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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving thanks...

Charlie Brown: We've got ANOTHER holiday to worry about. It seems Thanksgiving Day is upon us.

Sally Brown: I haven't even finished eating all of my Halloween candy.

Okay, okay—we’re entering that season in which we’re all expected to be in good moods all of the time.  Regardless of what’s weighing on our minds or all the work we have left to do before we can be in the proper spirit of joy and thanksgiving.  So we begin by gorging ourselves with food, numbing ourselves with booze, and trying to convince ourselves this is all FUN, FUN, FUN.  And sometimes, we have to fake it for a while before we realize that—hey, we’re actually having fun!

I’ve been this way my entire life.  I have always dreaded social occasions until I’m smack dab in the middle of them, when I usually realize at some point that I am enjoying myself.  So tomorrow, my husband and I will drive to my aunt’s house for a delicious Thanksgiving dinner during which we will talk and eat and imbibe and share and pray, and yes—be thankful for all we have.  Because, when it comes down to it, we have so much to be thankful for.

Here is my list, in no particular order:
1.    My husband and dog who make me feel at home wherever they are
2.    My family—immediate and extended—who love me unconditionally
3.    All the children in our family who remind me what holiday wonder is
4.    My health
5.     A job that doesn’t crush my soul (at least not most days)
6.    My friends and colleagues and students who help me get through the rough patches
7.    Loved ones who can’t be near, but whom I get to visit virtually thanks to Skype (never thought I’d see the day I’d be thanking technology)
8.    A mind that’s lucid a majority of the time
9.    An editor who believes in me enough to publish my book next summer and the agent who convinced her of that
10.    Bocelli’s mushroom ravioli and tilapia in lemon caper sauce
11.    A country that, although flawed, keeps trying to get it right
12.    The birds on my feeder that (scarily) I could watch for hours
13.    The smell of ozone right before it rains
14.    The promise of snow in the air
15.    Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song”

See, I’ve done it again.  In forcing myself to think happy, grateful thoughts, I have become happy and grateful for all that life has given me and mine.  May your Thanksgiving bring you a renewed sense of gratitude and joy, and may the holiday season carry you on a wave of hope and optimism into the new year.

Monday, July 20, 2009

To Plot or Not to Plot

I’ve been thinking a lot about the writing process lately. I’m about halfway through my third novel, and it confirms everything I’ve read about writing books. Each book is unique, and therefore, the process of writing each is wildly different. And contrary to logic, this third one is proving to be my toughest.

One of the aspects I’m struggling with is plot. Now, there are some master plotters out there, writers who introduce the conflict on page 1, then zip through a series of complications, near misses, and well-timed twists, leaving you nearly breathless by the end. I have never been this kind of writer, preferring to let my plots evolve organically, to let my characters dictate the sequence of events. My first book (Time and Tide, which did not get published) was based loosely on a novel by Jane Austen (talk about a good plotter), so I didn’t have much to worry about there. My plot came practically ready-made.

For Free to a Good Home (which releases next summer), I had the initial concept and characters and wrote the first fifty pages in a blur of inspiration or something like that, then sat back for a while to let the characters marinate and see where they wanted to take the story. This marinating stage is the point at which I still might abandon a story, even if I love the characters, because I can’t seem to find a compelling journey to send them on. But with Free to a Good Home, I found that journey.

Now, I’m midway through Book #3, past the point of no return, but at the point I’d like to call the Wednesday of the book, or hump day. I’m stuck. For the past week, I’ve written every day, but I have a feeling when I go back to revise later, I will end up deleting much of what I wrote. I just felt I needed to keep pushing through the wall, keep my characters moving. Now the question is, are they going anywhere?

Someone once said, when you get stuck like this, send in a man with a gun. Great advice for a mystery writer, but not so great when you’re writing a character-driven novel about three generations living under one very small roof. But I do like the idea of shaking things up a bit. Sometimes I think I’m afraid of too much conflict, but what is a novel without it? An unexpected twist could be the very thing I need right now to untie the knot that’s been keeping my characters treading water. Now I just need to find my story’s equivalent of a man with a gun. And hope that one of my characters knows karate.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Summer Reading

“No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” Wait a minute. No more books? I’ll be happy to lay down the pencil and stop giving my students dirty looks, but books are one of the highlights of my summer. So I’ve compiled a list of 10 books I’ve read recently that I think would make excellent summer reads. To me, these books represent what summer is all about — fun, family, the sun, the ocean, humor, escapism, characters, relationships, and the possibility for love.

Eve’s Summer Reads:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows –an engaging, romantic story told through diary entries and letters about a journalist researching a piece about a tiny island occupied by the Germans during WWII
The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch – beautifully written coming-of-age story set on Puget Sound with a memorable child narrator and evocative descriptions of ocean life
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman – not exactly beachy, but an awful lot of fun about a boy who lives in a graveyard with ghosts for adoptive parents
Home Safe, Elizabeth Berg —I love everything by her, but this is her latest book about women’s lives, loves, and choices
Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, Jane Hamilton –funny, extremely well-written satire with characters you will recognize all too well
The Wildwater Walking Club, Claire Cook – Witty, breezy, and heartwarming story about the importance of friendship
Everything Changes, Jonathan Tropper—hilarious story about a man coming of age late in life, told with charm, humor, and lots of warmth
The Beach House, Jane Green—set on Nantucket Island, the novel deals with likeable characters who are all facing transitions in their lives
Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen – Leisurely-paced and seductive southern story about two sisters with special gifts
Love the One You’re With, Emily Giffin – Mature and wry women’s fiction exploring the allure of “the one who got away”

My Wish List (Books I hope to read this summer):
Best Friends Forever, Jennifer Weiner
That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo
Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead
Real Life and Liars, Kristina Riggle
Catching Genius, Kristy Kiernan
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
The Way Life Should Be, Christina Baker Kline
Twenties Girl, Sophie Kinsella
Border Songs, Jim Lynch
The Only True Genius in the Family, Jennie Nash
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Julie Powell

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Writer's Guilt

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Art is a jealous mistress.” For me, writing is more like my dog after I’ve come home from vacation. Whenever my husband and I are away from Maggie for more than two days, she gives us a guilt trip for a good forty-eight hours after we return. Eventually she reverts back to her usual, devoted self, following us around the house, sprawling on our laps, and giving us long, adoring glances. But on those days when she’s giving us the cold shoulder, it’s hard to have faith that she’ll come back to us.

Writing is the same for me. If I skip more than two days, it takes me so long to get back into my groove. The laptop screen stares blankly at me, as if to say, “What have you done for me lately?” At that moment, I think to myself, “That’s it. It’s over. I’ve lost the ability to write. Might as well close the laptop forever and take up decoupage.”

For the first two weeks of summer vacation, I was very loyal to my laptop, writing almost every day and averaging about six pages a day. Then I hit a wall. Every writer does eventually, sometimes in the form of a stumbling block, a hiccough in our plot line or a character we can’t quite wrap our head around. I’ve hit that kind of wall, too, but this one was more just a function of life getting the best of me.

Two days ago, I went for a long walk with my husband, did some homework for a course I’m taking, and sat in the yard with a book (Claire Cook’s Life’s a Beach, to mirror my wishful thinking). Yesterday I went out to lunch with a dear friend and thought I’d be home in time to get a few hours of writing in, but ended up having such a good time that I stayed out all afternoon. Today I went food shopping and cleaned the house for a Fourth of July party we’re hosting.

I know when I try to write tomorrow, I will stare forlornly at the screen for an hour, trying to recapture that writing energy of three days ago. I might write a pitiful paragraph or two that I’ll end up scrapping, and maybe, if I’m lucky, by the end of the day I’ll have written one page worth keeping. But the ideas will come back eventually; the words will return.

Now, I am sitting on my front stoop, listening to the competing stereos of my neighbors, smelling grills warm up all over town. I don’t hear a single lawnmower or see a single jogger on the road. People have taken the day off. Some time this summer, consider giving yourself a day off, too. From writing, or exercising, or whatever it is that you love, but tends to give you a guilt trip when it’s been neglected. It’ll still be there for you the next day; you might just have to work a little harder at winning back its devotion. But the dog will forgive you, the treadmill will get easier again, and your inspiration will return.

For today, throw that second hot dog on the grill. Put whipped cream on your strawberry and blueberry pound cake. (It would be un-American not to.) Enjoy the day, guilt-free. And have a safe and happy Fourth!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's summertime, and the living is easy...

I’m certain I’m committing some kind of blogging sacrilege here by writing this post in longhand to be typed into the computer later. My excuse is that I want to sit outside with my dog, and my laptop screen is difficult to see in sunlight. But the truth is I’m a little tech-ed out. When I saw my laptop this morning, waiting expectantly on the coffee table, I got a little shiver of dread I don’t usually associate with inanimate objects. The past two weeks have been a mad dash to get my website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and blog up and running, and while my brother has handled the toughest details (Thank you, Phil!!), I am still weary of looking at that horizontal digital screen. Perhaps it’s time for a little old school writing, with classic 8 ½ by 11 lined notebook paper and a Bic pen.

Today, I plan to enjoy the gorgeous summer weather—78 degrees, blue sky with cotton candy clouds, balmy breeze. The birds are twittering in my Rose of Sharon, and the treetops are swaying lazily overhead. My lawn is freshly mown and vibrant green from all that unexpected rain we got last week, and my container garden is flourishing—red, white, and blue petunias that get me in the mood for Fourth of July, planters of purple sage and fuchsia impatiens, and hanging baskets with delicate lantana the color of pink Wedgewood. For privacy, we just decorated our fence with Tiki fringe, which right now is rustling in the wind, taking me away to some tropical paradise where Jimmy Buffett is always playing on the radio and margaritas are always served ice cold with salt on the rim.

People have written songs about days like this. I might just stay out until the sun sets and the temperature dips below 65. The fireflies will alight from the ground, illuminating the trees like stadium flashes. I’ll watch the bats’ erratic flight patterns between the trees, counting on them and the citronella torches to keep the mosquitoes at bay. My husband and I might open that bottle of Italian white we’ve had chilling in the refrigerator and make a toast to summer.

For today, the laptop will remain closed. My next chapter will have to wait until tomorrow. I’m on vacation.

Monday, June 29, 2009

If at first you don't succeed...

Even though I had never really considered doing it for a living, I have always loved writing, from that first story I wrote for my mom in third grade (something to do with a bunch of balloons that get released and find homes with different children all over the world), to some truly terrible teen angst poetry, to the short stories I wrote in my college creative writing class back when I thought I could write short stories, to the seriously flawed screenplay I wrote in my late twenties about a fictional love affair between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (I know, I know, what was I thinking?). Something in my nature has always wanted to put things down on paper—it’s how I learned geometry principles in high school, it’s how I made sense of existential philosophy in college, and it’s how I now explore ideas and human nature in my fiction.

It was about four years ago that I decided I was going to write FOR REAL, as in, seriously try to become a novelist. So I wrote my first novel, Time and Tide, went through the long and potentially soul-crushing process of sending query letters, receiving rejections (lots!), and getting those little nibbles that keep you going for a while, but in the end, fail to materialize into anything substantial. For whatever reason, Time and Tide did not make it to publication.

I don’t have children, but my friends who do, speak of “pregnancy amnesia,” the phenomenon whereby a mother forgets all the pain and anguish that accompanied her pregnancy so she is willing to go through the process again. I would say that the writer’s journey to publication is a bit akin to this, because what writer would willingly put themselves through the torment and pain of rejection if it weren’t for some form of temporary amnesia, and of course, the fervent hope that there might be a bouncing, healthy manuscript at the end of it all?

Hungry to write another novel, I began Free to a Good Home in December of 2007 over the winter holiday. I teach high school English full-time, so my only substantial writing happens during vacations and summer break. By spring break of 2008, I had outlined the basic story and written the first few chapters, then I wrote like crazy over the summer to finish and revise the manuscript. In fall began the cycle of query, waiting, rejection, query, waiting, rejection.

It wasn’t until about December when I began to feel desperate, so I went back through my list of agents and wrote down the ones I hadn’t heard from. Of those, I double-checked their websites to see which agents welcomed a follow-up email versus those for whom no response meant no interest. It’s a testament to the value of persistence and good record keeping that one of these “follow-up” agents ended up becoming my real agent. I am happy to say that the second time around was a charm for me, as Free to a Good Home garnered me an agent in the lovely and ultra professional, April Eberhardt of Reece Halsey North. (www.reecehalseynorth.com)

April replied to tell me my original query and sample had gotten lost in their vetting program, but that her assistant, Maria, had found it since and flagged it as “strong.” You can imagine my excitement, tempered as it was by a substantial dose of reality. I’d had my heart crushed before, and I knew that even if April agreed to represent me, there was no guarantee she’d be able to sell my book.

So April, Maria, and I entered into a stage of extensive revision during which we got the manuscript into its most polished and most marketable form. After about two months, April offered me formal representation. I know every publication story is different and that many writers have gotten published without an agent. But I have no doubt that Free to a Good Home would not have found a publisher if it weren’t for the keen eye and publishing savvy of April, who helped me strengthen both the story and the writing, then went on to sell the manuscript in only four weeks. The good news continued when I found that my editor would be Jackie Cantor, executive editor of Berkley Books. (http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/publishers/adult/berkley.html) I have since gotten several emails and one phone call from Jackie, who is warm and supportive and sharp and everything an editor should be. I am so thrilled to be working with her!

In the weeks that followed “the call,” I have been busy setting up my media presence so I can start generating some buzz for the book and gathering a following prior to publication in July 2010. That gives me roughly a year to take care of final revisions, marketing, and of course, to work on my new novel so I can (fingers crossed) go through the whole process again next year. But this time, no amnesia necessary. This is a year I won’t likely forget.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Maggie's Story

Since Free to a Good Home is in large part about finding a place to call home, I thought I’d share the story of bringing Maggie to our home for the first time. When my husband and I were first married and living in southern Maryland on a gravel road with no streetlights and few neighbors, we decided we needed a pet to make us feel a little less isolated.

Our conversation began with a discussion of the merits of rabbits and guinea pigs, then evolved to cats, then culminated with our decision to adopt one of the most affectionate animals on the planet: a dog. A teacher friend of mine ran a small humane shelter out of her home, so Ken and I set out one evening to her house to find ourselves a new companion. We knew we wanted an older dog, one that was housetrained and a little more placid. When we arrived at the house, my friend introduced us to three older dogs, each wonderful in his own way, but out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a puppy sitting in a crate by the foyer stairs.

But we didn’t want a puppy. We were both working, and our rental house was tiny. A puppy would be too much work, too much hassle. But as we played with the other dogs, that puppy in the crate sat up and stared at me with a slightly cocked head, asking nothing of me except perhaps to let her out of the crate. Finally, I relented.

“What about this dog?” I said to my friend.

“Oh, she’s a puppy. You don’t want a puppy.”

But when Ken gave me that look, I knew he felt the same way I did. It turns out we didn’t want any puppy; we wanted that one.

We came to find that the puppy in the crate had been found on the edge of a farmer’s field covered in ticks. She’d been to the vet and had had all her shots, but she’d already been “adopted” three times and had been returned for various reasons. One family said their son was allergic to her. Another didn’t realize how much work a puppy would be. The last owner said that Maggie had hoarded things in her crate: old socks, stuffed animals, empty plastic water bottles. I didn’t see why this was a deal breaker, as I’d probably hoard things too if somebody had once left me for dead on the edge of a farmer’s field.

Most of the dogs in the shelter were kept in a heated garage overnight, but Maggie, being as young as she was, was kept in the house with the cats. When she first came out of her crate, she moved like a cat, slow and dainty, and occasionally licked her paws in a feline way. She was small and tan, with a white belly and white paws like little boots. She also had a white lightning-shaped patch on the back of her neck like Harry Potter. Her eyes looked like they’d been painted with eyeliner, and her face was sweetly expressive. In about five minutes, Ken and I were smitten. We signed the forms, paid the fee, and took her home with us that day.

My friend thought she might have been part Jack Russell, part Boxer, which seemed a very worthy combination. Spunky and scrappy. And that’s exactly what she was. Thinking ourselves very literary at the time, we decided to name her Maggie after Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Later that night, Ken and I sat on the floor playing Yahtzee, while Maggie sniffed everything in the house. She didn’t like the sound of dice being rolled, so she retreated to her crate for a while, coming out to say hello every now and then.

Since that day, Maggie has become an integral part of our lives. She’s experienced all our joys and sorrows right along with us, ready to offer support and love whenever needed. She’s been sick and has had to be rushed to the vet, and she’s comforted us through our own illnesses. Watching a movie just isn’t the same without her sitting between us on the sofa. Sadly, I must confess, she also sleeps with us on the bed. (Victoria Stillwell would be horrified.) I get an inordinate amount of pleasure watching her roll around on the grass in our backyard or trying to catch water coming out of the garden hose. The sight of Maggie eating bubbles is ridiculously funny.

Sure, she is older now and suffers from arthritis, and her eyes are getting slightly cloudy with age, but she still manages to act like a puppy at least once every day. While we still have her with us, I hope to keep learning from her how to live in the moment, play well with others, embrace life fully, and most of all, how to love unconditionally. Maggie knows that lesson well.