Tuesday, October 30, 2012


My family lives in northern Delaware and just across the state line in Chadds Ford, PA—in other words, right in the path of the eye of the storm. Yesterday I watched with growing concern as the frightening footage of flooding on the New Jersey shore started appearing online. Then around 2:00 p.m. my sister texted that her power went out.

I was confident my sister and BIL would be fine. They're prepared for a long siege of no power, flooding and roads blocked by downed trees. Both have been through hurricanes in the Caribbean and have a healthy respect for the forces of nature. My dad, not so much. Hell, who am I kidding? That old dude scoffed at every suggestion we made with the exception of putting water bottles in the freezer to keep the food cold longer. He laughed when I told him to fill their extra bath tub so they could flush if the water went off. Personally, I think this is critical to disaster planning--yo, flushing toilets when the water is off for a few days--but he chuckled and ignored my advice. I tried again with my mother. Maybe she did it, maybe she listened to the stubborn old dude and didn't. The situation was out of my hands. As my Southern in-laws say, "I gave them to God and figure he's gonna have to take it from here." 

This morning I got a text from my sister—no power but otherwise good. I later talked to my dad who smugly told me they had a little rain but hadn’t even lost power. I’m glad they’re safe but a part of me wanted to scream at him that he was lucky not smart. Alas, at this point in our lives, pressing my point is futile.

I know Pat has family in New Jersey and hope they were lucky too.  I've been through a couple dozen hurricanes, both here in Houston and during my years in St. Croix, and understand that the best preparation can be useless against a violent storm. My thoughts are with everyone who is facing days, weeks and months of recovery from the devastation nature inflicted on the east coast. I'm reminded that my power is limited and the cosmos is capable of wrecking havoc with our world. Weather can totally change the game, the stakes and the very existence of people, places and things. Sandy, Ike, Katrina—names we humans should remember when we get too cocky about our control of the planet. Sometimes nature bites back.

Where are you and how has Sandy affected you and your family?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Forget Glass Half Full: Rimside Up or Down?

The recent presidential debates offer collateral benefits. You're skeptical, I know, but bear with me.

In my kitchen, I store glassware and cups upside down in cabinets. The rims sit on perforated foam shelf liner because, well, I've always done it that way.

Recently, a guest turned over my cups to suit her rims-up sensibility. I stopped her before she moved on to the second shelf. "What are you doing?"

"Your cups were upside down."

"I like them that way."


"They're less likely to tip over."

That argument may be weak, but my guest backed off, perhaps because I held a colander like a shield. (It'll be more than four years before anyone offers to help me in the kitchen again.)

I told my neighbor about my interfering guest and got no sympathy. Au contraire, she backed the guest and argued there was no reason to store glassware upside down in a closed cabinet since there hadn't been dust storms in the region for decades.

Dust storms? Who knew the issue of glassware storage inspired snark? Before I managed a word edgewise, my neighbor went on to say she'd experienced far worse: a visitor who'd interfered in the bathroom.

"He switched the toilet-paper roll so it unwound with the paper dropping straight down, against the wall. Can you believe it?"

Thanks to my cup-turning guest, I could. "That's the way I put rolls on in my house, but I wouldn't mess with the rolls in yours."

My neighbor stared. "The paper's supposed to unwind over the top of the roll. Everybody knows that."

"Everybody? You're full of malarkey," I said.

"Takes one to know one, and why are we talking about glasses and toilet paper when the country's at war and people have lost their homes?"

"You want to talk about war and foreclosures?"

"God, no."

"There's no logical reason why I store glasses rim down," I admitted. "I just like the way it looks."

"I know. Me, I like the rims-up look and toilet paper that unwinds over the top of the roll." My neighbor raised her glass of Dr. Pepper.

I raised my Diet Coke with Lime.

 "To each his own," she said.


We regular folk don't have debate coaches prodding us to put the other guy on the defensive or expose his vulnerabilities. No one monitors our body language and gives us a bullet list of must-make points. What's more, we don't have to put up with everyone and his brother critiquing our performance and finding us wanting.

I can tell my neighbor I store glasses rim-side down "just because." She doesn't have to defend her toilet-paper stance to me.

The recent debates made me grateful I don't have to justify everything I say and do. I'm free to change my mind without provoking a firestorm of criticism. My every slip of the tongue doesn't cause an incident.

The single best collateral benefit of the debates? We don't have to watch them again for four years.

Has a trifling household matter caused debate at your house? How glad are you not to be running for president?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I collect quotes. I've been writing them down in a datebook for years. Some of them are profound, some inspiring, some are witty. Others are of the bumper-sticker ilk. I thought I'd share some of my favorites today. I try to track down the source, but please correct me if I'm wrong and excuse me if I don't know who originally said/wrote it. So here we go:

"Happiness is what you choose to pay attention to." -- attrituted to Janis Joplin.

"Write drunk, edit sober." --writerly advice from Ernest Hemingway

"Computers let you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history with the exception of handguns and tequila." --Unknown

"I am the literary equivalent of Big Mac and fries." --Stephen King

"Easy ready is damn hard writing." --Nathaniel Hawthorne

"Ever notice 'what the hell' is always the right decision?" --Unknown Hollywood screenwriter

"Until one has loved an animal, part of one's soul remains unawakened." --Anatole France

"Happiness is good health and a bad memory." --Paul Newman

"Never give yourself a haircut after three alcoholic beverages of any kind." --Rules of Life

"Not all those who wander are lost." --J.R.R. Tolkien

Okay, so these are all over the place. Quelle surprise! Do you have any favorite quotes, sayings, bumper stickers you're willing to share? We'd love to hear them!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

When Is a Writer Like a Tree?

In Houston, green leaves still hold tight to oaks, but walkers in the urban forest crunch acorns underfoot. In some places, the blanket of fallen nuts is so dense, I'd swear I was tromping along a pebble path. A recent article in the Houston Chronicle bore this headline: "Drought May Have Spurred a Deluge of Acorns" and explained the bumper crop.

Locally, oak trees are dropping acorns at five to ten times the normal rate, a phenomenon called a "mast" year. "We often see increased production in mast when we are experiencing drought, especially like the one we had last year," Matthew Weaver, a regional urban forester with the Texas A&M Forest Service, told the Chronicle. "The trees are trying to perpetuate their species so they expend energy in producing their seed."

Because Mother Nature doesn't rachet up squirrels' birth rate to match the acorn surplus, a percentage of this year's nuts won't be consumed—and thus get a chance to grow into mighty oaks—and replace the trees killed by lack of water.

I've had to tweak the images I carry in my mind's eye of drought-stressed trees from the summer of 2011. I still see their wilted, stunted leaves, but now I imagine what's going on beneath the surface. The trees are holding on, doing what has to be done, and preparing for an eventual acorn overdrive.  

Like trees, writers endure drought years. For months on end, we may only eke out work--and it may only earn a tepid response. We battle self-doubt, writer's block, and commitments that gobble our writing time. We may have lost an editor or been cut loose by a publisher. Shrinking advances and royalties make us to question ourselves and our writing.

Yet, if we hold on, do what has to be done and keep tapping on the keyboard--even when we have to fight for each word and the time to write it--we set ourselves up for a mast year.

Are mast years predictable? Sadly, no. They don't always follow droughts and may appear two years running then not again for a decade.

That unpredictability confounds a lot of writers, but if oaks weather it, why not us? "Fortune favors the prepared mind," wrote scientist Louis Pasteur, supposedly in reponse to colleagues who dismissed his discovery of pasteurization as pure luck. As long as we keep learning and producing, we'll have something to sell when fortune favors us.

Next time you despair of finishing the work in progress or getting your first or another book deal, go outside and gather acorns. Remember, this year's bounty came from trees that survived on sips of water during a hotter-than-usual summer. When you're tempted to complain that publishing's changing and you can't keep up, think of trees girding themselves for global warming.

Trees and writers that survive hard times will see their efforts bear fruit.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


On Saturday I attended Northwest Houston RWA's Lone Star conference  where JamesScott Bell imparted his wisdom on the craft of writing fiction. At one point in discussing dialogue he warned, "Don't use dialogue to have your characters dump backstory. It's boring and real people don't talk like that." Unfortunately, on Sunday evening I learned Mr. Bell was wrong.

After a successful shopping trip at Katy Mills Mall, at closing my husband and I returned to his SUV to go home and discovered the gear shift was stuck in park and was determined not to budge. The owner's manual was no help in solving the problem so we gave up and called our insurance company's road-side assistance number for a tow. Now I'm not saying all tow-truck drivers are unscrupulous bottom feeders, but the last time Steve got towed, the driver took his car to his own lot instead of the mechanic and held it ransom for 2 days. In other words, we weren't too enthusiastic about being 25 miles from home and at the mercy of whoever showed up.

As it turned out a polite young guy arrived within a half hour and got the SUV onto his trailer with impressive efficiency. Somewhat relieved, my husband and I got into the cab for the ride to the garage that services his vehicle. Being a friendly sort, I commented that satnav systems like the one the driver had stuck to his windshield must make his job easier. Big mistake. The driver, let's call him Joe, launched into a story about how he'd been ripped off when he bought what he thought was a new Garmin and discovered it had 134,000 miles on it. After confronting the store owner, he got a more expensive brand new one and was quite pleased with himself for coming out $80 ahead. 

Without further encouragement (for once I didn't ask questions), he told us he'd been driving tow-trucks since he was 17 (he's 24 now) and used to have one of his own, and that's about the time I knew we were going to get way more information than we wanted. "I lost everything," he said, "when I went to prison." 

That was definitely a TMB moment--Too Much Backstory.

He explained he'd gone to prison for five years when he was 19 and had been out for six months then proceeded to give us an account of his present employer who was name Ahmed, his weekly paycheck of $250 (although he use to make a lot more than that before he went away), his rent of $465 a month and his annoyance that his girlfriend refused to get a job. At that point the girlfriend called his cell and we heard a lot of apologies, all starting with "Baby,..." When he hung up, we thought--hoped--the personal revelations might be finished but, no. 

To be fair, I imagine some people would have asked him why he went to prison and I'll admit I was curious. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when he gave us the gory details--a fight backing up his brother who'd been jumped by seven men that left a guy "hurt bad." This was on the job back when Joe was doing repro work--something he doesn't do anymore. Seems that big money had its downside, and AAA and insurance company road-side assistance is safer. What a surprise. 

Eventually we arrived at our mechanic’s garage, the SUV was unloaded and Joe headed home to his unemployed girlfriend and a late dinner. I thought about what Mr. Bell had said about dribbling in backstory and only telling the reader what he or she needs to know to understand the story. Did we need to know Joe’s backstory to get our car from Katy to Houston? Absolutely not. And yet it added an element of tension and suspense a silent ride would have lacked. And somehow I think that would have been just fine with us. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Let's Work Together

If you watch Project Runway, a reality television show about clothing designers vying for funding to produce their own line, you know the contestants hate team challenges. They'd rather succeed or fail on their own merits.

The same is true in the Top Chef kitchen. The contestants competing for the title of America's Top Chef dread group challenges. They don't want to be teamed with someone they consider less competent or lacking the desire to win at all costs.

Think of group projects you've participated in at work or school. In almost every three-person team, there's a Bossypants and a Slacker. I'm guessing you're neither, which means you had to maintain the peace, keep Bossypants rooted in reality, and make sure the Slacker contributed something. You probably did seventy percent of the work for the worst of all rewards: both Bossypants and Slacker vowed to pick you for every team they captained until the end of time.

The memory of one group project I worked on years ago still floods me with anxiety. It should have made me a permanent member of the "I'll do it myself" tribe, but I've been too lucky in partnerships to want to go it alone all the time.

I'm lucky to team with Lark on this blog. There have been days when I had a post due and not a thought in my head. Rather than let Lark down, I forced myself to come up with something. If this blog were mine alone, it would have gone dark months ago.

Do we ever really know someone until we've worked with him or her on a tough project? (Long ago, Hubs and I decided the true test of a relationship was the ability to hang wallpaper together.) Co-workers who initially struck me as flighty proved uber-dependable, and those who inspired confidence from a distance turned into cardboard up close.

Writers work alone for hours at a time, but it's the rare writer who doesn't need feedback from peers. I've been so lucky with critique partners, I'm joining yet another critique group. The prospect is scary but exhilarating. It's scary because the other members and I might not be a good fit, but it's exhilarating because we might discover our combined strengths compensate for our individual weaknesses. Most important is the reminder I'm never alone at the keyboard. Someone will read my words, and I'll read theirs.

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of We Are Not Alone, a blogging class I took with social-media expert Kristen Lamb.  The class lasted two months, but the rewards will continue indefinitely. I've made online friends and learned from them and their blogs. I rouse myself to comment on others' blogs rather than nod in recognition, smile, and log off. When my energy nosedives and I neglect to promote a post, one of my WANA buddies will tweet the link. I've celebrated with indie-published WANAs and wait with others for offers from traditional publishers. Through triumphs and disappointments, we know someone has our back.

A sense of solidarity fuels the writer alone in the crowd at the coffee shop. As Lark wrote in a post last week, the tools and encouragement we get from fellow writers propels us forward—and prompts us to give back.

Teamwork that brings out our best is worth seeking out and holding onto.  

Here's Canned Heat: on the topic:


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life In the Abstract

My husband and I were invited to some friends’ house on Sunday to view paintings by the prominent Texas artist, Dorothy Hood. My husband has long been an admirer of her work and informed his art collector friends when he learned a significant number of important large paintings were coming up for sale.

Along with the gallery owner, there was a woman present, Susie Kalil, who has made it her mission to “give Dorothy her due” as an important American artist. Susie knew Dorothy and now has access to all of her personal affects which she is using to research a book not only on Dorothy’s art but also her colorful life in preparation for a major exhibition at the South Texas Institute for the Arts. And this is the part that struck me—those personal effects include journals chronicling her entire adult life in detail, letters to and from some of the most prominent artists and writers of the 20th century (she kept carbon copies of the letters she wrote), poems, photographs and sketches that tell the story of the woman behind the art.

As Susie talked about Dorothy’s time in Mexico City in the 1940s which was an intellectual and cultural center not unlike Paris in 1920, I wanted to read the journals and letters for myself to see through Dorothy’s eyes her circle of friends which included Spanish novelist Luis Buñuel, Mexican painters Miguel Covarrubias and Rufino Tamayo, American playwright Sophie Tredwell, German-born artist Mathias Goeritz, Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo and English-born surrealist Leonora Carrington a good friend. On occasion, she stayed at the house of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and painter Frida Kahlo—who wouldn’t read her accounts of those flamboyant figures?

Later she married to Bolivian composer, Velasco Maidana, and together they moved to Houston where she became a prominent figure in the art scene with work in museum collections all over the world. And through it all she recorded her travels and the people she met and maintained her friendships through long, personal letters.

I have to feel a little sad that journals, hand written letters, printed photos and other tangible items are being replaced these days with blog posts, email, telephone calls and digital photos that may be lost as software changes and technology advances. We’re told nothing is ever lost on the internet, but can it be found, examined, assembled to recreate a picture of a vibrant, creative life? Are we losing personal connections now that email and texts have replaced phone calls? Has television replaced conversation and interactive activities?

Don’t get me wrong—I love technology as a convenience in my business and personal life but I also mourn the fast pace that allows us to shortcut the thoughtful communication and introspection for personal journals and handwritten correspondence. I wonder what record will be left behind of our lives in fifty or a hundred years. Maybe this is the question every generation asks.

Do you still write letters or keep a journal? To you call or email? 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Yeah, I'm a fangirl.

Last Saturday I attended a book signing at Murder by the Book for Hank Phillippi Ryan. Her new hardcover release, THE OTHER WOMAN, has gotten wonderful reviews and made several bestseller lists, but that’s not why I was there. I wanted to meet her because she has been so generous with her encouragement over the past few years after reading my entry in NWHRWA’s Lone Star contest.

For “civilians”—non-writers who have never entered a writing contest—let me clue you in here. Contest judges can be kind, helpful, constructive, encouraging and on occasion make a suggestion that takes the writing to a whole new level. Other judges can be picky, petty, hurtful and even downright nasty in their criticism. Unfortunately, my entry had gotten a more than its share of the latter in previous contests and I was getting discouraged.

Then I got back the entry Hank judged. It was a hardcopy back then and I still have it. She gave it a very high score, but not a perfect one, however, it was her comments that showed she “got it.”  She said she loved my writing and would like to read the rest of the story and gave her name and contact information—very unusual for a judge. I emailed her a thank you and got a lovely reply asking me to keep in touch and let her know how the submission was going. And I have.

When I introduced myself on Saturday, Hank immediately remembered DEYROLLE, the oringal title of the story, and told me again how much she loved my writing. I admitted that it hasn’t sold yet and I was getting a bit discouraged. Her reply? “You’ll sell and one day we’ll laugh about this.” And her sincerity made me believe her.

Hank is only one of the generous authors I’ve met on this writer’s journey. In what other industry do successful professionals give their time, knowledge and friendship to newcomers trying to break in? And yet, go to any RWA meeting and published authors do just that. Like Hank, so many author friends have gone out of their way to help me along the road to publication. Extraordinary women like Sophie Jordan, Tera Lynn Childs, Colleen Thompson, Shana Galen, Dee Gist—just to name a few—have given me and so many others the encouragement and tools to follow our dreams. What a priceless gift!

Give a shout out to someone in your life who has given you a lift when you needed it! 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Reading: It's Subversive

Ask an English or reading teacher which he or she looks forward to the most: Banned Books Week or spring break. The answer may surprise you.

When dinosaurs roamed the earth and I ruled the classroom, Banned Books Week was my secret weapon. The most reluctant reader wants to know why A SEPARATE PEACE was deemed dangerous for teenagers in certain school districts. Nowadays, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD may be required reading in schools across the country, but it made the American Library Association's list of Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2011. Who doesn't enjoy a whiff of the illicit?

It's Banned Books Week. Pick up a book in Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES series or Sherman Alexie's THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. Share a book written by Judy Blume, an author beloved of girls everywhere yet reviled by many school boards.

Reading challenges us to slip into the shoes and mindsets of others. We try on different attitudes and face mental and physical tests. In the end, we may come to respect those we should hate and see the weaknesses in those we should revere. Reading empowers us, which is why it's dangerous.

I offer you a video in support of Banned Books Week:

Happy reading!