Thursday, December 20, 2007

Keeping Track of the Books

For years, little slips of paper would fall out of my purse or flutter around on my desk. Written between the margins in my calendar/address book I’d see the name of a book and wonder who had recommended it. The task of writing them all on a list was akin to putting the photos stacked in my rolltop desk away in an album: a wish-list task that would most likely never get checked off.

But, I did it. I prepared an excel spreadsheet of books. Yes, it took valuable writing time, but I am proud of my masterpiece. I’m talking labeled tabs. This is probably the accountant in me, trying to keep track. Before you get too impressed, I need to admit the pages are not numbered, nor the titles in any particular order. That would require using the sorting function of excel and I never quite mastered that. But still.

The tabs are easy—categories such as:

Fiction I want to read

Non-Fiction I want to read (translation: primarily books on the writing craft). Occasionally, a non-fiction narrative like Glass Castle comes along and then I’m right in line to buy it.

Books that most affected the lives of my Oxford classmates. I look back on this list to get a quick reminder of how lucky I was to have met each of those unique individuals. Where else would you get recommendations as diverse as this: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Law of Love by Laura Esquival, or Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll?

Books I have read. This is an attempt to keep count of how many books I actually read-though I don’t date it so I won’t know if the list is per month, year, lifetime! And since I just started it, I am far behind on the count.

Books I enjoyed enough to recommend to others

Audio Books with a spectacular reader (here again, let me push Alan Rickman reading The Return of the Native)

So, how do you keep track?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Successful Critique

Finding the right critique group and partners can enhance your writing skills. Somehow I’ve managed to hit the lottery on both counts. I’m very thankful for that. And I’d like to share a few hints on what’s worked for me (though one of my critique partners would cringe at my starting a sentence with ‘And’). That’s what good critique partners do—force you to look at your bad habits. Once upon a time a sheet of dos and don’ts was passed out in our group (Lesser North Texas Writers—run by Benign Dictator, Carol Woods, Thursday nights at 7pm at B&N Park & Preston). I’m not sure if everyone read the list, but I’ve tried to pay attention. I’d like to share some pointers here. But, as with parenting advice, the people who really need to heed this either won’t read it or won’t think it applies to them.

Group Critique

First, find the right group or create your own. Find serious writers who have no agenda other than honing their craft (well, and maybe getting published). How do you find a group? Attend the Writer’s Guild of Texas meetings (every third Monday at the Richardson Library-7pm), visit online writer’s loops and websites, join the Writer’s League of Texas, or ask one of your writer friends how they found their group.

Bring a reasonable amount of pages to read. Every group has their own guidelines, but in ours, ten pages seems to be a good number, fifteen is pushing it. Read slowly and clearly (do as I say, not as I do!)

When the writer is being critiqued, the writer does not respond (unless to ask for clarification). This is a tough one. You want to jump in and say, “No, that’s not what I meant. It’s brilliant because THIS is what I meant.” If more than one person is confused by what you meant, you haven’t done your job. Period. Take the advice and when the person finishes talking say, “Thank you, I’ll work on how to say that better.”

Focus on what’s right as well as what’s wrong. No, you don’t have to drivel out fluff. But let the writer know if something worked. This serves two purposes: Pushes the writer to write more of the same brilliance and to not cut the best parts out. And try not to be hurtful (oops, I meant: Try not to be hurtful). “I was bored to tears” is not productive. “The reader needs more tension to stay in the story” is a kinder way of saying almost the same thing, but with advice on what’s missing. As Donald Maass says, “Include tension on every page.”

Unless it’s a rare occurrence, don’t show up, read your work and then leave before others have read theirs. Seems logical right? Nope, I’ve seen it happen. It’s perfectly acceptable to show up, NOT read, and leave early. In fact, it’s unusual, but actually very generous to give to your group and not expect anything back.

After you’ve been in a group for a while, you’ll know whose advice you trust and whose you don’t. This is not to say that you only listen to people who love your writing. Or that you discount someone who is not a great writer (hopefully, she's still a great reader). You can learn as much from what is not being written well as what is. (Now, that sentence needs work!).

One on One Critique

First, find the right partner(s). Find someone whose style you like (even if you don’t read the genre), who reads a lot, who is serious about writing. If you write everyday and your partner writes when they have the time, say, once a month when he’s bored, it’s not going to work.

Commit to a reasonable deadline and meet it. If something comes up, let the person know.

Devote the time and attention you would want for someone to read your work. That is, don’t do a quick read and say, “Loved it!” with no comments.

Decide how you will share your work. If you email chapters, use the track-changes feature on Word and make comments and edits right in the file. Don’t be discouraged if your pages are marked up like an F English paper. It means someone took the time to make it better. Use the comments with which you agree and consider seriously those remarks with which you don’t. (One of my partners is an English major—so I write like this now.) You’ve already found a great partner (as described above), so you know she’s not being hurtful.

Now, time for me to get back to my novel. I’ve placed that ridiculous rewrite-deadline of January 31 and need to meet it! But let me share what I think sums up the beauty of finding the right critique partner(s). One of my partners wrote to me after an agent requested my full manuscript: “I don't want to hog your glory, but I do feel vested here and I share in the joy of any success that comes your way.” How nice is that?!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Writer's Conference

My friends at the DFW Writer's Workshop have asked me to spread the word about their February conference. Most of you have heard Candy and Britta speak, so here's another opportunity to be wowed by their knowledge and enthusiasm about the business.

The DFW Writers Conference
Feb. 23-24, 2008Grapevine Convention Center, Grapevine TX

Keynote Speaker: Candace HavensEntertainment writer Candace Havens is author of the delightful Charmed series: Charmed & Dangerous, Charmed & Ready, Charmed & Deadly. She also wrote Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy. Havens has interviewed many celebrities including Tom Cruise, Nicholas Cage, Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon and George Clooney. She was a columnist for Tribune Media for 15 years and is an entertainment critic for the Dorsey Gang on 96.3 KSCS in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Also featuring a stellar lineup of writers and agents including:
· Rosemary Clement-Moore, author of YA Fantasy novel Prom Dates From Hell
· A. Lee Martinez, author of The Automatic Detective, Gil’s All Fright Diner
· Britta Coleman, author of Potter Springs
· William Manchee, author of the Stan Turner mystery series, most recently Act Normal
· Kara Lennox, author of more than 50 contemporary romance novels, most recently One Stubborn Texan
· Shanna Swendson, author of Damsel Under Stress, Once Upon Stilettos and the upcoming Don’t Hex With Texas
· Paul S. Levine, Paul S. Levine Literary Agency, Venice, Ca.
· Jim Donovan, Jim Donovan Literary, Dallas
· Elaine Spencer, The Knight Agency, Atlanta
For more information and how to register, please visit
About the WorkshopThe DFW Writers’ Workshop is a non-profit organization devoted to helping writers along the way to getting published. The Workshop is celebrating its 30th anniversary. We meet for read-and-critique sessions at 7 p.m. every Wednesday night at the Ruth Millican Center, 201 Cullum Drive, Euless Texas 76039. Visitors age 18 and up are welcome. More information is available at

Monday, December 10, 2007

December Reminds Me of Mollie and Madison

If you're a dog person, you'll understand. If not, skip this and check back tomorrow!

Our miniature schnauzers were born of the same litter on December 8, 1991, a year after we were married. When we first took them home in early January, my husband held one in each hand, their scruffy faces mirror images of each other, and I snapped a picture. As puppies, they scrambled around in a little cardboard box until they found their way through the hallways of my dog-friendly office.

We hung a Dog’s First Christmas ornament from our tree the next year, my hand on my belly, wondering if I’d ever love this person inside me as much as I loved those puppies. By then, Madison had taken to lying in my lap each night, sprawled on his back, emitting tractor-beam love rays from his soulful eyes. Mollie, aloof and thin-skinned, slunk nearby in a fluffy red sweater impersonating a cat.

Once our son dropped the first Cheerio from his high-chair tray table, the M&Ms, as they were referred to by a dear friend, (founder of Best Dawg Rescue, Inc!), accepted him as part of our family. After that, they’d pose lion-style, guarding their brother’s playpen, or curl into puppy puzzle pieces in front of the fire, inseparable also in their dreams.

For years they went to work with me, barking whenever someone traipsed past my door. The humans learned to watch where they stepped, because Mollie and Madison claimed the halls as their personal racetrack, running laps until they collapsed under my desk. In December, as truckloads of popcorn tins, dark-chocolate almond bark, sugar cookies, oranges and poinsettias arrived at the office, we carefully perched the dangerous treats out of snout range. A week after their birthdays, I’d scold myself for forgetting to bake them a non-chocolate cake. I’d make it up to them by stuffing their Christmas stockings with yummy treats and rope toys.

A back-to-back storm blanketed fifteen inches of ice-topped snow on one Maryland December. The M&M’s matching-sweater-ed bodies pranced on top of our backyard skating rink, only occasionally falling through and needing rescue. In December 2004, we drove twenty-one hours from Maryland to Texas to hand deliver our Christmas gifts to my husband’s family. For thirteen-year-old dogs, the M&Ms traveled well, especially after we slipped a tranquilizer to Madison, a known car-sick victim. That trip, after realizing Dallas winters were preferable to Maryland ones, we planned our move on the long return drive.

Though we happily gave away our winter coats, I packed the dog’s sweaters, thinking there might be a week or two where the wind would sneak through their thin fur. Even the M&Ms sensed a change in the air, frolicking excitedly between our moving boxes. Unfortunately, Madison didn’t live to see his first December in our Texas house. But I placed his ashes on the mantle next to his statue likeness.

This year, Mollie didn’t live to her sixteenth December and her ashes and statue are cuddling next to Madison’s, as is the sweet puppy picture I captured so long ago. We like to think they are sprinting around a race-track in heaven somewhere, and resting near the fire, nibbling chocolate bark and poinsettias.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Deadlines For Yourself

My dear friend and award-winning author, Sophia Nash, has offered an English-countryside worth of invaluable advice to me over the last few years on my path to publication. I’m inching closer each day, in large part because I hear her voice rooting me on.

A few days ago I wrote about discipline and never missing a deadline for a client. But how about if the client is yourself? I’m paraphrasing here, but Sophia’s message was this: Impose your own deadline. Circle a realistic date on your calendar and meet it, whether it’s a chapter, a first draft or a novel you’ve been writing for ten years.

So, despite my not being a “set a goal” type of person, I listened. I circled a date to finish The Cemetery Garden and I finished it. I sent it out into the world in search of the perfect agent and now spend way too much writing-time staring at the phone, waiting for THE CALL. November 30 was my deadline to finish the first draft of my next novel and I accomplished my goal (even though parts are sketchy!) January 31, 2008 is my first revision deadline. And now that I’ve shared that, I’ll need to meet it. Because everyone knows when you tell someone you are going to stop eating cookies at night, and you sneak into the pantry to nab a few, the only person you’re hurting is yourself.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Latkes and the Missing Ingredient

Yesterday, for the first night of Chanukah, I made latkes. I followed the recipe EXACTLY, which is near impossible for me, because I’m always substituting apple sauce for oil or leaving the garlic in the grocery store where it belongs. All of the latke ingredients (luckily garlic was not one of them) had been carefully measured and combined.

Two out of the three of us liked them. The other will remain nameless. More for us, my son and I declared! (oops!) In all fairness, my husband had eaten the first one out of the pan and as everyone knows, the first pancake is the throw-away.

After moving to Texas, and abandoning my Maryland family’s traditional latke-eating dinner, I missed the scramble. After lighting the menorah, one of my three sisters would prepare the batter (I don’t think it’s batter, but I can’t think of the name right now!), another would hoist spoonfuls into hot oil, while the other sister, me, and the rest of our families would pass the platter and inhale the potato pancakes as if they were the last ones on earth. The fry-chef-sister in the kitchen barely got to sit down (though I imagine a few didn’t make it to the table) before we clamored for more.

Here in Texas, our menorah candles flickered on the counter. My latkes wouldn’t have impressed my chef-sisters but, though we didn’t have any of the pesky sharing with twelve others, the platter was empty after our meal (did I mention there were only two of us eating them?). However, they just didn’t taste the same. Meals eaten without the tradition and chaos of family are missing a key ingredient.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Writing Through the Holidays

My critique partner (and friend) Pamela Hammonds got me thinking about gifts. With the holidays prancing toward me, my online research has taken the form of shopping on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or I love gift giving, so it’s no sacrifice, but it does cut down on the writing time.

I struggle with picking the perfect gift because, for me, it’s always a book or a movie. Nothing makes me happier than unwrapping a familiar shape and discovering either a novel on my to-read list, another book on my craft, or a chick-flick DVD.

I was always convinced that shopping online was a quicker, more streamlined way to make holiday purchases. But after two hours online with only two items in my shopping bag, I questioned my logic. Maybe a quick trip to B&N, Kohl’s, Costco, Macy’s or Nordstrom Rack would land me a real-life cart full of gifts, and a checked off Christmas (Chanukah) list.

But how will I advance my story if I’m gallivanting across Plano? Well, I do keep a small notebook in my purse, so when a brilliant idea whispers in my ear, I can write it down. It happened yesterday at Whole Foods, while I was purchasing my family some good health. I had bagged and dropped fresh produce in my cart, including gorgeous purple cabbage and garnet yams, that one or both of my guys would refuse to eat, and maneuvered through the cheese section, plucking Kalamatas from the olive bar, that both of my guys would refuse to eat and would prompt my husband to say, “Are you sure they won’t be better off in the garage?”

As I sealed the container of olives, I heard humming, along the lines of an Italian chef serenading lovers in one of my chick-flick movies. The cheese steward (I’m sure they have a real title, but I don’t know it) was busy chopping blocks of Parmesian-Regianno and wrapping them in cellophane as if he were swaddling an infant. I jotted down his mannerisms, the timbre of his hum and the aged grin on his face. A warm rush spread through my chest and I smiled.

So I lied, it’s not always a book or a movie. Some gifts you just can’t purchase.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Shower Me With Discipline

I have embraced my new career with enthusiasm, appreciating the cleanliness of a fresh start. As a consultant with client pressures, I had no choice but to be disciplined. Conference calls were scheduled to review spreadsheets I’d prepared involving waterfalls (trust me, you don’t want to know), capital investments, and distributions. I never missed a deadline or arrived unprepared to a phone call or meeting (well, almost never!)

Some nights I’d lie awake, contemplating a particularly difficult calculation, crawling out of bed before dawn to either jot down my brilliant thoughts or guzzle enough coffee to perk some.

So when I heard from my writer friends, and read others’ accounts of the diversions tempting full-time authors, I shrugged and thought, Diversion, no way will I sneak off to do laundry, watch a movie, cook dinner, grocery shop, sleep, shower or, as we know from Friday’s blog, go to the gym.

And, except for an occasional afternoon huddling in a chair watching a Netflix DVD (to study the writing, of course) or volunteering at my son's school library, I work. If I’m not forming the next scene of my novel, I’m researching the Bodleian Library’s website, typing my blog, critiquing one of my partners’ chapters, querying an agent or entering a contest.

The downside is that I don’t know how to turn off my writers’ mind. Even when I’m not typing into my laptop, my mind is focused on a character or chapter to be honed and, occasionally, I still rise at dawn to jot down a plot twist. My husband will tilt his head at dinner and ask, “What are you writing now?” as if my fingers were tapping on a keyboard in my head. “You need to schedule some down time,” he says. Maybe I’m not as disciplined as I think I am.

I’m making an effort of punching out, so I can spend the evenings with my family enjoying dinner conversation, a sitcom, or a novel (while they watch Heroes, a show I just don’t get!). And although I don’t have a book on the publishing docket yet, I’d like to acknowledge their support (financial and emotional) and unwavering encouragement for my new venture. They revel with every request for full or partial manuscript as well as console me when I slit open another rejection letter. So, a big thank you to my guys.

Maybe I’ll even surprise them and schedule a shower today.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Does Your Character Know Gym-speak?

I hadn’t been to the gym since the day after Halloween. When asked about my workout routine, the fictional response is, “Oh, yes, I go three or four times a week.” But the non-fiction version would be “Well, there was that week last summer when I did go three times--in a month.”

Revved up on a Monday, I’d planned to listen to A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon on my iPod (if you haven’t read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, the audio version is great), but when plugging the buds into my ears, noticed my best friend had lost its charge. And as luck would have it, I’d just finished reading the emergency backup paperback and the spare tucked in my car.

So, I joined the other midday fitness-geeks and hopped on an elliptical machine in front of the wall of flat screens. No sooner had I punched in my erroneous weight to track my erroneous heartbeat, then an elfish blonde hopped on the elliptical right next to me and said, “Hi! How are you?”

So shocked at hearing her voice, I nearly slipped off the foot pads. People don’t talk to each other at the gym. They listen to music, read magazines, watch the tube, or stare through a sweat induced stupor at their sculpted bodies in the mirror. But they don’t talk. Ever.

Anyway, she asked me about my remaining time and I confessed to having just launched toward a goal time of twenty minutes—since it had been a while, you see. She’d just returned from vacation with her husband and two-year-old (she looked young enough to be returning from sleep-away camp) and was aiming for her usual ninety minutes. I’m not exaggerating. She was trying to fit into her favorite size 0 jeans. “Good for you,” I said.

Normally I don’t share private information with strangers, but before the phrase none-ya materialized in my brain, this little imp had me offering up the name of my son’s school, his football position and my daily carpool schedule. I didn’t encourage her; swear on my stack of writing-bibles. I clutched the heart-sensor handles, encouraged my calorie counter, wiped the drip of sweat off my forehead, and offered the minimum requisite responses.
She asked if I worked (when you exercise in the middle of the day, certain assumptions are made. 1. You don’t “work” and 2. When you’re not at the gym, you’re shopping—but that’s another complicated topic involving the difference between a 1980 size 6 and a 2007 size 6) and I smiled and said, “I’m a writer.” (Because it’s oh so fun to declare that!) She’d never known any writers, but she had picked up a book last Christmas (by an author whose novels are written by inserting new names into a best-selling template) and was almost finished with it (ten months later!). How ambitious of her. I fought my reclusive instinct to dash for the exit and caved to my writer’s curiosity to stay and gather interesting character traits for my next novel.

She continued to yammer about her needing to return to daycare to pick up her child. If she’s late, even a minute, they’ll strike a big red check in the record book. She’d begged the teenager to stop the clock on the time-counter for the five minutes she’d been summoned to change her child’s diaper, but the teen-in-charge disagreed. This baited me, I don’t know why, but I asked, “They call you to change his diaper?” Well, this of course invited a discussion on which category of diaper deposit required a call back to the hive. And the method used to determine which category of deposit said diaper is carrying.

And before I could cover my ears and shout, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la…” (since diaper deposits are not my favorite topic of conversation), I had trudged past my twenty minutes and was nearing the twenty-five minute mark. I politely excused myself before she could ask for my phone number, address or bra size and made a mental note not to enter the gym between 12 and 2. At least not without a properly-charged iPod.

I hurried home, recorded her quirky traits and began plotting a book to put her in. As you can imagine, I’ll be entirely too busy writing to get to the gym.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Book Futures

Not being a techie, visits to the big-box computer/entertainment/stereo store always led me to smaller sections of familiar items such as books and DVDs. I’d anticipated a recent night of shopping to be no different, actually looked forward to the pre-holiday bustle. After scanning the movies, and miraculously walking away without picking any up, I slid by the end cap of latest rap CDs and meandered toward the book aisle, murmuring coordinates to my husband who pointed toward his destination, namely the “serious-person’s speaker sector.”

Though not usually first-run or best sellers, this big box could be counted on to house a few titles destined for my must-read list. But upon my approach, I scanned the shelves to find three formats of video games, one on display with the guitar-joystick that has ensnared legions of players—some my age!

I marched through the box-maze, inspecting the shelves, wondering to which area my precious books could have been moved. Confused, not even stumbling upon a how-to manual for a cell phone, I trudged toward my husband and the stereo aisle, where I was asked to choose the best resonance from two identical sounding speakers. “Wow, that’s tough,” I said. “This one has a slightly tinny sound.” By now I knew the lingo, even if my ears failed me, and I knew months of online research would take place long before he’d commit to and purchase a set. Did I mention the professed tinny-sounding speakers were eight feet tall and resembled the Egyptian pyramids?

Checking out with my conciliatory candy bar, I nonchalantly asked the twelve-year-old behind the counter, “What happened to the books?”

Not knowing that his words would demean my very existence, he said, “We’re all about the future here.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

To Pitch or Not to Pitch

Maneuvering my book-stuffed carry-on by the first class seats on an airplane is always nerve-wracking for me. First, I imagine I’m sprawled in one of these seats, sipping a scotch on the rocks and hiding the wince at the sting on my throat while pretending it was my drink of choice. Then, I try to avoid eye contact so the man yelling into his blackberry doesn’t get the impression that I wish to be as important as he thinks he is. But this time, after waving to the (hopefully) sober pilots, my eye caught a familiar sight–8 ½ by 11 white sheets, one-inch margins, twelve-point font, and name and page number in the right top corner. The black-clad, funky-eyeglassed, spiky-haired woman flipping the pages could only have been an agent or an editor, right? I strained my eyes to read the name on the manuscript but, not having received my new not-funky-eyeglass prescription, the letters were blurred fluff. Time for my pitch.

Before attending a writer’s conference, we’re told to practice our elevator pitch. That one line that will sum up the brilliant novel I’ve agonized over for ten years. As I walked past the wide, cushy seats that day, words rolled around on my tongue, curling into a wave that would spill out onto the publishing gatekeeper’s tray table. But then I realized that cornering an agent on an airplane would be as rude as following her into the ladies room and offering toilet paper under the stall—with my pitch scribbled onto it. So, I swallowed my words, joined the herd and squeezed into my seat in the back of the plane.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Read and Write

My first blog post: Normally, when traveling, I stuff my carry-on with layers of books – you never know when you’ll be held hostage by an airline on the tarmac, say, for twelve hours, and have to crack open your third novel. But having more free time than expected during my stay, I’d read three and a half out of the four novels I’d packed. Sarah Stonich’s The Ice Chorus, a touching book I would have been happy to reread immediately, was packed in my luggage, hopefully somewhere in the belly of the plane, as was another beauty, Ann Packer’s Songs Without Words. Another I’d discovered I’d read years earlier and while an enjoyable, light read, it was clearly forgettable. So, I boarded my almost three hour flight with about 150 pages remaining in How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward. I finished half-way over Tennessee and liked the tragic story and honest prose, but was not in the mood to flip back to page one. So, I’m doing what my father would have advised had he still been alive. I put down the book I’d just finished and started writing, in this case my new blog.