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Archive for the ‘Good Reads’ Category

It’s crazy how fast this year has gone.  And even crazier how fast Christmas is coming up.  If you, like me, are looking for a few last-minute gifts, here are some suggestions:

Beeswax candles from Three Sisters Farms.  We buy a pair or two of tapers every year at the end of the summer. When we burn them on those long, cold winter nights, I feel a bit as if we are conjuring back the sun.  They are beautiful and have a rich honey scent.  (Also, a gift of honey to go along with the candles would not be remiss.)

Soap by Red Antler Apothecary.  I’ve become obsessed with their root beer soap.  It smells exactly like the drink, and puts me in a good mood whenever I use it. It’s cheerful and happy, and who couldn’t use something like that to start their day?

Books.  Of course books make the best gifts!  (You were thinking I’d say something else? Come on — this is a writer’s blog.)  This year, for your dystopian-obsessed teen, check out The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski.  First in a trilogy, it’s the smart, fast-paced story of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of a war. For your middle-schooler, I can’t say enough good things about David Barry’s The Worse Class Trip Ever and The Worst Night Ever. They are hysterically funny and at the same time absolutely gripping.  Finally, for the adult thriller junkie, consider Go-Between by Lisa Brackmann.  (Admission — this is the sequel to Getaway, which I have not read but have heard very good things about. You are probably better off starting there.) It’s an intelligent and all-too-realistic look at for-profit prisons, drug laws, and politics, with plenty of suspense to keep you turning pages and a tough talking female protagonist who may just have you believing in conspiracy theories by the end of the story.

So there — my gift to you.  (That and the picture of the Slobbering Beast.  Many, many cookies were involved in the taking of this photo.)

Happy Holidays!

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Photo by the awesome Kevin Harkins.

 

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We had snow today. And a Christmas concert. And did I mention poison ivy?  (That would be me.) And I have finished an entire draft of my novel and am now laboriously working my way through revisions. (Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.) Which all goes to explain why this post is late. And also, why it is probably the last one of the year, because around the holidays, the days are just packed. 

But, if you are like me, you might be able to use some gift ideas right about now.  I of course have some EXCELLENT suggestions, most of which involve books. Ready?

I had an early Christmas this year — I purchased Alice Hoffman’s Survival Lessons and Joshilyn Jackson’s Someone Else’s Love Story. Completely different books, both beautifully written. For that hard-to-please person, for the person who has had a tough year, or just for yourself, buy these books. I promise they will not disappoint.

Have a teen who tore through the Diversity and Hunger Games books?  Try the Wake series by Lisa McMann. Spooky and tightly written, they’re impossible to put down.

Does someone in your house love the Narnia books and A Wrinkle in Time?  Check out No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko. (She also writes the excellent Al Capone series.) Or try A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz, which is just spooky enough to keep you turning pages. (Both these books also have excellent audio versions.)

Tired of the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series? Get your reader to branch out with the Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon, or Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder (Joe Nesbo, and worth it for the title alone).  Or for a stretch, have them try the False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen. The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy is also quite popular around here.

What would I like to find under my tree?  I’m intrigued by Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose; Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now by C.B. Bernard; and A Story Lately Told by Anjelica Huston.

What do you hope to find under your tree this year?

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Big Mouth

Big Mouth

There are lots of things I keep meaning to do lately, but never seem to get around to actually doing.  That’s particularly true when it comes to my writing community. It seems there’s always something else more pressing (deadlines, soccer games, homework help, actual sleep) or that requires the same financial resources (again, soccer fees, dance classes, dog kibble).

But supporting other writers — and finding that kind of support for myself — is so essential. Before my novel was published, it was amazing to connect with other writers who were struggling to create the best story they could, to find an agent and then a publisher.  And getting to know those writers, watching them launch their own novels out into the world, has been a wonderful experience.  It’s also been pretty cool to get to know some people who have been down this path before me, some of whom I’ve admired for years.

So this month, before the holiday madness truly starts, and my resources start going toward other essentials (like dog kibble, again — the Slobbering Beast can eat! — or books and toys for the kids) I’m going to carve out a chunk just for me.  Here’s what I plan to do in November:

Renew my membership at Grub Street.  I constantly tell people about this fabulous writing resource in Boston, but somehow I’ve let my own dues slip.  Whoops!

Join the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. This is a new group I’ve been eyeing and meaning to join for a while, but haven’t found the time.

Purchase/preorder several books by authors I know. (If you are interested in which ones, I’ve linked to and mentioned them on my FB author page recently.)  They are all great authors at different stages of their careers, and I want to make sure they all have the chance to keep writing. (Oh, heck.  You’re not going to click, are you? Fine. I’ll make it easy.

Joshilyn Jackson’s Someone Else’s Love Story

S.A. Laybourn’s  Christopher’s Medal

Therese Walsh’s The Moon Sisters

There.)

Is your money aligned with your mouth these days?  Tell me how, please.

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We have lots of bookcases in our house, and they all have their own purpose. The bookcase in the basement, for example, holds the baby books my kids enjoyed looking at when they were toddlers. (They’ve been chewed and drooled on and I still can’t bear to part with them.) In my office, I keep reference books, books on writing, and a few copies of my own novel, one of which is in German. (I can’t read German but I like just to look at it sometimes.) Upstairs, are three bookcases — two for the kids, packed to overflowing, and one that I can remember standing in my great-uncle’s hallway. That one is filled with a motley collection — leather-bound books I inherited from him and will never read, travel guides, novels and textbooks from classes I took. Dignified books all.

But it’s the bookcase in the living room that holds the stories closest to my heart.  This is where I keep my favorites, the books I turn to again and again, the ones I buy extra copies of just in case.  Some are high-brow, others popular, but I love them all. Divided into fiction and non, alphabetized, it’s one area of the house that’s always in order. (No comments on the rest of my housekeeping, please.)

Today there was a book in there that didn’t belong, stuck in by a small child who was using said book as a convenient hiding place for small treasures. It made me laugh, and then it made me think about all the authors forced to share space on my shelves, and how they would react if seated together at a dinner party.  Amy Bloom is next to Jane Austen — the sharply observed witticisms that must pass between them! Nora Ephron — whom I imagine being able to converse with anyone — is paired with William Faulkner, which could be interesting, but I cannot see Marguerite Duras and Alan Duff together at all. (Although an animal heat runs beneath both of their books, so perhaps I am wrong.)

Who shares space on your shelves? Do they cohabit well, or are there some odd pairings?

From poetry to pop-up books and everything in between.

From poetry to pop-up books and everything in between.

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The tree is up, the outside of the house is decorated, and the holiday cards are in process. Every year, December seems to go by faster and faster — the month hasn’t even started yet and I already can feel the days slipping away. I want to pay attention to every single second this year. I want walks in the snow, nights curled up just gazing at the tree, meals eaten by glow of candlelight. I want carols on the stereo and lots of time just hanging out, reading or talking or playing board games. I’ll let you know how that plays out sometime in January, ok?

In the meantime, here are some ways to make the holiday season more merry for you and your loved ones:

Watch From Time to Time It’s written and directed by Julian Fellowes, the selfsame fellow behind Downton, and you’ll recognize several of the faces.  It’s a lovely, haunting story set at Christmastime during World War II.

Invest in your inner writer (or the inner writer in someone you love).  If you live in New England, consider giving a gift membership to Grub Street, or a workshop or class. It’s a great organization that truly helped me grow as a writer (and continues to do so). Which reminds me, I need to renew my own membership….

Eat chocolate. Okay, chocolate makes a good gift too. I’m particularly fond of Taza chocolate, especially their chocolate mexicano line. It’s sweet and spicy and addictive.  I also love the dark chocolate sea salt caramels from Whole Foods. (An awfully nice friend gave me an entire box just before Thanksgiving, and I have hidden them away for those dark writerly moments of the soul.)

Give a book. Sadly, I cannot post many of the books I plan to give because a certain eleven-year-old who lives in my home has figured out how to subscribe to my blog. (It’s bad enough when they snoop in closets for presents!) But I can safely share two here. They are:

  •    Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull.  I loved, loved, loved this fairy-tale esque story so much that I might have captured it from the local library several times in a row.  I’m planning on purchasing it so it can live on my shelves without guilt.
  • Papertoy Monsters.

    Our paper monster family. Aren’t they cute?

    A cross between origami and cartoon art, the book has over 50 teensy  monsters, each with its own backstory, to be pressed out and glued or folded together. Both my kids love making them, and I may have created a few on my own when they were asleep one night. I’m not confessing.

What’s on your holiday list this year?

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A very bright kid I know likes to share what he calls the “irrelevant statement of the day” every time I see him. I’m stealing the phrase and using it here, because this blog post is a digression.  Today I’m not talking about writing or kids — I’m talking about killer whales.

Okay, it’s not TOTALLY irrelevant.  There is a book involved — Death at Sea World, by David Kirby. I am obsessed with this book.  I have read it twice in the past month.  It is a history of killer whales in captivity, specifically at Sea World.  It looks at whether keeping giant-sized, intelligent,  highly social animals in the equivalent of bathtubs is humane or crazy-making,  and it details not just the attack that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, but also a host of other, lesser known incidents, some of which also resulted in death.

Here’s why I’m fascinated. For over half my life I’ve been around big animals.  Not orca big, true, but the Slobbering Beast is the first pet I’ve had in 13 years that didn’t top out at over 100 pounds. I’ve trained big dogs, shown them, loved them, and been concussed by them. And that’s just the dogs.

I’ve also had horses. And since I wasn’t gifted with a million dollar trust fund, I learned about horses the way lots of young women do — by saddling up whatever I could afford. That included a mare that fell asleep on me in the cross-ties and nearly broke my back, another that liked to jump paddock fences in the middle of a lesson and gallop the hills, a former stallion who tried to mount any mare that stood still on a trail ride, and a gelding who, when he wasn’t kicking you across stalls, was doing a credible imitation of a bucking bronco. Not only would he throw you, you had to ride with someone else on the ground at all times because once he got you off, he came back around to finish the job.

(True story: I took the bronco to a horse whisperer-type  clinic, and after we got him saddled and into the ring, the poor cowboy who had to ride him turned to me with the most mournful gaze ever. “You tiny women,” he said. “You always bring me either the nastiest horse or the biggest one.  You tiny women will be the death of me.”)

I rode like this because I was young, foolish, and loved what I was doing. At yet, aside from a few truly bone-headed choices I’d prefer not to share, I have always, always kept in mind that these animals were exactly that — animals.  I wore a helmet and sometimes a safety vest. I carried a crop and used a bit. Because much as I loved every horse, my instructor had taught me there would be days when he or she would not want to do what I was asking, that it would go against the animal’s personality , its nature, or simply its mood.  And that my safety could depend upon my being prepared for that refusal.

I teach my kids the same thing — to love animals, but to respect their nature. Much as you love the Slobbering Beast, remember he is a beast. Don’t stick your face too close to his, don’t put your hand in his mouth, don’t put yourselves in a position where your safety depends on trusting him to do the right thing.  Because the right thing to you and the right thing to him may be completely different. 

These trainers — the people who got in the water with the orcas — were also often young and deeply in love with the animals and what they were doing. But they don’t call orcas “fluffy bunny whales” — they call them killer whales. Whether the name is a misnomer or not, the fact remains that — unlike domesticated dogs and horses — these are wild animals.  They do not share our history, and they do not share our element.

And that is why although I am awed by the courage of the trainers who entered the water with orcas, I am also flabbergasted by the hubris that made people think we could control the outcome.  In Kirby’s book, in case of an attack the orcas are trained to return to the side of the pool when a trainer slaps the water with her hand or sounds a specific underwater tone.

I once held the number nine  spot in the entire country for obedience in my breed (my father used to like to point out that probably only nine competed). I’m a decent trainer.  And yet  I can’t guarantee a reliable recall on the Slobbering Beast a hundred percent of the time. Would I trust my life — or my children’s lives — on my ability to call him to heel when he’s chasing a squirrel or removing the drain pipes from the house? Not bloody likely. And yet that was the extent of the orca trainer’s arsenal in an emergency — the simple hope that this wild, intelligent animal would always do what it was being asked to do.

Apparently OSHA agrees that hope alone doesn’t create a safe working environment. In OSHA versus Sea World, the government agency ruled that a slew of safety measures would be required for future trainer/orca work.

I think orcas are beautiful.  By all accounts, they sound intelligent and social. But after seeing videos like this, would I want to get in the water with one?

Would you?

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I am behind today. There are many reasons, including the holiday weekend (in the US Monday was Columbus Day) and the fact that someone was Put Out about having to run in almost rain conditions. Can you tell?

The Slobbering Beast does not care for damp.

Instead of rocketing along at near-heart attack pace, we took a more leisurely approach today. Which was wonderful for my lungs, but not so great for time management. So I am asking you to go and play with these links, and I’ll be back next week with a real post.

What does your brain look like on Jane Austen? NPR finds out.

Are you a gritty writer or reader? My friend Vaughn Roycroft asks the question over on his blog. (My answer: Not so much. The world is a pretty gritty place already, and I try not to add to it. My reading exception is John Sanford, whose Prey books and hero are awfully gritty but very compelling.)

Can changing your genre change your career? Newly repped author Kell Andrews thinks so.

And finally, what causes a published author to disappear? (Besides grumpy Slobbering Beasts and poor time management skills?) Find out here. (Link stolen from the wonderfully readable Jan O’Hara.)

Happy Reading!

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Apparently I need this t-shirt!

This was originally a snarky post to the driver who almost sent me into a ditch when I was out jogging this weekend, but cooler heads have prevailed. (Lady in the tan SUV, you can thank my husband. In the meantime, back away from the accelerator!)  While I calm down, I’m sending you over to Vaughn Roycroft’s blog (Did you know Roycroft means Royal Craftsman?  Neither did I, but he’s certainly well-named) for a post that compares house building to writing.

And when you get back, I am sending you right back out to buy Last Will, by Bryn Greenwood.  I have quietly stalked Bryn’s blog for years, and whenever she posts a bit of what she’s working on, I can’t get it out of my mind.  So when I had a chance to win this book, I couldn’t resist.  And I won!  And now I can’t put it down.  It’s quirky and odd and funny and not like anything else I’ve read lately. So go buy her book, darn it.  Particularly if you are a woman who drives a tan SUV.  Because lady, after what my husband made me pull off this blog, you owe me.

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In third grade, I’d exhausted the books in ‘my’ section of the school library.  I’d plowed through all the Little House books, the Chronicles of Narnia, and their ilk.  I was bored and wanted something more.

When the reading van came to school (remember the reading van?) I was one of the first in line.  I bopped in, passed the third grade section, and started browsing in the back, where the older kids were.  One book caught my eye — “Light A Single Candle” by Beverly Butler.  I was intrigued and took it to the check out, only to be stymied by the Sister who was running the cash register. She ordered me to put it back.

When I told my mother that night, she promptly wrote a note requesting I be given free rein not only of the book van, but of the library as well.  I clutched that note like a magical talisman when I approached the check out the next day, same book in hand.

“Well,” said Sister A, scratching her head and looking at the back cover.  “I suppose there’s no sex in it, right?”

I wasn’t exactly sure what sex was, but I know it couldn’t be good. I vigorously shook my head, and the prize was mine.

I remember that moment so clearly, because it was such a pivotal point in my life. Light A Single Candle didn’t have the sex scenes Sister A was worried about, but it did have a lot of teenage angst and maybe a little kissing. It was my first foray into ‘adult reading’ and it opened a whole new world.  (The nuns — who were fabulous English teachers — eventually came round. By fifth grade I was loaning my copy of The Thornbirds to them.)

Of all the gifts my parents gave me, the encouragement to read and the freedom to read what I wanted are two of the greatest. Aside from one embarrassing incident when my mother called me out to show a friend what I was reading (unfortunately, I think I was eleven and it happened to be Forever by Judy Blume) she never questioned my judgement or took a book away from me.

And now, of course, history has repeated itself.  It started a few months ago when my daughter picked up a book from a bargain bin.  I recognized the author’s name, but hadn’t read any of her work, and the cover looked innocuous enough — slightly paranormal, in a pretty fairy type of way. She asked if she could get it, and I reminded her of our deal — I get to read anything she does first.

I kept meaning to read the book, but things kept coming up, and then it wasn’t where I’d put it. I dug it out from my daughter’s room, took it to mine, and read a chapter. The next day, it was gone.  I took it back, read another, and realized the story made me uncomfortable when I thought about my daughter reading it. I put it in the pile for donations.  The next day it disappeared, only to mysteriously crop up by the family room couch.

We went on like this for a few days — me subtly taking the book away, her just as subtly reclaiming it.  I hated to come right out and forbid it, but I wasn’t all that thrilled with her reading it, either.  And then she picked up another book of mine — an autobiography I’d gotten from the library — and asked if she could read that.  I said yes, relieved. An autobiography!  On an educational topic!  Score!

But looking over her shoulder that night, I saw a swear — the swear, actually — on the page.  I asked her if she thought the book was really appropriate for her after all, and she pointed out that she’s heard that same word at school, seen it scratched into bathroom stalls.

“Have you ever heard me say it?” she asked. And I had to admit, I hadn’t. So we struck a new deal, one that she likes much better and that gives my mother payback for the angst I must have caused her. Em can read what she wants.

I’m strict about what my kids watch for movies and TV.  To me, the violent visual images, the sitcoms with the rude preteens, are rigid, in the sense that there’s no involvement from the watcher’s end.  What you see is exactly what’s there.

But books are different. When you read, you bring yourself, your experiences, your curiosity about a subject, to the page. Or, as Madeleine L’Engle has been quoted as saying, readers must be creators.  “The author and the reader “know” each other; they meet on the bridge of words.”

I’ve certainly read books where passages have gone over my head, nuances have been missed, because I didn’t have the life experience to comprehend them. Reading The Sun Also Rises at fifteen is a much different experience than at twenty-five, than again at forty-three. But not understanding the nature of Jake’s injury as a teenager didn’t stop me from loving the story.

Over the years, books have brought me pleasure and knowledge. I brought to each story what I could understand and took from it what I could handle. My hope is that my daughter will do the same. For the both of us, it’s the start of a wild ride.

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Hey there.  I had such grand plans for this blog entry –brilliant posts about tea, or riding, or reading and riding and letting go.  But then I caught a cold, and the Slobbering Beast cut his foot (I don’t think he even noticed, but it looked as if Jason had visited our house) and I wound up taking a week off from running because every time I went outside I sounded like Typhoid Mary and I was worried the beast would be crippled for life.

And then I went yesterday, and it was hard.  In fact, since no one under 18 is reading this blog (also a post for another day) I can say that, without a doubt, it sucked.  It was still cold and I was slow and I couldn’t get out of my own way and when I was running up the very last hill, I seriously considered just stopping.  But then I remembered how, in my little group of friends who run, I am low person on the totem pole, clawing out my miles each week just to stay there.  And how the person who wasn’t even ON the totem pole just went out and ran a 5k, so my status is in jeopardy.  So I kept running, and while I wouldn’t say it ever actually got easier, I finished.

The thing is, I am at that point in my writing, too.  I just finished a good section of my story, and I have been polishing it and playing with it until I am reasonably pleased, and then I had to put that section away and start another chapter and it is hard.  (And yes, I realize everything is relative  and my worst hard writing day is so much better than the type of awful day many people have on a regular basis, but it was not good.)  I wrote 1200 words yesterday and wound up deleting 800 of them, and those last 400 are on probation too.

Eventually, I will find my way and my rhythm.  I’ll put up enough words that I can see the ones that belong, and someday I will be happy with this section too.  But not today.  Which is why instead of a scintillating blog post, I am offering you … pink socks.

Actually, they are red, because in the heart of New England that's how we roll.

Fans of Joshilyn Jackson will realize I am completely stealing this.  For everyone else, pink socks are the glorious and entertaining stories that never quite get told over at Faster Than Kadzu.  We may read about them, even glimpse them, but the pink socks never actually materialize. Instead, Joshilyn waves very shiny things in our general direction to distract us.

So, for starters, did you know Miz Jackson has a glorious new book out?  And she’s running a very fun virtual booksigning? (Although I would love to participate, I’m buying my copy this spring at this wonderful book store, which is now for sale.)

Also, Writer Unboxed is running a portion of its auction again.  If you are a writer, this is a great way to win some exposure and support one of the best writing communities on the web.

And speaking of community, Vaughn Roycroft, who is always the first to give a shout-out to other writers, has a spanking new website out that is totally worth a look. Go see it and tell him I said hi. : )

Finally, in the more good news category, author Sarah Pinneo, who runs the extremely helpful blog Blurb is a Verb, had her book Julia’s Child release this week.  I snatched it up immediately, and am having a blast reading it.  She has a wonderful voice and totally nails the Oh My God Are Those Organic Carrots Really $200 And Are They Worth It  vibe.  (And, little note here — one of her reading partners is the lovely Rosemary DiBatistta, who just signed her own THREE book contract.  Wowza!)

And finally for real, someone pointed out that I didn’t provide a link to my Pinterest boards, so I  put it in my sidebar.  I hope to see you there.  And next week, Pink Socks!

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Balance

If you are a slightly shy person with introvert tendencies, publishing a book will not change that.  You will simply become a slightly shy person with a book to sell (and, if you are lucky, a large poster of that book to hide behind).  IF you are really, really lucky, you’ll get to take that poster and your book to an event like last Friday’s author night at Zorvino Vineyards, one of the most fun author signings I’ve ever been to.  (And I can hear you thinking, by the way. That isn’t the wine talking – the only bottle I bought was the one I took home.)

Pear Tree Publishing pulled together what must have been the nicest collection of authors ever.  I saw some familiar faces, met lots of new ones, and had the best of times with my two table mates, who kept me laughing and plied me with sugar cookies.  The talented Daniel Palmer (he plays in a band, too — my family bopped around Saturday  morning to his cd) has a new thriller out, Helpless, that’s so good, my MIL swiped it a day after it was in my house.  (Ahem — if you are reading this, oh MIL dear, it’s a loan.  I was clear on that, right?)

And Allan Leverone’s book, The Lonely Mile, has made it to the top of my to-read list next.  (The books I cleaned out last week?  They multiplied and brought their friends.) It looks spooky and scary and it’s not one I’ll be saving for a night when I’m alone. For a horror writer, Allan certainly is a nice guy, and he has a lovely family.  (It’s gotta be an act, right?)

Finally, I devoured Tara Masih’s Where the Dog Star Never Glows in one sitting.  Her collection of short stories is lovely and subtle and stayed with me all weekend.

And then, after so much social time, it was time to go somewhere quiet, also with good company.  We hiked for two hours, and the falling snow felt like a benediction. However your weekend was spent, I hope you found your balance, too.

Quiet time

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We’re doing some spring cleaning here, and I’m trying to wrangle all the books back into their respective homes.  The baby books we can’t bear to part with go in the basement (Carl’s Birthday, anyone?), the books we love the most go in the living room bookcase, the kid books and the books I don’t want to part with but probably won’t read again go upstairs.  We’ll sort through the stacks on the coffee table and by everyone’s bedside and fit them in where we can, but in a few days they’ll start creeping out and multiplying on every possible surface.

It’s not the house they take over, either — key phrases and lines have infiltrated daily speech around here, too.  I realized this the other day when I asked one of small fry how they were feeling, and they answered “Respectabiggle.” (We’d just finished listening to “The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis.) It’s become the new catch phrase, joining several others that have become a part of our daily speech. Favorites include:

“Word of knightly honor,” from Igraine the Brave (Cornelia Funke)

“Nobody likes a wet dog,” slightly changed from To a Stranger Born in a Distant Country Hundreds of Years From Now(Billy Collins)

Not even damp, just a gratuitous cute pic from the puppy days.

“Hop it!” spoken by the mother trying to get the kids moving.  I think we stole it from Peter and the Starcatchers (Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson)

The last two are cheats, coming from movies based on our favorite books:

“You think that, Jane, if it gives you comfort,” from the A&E production of P&P.  (Used by my husband when I am being overly optimistic about someone.)

And,

“What about second breakfast?” Elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea?  Dinner?  Supper? He knows about them doesn’t he?” (Said when the small boy is complaining about being hungry.  Again.)

What phrases have made it out of the pages and into your life???

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For me, one of the most interesting and challenging parts of writing character-driven books is making sure my protagonists stretch and change in a believable way.  Frodo from The Lord of the Rings series is my shining example of this:  He starts off the series as a happy-go-lucky little hobbit with good intentions, and ends it fundamentally changed in spirit and in body.  (I’ve always wondered if he would make the same choices if he could go back to that famous birthday party in the Shire.)

To evoke this kind of change in a novel is one thing.  To sustain it in a believable way across multiple books is another.  That’s why I’m thrilled to have K.A. Stewart here to talk about how she does it.  Stewart is the creator of Jesse James Dawson, a slender, ponytail-wearing demon slayer who wields a samurai sword by day, but moonlights in a funky retail store to pay the bills.  (Apparently demon killing doesn’t come with great dental coverage.) A dad and husband, Jesse consistently faces tough choices that tug him in directions he might not always want to go. How he reacts and changes is what keeps me reading.

Jesse is a wise-cracking slayer worthy of Buffy herself, and I was delighted to discover him in A Devil in the Details.  I’m looking forward to seeing where the next book, A Shot in the Dark, takes him. Please welcome Stewart as she shares her secrets for character development in the first-ever Secrets and Obsessions guest post!

Creating Characters That Grow

K.A. Stewart

It is a fairly well-recognized fact that character development (ie: emotional/spiritual/mental growth on the part of a character) is essential to stories in general, and to series in particular.  Face it, nothing will lose reader interest so fast as a character that does exactly the same thing for books and books and books and books.  Stagnation is never interesting.

Ergo, change = good, yes?  Well, hold your horses.  While an unchanging character can lose reader interest, a character that changes too drastically, or without logical cause, can make a reader run screaming in the opposite direction. After all, the reason that people stick with the same series for multiple books is because they’ve found something in one of the characters that they identify with, and they’ve come to care about them.  If their favorite is suddenly not the same person at all, it’s hard to still care.  It’s like learning to love a total stranger all over again.

So how do you find this happy medium, the narrow trail between stagnation and making your character unrecognizable?

First off, let’s think about our favorite character.  Mine is (and I know yours is too) Jorge, the psychotic zombie marmoset.  (Just play along, ‘kay? I swear this will all make sense.)

We love Jorge.  He has a dark past, but strives to do good.  He has friends around him who remind him all the time why he wants to help others and leave his wicked ways behind.  He might, just might, even be falling in love again, even though that witch Denise broke his heart years ago.  We like his new girl, Penelope.  She’s good for him.

Now, if Jorge hovered at this point forever, eventually we’d get bored.  We’d know that in every book, he’ll have a deep meaningful conversation with his mentor, Harvey the June bug.  He’ll have a charmingly awkward exchange with Penelope, without ever asking her out, and he’ll defeat the bad guy of the week by using some bit of dark knowledge from his past that he’s now put toward the forces of good.  Sure, it’s fun for now, but by book five, you’re thinking, dear gods man!  DO something!

Conversely, let’s say that in book three, Jorge suddenly wakes up and instead of inhaling his first cigarette and black coffee like always, he suddenly opts to have orange juice and start jogging. Wait, what? Healthy foods are anathema to the Jorge we know and love.  Next, he rescues a kitten from a tree and pats the impish-but-mischievous neighbor boy on top of his curly little head with a smile.  Why? Jorge barely tolerates that kid!  Dear lord, the entire world has gone insane!  Now, if this were to lead into a storyline where Jorge had been taken over by the Pod People from Alpha-Gamma 12, that could be cool.  But if he’s just suddenly different, with no explanation… Well… That’s just not Jorge.  It’s some other character, with Jorge’s name slapped on him, and that’s not what we want to read!

BUT, I’m willing to bet every one of you would like to find out what would happen if Jorge asked Penelope out, only to have her kidnapped by his arch nemesis (long thought dead, of course).  What lengths might Jorge go to, to get her back?  Not just because she might be the new love of his life, but because she is the one truly good thing that keeps him walking the straight and narrow.  How far into his dark side is he willing to go, to preserve that light?  And let’s say he has to kill a few innocent bystanders to get there…  That kind of thing leaves a mark, mentally, emotionally…grammatically…  Let’s say he saves the girl, defeats the bad guy, but he’s also learned just how bad a guy he is himself.  We the reader are intrigued!  Will Jorge truly slip back to the dark side?  Will Penelope leave him if she finds out?  And OMG, he picked up the Cursed Sword of Nathmazaaaaaaar!  We ALL know what THAT does!

Now, what if in the next book, Harvey was also killed, and Jorge had no one left to be his conscience?  Left to his own devices, can Jorge still cling to the path he’s chosen?  And in the book after that, Jorge is betrayed by the one guy he thought he could trust.  His faith in the goodness of humanity is forever shattered.  In the face of that, will Jorge continue to fight his own demons, or will he slip back down into the shadows where he came from?

These are the questions that keep us coming back to series.  We love these characters, yes, but we also want to see what happens when they are stretched to their mental and emotional limits.  And in the end, though the road may be long and twisty and dark and possibly paved with the skulls of a thousand sacrificed pygmy shrews, we are satisfied to see that Jorge fights through and comes out the other end, perhaps scarred and battered, but whole.  We get to see that Penelope loves him just for what he is, dark corners and all.  And we get to finally see him kiss her, so that’s just a bonus.

For this, we would tune in again.  Put a character through their own personal hell, and the reader will certainly come back to see just who walks out on the other side.  Because deep down, we can’t say that we would have done differently in his place.  We lived through it with him, walked that road, fought that fight at his side.  It gives us that connection to him, that desire to see if he (and therefore we) could conquer such adversity.

Character development is one of those things that must be handled carefully, yes, but it is also something that can develop quite naturally, organically even.   It’s all about how your character reacts to situations, both good and bad.  Your character should never live in a vacuum.  There is STUFF around them, and that stuff shapes who they were, who they are, and who they could become. If you just let it.

Want more?  Learn more about Stewart, Jesse, and the books  at Stewart’s blog, On Literary Intent.

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I’m a creature of habit.  Every few years I reread The Lord of the Rings series, along with The Hobbit.  I hit Emma and Pride and Prejudice in the winter.  Fall is reserved for comfort reading — and a few good scares.

For the first, there’s nobody better than Laurie Colwin.  I first discovered her years ago in Gourmet Magazine, and loved her so much I went to the library and searched out all the back issues in which she appeared.  When she died – the same year I discovered her, I think — I felt as if I’d lost a friend. Every year, just when it starts to get cool, I reread her cookbooks/memoirs — Home Cooking and More Home Cooking —  then bake a gingerbread in her honor.

Of course, fall’s the time for Halloween, too.  And though Colwin does offer up a chapter entitled Kitchen Horrors, I still feel the need for something slightly more spooky. My favorite is Haunted, by James Herbert.  It’s a slim little volume, and I’d never heard of it before I stumbled across the movie by the same name.  I was in London, jet-lagged, and looking for something soothing on television to help me sleep.  Instead, I wound up sitting up most of the night, completely terrified.  When I got home I searched out the book, figuring it could never be as good, but it is quite chilling in its own way.

Here’s a link to the movie Haunted:  It’s a slow start, but worth it. (Plus, it stars Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale — more reason to hang in there.)

What are you reading and watching this fall?

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That’s the sound summer makes as it is flies by.  Can you hear it?  The kids start school in just over a week, and there’s still a long list of things we want to do.  More time!  I need more time!

But the time we’ve had so far has been pretty special.  Long days on the beach, lazy days at the pool, afternoons with friends and family where we can have real conversations, not just the hurried sentences that carry us over during the rest of the year.

The menu

Highlights for me include eating here. It’s the third year we’ve been, and it is a magical night under a huge white tent rimmed with fairy lights,  filled with fun and sparkling conversation and a meal you just won’t believe.  And good friends, of course.  If you ever have a chance to attend, gulp at the price tag and then sign over your credit card — it’s totally worth it.

I also read this, which was magical in a completely different way.  I found myself thinking about the book and the language it was written in for days after.  I think it is going to be huge, and I highly recommend it.  (Erin also posts short stories on her blog every Friday — you can find it over on the links list to the right.)

What else happened this summer?  Well, my children each grew a few inches.  I went to a family reunion slightly sunburned, wearing a large brim hat for protection, and realized after I saw the photos I looked vaguely like a crazy southern spinster aunt who writes gothic romance.  (It wasn’t the look I was going for.)  In the frenzy of friending relatives on Facebook after, I forgot to mention I have an author page there as well for them to like.  (Cousins, if you are reading this, help the crazy spinster writer out.) I did a guest post at Writer Unboxed about the secret pages on my website.  We tried to rescue a baby bird, whom the children christened Annie.  Alas, the sun did not come out for Annie, and we had a burial ceremony in the back yard.  I read Ronald Dahl’s autobiographies, BOY and FLYING SOLO, and loved them so much I’m adding his biography to my list. I almost got sprayed by a skunk, I got pooped on by a seagull, and I had all of my underwear stolen and frozen. (If you ask nicely, I might follow up on that story with details.)

How’s your summer going? 

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This is Harley.

Harley came to us when he was an adorable puppy and looked like this.

Now he looks like this.

Harley has many positive attributes.  He is firm in his belief that the only good squirrel is a dead squirrel.  He thinks teenagers should have 9 p.m. curfews, and if their parents insist on letting them out after that, he insists that they stay on the opposite side of the road from our house.  If they forget, he reminds them.  Loudly.

His best trait, however, is the fact that he loves kids.  Mostly mine, but if they aren’t available, he’s fine with whoever happens to leave theirs laying around.  He is never happier than when there’s a pack of children over and he’s in the middle, tongue out, running hard alongside them in a game of tag or ball.  The kids use him to find each other during hide and seek, and as a shield during water pistol wars.

He’s very agile and has managed to avoid more than one collision that made me cover my eyes by leaping to the side (and sometimes over) a small child who has forgotten the rule about not running around corners of the house.  I cringe, expecting to hear the ‘thunk’ of eighty pounds of muscle hitting forty pounds of boy flesh and instead I see Harley, valiantly twisting his body into an unnatural pose in mid-air.

I am a very protective dog owner, and still somehow Harley has been stepped on, ridden, painted with marker, dressed up and sat upon.  So long as he can be involved, he’s okay with it.

Harley’s main, overriding flaw, and one that he has had since we adopted him, is that he lacks … intestinal fortitude, shall we say.  Our previous dogs had cast iron stomachs, ate everything from horse poop to dead rodents and barely belched.  Harley’s stomach formerly belonged to a little old Victorian lady who only used it for weak tea and cucumber sandwiches on white bread.  She still got the vapors.

Every few months something inside him just … lets go.  To avoid offending delicate reader sensibilities, I’ll just say that Harley turns into the Blast-Ended Skrewt from Harry Potter.   It is not pleasant.  We’ve had him tested for parasites multiple times, changed foods, kept him under hawk-eye supervision to make sure he’s not eating contraband … nothing seems to help.

Our latest efforts involve putting him on a grain-free diet.  It’s too soon to tell if it will work, but I can say that a bag of this food — which has salmon and sweet potatoes and probably a maitre d’ in there somewhere– costs the equivalent of a nice … a very very nice … bottle of bubbly.  Not that I’m resentful, or anything.

However, I’ve decided that the Slobbering Beast needs to start earning his keep, not just eating it.  I thought about his many talents, and while I could rent him out for squirrel patrol (Hi Dad!) or possibly babysitting jobs (he’s very good at wearing small boys out) I was looking for something a little more … glamorous.  Something that befits a dog of his dignity, so to speak.

Then I read that the fabulous and kind-hearted Joshilyn Jackson was running a contest to promote the paperback release of her novel Backseat Saints.  I am a die-hard Joshilyn Jackson fan, and I loved that book.  It has a very nice dog in it, too,  one that is not a Blast-Ended Skrewt.  Harley and that dog could be friends, maybe, if Harley were fictional and smelled better.

So, I decided to try renting Harley out, like billboard space.  I’m doing a test case with Backseat Saints and  Jackson’s not-yet-released next book, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty.  On our daily three-mile jog we must pass at least … I dunno, fifty houses? Maybe more.  Plus cars and whatnot.  And that’s just here.  Sometimes we humiliate  the poor dog by taking him for walks in other places, too.

Oh humiliation, thy name is dog.

Harley says, Four Paws Up!

I think I have single-handedly solved the publishing world’s dilemma of how to reach readers, don’t you? J.K. Rowling, feel free to call me anytime. Me and the Skrewt are waiting.

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You know how I’ve written that I prefer actual paper books to these new-fangled electronic readers?  And I do, truly.  Except that, um, I may have seen the light a little.

I’m using my Kindle to read drafts by other writers, and my IPad when I need to read a book for my book club quickly, and that’s all fine.  But last week I read about the IPad app for Sandra Boynton’s Going to Bed Book.  Now, the Going to Bed Book is the book I read so often when the kids were small, the whole family has it memorized.  Even the dog we had then could probably have recited a line or two, if pressed.  It’s the book I give whenever anyone has a new baby, the book I’ve replaced twice because it’s fallen apart.  I love this book.

“Huh,” I grumbled to my husband when I heard about the app.  “Grumble, grumble, technology, ruin of us all, grumble,  grumble.”

“Yep,” he said.  “But have you actually seen it?”

The app was like two bucks, so I downloaded it so I could better articulate to him how we are going to hell in a hand basket because no one reads real books anymore.  But then, I forgot what I was saying because I was having so much fun.

Did you get that I love the book?  I love it even more as an e-book.  It’s taken the spirit of the story, which is fun and light-hearted and a perfect way to end the night — and made it even more playful.  You can hear the stars in the sky, hear the waves sloshing, see the eyes on the bunny close when it gets dark and hear him snore. It made me get, for the first time, the possibilities  of an enhanced book.

In my case, I’ve heard from some readers that they don’t see enough of Frank (one of my main characters who happens to be a ghost) in my novel Evenfall.  But he’s in every scene that shows the house Evenfall – it’s just that sometimes his presence is a subtle one.  How much fun would it be to have the words on a page form the shape of Frank whenever he’s there, quietly manipulating the scene? To have an image of Nina cue us to his presence?  To hear his theme music in the background?

I suppose you wouldn’t want to read every book this way — or even to read a book this way every time.  But having the option to read with sensory cues enhancing the experience — kind of like a director’s cut on a video — would be all kinds of awesome.  Although, ironically, in a children’s bedtime book it’s a little too exciting, particularly since I’ve had to arm-wrestle with my son so everyone (read me) gets a chance to do the ‘fun’ pages.

Is there a book you’d like to read this way?  Besides Evenfall, I’d vote for any of the Harry Potters or LOTRs series.  What would you choose, and why?

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Every other week I spend a few minutes volunteering at the school library.  It’s a fun, quiet half hour for me before I walk down to the Kindergarten class and the controlled chaos of a swarm of six-year-olds.  I chat with the aide who runs the library (she’s a saint — the librarian position was axed years ago and this woman does a ton of work for considerably less pay, I would guess) but mostly I pick up the books kids have returned and put them back on the shelves.

As a writer of adult novels, I find it fascinating to see what gets checked out.  (And if you are writing YA or middle grade fiction, I would think a similar experience would be invaluable.)  Every week, I see the same books — the flower fairy series, a series about children who turn into animals, the usual Cornelia Funke and Harry Potter books.  Scooby Dooby Doo, who manages to make it into my son’s backpack every single week. Good books all, especially since they are actually being read.

But there are the days when I’m shelving books and something unexpected slips off the cart and into my hands, like a gift. I can’t resist — I flip through the pages, read a few, and before I know it, I’ve been transported to another time and place.  I’m gulping words as fast as I can when the morning announcements break in and jolt me back to reality.

Later, walking down the halls to class, watching the kids jostle by, I see them a little differently than before.  I wonder which one picked out that book, and why.  I wonder if he or she is a member of my tribe — the word addicts — and what will happen, where that addiction will lead.  Although we don’t know each other, we share a secret, we’ve met, if only across the pages of the same book.  And as I look at these kids and at the path facing them in the future, I find that comforting.

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I know, I know, I’ve been slacking.  I started out with such good intentions, but somehow my three posts a week have dwindled to an anorexic one or two.  I promise to be better in April.  It will be SPRING!  and WARM! and everyone will be HAPPY! (Those of us who live in New England are such optimistic fools.)

Anyhow, I have been busy.  I have finally established my Facebook Author page (or rather, my sister did it for me) and I would take it as the greatest favor if you would hie yourself over there and like it.  Or me.  Or whatever one is supposed to do on The Facebook. (Random  elderly relative story — a favorite aunt is in a nursing home, and periodically she would call us up and say “I played The WOO today,” and cackle like a maniac.  It sounded vaguely dirty and I always covered the children’s ears if we were on speakerphone.  Well, it turns out The WOO was Wii, the other bane of my existence because it is the joy of my six-year-old’s life.  So, around here we tend to stick a capital THE in front of any newfangled technology.)

Also, I am being interviewed by the charming and lovely Debra Driza, no mean writer herself, and among other things we are commiserating over our BAD DOG stories.  Because I didn’t want to horrify her too much, I left out the one where my 110 pound unneutered show dog took a, um, special liking to my 100 pound friend.  He would back her into a corner, then very gently reach out one paw to wrap around her shoulders….

Come back Thursday for a better behaved blog post.

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Can I just, for a  moment, reiterate how awesome my home town library is?  My advance PR team came along  (that would be my parents) and what greeted us in the lobby but a poster with Evenfall and my face on it? (It was a little bit horrifying, to be honest, but the librarian behind the desk did manage to recognize me, so the photo isn’t too off the mark.) I wanted to poke around a while, but my mother, who knows me too well, clearly was concerned I’d pick up a book and be late to my own signing, so she marched me downstairs, where librarians Michelle and Tricia had set out refreshments and even remembered a pen. (Yes, I forgot to bring a pen.  I was distracted.)

A fabulous crowd turned out, including my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. T — her smile is EXACTLY the same all these years later — and my fourth grade teacher.  Seriously, how beyond cool is that? (And see, Mrs. F — despite the fact that I still can’t do advanced math to save my life, I turned out okay. Mostly.) And then a bunch of people from my elementary school surprised me too, and we went out after and I ate too many French Fries and it was just like being in school again only without the math bits.  Which is to say, completely awesome.

Exactly the same. Only taller.

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Libraries.  I love them.  You go in, sign a piece of paper, and they let you take home books.  For free.  As many as you can carry. (And I can carry a lot.) How insane is that?

Not just books, either.  CDs, DVDs, even art.  Museum passes. Again, all for free. Show me your library, and I can tell you a lot about the priorities of your town (which is why the recent cutbacks to my city’s library are so upsetting, but that’s a whole other blog post).  Everywhere I’ve lived, one of the first things I’ve done is run to my new library to sign up for my card.  Sometimes, my kids and I will stop to check out  a library we haven’t visited, just for fun (do we know how to live, or what??). And if we’re vacationing anywhere for more than a week, it’s a good bet that somehow, we’ll manage to work in a library visit.

But no matter how wonderful your library is, it can’t compare with the one I grew up with. As a kid, it was one of my favorite places to be.  Back then, even though the building was a blinding white wedding cake confection, the children’s room was rather small and dark, with aisles of books you could wander.  You could take the book that made your heart thump into the back, curl up, and stay there until closing.   There was a long wooden desk, and the librarian would stamp the card in the back of the book with a resounding thwap before she let you take it home.  On rainy days, or if you were home sick, you could call up the story line and listen to a prerecorded tale for free.  There was a millpond out in back, and at night in the summer you could go with your grandparents and listen to big band music and spin around and around until you were dizzy.  If you were lucky, your grandfather would buy you a glo stick and you could use it to light up your room well after you were supposed to be asleep.

They did a renovation sometime in the 1980s, I think, and made the children’s room over into a light and airy space.  They painted the whole building cream, instead of the original white, and added a comfortable reading room for magazines, and put in skylights and study spaces and a big open staircase.  It’s beautiful and inviting, but I still remember the creaky old building my eight-year-old self fell in love with, all those years ago.  And when I read there tomorrow, in my heart that’s where I’ll be.

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I have books all over the house, with the possible exception of the guest bathroom.  Mostly, I try to keep the books I wouldn’t want my kids to read stacked next to my bed.  But sometimes I forget, and leave a book I’d prefer my daughter not to delve into out in the open, where it’s fair game.  I can always tell, though, when a book I’ve left somewhere has been moved — I’m freaky that way.  So when I got home from running some errands this weekend, and noticed my copy of Wake on the kitchen island  slightly askew, I knew immediately I hadn’t left it that way.  And I knew who had. And since she looked at me looking at the book and rolled her eyes, she knew I knew as well.

We had company all weekend, so I waited until this morning to ask what she thought of the book. Of course, she liked it. She’d only read a few pages before someone had walked in and she’d put the book down.  (Perhaps I should leave geometry textbooks out and pretend they’re off-limits, too.) She asked if she could read the whole thing, we discussed a bit about why I wasn’t comfortable with that, I asked if she had any questions, she said no, and we  agreed she could try it out next year, in fourth grade, and then she moved on to asking me about the book I’m reading now, a fabulous historical mystery/romance called The Second Duchess, which she’d also managed to skim. (Note to self: housecleaning is important for more than hygiene.)

I don’t think I’m kidding myself here. If she really wanted to read either of these books, I’m sure she’d figure out a way to make it happen.  At the moment, the exploits of a teen dream catcher and the doings of a Renaissance bride aren’t something she’s overly interested in, and while she’d be more than willing to delve into them if they were the only books around, she’s happily surrounded by stacks of her own reading material, so it’s not an issue.  Today.

But it did spark a couple of conversations.

Me:  “So, you noticed that the kids who were drinking were UNHAPPY, right? You got that?”

Her: Eye-roll.

Her: “So, why do authors make stuff up about real people?  They can do that? And what’s an arranged marriage?” Me:  “Yes.  It’s called historical fiction. And an arranged marriage is when your daddy and I pick out who you are going to marry.  When you are 35.”

All in all, I think it went well.

The Random Number Generator has spoken.

Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts last week.  Christine was the lucky winner — I’ll be sending you a signed copy of Wake in the mail.

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I’m over at Sia McKye’s Over Coffee blog today, talking about making sure my world stays larger than size of my monitor.  Stop by if you get a chance.  And remember, you have till Monday to comment and be entered to win a copy of Wake.

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This post talks about censorship, sex and drugs.  You’ve been warned.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s appropriate for kids to read.  Partly, it’s because I have a book of my own out, and I’ve seen Evenfall listed as YA (Young Adult) in a couple of places.  Every time I see that, or read about a high school kid wanting to read it, my Catholic school-raised innards give a very uncomfortable twist inside and suggest I  reach through the computer, snatch the book out of their hands, and hand them a nice copy of Little House in the Big Woods or Voyage of the Dawn Treader instead.

Part of it is because my daughter, at nine, is reading at a high school level, and we’re having lots of conversations along the lines of “Just because you can read something, doesn’t mean you should, and that particularly applies to my book, thank you very much.”

And part of it is that I’ve become more conscious lately of the books I’ve read that are coming under fire from parents who would like them removed from schools and classrooms.

If you haven’t read it, Evenfall has a love scene.  It’s short, but it’s definitely steamy.  It’s that scene I’m thinking about when someone I know says “I read your book!” and smiles at me in the carpool line at school.  It’s that scene I’m thinking about when I read that someone in high school has added Evenfall to their ‘to read’ pile.  And it’s that scene I’m definitely thinking about whenever my daughter makes moves to read past the first chapter.

But.  But. But. But. Growing up, my parents were strict.  Stricter than most of the parents I knew (hi Mom!  Stop reading now!) in every way but one – they never told me what I could or couldn’t read.  In third grade, my mom wrote me the note that gained me access to the entire school library.  (When I picked a book and Sister A asked me if it had any sex in it, I didn’t know what the word meant but I was smart enough to say no.)  By fifth grade I was exchanging books like Evergreen with my favorite nun, and The Thorn Birds followed shortly thereafter. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading pretty much everything I can get my hands on. Books with drug scenes.  With sex scenes.  With magic and profanity and time travel and murder and baseball.

Yet here I am, all these years after I picked up those books, a writer and mother and mostly sane person.  I don’t do drugs.  I don’t sacrifice animals.  I don’t time travel and I sure as hell don’t play baseball. (I apparently do swear, though.)

One of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver, has a scene in which one of her characters is a teacher who decides to hold an impromptu, unapproved sex education class after one of her best students shows up pregnant.  She rationalizes by saying something like this: “Just because you know how to use a fire extinguisher doesn’t mean you’re going to burn your house down.  But if your house is on fire, kiddos, it just may save your life.”

And that’s how I think about books.  Just because you read about drugs, or sex, or baseball, doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do those things.  But knowing those things are out there may help you make more informed decisions down the line. It might give you the vocabulary to hold a conversation with the adults in your life.  It might help you navigate the tricky waters of adolescence.  It might give you the life line you need to get through them.

A few months ago, my book club chose a book written by a young man about his experience as a drug addict. It’s graphic and although it in no way glamorizes drug use, it’s definitely realistic. When I went looking for it at my local library, I was a little shocked to find it in the YA section.  Would I want my daughter reading it as a third grader? No.  But for some kid in middle school with no trusted adult to talk to, it could be a life saver.  Just because a book isn’t right for my child doesn’t mean it’s not the absolutely critical book at that moment for someone else’s.

If you object to your kid reading about drugs, or sex, or baseball, that’s your right.  But insisting a book be removed or banned for everyone presumes to make that choice for MY child, and that’s stepping on MY rights as a parent.

Will I let my third grader read Evenfall?  Not on your life.  But will I let her read it as a sixth or seventh grader?  There’s a good chance I will, or that she’ll have found a way to read it no matter what I say.  (If  I’m lucky, it will spark a conversation about sometimes, when adults fall in love, they have sex.  If I’m unlucky, she’ll roll her eyes and refuse to talk to me for a few days for embarrassing her in front of her friends.)

So where do you stand on all of this?  I’m really interested to hear.  Comment before Monday and you’ll be entered to win Wake, a book that came under fire when a parent requested it be removed from school because she objected to the adult language and felt it promoted drug use and sexual misconduct. Her request was denied and for now, it remains on shelves.  (For the record: I’ve read it and in my opinion it does no such thing.)

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Good morning!  (See, my early tv show experience has made me perky before noon!)  I have lots more to tell you about last week, but today I am over at the fabulous Tartitude for the second part of my interview with Jan O’Hara.  There’s lots there about Harley too, and a cute picture in which both his ears are intact. (There’s also another chance to win my book!)  If you get a chance, please head over and say hi!

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So if you’ve ever watched a television award show, you know what I’m talking about – those people who go on and on thanking everyone from their pool boy (“for providing an environment in which I can relax”) to their hair stylist (“for always making me look good!”) all the while completely forgetting to thank somebody important (their agent, spouse, or partner) who happens to be sitting right in front of them?  Sometimes it has to be on purpose — you know because they break up the next day.  Sometimes, though, the person is just a dumb @##, or somebody who is just overwhelmed by the moment.

I’m hoping I belong to the latter category.  If you’ve gotten your copy of Evenfall, you’ll see the acknowledgement section extends to almost two pages.  And while I managed to hit most of the highlights (Agent: Check;  Editor: Check; Spouse: Check) I did, with absolutely no malice in mind, manage to leave a few people off.  So herewith, my apologies and my eternal thanks to Julie Wu, who read and offered fabulous feedback multiple times (expect to hear lots more from her — her own book, The Third Son, will be coming out in the near future, and it is a wonderful read).  Also, thanks to Mary Akers and Katrina Denza, established writers who read early chapters. (And I love pretty much everything they write.  So there.)  Thirty whacks with a paper towel roll on the head for me.

On a happier note, we have a winner!  Shveta gets the copy of Force of Habit. (If you were intrigued by Alice, there’s more on her over at Tartitude — she’s very funny and I think her series is going to be a big hit.)  And there’s a fun giveaway that I’m coveting — go check it out!

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Coffee and an Ex-Nun

So!  Exciting news!  The lovely and charming Coffee and a Book Chick has an interview up over on her website with me.  Hasten there and you could win a copy of Evenfall! (She also has an awesome pup named Roma who could be twin to the slobbering beast …you can search her blog for pictures.) A big thank you to Coffee and a Book Chick for hosting me!

Today’s the day for a giveaway here, too.  I’ve been talking about the different writing communities I’ve joined over the year.  Absolute Write is the most recent.  It can be a little feisty — I lurked there for a whole year before I posted one comment — but I’ve been lucky enough to find a bunch of big-hearted, funny and fast-typing writerly types.

Alice Loweecey is one of those people — and even better, she’s my ‘debut sister’ meaning her first novel is on the shelves right next to mine.  I thought it would be fun to ask her a few questions about her book Force of Habit, which features a nun turned P.I..  Alice, you see, is an ex-nun.

I attended catholic school with actual nuns for eight years. They were fabulous. Were you really a nun, or is this just a publicity stunt?


There must be a written rule somewhere in Heaven that if you lie about being a nun the ground opens up and the Devil drags you straight down to Hell. Yes, indeed, I was a nun for four years and have the pictures to prove it. There are four still in existence, one for each year, because I hand-shredded the rest. It was quite cathartic. The four I saved were all happy pictures: a group photo from the Postulant year, receiving the veil (that’s the white-veiled me ), taking vows (that’s the black-veiled me with the lei), and a posed picture with me looking holy and ethereal. *snerk*

As much as anything from The Sound of Music gives me hives, you know how in that movie Maria was always in trouble? That was my life in the convent. I got in trouble for whistling once! And we all played the guitar and sang at Folk Masses back then. Oh, and we perpetrated that crime against Cyd Charisse—the crime known as Liturgical Dance. Ah, the early 1980s.

My nuns wielded rulers and the almighty power of control over recess. What does your protagonist carry as a weapon?

Ex-nun with a gun!

When she was a nun she wielded a ruler too. So far in the series, she doesn’t carry a weapon. She’s athletic and knows self-defense, so she can fight off the bad guys when necessary. In later books, she’s going to learn how to shoot a Glock. To do this, her creator had to learn that skill. I am happy to report that I’m not a bad shot. The photo is me with my target from the lesson. With my first shot, I hit the target in the neck. Not bad for someone who’d only dabbled in archery before.  Alas for Giulia—so far she’s been a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. But she wants to keep catching bad guys, so she’ll do what she has to do. There will be embarrassing (for her) humor involved.

Your protagonist sounds intriguing and very different. How long did it take you to find an agent, and what types of reactions did you get along the way?

I have this folder on my hard drive labeled “Passes.” It represents four solid years of work, three complete novels, and several layers of rhino hide.

The novels are three different genres: Religious horror, paranormal, and mystery. The mystery—that would be Force of Habit—has an interesting story behind it. I queried a well-known agent with the religious horror, mentioning in my query that I was an ex-nun and thus knew religion. He passed, but suggested that he’d like to see a mystery starring an ex-nun who solves crimes. I dismissed that suggestion initially, because “I wrote horror.”

However, the idea percolated in my head, and wouldn’t leave me alone. Eight months later I had Force of Habit. I queried the same agent with it. He asked for the first three chapters—and passed. In the politest way possible, too. Ya gotta laugh.

So I jumped onto the query-go-round, which immediately turned into a roller-coaster. I got requests for partials and fulls. I also got form rejections on requested fulls (ouch!). I got two offers to revise and resubmit on two different books. I had one agent love my characters and another say they were like watching beige paint dry. It truly is a subjective business.
Then in spring of 2009, I sent a “Why not?” query to Kent D. Wolf, an agent whose list of sales and genres he was seeking looked interesting. The next day, he called to request the full of the mystery. (Agents don’t normally call for that. I was a bit startled.) Two days later, he called to discuss the book, the characters, the convent, and how I felt about revising. (Is the sky blue? Of course I was willing to revise!) Two days after that, he called to offer representation.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is: It took me six days to find an agent. Okay, four years, 185 rejections, and six days.

So, last question — we debut at the same time.  I haven’t had my ‘real’ moment yet — the moment it all seems like this is really happening, the book will be published, and I’m not just making it up.  Have you?  If so, what is it?

I had my “real”  moment today—and it was a delayed reaction.

Some writers I know say their “real” moment was when they got their signed contract, or their advance check, or their page proofs, or their box of books. All of those moments were “oh, wow!” moments for me.

Amazon has started to ship my books already. The head of the company brought his copy in and I autographed it, then I went back to work. About three hours later, it hit me: I autographed my book for someone who bought it. Online. For real. It’s happened. I just sat there at my desk, and I got this huge grin on my face. Now I know it’s real.

Last Christmas, my agent told me that my book sold the day before I started a 4-city tour with Denver and the Mile High Orchestra, my favorite band. (I was part of a big Christmas choir backing them up). I’d been writing a series of articles on the rehearsal process for BuddyHollywood.com, and the rest of the choir knew about by dreams of getting a book on the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores. When I announced my three-book deal, a fellow singer said, “All your dreams are coming true.” Today I can say: They are.

Thank you Alice!  I’m glad to have you as my debut sister!

Leave a comment before Tuesday to be entered to win a copy of Force of Habit. (The Random Number Generator will choose, but perhaps karma will be swayed in your favor if you can include your own catholic school experiences.)

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Hey, I said I’d announce a winner on Tuesday, and I still have two whole hours!  You are probably thinking “Ooh, with her debut next week, she’s too busy to keep up with the blog.”  Or even “Now that her book’s almost out, she’s got better things to do.”  Yes indeed.  Those better things to do would include cleaning up unmentionables from small children who were felled by the stomach bug this weekend.  I can guarantee you, that’s something Hemingway never did. (Although my awesome husband, who does read this blog from time to time, certainly did.  On his birthday, no less.  That’s why he’s awesome.)

So, without further ado, the Random Number Generator has spoken, and it has chosen Jenna’s comment.  Woo-hoo!  I promise to send a germ-free copy of The Murderer’s Daughters as soon as it is out in paperback.

I am doing one final giveaway on Thursday, and it’s with a debut author who I think is going to have a fabulous career.  Please come back then to check it out.  Until then, keep those hand sanitizers loaded.

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I have been lucky as  a writer.  I’m a secret introvert, which means I hide my shyness well.  I’m not a joiner, yet over the years I’ve found myself part of three distinct writing communities.  I mentioned the first last week —  the writing forum where I workshopped my debut novel.  (Coming out in …TWELVE DAYS.  HOLY #$#$# where did the time go?)

The second community is Grub Street. If you have any aspirations toward writing and you live in New England, stop reading now and go check out their website.  It’s totally worth it and I’ll wait.

Back?  Okay, Grub Street is pure awesome.  It’s where I met my fabulous agent.  And it’s where anyone who is serious about the craft of writing can go to learn.  The first time I attended the Grub Street Conference, the Muse and the Marketplace, I was terrified.  The second time, I met my agent.  By the third time, I was actually able to converse with other writers in complete sentences.  Who knows what this year’s conference will bring?

I recently took a class at Grub Street with author Randy Susan Myers, who also claims to be shy, but I think she lies.  She was kind and encouraging and almost — almost! — has convinced me that I should have a book launch party.  (I am still dithering about that.  If I can do the readings without hives, we’ll talk.)

The Murderer's Daughters

Anyhow, Randy wrote a heart-breaker of a book titled The Murderer’s Daughters. After their parents separate, Lulu and Merry hear a knocking at their door one afternoon.  It’s their father.  Ten-year-old Lulu, the oldest and most responsible child, lets him in — with deadly consequences.  While her parents fight, Lulu runs for help, only to find on her return that her father has murdered her mother, stabbed her sister, and tried to kill himself. How does a ten-year-old make sense of an act that changes her life forever, and how does she live with the ramifications of that act?  For 30 years, Lulu and Merry try to do just that.  They struggle with forgiveness, with the boundaries of sibling loyalty, and finally with redemption.

Randy’s characters stayed with me long after I finished her book, and I think they’ll stay with you, too.  To celebrate the fact that the paperback version of The Murderer’s Daughters will be hitting shelves at the same time as Evenfall, I’m giving away one copy of Susan’s book.  Leave a comment by Tuesday, and you are eligible.  IF I can reach my mailbox through the snow, that is.

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This weekend I took my mother and my daughter to the MFA to do cultural-type things.  We visited a fashion photography exhibit, saw the new Art of the Americas wing, had lunch, drooled over the John Singer Sargent portraits (my favorite painter) and then went home.  It was all very civilized and lovely.

The Enormous Black Bed

In my absence, I’d suggested the boys go purchase a new bed for my son’s room.  He’s turning six today, and his legs were almost hanging off his toddler bed. I’d picked out a few styles and made mature, rational arguments for why the bed should be small and white. The boys listened, and then they bought — a black bed.  An enormous black bed that my son can barely climb into.  Instead of the baby blue polka-dotted sheets I’d chosen, they came home with sheets covered in sports logos.  In navy.  To go with the black bed.  (Fine, the manufacturer calls it espresso, but trust me, it’s black.)

The white bed, I was informed, was covered with pink sheets and pink bows and was far too girly.  I pointed out that sheets can be changed, bows can be removed, but no luck.  They weren’t budging.  “I am a full-grown boy now,” my son told me.  Right. A full-grown boy who will need a boost into his bed for the next six years.

To add insult to injury, they went and got haircuts, too.  Not at the stylist who knows to trim only about a quarter of an inch at a time, but to somebody who cut my baby’s hair short AND shaved the sides.  But the worst, the absolute worst, is this:

Boy # 2

That’s right.  Instead of selling the toddler bed, they chose to give it away.  TO HARLEY.

Obviously, I can never leave them home alone again.

Postscript: Random Number Generator chose …. CharmingBillie!  Congrats on winning The Other Life!  I’ll be doing another giveaway shortly, so don’t forget to come back.  (I’ll need another reason to emerge from the man cave that has become my home.)

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