Archive for the ‘Obsessions’ Category

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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Last week, as I faced off against my ever cocky teenaged fencing opponent, it occurred to me: I was going to lose.

Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve been graced with this epiphany. I have never been the speediest turtle, nor the most coordinated.  Because I am old and crafty and gifted with decent stamina and taller than everybody under the age of 10 in class, I’ve been able to hold my own for the first few months.  But now, the little ones are improving and gunning for me.  The older teens, the ones who have the agility of Spiderman and the reflexes of Flash, have been killing me since day one.  And the middle group, the ones who make me work for my wins, are catching up.  Last week, I got skewered badly enough that my husband, who after seeing me kicked across the barn by my temperamental TB tends to be pretty blase about my daily injuries, actually noticed the bruise.

So, as I stood there staring across the blade of Mr. Teenaged Superhero, I realized I needed a new strategy, one which, even if I couldn’t win, would allow me not to lose. Preferably a strategy that did not involve being shish-kabobbed.   So no more mad dashes forward.  No more desperate attempts to land a hit. No more leaving my vulnerable side exposed as I charged across the floor.

And you know what?  It mostly kind of worked.  I emerged unscathed from my first match, and got hit only once during my second. (Granted, these were short practice sessions, not full-on matches, but I was pretty happy.) Of course, I didn’t score any points, and not getting hit sometimes involved throwing myself backward in a distinctly ungraceful way as opposed to the fluid footwork my instructor prefers, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Writing is a little bit like fencing a superhero.  It’s a business which, if we’re not careful, will stab us in the heart every time we let it.  We get a form rejection from our dream agent. The editor who bought our best friend’s book won’t even glance at ours. Our contract is for a miniscule amount, not the six-figure check we’d hoped for.  We sell a single book, not the three title series we’ve worked on for years.

If we see each setback as failure, there’s no reason to keep at it.  Instead, we need to change how we see the game.  The form rejection is a chance to hone our query until an agent can’t refuse us.  The editor who turns down our novel is telling us the writing’s just not ready and giving us a chance to improve. The small advance gives us room to grow. The single title takes the pressure off during the writing process.  If nothing else, we can focus on one chapter, one page, one sentence, on making those words as perfect as we can, one word at a time.

I don’t fence because I expect to be in the Olympics.  I do it because, even when I’m losing, it’s fun.  Or it’s supposed to be, anyhow.  It’s only when I lose sight of my goals, when I focus too much on winning, that it becomes unpleasant.  And, ironically, the more I try to win the more I leave myself open to mistakes.  So if I can just focus on enjoying the game, and on not losing, I come out ahead.  It’s the same with writing.

At the heart of things, writing is supposed to be enjoyable, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of that fact.

I’m a Penguins fan (the cartoon, not the hockey team).  And as Skipper says, “That’s not failure.  That’s redefined mission objectives.”

Happy writing.

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John Scalzi, a writer I really like, did a very kind thing this week: He gave writers and editors the chance to share information about their books in his blog’s comments.  A type of writerly gift guide for the holidays, if you will.

I thought it might be fun to do something similar.  So I’m going to use this post to highlight five businesses that have wonderful products.  They are all local (to me, or to places I visit frequently) and small, but they produce some of my very favorite things.  If you are looking for the perfect holiday present, hostess gift, or stocking stuffer, you can’t go wrong with any of these. (Aaaand in the interest of full disclosure, I have no ties, connections, or relatives in any of these businesses.  I get nada from recommending them, other than the chance to share them with you.)

Plum Island Soap Company.  My pediatrician affectionately refers to one of my children as “the creature from the blue lagoon” because said child has such dry, scaly skin.  The only thing I’ve ever found that helps is this company’s baby balm.  I started applying it as a diaper cream (no more diaper rash!) and moved on to coating said child from head to toe with it at night.  Then I stole the jar and started using it myself.  Great for chapped hands, dry elbows, or any other area.  The company also makes soap that smells so good, my babies would try to eat it.  Finally, they have a black licorice line of products, which means I am a customer for life.  And unlike the products mentioned in this scary article, Plum Island Soap Company’s stuff doesn’t have any frightening ingredients, so you can use it as often as you like.

Three Sisters Farms In summer, our first stop at the farmer’s market is at this stall. Glenn, who owns the business with his family, is remarkably patient with all of us as we ask questions and handle products.  Their beeswax candles smell like heat and flowers mixed together, and in winter I light them just to remember the sun’s glow.  (Last year, my son saved his money all summer long to purchase an enormous dragon-shaped candle, which he refuses to burn.  He keeps it next to his bed to scare the dark away.) I’m a particular fan of their lavender honey — I dole it out in cups of tea like a miser — but their raw wildflower honey is pretty sweet too.  A jar would make an awfully nice gift for your favorite writer, don’t you think?

Bridgewater Chocolate.  Back in the day, I would send these chocolates to clients, and a box of Bridgewater truffles was the best possible gift I could think of for my agent and editor.  Their candies are  rich and dark and sinful and if you buy them, plan to have them shipped to their final destination.  Otherwise your family will find you hiding in a dark closet, clutching the box meant for Great Aunt Mabel to your chest and eating them as fast as possible.  (I, of course, would never be found in such a position.  I wait till the kids are at school to open the box.)

Norm’s Atomic Barbecue Sauce.  I put barbecue sauce on food instead of ketchup, and Norm’s has the best I’ve ever tasted.  It’s smoky and sweet with just enough of a kick to let you know this isn’t kid stuff.  I bought two jars last year, meaning to give one as a gift, and by September I’d gone through both of them.  His sauce is good on eggs, on french fries, on cheese sandwiches … this summer, I got smart and bought three bottles.  Only one is left, so I guess I need to decide how much I really like a certain family member.

Sunny Window.  Every year, I attend the same holiday craft fair, and one of the highlights is walking into the room and inhaling the scent of

Sunny Window’s products.  Lavender, lemongrass soap, sage lotion … it’s all gorgeous and gorgeously displayed, and there is always something new and unique.  This year, it was tiny boxes made out of orange peels, beautifully decorated and faintly scented with citrus.The owner, Nancy, also does workshops, and I’m thinking the lavender class might be just the thing to chase the winter blues AND the writer’s block away.

Batch Ice Cream.  Let’s just put it out there — I’m not a fan of ice cream.  Oh, I’ll eat it in summer, but give me a choice of how to spend my calories and chocolate and cake win, every time.  Except that a few weeks ago my husband brought home a pint of Batch’s Ginger Ice Cream.  And I ate the whole thing.  By myself. I think I showed remarkable restraint by not running to the store immediately to sample their Cinnamon and Chocolate Bits, or their Salted Carmel, but one can only be strong for so long.  Showing up at a holiday gathering with a few containers of this ice cream and an attractive scoop might make you very popular indeed.

My local indie bookstore.  I have three that I consider ‘mine’ — two within driving distance of my home and one that I can visit only in summer. All offer personal customer service, and have turned me on to writers I might never have discovered on my own.  Books are the perfect gift — they’re compact, yet they contain the world inside, and there’s one for almost everybody on your list.  (And if you are buying Evenfall this year for someone, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.)  Plus, you can pair the book with a meaningful experience to make it a unique event the receiver will treasure forever.  Here’s a great guide to help you get started, updated for 2011.

Whew.  So that’s my contribution to your gift list for this year.  Now I’d love to hear your suggestions!

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I’m taking fencing classes.  It’s good exercise and it makes my brain work in different ways.  I will never, ever be good at it.  Part of it is I just don’t have the right physical gifts — my hand-eye coordination is lacking, for one, and I don’t have the speedy reflexes you need to avoid being skewered, for two.  I’m doing it for fun, and it is fun, even though I got whumped by a nine-year-old last week.

But my instructor has been to the Olympics several times, and was at one point ranked number one in the country. He’ll demonstrate a move, or take a few quick steps, and you can see the passion and grace and talent, the sheer skill that makes him a joy to watch.

What you don’t see are the hours and hours of practice, the time he spent living overseas away from family and friends, to train with the best. You don’t see the bruises and injuries and missed parties and celebrations and birthdays. Those hours, put in when I was a teen and hanging with friends or watching Star Trek reruns, are the main reason that at my age, I’ll never be good.  There just aren’t enough hours left.

I read recently that an expert who is someone who has made all the mistakes possible within a narrow field. It’s a line that made me laugh, but I’ve been thinking about this all week, since Steve Jobs died.  He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.  He made lots, and learned from them, and failed better, as the quote goes.

But he also put the time in.  To be an expert takes time — time to make those mistakes, to recover from them, to apply what you’ve learned, to fail again and fail better.  Whether you’re a fencing champion, relentlessly practicing in a cold country thousands of miles away from home, a baseball player who throws and bats well into the dark, a writer who puts down a sentence, removes five words, adds two, and does that again and again, there is no expertise without time.

And when you choose to specialize, to become an expert, you’re choosing to spend your days on this, but not on that.  On an Olympic medal, but not your best friend’s birthday.  On a championship, but not on a family dinner.  On a handful of glittering sentences that hold a book together, but not on an afternoon with the kids at the beach.

There’s no right choice, just a hard one.  What do you choose?

A finite amount of time

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Peonies and False Indigo

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The ever-charming and entertaining Joshilyn Jackson posted a blog post today that started me thinking.  I’m the kind of person for whom “good” is not usually “enough,” and my definition of success is constantly being adjusted upwards.  It’s a good thing, having goals, but there’s also something to be said for enjoying the moment, for appreciating what you’ve achieved.  I tend not to do this, and I’ve become more and more conscious of my attitude as my children have grown. I want them to strive to be their best in everything, but I also want them to be able to delight in the high points without rushing forward to the next peak.  And I want them to realize that who they are, and what they are worth, comes from within, not from some outward goal that they may or may not make.

I don’t always help myself on this path, but luckily I have people around me who will remind me of what’s important.  Sometimes I have an epic fail. (Example:  I’m not really a Tiger Mom, but when my daughter came home with a fabulous report card I couldn’t …quite … stop myself from asking why she went from an A+ to an A in one subject.  My husband didn’t hang me upside down for that one, but he was definitely tempted.)

In my writing career, I’ve spent a lot of time focussing on what’s ahead, instead of what’s in front of me right now.  Finishing my book, finding an agent, connecting with an editor, seeing my book in stores … it’s like climbing a mountain, and as soon as you reach the top of one, there’s another summit to tackle.  And the thing is, it never ends.  There will always be some other goal, just out of reach.  And if you tie your self-worth to whether you attain it, you will never be content with what you’ve already accomplished.

I’m starting to understand, too, that after a certain point, much of this whole thing is out of my control.  At the end of the day, the only reasonable goal is to write the best book I am capable of, do what I can to get it into the world, and let it go.  And then spend time with the real prize, the people (and slobbering beasts) who matter.  Because if you think time on each mountain top is short, the time you have with the people you love is infinitely shorter.

How do you define success?

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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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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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There are two things I will never, ever do again:

1) Drink a margarita and champagne in the same day; and

2) Watch a DVD I know nothing about with my mother-in-law.

Lips that touch margaritas will never touch mine.

I’m not sure which was more painful.  In my defense for the first situation, I rarely get out, the two different drinks were served hours apart at two different events, I rarely get out, and it was after a week of being home with the kids.  Aspirin taken and lesson learned.

I’m still recovering from the second event.

As you might have guessed from my post a few weeks ago about State of Play, I have become a raving Paul Abbott fan.  While he will never replace the true and adoring love I have in my heart for Joss Whedon, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way about a television show.  So, while perusing my Netflix choices, I looked up what else Paul Abbott has done.  A little BBC production called Shameless had great reviews, so I signed up for the first disc.  And waited to watch the first episode until  the MIL came to stay for a few days.

Big mistake.

Yes, the show is funny.  Yes, it’s fast-paced.  Yes, there are  brilliant one-liners and interesting characters and a fantastic romantic storyline.  And yes, it has James McAvoy.  It also has the most graphic, raucous coupling on a kitchen floor I’ve watched in recent memory (meaning the last 20 or so years).  Granted, the past 10 or so I’ve been watching mostly Disney films, but still.  Sitting there, all of us on the couch, was like watching a train wreck and being unable to find the flippin’ remote to stop it.

The only saving grace was most of the dialogue was spoken in accents so thick we missed every other word.  (I went back and watched with the close-captioned on later, and it’s pretty funny.  But not with your MIL.)  Luckily, she knows me very well (and this isn’t the first time I’ve embarrassed myself — oh, the stories she could tell) and was amused.  She may even have added it to her own Netflix queue.

But the shock I felt watching the show made me think about how much trust we place in writers — because I like this book by this person, I’ll buy her next book, or rent his next television show.  It’s a compliment, I think, but it’s also limiting — as a writer, you may not have the confidence to break out and do something your audience doesn’t expect for fear they won’t follow you there.

I’m working on my next book, so it’s something to ponder — at least while I wait for the second season of Shameless to arrive in my mailbox.  MIL dear, hope to see you soon.

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Diving In

Every summer, we pack up the kids and the dog and whatever else we can stuff in the car and head to a tiny beach in Connecticut.  Let me preface this story by stating that I am not a beach person. My ancestors come from a place where damp is a season, and I spend most of my time slathering sunscreen on myself and anyone related to me who will hold still long enough.  But the beach in Connecticut is a tradition, going back generations on my husband’s side, and I have come to accept that I will spend a good portion of my summer camped out under an umbrella, hiding from the sun’s rays with a bunch of other pigmentally challenged individuals.

There are two reasons in particular that I am not fond of the beach: I have to wear a bathing suit and there are sharks. Let us address the more upsetting of these two reasons first.  The beach is tiny, as I mentioned, and as you step onto it for the first time that season it feels as if everyone turns around to say hello.  For years I agonized over finding the right piece of spandex-lycra combination that would make me look taller/thinner/more in shape, that would make people think “Whoa, she looks good,” rather than “Um, hey, have you heard the beach shack started selling Skinny Cow pops this year?”

Then there are the sharks.  I read Jaws way too young, and the memory of it has stayed with me for life.  I am seriously convinced that when I step into the water, someone rings a dinner bell, and all the sharks out cruising in the ocean start hightailing it my way.  I usually manage to stay in the water for about five minutes before panic sets in and I have to retreat back to the umbrella.

This has gone on forever.  But then a few years ago, my son figured out how to walk, and the entire matrix changed.  Instead of trying to find a suit that made me look good, I needed to find one that would stay on as I hauled down the boardwalk at warp speed, intent on keeping someone who could not swim from throwing himself in the water. When people stopped me to say hello, I was too busy to wonder what they thought of how I looked — I just hoped all pertinent parts were still covered.

Last year he learned how to swim, and several times attempted to make it to Long Island. (I lost my cell phone to the Sound jumping in after him the first time.)  Now that he’s in the water, I kind of have to be too.  And while I still spend a good portion of the time splashing the shallows and hollering at him to come back, I’ve found that sometimes you just have to dive in and swim, sharks be damned.

So, with that long-winded prologue, I’d like to introduce my website. I’m diving in and hoping I’ve got all pertinent bits covered.  Let me know what you think.

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Hello in Five Words

This week I’m obsessing about two things: plot and State of Play.

As a writer, plot is where I work the hardest.  I have a hard time saying hello in less than five words.  Writing query letters killed me (if I could tell the story in one page, why bother with a 320 page novel?).

Now that I’m working on my second book, I’m paying particular attention to plot — I want to make mine as tight and compelling as I can right from the beginning.  I’m always looking for ways to do it better.

That brings me to this week’s second obsession –the BBC mini-series State of Play. Oh. My. God.  If you haven’t seen this, stop what you are doing and rent it, now.  (I’ll wait. I’m still just getting to hello, remember?)

I don’t watch much television, and when I do it’s usually with half an eye while I read or edit or something else.  Not with this show.  It’s so tightly written, so action-packed, that I can’t do anything but sit on the edge of the sofa and bite my nails.  It doesn’t hurt that it stars Bill Nighy doing his best malevolent long-legged spider impression (he alternates between that and sprawling hound dog) and cute little nibble James McAvoy from Atonement. (James, did you hear I wrote a book? The role of Cort is wide open — call me!)

Each show has heart-stopping action and twists, but it also has compelling characters (some of whom don’t make it through), whip-smart dialogue, and cliff-hanger endings.  I’ve seen the first three episodes and ordered the final three.  All in the name of research, of course. If you watch it, leave me a comment and let me  know what you think.

Oh, and hello. 🙂

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