Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hands Off the President's Reading List

President Obama's vacation plans on Martha's Vineyard included time to read four works of fiction and one of nonfiction. In a sign of our partisan times, his leisure-reading list ruffled feathers. At the National Review, Tevi Troy wondered whether the president's interest in fiction sent a signal that he's "out of touch with reality." At Salon, Robin Black wished the summer reading list had included more women authors.

I'd hate to have my reading choices picked apart by people with agendas and biases, wouldn't you? If I read Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT, a young adult novel, it doesn't mean I want to relive my childhood, especially when childhood's set in a dystopian society. I do, however, remember how important certain choices seemed at age sixteen, especially the right-for-me college and career.

If I pick up Mary Higgins Clark's I'LL WALK ALONE, it's not because I'm flirting with paranoia but because I want to see how the woman-next-door type, someone a lot like me, copes with the fear someone has stolen her identity and is trying to destroy her sanity.

"I read because one life isn't enough," wrote author Richard Peck. Fiction helps us slip into another person's shoes and understand his/her viewpoint. Surely the ability to do so puts us more in touch with others, not less.

Robert Gray, a contributing editor at Shelf Awareness, responded to the hoopla over the president's fiction-heavy list with this: "Fiction is not all make-believe; nonfiction is not the same as truth. But we can learn from all of these variations what it means to be human."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Would You Like That Rapped?

It's Monday. Houston's under a heat advisory, so we're indoors and likely to stay there. When people acknowledge the need for an anthem, the anthem appears:

Friday, August 26, 2011


A few years ago I discovered Kanab when I went to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to volunteer for a few days. I’d wanted to go to the Sanctuary for years and working with the animals—dogs in particular—was everything I’d hoped. The real surprise of the trip was the town of Kanab, a place that hasn’t changed much since the fifties.

In the heyday of Westerns, this place was the filming location for Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, El Dorado, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Lone Ranger, and Stagecoach. When the good guys said, “Head ‘em off at the pass!” that pass is a rough-cut road in a hillside at Best Friends. The wild, stark canyons and red hills, the rock formations and stunning sunsets haven’t changed a bit since the days John Wayne and Olivia de Havilland inhabited the guest cottages at Parry’s Lodge in the heart of town.
Parry’s is still there as it always has been, the cottages ,too. You can walk across the street to the café for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy or finish off dinner with a piece of homemade banana cream pie. Or a few steps away find anything western at Denny’s Wigwam You might not have cell service and I wouldn’t count on wifi, but it you’re thinking it might be nice to drop out of the 21st century for a few days in the 1950’s, it would be tough to find a nicer western town to do just that.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do I Hear a Pachinko Machine?

Today, I'm rambling. Unfortunately, this entry isn't a trekking-in-Montana, look-at-the-bear-grass, let's-find-that-lake ramble. Instead, file it under my-thoughts-are-as-jumbled-as-my-sentences.

Still with me? I appreciate your patience—and would like to borrow any you've got to spare. Here's why: As I type, I hear chirps and pips unrelated to the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard. These must be normal noises from the building's air conditioning system, fans, or water pipes. I shouldn't let them crowd out every thought in my head, but I'm alarmed and fascinated by the tinny, robotic quality of the sound.

I had expected water from the tap to gurgle. Instead, it sizzles. Human voices sound as if they spring from Munchkins—and the Munchkins don't speak English.

Yesterday, an audiologist activated my cochlear implant. (Wikipedia defines a CI as a "surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing.") Today, I'm absorbing and trying to identify what I hear.

"It's a process," the audiologist warned. I would have preferred, "It's a miracle," but every writer has heard the process message a gazillion times and knows it's shorthand for hunker down and do the work--without whining.

The audiologist promised I'd understand more tomorrow than I do today. Three months from now, she thinks I'll forget that voices ever sounded Munchkin-like.

The latter's unlikely. I'm a writer and process reactions and impressions by jotting them down. My thoughts may be jumbled, but they're on the record.

Update: It's Day Two with my implant, and I've been back to the audiologist for fine-tuning. Pre-appointment, I was sure the Munchkins were speaking Czech. Now, they're speaking English, although a lot of them slur their words. To my surprise, the elevator in my surgeon's building announces the floor when it makes a stop. Who knew?

Monday, August 22, 2011


A while back I came across a blog post entitled Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors by Steve Silberman. Who can resist practical tips? Although most of these authors write non-fiction, some of the tips struck me as brilliant. Here a few. Check out Steve’s blog for the rest.

-Cory Doctorow  Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

1.    Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.
2.    Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.
3.    Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.

-Ben Casnocha  Entrepreneur and author of My Start-Up Life

1.    Shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott nailed it! But with books, it seems to be more like “shitty 20th drafts.” So shitty, for so long.
2.    Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.
3.    Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions.

Josh Shenk  Author of Lincoln’s Melancholy

1.     Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.
Stephen S. Power says: 
Don’t even think of using song lyrics. They cost a fortunate, and the permissions are so convoluted they’ll just make you hate the song. And, no, you can’t just use one line. Check out Anne Tyler’s “Breathing Lessons”: she had to get permission for one line from the Dead’s “Golden Road.” Although admittedly it might be cool to use a line from a Dead song just to be in contact with Ice 9.

What the best writing advice you ever got? What’s the worst?

Friday, August 19, 2011


Here's a Friday Virtual Field Trip to amuse and distract you from all those things you really should be doing:

I'm thinking a grammar test could be useful for a lot of the DMV for starts. Imagine how much more smoothly traffic would move if everyone on the road knew the difference between its, it's and itch.

And if you still haven't wasted enough time, there are always absurd warning signs...

What did we do before the internet, anyhow?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Writing As Cardio

I don't awaken eager to fire up my laptop and begin writing, but I love having written.

I feel the same way about exercise, especially during this record-breaking Texas heat.

Pitfalls lurk both in writing and workout plans. No credible exercise program guarantees steady weight loss. In fact, many warn newbies they'll initially gain pounds as they build muscle.

For writers, there's painful lag time between learning a craft point and internalizing it and between pinpointing what's not working in a manuscript and figuring out how to fix it. Worse, many a new writer's voice has been squashed, temporarily, by feedback that focuses on grammar rather than on storytelling ability.

Am all-or-nothing attitude sabotages exercise and writing progress. Anyone who overdoes cardio risks working up an appetite so ferocious it can derail a diet—and who can pump iron while holding a doughnut? A writer who doesn't lift her head from the work in progress starves the muse that's hungry for snippets of overheard dialogue and impressions of people recently encountered.

Plateaus, damn them, exist to test the fortitude of exercisers and writers. Imagine working out six days a week for two months without seeing any change on the scale. Now picture a writer stretching her writing muscles for weeks before results appear on the page. It takes discipline and a stubborn streak to keep going when there's little measurable progress.

In exercise and in writing, it matters that we show up. If I go to the park and walk two miles, sweat will trickle past the brim of my ball cap and sting my eyes, but I might spot a blue heron along the bayou and lower my blood pressure. If I open my Word document and begin typing, I might produce many unusable paragraphs, but there's a good chance something will gel and I'll make progress.

The joy that comes with in having written and exercised is a pipe dream until we begin.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wanted: Heart and Soul

Last week I read an article by the brilliant romance writer and teacher, Pat Kay, which cautioned against overuse of flashbacks. The same day I started reading a literary novel written mostly in flashbacks with only about a quarter of the interspersed action occurring in the present of the story. The premise and the setting of the book were intriguing, but I couldn’t help wondering why the author chose that structure to tell her story.
Perhaps we writers see too much craft in the books we read and miss some of the magic. Or maybe we just pick up on what it is that makes a reader respond a certain way. For me, flashbacks yank me out of the story then force me to re-engage in a past only to plop me back in a present. After a couple of those jumps, I detach from the characters and their journey. As much as I wanted to love the book, I was disappointed that I couldn’t care more about the characters. It got me thinking about what I want to accomplish with my own writing.
Although the romance genre frequently gets slashed for “bad writing,” “formulaic plots,” and “unrealistic love stories,” the writers I know work hard to perfect their craft. Over the years I’ve gone to countless workshops on everything from plotting to point-of-view to engaging the reader and on and on. Like all my writer friends, I’ve worked hard to learn how to create characters readers will care enough about to get lost in their lives for a little while, to be immersed in their struggles, mistakes, and the redemption which leads to a happily-ever-after. The learning never ends, of course, but neither does a writer’s journey. We write, rewrite and re-write again,  hoping to achieve at least a part of what we aspire to. Our job is to entertain and move the reader, and unless we do that it’s unlikely an agent will want to represent us, an editor will want to publish our story or anyone will buy our books. Sure, there are plenty mediocre romances out there, but there are also brilliantly written stories that make us laugh and cry and wish they’d never end. Those are the up-lifting stories we all invest our hearts and souls to write.

Friday, August 12, 2011


A recent article from Lonely Planet intrigued me. How could it not with the title: How Travel Makes You Smarter, Sexier and More Productive? At last scientific (sort of) evidence justified all the time and money I’ve spent over the years on my travel addiction. Those trips to England, Ireland, Italy made me smarter.  All those weeks in Paris surely made me sexier (my fantasy). And jaunts to the Caribbean, Jackson Hole, Wine Country made me more productive. Who knew?
I’ve always loved the observation, “Not everyone who wanders is lost.”  I also believe there’s a difference between a tourist and a traveler. A tourist sees the sights; a traveler experiences the place and the people. I like to think of myself as a traveler. Over the years I’ve met a lot of people in the places I’ve visited who have become close friends. I’ve learned to live like a local, appreciate food and customs, and even improved my language skills. For me, sitting in a sidewalk café people-watching trumps a visit to an obscure museum any day. And a lively dinner discussion with other guests at a chambre d’hotes can be the highlight of a trip.
There’s something about being in another environment, whether a foreign country or a domestic destination, that seems to strip away the identities we construct to function in daily life. In a foreign place we have the freedom to follow new paths and dreams of who we really are or who we could be. When no one has pre-conceptions of us, external trapping slip away and we soon find a lot of those daily issues and frustrations fall into perspective. We are who we are—we’re not our situation, our family, our job or our friends. For me, that freedom is one of the best reasons to travel.
There are still many new places I’d like to go—most probably qualify as adventure destinations—such as Bhutan, Turkey, Morocco and an African photo safari, but the old favorites call me back again and again. And every time I travel I discover something new—often about myself—and fall in love with the journey once more.
Do you like to travel? What’s your favorite destination? If you could go anywhere, where would it be?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Say It Again, Sam

Last week, one of my younger daughter's colleagues pulled her aside for a whispered correction. "It's 'for all intents and purposes,' not 'for all intensive purposes.'" My girl was certain her coworker was mistaken and looked up the phrase. Humiliation followed. "I've been saying it wrong my whole life," she wailed at a recent family dinner.
Her sister frowned. "I say 'for all intensive purposes,' too. That's wrong?" The wailing at the table doubled, and the girls gave their father and me a look that said we could have saved them beaucoup embarrassment if only we'd paid more attention when they spoke.


We’ve all misunderstood, misspoken, and miswrote. Not long ago, a critique partner startled me by changing my, "If you thought I'd let you walk out that door, you've got another thing coming," to "…you've got another think coming." Drat. My CP was correct, and I fixed my mistake, but it stings to know I'd used that phrase wrong for decades.

Once in a while, a misspoken or miswritten phrase is more evocative than the original. A former student wrote that his family's plans changed because of a "monkey ranch." I struck "ranch" and substituted "wrench," but his original wording charmed me. Who wouldn't change plans to take in a traveling show of ridin' and ropin' monkeys?

A neighbor coined a word that may be greater than the sum of its parts. He was grappling with the loss of a job and a failed relationship and described himself as "flustrated." Would you have added to his woes by telling him the dictionary didn't recognize his mash-up of flustered and frustrated? Me, neither.

"I could care less," means I do care, if not a lot. "I couldn't care less," means I don't care at all.

Older daughter cares about words as much as she likes to razz her mama. The day after our family get-together, she sent this email:


What misspoken or miswritten phrases irk you the most?

Monday, August 8, 2011


Whether you're a Plotter or Pantser, a writer or filmmaker, this little gizmo could be the answer to your prayers. Happy Monday!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Head Is Spinning

When I was told my recent surgery was likely to cause a week's worth of dizziness, I bought socks with non-skid bottoms--and stocked up on fiction.

Fiction can soothe, divert, and stop self-pity in its tracks, which is why I'm now on a quest to improve people's outlooks via novels. I’ve dubbed this mission booko-feedback.

Post-surgery, I napped on and off for twenty-four hours only to awaken disoriented and out-of-sorts. What better book to pick up than one in which wallpaper changes patterns of its own accord? Sarah Addison Allen's THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON has a whiff of the supernatural and a town full of people who need healing. This story features a gentle giant, a woman who bakes to lure her long-lost daughter home, and a girl who falls for the one boy she shouldn't. By the time the townspeople learned to forgive themselves and each other, I'd shrugged off the drugs and was halfway to cheerful.

The British excel at the stiff upper lip thing, so my next selection was Amanda Hodgkinson's 22 BRITANNIA ROAD, set in post WWII London. In this book, a Polish mother and child emigrate to England to join the Polish husband and father they thought they'd lost. The husband's goal is to reunite and remake themselves as a proper British family. Alas, the war marked the three of them, and both the man and woman have secret sorrows. The book's ending touched and uplifted me. More to the point, how could I complain about something as inconsequential as dizziness when Silvana, Aurek, and Janusz had suffered so much yet endured?

When mystery writer Dick Francis was alive, I'd save his latest book for a day when I was battling the flu. His heroes take a beating, stumble home to swallow a few aspirin and two fingers of whisky, and then they head back out after the bad guys. (Yes, Francis was British, why do you ask?) Southern author Joshilyn Jackson's BACKSTREET SAINTS has a heroine who would make Francis proud. Ro Grandee is an abused wife who wants to live, which means she has to flee the husband who's bound to kill her. Ro crosses the country, revisits her past, and finds the self she'd hidden under long-sleeved tops and a fake smile. I was too engrossed in Ro's fight for her life to think about myself or my spinning head.

Three books, seven days, and I felt perky again. Fiction's a great healer.

What books have changed your attitude or made you temporarily forget a problem or challenge?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


In genre fiction we’re seeing a lot more mixing of genres these days. Romance routinely mixes genres—romantic suspense, paranormal romance, inspirational romance—where both genres need to be essential to the story to make it work. But even a genre writer knows some genres were never meant to co-mingle—inspirational erotica comes to mind—so what about Jon Favreau’s latest film?
Last weekend I saw COWBOYS AND ALIENS. Even the title prepares the movie-goer for the unlikely mix of the western and sci-fi genres. In the very first scene Daniel Craig’s character wakes up in a desert with no idea who his is or how he got there and discovers a strangely high-tech wrist contraption he can’t rip off. This is where the audience gets its first glimpse of sc-fi. The action proceeds to set up the classic Western scenario—the hero’s been shot, he stands up to the town bully, the ruthless rancher terrorizes the locals—and just when we get all the elements we expect, the aliens show up to change the game and, more important, change the alliances.
For me, what made the film work in spite of its ridiculous premise—besides Daniel Craig—was that the “cowboys” faced the aliens with the familiar code-of-the-west determination we all love in classic Westerns. Faced with outlandish enemies and impossible odds, the townspeople take up the quest to save what they love and so we cheer them on and suspend our disbelief, sort of.
I won’t say this is the best movie I’ve ever seen, but I pretty much loved it beginning to end. The humans are so very flawed and yet when the going gets ugly, the best comes out in them all. The cheeky optimism might be a little corny, but Favreau and his outstanding cast never wink at the camera or infer the situation is a joke. And since it’s a Western, we always know the good guys are going to win. But the ride is what every Western is about…aliens films, too, come to think of it.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Over dinner in a chambres d’hotes (B&B) outside of Lourdes, France, my husband and I met an English couple who over the years have become two of our closest friends. They’d been in the region for several days and told us about their trek into the nearby Pyrenees where they happened on a Great Pyrenees dog show. We got an odd response when I told them we were headed for Lourdes the next day. They hadn’t ventured into the town and couldn’t imagine why I would organize our itinerary around going there.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Lourdes is a pilgrim destination where in 1858, a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her in the remote Grotto of Massabielle. The lady appeared 18 times, and by 1859 thousands of pilgrims were visiting Lourdes. Since then millions of people have come, many to take the waters which are purported to have healing powers. So what were a Buddhist and her Southern Baptist husband doing there? Good question.
The answer—curiosity. What about the place drew thousands of pilgrims from around the world each year? 

While we parked our car in a tourist lot around nine in the morning, tour coaches began to arrive and deposit pilgrims who swarmed toward the streets leading to the Shrines. To avoid the crush, we hurried ahead only to be distracted by shop after shop of unbelievable religious kitsch: Bernadette and/or the Virgin in every shape and size, adorning barometers, thermometers, plastic tree trunks, empty bottles that you can fill with holy water, bellows, candles and illuminated plastic grottoes. I bought a tiny glass bottle with a metal disc of St. Bernadette and the Virgin Mary glued on it and we headed for the main attraction.
When we eventually got to the Grotto the atmosphere shifted to one of reverence. Priests, nuns, pilgrims and a pair of Americans (us) waited patiently to enter the Grotte de Massabielle  and touch the sacred stone where Mary had appeared.  The stone was worn smooth and I only had an instant to brush my fingertips over it before the crowd nudged me on.
As we left the shrine, it felt right to light a devotional candle and fill my small bottle from the line of spigots along the side of the hill before entering the Rosary Basilica.
We sat reverently in the ornate sanctuary for many minutes, admiring its colorful domed ceiling and golden Roman-Byzantine arches. And from the ceiling a beautiful mosaic of the Blessed Virgin looked down on us with open arms. It was a serene and moving moment—mystical and beautiful.

Then my husband leaned over and whispered, “Who does she look like?”

Instantly I knew the answer. “Cate Blanchette,” I said.

He grinned and I knew it was time to move on.