Monday, January 31, 2011

Ten tips for taming a beastly to-do list

I tried so hard to manage my to-do list during a week of visiting writer pals on the other side of the country. Despite my best efforts, I came home to find my to-do list had developed fangs and a fondness for chasing me around the house with its pants down.

Admittedly, life’s gotten crazier in the eleven months since my agent landed me a book deal. Despite her savvy negotiating skills, she failed to grant me six extra hours a day, so I make do with 24 hours and a lot of caffeine.

I won’t claim to be an expert on time management, but I'll share a few tips I’ve learned for taming a to-do list that threatens to bend you over its knee and paddle you with a wooden spoon (unless you like that sort of thing, in which case you should carry on as is).

1) Omit nothing from the list. It might seem silly to include chores like emptying the trash and clipping your toenails on a to-do list with important tasks like submitting copy edits to your publisher. Don’t let silliness stop you. Not only does it ensure you won’t forget anything, it gives you a much-needed sense of accomplishment when you cross off completed items.

Walk me, please!
Dog guilt is a powerful force.

2) Tackle the guilt tasks first. You know what I mean by guilt tasks – the stuff that niggles at your brain and makes you feel like a lousy human because you haven’t done it. Maybe it’s clearing the clutter off your desk, calling your brother, or taking the dog for a walk. Tackling a guilt task seldom requires as much energy as you lose by having it hanging over your head. Get it done, cross it off, and move on.

3) Be smart with high-priority tasks. The most important thing on my weekend list was inputting my critique partners’ feedback into my current manuscript. Even so, I waited until the second day of operations to take a stab at it. When it comes to writing, I need my brain to be clear and creative. Those adjectives don’t describe my mindset when I’m cowering under my bed as the to-do list growls and calls me a pansy. Putting off the big tasks isn’t lazy – it’s strategic.

4) Do double-duty. Skim your list for things you can do simultaneously. Can you fold laundry and chat on the phone with your beta reader? Scrub the toilet while brainstorming a sex scene? Turn your to-do list into a blog post? (Um, yeah…)

5) Ditch the distractions. I’ve learned to switch off email alerts and Twitter notifications when I’m neck-deep in my to-do list. I’m easily distracted as it is, so I really don’t need…hey, look – a squirrel!

6) Add stuff just to cross it off. Yes, I have performed tasks not on my to-do list and written them in afterward just for the satisfaction of crossing something off. Surely I’m not alone in this?

7) Neuter your next list. One thing that killed me this time was watching my number of unread emails hit triple digits and keep climbing. Though plenty were trash, it still took time to make the assessment and hit delete. Determined to make things more manageable next time, I went in and changed some Facebook and Twitter settings to help reduce incoming messages in the future.

8) Save communication for when you’ve made a dent in the list. I get snarly when I’m stressed, and that’s hardly the right frame of mind for emailing my editor or calling my mom. Unless there’s someone you want to snarl at, save communication for when you’re feeling more upbeat about what you’ve accomplished.

9) Timing is everything. Hitting the grocery store at noon on a Sunday is a good way to ensure you’ll spend an hour in line pondering what sort of prison sentence you'd get if a cop opened your trunk and found the decomposing bodies of a slow cashier and the woman behind you who cursed at her kids. Can you save shopping for evening? Skim your list and make note of time-sensitive tasks. Calling the insurance company probably has to happen during normal business hours, but visiting the adult video store to grab an extra pair of pink fur handcuffs can wait until midnight.

10) Don’t forget the downtime. It's OK to recharge your batteries by reading a chapter in a good book while having a glass of wine. It's probably not OK to reach the end of the book or the bottom of the bottle before your list is done.

What are your favorite strategies for tackling a to-do list? Please share!

Now that mine is curled up under the desk purring, I need to go kick it. Gotta remind that bitch who's boss.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My body made it home, but my brain missed a connecting flight

I pride myself on being able to juggle a lot of balls.

It's partly that I enjoy balls, and partly that I have a pretty good knack for multi-tasking.

Well, 99% of the time I do. Then there's the 1% of the time I come home from a whirlwind, week-long trip meeting four writer pals in three states on the other side of the country, crash into bed after midnight, and wake up with the niggling fear I've forgotten something big.

In this case, something big was a blog post I agreed to do for the Mid-Willamette Valley RWA group I belong to. It's possible I'm reaching my saturation point with blogging, and I probably need to get better about setting limits for myself. Even so, I got it up (snicker) and I would be ever so grateful if you'd stop by and say hello. I posted a few pics from my trip and talked about critique partner relationships.

I'm also over at The Debutante Ball, where our topic this week is "in the kitchen." I shared some amusing anecdotes about cooking and critiquing. Well, they were amusing to me. I'm sleep deprived at the moment, so I may not be the best judge.

Come back next week and I promise the jet lag will have worn off and I'll be back to my normal routine.

Well, normal is subjective. But I'll be here anyway.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My husband doesn't bathe alone when I'm gone

Since I’m 3,000 miles from home at the moment, I called Pythagoras last night to check in.

“Something weird happened,” he informed me.

This is always my favorite entrée to conversation.

“I went for a long run and decided to take a bath,” he continued. “The Blue Cat was sitting on the bench while the tub filled, and Bindi was walking around the edge.”

I should stop here and note that the fact Pythagoras refers to “The Blue Cat” as though it’s his royal title instead of “Blue Cat,” which is our pet’s actual name, is one of many things I find adorable about my spouse.

I should also give you a couple visuals so this story makes more sense.

This is the bathtub with the small bench where Blue Cat likes to sit. When the water level rises, he usually gets annoyed and leaves before he gets wet. And these are the four-legged players in this little drama, Blue Cat and Bindi. If you aren't sure who's who, you might want to stop reading here.

All clear? Let’s continue.

So Pythagoras shucked his clothes (sorry, no photos) and lay down in the bath. The tub continued filling, the dog continued her circuit around the edge, and Blue Cat kept a wary eye on the proceedings.

Suddenly, the dog slipped.

“She started scrambling around, but couldn’t get a grip on anything,” Pythagoras said.

Down she went, splashing into the water as my husband dodged the flailing paws.

But his escape was short-lived.

“The dog panicked and lunged for the bench, probably thinking she could climb out there.”

It would have been a good plan if Blue Cat weren’t in the way. Before anyone could register what was happening, the dog slid back into the tub, dragging the cat with her.

This time, Pythagoras wasn’t so lucky.

“The cat landed on my chest, and the dog landed on top of the cat,” he said.

By then, no one was happy about being in the bathtub.

The whole time my husband was telling this story, I kept alternating between trying not to laugh while wondering whether he'd lost any important appendages in the melee.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

At least that’s what I tried to ask. I might have been laughing too hard to form the words.

“I’m fine,” he said. “The Blue Cat ran up my chest and into the closet. Bindi got out on her own, and I only got a few claw marks.”

“I’m sorry I missed it,” I said.

“I’m not.”


“You would have blogged about it.”

Oh, I can still blog about it.

And better yet, I didn't have the misfortune of being in the bathtub with them. How’s that for a perk of solo travel?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Snarfing my way through the South

The thing I love best about traveling is the chance to stuff my face with new and interesting food.

I’m in the middle of a week-long trip exploring Georgia, Florida, and Washington DC with various writing pals while pestering them to introduce me to their favorite regional cuisine. They’ve all been willing, and to the best of my knowledge, haven’t tried to poison me yet.

Some of the culinary highlights so far:
  • She-crab soup and jicama slaw at the Boor’s Head Tavern in Savannah, Ga. This was my first Georgia meal, enjoyed in the company of the lovely and talented Elizbeth Flora Ross. As if that weren’t fabulous enough, I paired it with a delicious Captain’s Porter from Moon River Brewing Company in Savannah. I think I left drool marks on the table.
  • I’d be filthy rich (as opposed to just filthy) if I had a nickel for each time critique partner Cynthia Reese has gushed about low country boil in the 6+ years we’ve been working together. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, so I swooned when we got to order it at The Crab Shack on Tybee Island, Ga. low country boil is a mix of corn, potatoes, shrimp, and sausage, served with a whole lot of Old Bay Seasoning and butter. Ours included the addition of crab legs, mussels, and crawfish. Words can’t adequately describe how much I loved this meal. I would have taken off all my clothes and rolled in it, but didn’t want to miss getting even one morsel in my mouth. Here are the photos:
  • The aftermath of the low country boil.

  • Not to be outdone, the delightful and hilarious Harley May took me out for Cuban sandwiches upon my arrival in Florida. I’d never heard of Cuban sandwiches before, and they blew me away with their beautiful simplicity. Made with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on Cuban bread, this was a perfectly scrumptious sandwich I might even be able to replicate at home someday if I could figure out how on earth to make that amazing bread.
This little culinary tour has me thinking about when my Italian brother-in-law visited the U.S. several years ago. When he asked us to introduce him to typical American food, we were stumped. Is there such a thing? Or does it vary so widely from region to region that it’s impossible to nail down?

We eventually concentrated our foodie overview on highlights from the Pacific Northwest. We stuffed him with grilled salmon, razor clams, Oregon bay shrimp, and lots of fresh local produce. In the end though, I think his favorite meal was the big lumberjack breakfast at Camp 18.

What sort of cuisine defines your region? Or let’s cut to the chase here – what will you feed me if I come visit you?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Does "pervert" sound the same with a Southern accent?

If you're reading this with your morning coffee in hand, there’s a good chance I’m on a plane.

Actually, there’s a better chance I’m sleeping on the floor of the Chicago airport (the result of some wacky overnight flights and long layovers). Don’t kick me if you walk by.

This little trip started out simply enough. With tons of frequent flyer miles and a fairly flexible schedule, I decided to journey to south Georgia to meet up with longtime critique partner Cynthia Reese. We've swapped manuscripts, moral support, and recipes for 6+ years. It's about time we met in person.

Things snowballed from there. When I realized several other writer pals resided in the same region, I cobbled together a series of three-legged flights and long layovers that allow me to meet up with Harley May and Elizabeth Flora Ross (both of whom I know from Twitter) and my hilarious agency sistah Linda Grimes. I'm now undertaking a week-long trip with stops in three different states.

The whole thing fascinates me. If you'd told me a year ago I'd be traveling 3,000 miles to hang out with four women I'd never met in my life – three of whom I'd never even heard of at that point – I would have assumed you'd been drinking too much Chianti.

After I asked you to pour me some, I would have considered how wise my agent may be in her suggestion that I hurl myself into the pool of social media.

She is wise – having this blog and spending time on Twitter has been an amazing opportunity for a no-name, debut author like me to build a little momentum for my book release.

But more importantly, it's given me the chance to make some really amazing friendships. Real friendships, the kind worth flying clear across the country for with the slight risk my "friends" might turn out to be 300-pound serial killers with a fondness for collecting dead authors' lingerie to sell on eBay.

Assuming I survive and get to keep my underwear, I'm going to think of this trip every time I hear an author scoff at the value of social media like Facebook and blogging and Twitter. Those pursuits take time, no doubt about it. But the rewards are worth it in ways you probably can't begin to imagine.

On that note, it's likely my blogging will be sporadic next week. I'll do my best to post a photo or an amusing little anecdote if I have time and an internet connection, but I make no promises.

In the meantime, you can follow my journey on Twitter under the hashtag #southerntweetup. You can also stop by The Debutante Ball today to hear my take on all the buzz surrounding the release of The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (one of the other four authors making up this year's Deb class).

Oh, and if any of you are at the Chicago airport between 4:30 and 8 a.m. Friday morning, will you wake me up in time for my next flight?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The day I wasn't me

I was tickled pink by the wide range of guesses you offered in yesterday’s Guess what’s weird contest.

Though the tickling made me feel warm and tingly and strangely eager to lick your neck, I’m sorry to say there was no true winner.

Some of you came close to guessing what was weird about yesterday’s post, but none of you flat out suggested the possibility that I didn't write the post at all.

The real author was regular blog commenter Simon C. Larter, who I must say, did a damn fine job impersonating me.

Confused yet?

It started with Simon pondering whether he could mimic my voice convincingly enough that blog readers wouldn’t notice the switch. I was game, and also intrigued by the experiment.

The subject of an author's voice is something near and dear to my heart. During the long, bumpy path to my current three-book deal, my agent often forwarded me comments from editors. The #1 thing they'd praise was the uniqueness of my voice.

In my first conversation with Deb Werksman (who would later become my editor at Sourcebooks) she offered the same praise.

The she slugged me in the gut. "But I can't sell voice," she pointed out.

It was the first time I'd ever heard someone suggest that, and I'll admit, I was annoyed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she's right. You can't sell a no-name debut author based solely on voice. How do you put that on a book cover? How do you explain it to the average book buyer?

You don't. At least not without telling instead of showing, and we all know that isn't effective in writing.

That's why I started this blog. Here, I can sell voice. I'm not saying you should mail me a stack of unmarked bills (though if you have the urge, I'll give you my address). The reason I'm committed to blogging every single weekday is that it gives me a chance to show my voice. To offer free samples. If you happen to like it, there's a good chance you'll buy my books.

Oh, and lest you think Sourcebooks has no strategy for selling me, don't fret. That's why we all worked hard to refine my marketing hook – the idea that "normal is nice, but weird can be wonderful." It's at the core of all three books in my contract, and it's a lot easier to pitch from a marketing standpoint. Sourcebooks can sell that, I can sell voice, and if we happen to fail, we can sell my books out of the back of a van while a guy with a pipe-wrench stands there looking menacing.

But back to the contest. I've gotta hand it to several of you for picking up on the general idea of what was weird about yesterday's post. Sarah W pointed out the oddness of the suggestion that I might voluntarily clean, the presence of a LOLbunny, and the fact that there was no plan to choose winners based on creative random associations. All excellent observations from someone who's clearly been reading this blog closely.

Shakespeare noticed the LOLcat thing, too – for the record, I'm not really a LOLcat (or LOLbunny) kinda girl.

CKHB made another excellent observation with this: "It's the first time I think I've seen you mention a BAD consequence to drinking wine. I can't remember you previously writing about drinking to ease depression - usually you seem to drink in joy and celebration!"

Also a valid observation. In fact, I've gotten on my soapbox about not drinking when you're bummed. All jokes aside, it's something I take seriously.

Nate Wilson and Plamena Schmidt both picked up on the parenthetical heh (I'm partial to the parenthetical snicker).

I've gotta hand it to Laurie Lamb for this observation: "Is it weird how you talk about Zinfandel in this post and link to a post where Jennifer Paris (a.k.a. Jeffe Kennedy) picked Zinfandel #28 in the Petal and Thorns giveaway AND it's EXACTLY 28 weeks until your book release?"

Woah. That's a trip.

And I had to laugh about lora96's comment, "What struck me was the lack of naughtiness in the post title. I can usually count on the name of the post for a giggle."

Ironically, the headline is the only part I did write.

Those of you I just singled out for getting close, drop me an email with your address. You certainly earned the booty bag.

And can we get a round of applause for Simon? I think he did a tremendous job impersonating me for the day. Mimicking another author's voice is crazy difficult, and it's actually a great exercise for fine-tuning your own voice. Have you tried it? It's a whole lot harder than it looks.

I explained this to Pythagoras last night, pointing out what an amazing job Simon did with the impersonation.

"He really nailed me," I said.

Pythagoras looked pained. “Why do I have a feeling you’re going to use that line on the blog?”

I just did, honey. I just did.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

CONTEST: Guess what's weird

While coming up with a list of 37 wine varieties for last week's Petals and Thorns giveaway, it occurred to me that unless you’re a wine snob, you’re unlikely to know a Pouilly-Fuissé from a Pedro Ximénez.

I’m guessing most wine drinkers stick to a few tried-and-true favorites like Chardonnay, or Chianti, and this is all well and good.

Then I got to thinking that, though there’s a huge market for romance novels ($
1.36 billion in 2009), a great many readers won’t buy much outside their usual Danielle Steele/Nora Roberts/Diana Gabaldon comfort zone.

At which point I got a little depressed and polished off a bottle of Shiraz.

But when I woke up under the couch the next morning, I had two realizations. First, if you sleep under the couch, you wake up dusty. And second, there’s plenty of room for all of us in a $1.36 billion market.

You see, while Robert Woodbridge White Zinfandel might have near-total market penetration (heh), there’s plenty of room for a spunky (heh) little Oregonian Pinot Noir or Chilean Malbec to earn a tidy profit. The wine market, like the romance fiction market, appears to support a near-infinite number of producers and varieties.

And there’s another thing about being a small producer in a big market—you get to experiment more. The Yellow Tails and Mondavis of the world thrive on predictability. People buying them want consistently decent wine, and that’s what they’ll get. But if you’re in the market for something a bit more interesting, perhaps a Shiraz with a hint of pepper and kumquat in the finish (and if you find one of those, please let me know!), you’ll have to try a smaller winery, one that’s willing to take a chance and stand out from the crowd.

In the same way, while readers might buy a romance novel from a well-known author because they know the heroine will be in bed with the male love interest by page 75, there are people out there whose idea of a good time might be more like a round or two of Strip Battleship. That’s where I come in.

Besides, there’s nothing quite like the experience of discovering a new favorite wine novel from a small producer an up-and-coming (heh) author.

So what do you think? Are you open to experimentation in your wine choices? Your fiction choices? What kinds of things do you look for in a good wine romance novel?

While you think about it, I’ll be cleaning beneath my couch. You wouldn’t believe the size of the dust bunnies under there.

Don't forget to guess what's odd about this post!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just call me picky word diva

I’m working my way through the copy edits Sourcebooks gave me for MAKING WAVES. It’s a process that’s surprising me in some ways.

When the production editor sent the document last week, she included a note saying I’m not obligated to make any of the edits. “I’ll accept your changes over what the copy editor changed or suggested,” she explained.

I did a quick skim of the manuscript and laughed. The changes seemed tiny. Little bitty switches from one word to another, nothing I minded in the least.

Or did I?

As soon as I sat down and dug in, I found I minded a lot more than I realized.

I’ll give you a couple examples with the caveat that I don’t want to launch a discussion of “right” or “wrong” or “that copy editor couldn’t find her semi-colon with both hands and a flashlight.” I adore the copy editor, whoever he/she is, and think most of the suggestions are spot-on. I plan to accept the vast majority of them and would probably offer a hug and a noogie if we ever met in person.

But a couple stylistic changes rubbed me the wrong way (no small feat considering I’m a fan of most kinds of rubbing). In these examples, the blue text is what I wrote originally. The red is the word added by the copy editor:

He glanced at something in his lap, then punched some numbers on a gadget beside him. Beautiful hands, Juli thought, then she shivered at the memory of those hands all over her body.

Here’s another example:

Behind him, Jake went back to muttering. “Damn woman’s going to ruin us.”

“Probably,” Alex said, and he tried not to look forward to it.

It’s the same sort of addition in both examples, and I’m sure there’s a reason for the suggestion.

But there’s also a reason I wrote the sentence the way I did, which is the same reason I’m not accepting the change. I don't want the he or the she in those spots. I want the words to flow a certain way. I like the brevity of the original with its casual, folksy cadence.

The funny thing is, there was no point in the writing of MAKING WAVES where I made a conscious decision to exclude the she or he in those sentences. I didn’t consult a grammar guide or sit with a quivering finger poised over the keyboard wrestling with this monumental decision.

Yet I find it really does matter to me. As much as I don’t fancy myself a word diva, I probably am. It’s the reason you’ll never, ever catch me blogging if I’ve had anything to drink.

That thud I just heard was probably half of you hitting the floor, but it’s true. I’ve written plenty of words after a glass or twelve of wine, but I’ll never set a blog post to go live until I’ve read it with 110% sober vision. I like making deliberate word choices with anything that will have hundreds of eyes on it. That sort of deliberateness doesn’t always happen with a glass of Chianti beside me.

How choosy are you about word selection? Do you find yourself nit-picking other people’s writing differently than your own? Please share.

And please share your wine, while you're at it. Now that this post is written, I'm free to imbibe.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thank you, sir, may I have another?

You know that scene in Animal House where Kevin Bacon has to grab his ankles while a cloaked sadist whacks him on the butt for a fraternity initiation?

Thank you, sir, may I have another? He grunts with every stroke of the paddle.

I can’t be the only author who thinks of it when feedback starts rolling in on a fresh-from-the-oven manuscript.

I’m at that stage now with LET IT BREATHE. I follow the same process each time, with critique partners nailing me from all sides before I polish and send the manuscript to the beta readers. After that, it goes to my agent, then my editor, and eventually off to copy editors.

Then there’s the stage I haven’t reached yet where readers and book reviewers start taking whacks at me. I swear my butt stings each time I see August 2011 on a calendar.

I have pretty thick skin, which is one reason I’ve built such a regimented critique process involving so many players. I want constructive criticism. It’s what I rely on to improve and grow as a writer.

But I’d be a lying sack of camel feces if I said it didn’t sting.

I’d also be lying if I told you I didn’t open a critique partner’s email Saturday night and wince at every splotch of red text on the page. My first instinct is to get defensive – clearly she misunderstood that scene or just didn’t "get" my heroine.

But even as those thoughts stew in the back of my mind, the first words I fire off in a reply email are always the same.

Thank you sooooooo much!

Then I follow up by saying what I found most helpful. I do this even as my backside stings from the paddle lashes and the snarly creature in the back of my brain pouts and sulks.

Several months ago, I judged a writing contest. Though judges were encouraged to write comments, I suspect the organizers didn’t expect the sea of ink I spewed onto some of the entries. I always balanced negative feedback with positive, but there was one entry in particular that took some hard hits. I debated whether to do it, but in the end, decided someone had to be straight with the writer about some big plot problems and issues with characterization.

I winced as I hit send, and then forgot about it until a month later when a contest organizer forwarded me a note from the writer. I braced myself for defensive anger.

What I got was thanks. Thanks for my time, my attention to detail, and my elaborate feedback.

The writer had nothing to gain from sending that note. Judges are anonymous, as are the contest entries. We could have sat naked together in the steam room at the gym and never recognized one another.

But that note made my week. Not only that, it made me a lot more likely to give thorough feedback the next time I judge a contest.

It’s easy for writers to get caught up in their own angst about feedback on our babies, but we have to remember the person offering it is putting herself out there, too. It’s nice to know your input has merit. It's nice to know your efforts mean something to someone.

Do you try to thank people for their feedback even if it’s not what you want to hear? Is it tough to type thank you even as your butt stings from the lashes? Please share.

I have to get ready for the next round of spanking.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Links, leftovers, and a whole lot of wine

You ever have one of those lunches consisting of a hodge-podge of leftovers from four different meals you've had throughout the week? Sometimes it's delicious, sometimes it's...well, just interesting.

I'm not sure which this will be, but that's what I'm serving up on today's blog.

First up, have you ever wondered what happens behind-the-scenes during the acquisition process at a publishing house? I have. Well, "wondered" is probably too mild a word.

During my years on the submission train when my agent would tell me editor so-and-so liked my manuscript and was taking it to the editorial board, I would drive myself nuts trying to figure out what that meant. I'd cyber-stalk editors to see if I could determine the precise hour the meeting might take place. I'd check my website for unexpected visitors. I'd try to imagine how the meeting might go, or what sort of shoes they'd all be wearing.

Though I'm past that stage now, I never stopped wondering about the behind-the-scenes details. Lucky for me, my amazing editor, Deb Werksman, just did a blog post over at Romance University giving an inside glimpse into the acquisition process. Though she didn't mention the shoes, she covered pretty much everything else I ever wanted to know. Check it out HERE.

Next up, just a reminder that I'm blogging over at The Debutante Ball today. We've been discussing agents all week, and it's possible I got a little mushy discussing my relationship with Michelle Wolfson. You can read that post here.

Lastly, we get to pick a winner to receive Petals and Thorns from Jennifer Paris (a.k.a. Jeffe Kennedy). If you missed the post about the giveaway, go here.

I didn't have time to stage an elaborate selection process with the pets like I did here or here or here, and Jeffe wasn't too keen on swimming out into an icy pond to fetch a stick with a name on it.

"What's something Jeffe and I have in common?" I mused as I sipped a glass of Shiraz and instant-messaged her the other evening.

"Beats me," Jeffe mused back with her glass of Zin in hand.


I made a list of all 37 people who commented on the post to win a copy of Petals and Thorns. Then I made a list of 37 different varieties of wine. I'm kind of impressed I was able to do most of it off the top of my head (though I did have to consult a book for a few of them).

My apologies for skipping some of the accent marks and other unusual punctuation, but here's the list:

1. Chardonnay

2. Sauvignon Blanc

3. Semillon

4. Riesling

5. Gewürztraminer

6. Pinot Grigio

7. Pinot Blanc

8. Frascati

9. Chenin

10. Pouilly-Fuissé

11. Silvaner

12. Port

13. German Eiswein

14. Pedro Ximénez

15. Sangiovese

16. Cabernet Franc

17. Petit Verdot

18. Malbec

19. Cabernet Sauvignon

20. Syrah

21. Shiraz

22. Marechal Foch

23. Tempranillo

24. Mouvedre

25. Viognier

26. Merlot

27. Pinot Noir

28. Zinfandel

29. Chianti

30. Rioja

31. Grenache

32. Mueller-Thurgau

33. Baco Noir

34. Grüner Veltliner

35. Dolcetto

36. Liebfraumilch

37. Melon de Bourgogne

We briefly considered drinking a glass of each just to put ourselves in the proper frame of mind, but decided against it about halfway through the list.

Instead, I assigned each blog commenter a wine variety and then sent the wine list to Jeffe. After a bit of deliberation (and maybe a few more glasses of wine) she picked Zinfandel, #28.

That's the wine I assigned to Jami Gold, who just so happened to write her own blog post about our little experiment reading outside your comfort zone. You can read her post here.

So congratulations to Jami. You don't get the wine, but you DO get a pretty awesome book from Jeffe. She'll be in touch. She also wanted to thank all of you for making her feel like the belle of the ball the other day.

She said "ball."

That's it for me, kids. Were the leftovers good for you? Are you doing anything fun this weekend? Please share!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sometimes you've gotta strip for copy editors

I just hit another big milestone in the countdown to release day for MAKING WAVES. I got my copy edits from the production team at Sourcebooks.

For those unfamiliar with the process, copy edits happen after you’ve already gone a round or two on the big-picture stuff with your primary editor. Though I’ve heard of copy editors slashing paragraphs and changing words with ruthless abandon, that wasn’t the case here. It was mostly stylistic stuff, changing “OK” to “okay” and switching “8” to “eight.”

But there was one comment that made me giggle.

You’ve heard me mention the Strip Battleship scene in MAKING WAVES, right? It’s precisely what it sounds like, with a lot of rapid-fire dialogue as the characters fling clothing, ogle one another, and shout letters and numbers to guess the position of each other's boats.

In the middle of the scene, the copy editor wrote this:
I thought about writing a smartass comment back about how there is an easy way to check by grabbing a Battleship game board and playing a round.

But fortunately for the copy editor, I already took care of it.

Pythagoras and I invented Strip Battleship eight or nine years ago it a quiet hotel room in Jamaica. We didn’t actually own the game ourselves, so when I decided to write the scene for MAKING WAVES several years later, I went out and bought one.

“Are we playing for real?” Pythagoras asked when I dropped it on the bed in front of him.

“I have to make sure the scene is accurate, don’t I?”

He eyed the pad of paper in my hand. “You’re taking notes?”

“You should be grateful I’m not taking pictures.”

That didn’t appease him much, but he got to work setting his ships up anyway.

“B9,” I called.

“Miss. C6.”

“Miss. E2.”

“Hit.” He frowned. “Did you cheat?”

“I have to. It says so in the book. Now give me your shirt.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “Wait a minute. You’ve already written the scene?”

“Of course,” I said, offering him my sweetest smile. “I just need to get the numbers down.”

“So you already know you’re going to win?”

I shrugged, not seeing any problem with this. “You want to just take off all your clothes now?”

He wasn’t a fan of that idea, nor was he a very big fan of his predestined defeat. “So there’s no chance at all I’m going to win?”

“Define win. It’s kind of subjective in Strip Battleship, isn’t it?”

In the end, I got my notes. I also got his shirt. And his shoes. And his…well, I’ll stop there. You’ll have to read the book.

Suffice it to say, I can assure the copy editor with 110% certainty the scene is accurate.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Building writing muscles one kinky book at a time

As I suggested Monday, readers commenting here often have smarter things to say than I do.

Case in point, in response to my December 30 post about New Year’s resolutions, agent Janet Reid offered the following:

I think every writer should resolve to read more. One book that is outside their normal area of interest, or one book they've been meaning to read. Then WRITE about the book.

What they liked/what they didn't' and why. In 250 words or fewer.

I firmly believe the discipline of writing clearly and persuasively in limited space builds writing muscle.

Though I’ve always tried to pick books outside my comfort zone, I’ve never made a formal commitment to do it with any regularity (though for the record, doing it with regularity is good for your health).

Janet Reid knows a thing or two about helping writers improve (if you aren’t already following her Query Shark or her regular blog, get the hell out of here and go do it now). Taking Janet's advice, I decided to challenge myself to pick an outside-the-comfort-zone book each month.

First on the docket was Petals and Thorns by Jennifer Paris. That’s the pen name used by author Jeffe Kennedy for her erotica titles. The book is a BDSM fantasy, and if you don’t know what that means, see if you can figure it out from what appears on the first few pages:

Oh, and even better:

In other words, don’t blame the author if you damage yourself (something that seems likely if you attempt some of these maneuvers).

I’ll confess, I wasn’t sure I’d like this story. I’m no prude, and I enjoy a good erotica title from time to time. But fantasy? BDSM? It seemed like a bit much even for me.

The story totally sucked me in. Pun intended. Duh.

Want to win it? Leave a comment!
Petals and Thorns is a modern, erotica twist on Beauty and the Beast. Heavy emphasis on “twist,” by the way. The kink factor is high, and this probably isn’t the book to give your child’s kindergarten teacher as an end-of-year thank you gift.

In this version of the tale, Amarantha agrees to marry The Beast to spare her father’s life. The Beast can’t take her virginity unless she begs him to, and she only has to keep her legs together for seven days to win his fortune.

You see where this is going, right? I doubt you'll be shocked to hear Amarantha isn’t the only one begging for it by the end.

This was a fun, fast read – perfect for an evening by the fire with a glass of wine and a set of handcuffs.

I’m glad I read it, and I’m glad I’ve committed to this little outside-the-comfort-zone reading experiment.

Do you make efforts to read books you wouldn’t normally choose? Have you had positive experiences with it? Better yet, do you have any suggestions for books I should consider in the coming year? Please share!

Win! Win! Win!
Oh, and as an added enticement for you to leave a comment, Jeffe/Jennifer is giving one lucky reader his or her own digital download of Petals and Thorns. Woohoo!

Just make sure you get your doctor’s permission first.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Original ideas are overrated

It is physically impossible for me to sit at my writing computer for more than 14 seconds without music. I begin to twitch, and then I fall to the floor pulling out clumps of my own hair and humming "Hotel California."

Fortunately, Pandora internet radio ensures I don't have to suffer. It also exposes me to a steady stream of new music (which I race out and purchase on iTunes when I hear something I like).

A few weeks ago, Pandora played a song that sounded familiar. I recognized the words. The melody seemed like something I'd heard before. Still, I couldn't quite place it.

It wasn't until I clicked on the title that I realized what it was:

That's Mat Weddle of the folk/pop band Obadiah Parker doing an acoustic version of Outkast's insanely popular 2003 hit "Hey Ya." Even if you aren't a hip-hop fan, you've surely heard the original. Maybe you've even been known to shake it like a Polaroid picture when no one's looking.

I'm not here to judge.

Here's a refresher on the Outkast version, just for the sake of comparison:

I bought both versions for my iPod, and I dig each of them for totally different reasons.

One reason is the fabulous reminder that something doesn't have to be 100% original to be amazing.

I've heard tons of authors fretting about the uniqueness of a story they want to write. They worry their idea has been done before, and most of the time, they're right. How often have we seen modern twists on age-old stories? Romeo and Juliet spawned West Side Story. Jane Austen's Emma inspired Clueless.

I don't kid myself that I'm the first author to write a pirate-themed romance novel with MAKING WAVES, but I might be first to include a frisky game of Strip Battleship or a discussion of the difference between a hand-job and a foot-job. Even without those scenes, I feel confident my own unique voice puts a different spin on things.

I guess that's why I don't spend too much time worrying about coming up with a story that's never been done before. My focus is on finding ways to make my version original, and to set it apart from what's been done before.

Do you struggle to come up with unique ideas? In what way do you put your own stamp on something that's been done before? Please share.

And please lend me some sugar. I am your neighbor.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Taillights, gladiators, & things that keep us moving

There’s a sizable mountain range separating my part of Oregon from the part where all the Romance Writers of America (RWA) meetings occur.

In the summertime, the mountains are merely scenic. In the wintertime, they’re downright treacherous. It’s not unusual to see cars buried in snow banks or flipped upside down, and I prefer to keep my eyes shut tight for most of the trip.

That doesn’t work if I’m driving alone without Pythagoras, which was the case this past weekend.

The drive over on Thursday afternoon wasn’t so bad, but Saturday evening’s return trip scared the holy living snot out of me. The roads were icy, the sky was dark, and the snow was flying from 859 directions.

I wanted to curl up on the floorboards and whimper. I settled for fixating on the taillights of the guy ahead of me. For two hours, I kept pace with his Jeep. I gauged his speed on slick curves, noticed when he tapped his brakes, and invented an imaginary identity for him that included a falcate sword and a gladiator costume.

By the time we made it over the mountains, I wanted to follow him home and hug him. I refrained, mostly because he’d think I was a stalker, but also because I would have been really disappointed if he didn’t have the sword.

The experience made me think about the post I wrote last Friday. In it, I talked about the downside of having bitter or jealous thoughts about other authors. The post sparked one of the coolest discussions we’ve had here, further cementing my belief that the people commenting on my blog often have smarter things to say than I do.

One of the most thought-provoking comments was this one from Mark Simpson:

When I was a hurdler in high school there was a kid in the next town (lets call it Colstrip because that's what everyone calls it) who was both amazingly talented and a complete asshole. (Lets call him Bobby Gregg, since that's his actual name. ha)

More than anything I wanted to beat him, to see his face lined in pain as I broke his will. So I drug railroad ties through the snow, trained and bled and sweated. I finally did beat him a couple times, although he won the ultimate contest. (probably because he was better than me.)

But even as the memory of my broken heart spilling its blood into the gutter of my soul still rings fresh, I know that loathing disdain for him still brought out my absolute best. I needed him like spring needs the rain. (And now we're FB friends. ha)

These days instead of running endless intervals to the Top Gun soundtrack on my Walkman, I read Tawna's blog. And although I am dazzled daily by her unattainable level of wit, humor and charm – there is a part of me that wants.. nay NEEDS... to see something that ISN'T clever, funny or charming. Every day I scour the text in vain yearning, all while honing my own writing skills – skills that even as they peak will always be deep in her shadow.

Tawna is my modern day Bobby Gregg– inspiration, nemesis, and femme fatale.

She is the rock I break myself against.

As a side-note, if you’ve ever wondered how many regular blog readers I know in real life, the answer is “almost none.” Mark is one of the few – an old pal from college I haven’t seen for years, but who recently found me on Facebook. I bring this up because seeing that comment from a total stranger might’ve creeped me out a little. Seeing it from him just made me giggle.

But I digress.

Aside from his facetious Tawna-worship, Mark makes a great point. While I don’t encourage petty jealousy and evil thoughts about others, a little friendly rivalry can push you to be better.

During my bumpy path to publication, one thing that kept me going was the steady stream of positive feedback and “almost there” comments from editors.

But on the flip-side of that, the comments that made me even more determined to succeed were the ones containing traces of the sentiment, “you can’t.”

Those were the comments that made me stand up straight, shake off my disappointment, and scream, “hell yes I can – watch me!”

So while I stand by what I said Friday about holding your venomous thoughts in check, there’s a benefit to having something that keeps you driving forward when you might otherwise be tempted to curl up and cry.

What pushes you to keep going? Is it a professional rivalry, an outright failure, or just a guy in a gladiator costume with a bright pair of taillights? Please share!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Tight ends make my blood boil, and not in the way you're thinking

I know almost nothing about football except that I believe all men should be required to wear those tight little pants.

But living in Oregon, I can’t help but notice there’s a big game occurring Monday.

I was going to just call it “big game,” but my father informed me it’s the BCS – the Bowl Championship Series. The University of Oregon will play Auburn to determine which team is the best in the nation and which team should be rounded up and executed in the parking lot.

People seem to care very much about this, but not in the ways I expected.

As in most states, Oregon has a longstanding college rivalry. Ours is between fans of the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. I won’t dwell on the hows and whys, but suffice it to say, they wish to set fire to each other’s schools.

Still, I assumed that with one of them playing for a national championship, we’d set aside the rivalries and just cheer for the Oregon team that happened to make it.

That’s not how it works for everyone. In recent weeks, I’ve heard a number of OSU fans declare themselves devout fans of Auburn. We don’t want University of Oregon to win a national championship, they say. We want anyone but them. Their fans are too cocky. They don’t deserve to win. Or my personal favorite, OSU probably won't ever have a shot at a national championship, so we don’t want U of O lording this over us forever.

And just as my blood started to boil over this silly, narrow-minded way of thinking, I stopped and realized I’ve done this.

Not over football. I couldn’t care less about the Ducks and the Beavers beyond the acknowledgment that those are two of the oddest school mascots in the country.

No, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve done this with writing.

Deep down in that place I don’t like to admit exists, I’ve had dirty little thoughts I’m not proud of (I’ve also had plenty I’m proud of, but that’s not what we’re talking about here).

I’m talking about those secret, mean-spirited, moments I think a lot of us have had. Yay! I support other writers wholeheartedly! Except THAT ONE.

Maybe it’s motivated by jealousy, or a firm belief THAT ONE is not a strong enough writer. Doesn’t have the right attitude. Didn’t work hard enough.

And while I might sincerely wish I could beat my head against the wall until thoughts like this vanish, I have to acknowledge they’re there. Not all the time – pretty rarely, really – but they do exist.

And acknowledging the thoughts is probably the first step toward taking myself by the ear, giving myself a shake, and reminding myself that someone else’s success does not diminish mine.

This is something you’ll have to deal with at every stage in your career. Someone else will always finish that first manuscript faster. Someone else will always get better feedback in a contest, a bigger advance, a prettier cover, a cooler agent.

OK, not if your agent is Michelle Wolfson – duh, there is no one cooler – but you get my point.

There will always be secret rivalries. There will always be green-eyed monsters. There will always be mean little demons that whisper in the back of your brain, anyone but THAT author.

All I’m suggesting is that you acknowledge it. That you admit it. And that you make a conscious effort to remind yourself we’re all on the same team – all writers, everyone who’s ever struggled to put words on a page with the hope they’ll eventually land on someone’s bookshelf.

Go Ducks.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Technology killed the hissy fit

I saw a guy walking down the street having an animated chat on his cell phone.

It wasn’t going well.

“Oh yeah?” he snarled into the phone. “You think so?”

Apparently, the other person thought so.

“Well guess what?” he yelled. “It’s over! Done! Have a nice life!”

Then he yanked the phone away from his ear and proceeded to spend 20 seconds fumbling for the button to end the call.

A little anticlimactic.

Technology has given us some wonderful advances, but one thing it’s stolen is our ability to throw a satisfying hissy fit by slamming the phone down on the receiver. Even if you haven’t ditched your landline for a cell, odds are good you’re using a cordless phone.

Pressing “off” in the heat of the moment lacks a certain oomph.

I’m fascinated by books written just 10 years ago when it wasn’t assumed that everyone had cell phones sewn to their palms and internet access 24/7. Characters could be stuck alone in a perilous situation without the ability to call for the police and a takeout order of egg rolls to enjoy while awaiting help.

Back then, a romance novel heroine couldn’t just google-stalk the guy she’s dating to discover he’s secretly a famous athlete with a fondness for wearing women’s underpants.

One of my favorite series of books is Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries – A is for Alibi, B is for…well, whatever the hell B stood for. The books star a private detective named Kinsey Milhone, and the first was published in 1982.

Grafton has kept a slow but steady pace with them, releasing U is for Undertow in 2009 while making a deliberate choice not to age the character or her surroundings beyond those first few books. Kinsey still sends faxes and writes her reports on a typewriter. She uses microfiche instead of google, and would be truly mystified by skyping, sexting, and tweeting.

OK, so a lot of us are mystified by those things.

I’ve heard of authors re-releasing older books and making small tweaks to account for technological advances. An author who spoke at an RWA conference I attended joked, “My heroines have a knack for getting into trouble in areas with spotty cell coverage.”

Do you get hung up on jarring technology details in books you’re reading? What role does technology play in your writing? Please share.

I’ll be guarding my eBay bid on an old rotary phone. The next time I need to hang up on someone, I’ll be ready.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Three annoying things writers do

My favorite thing about the holidays is the excuse to lounge by the fire devouring piles of bad food and good books.

Well, mostly good books. I’ll admit I’ve read a few that came perilously close to being hurled at the wall.

As a reader, I’ve always been aware of my pet peeves in novels. As a writer, I'm hyper-conscious about avoiding them in my own stories.

The Lazy Man’s Adverb

I don’t fault writers for the occasional use of adverbs. Sometimes you just need to toss a little -ly love around. But there’s seldom a good excuse for using them with dialogue tags. Any author worth his salt should be able to show the speaker’s tone with context clues, body language, and the words coming out of the character’s mouth.

Lazy: “I don’t want to suck your toes,” she said angrily.

Not as lazy (but maybe a little oogy): She folded her arms and sneered at him. “There’s no way in hell I’m sucking your filthy toes!”

The Big Mis

Short for “the big misunderstanding,” this is one of those ancient plot devices that never ceases to annoy the ever lovin’ snot out of me. It’s where the story’s conflict centers around something that could be cleared up if the characters just sat their pouty butts down and had a 30-second conversation. Jane sees Herbert in Victoria’s Secret, and rather than saying hello and asking if he’s buying her the latex thong she wants, she assumes he’s a cross-dresser and spends the next 250 pages sulking.

If you catch yourself crafting a Big Mis plot, slam on the brakes. Are there other forms of conflict you can introduce that have a little more substance? If you're committed to your Big Mis plot, what can you do to make it feasible the two characters wouldn't have that conversation? If your solution involves removing their tongues and hands, you might want to rethink the story.

As You Know, Bob

I’ll admit it, critique partner Cynthia Reese taught me this phrase by pointing out my own offense in some long-ago manuscript. As You Know, Bob is a clumsy method of introducing backstory by having one character spontaneously lecture another with information they both already know. The result is a conversation that’s stilted, awkward, and as natural as Chelsea Charms’ sweater potatoes (Er, that’s a fairly benign Wikipedia link. I make no guarantees what you’ll find googling her name on your own).

I’ve gotten better at catching myself when I start an As You Know, Bob info-dump. It helps to seek less sloppy ways to introduce the backstory, like flashback or internal musings. In general though, readers are smarter than we give them credit for. Trust them to piece together smaller clues as you slowly feed out backstory over the course of the story.

Do you have pet peeves as a reader? How do you stop yourself from committing them as a writer? Please share.

And really, please don't blame me for the brain damage you incur googling that name. I did warn you.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happily ever after…or something like that

I am not big fan of television. There’s a TV in my home, but the closest I can come to operating it is staring at the remote like a monkey doing algebra.

Despite this, I must confess that I watch The Bachelor.

Not only that, I’ve watched The Bachelorette.

It started innocently enough a couple years ago. A girlfriend invited me over to share a bottle of wine while her husband was scratching himself in a bar watching Monday Night Football. Soon I was hanging out on her sofa every Monday evening.

While we sucked down Chianti, we got sucked into a show that – let's be honest – kind of sucks.

Or does it?

In case you’ve never watched, the format is simple: one eligible bachelor or bachelorette is presented with a pool of 25-30 potential marriage candidates. One by one, the suitors are eliminated after a series of dates and challenges. In the end, the bachelor or bachelorette chooses a mate and the happy couple enjoys wedded bliss for all of eternity.

Theoretically, anyway.

Out of 14 seasons of The Bachelor and six of The Bachelorette, there’s only been one actual marriage between the final couple. Not great odds.

And yet…we want to believe it can work.

Or maybe we just want to play drinking games that involve taking a slug of Sangiovese each time someone utters the phrase soulmates, falling for you, or amazing connection.

I’m hesitant to draw a parallel between cheesy reality TV and the romance genre, but I can’t pretend there isn’t one. We’ve all heard statistics about how 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce. We know relationships are messy and difficult and likely to involve as much time spent picking up your spouse’s socks as making love in a field of daffodils while sparrows sing “Endless Love.”

Still, we want to believe the fairy tale. In the happily ever after. In the idea that two people can meet and fall in love and sustain their passion even after ABC halts the flow of all-expense-paid dates.

Or maybe we just appreciate the entertainment value of watching people make asses of themselves in the name of love. There's no shame in that.

Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to love, lust, and cheesy entertainment? What keeps you tuning in or turning pages? Please share.

I’ll be over here filling out my application to be the next Bachelorette. They take married chicks, right?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cleaning up carnage from a manuscript massacre

The last few days have been a bloodbath in my office.

Adverbs were slashed with disturbing brutality. Paragraphs dropped like wounded wildebeests in sticky puddles of their own intestines. Entire chapters lay twitching on the floor, gasping for breath.

I cut nearly 4,000 words from LET IT BREATHE on Saturday, and maybe 2,000 more the day before.

For a writer at any career stage, it sucks reading something you’ve written – perhaps remembering the precise, cheerful moment you put those words on the page –and knowing those hours would have been better spent cleaning your dog’s toenails with a toothbrush.

We’ve talked before about tweaking and retooling slashed scenes, but that’s not what I mean here. I’m talking about the scenes you know in your heart need to die.

And while it stings sometimes, there’s a certain power in it.

In some of my earliest forays into fiction writing, I’d get a niggling notion something wasn’t right in a manuscript. I could never put my finger on what it was, but something was just off.

I’ve heard authors complain about editors and agents who give elusive reasons for rejection, but I totally get it. Sometimes you can’t pinpoint the problem or how to fix it – you just know something isn’t right.

That’s why it’s so empowering to read something I’ve written and to proudly declare, THIS SUCKS…but I know how to make it suck less.

Once upon a time, I assumed there’d be a day when my manuscripts would come out perfect on the first try. Sure, there’d be a few tweaks for typos, but no more heaving entire chapters into the dumpster. I looked forward to that day. I pined for it.

With eight years of fiction writing and a three-book deal under my belt, I can tell you for sure that day will never come.

I’m OK with that.

Because while cutting can be painful, there are few more exhilarating experiences than deleting words with one hand while the other is types words you know for certain should replace them.

Do you recognize when you suck? Can you relate to the euphoria of knowing exactly how to make yourself suck less? Please share.

I have to stop the dog from rolling in that puddle of manuscript brains.