate in conversations about writing. Sometimes I just wanted to vent about the submission process. Other times I wanted a sounding board for character ideas or help untangling a mess of plot knots.

This became known as “The bathtub brainstorm,” and it grew to be such an integral part of my writing process that I spent months hunting for the perfect tub when we built a new home a few years later.

In some ways, the bathtub brainstorm is a lot like the bike ride brainstorm. In other ways, the two are vastly different.

I’ll pause for a moment so you can insert your own joke about sweat, exertion, and/or heavy breathing. Got that out of your system? OK, good.

Moving right along, the bathtub brainstorm sessions tend to be more relaxing than the bike ride brainstorm sessions. A bathtub brainstorm occasionally includes wine, something that doesn’t work as well with the bike ride brainstorm (I tried once – still can’t get the Sangiovese out of the water bottles).

I’ve attempted the bathtub brainstorm by myself, but it never works as well. There’s something about conversing with another naked human that fuels the creative process. If you haven’t tried this, I encourage it. Go find a naked human right now – I’ll wait.

Though you might guess the bathtub brainstorm is more conducive to the development of love scenes, while the bike ride brainstorm is better suited to high-stakes action, that’s not always the case. Just the other day, Pythagoras and I peddled along the highway while discussing the details of a love triangle. Likewise, he once helped me weave such a terrifying murder plot from the comfort of our bathtub that I caught myself wondering how quickly I could reach his razor if he suddenly turned violent.

So now you know my brainstorming secrets. Probably more than you wanted to know, come to think of it.

Where do you do your best brainstorming? And most importantly, how does it impact your butt?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Brainstorming makes my butt sore

Five years ago, Pythagoras sat me down for the all-important talk.

“You’re turning 30 soon,” he informed me as though this might have escaped my attention. “What do you want for your birthday?”

I thought about it for a minute. A woman only turns 30 once, after all. This was my opportunity to request expensive jewelry, or maybe a vacation.

“I want a tandem bike,” I heard myself say.

Pythagoras stared at me. “A tandem bike?”

“Yes, a tandem bike. So we can ride together.”

I could see the wheels turning in his head. They weren’t turning fast enough for his liking.

You may recall from an earlier blog post that Pythagoras is a bit overzealous when it comes to exercise. In an average week, he cycles maybe 250 miles on his own. Last summer when I told him I wanted to visit my parents for a weekend, he was strangely delighted.

“Great idea,” he said. “You drive, I’ll bike.”

It’s 140 miles each way with narrow, winding roads and a 5000-foot mountain pass in the middle. Just a casual bike ride for Pythagoras.

So a tandem bike seemed like a good way to level the playing field. An opportunity for me to cycle with my husband without collapsing on the side of the road and being devoured by buzzards while he programs his cycling computer.

What I didn’t realize five years ago is how many other benefits there would be to tandem bike ownership. Aside from equalizing our differing fitness levels, it also equalizes our marriage.

Pythagoras is not the most decisive man on the planet. Had we not won a wedding twelve years ago, I suspect he’d still be contemplating whether to propose. Every decision – from where to have lunch to which brand of motor oil to purchase – is a major thing for Pythagoras. That means I end up making most decisions in our household.

But not on the tandem.

“Which way, right or left?” he’ll demand as we approach a stop sign.

“You decide!” I sing from the rear of the bike.

“Well where are we going?”

“Don’t know – where are you taking me?”

But even that isn’t my favorite part of tandem bike ownership. No, my favorite part is what I fondly refer to as the bike ride brainstorm.

The bike ride brainstorm works like this: we hop on the tandem, start peddling, and start plotting.

I outline the basics of my story for Pythagoras, and because he’s not able to flee, he’s forced to give the ideas some consideration.

“What do you think?” I’ll shout to my captive audience. “I was going to have the ex-husband should be the winemaker, but would that be weird?”

And Pythagoras will mull it over, making a few suggestions as we chug our way up a hill.

After awhile, he’ll start to get into it. “What if you threw in a twist somewhere near the middle where—“

We’ve been at this for awhile now, so Pythagoras has learned not to be offended when I shoot down eight out of ten of his ideas.

He’s realized by now that I shoot down nine out of ten of my own.

By the time we return home from a 10 or 20-mile ride, we’ll both be sweaty and a little saddle sore from the uncomfortable bike seat. But I’ll also have some element of my story figured out. Maybe it’s just a character trait, or maybe it’s a sticky plot point, but I always come back with something besides an aching butt.

So as our weather turns nice, I find I’m looking forward to tandem bike season once more. I’ve got a new story to plot out, and a whole lot of miles to peddle.

Anyone know where I put my cycling shorts?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The point of the journey is not to arrive*

Over on the Sourcebooks Casablanca blog, the authors are discussing travel this month.

My debut as a Sourcebooks author is still 17 months away, so I don’t get to play along just yet. But since travel is my very favorite thing in the whole world, I can’t resist the urge to play by myself over here (which, incidentally, is my second favorite thing in the whole world).

When it comes to travel, Pythagoras and I are very lucky to share the following:

1) A devotion to traveling light – carry-on only, even if we have to plan for both hiking in the Swiss Alps and snorkeling off the Italian coast.

2) A refusal to pay more than $50 a night for lodging

3) A commitment to the fine art of meandering – no hotel reservations, and standby flights that sometimes earn us first class seats, and sometimes earn us a few nights sleeping on an airport floor.

4) A steadfast belief that the journey itself is half the fun.

The latter has been particularly key for me – both in writing and in travel. As much as I enjoy typing “the end” or checking into a hotel room to discover little luxuries like soap, it’s the journey itself that really rolls my socks up.

This is something I’m having to remind myself as I’m in the very scary BEGINNING part of a book – the part where I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m strapping on my seatbelt and hoping the ride isn’t too bumpy.

Then again, bumpy has its perks.

Once while traveling around Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, we hopped aboard a bus headed to the colonial town of Valladolid. In theory, the journey should have taken an hour.

But because we’re penny-pinching backpackers, we opted for the third class bus. The primary difference between a first and third class bus in Mexico is that the first class bus will get you there within an hour or so of its predicted time.

A third class bus might get you there. Beyond that, they don’t make any guarantees.

I’m mostly fluent in Spanish (the result of many years of schooling, followed by four months living in Venezuela and learning more than I had in nine years of classroom study). This fluency made me privy to conversations that went like this:

Bus driver:
We should pick up Juan.

Buddy riding in the seat behind him, serving no discernible purpose in the operation of the bus: You remember where he lives?

Bus driver: No, but if we drive around awhile, we’ll find him.

So we drove around for awhile looking for Juan. We made a few pit stops along the way to buy comic books and fruit, which the men took turns enjoying when they weren’t busy ignoring traffic signals and terrifying livestock with horn-blasts.

Eventually, we found Juan and headed out of town. We had just hit the highway when the bus driver smacked himself on the forehead.

Bus driver: Shit, I forgot my shirt.

Juan: You’re wearing a shirt.

Bus driver: No, my uniform shirt. I got in trouble for that last week. I’ve gotta go home and get it.

So we spun a u-turn in the middle of the highway – narrowly missing a large truck packed with chickens – and headed back to town. All 35 passengers aboard were treated to a lovely tour of the barrio, complete with a colorful lecture from the bus driver’s wife who shared her immense displeasure at his failure to return home the previous night.

Eventually, we set out again on a journey that lasted nearly four hours and included a rousing game of “let’s hit pedestrians with fruit pits while traveling 50 mph in a vehicle held together by duct tape.” When the bus driver emerged victorious, he celebrated by taking a nap on the floor while Buddy #1 took over driving duties.

Eventually, we made it to Valladolid. The bus driver was kind enough to weave his way through the narrow city streets in search of a hotel I pointed out in the guidebook. As the busload of weary passengers waved at us from the grime-streaked windows, we couldn’t help but feel a little sad to see the journey end.

So I have to keep reminding myself of this as I begin this new book. This is the journey – the fun part. The part where I get to throw fruit pits at pedestrians and weave through traffic at disturbing speeds.

Where’d I put my Dramamine?

* Butt-rock bonus points to anyone who can tell me song title and/or band name for the lyric that serves as the title of this post!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Networking tales from the socially challenged

After I joined Romance Writers of America last week, author/blogger Jeffe Kennedy kindly educated me about the different branches of the organization. With one branch, she explained, I’d have access to special meetings and events.

“Meetings?” I asked weakly. “Like – in person?”

It’s not that I’m antisocial. Though I prefer my human interaction to be virtual, my career in marketing & corporate communications forced me to participate in plenty of in-person networking activities over the years.

I just wasn’t very good at it.

One group of local marketing professionals used to hold monthly luncheons. They were well attended, and always provided an excellent opportunity for networking and education.

They were also an excellent opportunity for me to demonstrate why I shouldn’t be allowed out of the house.

The first time I went, I moved through the buffet line chatting amicably with a colleague about a direct mail campaign. Spotting the brownies, I set one on the edge of my plate and reached for the spoon nestled in a giant bowl of whipped cream.

“So we’ll be using radio spots to get the buzz started before the piece drops,” I explained as I spooned a hefty scoop of whipped cream onto my brownie.

The brief look of horror that crossed her face probably should have alerted me to impending danger, but it didn’t. I assumed she was counting calories.

Smug in the knowledge of my remarkably high metabolism, I marched back to our table to continue the conversation.

“So what sort of ROI have you been seeing on your new campaign?” I said as I scooped the whipped cream off my brownie and spooned it in my mouth.

The moment my lips closed around it, I realized my mistake. I had just crammed a half-cup of butter in my pie-hole.

Butter that began melting before I had a chance to decide whether I really felt like swallowing a mouthful of salted fatty-acid emulsifiers. It was instantly liquefied, eliminating most of my options. Could I spit in my water glass?

I saw my colleague scoot back a few inches as she gamely tried to pretend nothing was wrong. “Our preliminary numbers look good,” she said, ignoring the gagging sounds I made. “We’ll be using focus groups next month to fine-tune the message, but we’re seeing a great response.”

I took a deep breath and swallowed the butter. “You don’t say?”

You would think I might have learned my lesson and avoided the luncheons altogether after that. If so, you would have sorely underestimated my desire to humiliate myself with food.

Several months later, I returned to the scene of the crime. This time they provided chicken and a guest speaker discussing the merits of qualitative research.

As I absorbed the presentation, I daintily cut a bite of chicken and began to chew.

And chew. And chew.

I soon realized the piece of gristle wasn’t going anywhere. Having learned from my butter experience that swallowing bad things wasn’t a networking requirement, I reached for my cloth napkin and quietly spit the gristle into the corner.

As the speaker continued, I forgot about the gristle. Several minutes later, I reached for my napkin again.

Everything happened in slow motion. The gristle rolled out of the napkin, tumbled off the table, and bounced into the gaping Coach handbag hanging on the chair of the stranger seated next to me.

I looked up to see if she’d noticed. She was smiling obliviously at the speaker, jotting notes about controlling consumer perception.

I looked back at her handbag. I couldn’t see the gristle anywhere. The bag was a huge tote, packed to overflowing with several electronic devices and something that looked like a pair of gym socks.

I stole another glance at the owner of the purse. She laughed, still focused on the presentation.

I started to reach for her purse.

Suddenly, the woman seated beside gristle-girl looked at me. I saw her eyes narrow as she spotted my hand creeping toward her friend’s purse.

I froze.

Had the speaker paused then, I might have offered an explanation. “I’m not a thief – just someone with abysmally bad table manners.”

Instead, I drew my hand back and pretended to dust some lint off the edge of my sleeve.

Satisfied I wasn’t planning to pilfer her friend’s wallet, the woman turned back to the speaker. I looked down at the handbag again. Was that the gristle stuck in the bristles on her hairbrush? Maybe if I knocked the purse to the ground, I could grab the gristle and run. Or maybe if I pulled the fire alarm –

“Thank you all for coming today,” announced the speaker. “Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.

I sat back in my chair, defeated.

I watched the woman and her friend gather their things and flounce out of the room. I tried not to picture the scene when she eventually discovered the gristle. Would she know what it was? Would she know to blame me?

I never got answers. I also never had those two women sit anywhere near me again.

So you see, I don’t have the world’s best track record when it comes to in-person networking. That doesn’t mean I’m dreading future RWA meetings. Just that I hope they don’t serve browies. Or chicken. Or—

Monday, March 15, 2010

My new boss has a tail and pees outside

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve worked in marketing & corporate communications for the last 10 years.

What I haven’t mentioned is that right now, I’m not.

Three days before this past Christmas, my employer summoned me for a routine meeting. Well, I thought it was a routine meeting. It turned out he thought it was an excellent time to inform me my position was being eliminated.

I was sad for about 43 minutes. That’s the time it took me to clear out my home office and review the household budget with Pythagoras to determine that we would not be required to juggle flaming cantaloupes on a street corner to pay the bills.

While I hunt for a new job, the layoff has given me what I’ve always dreamed of having – the time and space to devote myself to being a “real” author. Though my new three-book deal with Sourcebooks certainly helped my quest for “real” authordom, I wasn’t certain how well I’d stay focused without the structure of a day job. Would I freeze up? Flounder for routine? Become addicted to cyber-porn without a boss breathing down my neck?

I didn’t need to fear any of those things. I have an Australian Kelpie.

For those unfamiliar with the breed, Australian Kelpies are herding dogs on caffeinated crack. Medium-sized and tenacious, Kelpies will herd anything that moves and several things that don’t. We acquired Bindi from a local rescue group five months ago, and within an hour of her arrival at our house, she had herded the three cats into the living room, lined them up alphabetically, and taught them to execute a military salute in formation.

She runs me the same way.

If I’m tempted to sleep in and ignore the blog, my canine boss is quick to cajole me out of bed.

Once I’m seated at the computer and my workday is underway, Bindi assigns herself the task of accompanying me on journeys to other parts of the house. If I get up to fill my water glass, she herds me up and down the stairs with a gentle reminder that my time is best spent in the office and not dusting the houseplants on the landing.

My new boss does permit me to have regular physical fitness breaks, something with surprising benefits for my writing. I can spend hours in front of my computer alternating between beating my head on the keyboard and beating the keyboard on my head as I attempt to solve a complex plotting issue. The second I leash the beasts and head for the woods, the puzzle pieces of my plot will begin falling into place. By the time I return to my computer, I can barely type fast enough to capture all the new clarity I’ve achieved.

So overall, I guess you’d say I’m happy with my new boss. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say she’s made me a better writer, but she’s certainly kept me from being a lazy one.

For those of you interested in seeing Bindi in action, I have a one-minute video clip to share.

A bit of background: Bindi’s canine housemate is Ozzy, an elderly Australian Shepherd/Heeler mix who is deaf, mostly blind, arthritic, and suffering from a vestibular disorder and a torn ligament in his knee. In spite of all this, he loves to go for hikes in the woods, where he inevitably wanders off and can’t hear us calling him.

Enter Bindi . . .

Friday, March 12, 2010

Building my brand, one crude joke at a time

I’ve been blogging for exactly six weeks. That makes me a relative newbie, so I’m hardly the person to speak with authority on blogging.

Of course, being unqualified to speak with authority doesn’t mean I won’t do it – I just thought I should establish my ignorance up front in case you’ve mistaken me for someone who knows something.

My agent prodded me for months to join the social media circus, but I was leery about donning my clown costume until I’d done some research. Though I tend to prefer research that allows me to poke dead bodies or simulate awkward copulation with my husband on the bathroom counter, this required a different sort of research.

I’ve worked in marketing and corporate communications for over a decade, so I knew I needed to use social media to build my brand. I read books like Shel Isreal’s TWITTERVILLE and Joel Comm’s TWITTER POWER. I pored over hundreds of blogs, making notes about what worked and what didn’t. I vowed to have a clear link between my website, my blog, and my and Twitter presence, and not to start blogging until I had a list of at least 50 potential topics.

I also vowed not to use that list more than once a week. I wanted it to be a crutch for occasional brain-dead mornings, rather than an excuse to avoid coming up with fresh, off-the-cuff ideas.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you may be scratching your head right now. “You mean there’s a point to this blog? A strategy? A reason you’ve been blogging about eyebrow waxing, dog doo, scrotums, lost tampons, and recipes from Playboy?”

Believe it or not, there is.

Because if you’re the sort of person who chuckled at any of those blog posts, there’s a good chance you’ll like my books.

If your sense of humor is a bit more – well, normal, then you probably won’t become president of my nonexistent fan club. And how great is it that we can all figure that out now, rather than 17 months from now when you’re reading my debut novel and muttering, “I don’t get it, why would she use a pair of thong panties as an eye patch for a pirate costume?”

(Answer: because it’s kind of funny. And sexy, in an offbeat way).

Six years ago when Harlequin/Silhouette introduced the Bombshell line of women’s action/adventure novels, the books were wildly different from anything else they’d been publishing. There were explosions and kick-ass women who killed people, and endings that often had no commitment beyond the hero and heroine agreeing not to kill each other.

These were not traditional category romance novels – but someone forgot to tell the readers.

The line was canceled in less than two years (a month before my scheduled publication date, not that I’m bitter). Was it because the books were bad? I don’t think so. But I do think Harlequin did a crappy job with branding. They failed to let readers know what to expect.

The Bombshell books looked like traditional category romance novels. They were marketed like traditional category romance novels, and they sat on the shelves next to all the other Harlequin/Silhouette titles. Can we really blame readers for expecting traditional category romance, and being disappointed when that wasn’t what they got?

Though I had no control over the Bombshell situation, I do have some control now. I have 17 months before Sourcebooks, Inc. releases my first romantic comedy, so I’m doing my damndest to make sure readers know what to expect from me.

This blog is my voice – it’s my brand. I like quirky humor, risqué love scenes, and stories in which normal is nice, but weird is wonderful.

If that’s not your cup of tea, no sweat.

But if you like what you see here, then I’m hoping you’ll like my books. And in the meantime, I’m hoping you’ll keep coming to my blog for more.

(Heh-heh – I said coming. Snort!)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The glamorous life of a romance author

So it’s official. I faxed off my paperwork to Romance Writers of America, making me an RWA member and an official romance author.

There are a lot of stereotypes about romance authors. I think the general idea is that we prance around the house wearing high-heeled slippers and a feather boa, smoking skinny cigarettes with a long, ivory holder as our French-manicured nails dance across the keyboard. Once we’ve dashed off a few sultry chapters, we summon our greased-up boy toy for a frisky romp we playfully term “research.”

That’s pretty much how it works around here.

I remember the first love scene I ever wrote. I was sitting at my desk looking devastatingly beautiful in holey sweatpants with my unwashed hair anchored atop my head by a chewed up pencil. The scene was getting steamy as the hero hoisted the heroine onto the bathroom counter in preparation for the main event.

I stopped typing and frowned at the screen, considering the logistics. Would all the important body parts line up right? I looked back at my notes, assessing the height of the hero and heroine and pondering the average height of a bathroom counter.

I got up and walked down the hall to survey my own bathroom. The counter I described in my love scene did not contain a leaky tube of toothpaste and a pair of damp socks abandoned there by the hero, but other than that, it was pretty much the same.

I hopped up on the counter, picturing the scene in my mind. If the heroine sat with her feet propped against the door, and the hero stood between her legs and –

“Pythagoras!” I yelled.

No answer. Right, he was outside changing the oil in his truck.

Hopping off the counter, I marched out to the garage. “Hey, honey?”

“Yeah?” he mumbled from under the truck.

“If you did me on the bathroom counter, would you have to stand on something?”

There was a long silence, the sound of my husband either contemplating the question or contemplating whether his wife had been hitting the bottle at 8 a.m. on a Sunday.

When he still didn’t respond, I pressed my luck. “Maybe you could come inside for a second so I can see how all the parts would line up.”




I nudged his boot with the toe of my wool sock. “Pretty please?”

With a sigh, Pythagoras eased himself out from under the truck, looking dirty and disheveled and a little confused about the whole thing. Tucking a wrench in his back pocket, he followed me down the hall toward the bathroom, wiping his greasy hands on the front of his jeans.

In the doorway of the bathroom, I turned and smiled. “Can you throw me up on the counter?”

“Throw you?”

“You know, like you’re crazed with lust.”

Pythagoras frowned. “Won’t you hit your head on the shelf?”

“Try throwing me the other direction.”

Swiping the grease off his hands once more, Pythagoras grabbed me around the waist and heaved me onto the counter with a bit more force than necessary.


Pythagoras held me tighter. “Are you OK?”

“Your toothbrush just stabbed me in the butt cheek.”

Pythagoras looked pained. I surveyed my surroundings, still plotting out the love scene in my mind.

“OK,” I said. “Stand right here and pretend you’re naked.”

“Are you naked, too?”


This seemed to cheer him somewhat, at least until I dragged out the ruler I’d set aside earlier.

“What are you doing?” he asked, stepping back a few feet.

“Measuring. I want to make sure everything lines up right.”

“We’ve been together a long time,” he said, putting a little more distance between us. “I’m pretty sure everything lines up right.”

After making a few quick notes, I agreed that he was right. Satisfied my hero and heroine would be able to consummate their union on the bathroom counter, I smiled at my husband. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Can I finish changing the oil now, or do we need to—“

“No, you can finish the oil,” I reassured him. “I’ll let you know if I need to do more research.”

Pythagoras gave me a look that suggested he was considering whether life with a romance writer was something he wished to continue, or if he’d have a more peaceful existence if he ran away and joined the circus. Eventually, he retreated back to the garage and I retreated back to my computer to hammer out the rest of the love scene.

I was pretty pleased with that scene, just like I’ve been pleased with nearly every love scene I’ve written since that day. And Pythagoras continues to be a damn good sport about the whole thing.

So there you have it. The glamorous, amorous life of a romance author. Just like you pictured it, right?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sometimes, you've gotta get your hands dirty

I am a research junkie. I’m not in therapy for it, but maybe I should be.

My affliction is the result of my early years as a journalist, when I was required to research, document, and attribute every word I wrote. Though I’ve tried to carry this thoroughness into my fiction writing career, it’s not always possible to experience everything I write about. The local police take a surprisingly dim view of murder, even for research purposes.

Still, I’ve had some amazing research experiences in recent years. When I wrote a book set in the funeral industry, I phoned several local mortuaries to ask if I could visit. It was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on. I got to peer inside crematoriums, see the embalming process up close and personal, and meet some fascinating people eager to show me how a hydro-aspirator worked.

More recently, I spent time at the local landfill feverishly jotting notes about environmental laws and best way to crush a mattress. Though Internet research has its place, there’s just no substitute for the sensory experience of witnessing a compactor running over a big bag of rotten meat.

I recently began researching the third book in my new romantic comedy book deal with Sourcebooks, Inc. Since the story takes place in Oregon’s wine industry, I’ve been reading books, scheduling winery tours, chatting with vineyard owners, and of course, sampling plenty of local wine.

One thing that always makes my heart feel warm and fuzzy (besides the wine) is how eager everyone is to help. From firefighters to winemakers, people are generally happy to answer questions for an author looking for a glimpse into their world.

I know this is something that makes a lot of authors nervous. Even with years of journalistic experience under my belt, I used to fret sometimes, too. Would they care that the book might never be published? Would they expect me to pay them? Would they let me perform an embalming by myself?

The answer is no, no, and sadly, no.

Whether you’re an author doing some research of your own, or just a reader who’s curious about the process, here are my top five tips for conducting in-person research.

1) Be polite, professional, and straightforward about what you’re doing.

2) Bring a notepad, something to write with, and a prepared list of questions.

3) Don’t forget to collect business cards from everyone you talk to, plus any brochures or literature you see lying around.

4) Always ask if you can drive the heavy equipment, poke the dead body, or fire the gun. They probably won’t let you, but there’s no harm in asking.

5) Remember to send a sincere thank you card or email to everyone who helps you out.

Above all, remember to be a confident professional. Even if you don’t have a book deal yet, you are still an author. Practice saying it out loud. “I am an author, and I’d like to ask you some questions about water witching.”

Now if you’ll pardon me, it’s time to go uncork some Sangiovese. What? It’s for research purposes.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The fantasies of lazy souls

OK, authors – show of hands: how many of you have fantasized about your “I have arrived” moment?

Maybe it’s the day you finish your first manuscript. Maybe it’s the day you get an agent. Maybe it’s the day you land a book deal. Maybe it’s the day you hit the New York Times bestseller list and win a Pulitzer Prize in literature but miss the ceremony because you’re busy rescuing an endangered Markhor from a bear trap.

Over the years, I’ve had fantasies about all of those things. In my mind, these were events heralded in by a band of angels singing from on high while copious amounts of money and good wine flowed my way.

But even more important than the money or wine or even the angels would be this: I wouldn’t have to work so hard.

Because let’s face it, I’m lazy. This isn’t a trait I highlight in job interviews, but it’s true. Pythagoras laughs when I say this and insists I’m the least lazy person he knows – that I’m actually just disturbingly efficient. I refuse to wear shoes that don’t slip on because tying is too much work. Call that what you want, but it seems lazy to me.

So in my ideal fantasy world, my “I have arrived” writing moment would also be the day I could kick back and do nothing to further my writing career besides...well, write.

But after eight years of work and finally reaching many of those milestones I mentioned above (minus the Markhor, damn his endangered hide) I know my odds of achieving this fantasy are fairly similar to the odds of George Clooney appearing naked on my doorstep with a tub of butter and a set of jumper cables.

The unfortunate fact of publishing is that authors really don’t get to spend that much time writing. We devote countless hours to studying our genre, researching the subject of our books, querying agents, blogging and tweeting to establish an online presence, working on pitches for editors, seeking blurbs from other authors, and marketing the hell out of our upcoming releases.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, you have to find time to write. And as much as you might wish for it, most of those tasks I just listed don’t go away when you reach your “I have arrived” moment.

I thought of this yesterday when I was chatting with my agent, Michelle Wolfson, about how many books I might hope to sell when my first novel is released in August 2011. She reminded me that much of it depends on me, and how aggressively I market myself and my books. She encouraged me to write down ideas for contests and cross-promotions, book reviewers and virtual book tours. By the end of our email exchange, I was thinking, “holy crap, this is going to be a lot of work.”

And you notice how very little of it involves actual writing?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to be presented with this challenge. But if you’re one of those authors hoping your “I have arrived” moment will include a trusty assistant hand-feeding you bon-bons while you leisurely type up your next bestseller, you might want to consider a more realistic fantasy. Maybe one that involves George Clooney actually riding an endangered Markhor. Naked, of course.

This business isn’t for the faint of heart, nor is it for the lazy. There will never be a point in your writing career where you won’t have to work hard. Never. It may be exhilarating and rewarding and even fun, but it will never, ever be easy.

Now go grab your own bon-bons and get to work.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Deeply profound lessons from my weekend (volume #2)

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about how I’d had one of those weekends that seemed to be constantly teaching me little life lessons.

I just had another weekend like that, so I thought I’d offer up a new volume of valuable and profound life lessons. For that matter, I think I’ll make this a regular feature and invite all of you to play along at home. Please share your own weekend lessons in the comments section.

Here are mine:

* Licking the blade on your food processor is a good way to cut your tongue. If you’re making homemade blueberry cobbler, it’s totally worth it.

* A 14-year-old male dog who is deaf, mostly blind, arthritic, and suffering from a vestibular disorder and a torn ligament in his knee, will still consider himself capable of defending a young female dog from the flirtations of another male.

* The young female is likely to thank him by knocking him off the porch and chewing his ear.

* It is impossible to conduct research for book set in a vineyard without having a glass of wine.

* If you sit in the sun with the aforementioned glass of wine resting between your legs at precisely the right angle, you will burn a hole in your thigh.

* If you’ve already had more than one glass of wine, you won’t actually realize why your leg is burning and will continue to sit there with the @#$% wine glass between your thighs until your pants begin to smoke.

Last but not least, for those of you following the continued capers of my thieving feline, here’s a rundown of what Matt the Cat stole from the neighborhood this weekend:

1) A disintegrated roll of toilet paper
2) A filthy mousepad bearing photos of puppies
3) The crumpled classified ads from the local paper, perhaps suggesting Matt is seeking gainful employment
4) A foam dart from the neighbor kid’s toy gun
5) A leather glove

See photographic evidence below (and don't forget to share your weekend lessons in the comments section!)

Friday, March 5, 2010

I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you

I’m going to tell you a secret.

No, it’s not the meaning of life or why the Kool-Aid packet says not to mix it in a metal pitcher (though I’d love to learn both of those things).

I’m going to tell you the secret to getting published. Ready? Lean close, I’ll whisper. Ew, not that close, you’re smearing snot on the monitor.

OK, the key to getting published isn’t talent. It’s not practice. It isn’t even a fabulous agent, though I recommend having all of those things.

Nope, there are really just two keys to getting published. The first is perseverance – an all-consuming-teeth-gritting-balls-to-the-wall ability to keep going in the face of adversity, failure, rejection, and bad hair days.

The second is dumb luck.

That’s pretty much it.

As a soon-to-be-published author, I’m probably supposed to say something more profound. I should give you a wise, pious little smile and tell you that if you just hone your writing skills and craft the best book you possibly can, you’ll eventually get published.

I don’t believe that.

Because over the years, I’ve seen some truly terrific writers just give up. One or two rejections, one or two years of bad luck or overt failure, and they throw in the towel. They decide to quit the whole writing thing and try something safer. Like sword swallowing.

I’ve also seen some truly awful books get published. I’m not talking about the kind you love and I hate, or I love and you hate, but we all agree to hug it out and accept each other’s differing tastes.

No, I’m talking about bad writing. You know it, I know it, and we both know it gets published.

Why? Let me repeat myself. Perseverance. Dumb luck.

Years ago when Pythagoras was job hunting, he applied for a position he desperately wanted. He didn’t get it – wasn’t really even in the running – but the person who got the job was so laughably under-qualified, you had to assume there was blackmail, hypnosis, or really good sex involved.

My father – who spent 30 years working in the same profession – clapped Pythagoras on the shoulder and nodded wisely. “It’s like that a lot,” he told my dejected husband. “The wrong guy often gets the job, but someday you’ll be the wrong guy for the job.”

I’m not sure this was a great source of comfort to Pythagoras, but it was oddly comforting to me. It’s like that a lot in writing. You’ll see these hugely talented authors who could be published. Who should be published. But the perpetual beat-down gets to them and they decide not to keep going.

I can respect that.

And I can also respect the writers who work their butts off, who take failure after failure and still keep going. The writers who receive a rejection and don’t think “I suck,” but who shake their fists and shout, “Mr. Editor, you suck.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t learn from negative feedback, but the take-home lesson isn’t that you’re unworthy. It’s that you need to keep working, keep trying, keep at it until you achieve your goal.

Also, you need a little more luck.

You can’t do much about the luck. Well, you could try sacrificing a virgin in a volcano, but you’ll likely just melt your shoes and singe your eyebrows.

You do, however, have control over your ability to persevere. Someday, you might be the wrong guy for the job. And that will be the best day ever.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Holy crap, this is really happening

Yesterday my agent, Michelle Wolfson, emailed with some happy news. Publishers Marketplace (the industry publication in the world of publishing) posted my official deal announcement.

Well, pretty much. The wording changed from what Michelle submitted, and for some reason they posted it twice (which we’ve decided to assume means my three-book deal is now a six-book deal).

But bottom line, the announcement is out there.

For some reason, this kind of freaked me out. Not in a hide-under-my-desk-and-hum-while-sucking-my-knuckles way, but in a holy-crap-this-is-really-happening way.

I went through some of this five years ago with my book deal that wasn’t meant to be with Silhouette Bombshell. When they posted a small article about my sale on the Harlequin website (scroll way down, I’m near the bottom) I had this same sense of joy mixed with dread mixed with disbelief.

For some reason, the disbelief always seemed strongest. That’s not to suggest I had psychic premonitions of the line being canceled (though the marketing-geek in me suspected from the start that Bombshell wasn’t set up to succeed).

But something about that earlier book deal never seemed quite real.

This new deal? It feels real. Having an agent and an editor remind me of it makes it feel real. Having Pythagoras boast about it to co-workers makes it feel real. Having friends and strangers visit my blog and chat about it on Twitter makes it feel real.

And even without all that, the Publishers Marketplace announcement makes it feel real (if you click it gets bigger – no need to give yourself a hernia squinting at it):

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The great tampon of mystery

So I went to the library yesterday. It’s a glorious place filled with wisdom and intrigue and, of course, books.

I gathered up my glorious, wise, intriguing books and headed to the self-checkout area. That’s when I saw it. A tampon.

Not used, obviously. It was still in its plastic wrapper, sitting there beside one of the checkout terminals looking a bit lost.

I glanced around. Three people manned the other terminals, none of them making eye contact. There was an old lady with smudged glasses, a guy wearing his baseball cap backwards, and a young mom toting a toddler with a suspicious brown smear on his cheek.

I looked back at the tampon.

The most logical explanation was that a library patron had dropped it, and someone else – driven by the misguided belief that its owner might wish to reclaim it after it had rolled around on the floor awhile – set it there to be rescued.

That’s the likely scenario. But writers seldom attach themselves to the most likely scenario.

What if a librarian put it there to symbolize something deep and profound – maybe our community “Read Together” selection? But what does a tampon have to do with Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP? Did I miss something when I read it? Maybe I should check it out again.

Or maybe it was a bomb. I considered poking it to see if it was ticking, but hello – I’m not touching a strange tampon, even it was still in the wrapper. But if it suddenly exploded, would I be heroic enough to throw my body over it to protect the old lady and the toddler? (The dude in the backwards baseball cap – he’s on his own).

Or what if the tampon had a hidden camera inside? I’ve always heard that Big Brother is watching. Would he watch from inside a tampon? It’s a genius idea, really. What better place to stash a secret recording device than inside an object no sane person would willingly pick up?

I leaned closer for a better look, pretty sure I saw the glint of a lens.

“Can I help you?” a librarian asked behind me.

I straightened up. “Nope, just getting checked out.”

She nodded sagely. Did she wink at me? “Just let me know if you need any assistance.”

“OK,” I told her, and hurried to finish checking out my books.

Was it my imagination, or was the librarian smirking at me as I left?

In all likelihood, it was my imagination. See, this is why writers can’t be trusted with the simplest tasks. One minute we’re checking out the latest Susan Elizabeth Phillips novel and the next minute we’re imagining a vast international conspiracy centered around abandoned feminine hygiene products.

But if I read in the newspaper today that the library exploded, I’m going to say I told you so.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The long answer to what seemed like an easy question

Since I announced my three-book deal with Sourcebooks, Inc., I’ve had tons of aspiring authors ask some variation of this question:

How long did it take you to get published?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. My apologies for the lengthy blog entry, but hey, you asked.

I’ll skip the details of building my writing skills as a newspaper reporter and marketing copywriter, or earning my oh-so-useful degree in English literature.

What you’re really asking is:

When did you first start writing fiction?

Or, let’s be honest here:

How long do I have to throw myself at this @#$% wall writing manuscripts and queries until I’m ready to poke myself in the eye with a fork?

Which leads me to my first caveat, one I touched on in an earlier blog post: You can’t judge your own journey to publication on someone else’s. It’s different for everyone. Some writers sell their first book, and some try their damndest for 20 years. Honestly, if I’d known at the start how bumpy my road to publication would be, I’m not sure I would have kept going.

I’m not saying that to scare you. It's good that none of us knows how many tries it will take until we reach our goal because the idea that success is just around the corner is what keeps us going. That, and the fervent desire to gloat maniacally to everyone who said we couldn’t do it.

So here’s my story:

I started writing fiction the summer of 2002 after my book club read a novel by an uber-famous romance author and I announced that if that crap could get published, so could I.

My first book was an action/adventure/romance targeted at a new line Harelquin-Silhouette was debuting the following year. My book sucked, and it didn’t take me long to realize that. I started writing a new one even before I got the rejection on the first. That second book earned me the elusive request for revisions, a sign that I was almost there.

That second book didn’t sell either, but the third one did. I got “the call” on May 19, 2005. It was my “I have arrived” moment. Little did I know.

As an aside, you’ll notice that it took almost three years from the date I started writing until the date of “the call.” That’s not because it takes me a year to write a book. It takes me three months, sometimes less. It’s the @#$% submission process that takes forever, one of MANY reasons I tell any aspiring author to get a good agent.

My other reasons are coming up.

So I cashed my advance check from Bombshell and spent the next 15 months doing revisions, brainstorming titles and cover art, and writing two follow-up Bombshells that never made it to contract.

August 2006, I got the “un-call.” My editor phoned on my 32nd birthday to let me know the Bombshell line was being canceled one month prior to my scheduled debut. My book would not be released, nor would my two follow-ups. I was out on my butt.

To add insult to injury, this was the same day my cat died and my boss informed me that if I continued violating the company’s hosiery policy, they would fire me. (I did. They didn’t).

A little shaken, I moved on. Since action/adventure/romance wasn’t what I wanted to write anyway, I tried a new path – straight up romantic comedy with a dollop of mystery.

I began the new book in August 2006, queried agents in November, and by mid-December, I had four amazing agents offering to represent me.

I picked wrong.

I’m not saying this to diss the other agent, as I know the agent is tremendously successful and has many satisfied clients. It just wasn’t the right fit.

I figured this out over the course of the year in 2007 as I wrote four new partial manuscripts (none of which the agent liked) while the book that had originally earned the adoration of four agents failed to sell.

Once I’d parted company with my first agent, I tracked down Michelle Wolfson – the agent I realized I should have picked to start with.

With my tail between my legs, I asked if she’d still consider representing me. To my delighted surprise, she took me on. I signed with her in January 2008.

Thus began another long submission process with multiple manuscripts. Michelle sent the original book to a small handful of editors my first agent hadn’t tried. The response was good, with several editors sending my book for second reads or to the editorial board as a recommended buy.

Sadly, the book still didn’t sell.

Michelle was undeterred, which is what I love most about her. I wrote another book, this one straight romantic comedy with no mystery. Again, we got close. Several times we were on the brink of popping the champagne corks.

Still, no deal. It often came down to strange things, like another book at that publishing house that was too similar to mine. At one point, three different editors who loved my book ended up leaving their jobs before a deal could be made. Michelle and I joked that I was cursed.

Oddly enough, the feedback we were getting was all positive. If an editor had said, “this chick can’t write,” I might have been discouraged. Instead, I felt motivated. I joked with my critique partners that it had become a“literary grudge f**k” for me.

My lowest point came one week after my 35th birthday this past August 2009. We were waiting for a decision on a submission that seemed like a done deal. Something good was about to happen.

Within the same 24-hour period, a nerve test revealed that my recent elbow surgery had failed, my elderly dog developed a severe vestibular condition and couldn’t walk, and my younger dog collapsed from an undetected bleeding tumor and had to be put down. My pets have always been my babies, so this was a particularly hard blow.

Then Michelle called. The book deal wasn’t going to happen.

I expected to collapse. I didn’t. Oddly enough, it was the thing I needed to push me from being horribly sad to just horribly pissed off. “Literary grudge f**k,” indeed.

Despite the setback, Michelle still believed in me and wanted to keep fighting. Plenty of agents would drop a client who wasn’t earning her keep, so the fact that Michelle wouldn’t consider giving up is a big part of the reason I kept going. The support of my family, critique partners, and beta readers helped too.

I wrote a brand new book. Michelle suggested offering it on an exclusive basis to Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks – an editor who’d come very close to buying my previous romantic comedy, and a publishing house we agreed would be a good fit.

Over the next few months, there was a lot of back-and-forth with Deb as we brainstormed marketing hooks and titles and plotted future books. One of the best things about Sourcebooks is that they believe in building an author’s career for the long-term. They want authors with multiple book ideas and a commitment to growing a readership.

When Michelle called me last Thursday to say they were offering us a three-book deal, I was thrilled. Best of all, two of the three books are already written. One of them, in fact, is a book Sourcebooks rejected a year ago when we just couldn’t get the marketing hook right.

And two of the three books began with those partial manuscripts my first agent just wasn’t interested in.

So you see, there is a happy ending. But it’s a damn long story. Would I have preferred things to go more smoothly? Hell, yes. But sometimes you have to experience some bumps in order to appreciate smooth sailing when it comes along.

I’m not sure I would have realized how amazing Michelle is if it weren’t for my experience with my first agent.

And I’m not sure I would have appreciated this book deal quite as much if it had dropped effortlessly into my lap.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Matt the Cat's wild ride

Though my brain is still reeling with thoughts of my new three-book deal with Sourcebooks, Inc., I’m not going to blog about that today. I figure I have 15 months to annoy you with squeals about the upcoming release, so it seems wise to find other topics to annoy you with in the meantime.

Today’s subject of annoyance will be childproof car windows.

I don’t have or want children, so I'm often irritated by the locks on the rear windows of my car. I consider the risk fairly low that parents and friends riding in my backseat will be suddenly overcome by the urge to leap from a moving vehicle. For this reason, I usually keep the window locks switched off.

But I forgot to consider the cat.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter already know I have a kleptomaniac feline who routinely brings me items stolen from neighbors’ yards and homes. Matt the Cat’s favorite treasures include gloves and hand puppets, though he’s been known to swipe darts, swim goggles, and somewhat disturbingly, a roll of toilet paper.

In addition to petty thievery, Matt’s favorite hobby is riding in the car. It’s likely he’s plotting a bank heist and wants to be certain he can drive the getaway car if called upon to do so. Nevertheless, I invited Matt to come along when I ran to the grocery store yesterday. For the first three minutes, he sat purring on my lap as I steered the car onto the highway. Then he decided to explore the backseat.

I was going 55 mph and merging into traffic when an explosion of wind burst through the backseat. I stole a quick glance in the rearview mirror and screamed.

Matt’s back paws were on the controls for the rear window. His front paws were on the headrest of the front passenger seat. His midsection was leaned against the yawning void where the rear window was gaping open.

“Mrwow,” said Matt.

“Shit!” I said, and reached back with one hand to grab Matt.

With my second hand, I fumbled for the controls to shut the window. With my third hand, I continued to steer the car. This is probably why the car veered dangerously toward the median, still going 55 mph in traffic.

With his tail whipping in the wind, Matt peered happily out the window, probably wondering why the other drivers were giving us one-fingered hand signals as we swerved across the road.

I gave up fumbling for the window controls and put one hand back on the steering wheel, still clutching Matt’s collar to hold him inside the vehicle.

“Mrwow,” said Matt as his collar snapped off in my hand.

Dumbfounded, I recalled my clever decision to outfit our cats with collars designed to snap off when caught on branches or fence posts. It seemed like a good safety feature at the time, though clearly the creators failed to consider the likelihood of a cat owner needing to hold a cat inside a moving vehicle after said cat decided to perch in the window of a car traveling at high speeds down the highway.

With another scream, I grabbed for the controls again, this time managing to roll up the backseat window without catching Matt’s tail in it.

“Mrwow,” said Matt as my heart slammed in my chest and I steered the car safely into a parking lot.

Perhaps sensing this was an occasion for shame, Matt slunk down under the backseat and sat there staring at me while I engaged the childproof window locks and tried to ignore the intense look of disgust from a grocery store patron who had witnessed the whole thing.

I spent the next five minutes lecturing Matt about the importance of keeping his hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.

“Mrwow,” said Matt to let me know he understood.

At least I’m pretty sure he understood. This morning, he brought me a plastic bottle cap and dropped it on my forehead to wake me up. If that’s not an apology, I don’t know what is.