Thursday, September 30, 2010

Making car rides entertaining with minimal risk of arrest

The drive from my home in Central Oregon to the Emerald City Writers' Conference in Seattle is 7-8 hours each way. Even broken up with a pit-stop in Salem to see my parents, that's a helluva long time to be in the car with nothing to amuse me but the occasional glimpse of a passing motorist picking his nose.

This is where audiobooks come in handy. Pythagoras and I first borrowed one from the library about ten years ago on a drive to Nevada where traffic is so sparse we didn't even have nose pickers to amuse us. We listened to James Patterson's KISS THE GIRLS and cracked up every time the narrator dramatically growled "tick-cock."

Since Pythagoras' daily commute is less than two miles and mine is a flight of stairs down to my writing computer, we don't really listen to audiobooks during the week. Still, they do come in handy. Two years ago, Pythagoras accepted a temporary job in a town 2.5 hours away. We spent 10 months living in different places and visiting each other on weekends (a lovely way to celebrate your 10th year of marriage).

I credit audiobooks not only with keeping us sane on many late-night drives, but also with exposing me to books I might not have read otherwise. I was curious about Barbara Kingsolver's ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE (a memoir of a year spent deliberately eating only food produced in their town) but knew it was one of those books that would never rise to the top of my to-be-read pile. I found it on audiobook and spent several memorable car trips pretending Barbara was sitting there in the passenger seat sharing my bag of Doritos and reading me her story.

For this trip to the Emerald City conference, I've loaded my iPhone with several selections to make the miles pass quickly. It's got me wondering whether my books will ever be done in audio format. I looked at my contract this morning just to see if it's mentioned, but I got bored reading and only managed to confirm that the phrase "audio rights" is indeed in there (along with about 8 million other words that make me very sleepy).

The very idea blows my mind. I listen to Cynthia Nixon reading the Emily Giffin novel currently in my player and think, "could she someday be reading the Strip Battleship scene from MAKING WAVES?"

Probably not, but the thought amuses me even more than the nose picking thing.

Do you enjoy audiobooks? If so, are there certain books you'll listen to while reserving others for reading yourself? How do you think it changes things to listen to a book instead of reading it yourself? Please share.

I'm busy cracking up at the thought of Cynthia Nixon uttering the line "Oh baby! I want to rub your cheese doodle 'til my hands turn orange!"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Packing it all in

I take pride in my ability to travel light.

I can journey around the South Pacific with just a small backpack to hold all the clothing, toiletries, camping equipment, and snorkel gear I need for an entire month. I can’t remember the last time I checked a bag on an airplane, and I’m a pro at washing socks in hotel sinks to avoid packing that extra pair.

So could someone please explain why I suddenly think it’s necessary to have six pairs of black shoes for a three-day writers’ conference?

I tried to justify it by reminding myself there’s fourth day in there for a “librarian speed dating” soiree the night before the conference, but it’s unlikely the organizers will require me to change shoes four times during the event.

Seriously, what the hell am I doing?

It’s not just shoes, either. I’ve caught myself tossing in sweaters and blouses, skirts and slacks – enough stuff to clothe every conference attendee if we all decided to gather in the lobby and get dressed together.

In my defense, it’s my first writers’ conference. I’m still a little uncertain about weather conditions and clothing trends or the possibility we’ll be required to switch outfits once an hour like celebrities at a televised awards show.

I know I need to go through my suitcase this morning and get serious about weeding things out. Still, what if I get there and find I just can’t leave the hotel room without my pink sweater? Or my blue one? Or my black skirt? Or—

Are you an over-packer or a light traveler? Does it vary depending on where you’re going? Please share.

I’ll be busy eyeing those jewel-crusted stilettos that lace up the leg. Maybe I still have room in the suitcase…

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Please don't let me pee myself at this conference

You know that irrational fear you might hurl yourself off a balcony or scream curse words in church?

I see a few of you nodding and the rest wondering if you should keep a closer eye on your friends in multi-story buildings and places of worship.

I feel this way as I prepare to attend my first writers’ conference this week. Not that I’m afraid I’ll leap from the 17th floor of the Seattle East Hilton Bellevue, though the cursing is always likely.

It’s more that I don’t know what to expect, and I realize there’s a strong possibility I’ll spit gristle in someone’s purse or spontaneously lift my dress over my head.

It’s the little things that worry me, really. I’ve studied the list of workshops available at the Emerald City Writers Conference, but I’m not savvy enough to know how many I get to attend or how I’ll find my way from point A to point B. I specified my preference for the smoked salmon ravioli, but worry I should stuff my purse with crackers and a 15-pound turkey to satisfy my constant need for snacking.

And what to wear? “Business casual” in Central Oregon means something very different than it does in Seattle, and I also fret that the current heat wave in the Pacific Northwest will prompt conference organizers to air condition the rooms to the approximate temperature of a meat locker.

At least I don’t have to roam the city looking for a good cardboard box to sleep in. A couple members of my RWA chapter in Portland very kindly offered me a spot in their room, but I’m not certain whether I’ll be sleeping in a bed or on the bathroom floor. I also have to confess that I’m not 100% sure I’ve met these kind souls in person. What can I say? I’m terrible with names and faces, and despite our friendly email banter about room rates and breakfasts, it still hasn’t completely clicked for me who these women are. If it turns out they’re zombies or serial killers, I hope the maid doesn’t have too much trouble scrubbing my blood from the carpet.

I know these are trivial things in the grand scheme of my writing career, and I’ll figure it all out once I get there. I’m attending this conference to learn and to make new friends, and I intend to do that even if I have to use my plastic pirate sword to take hostages in the lobby.

Have you been to a writers’ conference before? Do you have any tips for newbies like me? If you’ve never attended one, what’s holding you back?

Admit it – it’s the cursing thing, right?

Monday, September 27, 2010

On useless trivia & fascinations that make no sense

I like to tell Pythagoras that I married him for three reasons.

Technically, it’s four reasons, but I’m only listing three here:

1) He doesn’t snore
2) He doesn’t have back hair
3) He doesn’t watch televised sports

I figure that’s a decent foundation for marriage, though admittedly I might keep him around if any of that changed.

The televised sports issue is an odd one, since my husband is definitely a jock. He runs and bikes and swims and skis competitively, coaching several sports and twitching a bit if he goes more than a few hours without exercising.

But for whatever reason, he’s never shown much interest in flipping on the TV and watching people throw balls through hoops or tackle each other on Astroturf.

He also doesn’t spend much time poring over the sports pages, so I’m not sure how to explain the seemingly endless stream of sports trivia he can spew with minimal prompting. We’ll be out with friends when one of the guys will mention the upcoming Seattle Seahawks game.

“Yeah, kickoff is at 1:30,” Pythagoras will muse. “If they win the toss, Leon Washington will put up seven right away.”

Yet when game time rolls around, he has zero interest in watching. My theory is that aliens implanted a microchip in his brain and it’s downloading sports stats directly into his cerebral cortex.
My brother, his girlfriend, and Pythagoras watch football.

Don’t get me wrong, he’ll watch sports if someone else flips on a TV. My brother and his girlfriend – football fanatics, both of them – visited this past weekend, making it clear from the moment they arrived that they would hurl themselves in front of a passing bus if they couldn’t watch the Oregon State/Boise game.

When the time came, Pythagoras joined them in the living room to cheer, grunt, and curse at men in tight pants. I hid in my office, emerging only when the noises from the other room suggested one of them was having a stroke.

I suppose this phenomenon isn’t unique to Pythagoras and sports on TV. I don’t really like watching movies and have zero interest in television, but my brain is like a sponge for celebrity gossip.

I’ve never seen Lindsay Lohan in a movie or watched Paris Hilton walk the red carpet, but I can cheerfully tell you all the latest drama in their lives. I get in the longest line at the grocery store so I can stand there reading tabloid headlines, and I’ll click all the juiciest Internet headlines for no compelling reason I can think of. It makes no sense, since I’d honestly rather remove the skin off one arm with a carrot peeler than watch one of their movies or TV shows or…well, whatever the hell it is that made Paris Hilton famous.

Do you have any inexplicable fascinations with things that wouldn’t normally roll your socks up? Are you a sponge for information that does you no good at all? Does your intense interest in knitting belie the fact that you can’t distinguish between a ball of yarn and a ball of hair? Please share.

I have to go see what’s new with Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. I really think those two girls can be friends, don’t you?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Good advice, bad advice, and a bunch of scary clowns

Over at the Debutante Ball this week, we’ve been blogging about good advice.

My post is up today, and you’ll be shocked to see I seized the opportunity to be a smart ass.

Just to prove I don’t always have to be a smart ass, I’ll take the subject (mostly) seriously here for a few paragraphs.

In an interview several months ago, I was asked to name the best and worst writing advice I’d ever received. I gave the same answer for both questions, which is probably a sign that I am exceptionally lazy. The best/worst advice is this:

Write the book of your heart.

It’s a phrase that's tossed around in writing circles all the time. The idea is that writers shouldn’t focus on chasing industry trends and what publishers say they’re seeking, but instead focus on writing the book that really speaks to them.

I’ve found that when my books start speaking to me, it means I need to lay off the Chianti. I do get the point though.

You can make yourself nuts chasing trends. I got burned when I jumped on the “next big thing” bandwagon trying to write women’s action/adventure novels for Harlequin/Silhouette’s Bombshell line in 2004. I sold my first book to them in 2005 and wrote two follow-ups that hadn’t made it to contract when the publisher decided it was not the next big thing and canceled the line one month before my scheduled debut.

What sucks is that I knew all along I didn’t really want to write that kind of book. I wasn’t clear what I did want to write, but I knew that wasn’t it and just figured it would be a good springboard for my career. Instead, I ended up with three unsalable manuscripts that would have made excellent lining for a hamster cage if I’d had a hamster.

So while chasing market trends isn’t the best career move, the flip side is the possibility of throwing your heart, soul, and maybe a kidney into a book that won’t sell.

After the Bombshell debacle, I wrote what you might consider “the book of my heart.” You already know the story behind A TRICKY UNDERTAKING, so I won’t dwell on the fact that this book didn’t sell despite the best efforts of two terrific agents and interest from a number of editors.

But I didn’t let that failure crush me, which is something I think can happen all too easily in these “book of your heart” scenarios. Writers convince themselves that pouring every ounce of themselves into a book will be their ticket to success. Then, if the market doesn’t cooperate, they’re left moaning, “but I gave you all I’ve got.”

The best thing I gained from writing A TRICKY UNDERTAKING was the opportunity to discover my “voice” in a way I hadn’t before. No one can take that away, not even if all the publishers in the world close down and we resort to reading the latest Oprah selection on scrolls.

While that book might have been the original “book of my heart,” I knew all along I had more books in me. That’s where MAKING WAVES and BELIEVE IT OR NOT and LET IT BREATHE came from (which is giving me the disturbing mental picture of books spewing from my brain like clowns from a teeny-tiny car).

My point here is this – it’s all about balance. You will make yourself nuts chasing the market instead of writing what you really want to write, and you will make yourself nuts pouring every ounce of yourself into a book that may not have a place in the market.

Research what’s selling, take that with a grain of salt, pour your heart into it, then make sure you can cope if no one wants to buy your heart (though I hear there’s a demand for organs on the black market).

How do you feel about the whole “book of your heart” issue? Do you believe such a thing exists? Do you think writers have an infinite number of books in them, or is your brain more like that clown car? Please share.

I’m going to research that black market organ thing. Think anyone would buy my liver?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Books I can't read

In recent months, my to-be-read pile has reached staggering heights, and now threatens to topple and squish me like a boobie on mammogram day.

I truly want to read most of it, but the sheer volume of books in the pile is making me feel like I have to read. Seeing reading as a chore is an odd sensation for me, as I’ve been eagerly devouring five or six a week since age seven, and now find myself wanting to bitch-slap the next person who thrusts a book in front of me and insists, “you simply must read THIS!”

It’s forcing me not only to prioritize, but to consider which books I simply cannot read.

I think most readers have this – a subject or genre you just don’t want to deal with. One member of our book club struggles with books that contain rape scenes or child abuse, so Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES and Khaled Hosseni's THE KITE RUNNER were not her favorite selections.

I like to think I’m a pretty open-minded reader. I used to despise time travel stories, but gave Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER a shot and now consider it one of my favorite novels (and no, not just because the sex scenes leave me fanning myself and contemplating whether addressing Pythagoras as “My Lord” might get me ravaged on a grassy hillside).

Vampires aren’t my thing, but I willingly picked up TWILIGHT and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series. While I don’t deliberately seek out books featuring infected anal lesions and a narrator who enjoys eating scabs, I liked Charlotte Roche’s WETLANDS (note to readers: this isn’t the best lunchtime read).

But there is one thing I can’t read, no matter how hard I try: any book in which animals are hurt, maimed, killed, or sad turns me into an inconsolable mess of snot and tears.

It’s limited to animals, since I can cheerfully read any book in which humans are subjected to unfathomable misery.

I’ve tried several times to read Garth Stein’s critically acclaimed novel THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, which features a canine narrator. The first time I began bawling on page one, and finally quit on page six when the pages got too soggy to turn. A thoughtful friend offered to cover the saddest parts with post-it notes so I could skip them, but just knowing they were there made me hide the book under my bed and sniffle every time I caught sight of it.

Is there something you absolutely can’t read? Have you tried to get past it, or do you just accept this is who you are? Please share, I’m very curious.

And please know that if you hurt, maim, kill or sadden an animal, I will hunt you down and squish your skull in that mammogram machine.

Then I will write about it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wait, what did she say?

I love to eavesdrop.

Since I’ve never met a writer who didn’t love to eavesdrop, this is akin to telling you I’m rather fond of Chianti.

My favorite conversations to overhear are the ones that take awhile to figure out. I’m thinking of the one that occurred in a romantic oceanfront restaurant where Pythagoras and I dined on a recent trip to the Oregon Coast. We were seated so we could both watch the ocean, but Pythag had his back to the adjacent table.

That’s where the good conversation was happening, and it went something like this:

Older woman: He’s having a really hard time getting it up.

Younger woman: I think it’s just not long enough.

Older woman:
Maybe if it were tighter—

Younger woman: No, I think he just needs it to be blowing a different way.

Pythagoras – who couldn’t see where the women were looking – was wide-eyed by this point. I actually could see what they were discussing, but I was still laughing so hard I nearly choked on my dinner roll.

“They’re talking about that guy flying his kite on the beach,” Pythag finally guessed.

“Probably,” I admitted. “But wait ‘til it ends up in one of my books.”

Are you an eavesdropper? What’s the most interesting conversation you’ve overheard? Please share in the comments.

And watch what you say around anyone with a notebook and an evil gleam in her eye.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Show don't tell – what the hell?

I volunteered to judge a writing contest.

That means I’ve spent the past few days reading manuscripts that range from almost ready for prime time to please stick a fork in my eye and twist.

Probably the biggest issue in new authors’ writing is the tendency to “tell” instead of “show.” Established authors throw that complaint around relentlessly, shrieking show don’t tell! with the fervor of cult leaders urging new recruits to shave their heads and coat their naked bodies with peanut butter and feathers.

I try to elaborate on the judges’ score sheet, explaining that the best way to tell readers the weather was warm is not to spend six paragraphs draining the thesaurus of all its synonyms for sunny.

But I’m not sure how helpful that is. And I wish I could take each new writer by the arm and point to the series of photos hanging over my bed.

They aren’t dirty, at least not in the way you’re thinking. They show a sequence of images from a hike I did with Pythagoras six years go.

It was the end of summer, and we set out with our dogs to hike to the 9,000-foot summit of Mount Bachelor.

The dogs were young and fit and had done similar hikes before, so with plenty of snacks and water in our pack, we had no reason to worry.

At least not until Ozzy began to limp.

We were near the summit, and Pythagoras knelt in the dirt to inspect Ozzy’s front paws.

“They’re blistered,” he said. “Yesterday’s swim maybe softened them up too much.”

We considered our options. Ozzy weighed 80 pounds, too heavy to carry even if he’d allow it. The flesh had begun to peel off his paw pads, and we knew he couldn’t hike for two hours over dusty lava rock to get back to the car.

“Hang on,” Pythagoras said.

He reached down and removed his own shoes and tugged out the laces. I watched as he peeled off his socks and eased them over Ozzy’s front paws, taking care to pad the undersides. Then he used the shoelaces to secure the makeshift bandages in place before standing up to pull his shoes back on.

“Ready, Oz?” Pythag asked.

I looked at my husband. “You’re going to hike down the side of the mountain with no socks and no shoelaces?”

“Sure. It’ll slow us down a little, but we have to go slow for Ozzy anyway.”

So we made the long trek back to the car with Ozzy moving gingerly in his sock bandages and Pythagoras stopping every hundred feet to offer him water.

By the time we got to the car, Pythagoras had blisters on his feet, but Ozzy was mostly OK. We stopped at the vet on the way home, and then bought doggy hiking boots for future use.

So that’s the story. Do you notice anything about those few sparse paragraphs? (No, we’re not judging the writing – it’s 6 a.m. and I haven’t had breakfast yet).

My point is that I didn’t tell you a thing about what kind of guy my husband is. I didn’t say he’s kind, or physically fit, or smart in a crisis, or that he puts the needs of others above his own.

But you still came away knowing all that about him.

That’s what I mean by showing instead of telling. There are plenty of other ways to do it with dialogue or action or a character’s inner thoughts, but you get the idea.

If you’re a writer, what tricks to you use to show instead of tell? As a reader, are there any authors you think do an exceptionally good job with this? Please share.

Here’s the man of the hour, by the way. Cute, huh? Pythagoras isn’t so bad, either.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is that a cutlass in your trousers,
or are you just happy to see me?

Yesterday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and since I don't generally post on Sundays, allow me to say this belatedly:


That was fun.

So was attending the Portland Pirate Festival yesterday, a whirlwind trip that included seven hours of round-trip driving to stand in the rain with 1,700 men, women and children determined to reclaim the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of pirates.

The Portland festival set the record last year with 1,670, but it was broken four times in the interim by other groups. We needed 7,000 to reclaim it yesterday, and though we didn't manage that, we did set a new U.S. record.

Admittedly, my interest in the pirate thing is tied partly to MAKING WAVES, my debut novel that hits shelves next August. It's sort of a contemporary twist on the pirate romance cliche, and the gist of it is this:

Juli lost count of the number of jobs she’s held, but she definitely never applied to be a pirate. Or a stowaway on a pirate ship, for that matter. But when fate lands her on boat captained by Alex – a man whose unscrupulous boss kicked him to the curb after 20 faithful years – Juli finds herself in the middle of a revenge-fueled diamond heist in the Caribbean with a crew more suited to the boardroom than the poop deck. For his part, Alex didn’t plan to be a pirate, either. He just wants his dignity, pension, and normal life back. But normal flies out the window once Juli enters the picture – a twist Alex wishes he didn’t find so exhilarating. Soon, the two discover that while normal is nice, weird can be wonderful.

One reason I attended the Pirate Festival this year was to assess whether there might be an opportunity for book promo next year. I'm not sure it's the best venue for that, but I definitely got something from the endeavor – namely, a sense of camaraderie, of being a part of something bigger than my own little make-believe world.

It reminded me of when my amazing agent suggested I join Romance Writers of America earlier this year, and the introvert in me wanted to hide under my bed and whimper, "but all those people!"

What I've learned in the six months since I joned two local RWA groups is that I gain a lot from belonging to a group like that, and it's not just the lectures and workshops. The real value – at least for me – is the sense of teamwork in something that's often a very solitary pursuit. There's a power in knowing you're surrounded by people who don't think you're odd for jotting character notes in line at the grocery store or debating which eye patch goes best with your boots.

Are you part of any writers' group or any other organization? What do you gain from that? If you haven't joined, what's holding you back? Please share!

And since we're sharing, here are some of my photos from yesterday:
The timing of the trip meant I had to take part in my weekly online revision class with bestselling author Lani Diane Rich at my in-laws' kitchen table while dressed in full pirate attire. Nothing like holding a plastic sword while you learn about plot structure.

Hanging at the Portland Pirate Festival.

Waiting for the final count from the Guinness World Record officials.

Hey, pirates gotta go, too.

You know, sometimes there are just no words.

Friday, September 17, 2010

On phallic squash and rejections

Last year, I had my first garden.

Peppers flourished with wild abandon. Tomatoes ripened faster than I could make salsa. Summer squash grew to gargantuan proportions, prompting many phallic thoughts not only for me, but for everyone who stopped by and received one as a gift.

If you have phallic thoughts looking at this year’s squash crop, I feel very sad for you. This is my most impressive specimen:

Hardly in the same ballpark as the ones that took both arms to carry just 12 months ago.

The funny thing is, I changed nothing in my gardening process. I used the same fertilizer, bought seedlings from the same store, even planted within a couple days of last year’s start date.

But the weather hasn’t been kind this year. Neither have the aphids or those nasty little spiky weeds that make me want to throw a hoe through the fence. I’ve done everything I can, but my garden just isn’t flourishing this year.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I read Victoria Strauss’s excellent blog post at Writer Beware titled Getting published is not a crap shoot.

I agree with her wholeheartedly, and think every author should read it. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s no question that good books fail to find publication –for a whole range of reasons, including what a publisher is already publishing, sales or marketing concerns, poor publisher/agent targeting on the writer's part, or sometimes simply because the writer gave up too soon. But far more often, rejection is based on quality and marketability, or the lack thereof.

Like I said, I agree with her. I really do.

And yet the last line of that paragraph makes me sad. I’ve stood in the shoes of every author who ever stared at a rejection letter and wondered, “is it the writing or is it something else?”

And the problem is, you often can’t know.

During the (sometimes brutal) two-year stretch leading up to my three-book deal, I had the benefit of an amazing agent who was able to procure detailed explanations from editors rejecting us. It was staggering how often the decision came down to something that had nothing to do with the writing itself – an editor who just bought a book in the same vein, or a marketing team that feared the book might be a tough sell with older readers.

I’m not saying I didn’t learn and grow from those experiences, but I also didn’t take them too personally. I recognized that sometimes it is a crap shoot.

It's important to strike a balance between embracing failures as an opportunity to learn and improve, and recognizing that sometimes there isn’t much to learn. Sometimes you’ve mastered everything within your control – the weeds, the typos, the watering schedule, the plot holes – and your lack of success can’t be traced to anything you have the ability to fix.

But the great thing? There’s always spring. Always. You can look ahead and see sunshine and honeybees and pound your chest and shout, “oh weather gods, you may have beaten me this year, but next year I shall have squash that put porn stars to shame!”

Not that I’ve done that.

Why are the neighbors staring at me?

Psst...don't forget to stop by and visit me at The Debutante Ball today!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dead computers make good doorstops

It was bound to happen soon, but I still felt a surge of sadness two weeks ago when my old Mac sputtered, wheezed, dropped to the floor, and refused to get up.

True, the Mac was ancient. That didn't stop me from consulting two different computer gurus to confirm what was already painfully obvious – the Mac had gone to the big computer orgy in the sky.

That was a big enough blow, but when I learned Sunday that no files could be retrieved from the hard drive, I contemplated mouth-to-Mac resuscitation.

Fortunately, I've worked with computers long enough to have a few backup systems in place. I lost some files, but it could have been much worse.

Here are a few things I did right, and a few I'll do better next time.

How I got lucky:
  • The plus side of never deleting emails. The Mac sat upstairs in my bedroom, while an older PC lived in my office downstairs. There was no rhyme or reason to which I'd choose to use each day, which meant I emailed files back and forth to myself constantly. The fact that I seldom delete emails annoys the crap out of me when I'm forced to wade through 100 messages from my aunt insisting Bill Gates wants to give me $100 for forwarding a chain letter, but it worked in my favor this time. Between my in-box and my sent folder, I was able to retrieve a lot of files.
  • CDs and thumb drives are my friends. In addition to my somewhat accidental email backup system, I had a less accidental (but still haphazard) habit of dumping important files onto CDs and thumb drives. When I rifled through them on Monday, I was pleased to discover most of what I hoped to save was spread somewhere between four thumb drives and three-dozen cryptically labeled CDs (several of which had been used as coasters).
  • Dates in the file names. I'm fairly neurotic when it comes to saving manuscripts. Each time I open one, I re-save a new version with the current date in the title. I learned this trick the hard way six years ago when I used to save the files with merely a title and a version number. I wasn't always consistent with the numbers, but since I went by the file date anyway, assumed it didn't matter. Then my computer crashed, and all my retrieved files were cryptically branded with a date of August 1969. Adding the date to the file name has saved my butt more than a few times since then.
What I'll do better next time:
  • Scheduled backups. Though I got lucky with my haphazard backup system, a girl can't count on getting lucky all the time. That's a shame. In the future, I'll pick a designated day to back up whatever I've worked on that week, perhaps on an external hard drive this time.
  • Smarter labeling. Though I was wise enough to dump bigger files on CDs and thumb drives, I wasn't wise enough to have a good system for knowing what's on them. The few CDs that bear labels have helpful titles like "pics" and "files," which doesn't do much to distinguish vacation photos of monkey sex from my professional author photos. In the future, I'll have more savvy system for labeling my external backups.
  • Consistent file names. Though I was able to search my email for the names of my manuscripts, there was the small issue of name changes in those documents. My manuscripts all have working titles like PIRATEBITCH, PSYCHICBITCH, and WINEBITCH. There's an inevitable shift that happens when I start sending the files to my agent or editor and I'm forced to call them by their real titles (MAKING WAVES, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, and LET IT BREATHE, respectively). In the future, I should probably start adopting the real titles earlier in the game. Either that, or convince my editor that the bitch series has real marketing potential.
So there you have it – some lessons learned from the great Mac crash of 2010. What are your tricks for backing up your work? Have you ever been burned by a bad meltdown? Do you have any savvy tips for keeping your files safe? Please share in the comments.

I'll be making sure my new Macintosh doorstop is positioned correctly.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wild monkey sex

Last Friday, regular blog commenter Mary Brebner joked about some of my past blog topics, adding "wild monkey sex" to the list.

Obviously, this sounded like a great topic to me.

I photographed the following love story pictorial a few years ago in Gibraltar. Gibraltar is a British territory at the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula, and the primary reason I wanted to visit during our month-long trek around Spain and Morocco was to see the large colony of wild Barbary Macaques living there.

That's a fancy way of saying "really big monkeys."

The monkeys did not disappoint. In fact, they were one of the best parts of that trip. The highlight of my monkey experience unfolded while I was innocently snapping pictures of a small family of monkeys spending a pleasant afternoon together. Take a look:
Mommy Monkey, Baby Monkey, and Daddy Monkey enjoy a fine afternoon together.

If you look closely, you can see evidence that Daddy Monkey is having impure thoughts.

Monkey foreplay at its finest.

Mommy Monkey and Daddy Monkey provide Baby Monkey with a little sex education.

You know, you've gotta hand it to the monkeys – they get the job done without a lot of fretting about her checkered past or his insecurities stemming from a troubled relationship with his father.

Of course, it doesn't leave you with much of a plot for a romance novel. Still, you've gotta admire the lack of inhibition.

Have you ever witnessed any amusing couplings in the animal kingdom? Do you think there's some appeal to this sort of fuss-free amorous interlude?

Please share in the comments. I'll be searching for that video I shot of the tortoises mating in Barbados. No, I'm not kidding. I'm really not.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Are you an ottist?

Back in college, Pythagoras and I held a number of jobs that had little to do with our future professions.

Mine included working in a bakery and washing dogs for a pet groomer (a combination that resulted in a disturbing number of poodles licking donut frosting off my shoes).

Pythagoras worked in a pizza parlor.

One evening, he answered a call from a man with a heavy accent and a very firm idea how he wanted his pizza made. After he barked his elaborate instructions to Pythagoras, he issued this stern warning:

"I am a pizza ottist, so I will know if you do not make it right."

Pythagoras frowned down at his order pad. "Pizza ottist?"

"Pizza ottist!" the man repeated loudly.

Oh artist, Pythagoras realized, but wrote down o-t-t-i-s-t and committed both the word and the concept to memory.

Since then, it's become our catch-all phrase for a skill that is a great source of pride, but might not ordinarily be considered a form of artistry. I am a bargain-hunting ottist, as I can always find the best prices on everything from world travel to used jeans.
Pythagoras slices the potatoes paper-thin.

And Pythagoras is still a pizza ottist. It's the one thing he loves to do in the kitchen (well, I suppose there are other things he might love to do in the kitchen, but the granite counters are kind of cold).

Just last night, some friends and I pleaded with him to make pizzas. I knew he had a million other things on his to-do list (I know this because I attempted to add my own name) but I also saw that flicker of pride that comes from being asked to do something you're really very good at.

He agreed, and we headed off to the grocery store to stock up on pepperoni and onions and big, fat mushrooms. Pythagoras delighted us with his mouth-watering Italian prosciutto, potato, and rosemary pizza, along with some artery-clogging meat monster we affectionately called "boy pizza."

It was delicious. Even better, it was fun to see my husband basking in the glow of doing something he's very good at and enjoys, but isn't required to do in order to keep a roof over our heads.
Assembling the pizzas.

I'm no psychology expert, but I'm pretty sure everyone needs outlets like this – some skill, some ottistry that isn't tied to your profession, but just makes you happy because you're genuinely good at it. Do you agree? If so, what sort of ottist are you? Is there some ottistry you aspire to develop? Please share!

And please let me know if you happen to be a cleaning ottist. My kitchen looks like someone blew up a bag of flour with an M-80.

Totally worth it though.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My hole got plugged so my jugs aren't full

Before we get started on this fine Monday morning, thank you SO MUCH to everyone who offered blog organization tips in response to Friday's post.

I asked Joelle Anthony, author of RESTORING HARMONY, to choose one lucky commenter to receive the autographed copy of her book. After a complicated selection process that involved calculating the square root of pi and sacrificing several small mammals, Joelle chose blog commenter ~ M (also known as Mary Alongi). Congratulations, Mary! Email me with your address and I'll get the book to you ASAP!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

I traveled to Salem, OR this past weekend to take part in the 20th Annual Grape Stomp Competition at Willamette Valley Vineyards.

Participants compete in pairs with the "stomper" using bare feet to crush grapes, and the "swabber" using a dipstick-like device to keep the drain clear and the juice flowing into the milk jugs.

I stomped. My dad swabbed.

We sucked.

Something went awry with our drain tube, and despite my dad's best efforts, we couldn't get it clear. On top of that, the teenager I asked to take video of the five-minute event manged to record exactly one second of footage of me stepping out of the barrel.

But this is exactly what I wanted. A learning experience.

Though it's possible I'd do this event even if I didn't have an ulterior motive, I do have one. The third book in my contract, LET IT BREATHE, takes place in the Oregon wine industry. Though it won't be released until August 2012, it's never to early to look for interesting promotional opportunities.

I don't know yet if the 2012 Grape Stomp might be a good place for a book signing, or if my time might be better spent lighting my hair on fire and screaming "buy my book!" as I fling grape pulp at the competitors.

But I do know how the event works now. I know that next time, I'll watch the earlier heats to see which barrels have trouble draining. I know I'll spend more time finding someone to take video. I know I'll poke holes in the bottom of the other competitors' jugs so all their juice drains out I'll wear my hair up next time so it stays out of my face.

It's a bit like writing, no? Even if some of your earliest efforts are abysmal failures in terms of publication or feedback, they aren't wasted efforts. You learn from those efforts, and those lessons will serve you well with future books.

What are some learning experiences you've had so far in your writing? Please share.

And speaking of sharing, here are some of the lovely photos my mother took on Saturday. Enjoy!

A plethora of grapes await stomping.
Dad scopes out the barrels before the competition.
A little pre-competition beverage.
Sizing up the competition before the whistle blows.
More stomping...
Wow, this stomping is lasting on a long time.

Yay, team! Oh, wait – we sucked.
My grape stomping machines.
Getting cleaned up afterward.
Standing in line to get our juice strained and measured.
Hanging with my parents!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Help me get my poop together!

As you may know, I'm a Google Analytics fiend and a stalker when it comes to tracking blog stats.

Lately, I'm seeing a lot of first-time blog visitors showing up just to read old posts like You are a real author, dammit! or Query stats or Fake car sex.

I'm not sure how they're finding those posts, but I'm feeling kind of like I do when a bunch of unexpected house guests show up and I'm standing there in spaghetti-stained sweatpants with a pile of dirty dishes on the counter.

I always meant to have an organized system for archiving blog posts so new visitors could find what they're seeking. Like if you want to read posts about critique partners, there'd be an easy way to locate them. Or if you want to read posts about crotch patches or crotch, I guess I'd have a separate category labeled "pervert?"

Anyway, I'd love your help getting organized. I'll even make it worth your while.

In the comments trail, please share one or more of the following:
  • Are there any blogs you frequent that make it super easy to locate old posts on certain topics? Show me!
  • For this blog, can you think of topics you'd like to see broken out or specific posts you'd like to see under those headings?
  • Can you share any other tips for organizing/archiving blogs? Anything you've seen elsewhere that I should be doing here?
  • What topics would you like me to tackle in future blog posts? OK, so this has nothing to do with organization. It's just me being lazy so I have something to blog about on those mornings I'm brain dead.
Answer one or more of these questions in the comments and I will be eternally grateful.

I will also give you a chance to win a fabulous book I just finished reading. I have an autographed copy of Joelle Anthony's terrific debut YA novel RESTORING HARMONY. I loved this book, and so will you. Well, only one of you will get to love this exact book. The rest of you will have to buy your own.

Just to keep things fair, I'm going to let Joelle pick a winner instead of having one of my pets do it this time. If Joelle really wants to fetch balls or swim for sticks, I'm happy to throw them for her.

Oh, and speaking of the amazing Joelle Anthony, she was one of last season's authors over at The Debutante Ball. The Friday blogger, to be specific. Know who's blogging there on Friday's now? (Hint: ME!) Stop by and say hello!

OK, blog readers – take it away! Help me get my poop together.

And thanks!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hell in a desk basket

The other day, I reached for my lip balm.

It’s in a little basket on my desk beside the computer, and I know right where the lip balm sits without looking.

Well, I thought I did.

Apparently, a lip balm and a glue stick bear such a striking resemblance to each other.

Annoyed with myself, I decided it was time to clean the desk basket. I originally put it there to hold items I considered necessary for my workday, so here’s a list of some of those necessary items:
  1. Two tubes of hand cream, one tube of foot cream, one tube of body cream
  2. A lapel pin depicting an Oregon Pink Shrimp
  3. A packet of all-purpose plant food
  4. A miniature Slinky
  5. Toenail clippers
  6. Four small rocks
  7. One glue stick
  8. Refills for an automatic pencil I do not own
  9. One packet of Sen-Sens
  10. A fake rubber worm
  11. Five hair elastics
  12. A spoon
  13. A tape measure
  14. Two spools of dental floss
  15. Seven lipsticks, four lip balms, and two tubes of lip gloss
  16. Two small plastic lizards
  17. An assortment of paperclips, safety pins, and pocket change
In case you think I’m making this up, here’s photographic evidence:

My mom has a catch-all drawer in the kitchen she calls “the hell drawer,” so it seems I have a “hell basket.”

I have no idea how half this stuff ended up in there or why I thought it was integral to my work.

Do you have a basket or a drawer that’s become the dumping ground for hodgepodge in your life? What is the strangest item currently in it?

Please share in the comments. I’ll be busy staging a battle between the worm and the lizards.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The query that hooked my agent

Oh, blog readers. I have a very special treat for you.

By popular demand, my amazing agent, Michelle Wolfson, agreed to do a guest post discussing my original query letter – the one that caught her eye back in December 2006.

A couple details before we get started:

If you haven’t already read my post on query stats, you might want to check that out for some background on my query process.

Secondly, you should keep in mind that while this query letter prompted offers of representation from four agents, and two of those agents tried to sell it (my first agent, then Michelle) this book never sold.

I repeat, this book never sold.

It makes me a little sad to type that, and it certainly wasn’t for any lack of trying. We had several editors teetering on the brink of buying it, but for whatever reason (The market? Timing? Aliens abducting editors and replacing them with sausages?) it never happened.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I still love this book, and while I’m ecstatic about the three-book deal Michelle recently nabbed for my romantic comedies, I’m still hopeful A TRICKY UNDERTAKING will someday find a home.

The words you see below in blue Arial are Michelle’s. The ones in red courier are taken word-for-word from my original query. I didn’t correct or polish anything before posting it here (much as I might have wanted to). You’ll see a couple small comments from me in bold.

So here we go, dear readers. Take it away, Michelle!

For the record, it’s been nearly four years since Tawna sent me her original query letter. I’ve read a lot of queries since then. So maybe if I were giving advice now (which I suppose is exactly what I’m about to do here), I might suggest a little tweak here or maybe a little style change there. Overall, I have to say I look at this query letter after all these years, and still see the core of everything I loved both then and now about Tawna the writer and Tawna the person.

Before I start, I have to reiterate my oft repeated query advice which is that the query is meant to get an agent’s attention. The goal is to get the agent to request pages. You are writers: you write and you edit. The same should hold true for your query letter. Every sentence should be written and later edited while thinking, is this sentence going to make her want to request pages? If not, cut it out.

Subject: QUERY: "orphaned" author seeks agent for new single-title work

So, Tawna’s subject line is a good exception to the Query: Title rule. Another would be Query from a published author. What Tawna does nicely which many people don’t do, is she explains exactly what she means by “orphaned” author right up front in the 1st paragraph. I don’t want to have to research what you mean.

Dear Ms. Wolfson,

I'm an author who was recently "orphaned" when Silhouette Bombshell announced it was closing the line in January. Since my debut novel was scheduled for release in February, I now have one formerly-contracted Bombshell (my rights have been reverted), two follow-up Bombshell projects that never made it to contract, and a burning desire to cleanse my palate by writing books in which the heroine is not required to blow up a building in the first chapter.

So the first paragraph gives a good, complete description (as complete as I would need for the moment) of Tawna’s history with Harlequin, and a nice introduction to her sense of humor (which is so integral to her writing) with her comment about her burning desire to cleanse her palate. I have said before that you should write your query in the tone of your book, and this is what I mean. Tawna’s books are funny and that was reflected in her query voice.

Allow me to tell you about my new (non-Bombshell) single-title project.

Allow me to tell you about my new project…OK. Those kinds of sentences are transitional and fine. Sometimes as I’m sitting there by myself I’ll shout NO at the computer. But inevitably I keep reading.

Wilma “Willie” Rising has two great desires in life: finding the perfect embalming solution, and finding a man who's not afraid of a woman with a desire to find the perfect embalming solution. As a mortician in Portland's trendy Pearl District, Willie leads a quiet life. But all that changes one afternoon when a police officer asks for help disinterring an urn of cremated remains for a criminal investigation. Suddenly, Willie finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery with a cloud of suspicion hanging over her head and a variety of strange characters looking to buy out her business, ruin her reputation, communicate with her deceased clients, take her to dinner – or some combination of all four.

So the first sentence of the descriptive paragraph is terrific. It paints a picture of Willie as a woman who is maybe a little bizarre – totally devoted to a pretty offbeat job, yet still looking for love. She sounds fun, quirky, and pretty great already. I was probably hooked just on this. The rest of the paragraph to me does a nice job summing up the story, showing that this is a cozy-esque mystery with the heroine in what I consider to be a fabulous new fun setting. It has all the elements that this type of story will need.

A TRICKY UNDERTAKING is a quirky, mainstream novel blended with equal parts dark humor, suspenseful mystery, and a tone I might have called "chick-lit" before people turned up their noses at that term. Given the public's recent fascination with TV series like "Six Feet Under" and "Family Plots," as well as nonfiction books like Mary Roach's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," I believe the market is ripe for a story like mine. Though I haven't seen any fiction works centered around a plucky female undertaker, readers fond of the style of Jennifer Crusie or Janet Evanovich would enjoy A TRICKY UNDERTAKING. This book – which also has series potential – is complete at approximately 75,000 words.

The next paragraph is good, if a drop long. I like to see that an author has taken the market into account. Especially here with a slightly offbeat topic, it was nice that Tawna pointed out some mainstream successes on this topic. I think I would drop the chick-lit part of the sentence. Even though she makes a joke of it, the joke is true – chick-lit really was a death sentence at a certain point – and I think I wouldn’t take a chance that an agent would just turn it down based on that. I think dark humor and suspenseful mystery works well enough. Tawna picked two authors who really were great comparisons both in market and in voice, and her own voice really shone through in the query and in the pages below. She finishes up by mentioning word count and series potential, both useful pieces of information.

I have the battle scars to prove I can sell a book, negotiate a contract, complete revisions, and write two additional follow-up books (which, alas, are also homeless now that Bombshell is dead). Even so, I've now gotten my feet wet writing category books with a decidedly mainstream feel, and I'm hopeful you might consider representing my work as I enter this new phase in my career.

The last paragraph about battle scars is fine. Not necessary but it was fine. I think these days I would start to feel like it’s getting a drop long. I would probably skim over a paragraph like that and get right to the pages.

I'm including the first few pages of TRICKY UNDERTAKING in the text below to give you an idea of the tone of the writing. If you'd like to see more, please don't hesitate to contact me. Thank you for your consideration, and have a great day!

Tawna will probably provide a link to these pages on her website (yes indeed, right here!) and if you haven’t read this excerpt yet, you should go read it now. I have probably read these beginning pages 40 times over the past 4 years and I never get tired of them and I never stop laughing at them. For the record, I think this is the best first sentence I have ever read. I have spent four years laughing every time anyone says “for the record,” and for the record, a lot of people say that. I knew very quickly that I wanted to read the entire book and I wasn’t disappointed.

I edited out my own sob story about how devastated I was that TRICKY didn’t sell, but I will say that like Tawna, I still have high hopes this series will someday be published.

The last thing I will say is that Tawna thought she had battle scars when she wrote this query letter, but unfortunately for her, those proved to be just flesh wounds. (If you don't know the story, go here). You never know how long your road to publication is going to be. You never know which query, which agent, which manuscript is going to be The One. But the important thing is not to give up.

Once you’ve perfected your query, remember it’s a numbers game. Send it out and send it out and then send it out some more. This is a subjective business and you deserve an agent who loves your writing as much as I love Tawna’s. So don’t settle for anything less. I wish you all the best of luck!

Applause! Applause! Applause!

Thank you so much to Michelle for taking time out to do this guest post.

Readers, do you have any questions? Fire away!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Weird things we do for our books

Non-writers tend to have a narrow idea of what authors do all day.

I was reminded it of this recently when I told someone I’m a romance author and she scrunched up her nose at me. “So you just sit there and write all day, every day?”

Not quite.

Very little of what I find myself doing lately is actual writing. Though there are weeks where I’m knuckled down cranking out thousands of words on a manuscript, that hasn’t been the case lately.

Here are a few things on my author to-do list in the last few days:

  1. Shop for (and purchase) a pirate costume.
  2. Fill out Guinness World Record™ paperwork to participate in the Portland Pirate Festival and help reclaim the title for “largest gathering of pirates.”
  3. Spend 20 minutes on the phone with Willamette Valley Vineyards talking my way onto the waiting list for or the 20th Annual Oregon Grape Stomp Competition.
  4. Spend 40 minutes figuring out what the hell a grape stomper does.
  5. Pester local librarians to learn what gift bag items might prompt them to remember an author and purchase her books.
  6. Purchase 50 organza baggies and 160 chocolate gold coins, then ponder the best way to assemble pirate booty bags for a “librarian speed dating” event.
I must admit, none of those tasks was in my mind eight years ago when I sat down to write my first novel.

And while there’s nothing in my three-book contract with Sourcebooks that requires me to don an eyepatch or squash grapes with my bare feet, these are the sort of things many debut authors find themselves doing to support their books.

Unless you are a big-name author, there’s a good chance you’ll need to play a significant role in marketing your own books. I’ve watched lots of authors print bookmarks and schedule book signings, but those who combine those efforts with a little outside-the-box thinking are the ones I tend to notice.

I don’t know yet if the annual Portland Pirate Festival will be a good place to hold signings for MAKING WAVES next year, or if any of the contacts I’m making at Oregon wineries will prove useful when the time comes to market LET IT BREATHE.

That’s what I’m hoping to learn these next few weeks.

Oh, and lest you think I’m being completely random, there is a pirate theme to MAKING WAVES, while LET IT BREATHE is set in the Oregon wine industry.

I know that measuring ROI (return-on-investment) will be nearly impossible at this stage, but I’m committed to doing everything I can to get out there and make contacts, to make a name for myself and my books.

If that name includes the word “weird,” all the better. That is a part of my marketing plan, after all.

Will it pay off? Hopefully.

If nothing else, I now have a pirate costume to wear grocery shopping.

Do you have any outside-the-box ideas for marketing your books when the time comes? What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen another author do for promotion? Please share in the comments.

I’ll be busy throwing grapes on my kitchen floor and practicing my stomping technique.

Monday, September 6, 2010

And the winner is...

You guys really outdid yourselves in the latest What the @#$% is that? contest. Seriously, I peed down my leg laughing at some of your guesses.

In case you're just tuning in, here's how the game is played: my absentminded husband leaves mystery objects lying around. I post a picture, and you guys try to guess what it is.

As I shared on Friday, this is what I found sitting on top of his toolbox:
Many of you correctly guessed those are dusters, though the mystery is clearly why Pythagoras would have 60 of them strung together thusly.

Much as I enjoy the idea that it might be some sort of sex toy, it's nothing that exciting (well, it kind of is for Pythagoras).

The dusters are actually a common training tool for slalom ski racing. No, really.

Slalom racing requires the skier to slam his or her body into a plastic gate at a high rate of speed. As you can imagine, many newer racers find this rather daunting.

The dusters, however, are not daunting. The dusters are fun, and a good way to train racers to ski the correct tactic, timing, and line without sustaining bodily harm.

They really need to develop something like that for new writers.

So now that you know the story behind the mystery object, it's time to pick a winner. The process involved collecting a large quantity of sticks on a recent hike.

Then I wrote names on the sticks.

Wow. That picture looks weird. Those are my legs, I swear – I wasn't holding the stick with my boobs (though come to think of it, that would be a good trick).

Anyway, you'll have to watch the video to find out the rest of what happened. You may have to turn up your volume to hear, since I live in the windiest freakin' place in the entire state of Oregon. Alternately, you can watch it right on You Tube since I hear the quality is better that way.

So there you have it. Congratulations to Simon C. Larter. Email me to let me know what size It's Willamette, Dammit shirt you'd like and where I should send it.

Thanks for playing, everyone!