Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Great writer gifts day 2: Show your pride!

Welcome to the second day of my week-long series highlighting holiday gifts for writers. You all went out and bought mugs for your writing pals yesterday, right?

Good. Moving on.

One of the most popular blog posts I’ve ever written is the one titled You ARE a real author, dammit.

The gist of the message is that you’re a “real” author whether you’re published or not, whether you’re writing your first manuscript or your fifty-first.

I stand by the sentiment 110%, but sometimes…well, you need something to make you feel a little more legit. Something that identifies you as an author whether you’re attending a conference or just going to the grocery store.

Enter Romance Yardsale. No really, enter it. That’s a link to the store.

Romance Yardsale was created by authors MG Buehrlen and Bria Quinlan, two YA (young adult) writers chasing the dream. You can find an endless array of shirts, notebooks, mugs, mouspads, tote bags, magnets, thongs—yes, thongs—emblazoned with your choice of sayings.

Their most popular designs are these two, which can be added to any of the aforementioned items and probably a few things I’m forgetting:

My favorite, however, is this t-shirt I bought myself as a reward for some writing accomplishment I’ve long since forgotten:
Every time I wear it, someone makes a comment. Well OK, first they stare at my boobs, then they make a comment. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the company of a hundred other authors or just hanging out at the gym—the shirt makes me feel like a real author. Like there’s an inside joke, and I’m lucky enough to be in on it.

Writers who aren’t as comfortable turning their boobs into a billboard can opt for something a bit more subtle. “I love the notebooks,” Bria told me when I emailed to make sure the site was still active. “I love that you can choose what type of paper is inside: lined, graph, blank or checkboxes.”

And here are a few more options for those notebooks or water bottles or…well, whatever you want:

I should mention that I’m not getting any sort of kickback from Romance Yardsale—I just really like their stuff, and I like supporting fellow authors.

Do you have a shirt or a pen or a notebook or anything else that makes you feel more like a REAL author? Is it something subtle, or something that causes people to stare at your chest and ask questions? Please share.

And please add some Romance Yardsale goodies to your holiday gift list. I’m eyeing the boy-short myself.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Great writer gifts day 1: The love mug

I’m feeling festive this week. It's possible I'm confusing “festive” and “revoltingly stuffed with turkey and mashed potatoes,” but why split hairs? I want to spread some holiday cheer.

Each day this week, I’ll share a gift idea for the writer in your life. If the writer in your life happens to be you, score! You may get a few items to add to your holiday wish list. Otherwise, consider being generous with a critique partner or other writing pal.

Let’s get started.

I never sit down at my writing desk without a beverage of some sort. Surprisingly, the beverage is not always served in Riedel stemware. I’m a bit of a tea fiend, and spend the early part of each day sipping anything from Oolong to Earl Grey.

This is my favorite everyday mug:
Nothing fancy, but perfectly functional. I bought it for myself at the Dollar Store a few years ago, and though I love it for its size and shape, it doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy and loved.

The mug that makes me feel warm and fuzzy and loved is this one:
Critique partner Linda Brundage bought it for me shortly after we both began chasing the elusive publication dragon. This was before either of us had an agent or a book deal or really much chance of publishing the drivel we churned out back then.

In case you can’t read it, the mug says, “Choose an author as you would a friend.” – Wentworth Dillon.

I love the sentiment behind both the quote and the gift. No matter what kind of writing obstacles I encounter—from rejection to brain-block to a cat on my keyboard—the mug is a reminder that I’m not alone in this.

I don’t use it every day. It’s partly that I don’t want to break it, and partly that I like to save it for days when I need a little pick-me-up in my routine.

You can find plenty of author-themed mugs right here at cafepress.com, but spending a lot of money on a mug with a clever saying isn’t a requirement. A regular Dollar Store mug can be a writer’s favorite treasure when gifted in a spirit of love and camaraderie.

Do you have a favorite writing mug? Has a critique partner ever given you a present you adore? Please share. My kettle is boiling. Hey, that’s an excellent euphemism. See how well the mug works?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm thankful for...

With the big turkey grinning on the calendar tomorrow, it seems everyone in the blogosphere is posting about things they’re thankful for.

I have a lot of those – my amazing agent, my three-book deal with Sourcebooks, my wonderful family, my super-hot husband, Wacoal bras, double-salt licorice, multiple orgasms, wool socks, and that great bottle of Pinot Noir I’ll be taking to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.

But here’s one thing I’m especially grateful for right now – the hilarious, smart, fabulous, stupendous, dedicated, supportive readers of this blog who show up to banter or just lurk. Seeing your comments on my posts and your hits on my Google Analytics tracker gives me a reason to feel warm and fuzzy every single day. In just nine months, we’ve created this wonderful little corner of the blogosphere that makes me proud to have my name at the top of the page.

Thanks, guys. You’re the best.

And thanks for understanding that I’m taking the next couple days off to eat turkey and buy socks. You can find me at The Debutante Ball on Friday where we’re talking about Gratitude/Thanksgiving this week.

What are you grateful for? Please share in the comments, let's keep those warm and fuzzy feelings going.

Happy holidays, and I’ll see you on Monday!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On socks, spatulas, and family traditions

Right about now, many Americans are preparing themselves for a Thanksgiving day filled with turkey and stuffing and football.

My family is dreaming of socks.

It’s a tradition in the Fenske clan. Each year, we rise before the sun does the morning after Thanksgiving and head to our local Fred Meyer retailer for their annual half-price sock sale.

It doesn’t matter if you need socks. It doesn’t matter that the sock selection is really no different a 5 a.m. as it is at 8 a.m. This is tradition, and it must be strictly observed.

The first year Pythagoras joined my family for Thanksgiving, he was perplexed.

“You already have plenty of socks,” he pointed out.

“That’s not the point. It’s tradition. Like pumpkin pie or turkey or having Hot Lips hit you with a spatula for cheating at Pictionary.”

“What happens to someone who breaks a tradition?”

There was an audible gasp as everyone in the family turned to stare. No one had ever considered this concept. Not even Hot Lips, who was reaching for her spatula at the mere thought.

Of course, Pythagoras has his own set of unusual family traditions. When we go to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving, we open Christmas presents. Yes, Christmas presents. Because much of his family spends Christmas in Germany, Thanksgiving is the only time we’re all assembled in one place and feeling festive. I actually look forward to it, since it trims out a lot of gift-buying stress in December.

Lest you think established tradition eliminates all hope of new traditions forming, I can assure you that’s not the case. We’ll be forming a new one this year as my long-divorced grandparents (Hot Lips and The Old Bastard) are forced to dine under the same roof. We will be frisking them at the door for weapons.

Do you have any unique traditions in your family? Anything that seemed normal growing up, but you realized with the addition of outsiders was not something all families did? Please share.

And please keep your hands off my socks. Touch the the pair I want, and I can assure you there will be bloodshed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Contest winner...plus a surprise!

Earlier this month I held a contest inviting readers to show me what they think my cover might look like for MAKING WAVES.

Since the prize was a coveted signed copy of Eileen Cook's hysterical YA novel WHAT WOULD EMMA DO, you guys pawed through your closets and dug out your most colorful, creative thinking caps. I'm delighted with the submissions!

So delighted that I can't possibly choose a winner. Even though this is just for fun and not for the real book cover, it's just too much pressure for me to handle.

For that reason, I asked Eileen Cook herself to do the honors.

Take it away, Eileen!

Thank you so much for having me as a judge for your cover contest. All of the entries were awesome, but just like Miss America, only one gets the tiara. Everyone else had a cat fight over double sided boob tape in the changing room.

My thoughts on the entries:

Option 1 from Eleven Eleven.
Option 1: Love the back tattoo. Very clever. I have to think there is a temptation to have a big X marks the spot in a place where the sun doesn't shine.

Option 2 from Mark Simpson.
Option 2: The bra on the pirate flag is a nice touch – but this one won my heart with the tag line: A dumb plan is still a plan. Could be my life motto.

Option 3 from Suz Korb.
Option 3: Great use of color and has a nice whimsy feeling to it.

Option 4 from Miranda.
Option 4: Sinking bikini top is good, love the heart bubble. Also can't beat a Nora Roberts quote.

Option 5 from Miranda.
Option 5: Very Jaws like feeling. I can hear the music in the background. The tagline here is also a winner.

Option 6 from Harley May.
Option 6: Killer photo, love the wine bottle, somewhat concerned about the woman's five o'clock shadow.

And in my humble opinion.....the winner is....(cut the tension with a knife).....

Option 1!!!

Applause! Applause!

Hey, it's Tawna again, and thank you so much to Eileen for the insightful judging and commentary. Thanks also to everyone who submitted a cover, and super-huge congratulations to regular blog reader Eleven Eleven for submitting the winning entry.

Wow, this feels a little anti-climatic, doesn't it? I mean I know we weren't picking the actual book cover here, but it still seems like we should have a group hug or at least grope each other or something.

Better yet, let's keep the contest going.

Since these entries were so lovely, it seems wrong not to have a second round of judging, this time for a Readers' Choice pick. Tell me in the comments which cover you think deserves the Readers Choice award and I'll send the winner a copy of New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Brenda Novak's romantic thriller WHITE HEAT.

While this is not a signed copy like Eileen's book, I'll go ahead and throw in a special MAKING WAVES "booty bag" for the winner. Heck, I'll throw one in for our first winner as well. I'm nice like that.

Leave a comment suggesting which entry should get the Readers' Choice award. I'll tally them up on Friday and will send out prizes after that.

Oh, and let's have a round of applause for Eileen Cook, who is not only a fabulous guest judge, but a ridiculously amazing author (as evidenced by the starred Kirkus review she just got for her upcoming January release, THE EDUCATION OF HAILEY KENDRICK (which you can pre-order right here).

Yaaaay, Eileen! Yaaaay, Eleven Eleven! Yaaaay Readers' Choice winner, whoever you are!

I need a celebratory drink, how about you?

Friday, November 19, 2010

A random collection of stuff

Today I’ll be cranking hard on my editor’s revisions, so I’m reserving all my brain power for that.

Since I have very limited brain power, that doesn't leave much for blogging. I don’t want to send you away empty-handed, so here are a few things I can offer up for your amusement:

  • Over at The Debutante Ball, we've been blogging about procrastination this week. Go see what I had to say on the subject. If you get around to it, I mean.
  • My post here yesterday generated a fascinating discussion on rereading. If you didn't read it (or if you didn't jump into the comments fray), feel free to add your two cents now.
  • There's still time to send me your entry for the MAKING WAVES cover contest. I've gotten some great ones so far, but can't wait to see what else will come trickling in by tomorrow's deadline.
  • If you need a good chuckle, go visit damnyouautocorrect.com. My fellow Debutante Ball author Eleanor Brown sent me the link yesterday morning right after I'd applied eyeliner (no simple task, since I generally stab myself in the eye and end up looking like a drunk raccoon). I was so proud of myself for not doing either of those things with yesterday's eyeliner application, but it didn't matter – within thirty seconds of visiting that site, I was laughing so hard I cried off all my makeup. The site is a collection of text messages altered by the phone's autocorrect feature to become truly hysterical. I particularly liked this one:

Come back Monday to find out who won the cover contest. In the meantime, be well and laugh hard! Or be hard and laugh well. Whatever.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Am I getting older or are they getting younger?

Half a lifetime ago, I read Robert James Waller’s BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY.

It’s the story of a lonely 1960s housewife swept off her feet by a National Geographic photographer doing a photo essay on covered bridges. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know the book ends with the housewife halting her affair with the photographer and staying in a loveless marriage.

When I read it at 18, I was irritated the heroine had an affair in the first place.

When I read it again at 21 with a bit more life experience under my belt, I was irritated at her for staying with the douchebag husband instead of running off with the photographer.

When I read it again in my early 30s, I was just irritated by the writing.

Here is where you ask why the hell I kept rereading a book that irritated me, and I tell you that’s a very good question and offer you a drink so you don’t notice I failed to answer.

It’s an interesting thing to ponder though – not my poor reading habits, but the fact that we read books differently as we filter them through life experience and age.

A friend of mine is reading Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER for the second time. It’s one of my very favorite books, and I asked what she thought of it on this round. She remarked that she never realized how young the swoon-worthy hero is. He’s 23 or 24, but since my friend was about that age when she first read it, his age never registered.

Now 31, she’s flummoxed to find herself lusting for a much younger man.

It’s a fascinating perspective, since OUTLANDER’s heroine is older than the hero anyway. Is the story more enthralling when you truly are the older woman? I’m curious.

Curious enough that I’ll probably read the book again just to find out. I was 27 the first time I read it, and though it made me delirious with lust back then, I’m intrigued by how I might respond now.

It also makes me wonder how my perspective as an author will evolve. I was 28 when I took my first stab at writing romance. I’m now 36, and I don’t think I’ve changed all that much. Some of my characters are older, and my writing has certainly improved, but I can’t pinpoint any earth-shattering changes in perspective.

Then again, give me 10 more years. At 46 I might look back at my younger author self and wonder, “what the hell were you thinking?”

Do you reread books from a different perspective with age or life experience as a filter? Do those things impact your writing? I’m intrigued by the idea, so please share.

I have to go hang a “do not disturb” sign on the door while I find my copy of OUTLANDER.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three tips for bouncing between books

I’ve seriously considered suing myself for whiplash. I might do it if I thought I had any money and wouldn’t look really stupid in a neck brace.

I have a three-book contract for my romantic comedies. When the contract was offered last February, I had already written the first two books.

I started writing the third a few months later, but had to slam on the brakes mid-summer – just a chapter shy of completion – to polish the first two before they were due on my editor’s desk.

I worked on book one, sent it off for critiques, polished book two, got the critiques back on book one, sent book two out for critiques, implemented critiques for book one, got critiques back on book two, implemented those changes, sent both documents off to my editor, and then stumbled blearily to my bed where I slept for a month.

I wish.

What I actually did was dive right back into book three. I was just hitting my groove again when my editor sent revision notes for book one.

As you might imagine, it made me a bit dizzy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled with my editor’s suggestions. It’s just the process of bouncing back and forth between books that’s making me feel like someone is slamming my head into a wall (which can actually be quite erotic if done right).

I know some authors can change gears effortlessly, but I’m not one of them. In case you share my struggle, here’s what’s making the process a bit easier on this round:

Mood music. As soon as I knew I’d be leaping into MAKING WAVES again, I made an iTunes playlist of all the music I listened to when I first wrote it. Then I thought about the elements my editor was asking me to add. More sex? A deeper sense of conflict for the hero? I perused iTunes for songs that had that tone, but still fit the mood of the story. It shifted me back into the right vibe, but the new additions got my brain thinking about what needed to change.

What’s that smell? Pythagoras and I have been lucky enough to travel the world, and I’ve always picked a new fragrance for each trip. I had never mentioned it – I just packed toiletry kits with scented lotions and soaps – but one morning I grabbed a lotion I hadn’t used for five years. Immediately my husband sniffed the air. “That’s Zihuatanejo, right?” Indeed, the olfactory senses are powerful memory triggers, and I’ve started using them for writing. When I originally wrote MAKING WAVES, I had a Pacifica Tuscan Blood Orange Soy Candle burning on my desk. Guess what I went out and bought when I knew I’d be jumping back into that book?

A font facelift. I write manuscripts in Courier, but my publisher requires Times New Roman for a final submission. Not a big deal for me or for them. But this is the first time I’m looking at MAKING WAVES in a different font. It’s like seeing a whole new story. Awkward words I glossed over on my 100th read-through suddenly leap out like perverts flashing me in a dark alley. I’m catching things I never have before, and that subtle shift has been a great way to wake up my tired eyes.

Have you had to bounce back and forth between stories before? Do you have any tricks for returning to the mindset of an old story or shaking it up when that’s required? Please share.

And please let me know if you think I could get anything on that whiplash lawsuit. Maybe a free massage?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How hard is it?

Yesterday I had the whole day set aside for implementing my editor’s revision notes.

It pretty much guaranteed that every time I got up to refill my water glass, I’d be distracted by something around the house that needed tidying.

I am by no means a neat freak. Truth be told, I’m a disgusting slob. I am, however, capable of hanging up my coat when I remove it. Pythagoras, on the other hand, has a different habit.

Here’s photographic evidence:
Seriously, how hard is it to open a closet door and grab a clothes hanger?

When I questioned him about it, he argued that he takes his jacket on and off at least five times a day in the winter, so doors and hangars are too time-consuming to contend with.

Before I get too smug about how much tidier I am than my husband, let’s take two steps back from that scene, shall we?
Yes, the wine I bought last week sits just ten easy steps from the closet where a lovely and capable wine rack waits to cradle my purchases. I could point out that some of the wines are whites intended for consumption in the next week, which would therefore relegate them to the fridge instead of the wine closet, but you don’t see me putting them there, either.

What’s my problem?

If I’m being honest, I’ll admit I do this with manuscripts sometimes. Last night while editing MAKING WAVES, I stumbled over a scene I’ve never been in love with. Though my editor hasn’t asked me to change anything about it, nor have my critique partners or agent, it’s just never felt perfect to me.

But have I done anything about it? No. Not yet, anyway.

How hard would it be? I'm working my way through edits right now, so this is my opportunity to make the change.

In my defense, there's always this fear in writing that you’ll start tugging at threads and pretty soon the entire garment will come unraveled and you’ll be standing there in your underwear.

In romance writing, that’s not always a bad thing.

I’ll admit I skipped the scene last night, but I’ve resolved not to move forward with the fun edits – the ones I’m enjoying so much it shouldn’t be legal – until I’ve done something to make myself happy with that scene.

Do you have niggling things in your life or your manuscript that aren’t terribly hard to fix, but you just don’t get around to it? Please share.

I should probably go put the wine away now. Well, I’ll keep out a couple bottles. I might need one for this scene.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What gets a tortoise hot?

On Friday, I got my editor's revision notes for MAKING WAVES.

To say I'm thrilled would be a ridiculous understatement. Though I normally give myself 24 hours to marinate on feedback, I was so eager to implement my editor's suggestions that I wrote half a scene on the palm of my hand with a ballpoint pen.

One of my favorite parts of the letter was the request that I amp up the romance. It's something I'd been fretting about. Though MAKING WAVES has several blush-worthy love scenes and a lot of bawdy humor, I knew it wasn't as "hot" as the two books scheduled to follow. I wasn't certain which my editor preferred, but I got her message loud and clear on Friday. "Turn up the heat, please!"

Fortunately, "heat" is one of my favorite things to write. I feel like a kid in a candy shop, though sweaty flesh is much more fun to play with than gumdrops and peppermint sticks.

I know I have to temper my enthusiasm. I don't write erotica (though I've been tempted on occasion) so a little bit goes a long way when it comes to love scenes. It's a fine line between titillating a reader and making her want to scrub herself with a Brillo pad, and the line isn't in the same place for everyone.

Take tortoises, for example. When we were in Barbados a few years ago, we paid a visit to the Barbados Wildlife Refuge. It was impossible to walk without tripping over a pair of them in the throes of tortoise passion. Averting your eyes was useless, as the grunts of tortoise lovin' echoed in every corner of the park.

After my post about the monkeys a couple months ago, you're probably thinking I plan my vacations around the best places to see animals getting frisky. You're right. This is simply not true, though I will admit I'm fascinated by what passes for romance among the different species. Do the tortoises enjoy themselves, or is this just what they have to do to keep the species going? Are the lady tortoises feeling "hot," or would they rather be sunning themselves on a rock?

Tell me what you think. Behold, I give you the tortoise version of "heat." Make sure your sound is turned up so you don't miss the best part of this one minute and three seconds of pure tortoise ecstasy:

I'm not sure that's what my editor has in mind for MAKING WAVES, but it's something to consider in the grand scheme of romance writing. What works for tortoises may not work for monkeys, and what works for you may not work for me.

And now that I've conjured up all sorts of bestiality images, where'd I put that Brillo pad?

Friday, November 12, 2010

CONTEST: Make me a cover!

As most of you know by now, I blog every Friday at The Debutante Ball, a group blog chronicling the debut year of five authors from different genres.

Since my book release is set for the last month of our blogging year, I’m a bit behind my Debutante Ball sisters with publication milestones like pre-order links and reviews.

And while I celebrated recently when another sister got her book cover, I’ll admit I was a little jealous. That officially made me the only member without one.

Hey, I’m OK with waiting. One reason I was thrilled when my agent landed me this three-book deal with Sourcebooks is that their book covers seriously rock. Never once have I looked at a Sourcebooks cover and thought, “boy that author must want to gouge her eyes out with a thumbtack.” I can’t say the same for many romance covers I’ve seen.

So I know my cover will be gorgeous when I get it.

Still, I’m curious. I decided to hire my own artist just to give me an idea what my book cover could look like. It took a little maneuvering with child labor laws, but eventually I was able to commission world-famous artist Dru Powelson (who also happens to be the 10 year old son of one of my beta readers, Minta Powelson).

After reviewing the blurb for MAKING WAVES, Dru created the following beautiful cover for my debut romantic comedy:

I’m forwarding it to my editor immediately, and I'm sure she'll be as delighted as I am.

Since tastes can differ (hey, it's like we talked about Wednesday!) I might as well have a few options available. Want to play? Draw, paint, sculpt, photograph, or make me a pudding painting depicting what you think the cover for MAKING WAVES should look like. Feel free to get your kids involved.

Though I can’t say your lovely artwork will appear anywhere besides this blog, it will give us all something to gaze at between now and the date I get my real cover.

To see what the MAKING WAVES is about, go here. To send me your masterpiece, email a PDF, GIF or JPG to tawnafenske at yahoo dot com. I’ll judge entries at noon on Saturday, November 20, so you’ve got over a week to get artsy.

The winner will get a signed copy of Eileen Cook’s YA novel WHAT WOULD EMMA DO from Simon Pulse. Eileen is one of the founding members of The Debutante Ball, and I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at a conference. Seriously, seriously hysterical. Author Meg Cabot called this book “Sassy and sly and sweet all at the same time, this book made me laugh out loud.”

Laughing is good, and so are signed books. Want it? Go forth and create! Leave any questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

Oh, and stop by The Debutante Ball today to see what book I talked about as the one that changed my life. Hint: it contains paper collage illustrations of chickens humping. What's not to love about that?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Things you can do in the absence of a brain

There is a point in the course of a workday when you look down and realize your brain has liquefied and leaked out your ear.

Depending on what you do for a living, you may continue to function with no discernible change in performance.

When you’re writing though, brain liquefaction can be treacherous.

It’s been happening to me more often lately as Daylight Savings Time jolts me awake at 4 a.m. and suggests this is the ideal time to make sure I remembered to disable the sprinkler system.

Fortunately, I’ve come up with a list of writing-related chores I can perform sans mental function. When my head turns fuzzy, I turn to these tasks:

Mess with mechanics. My editor recently sent me the style manual for Sourcebooks. Many of the rules revolve around formatting stuff like the proper use of ellipses and em-dashes and scene breaks. Not tough, but time consuming and a little brainless. Perfect. Style guide or not, there are always little consistency issues in formatting and punctuation that you can fix in a manuscript when your brain isn’t up for anything more creative than chewing gum.

Brainless research. I’m not talking about complex stuff here. I’m talking about the scenes you ignore when you’re writing them because you don’t have time to go research the preferred method for spitting wine in a tasting room or whether the Iditarod uses the northern route or the southern one in odd-numbered years. When you’re brain-dead, it’s the perfect time to use the Internet for something besides searching for naked pictures of Daniel Craig.

Find & replace war. We’ve all got ‘em – those annoying words and phrases we overuse. I’m particularly fond of “just” and anything that involves the raising or quirking of eyebrows. Even with a minimum of functional brain cells, you can search for overused words and replace them with something a little less tired.

Rename places and characters. I know most authors put more thought into character names and and geographic locations than I do, so this might be relevant only to me. I tend to use names haphazardly, always intending to go back and put more thought into the decision when I have time. Brain-liquefaction moments are the perfect occasion to peruse phone directories, baby name books, or even the employee roster at work to find more suitable names for hastily named places and people.

The brain-dead brainstorm. I’m not a plotter, but I do keep a Word doc of random thoughts on future scenes and plot twists. When I can’t muster the brain capacity to do much more than clip my toenails, it’s a surprisingly good time to add to this document, usually in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Fatigue can spawn some surprisingly useful ideas…like this blog post, for example.

What do you do when your brain gets too tired to function creatively? Do you keep pushing, take a break, or find some other way to put the few remaining brain cells to work? Please share.

I have to go scrub the gray matter off my desk before the dog starts lapping it up.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On cheap wine and editor taste

What’s it like to get a bunch of wine snobs together with a bunch of cheapskates when it just so happens they’re the same people?

That’s what yesterday evening was like for me.

I love good wine, and I love a good bargain. Those two things sometimes coexist at the Grocery Outlet (a surplus retailer with 130 stores in 6 western states offering discounted prices on everything from toothbrushes to lobster tails).

The wine section at the Grocery Outlet is a bit like going to Vegas. Sometimes you toss in a few coins and come out with a lovely little gem of Italian Sangiovese with just the right notes of strawberry and oak.

Other times you check the label to see if you accidentally purchased oven cleaner.

The gamble is worth it, since most wines are under $10, with plenty of bargains to be found in the $2.99-$3.99 range.

A few times a year, they offer 20% off all their wines. Cheapskate wine snobs look forward to these events because if we can just figure out which wines are the real gems, we can buy entire cases for pennies on the dollar.

This was the thought behind a dinner party at a friend’s house last night. Seven of us gathered with nine bottles of recently purchased Grocery Outlet wine and a plan to find the best ones in the bunch.

We intended to determine the best bargains and race back at 7 a.m. the next morning to fight the other cheapskate wine snobs for the good stuff.

But here’s the funny thing – none of us agreed on which wine was “the good stuff.”

I was fond of the 2008 Unsung Heroes Petite Verdot from South Australia. My friend Larie fell hard for a quirky little white blend from California with a ghetto label. Pythagoras – who isn’t generally a wine fan – loved an Italian Pinot Grigio that didn’t have a word of English printed on the bottle.

And while the two Spanish reds I expected to adore fell flat in my opinion, they drew great praise from several members of the group.
It reminds me of an analogy someone shared when I first started submitting my writing to editors and agents.

“Don’t think of it as the editor rejecting you because it’s bad,” she urged. “Think of it more like you’re around a big dinner table with a bunch of editors, and the one next to you passes on your green bean casserole because she doesn’t particularly care for green beans, but the editor at the other end of the table happens to love them.”

It put things into perspective for me. Yes, there are always things we can do to grow and improve as writers, but rejection doesn’t always mean you suck. Sometimes, it just means you offered the editor a spicy Shiraz when she happened to want a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc.

We all have different tastes – even editors and agents. This is a subjective business. The trick is to keep that in mind, and remember that somewhere out there is the person who will love every last drop of whatever you’re pouring.

On that note, I must go practice my kung-fu moves. If the other cheapskate wine snobs think they’re getting their hands on that Petit Verdot, they’ve got another think coming.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A world of pleasure on the aisles of Home Depot

I don’t know for certain if there’s a heaven. I’m not sure there’s a hell, either, but if there is, I have a pretty good idea what it looks like.

The closest Pythagoras and I have come to divorce court is on the aisles of Home Depot. We’ve built two homes together in almost 13 years of marriage. When I say “built” I don’t mean we sat back and ate bon-bons while watching someone else sling a hammer. I mean we pulled all-nighters hanging drywall, bloodied our knees grouting floors, and bickered so passionately over light fixtures that a Home Depot associate once summoned security.

You may understand then why Home Depot is not a cheerful place for me. When Pythagoras told me in the middle of errand running on Sunday that he needed to stop there for a sprinkler head, I seriously considered leaping from the car in the middle of the freeway.

Little did I know what a treasure trove of delight awaited me on the plumbing aisle.

Behold, the latest installment of Garage Porn:
Um, ouch.
I don't know what this is, but why do I feel like I ought to have two or three of them stashed in the drawer of my nightstand?
Is this anything like those "minimizer bras" everyone keeps telling me I should try?
Pythagoras did not like the sound of this one bit.
He wasn't overly fond of this one, either.
How do you feel about home improvement stores? Do you hate them as much as I do, or does your outlook improve just knowing these delightful items can be found there?

Please share. I have to figure out how to use one of those universal nut lock couplings. Do you think I need a special license?

Monday, November 8, 2010

My high-class evening with the literary crowd

I am capable of behaving in a civilized fashion when the occasion calls for it. Saturday night, the occasion called for it.

Unfortunately, I did not rise to it.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on tickets to a fancy dinner for The Nature of Words, Central Oregon’s premier literacy event. Nature of Words is a multi-day smorgasbord of workshops and readings from renowned authors, culminating in a dinner that included actor Sam Waterston as the keynote speaker.
My not-so-fabulous photo of Sam Waterston.

I was a Literature major in college, and a big fan of many of the authors attending. Anne Lamot, Barry Lopez, David Whyte – I was delighted to rub shoulders with them all. I wore a lovely dress and red lipstick and looked as classy as I’m capable of looking.

That’s pretty much where the class ended.

Pythagoras and I were joined by a male friend, and there was some initial trouble getting all three of us seated together.

“If it helps,” I joked to the hostess, “I’m happy to sit on Sam Waterston’s lap.”

She smiled. “He’s my uncle.”

I slunk away to drink wine. Once we were seated and the event got underway, I was spellbound – and respectfully silent – as Michael Dickman read his poem “My Autopsy.”

I was not so quiet when the emcee declared how glad she was that we could all “come together.”

Pythagoras and our friend weren't much better when she announced, “let me tell you about the lay of the night.”

We eventually got control of ourselves and stopped snickering for the author readings. This was right about the time the woman seated beside me introduced herself.

At least I think she introduced herself. She was slurring her words so much it’s possible she was challenging me to a cage fight in the parking lot.

Within the first five minutes of our introduction, she complimented my hair, shared details of her sexual exploits with several men in the room, and offered me a discounted facial.

Her husband looked bemused.

Mine looked curious. “Is she groping your knee under the table?”

“Maybe she thinks it’s yours?”

When it came time to go, I noticed one bottle of particularly good wine remained nearly untouched on our table. Everyone else began to clear out, leaving it behind.

"Good wine should never go to waste," I insisted.

I rolled up a cocktail napkin to make a makeshift cork and then I hustled over to the coat check to stash the bottle under my jacket.

“Classy,” Pythagoras said as he held the door open for me.

“Shut up and drive the getaway car.”

So that’s how my fancy evening unfolded at a fancy literary affair. Hey, it could have been worse. At least I didn’t dance on the table.

What did you do this weekend to embarrass yourself? Please share.

I would offer to share my wine in return, but I’m not that nice. You'll have to steal your own.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The wrong way to rub writers

Last night, Pythagoras and I were invited to dinner at the home of a family he knows through work.

Because my mother drilled good manners into me under the threat of death I am fabulously well-mannered by nature, I went to the store to purchase flowers and a nice bottle of wine for the hostess.

As the cashier was ringing up my purchase, he smiled at me. "Shouldn't it be the guy buying flowers and wine for you?"

Um, thanks, dude.

OK, I wasn't really offended. I even laughed and mostly meant it. But how does he know I'm not a recent widow or a lonely woman planning to go home and guzzle the wine while composing a love note to myself to "discover" on the doorstep with the flowers in the morning?

I figure this inquiry belongs on the list of things you probably shouldn't say to most women. You know the list. It includes gems like "you're looking a little tired," and "when is the baby due?"

There's a similar list for writers. I've already shared my feelings on the "are you published?" question (go here if you missed it). Beyond that, there are several other comments I've learned to tune out, that nevertheless have the high potential to rub a writer wrong.

Any question that ends with yet. Have you finished the book yet? Have you gotten an agent yet? Have you heard from that editor yet? Has your book come out yet? Maybe it's just me, but there's something about the word yet that implies the person asking believes you will be selecting your nursing home before the task is accomplished.

I've thought about writing a book, but I just don't have time. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't we all have 24 hours in a day? I know we all have varying degrees of responsibility in our lives, from family to work to cataloging our belly button lint. But every successful writer I know becomes successful by making time – often late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. I takes a helluva lot more than free time to complete a manuscript. To imply that what separates those who've finished a book from those who haven't is the possession of two idle hands seems like an invitation to demonstrate the bitch-slap capabilities of said hands.

Will you read my...? I added this one to the list hesitantly, because I often do judge contests and offer critiques to newer writers. But the key word is offer. Authors get hit up over and over again to give feedback on other people's work. While it's flattering, there's just no way most of us can say yes and keep up with deadlines and commitments to existing critique partners. There are fabulous resources online for finding critique partners and beta readers. Go here if you want to hear about some of them.

Do you think you'll ever write a real book? Ah, this is a favorite among romance writers. Don't worry, I won't get on my romance soapbox again (go here if you want to see that). There's an assumption among people who don't read the romance genre that authors who write it are only doing so until they muster the skill to write a real work of literary fiction. Do other genres get this? I don't know, but I do know that according to Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2010, romance fiction generated $1.36 billion in sales in 2009 and was the largest share of the consumer market at 13.2%. It was the second top-performing category on the the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists (outpaced only by the movie tie-in category). That sounds pretty "real" to me.

Whoops. Where did this box come from, and why am I standing on it?

So that wraps up my list of things that rub writers the wrong way. Did I miss any? Have you heard any gems that make you feel especially stabby? Please share.

And don't forget to visit The Debutante Ball today where I'm blogging about my fellow Debutante Kim's new release, All I Can Handle; I’m No Mother Teresa: A Life Raising Three Daughters With Autism. I had a surprising reaction to this book, so stop by and see what it was.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A word about word choices & cash for teeth

The first time I recall obsessing over word choice was a letter to the Tooth Fairy.

I was seven or eight or whatever age you are when you lose the last of your baby teeth and the last of your belief that a winged creature will sneak into your room and swap your blood-flecked molar for a few quarters.

I remember sitting at my desk with my Hello Kitty pencil as I grappled with the message I wanted to convey. I knew my parents were the Tooth Fairy. I also knew they’d been mumbling that money was tight. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but figured I shouldn’t strain the family coffers by expecting a handout.

On the other hand, I wanted those quarters.

I can’t recall the precise wording of my note, except that I needed to choose between using the word “anyway” or “anyhow” in a sentence suggesting the Tooth Fairy didn’t have to leave me money.

“Anyway” was casual and breezy, and carried a genuine sense of ambivalence about the cash.

“Anyhow” had a forlorn tone, a hint of self-sacrifice. Was that what I wanted to express? Or did it sound melodramatic and manipulative?

I don’t actually remember what I decided. Neither does my mom, who dug through all her old boxes in search of Tooth Fairy notes. She didn’t find the one I just described, though she did unearth this gem:

While I won’t claim I was a child prodigy of an author, I’m surprised to look back now and realize I grasped something pretty important in my anyhow/anyway debate – word choice does matter.

I'm no expert, but here are three tips I can offer when it comes to wise word use:

Watch for unnecessary words. I was aghast the first time someone pointed out how often I used “that” without needing to. Sentences often flow better without it. I knew that he wanted to hump my leg sounds clunkier than I knew he wanted to hump my leg. Search your manuscript and see if you’re a “that” abuser.

Wage an adverb war. I’m not one of those adverb Nazis who insists on eliminating any word that ends in “ly,” but I do keep tabs on my usage. If I find a lot of adverbs creeping into my writing, it generally means I’m getting lazy and “telling” instead of “showing.” Remember when we talked about that?

Learn when to obsess and when to knock it the hell off. Sometimes I catch myself fretting over every little word in a manuscript. I refer to this as "time to drink." Be cautious and deliberate in your word use, but learn when to shut off your internal editor and just let words flow. You can always go back and fix things later, but if you can’t find the right word in the moment, there’s no shame in substituting LKJLKJ (my personal favorite).

Do you have any words to live by when it comes to word choices in writing? Please share.

Oh, and for the record, the Tooth Fairy left the money. The bitch knows how to put out.*

* My mom is going to wash my mouth out with soap for that, but it was totally worth it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I still want the sticker, dammit

Election day has come and gone. Sort of. In Oregon, we’re still waiting on the final tally in a disturbingly close governor’s race, but voting itself has ended.

Voting is an interesting endeavor in this state. Since 1998, we’ve voted exclusively by mail. That means we have no polling places, no long lines, no hanging chads. You get your ballot in the mail well in advance, and if the mood strikes, you’re free to cast your vote naked in your kitchen three weeks before election day.

Despite that freedom, guess what I find myself doing the morning ballots are due?

There I am, sitting there in my car, waiting in line for my turn at the drive-through ballot drop-off.

It’s not that I’m indecisive. I’m quite politically active, and always know the candidates and measures well enough to cast my vote early.

It’s not even that I’m lazy (though truth be told, I am).

What it comes down to is the sticker. The one that says “I voted.” It’s the equivalent of the gold star at the top of your paper in grade school, and dammit, I want one.

Alas, they don’t always dole them out. Yesterday was one such morning, and it made me a lot sadder than it ought to.

There’s something about that tangible atta girl that I crave. I’m not talking about the little gifts you buy for yourself when you achieve a milestone (though I’m a big fan of this method of motivation).

I’m talking about little acknowledgments from other people that you’ve accomplished something.

OK, so filling out a dozen little bubbles on a ballot isn’t a huge accomplishment, but it certainly extends to writing. When I type “the end” on a manuscript or finish a particularly grueling scene, I still crave that little gold star.

It’s one of many things I love about having critique partners and writing buddies. We can cheer each other’s accomplishments, offering stickers and encouraging words to celebrate major and minor feats.

Do you crave little rewards or acknowledgments to mark major accomplishments in life or in writing? Please share.

While you’re at it, please let me know how I should break it to my agent and my agency sistah that I failed in my bid to get them elected to the Soil and Water Conservation District in my county. I fear they’ll be crushed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bizarre search terms that lead you to me

As I mentioned once or twice or maybe 876 times, I love Google Analytics.

Since yesterday marked exactly nine months that I’ve been blogging, I decided to check some of the most common keyword searches readers have used to find me.

Unsurprisingly, “Tawna Fenske” and “Don’t Pet Me, I’m Writing” round out the top of the list.

Then there are the ones that make me giggle.

In nine months, over 100 people found my blog by googling some variation of the phrase “monkey sex.” I wonder if they were pleased or disappointed to find this post?

Seven people found my blog by googling “sexbike.” I’m wondering what a sexbike is, but I’m kind of afraid to google it.

At least four dozen people found me by googling phrases like “big hairy butt” or “hairy butt.” I’m trying not to think too much about why anyone would want to see that, but I doubt they found what they were seeking here.

A whole lot of people googled variations of the phrase “things that sound dirty but aren’t.” This makes me proud.

Then there are the random search terms. The ones that (thankfully) appeared only once on the keyword list. Here are my favorites:
  • 3inthe afternoon.... i'm loaded.. find me a partner
  • are alpacas rideable
  • entire orange in my mouth
  • older guy having an affair
  • fenske fine art, ducks
  • hazmat enema purge
  • help i shut my hair in the car door
  • nut in my underwear
  • dnot peg me
  • supermodel tawna
  • how to write on eggplants outline
  • daddy pet animal sex
  • dirty names to call your brother in law
  • write a doll speak flash
  • dance sweatpants with butt pockets
  • hock spit sexy
  • I can’t hold my poop
  • can a put the whole boob in their mouth
  • authors are stupid
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never used any of those phrases on my blog. Now I’m kind of tempted to see if I can fit them all in my next novel.

If you have a blog or a website, do you ever check the keywords people use to find you? What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen? If you’re not a blogger, what’s the strangest thing you’ve caught yourself googling? Please share.

And please let me know if you’re responsible for any of those keyword searches above. Seriously, I’ve gotta know the story behind some of those.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Secrets under my clothes & in my stories



Before I took this new job, I worked from home for three years. Most of my meetings happened via teleconference, which meant I could dress in a tube top and diaper and no one would know.

I don’t have that luxury with the new job, so I’ve been adding to my wardrobe. When I got dressed for Friday’s IMPORTANT MEETING, I suited up in my new IMPORTANT SKIRT.

Then I discovered a frayed spot. Nothing noticeable, but something that would worsen with a few washings. I knew I needed to return the skirt, but I was already dressed and really wanted to wear it.

I decided to tuck the price tag under the waistband.

Then I pictured the inevitable moment in the IMPORTANT MEETING when the tag slipped out and everyone turned to stare.

Feeling clever, I safety-pinned the tag inside my waistband.

Then the tag began to itch. Scratching yourself is not a nice way to make a good impression in an IMPORTANT MEETING, so I further demonstrated my ingenuity by safety-pinning some folded squares of toilet paper over the tag.

By the time the IMPORTANT MEETING rolled around, I marched in with my head held high and my toilet paper covered price tag safety-pinned at my hip.

No one ever knew.

But there was something about that ridiculous little secret that made me feel kind of clever. Like I was getting away with something. True, it wasn’t very classy, but it made me smile.

It reminded me of a question we pose to guest blogging authors at The Debutante Ball:

Tell us a secret about the main character in your novel – something that’s not even in your book.

I was delighted when my idol, Jennifer Crusie picked that question from a list of about 20, and gave the following response:

Andie knew the mix tape was under the front seat of her car, she just couldn’t bring herself to throw it away.

Even if you’ve never read Crusie’s MAYBE THIS TIME to understand the context, I still think it’s noteworthy. Here’s this secret little tidbit Crusie chose to hold back about her character. Something small – but still meaningful – that only she knew.

I’ve done it myself from time to time. When I’m trying to get to know a character better, I’ll brainstorm things that help me understand what she's like. These aren’t details meant for the stories. They’re only meant for me, to help shape my understanding of the characters.

Reese from LET IT BREATHE wasn’t really upset when Clay ruined her wedding cake.

Violet from BELIEVE IT OR NOT has a crystal pendant she wears tucked under her shirt when she feels homesick.

Juli from MAKING WAVES thought she’d marry her last boyfriend, and thinks it’s her fault it didn’t happen.

None of those things are in the books, and you probably wouldn’t guess them from reading. But those details were there in the back of my mind, helping shape the characters as I wrote.

Do your characters have little secrets? Things you won’t include in the book, but that help you clarify what makes them tick?

Please share.

And while we’re sharing, I should tell you I’m thinking of wearing the diaper and tube top to my next IMPORTANT MEETING. I think it’ll give me an edge.