Wednesday, November 30, 2011

4 tips for researching a new manuscript

Though you guys know my three contracted romantic comedies as Making Waves, Believe it or Not, and Mad Crush, those names have never stuck in my mind.

To me, the books will always be known by their working titles: Piratebich, Psychicbitch, and Winebitch.

In continuing with tradition, I’ve recently started Museumbitch.

I can’t tell you much about the plot. It’s not that I’m being secretive and stealthy, but rather that I’m clueless. What I can tell you is that the story is set at a Central Oregon museum specializing in wildlife exhibits and natural history. My fictional museum is a lot like Bend’s High Desert Museum, so I arranged to spend part of Monday interviewing staff there.

As a recovering journalist, I tend to bring my research-junkie habits when I write novels. In case it helps fellow writers (or for those of you curious about the process) here are a few tips for kicking off research for a new novel:

Reach out and touch someone

Since I’m a writer who prefers to minimize human contact, I generally make interview requests via email. I start with a simple note explaining who I am, what I’m working on, and what sort of questions I might like to ask someone in the organization. In the case of Museumbitch, I touched base with someone in the marketing department who already knows me from my day job. As is almost always the case, she seemed delighted with the idea of assisting with research for a novel – even though the novel isn’t even contracted for publication.

Write questions…then ignore them

Having a list of questions prepared in advance gives you a great way to fill any lulls in conversation, and also ensures you get all the information you’re seeking. Though I always make sure I go in with a few questions jotted on the first page of my notebook, I prefer to use the list as a crutch, rather than an agenda. Letting the conversation flow in unexpected directions is sometimes where the best ideas happen!

Get it on with a group

Interviewing a single person alone is fine, but if it’s at all possible, see if you can arrange to talk to two or three people at once. Having that sort of interplay between interviewees helps loosen people up a bit, and also gives you a better shot at getting those spontaneous bursts of info sharing where one person’s idea sparks another.

Don’t ignore the boring stuff

I didn’t go into Monday’s interview expecting one of my subjects to devote the first ten minutes to a recitation of job titles within the museum. As it turned out, this was some of the most valuable information I gathered. I knew beforehand that my heroine would be in charge of fundraising for the museum, but I had no idea how much manpower it actually takes – even in a fairly small, non-profit organization. I also got some great ideas for secondary characters and funny scenes – stuff I never would have gotten if I’d asked her to skip the employee roster and go straight to telling funny stories about taking the museum’s raptors to cocktail parties (no, I’m not kidding, and yes, I’ll definitely be writing about that).

So there you have it…my top tips for interview-based novel research. Got any of your own to share? Or any questions you want to throw out there about my process? Leave a comment!

I’m hoping that’ll cause you all to forget I don’t have a plot.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why my cockles are warm

I spent the past weekend helping a friend move. When I wasn't snickering about stuffing things in boxes or the merits of being on top, I was making myself surprisingly useful for a short chick devoid of upper body strength.

Around 8 p.m. Saturday night, we had most of the heavy furniture piled in the driveway behind the moving truck. I was considering faking a psychotic episode to avoid having my wimpy butt crushed beneath the queen-sized box spring, when all of a sudden, I heard the voice of an angel.

OK, it wasn't an angel. It was a tipsy guy en route to the bar down the street. Same thing, sometimes.

"Do you guys need a hand?" he called. He and his buddy stepped into the driveway and smiled at my friend. "Looks like your wife was about to try to lift that heavy dresser."

I looked around for the wife and realized they meant me. Concerned my friend might refuse assistance or clarify my marital status, I spoke up quickly.

"We'd love help," I gushed, shoving my hands in my pockets to hide my bare ring finger. "Thank you so much!"

And in five minutes, the guys had all the pain-in-the-ass heavy furniture loaded into the truck. I couldn't decide whether to weep with joy or follow them to the bar and buy them a beer. I was still considering it when they disappeared into the darkness.

While this isn't one of those touching tales of a stranger risking life and limb to save a toddler from a burning orphanage, it still warms the cockles of my heart.

(Incidentally, what is a cockle? Is it as filthy as it sounds? Because if so, my heart must have dozens of them).

Good Samaritan stories always serve as a good reminder to me that there are kind, generous people willing to do kind things for others even when there's nothing to be gained from it. It's enough to make me watch for ways I can pay it forward the next time I see someone in need of a helping hand.

Got any good heart-warming Good Samaritan stories of your own? Please share!

Let's all warm our cockles together.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Even moving day is filthy if you listen closely

I spent the weekend helping a friend move, a process that’s approximately as enjoyable as sliding down a razor blade banister into a barrel of grapefruit juice.

On the bright side, there was no shortage of amusing innuendo. For example…

Disassembling furniture

  • We need to find a good place for all the screws
  • It should be loose enough now you can just use your fingers


  • Will this fit in that box?
  • That’s way too big to shove in there

Lugging furniture up and down stairs

  • Do you want to be on top or bottom?
  • Hold on, I need to get a better grip so I can slide it
  • Let’s switch so you're not behind me

Loading the moving truck

  • We need to put the smaller things in before we cram in all that big stuff
  • Push harder and you should be able to get it in
  • Why don’t I stick that in my trunk instead?

So that pretty much covers the excitement of my weekend. How was yours?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why I’m thankful to be wrong

Not long ago, a friend shared that during bouts of insomnia, she counts her blessings until she either falls asleep or wakes her husband to indulge in naked blessings.

I like both ideas a lot, and I’ve been thinking about them more as Thanksgiving approaches. It’s easy to be thankful for the things we wished for that turned out exactly the way we wanted.

But sometimes, the things I’m most grateful for are the ones that didn’t go my way – those instances where I hoped with all my might for life to unfold a certain way, and the great puppet-master of the universe shook her head and said, “bitch, you don’t have a clue.”

For instance:

  • I’m so glad the first book I sold in 2005 wasn’t released after the line was canceled a month before my scheduled debut (go here if you don’t know the story). I couldn’t have known then, but the romantic comedies I wrote in the following years were much stronger books, and more true to my natural voice. As a result, Making Waves got to sit on the shelves in August as my real debut.
  • I’m thankful that when faced with a choice between four amazing agents in 2006, I chose wrong. Had I not spent a year represented by an agent who wasn’t the right fit, I’m not sure I would have recognized how amazing Michelle Wolfson is, or how lucky I am to have spent the last four years as her client.
  • I’m so grateful that my many months of pleading, cajoling, hoping, wishing, threatening, crying, and couples counseling didn’t save my 13-year marriage. How else could I have discovered this whole new realm of happiness and fulfillment?
  • I’m thankful that in the weeks after my ex moved out, friends and family ignored my stoic declarations that I was fine on my own. Their constant hovering took many forms, from ladies’ nights to dinner invitations to impromptu phone calls to heartfelt emails and blog comments. The support I didn’t realize I craved turned out to be exactly what I needed to pull me through that dark time.
  • I’m thankful that when I sent a “hi, remember me?” email to a long-ago coworker who’d gone through a similar divorce, he did remember. And he not only agreed to share the wisdom of his own divorce experience, but refrained from questioning my sanity when I proposed a businesslike friends-with-benefits arrangement. But most of all, I’m grateful we both discovered quickly there’s a whole lot more to our connection. If not for the unexpected detours in both of our lives, we would never have ended up right here, right now.

And right here, right now, is a place I’m damn glad to be.

Has your life taken any unexpected, unwanted turns that turned out to be exactly what you needed? Please share!

And please forgive the brief blog break I’m about to take. I’ll be traveling Thursday and Friday to be with family for Thanksgiving, but I promise to be back here bright and early Monday morning. Happy holidays, guys! I’m eternally thankful for YOU!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is it the singer or the song?

I’ve been thinking a lot about music lately because it’s a terrific way to procrastinate  because creating a musical setlist is a crucial part of my professional writing process when starting a new book.

My latest musical fixation kicked off last week when author Trisha Leigh – who shares my great passion for singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson – tweeted me a link to his newest release.

After I finished   swooning   panting   touching myself inappropriately   taking a cold shower  listening to the song, I downloaded the whole album and skimmed online for information about the story behind it. Modern Love has a decidedly different vibe than his previous albums, and I was curious.

I soon found an explanation on his website:

Um, yeah. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why an album with that theme might appeal to a romance author beginning a new book. At heart, aren’t most romance novels about struggle and transition and the urge to love and find love?

Of course, this raises the question of how much attention I should pay to the literal meaning behind songs when it was simply the tone that piqued my interest in the first place.

I’ve grappled with this a lot when it comes to connecting the songs I listen to when writing with the scenes they end up inspiring.

When I wrote my March 2012 release, Believe it or Not, I spent a lot of time listening to the album Break Up, which is described thusly on the website:

A truly one-of-a-kind album, Break Up brings together critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Pete Yorn and the multi-talented Scarlett Johansson. In this deeply emotive yet hook-filled song cycle, Yorn and Johansson reenact the tempestuous course of a love affair on the rocks.

The tempestuous course of a love affair? That’s Believe it or Not in a nutshell. Of course, as the album title suggests, Pete and Scarlett's story doesn’t have quite the happy ending Drew and Violet's does in Believe it or Not.

When I wrote the final love scene for Mad Crush (my September 2012 release) my brain latched on to Patty Griffin’s song “Change” and wouldn’t let go. It’s a dark, gritty song about abuse and the unhealthy urge to alter yourself to fit someone else’s notion of what you should be.
Change (Album Version)
I listened to the song several dozen times while writing what turned out to be a rather aggressive love scene, and I remember reassuring myself the song’s message and lyrics had nothing to do with the story I was writing – I just liked the vibe.

It wasn’t until months later when I took several steps back from the manuscript that I realized the song’s theme actually did fit what I’d written – in fact, both the hero and heroine grapple throughout the book with whether or not to shape their lives to please or emulate other people.

Did my brain gravitate toward the song because I subconsciously realized that's the direction the story was headed, or did the song influence the story somehow?

Or – more likely – is it all a dumb coincidence?

How much attention do you pay to the literal meaning of song lyrics? Are you intrigued by the songwriter’s behind-the-scenes story, or do you prefer to just listen without the baggage? Please share!

I need a few minutes alone in a quiet room with a glass of wine and that Matt Nathanson song.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My dog has two daddies

I'm fighting a cold right now, which means what little energy I have is being channeled into the final round of copy edits before Believe it or Not goes to print.

In case you're wondering, I've now read the manuscript 74,389 times.

Since many of you show up here expecting a laugh, I feel like I should at least share something that made me giggle recently.

I've told you before how my two 27-year-old housemates have plotted to use my dog as a chick magnet. Late last week, the two boys took my dog out for a hike in the snow. They returned home soggy and exhausted, but gushing excitedly about the newspaper photographer who snapped their picture.

"We're going to be famous," one of them deadpanned. "You'll be asking for our autograph on Saturday."

"Chicks love famous guys," the other agreed.

"Don't worry," the first housemate assured me. "We made sure to give the photographer the correct spelling of the dog's name."

Saturday morning, I heard them both up rustling around much earlier than usual. I came downstairs to find them frowning at the front page of the Local News section.

In case you can't read that, here's what it says:

A stroll through fresh snow
Bend residents [Tawna's housemate], 27, left, and [Tawna's housemate], 27, along with their dog Bindi, return to their car after a hike to Tumalo Falls west of Bend on Friday afternoon. Snow was about a half a foot deep along the trail. Look for the Well, shoot! field trip to Tumalo Falls on Page C1 in Tuesday's edition of The Bulletin.

The housemates watched me as I read it. "What do you think?"

"You mean besides the fact that it makes you sound like life partners?"

They both scowled. My gentleman friend picked up the paper and studied it. "What a nice young gay couple out for a walk with their dog," he said.

"Not that there's anything wrong with that," I added. "So much for using the dog as a chick magnet."

So that was the highlight of my weekend (albeit, perhaps not theirs). How about you?

Friday, November 18, 2011

What do you choose?

You know how it is when you buy a new car and suddenly notice every other car on the road is the same make, model, and color as yours?

I have no idea why I used that analogy, since the last time I bought a new car was almost 14 years ago. It was just a few weeks after I got married.

Which is probably exactly why I used that analogy. Being a new author going through divorce makes me keenly aware of how many other authors are in my shoes. There was an article several months ago in Romance Writers Report magazine offering one author's tips on keeping the muse alive through divorce. At RWA Nationals last spring, several authors gave a panel discussion on the same topic.

But it was this recent blog post by author Jessica Corra that really touched me.

Not in the way I most enjoy being touched, but pretty close.

She does a beautiful job capturing the numb feeling of holding your first advance check and realizing how different your life was when the whole crazy ride began.

I posted a link to the blog on Twitter, and my amazing agent read it, retweeted it, and followed up with this:

It's one of the things I love best about my agent – the fact that she cares so deeply about her authors beyond how fast we can crank out manuscripts.

The morning my ex informed me he wanted a divorce, the first person I contacted wasn't my best friend or my mother.

It was my agent.

So you know I'm serious when I tell you she's been more than just a business partner through this ordeal. I'm not sure I could have endured some of the darkest days of the divorce process without her unwavering support and levelheaded "here's what we're going to do now" approach.

Still, our perception has been fascinatingly different. More than once, she's tried to comfort me for having my debut year tainted by such an awful life event.

While I appreciate the sympathy, that's not how I see things at all. By my way of thinking, the marriage was destined to crumble at some point. What a tremendous, amazing gift to have this three-book deal happen at a time I urgently needed all the joy, excitement, and reader support to buoy me through the worst of it.

Blame it on my perpetual glass-is-half-full attitude, but that's the way I see it. Never once have I lamented that my debut year was ruined by my ex's decision. Never once have I fumed that I'd be enjoying my book deal more if things had gone differently with the marriage.

For me, it's all about focusing on the positive aspects of life's changes. I can choose to be perpetually angry that the presence of my two twenty-something housemates means I can no longer stroll naked through my own living room.

Or I can choose to be grateful their presence keeps me laughing and keeps the mortgage paid.

I can choose to be hurt someone didn't want to be with me foreverandever, or I can choose to be grateful I was set free to find someone else who does.

It's always a choice.

In the end, that's what everything comes down to.

I know what I choose. How about you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My realtor talks dirty to me

Selling my house wasn’t my first choice, but I’m rolling with the process and enjoying the little pleasures where I can find them.

Like the fact that my realtor talks dirty to me. She knows I’m a romance author, though I’m pretty sure she has no idea how fond I am of naughty innuendo. Here are just a few things she’s said in recent weeks that seriously had me biting my tongue to keep from laughing:
  • The sign will be there Friday, and he’ll call if he has a hard time sticking it in.
  • We had a little trouble getting it up, but the listing is live!
  • Is it OK if we come through the back door?
  • We’ll bring them by tonight, but they can’t get off until five.
  • The flyers are done, but we need someone to swing by and stuff them in the box.
  • We’re planning an event with all the other agents, but you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get a dozen realtors to come at the same time.
That last one she said on the phone Tuesday night, and I swear she paused afterward like she was waiting for me to laugh.

You’ll be proud to know I didn’t. Much.

So have you heard any good innuendos lately? Please share!

I have to go trim the bush. What? She said it would make things look tidier in front.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The power of critique partner feedback (plus an excerpt from Believe it or Not!)

Yesterday's blog post about the value of gaining a fresh perspective on your manuscript or your life prompted a lot of great comments, including this one from Suz Korb:
I don't have my work critiqued any more. Every time I did, the "problems" that readers would pick out were subjective. What kind of "problems" get picked out from your stories? Are they definitely "problems?" I'm curious, because maybe I'm missing out and should be using critique partners.
A lot of writers want critique partners to offer a checklist of factual errors and plot issues that can easily be quantified and solved. While that would be lovely, the truth is that you also want those subjective "just my opinion" tidbits. In fact, those are some of the most valuable things you can gain from the critique process.


If you're writing with the goal of publication, it's safe to assume you hope to have readers someday. It's also safe to assume those readers will have varying backgrounds, sensitivities, and life experiences. While it's impossible to predict the reaction of every potential reader, you want a pretty good idea if something you've written is going to annoy, irritate, offend, confuse, or bore someone.

I have three regular critique partners and three beta readers. Unsurprisingly, they're six very different human beings.

My upcoming March release, Believe it or Not, contains a scene I wrote with the goal of showing a connection between my hero and heroine while also showing a lack of connection with their respective dates.

I loved the scene just the way I wrote it. So did most of my critique partners and beta readers.

But there was one voice of dissent. One critique partner found Drew and Violet condescending and rude. The whole scene rubbed her the wrong way.

I'll confess, the feedback annoyed me at first. My other readers hadn't responded that way. They were perfectly amused, and laughed in all the right places.

But that's the crux of the issue – the idea that there's a "right" or "wrong" way to read a scene.

If I were writing only for myself, I could give an indignant sniff and insist my critique partner is a moron who just doesn't get it.

But I'm writing for public consumption, and if one out of six readers gets a bad vibe from a scene, I have to consider the likelihood she won't be the only one.

So I edited. I tweaked. I massaged. I noodled.

And in the end, the scene left a much better impression on my critique partner. Does this mean she was "right" and I was "wrong?" Nope.

Does it mean my other readers were "wrong" for liking it the way it was to start? Again, nope.

But at least now, I can feel assured that the scene is less likely to irritate readers with the same sensibilities as that critique partner. And let's face it – when you're writing for commercial publication, it's important to annoy as few people as possible.

So now that I've talked it up so much, I'm going to include the scene here. Believe it or Not won't be released until March, and I'm not entirely sure my editor would be pleased to have me posting excerpts. Don't tell, OK? But if you want to, you can pre-order the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Powell's Books.

Here's the scene:
Drew was focusing very hard on trying to remember his date’s name. Did it rhyme with a fruit? No, that was the girl he’d gone out with last week.

It started with a G, he was pretty sure about that. Gilligan?

It didn’t matter at the moment, since she hadn’t paused for breath in over an hour.

“…and so then we broke up, but we had like five more months on our lease, and he couldn’t find another place to live and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m not leaving, this place is like four blocks from where I work,’ so I told him he could crash on the couch as long as he stopped borrowing my underwear, and so…”

Drew frowned. Maybe her name didn’t start with a G. It definitely sounded Middle Eastern. Or maybe it rhymed with a spice. Or was it something that sounded like a cleaning product?

“…so, you know, I like totally threw him out when he climbed into my bed when he was drunk, but he was all, ‘Babe, it’s totally not my fault,’ and I was like…”

Drew swirled the cherry Coke in his glass and tried hard to remember her name. He could almost picture it on the slip of paper at the bar with her name and number scrawled in bubbly writing. How many of those scraps had he collected since his divorce? Too many to count. Too many to remember names.

God, you’re a jerk, his brain told him.

Rhonda? No, that wasn’t it. Persimmon? Bambi? Dammit. It was much too late to ask, since they’d been on this abysmal date for more than an hour now, and he’d been the one to invite her out anyway.

What a dumb idea.

But it had been his habit in the years since his divorce. Call up one of the dozens of girls who’d slipped him their number at the bar—a disturbingly frequent occurrence, in Drew’s opinion. They’d meet for drinks at the Portland City Grill, and if the conversation sucked, at least the food was fabulous and there was always the beautiful view of the city.

He looked out the window and wondered if Violet had ever been here. Would she enjoy the view of the river or seize the opportunity to recite statistics about water pollution and Portland’s freakishly high number of bridges? He wasn’t sure he’d mind either way.

Stop thinking about Violet.

Bad idea on so many levels. He sure as hell didn’t need another high-strung woman in his life. Not even if she had amazing eyes and beautiful hair and breasts that—

“Are you listening to me?”

Drew snapped back to attention. “What? Yes. Definitely.”

“Because it seems like you’re just looking out the window.”

“I was listening,” Drew insisted. “I was just enjoying the view.”

The girl gave him a skeptical look. Mindy? Sarah? Was there any way he could bluff his way through the rest of this date without knowing her name? He felt like peeling the sole off the bottom of his shoe and beating himself on the forehead until he passed out.

“Hey!” his date squealed. Drew looked up to see she was waving at someone over his shoulder.

“That guy over there,” she said. “He did my knee surgery last year, after I injured it in pole-dancing class.”

Drew picked up his drink and scanned the crowd, noticing how packed the place was for a Monday.

He froze with his glass halfway to his lips. Violet?

She saw him at the same moment, and the shock registered plainly on her face. Drew watched in horror as Violet’s companion followed the direction of her gaze right to their table.

“Hey!” called Drew’s date again, waving madly as she sloshed her drink across the table. “Hello, Dr. Abbott! You want to come and sit with us?”

Drew shook his head. “I’m sure he doesn’t want to sit with us. He’s on a date.”

Something in his heart twisted at the word date, and he looked at Violet again. She was smiling at the doctor, her beautiful eyes fixed on his face. Drew’s heart twisted again, so he looked back at his own date.

She slugged him in the shoulder. “I think I hurt my wrist bowling the other night. I want Dr. Abbott to take a look at it.”

Drew sighed, not sure whether to be annoyed with her or with himself for asking her out in the first place. Normally he wasn’t so easily annoyed, especially by a beautiful woman, but there was something different lately. Something he couldn’t put his finger on.

It didn’t matter, since Violet and Dr. Abbott were making their way toward the table. Drew tried not to stare, not to notice the luscious sway of her hips, the way her hand fluttered up to smooth her hair behind her ear.

God, she’s beautiful.

“Wow, it’s really packed in here,” Violet said, clutching her little purse against her stomach. “You guys got lucky nabbing a window seat with these sofas.”

“I come here every Monday night,” Drew said. “Arriving early is the trick to getting good seats.”

He saw something flash across Violet’s face. Surprise? Irritation? He wasn’t sure. She recovered quickly though, and placed her hand on the annoyingly broad shoulder of the man beside her. “Drew, this is Chris Abbott, my mother’s orthopedic surgeon. Chris, this is Drew Watson. He owns the business next to Moonbeam’s shop.”

“Great to meet you,” said the surgeon, giving Drew’s hand a firm but friendly shake.

“It’s so great to see you again, Dr. Abbott,” piped up Drew’s date, scooting over to make room on the sofa beside her.

“You too,” said Dr. Abbott, no help at all with the name.

Violet looked at Drew, then at the girl, clearly awaiting an introduction. Drew opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again. He was completely, utterly blank.

Violet’s eyes held his for a moment, intense and gorgeous and utterly spellbinding. He was pretty sure if he had known his date’s name, he would have forgotten it right then.

God, those eyes.

“Drew, come sit over here by me so these two can have the other sofa to themselves,” his date chirped.

He tore his eyes from Violet’s and offered a weak smile. “Sure, good idea.”

He grabbed his drink and stood up, relieved to realize he’d somehow gotten away with failing to introduce her. He gestured to the vacant sofa in an invitation to Violet. She moved past him, her hair brushing against his shoulder as she slid by. Drew breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of lavender and vanilla. He felt his hand start to rise, intent on stroking her hair.

Are you out of your fucking mind?

He dropped his hand. “Tight quarters.”

She looked up quizzically, her big, violet eyes studying him with an unasked question. Drew lost his breath.

Then she cut her glance back at the other sofa and raised one eyebrow.

Shit. She’d noticed the skipped introduction. Drew raised one shoulder in a helpless shrug and moved around the table to sit beside his date.

Now she thinks you’re a cad.

Okay, maybe he was. Since his divorce, anyway. Funny how it had never bothered him before.

He watched Violet settle onto the sofa and cross her legs primly. She folded her hands over her knees and Drew tried not to stare at her long, perfect fingers and rounded nails, bright with clear polish. He wondered what those nails would feel like dragging down his back and then gave himself another mental kick.

“So how long have you two known each other?” Violet asked as she signaled a passing waitress.

“Oh, this is our third date,” chirped Drew’s seatmate.


Drew took another sip of his drink and wondered if it might be wise pretend to go to the restroom and slip out the back door. He could just avoid this whole uncomfortable scene—the nameless date, the awkward conversation, the sight of Violet with another guy.

Then Violet recrossed her legs, her skirt riding up a little above her knee. Drew sat back in his seat, suddenly interested in sticking around awhile longer.

To his right, Drew’s date had begun to chatter to Dr. Abbott about the pain in her wrist. Drew had to give Violet credit, she’d picked a nice guy. Most doctors he knew would have told the girl to book an appointment by now.

Something hit Drew in the foot. He looked down to see a fork lying beside his shoe. He glanced across the table at Violet, who shot him a look. They bent down to retrieve the fork at the same time.

Apparently, that was Violet’s plan.

“You don’t know your date’s name?” she hissed in his ear.

Her hair tickled his nose, and Drew fought the urge to drag her down on the carpet and grope her under the table.

Classy, dude. Really classy.

“Help me out,” he whispered back.


“I just need a clue.”

“No kidding.”

“Her name’s been on the tip of my tongue all night, but I can’t remember.”

“Maybe you should be more selective in how you use the tip of your tongue.”

He grinned. “Are you talking dirty to me under the table?”

“Merely pointing out that if you dated with your brain instead of your—” She bit her lip. “You wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Please help?”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know… aren’t you the psychic here?”

She smacked him on the arm and sat back on the sofa. Drew sighed and sat back, too. Okay, so the “psychic” jab probably wasn’t smart. He was feeling desperate.

Drew looked over to see their dining companions were still chatting away like old friends. The waitress showed up at their table with glasses of water, and Violet ordered a complicated-sounding Chardonnay. The doctor ordered a gin martini, and Drew’s date requested something fruity and neon colored.

“Cherry Coke,” Drew said, lifting his empty glass.

Dr. Abbott raised an eyebrow. “Not a drinker, Drew?”

“On occasion. I just tend to prefer cherry Coke.”

“Hmmm,” said the doctor in a tone that suggested either disinterest or a belief that Drew had the maturity of a third grader.

Probably right, there.

As soon as the waitress had gone, Violet cleared her throat. “So what is it you do?” she asked Drew’s date.

Excellent, Drew thought, shooting her a grateful look. They can exchange business cards.

Violet took a sip of her water and folded her hands again.

“Oh, I’m a cocktail waitress.”

Drew sighed. No business cards.

“Actually,” the girl chirped, patting her left boob, “I came straight here from work and almost forgot to take off my name tag. Can you believe it?”

A name tag, Drew lamented quietly. So close.

“So Drew,” said Dr. Abbott. “What sort of business is it you own?

He looked at the guy and tried not to be pissed that the good doctor had scooted so close to Violet, he was practically in her lap. “A bar,” Drew said. “Voted ‘Best in Portland’ two years running.”

“They have the most amazing male strippers on Friday and Saturday nights,” his date added. “Super hot.”

“Thank you,” Drew replied, feeling oddly proud.

“Male strippers,” Dr. Abbot repeated, looking bemused. “That’s… interesting.”

Violet cleared her throat and jumped in. “Chris and I were just talking on the way over here and he mentioned that he was named after Christopher Latham Sholes—the guy who invented the typewriter in 1867. Isn’t that interesting?”

Drew reached for the lifeline she’d thrown him—lame as it was—reminding himself to show his gratitude in some way that didn’t involve getting her naked.

“That is interesting,” Drew said. “And you’re named for the color of your eyes, right?”

Violet blinked at him. Drew lost his breath again.

“Should we order?” asked Drew’s date, frowning at the menu. “Happy hour is almost over.”

Drew slumped in his chair, defeated. He’d probably never know his date’s name. The only thing mildly cheering was the knowledge that Violet and her date had nothing better to talk about than who invented the typewriter.

Then again, it’s not like he was wowing her with scintillating conversation. Toilet paper? Juggling? The superiority of the term butt rock over glam rock?

Drew slumped deeper in his chair and took another sip of his drink. Maybe he could make it through the rest of the night calling his date “pumpkin” or “love chicken.”

The waitress appeared again, and Drew waited until the others had made their selections before placing his order, not bothering to consult the menu. Violet quirked an eyebrow at him.

“I always order the same thing,” Drew said as he handed his menu back to the waitress. “I come here a lot.”

“You mentioned that,” Violet said dryly. “My mother, on the other hand, did not.”



Violet reached for her wineglass and took a sip, apparently drinking more cautiously than she had the previous night. He studied the way she held the glass, her exquisite fingers curved around the stem. He wondered if she’d learned the precise way to hold a piece of stemware or if it just came naturally.

As if sensing his eyes on her, Violet turned back to Drew. “So, do you have some sort of low-grade hearing loss?”


“You were blasting the music so loud, the mice woke up and started running in their wheel to the beat of ‘Eye of the Tiger.’”

“Sorry about that. Moonbeam never seems to notice, but I’ll try to keep it down.”

“You weren’t kidding about the eighties music.”

Drew grinned. “We’re actually doing this whole eighties theme next week. We were trying to find the right song for Jamie’s routine.”

“Sounded like you found the right one. Either that, or you just wanted to play that stupid ‘867-5309’ song over and over and over—”

“‘Jenny,’” he said, lifting a glass to the most famous—albeit the only—hit Tommy Tutone had ever recorded.

“Hey!” squeaked Drew’s date. “That’s how I got my name. My mom totally loved that song, and my dad was like, ‘Whatever,’ so that’s what they named me, even though the song had been out for like five years by the time I was born.“

Drew stared for a few beats, certain he couldn’t possibly have gotten so lucky. “Jenny?” he asked. “That’s your name? Jenny?”

She scowled at him. “What the hell did you think it was?”

“Jenny, of course,” he backpedaled. “I knew it was Jenny. I just…” Drew picked up his drink and downed it in one gulp.

Jenny was glaring at him in earnest, and Drew wondered if she planned to throw her neon-pink drink in his face. He probably deserved it. Maybe he should save her the trouble and just pour it over his head and call it a night.

Across the table, Violet cleared her throat. “Didn’t that song come out in 1982?” She shot Drew a look that said exactly what she thought of him dating a woman barely over the legal drinking age.

Jenny turned toward Violet, her drink-tossing plans momentarily forgotten. “Something like that, why?”

“No reason,” Violet said. “Actually, 1982 was the year a brutal cold snap swept in from Canada and plunged temperatures in the Midwest to all-time record lows. Even Portland recorded a record low temperature for September, which was forty-one degrees Fahrenheit. Statistically speaking, a meteorological event like that—”

Drew sat back in his seat and let Violet carry the conversation away to safer, albeit weirder, territory. He was grateful. He was relieved.

He was also ridiculously, stupidly certain he was falling for her.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why you need extra eyes

Prepping my home for sale has been as enjoyable as giving myself a wedgie with a piece of barbed wire.

The upside is that my house is now cleaner than it's been since I moved in six years ago. Closets have been organized, floors have been scrubbed, and the fur balls under the sofa have been surgically reattached to the cats.

The realtors have been great about pointing out little things that might annoy potential homebuyers – personal photos, desktop clutter, lingerie hanging from the ceiling fan – things I've grown so accustomed to seeing that I don't even notice they're there.

But the realtors missed something. It took one of the housemates to point it out the other morning as I scrambled around prepping for a showing.

"I'm surprised the realtors haven't said anything about the stairs," he said.

"What's wrong with the stairs?"

"Unless the potential buyers have the same first and last name as your ex husband, they might not appreciate having his name written in bright yellow letters on the bottom step."

And damned if he wasn't right. Obviously, I knew it was there. When the home was built six years ago, we opted for sort of a modern industrial look. The stair rails are done with custom-finished wood and wire cables, while the stairs themselves are tile with steel corner pieces.

Word of advice – you don't want to fall in my home unless you enjoy brain injury.

The steel caps on the edge of each stair came from a local supplier that thoughtfully marked the buyer's name on one of the pieces in the supply yard. For the first few months after the house was finished, it was a running joke. After that, I remember asking my then-husband if the words could be removed. He told me he'd tried and failed, so I pretty much stopped noticing the name was there.

When I told this to my housemate, he laughed. "Ten bucks says we can get it off in thirty seconds with nail polish remover and steel wool."

"Thirty seconds sounds a little fast for getting off, and doesn't the steel wool hurt?"

He wisely ignored me and went to retrieve the steel wool from under the sink. I headed upstairs and came back down with a bottle of nail polish remover.

Two minutes later, all traces of the name were gone.

"This is why every writer needs good critique partners," I told him.

He frowned. "To scrub their ex-husbands' names off their stairs?"

"No. To help them fix the things they've stopped noticing or decided aren't fixable."

"Right," he said. "With steel wool and dirty jokes."

Hey, whatever works. It's true that the greatest value a critique partner or beta reader brings to the table is the benefit of a fresh pair of eyes. Even if that person isn't a grammar expert or a writing whiz, he or she can still offer a new perspective. I can't tell you how many times one of my critique partners has picked up on an error more glaringly obvious than a bright yellow name on a staircase, and I've found myself dumbfounded. How did I not notice that?

Easy. There's a sort of blindness that sets in when you're too close to something, whether it's a manuscript, a relationship, or anything else in your life.

If you're a writer, have you ever had a critique partner point out something so ridiculously obvious you couldn't believe your own ignorance? For non-writers, tell me about a "captain obvious" moment elsewhere in your life!

I'll be spending some quality alone-time with the steel wool and nail polish remover.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The not-hot boys who make me want to get naked

I was drinking wine with a girlfriend the other night when a Tom Petty song started playing.

"Ohmygod," she panted, setting her wine down so hard it sloshed on the table. "I love him."

"It's a good song," I agreed tepidly.

"No, I mean I really love him. The song, the voice, the man – I really want to throw my panties when I hear Tom Petty."

Since I was in her line of fire, I scooted back a little. Then I considered her words more carefully.

Oh, Lyle...
"I feel the same way about Lyle Lovett," I confessed.


"I hear him sing The Ballad of the Snow Leopard and the Tanquery Cowboy and I feel warm and tingly in my swimsuit areas."

She stared at me. "That's the weirdest sentence I've ever heard anyone utter."

It's true though. I can admit Lyle Lovett isn't conventionally attractive, and neither is Tom Petty. Yet both men spark the same reaction in two reasonably sane women. I've had similar conversations with other pals who feel urgently smitten with people who fall pretty far outside the stereotype of traditional human beauty. One friend is madly in love with actor Steve Buscemi, while another swoons over Ernest Hemmingway and a third desperately wishes to get naked with singer Bruce Cockburn (it's pronounced "co-burn," perverts).

It's an interesting phenomenon, but my Tom Petty loving friend had a quick explanation. "They're the boys who speak to your soul."

That made sense to me even after the wine wore off. There's this intangible, magical chemistry that draws one person to another, and it often defies easy explanation. I've read sloppily written romance novels where the author tries to convince the the reader two people are meant to be together simply because they find each other attractive and feel the urge to ride the baloney pony together.

Certainly that's part of creating a compelling romance, but it's not all there is to it. Capturing the inexplicable, magnetic thing that pulls one person toward another is a whole lot tougher for an author to do. It's not easy to show one person speaking to the soul of another, but it's something I strive for in any love story I write.

Do you have any inexplicable crushes on a famous person who doesn't fit the traditional mold of attractiveness? Can you name examples in books or movies of great outside-the-box chemistry? Please share!

I need a moment or two alone with Lyle.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Please pet me, I'm writing

Note to self: the next time daylight savings time rolls around, consider the fact that your brain will begin waking at 2 a.m. with the urgent need to tap-dance around the bedroom. Given the resultant state of sleep deprivation, it is perhaps not the best time to plan things like the sale of your home, the final read-through for two contracted novels, or a blog post for the day job that requires you to sample mac-n-cheese at every local restaurant until you find yourself in a perpetual food coma.

I'll admit it, I'm fried. I've got no words left, so this seems like a good time for pictures. Pet pictures, to be precise. It's no secret I adore my pets, and that they're a constant presence in my life and my workspace. One look at my Facebook page or my Twitter stream confirms that.

So for today, I give you a handful of my favorite pet photos from recent months...

Bindi is a three-year-old Australian Kelpie, which is a fancy way of saying "small herding dog on crack." One of the best things about my two 27-year-old housemates is that they assist me in wearing her out with regular hikes and games of fetch. This is a shot one of the houemates took using an underwater camera.
The other housemate relies on a motorcycle for most of his transportation. This doesn't stop him from taking Bindi with him when he goes out for hikes. She seems to love it.
Bindi is surprisingly tolerant of the fact that she shares her home with three (yes, THREE) cats. One of the cats doesn't exactly count. Ivy is a crazy feral cat I trapped 13 years ago. She's spent most of her life hiding in closets and under beds. I recently bought Bindi a fluffy new dog bed, and Ivy decided she loves this bed with every fiber of her being. Suffice it to say, Bindi hasn't gotten to use it.

Ivy abhors being held. She also terrifies the hell out of my housemates, both of whom refer to her as "ninja kitty" and have spotted her only a handful of times.

You know how parents aren't allowed to have favorite children? The great thing about pets is that you can have favorites, and Matt the Cat is mine. He's a polydactyl cat, which means he has extra toes on his front paws. I like to think this has something to do with his kleptomaniac tendencies. Matt steals constantly from around the neighborhood. Gloves, stuffed animals, puppets, mouse pads, rolls of toilet paper, leaves, homework assignments, goggles, flip-flops, darts, socks...these are all things Matt has dragged through the cat door.
Oversized paws make an excellent sleep mask when you don't want to wake up in the morning.
Matt likes to assist while I'm writing. Here he is anchoring the printer so it doesn't fly away,

And here's Matt helping me write a blog post.

Then, there's Blue Cat.

When the cleaning crew showed up the other day to prep my house for sale, I eavesdropped as they made the rounds. I had to laugh when I heard one of them shriek (in Spanish), "That is the biggest cat I've ever seen in my life." I didn't have to look to know which cat they'd spotted.

Blue Cat has a shoe fetish. Anyone who leaves shoes lying around pretty much guarantees those shoes will be used as a feline pillow.

Though I'm not allowed to tell you much about the new secret project I've been hinting at in recent weeks, I can tell you that Blue Cat is a character in the story. He plays himself. Very crafty of him.

So there you have brain dead post of the week. What do you think of my furry babies? Lie if you must and tell me you love them.

Otherwise, I'll sic ninja kitty on you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Being sneaky got the pokey thingy out of my hole

Prepping your house for sale isn’t easy under the best of circumstances.

Doing it while lodging two 27-year-old male housemates whose idea of home décor is a futon mattress on the floor can be a bit more challenging.

On Monday, the place was scoured spotless by a terrifyingly efficient housekeeping crew hired by the realtors. Within 24 hours, my housemates had thoughtfully redecorated the kitchen counters with an ornamental assortment of empty cans, coffee grounds, corn chips, and two deep fryers.

It’s not that they’re inconsiderate. It’s just that their version of tidy differs markedly from that of the average home buyer looking to hand over their life savings for a four bedroom, three bath dream home with breathtaking mountain views and a kick-ass writing office.

The boys are doing their best to help, but they aren’t quite sure how to accomplish that.

Tuesday morning found me teetering on a step-stool at the top of a staircase attempting to extricate twelve pounds of dead bugs from a glass light fixture 30 minutes before an open house event.

“Don’t fall,” one of the housemates called helpfully from his station on the sofa. “The cleaning crew will be mad if you mess up the clean floor with brains.”

I shot him a scowl before aiming one in the direction of the other housemate sipping coffee and lounging against the kitchen counter. “You guys aren’t being very supportive,” I snapped.

The coffee sipper set his mug down and walked to the bottom of the stairs. “Sorry about that.”

He grinned and clapped his hands together cheerleader style. “Go, Tawna! Nice job! Way to clean those lights! You’re doing great! Don’t swallow any dead bugs!”

Laughing with your hand on a light bulb is not a good idea.The next thing I knew, I’d snapped it off in the socket.

“Damn,” I said. “The pokey thingy broke off in the hole. Do either of you have a pair of those pinchy things?”

Now here’s the deal. I know damn well that the pokey thingy is called a bi-pin on a G8 lamp base, and I also know exactly where the pliers are in my garage.

But my feigned incompetence – coupled with my housemates' fear that my electrocution might preclude them from watching television – was all it took to spur them into action.

“Get down from there,” ordered the handiest of the two, springing off the couch. “I’ve got it.”

He took the stairs two at a time as he pulled a Leatherman tool out of his pocket. “Go flip the circuit breaker in the garage,” he ordered the other housemate.

I stood back and smiled sweetly as the two of them took charge, wielding tools and offering up the occasional manly grunt.

Do I feel guilty for taking advantage of their macho urge to rescue me with superior tool handling and home improvement knowledge? Hardly.

No more guilty than they feel about the corn flakes glued to the edge of the sink.

One way or another, we’re all making this work for us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Like notches on a bedpost

One of the most common questions I get from newer writers is how many manuscripts I had to write before I landed my three-book deal.

There aren't many questions that make me cringe, but that one does. The answer has so much potential to discourage writers battling their way through their first manuscript, and I always want to point them to this blog post I wrote on the subject nearly 17 months ago.

Of course, recommending a link doesn't work so well in a public speaking engagement or a casual conversation over coffee, but it does work here. So that's what I'm doing now. Here you go:

Friday, June 11, 2010

The number you don't want to know

It sucks when they come in waves like this.

No, for once I’m not making a dirty joke. I’m talking about rejections, and the fact that two author pals just got hit with them. The sort of rejections that take the wind out of your sails and the gin out of the cupboard because you’re hoping a stiff one (nope, still not dirty) might take the sting out.

But the gin doesn’t help, because let’s face it – rejection sucks. Even the positive rejections, the ones cushioned by praise and flattery and “almost there” cheerleading.

I hate the idea of standing here with an amazing agent and a recent book deal trying to say something wise and comforting. Frankly, I might’ve thrown rocks at someone like that a year ago. Or four years ago. Or six years ago.

And that’s when I start thinking about the numbers. About the fact that somewhere in the great unknown is a list of every author and the number of books he or she must write before getting a big break. For some, it’s one. For others, it’s 20.

When I first started writing fiction in 2002, I heard the average is seven. Six books that don’t sell. I remember hearing that and laughing. That won’t be me. That could never be me.

I was wrong.

The counting gets tricky since my sixth and eighth full manuscripts sold as part of my three-book deal, but that doesn’t count partials, and then there’s the mess with my third manuscript selling and getting canceled (go here if you don’t know the story).

But my point is, this: I am eternally grateful I didn’t know my number beforehand. If someone had offered me a crystal ball and given me a peek, you can bet your sweet assignat I would have looked.

And that would have changed everything. Maybe I would have been discouraged by all the dead book corpses. Maybe those earlier stories would have been infused with the hopelessness of knowing they would never be published. Maybe I would’ve missed the important lessons I learned in writing them.

I honestly don’t know.

I know rejection is hard on everyone (nope, still not dirty). But the thing you have to cling to is the belief that THIS BOOK MIGHT BE THE ONE.

Maybe it won’t be, but that’s not the point. Hope should be the thing driving you every time you open a new Word document and type “once upon a time.”

Not knowing how many tries it will take allows you to get everything you possibly can from the experience of writing each book. It lets you savor that thrill, to truly keep your eye on the ball in front of you.

And for every writer, that is the only ball that matters.

(OK, I kinda meant the last one).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

If you see me without pants, I'm procrastinating

I recently told a friend I don't like to wear pants.

I meant I have a strong preference for skirts, as opposed to implying I like to browse the hardware store wearing nothing but a thong and snow boots.

"My husband has the same issue," my friend replied. For a moment I was still hung up on the thong and snow boots, and I may have thrown up a little in my mouth.

"Actually," she continued, "he's learned to use pants as an excuse not to do things he doesn't want to do."

Intrigued, I asked her to elaborate.

"Like if I ask him to take out the trash, he'll run and take off his pants," she explained. "Then he tells me he can't possibly take out the trash because he's not wearing pants."

I can't argue with that.

I also have to confess, I find the strategy brilliant. How can I use it to my advantage?

It probably won't get me out of undesirable author tasks. I write romance, so my editor probably assumes I do most of my work without pants.

I'm also not sure it will work for speaking engagements and book signing events. An announcement that the author isn't wearing pants would likely prompt event organizers to breathe a sigh of relief. "Thank God, at least this won't be as boring as we expected."

So I guess I'll have to look for other reasons not to wear pants. Like the fact that it's Tuesday.

What's the best excuse you've ever heard for not doing something? Can you top the no-pants plan? Please share!

I'll be getting dressed for the day job. Or undressed, as the case may be.

Monday, November 7, 2011

On startling smacks, inappropiate licking, and uses for excess lotion

Earlier this summer, the staff at my day job moved into a brand new building. I was instantly smitten with my office, which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows along one entire wall.

I hadn't been in the space more than three hours when a pedestrian walked by, met my eye, and smiled. Friendly fellow, I thought as I raised my hand to wave.


He whacked the window with his rolled up newspaper, laughed, and kept walking.

I stared after him, dumbfounded. What was that about?

I was still mulling it a few hours later when it happened again. The second time was less jarring, as the passerby settled for lightly drumming his fingers on the glass. Still, what the hell?

It's still happening more than three months later. Sometimes, it's a friendly little tap-tap. Other times, the glass smacking is augmented by a thumbs-up, or on one particularly special occasion, a tongue pressed against the filthy glass.  I've considered going to the pet store and borrowing one of the signs off the gerbil cages that says please don't tap on cage.

I still haven't figured out this strange phenomenon, but I've noticed several other oddities of having a ground-floor office with a large bank of windows. Depending on the time of day and the angle of light, the window appears more reflective than see-through. This makes it an excellent makeshift mirror for passersby to check makeup, pick their teeth, and adjust their cleavage.

It's an endless source of amusement for me, but I hadn't considered the flip-side until my boss walked in after an off-site meeting last week and leaned against my door frame. "Word of advice," he said. "When your whole wall is made up of windows facing the street, don't pick your nose."

He laughed as he walked away, and I tried hard to remember what I'd just been doing. For the record, I'm pretty sure it wasn't nose-picking. I do have the bad habit of pulling at dead skin on my chapped lips this time of year, which is likely what he saw. Then again, I can be a little oblivious when I get into the writing zone at work. It's entirely possible people have walked past to see me hiking up my skirt and scratching my butt cheek.

Still, the boss's joke made me conscious of my actions for the remainder of the day. I tried hard not to do anything that might appear obscene to pedestrians walking by.

It's a bigger challenge than you might imagine.

Near the end of the workday, I pulled out my hand lotion and poured a generous amount in my palm. As is often the case, I got too much. During bare-legged summer months, I simply smear an over-abundance of lotion on my shins, but that wasn't an option with thick winter tights covering my legs. My arms, too, were encased in woolly sweater sleeves that couldn't easily be rolled up.

Out of Kleenex and other options, I hiked up the hem of my sweater and smeared the excess lotion on my bare belly.

That's when the boss walked past on the sidewalk, en route to another meeting. He looked at me. I looked at him. I lowered my shirt and waved.

He was still laughing as he crossed the street. Somehow, I suspect I'll be hearing about this the next time I report for duty. 

By the way, thanks to everyone who offered suggestions last Thursday on how I should celebrate the fact that Making Waves has been nominated for "best contemporary romance" in the RT Book Reviews 2011 Reviewers' Choice Awards. I loved all your ideas, particularly the ones that involved reenacting the Cheese Doodle scene from the book. But since I could only pick one, I went with Delia, whose suggestion included a stripper pole and a butt tattoo. Wise ideas, to be sure. Delia, shoot me a message at tawnafenske at yahoo dot com and let me know where I should send your signed copy of Making Waves. Thanks to everyone for playing, and for your kind congratulatory words!