Thursday, June 28, 2012

Doing it alone isn't fun, even with good batteries

If you're here today for the cheap laugh, this would be an excellent day to visit or That's where I go when I want to laugh hard enough to shoot Chianti out my nose.

Yesterday brought me an unexpected setback on the personal front, and I'm not feeling all that funny.

What I am feeling is inspired by the people around me.

Those familiar with my long road to publication know I'm not one to give up easily. I'll stay and fight long after most sane people would pack up their toys and leave the sandbox. Call it tenacity, call it stupidity, call it confusion about the appropriate time to throw in the towel. It's served me well on occasion, while other times I've realized I would have been better off watching Judge Judy reruns and contemplating whether my toenails would look better in Love Hue Tender or Saucy Sage.

Yesterday....well, it felt like the latter. Something I've been working on for over a year fell apart like a cheap sex toy that's lost its battery pack, and I was ready to toss the whole thing in the trash and buy a fern instead.

And that's where I found myself unexpectedly buoyed by the strength of others. (I was going to continue the metaphor here and say something about them digging the broken sex toy out of the garbage and sanitizing it with a healthy spritz of Come Clean, but I remembered I'm talking about people like my mom and my realtor and my literary agent and it seemed a little oogie).

What I've loved about these people who've come to my aid when I'm at the point of disconnecting my phone and hiding under the bed is that their cheers don't take the form of "you can do it!" platitudes. Anyone who's felt beaten down knows there's a point where encouragement like that just makes you want to smack the cheerleader in the face with a pancake turner.

But shouts of, "We can do it," or "Let me help," or "I'm proud of you for getting this far" – those are better than a good glass of wine and an encouraging butt pat when times are rough.

Well, maybe not better than the butt pat, but close.

There have been moments like this in every aspect of my life, from writing careers to relationships to real estate. Right when I'm ready to shove my sword back in its scabbard, someone – or several someones – will step forward and pick it up, ready to do battle.

(Feel free to insert your own awkward romance author sword metaphor here. I'll wait).

When new writers ask me for career advice, I know they're often seeking something concrete and simple to execute. Take this class. Read this book. Query this agent. 

But in truth, the secret to getting through the inevitable tough stuff both as a writer and a human is to work as hard as you can for as long as you can while surrounding yourself with others who can pick you up when you're ready to lie down in the road like a squished possum.

Have there been times in your life when someone stepped forward to carry the baton when you were ready to stick it up someone's nostril and call it a day? Please share!

Oh, and for the record, Chase Mortgage is the devil. I just need to put that out there.

Monday, June 25, 2012

You never know what you'll get...and that's a good thing!

I woke up early Saturday morning with an intense urge to give my bed a whole new look.

Easier said than done, since my gentleman friend was still in the bed, and likely to be there awhile given his intense urge to sleep in on weekends.

I also knew I couldn't spend much money on the endeavor, but I was undeterred. I hopped in the car and headed to a thrift store, where I found an off-white, king-sized duvet cover for $9.99. I grabbed a packet of Rit dye, and headed home to transform my new purchase to a lovely shade of pale dove-gray.

At least, that was my goal. I've done enough dyeing to know the odds are slim I'll ever achieve precisely the shade I want.

To me, half the fun of dyeing is not knowing exactly what I'll get in the end. Whenever I clean out my closet, I set aside a few garments I might consider wearing again if only they were a different color. It's a highly experimental process, since many of the fabrics are on the don't-ever-attempt-to-dye-this-you-idiot list on the back of the packet.

One of my two-tone silk skirts.
But most of my clothing comes from thrift stores anyway, and it's headed back there if not for my dyeing endeavor. It's always worth a shot to see what happens. I once dyed a mint-green cashmere sweater a lovely shade of cocoa brown. Twice I've dyed silk skirts with polyester linings. Since the two fabrics take dye very differently, and since the heat of the dye-bath tends to shrink the silk top-skirt to reveal a few inches of the different-hued lining, I ended up with a pair of fabulously cool two-tone skirts.

I've also produced plenty of less-than-perfect results. Several times, I've melted elastic beyond repair. I once tried to dye a set of sheets a sunny shade of orange, and ended up with something resembling peach tie-dye.

I usually have a specific end result in mind when I set out to dye something, but I'm often most impressed with the projects that turn out much differently than I expected. Sometimes, they're better.

Six months ago, I decided the pale-gold curtains in my kitchen would look great in purple. In their original form, the curtains had a subtle jacquard pattern you could barely see. Since the jacquard took dye much differently than the background, the end result was a pizazzy design that made the pattern really pop.
The curtains, before (left) and after I conquered them with Rit dye.

I think about writing every time I undertake a new dyeing project. How many times have I set out to create something specific, and ended up with a story that bears little resemblance to what I thought I'd be writing? In my early years as a writer, those moments made me panic. Though I still feel twinges of nervousness when a manuscript veers crazily off-course, I've learned to be excited by those deviations. That's often where the best ideas happen.

But back to my bed. The color didn't turn out quite like I expected. Part of it was my fault for using black dye instead of gray, assuming the large amount of fabric in the dye-bath would result in a much paler shade. I was right on that count, but the end result was more of  pale charcoal than a light dove-gray.

But I rolled with it. Once I saw the finished color, I scrambled to Target and bought a set of pillowcases featuring charcoal gray and spring green leaves on a white background. The pattern and colors were a great complement to the aqua-blue sheets I already owned and planned to put on the bed just as soon as it became vacant.

My gentleman friend blinked sleepily when he woke to find me waiting vulture-like to remake the bed. "You've been busy," he said.

Yes indeed.

Oh, and for the record, I tossed a dingy-white bra and a couple pairs of panties in the washer with the duvet cover when I did the final post-dye rinse cycle. The result? A perfect, lovely shade of pale dove-gray.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A kiss is just a kiss. Or is it?

So there I was, typing away at the day job, when a handsome stranger dashed through the door and swept me up in a passionate embrace.

OK, it didn't happen quite like that.

In reality, a local tour operator who was pleased with my write-up of his business stopped by with a thank you note and a bottle of wine. He's a charismatic older gentleman known for his chivalrous flair, so I was charmed when he grasped my hand and planted a chaste kiss across my knuckles.

I should state for the record that I don't generally encourage people to place their lips upon me in a professional setting. This was one of those rare instances where the circumstances, participants, and silliness of the situation made a kiss . . . well, not really a kiss.

As a romance writer, I'm fascinated by the subtle nuances surrounding the smooch. Years ago, I wrote a scene in which a potential love interest kissed the heroine on the forehead. A critique partner suggested the gesture seemed patronizing.

It was something that hadn't occurred to me until then.

In reality, I'd meant for the kiss to serve as a sweet, "stay safe, honey" gesture. But my critique partner was absolutely right that the tone I'd set for their relationship up to that point gave the kiss a more condescending vibe than I'd intended.

I've written forehead and cheek kisses in plenty of other stories, and I'm always mindful of the context. A slow, breathy brush of the lips across a flushed cheekbone is a very different thing than a sloppy cheek smooch from a guy who calls you "babe" and follows it up with a punch in the arm.

I toyed with the kissing context conundrum a bit in Making Waves (which, incidentally, is part of  Kindle Big Deals 99-cent sale through June 24, so snag it cheap for you or a friend if you haven't already!)

In the scene where Alex and Juli first meet, they decide to pose as a married couple and fake their way into a beach-bar Newlywed Game with the hope of winning $1,000. Juli devises a system in which their first answer must begin with the letter "A" or involve the number "1," while the second question would require a response centered around "B" or "2."

That leaves them stuck with the letter "C" on the third question when Alex is forced to guess Juli's favorite place to be kissed. He rules out several wildly-inappropriate body parts starting with "C" before finally settling on "collarbone" – a guess that turns out to be true.

I'm with Juli on this one. There is something wildly sexy about a trail of soft, breathy kisses planted in that tantalizing zone below the throat and above the cleavage.

But I also realize it wouldn't make most people's lists of the top three places to be kissed. So much of it is based on context – who's doing the kissing, and how does the person approach the task at hand?

If the chemistry strong enough between two characters, there aren't many body parts that wouldn't be sexy to kiss.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Are some kiss-zones naturally sexier than others, or is it all about context? Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to kissing in novels? Please share!

I'm going to summon my gentleman friend to test my kiss theory. It's time he became intimately acquainted with my armpit.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Stuff I'll tell you if you buy me lunch

I've gotten a lot of email from strangers lately, and not just the ones encouraging me to enlarge my penis so I can meet a horny housewife and acquire a low-rate mortgage.

They're messages from newer writers asking how to get published, and inquiring whether I ever mentor other authors. The thought of me mentoring anyone at anything is frankly, a little disturbing. I respond to all such messages with a few links and tidbits, and I'm happy to blather for an hour for those who live close enough to take me out for lunch. But regrettably, I don't have time to craft detailed career plans for everyone who asks.

What I can offer is a pretty big backlog of blog posts dispensing tips and information on writing and publication. While some of you come here just to read stories about my housemates or my socially awkward tendencies, I've also shared quite a bit of advice in the two years and four months I've been blogging.

If you look in the sidebar on the lower right, you'll see an eloquently-phrased header that says, "Stuff I've blogged about." Most of the posts I've written in 24 months have been tagged with at least one keyword ranging from "blogging" to "query letters" to "rejections and setbacks." That's a good place to start if you're interested in a particular topic.

For general writing-related advice and info, here are few posts I often share with new writers asking how I got published, how to craft a query letter, or what I've learned in my time as a published author:
You'll find oodles more like those if you search old posts for specific topics, but that's a good sampling of what I have to offer. Well, besides tips on where to find cheap Viagra and Russian brides. For that, you'll need to spend an hour alone with my spam folder.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

On awesome gifts and writing goals

I don't want to boast, but it's possible I'm dating the most clever gift-giver on the planet.

I shared several months ago how my gentleman friend made a special scarf hanger to commemorate each book I release. I admire it every day while I write, and I look forward to adding many more scarves I can use for illicit purposes.

In late March, my gentleman friend and I celebrated what we jokingly refer to as the anniversary of our first date. It might be the oddest first date in history, since I'd requested the meet-up to seek his counsel as a divorce mentor. We'd originally planned a casual get-together at a coffee shop, but I was hired last-minute for a freelance article reviewing four fancy restaurants, and I dragged him along to the first one for the free meal. The meeting was a bizarre mix of tearful storytelling punctuated by over-attentive waiters bringing food while I secretly plotted to seduce my dinner companion.

But I digress.

When I woke on the one-year anniversary of this blessed occasion, here's what was nailed to the bedroom wall:

"It's a bucket board," he explained. "Sort of like a bucket list. We'll use the tags to write down things we want to do as a couple over the next year, and we mark off the ones we accomplish."

I may have swooned a bit, so it's a good thing I was still in bed. Over the last couple months, we've filled the tags with a variety of things. Some are small, like hikes we want to take. Others are bigger goals, like settling into a new home together. Either of us can write something on a tag if an idea strikes, and we mark the goals we've accomplished with little stickers.

I love the idea, not just because it's sweet and romantic, but because it's a good reminder of my need for goals. I've struggled a bit lately to carve out writing time for myself. Between author-related speaking engagements and blogging and interviews and contract negotiations and the day job and finding time to see my aforementioned gentleman friend on occasion, it can be a challenge to find time to actually write the books that made my schedule so nutty in the first place.

How did I used to do this? I asked myself recently. And I remembered one trick that was beautifully simple, yet effective.

Back when I was still pretty new to the fiction writing game, I used to pick a deadline for finishing a book. It was an arbitrary one, since no editors were breathing down my neck at that point, but I tried to make it both challenging and realistic. On my calendar, I'd write "85,000 words" on the day I wished to complete a first draft of the book with that number as my final word count. Then I'd figure out how many words I needed to write each day to accomplish that goal.

I marked every day on the calendar with what my word count should be by the time I switched off my computer for the night. Weekend days called for bigger jumps in my word count, and I made sure to budget time for days off and days when I just wasn't feelin' the love. If I missed my goal for a day or two, I knew I had to work hard to get back on track.

The system was surprisingly effective for me, and it's something I plan to start doing again immediately.

How do you keep track of your goals, either as a writer or for your life in general? Please share!

I have to go write something new on the bucket board. This one might call for a color illustration.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Life with male housemates is seldom dull

It's been a little over year since I took in two 27-year-old male housemates to help pay the mortgage in the wake of my divorce. Though I appreciate the entertainment value they've brought to my life and my blog, the time is drawing near for us all to move in separate directions.

Fortunately, the housemates are doing their best to offer humor and hijinx in our final months together as a happy, dysfunctional household.

A few weeks ago, I walked out to the garage to grab something from my car. Both housemates were deep in conversation beside the lawnmower, and I felt a flutter of gratitude for their chivalrous intentions.

"You dragged the lawnmower out," I said. "Wow, thanks so much. You're mowing the lawn?"

They stared at me blankly for a moment. Then one of them shook his head. "Nah, we wanted to see if we could hook it to the front of one of the motorcycles and ride around the yard."

The other housemate nodded in agreement. "We're going to film it and put the video on YouTube."

Noticing my expression of terror, the first housemate grinned. "With your permission, of course."

I sighed and retreated back into the house. "Just don't run over any pets. Or each other," I added as an afterthought.

As far as I know, they didn't achieve success with their lawnmower plan. Since I didn't see any bloody limbs in the yard, I assume they didn't achieve failure, either.

Even when they aren't plotting YouTube videos, the housemates are constantly striving to achieve maximum entertainment value from their motorcycles. One of them routinely straps a dog kennel to the back of his bike and takes my dog with him on long hikes. I monitored the operation closely in the beginning, making sure Bindi wasn't uncomfortable or being forced into the kennel against her will.

It didn't take me long to realize the mere sight of the motorcycle sends her into a joyful frenzy of tail waging and excited barking, and she's been known to leap unaided into the kennel before the housemate has finished strapping it in place.

Still, I wasn't prepared for the text I received at work earlier this week from one of the housemates.

Teaching the dog to ride a motorcycle.

I opened the attached image with a sense of dread.

I studied it for a few moments before texting back.

At least teach her to wear a helmet. Oh, and can I post this to Facebook?

So how are you being entertained by the people or pets who reside under the same roof you do? Please share?

I'd better go check YouTube for new videos, just in case.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good luck, bad luck, and falling trees

Shortly after Believe it or Not hit shelves, I was out with my realtor pawing through strangers' medicine cabinets   critiquing other people's housekeeping skills  touring homes I considered buying. Making conversation, she asked how book sales were going.

"I've been really lucky," I told her. "I've gotten some amazing reviews, and a lot of enthusiasm from booksellers, and my first book was nominated for contemporary romance of the year by RT Book Reviews."

She frowned. "That doesn't sound like luck. That sounds like hard work."

It wasn't the first time I realized my realtor is a whole lot smarter than me.

When new writers ask me the secret to getting published, I give the slightly jaded response you'll hear from many authors who've been at this game awhile – getting published has little to do with talent, and everything to do with perseverance and luck.

I say it because I've seen a lot of amazing writers give up too soon when rejections piled up and confidence fell. I've also seen mediocre writers get published because they hung in there fighting like a moose with a mousetrap on his testicles long after the other kids packed up their toys and went home.

I do believe perseverance and luck are the cornerstones of every successful author's career, but my realtor was right about the hard work. She also got me thinking about how luck is often a matter of perspective.

Monday morning, I  drove six hours to Boise, Idaho for a talk I was hired to give at the library. My visit coincided with the arrival of a freak storm that sent the city into a tizzy. News reports predicted 60-mile-an-hour winds and falling power lines. I had visions of cattle caught in wind-gusts and splattered across the hood of my rental car.

Not surprisingly, people weren't eager to leave the safety of their homes to hear a romance author tell penis jokes. Though the library staff arranged a large, lovely auditorium and several special events to accompany my talk, my audience consisted of six people. One may have been physically dragged there by event organizers, and one was a longtime friend who lives in Boise and offered to chauffeur me around.

The library staff was bummed, and I felt bad for all the hard work and advertising they put into it. Though I enjoyed chatting intimately with my small audience, it was by far the smallest turnout I've had at an author event. At the end of it, we shook our fists at the storm, cursing the fallen limbs and fear-mongering weathermen.

The big hunks of tree that could have
made a mess of my pal's truck.
Bad luck? Perhaps.

After my friend dropped me at my bed and breakfast, he returned home to discover a massive tree limb fell right where he always parks his truck. Had he not been shuttling a directionally-challenged author from wine bar to brewery, he most assuredly would have gotten a smushed vehicle and a delightful afternoon of arguing with insurance companies.

Good luck? Hard to say.

In the end, it's probably a matter of perspective. We can find good luck and bad luck in just about any scenario, depending on how hard we look. And freak storms aside, it's important to remember the degree to which we work like dogs to make our own luck.

What's your most memorable good luck/bad luck encounter? Please share!

I need to check my rental car agreement for the policy on hoof-dents in the hood.

Monday, June 4, 2012

So apparently I have a new name

Several weeks ago, I made the mistake of answering a telemarketing call. I knew it was a telemarketer, but he said the magic words and I got suckered in.

For the record, the magic words are "free vacation," not "free porn," though admittedly I might have stayed on the line for the latter.

I answered a few survey questions about my laundry detergent preferences, and spelled my name so they could properly process my free Caribbean cruise. Moments later, I received an email confirming my fantasy vacation.

"Dear Thomas Wanski," the message began.

Thomas Wanski? 

I can understand how someone with hearing loss and a good tequila buzz might think that sounds remarkably similar to Tawna Fenske. But I spelled my name several times, including for my email address, which they obviously got right.

I replied with a correction, and assumed that would be the end of it. I didn't really expect to get that Caribbean cruise, but I also didn't expect to get an onslaught of phone calls for my new alter-ego.

"Is Thomas Wanski there?" chirped the cheerful telemarketer who called several days later.

"There's no such person as Thomas Wanski," I explained. "You've got my name spelled wrong in your database. I'm Tawna Fenske."

There was a long pause. "I see. So do you know when Mr. Wanski will be available?"

I corrected the first 15 or 20 people who called asking for Thomas Wanski and asked to be removed from the calling list. Now I just ignore any calls from 800 numbers. Still, part of me likes the idea of having Thomas Wanski as my alter ego. It might even make a nice psedonym if I decide to branch out and write crime thrillers or become a male porn star.

This isn't the first time I've been renamed as a result of poor transcription. Once a month, I receive a lovely cooking magazine adorned with the following label:

I've actually grown rather fond of that one, and like to imagine Tauina Fenski as the star of her own risque cooking show. She wears nothing but a smile and a checkered apron, and has two dozen creative uses for truffle oil.

What's the weirdest name change you've been given as a result of someone misspelling your real name? Please share!

I'll be busy writing a new romantic comedy starring Thomas Wanski and Tauina Fenski. I'm pretty sure it's going to be a bestseller.