In Case You Haven't Heard, Vampires Are In

Take a look at this snap of the Teen section at the good ol' B&N and tell me if you see what I see.


I see a metric ton of red, black, and purple. A good assortment of chillingly beautiful, yet otherworldly faces. And confirmation that vampires aren't just a thing in teen fiction anymore; they're The Thing.

This, my friends, is the power of marketing, and of storytelling. Between them, Stephanie Meyer and her publisher have moved an entire generation. I predict we'll be seeing ripples of this effect in adult fiction for years to come.

I'm Officially Old

Mark and I had this conversation in the car today:

Mark: "You know what? Maybe we should start bringing plastic cups with us when we travel."

"Why would we start bringing plastic cups with us when we travel?"

"Because then we wouldn't have to use the glasses in the hotel rooms."

"Oh, right, because of that thing I read. That they don't really wash them, just swab them out with the cleaning rag."

"Right. We could bring plastic cups, and then we could use those instead."

"Sounds great." (Pause.) "You know, maybe what we should really do is start keeping a sleeve of plastic cups in the car. Then they could be called into service on any number of occasions."

"That sounds really good."

Then we high fived. Ok, we didn't. This isn't even a verbatim transcript; I added in a little bit of the dreaded DAE (dialogue as exposition) to catch you up on our previous marital conversations. But I think it's pretty clear that any days we had as a young, hip couple are officially in the past.

Merry Christmas, Awesome Dude

This is the third year in which I've been treated to the breathtaking Yuletide spectacle that is my neighbor's Christmas display. Actually, he isn't really my neighbor, meaning that I can't see his house from anywhere on my street. Except for at Christmas, when I can.


Lest you think this isn't impressive enough, here is the view of the side lawn.


Maybe it's just me, but something about this year's decor seems... I dunno, subdued. What happened to the rest of the Peanuts cast? I swear there used to be more of them out here. And why does the Abominable Snowman have electric boobs? I really can't say.


At least this drummer boy border is new -- and a worthy addition, I think.


Yes, I know, I know. Some might find this annoying. But me, I can't help but admire someone who isn't afraid to dream big.

So Merry Christmas, Mr. Insanely Overdecorated Lawn Man. Your power bill is large, but your heart is ginormous.

First Partial Request

Well, what a whirlwind day. Remember that rejection I blogged about oh, six hours ago?

Well, it wasn't entirely a rejection. I mean, it was a no. But at the end of that no was a "Why don't you contact this other agent? He likes mysteries."

So, I did. I researched Mr. Other Agent, then sent him a query, mentioning that he had been recommended to me by Ms. First Agent. And darned if he didn't e-mail me right back with a request for the first fifty pages.

So, the first partial has been dispatched into cyberspace, and I am keeping my fingers crossed. We'll see if my "pro status" lasts through the emotional loop-de-loop that is the partial submission.

First Rejection

So, I woke up this morning to a nice fat rejection note in my inbox. I've always prided myself on the fact that I was one of those people who, darn it, could just take rejection. No big deal. Part of the business, baby.

Yep, I've always prided myself on that, but I have to admit it hasn't always worked out that way. When I was shopping around my last book, a rejection letter would get me down for a whole day, maybe two.

But this time? It looks like I'm over it. No more sticking my tongue out at the agent's web page. No hiding the e-mail in a sub-folder so I won't accidentally see it and get depressed all over again. I am fine with it, and (call me supremely arrogant) more surprised than disappointed.

Which means I guess I'm now... a businesswoman. Or maybe just a grownup.

Cafe Throwdown

When you spend most of your days with your nose buried in your laptop, you don't see a lot of high drama. But today was an exception.

I was sitting in the Borders cafe, which was pretty crowded. A group of medical students had taken the table next to the wall, the one with easy outlet access. Another woman had taken the table next to theirs, and since she had no plug of her own, she had stretched her laptop cord across the aisle to their outlet.

Eventually a bookstore employee arrived. She tried to bring humor to the situation. "Uh oh, the cord police are here," she said. "We can't have cords stretched across the aisles." Then she asked the two parties to switch places.

You would have thought she asked them to strip naked, such was the stink they caused. The woman with the laptop immediately started yelling. The medical students joined in the ruckus. The laptop lady began to mimic the bookseller's request in a high-pitched, silly voice.

The bookseller tried to keep her cool, but a little irritation was starting to creep into her voice. I could scarcely blame her.

Finally, the patrons agreed to change places. And in the inevitable shuffling of bags, it was revealed that one of the medical students had brought in a bag of McDonald's takeout to eat while studying.

"You can't have food from other places," the bookseller told him. Whereupon he insisted that he'd done so several times before and never had a problem. Dude, seriously? I mean, if you sneak in a little baggie of nuts I'm not going to judge you. But McDonald's? For real?

At last, the switching of places was done. The Micky D's was banished to the medical student's backpack. The bookseller left. And the woman with the laptop continued to loudly grouse about her, calling her, among other things, a "fuckin' bitch."

I don't get it.

Senseless rudeness always get me down. Inattentive rudeness, everyone's guilty of that from time to time. Rudeness through misunderstanding, that happens too. But plain ol' I'm-pissed-so-I'm-going-to-make-you-feel-bad rudeness? Blows my mind.

Besides that, your relationship with an establishment you frequent is just that, a relationship. It involves give and take. The baristas and booksellers owe me decent service; I owe them the occasional purchase. And we both owe each other basic good manners and civility.

And there is one thing that guides my behavior when push comes to shove, when cord issues or cleanliness or noise threatens to create a conflict: It is more their place than mine.

I don't go into your home and object to the standards you've set for it, and I don't do it in your place of business either. If there's a rule I can't live with, I am free to go elsewhere. I'm certainly not going to pitch a fit because I can't have things my way.

I wish I could make the people in the cafe understand that way of thinking, but I can't. All I can do is what I did: track down the bookseller in the back of the store and tell her that I've always appreciated her pleasantness and that I was sorry she was treated that way. Which leaves me feeling a little good, a little ineffectual. Maybe Miss Manners could have done a better job.

The Third Book

One of the lines I like to use with my friends is that "Writing a book is like writing three books." If they need an explanation, the shorthand is this: "It's just so much more work than you think it's going to be."

But in fact, the three book analogy is a little more apt than that. It really is, I'm not kidding, like writing three books. The first book is the first infodump, those 75,000 or so words that sort of contain a plot. Out of that you pull the second book, the book that makes sense, the book where the gun your character acquired on page 50 doesn't mysteriously disappear on page 200 just because you need her to be in danger. And finally you preen and polish your way to the third book, the book that has a theme, the book where relationships build the way they're supposed to, and everything feels resonant and real.

For me, it was when I crossed that boundary from second book to third book that I began being able to actually hold the whole thing in my head. Suddenly gone from my mental canvas were all the little half-formed subplots and alternate courses I'd rejected along the way. I could remember where this bit was, where that bit ended up. And when I made a change to one scene, I had an instant mental map to the four other places I'd need to touch to make it work.

After a lot of that touching, and fiddling, and fussing, I'm ready to say that the third book is done.

I sent out query letters last night, but not before spending a long time worrying about it. I had two voices in my head. One said, "The book is strong. You know the book is strong. The query letter is strong. You have had your group look at it two times (which was perhaps excessive). The synopsis is strong. The first five pages are strong. For God's sake, send it out and get it working for you."

And then the other voice would say, "It's mid-December. Everybody's busy this time of year. Agents have parties to go to, presents to shop for, relatives to avoid discussing uncomfortable topics with. In short, they have lives. For all you know, they're already checked out for the month. Do you really want your query to be one of the twelve hundred they come back to on January 2nd? Besides, if you wait and send it mid-January, you can spend another month worrying about whether the third sentence in paragraph 17 might have too many syllables."

In the end, that last argument was the one that did it. The fact that I simply didn't know what else I'd do to the book, besides fret over it, convinced me to send it out.

These days most people prefer e-queries, so that's what I sent. And I already got one response, albeit a "I got your query letter and will review it" response. Which began with the words "This is not a form rejection." Nearly stopped my heart. "Oh, my God, it's a non-form rejection!" I thought. "I hate those too!"

You Know You're a Geek When


You can proxy up an entire board game from stuff you've got lying around the house.

Guess Where I'm Blogging From

I'm en route to DFW tonight, to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, brother, and sister. Delta is debuting a new service, in-flight wifi. They want to charge $10 for this eventually, but it looks like the first taste is free. It's a very slow connection, so I don't think they'll hook me longterm. But realistically, I am a hopeless cheapskate, and therefore not their target audience.

The spread of wifi seems to be really accelerating. Just last month Borders bit the bullet and started providing free wifi to compete with Barnes and Noble. Things are cutthroat in that cafe now; you can't get an outlet to save your life.

Meanwhile, Google is busy making plans for netbooks running its new Chrome OS, an operating system that is fast, cheap, and simple to use -- because all it is, basically, is an access portal to the internet. Which means the spread of wifi is a very, very good thing for them.

Are we heading toward a whole new world? Or is it really true that the more things change, the more things stay the same? I don't really know, but it kind of blows my mind that my kids will grow up more pluggged into the global community than I could ever have dreamed of in my youth.

Actually, it kind of blows my mind that I'm sitting on a plane blogging, using words like "the global community" to talk to that community while I drink my free half-a-coke and the captain warns us about turbulence.

But that's life here on the bleeding edge.

What Did You Bait Yours With Today?

I wish pedantry wasn't so much fun, because everyone hates a pedant. And with, I suppose, good reason. Showing people up is not nice.

But there's such joy in it, I tell you! And so, for the next five minutes, I will give myself permission to be a nasty smarty-pants and present to you:

Three Humorous Homophones I See All Over the Internet
(And Occasionally in Print)
  1. "My kids know how to tow the line." I always picture a kid with a line slung over his shoulder, pulling for all he's worth. It is properly toe the line. As in, to not make the roller coaster operator yell at you.
  2. "We were able to eek out a compromise." Ball your hands into fists, squint your eyes and squeal "A compromise!" It's fun. Correctly, this is eke out a compromise.
  3. "I was waiting with baited breath." My absolute fave. Caviar is good, but some people swear by a good old-fashioned worm. It should be bated. As in abate, to diminish or repress.
And now I shall return to being the proper lady that my mother and Miss Manners would like me to be. Pay no attention to the lady behind the curtain. Yes, she is a pedant. But most of the time she knows better.

Wednesday

I'm blaming the lack of a Tuesday update on Mark.

Monday

This would look better if I'd quit adding cards.

Sunday

We are entering the home stretch, folks. The cards indicate things I have left to do for my book. On the left, tasks not yet completed. In the middle, tasks in progress. And on the right, tasks already completed this week.

Getting there.

Jane's Guide to Editing in the Tub

  1. Put your hair up with a chopstick. This not only keeps it dry, it looks writerly.
  2. Think ahead. If you tend to accumulate almost-but-not-quite-out-of-ink pens, scribble test before you get soaked.
  3. Keep a washcloth nearby so you can keep your hands (and pages) dry.
  4. You can tolerate a much longer, much hotter bath if you get a cool drink. I recommend a big 32 oz. of Naked Juice, available at half price from Sam's.
  5. Bubbles are not compulsory, but are recommended.

Racism, Realism, and the 20th Century

Writing a book that takes place in 1928 requires certain adjustments. Adjustments in my way of thinking, but also in my way of using words. Kitty uses "O.K," not the more modern spelling "okay." She would never dream of taking the Lord's name in vain. And when she wants to call bullshit, she calls "applesauce" instead.

But there are times when I just can't go whole hog for 1928 speech. Such as, when it comes to race. The language of 1928 was, let's face it, pretty racist. And I don't just mean the actual words, like, you know, like that word. I mean the grammar was racist.

Pick up a newspaper from the early twentieth century, and you'll notice something funny. A story about a white man reads, "Joe Watson was run over by a car today." But a story about a black man reads, "Joe Watson, colored, was run over by a car today." The subject's race was apparently as essential to the article as the subject's gender is today.

And then there's the use of words that denote race as nouns, rather than as adjectives. Maybe you'll think this is a small quibble, but I think it's not. I think it matters. Say something like "A Negro was sitting on the park bench," and you're using the word "Negro" in place of the word "man." It begins to sound like you don't think the subject is a man at all -- at least not in the same way that "a (white) man sitting on the park bench" would be. Kitty uses twenties vocabulary such as "Oriental" and "Negro," because those are the words that are available to her -- but she would no more say "a Negro" than I would say "a black."

And her attitudes are, I'll cheerfully admit, much more egalitarian than the average person of her day. Kitty sees race very easily -- in fact, she sees it with a finer grain than most modern people, as she generally notes the heritage of white characters, be they Irish or Italian or Polish. But she doesn't stereotype, look down on, or fear people because of their race. She believes all men are created equal.

This may not be realistic, but realism doesn't necessarily make good fiction. And there are other things to worry about besides realism: (1) the reader's enjoyment of the book (reading about characters who are badly out of step with modern mores isn't all that enjoyable) and (2) my own morals.

My Small Contribution to the Health Care Debate

I usually try to keep politics off this blog, partly because I know not everyone wants to hear about it, but mostly, I confess, because I am a coward and I fear losing friends. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like political discourse has gotten a lot less friendly and a lot more scream-y over recent years. And of course the health care debate is no exception.

I am no fan of government-run health care, but I have to admit that the current system needs work. And so, though I know it would not solve everything, I present my own modest proposal:

No flat co-pays.

It's all about externalities. In economic terms, an externality is when someone makes a decision but doesn't bear the consequences of that decision. When you buy a plane ticket your boss is paying for, that's an externality. And generally externalities lead to extra costs: you just aren't as careful with someone else's money as you are with your own. Maybe you forget to buy that ticket until after the rates go up; maybe you pay through the nose for a direct flight you wouldn't have bought with your own scratch.

It seems to me that a lot of the problems with American health care can be traced to two externalities:

  1. The insurance company is involved in making medical decisions, but they don't care how bad you feel and
  2. You are involved in making medical decisions, but you don't care how much the insurance company pays
Though, of course, you should care -- you're paying for it in the end. Anyway, let's deal with Externality #2 for a moment. Let me tell you a little story.

A couple of years back, Mark had a bruise on his leg that wouldn't go away. Many days after the injury, it was still dark-colored and painful. I convinced him to go to the doctor to check it out -- maybe the bone had a stress fracture? Or maybe I was a nervous Nellie. Anyway, he went.

"It's not a stress fracture," said the doctor. "To be honest with you, I think it's just a bad bruise. There's a small chance -- really small -- that you could have a blood clot. If you want, we can do an ultrasound to be sure. But honestly I don't think it's necessary."

For us, this decision seemed easy. We were paying the same flat co-pay either way, so why not just do the ultrasound? The other decision -- leave and come back in a week or so if the pain persisted -- might wind up costing us time, whereas this option cost us nothing.

If we had been paying a percentage-based co-pay instead, maybe it wouldn't have been such a no-brainer. Maybe we would have looked at the extra cost and decided against it. But as it was, we made a decision that benefited us marginally and hurt everyone else on our plan.

And we weren't alone. Because this is the same thing everybody else is doing when they assent to all these "extra procedures" the touted government efficiency is supposed to prevent. These people aren't evil, or even necessarily all that callous, they're just sensible. And because of an externality, they have no incentive to act differently. Heck, they don't even have an incentive to check over the bill and make sure the services their insurance was billed for were actually performed.

Make patients bear some of the costs of their own decisions, and you would enlist them in keeping those costs down.

So that addresses Externality #2, and now we're back to Externality #1: insurance companies don't care how bad you feel. Well, in my ideal world, what you'd "buy" for accepting a percentage-based co-pay would be greater control over your own health care decisions. Now that you're working to balance the two concerns at hand: -- your health and the cost of your care -- your insurance company should be able to just butt out and more or less let you run things.

Also, decouple insurance and employment and you'd allow consumers to punish bad business practices by (1) switching providers and (2) spreading word of mouth. Then maybe, just maybe, the insurance company would care how you feel.

Zombies Ate My Weekend

I may be just a mild-mannered writer in a ruffle-collared blouse, but even I have dreams that in the Zombie Apocalypse, I will be one of the few to survive. I imagine boarding up the windows and, if necessary, taking out the stairs from the first story of my house to the second. Zombies can't climb rope ladders, don't you know?

Anyway, this weekend I got the chance to try out my zombie busting skillz for the first time, with a little gem from PopCap called Plants vs. Zombies. Basically, you defend your home from zombies by planting various plants, each of which have abilities such as shooting peas, tossing watermelons, or expelling poisonous gas.

Mark downloaded it first, then after a few hours he let me take a crack at it. He watched me play the first few levels. "Ah," he mused, "to be young again and playing Plants vs. Zombies for the first time."

I totally get it, babe. Because, man, these plants! These zombies! They are totally addictive, and it's only now, after a full two days of immersion, that I am starting to break away.

What's so great about Plants vs. Zombies?

First of all: cute! The art in the game is really charming; even the zombies manage to look adorable. I mean, look at that guy. With a cone on his head! Silly zombie.

Second of all: grindable! The game has a wealth of things to buy, complete, collect, and otherwise muck about with. It's chicken soup for the obsessive compulsive soul.

It's been a long time since I enjoyed a game this much, and to be honest it doesn't come at the best time. I am, for the first time in a long time, in flow with my writing. Deep flow. Like, rip tide. I'm talking push-on-through-to-the-end-of-the-book-and-get-it-in-the-mail flow. And if my flow has one nemesis in all the world, it's -- no, not zombies --gaming.

I hope I won't be accused of melodrama if I say that, through gaming, I have come to understand how alcoholics feel about alcohol. It's not just a compulsion, you understand. It's love. It's the beautiful, rich color of a really good scotch. It's the giddy feeling you get when you toast a zombie with your Cob Cannon just as he steps onto your porch.

For better or worse, but I think forever -- I love to game. Love it enough to ignore the other things I love, like reading and socializing and writing my book. And so to have some zombie come and woo my inner gamer right now, just when I've gotten into flow -- well, it frightens me. Which is why the mouse I need to play this game is at home, and I am currently at Borders.

Blogging about Plants vs. Zombies.

Ode to a Writing Group

When you know you've met someone special, you don't want to ever let them go. That's the way it is with me and my current writing group. We started seeing each other more than five years ago when I lived in San Jose. And though it's now a long distance relationship, somehow we manage to keep the magic alive.

We just have great chemistry. Even five years in I am routinely surprised and pleased by the quality of the feedback I get.

Maybe it helps that we're all at a similar part of our careers. All four of us have just finished a novel -- or almost finished it, or really-almost-finished-it-and-I-mean-it-this-time. And this month one of our members (I'll call her the Poetess) had some big news. She has landed a literary agent, who is currently shopping her book around to publishers.

If you know me, you'll know what my first reaction was -- jealousy, and shame that I hadn't gotten there first. Because as much as I believe in the Poetess and want her to succeed, jealousy is never far away when I consider the success of other writers. That is just one of the less-than-exactly-likable qualities of me.

"I've got to get that book out there," I couldn't stop myself from saying. Another member (I'll call him Outlander) chimed in with "Yeah." And I could hear that he was feeling it too: that left-behind feeling, that gotta-get-my-butt-in-gear feeling. Which I suppose, for both of us, is a good thing.

We went on to discuss queries and climaxes, flashbacks and denouements along with our fourth member (Newshound). And by the end of it all we had decided to kick ourselves into fifth gear by meeting twice as often: every two weeks instead of every month.

And this is one of the things I love about my group: we roll with the punches. We're past the uninvested stage where everyone just goes with the original status quo. We accommodate each other, and we're not afraid to speak up when we want something to change.

Meeting twice a month is a little scary for me. Much as I appreciate them, there are times when I need to forget about Outlander, Newshound, and the Poetess; there are times when an impending meeting begins to feel like someone reading over my shoulder while I write. But I think it'll be, on balance, good for me. Because there's one word for how I feel following this week's meeting.

Motivated.

Shredded

I've been doing Jillian Michael's famous 30 Day Shred for about... oh, 30 days now, though I have to admit those days have not been precisely consecutive. And it seems to be working.

Jillian performs twenty-two minutes of exercises along with her assistants: Natalie, who models the hard version of the exercise, and Anita, who models the beginning version. These women are like sharks. I mean, there is nothing to them but muscle and a vestigial skeletal structure. Usually I roll with Natalie, but when it comes to push-ups I hang back with Anita.

I must say that for a professional trainer, Jillian is shockingly demotivating. Here are some of the things she says: "I know you want to quit;" "Don't quit on me;" "We don't quit at the end;" "I know you want to shut off this DVD, but don't."

These reminders that you could at any time simply turn off the TV, kick back in your sweat-soaked shorts, and have a beer are a constant theme of hers. She also lies about the number of reps, frequently saying "A couple more," when she really means "ten more." And then there's the part where she says if you do the Shred, you'll look like Natalie in no time -- and then the two of them share a sarcastic chuckle.

But when I ignore what she says and just do what she does, I have to admit that I get results.
A brief record:

Day 3: I am already beginning to see results. Nothing dramatic, just a slight tightening up of my abdomen. I haven't lost weight, I don't look substantially different, but I can see that something is beginning to happen.

Day 10: I notice that my stamina is significantly higher than it used to be: i.e., I can do the Shred without spending the next half hour draped over my bed and wanting to die. This is a plus.

Day 15: My upper abs look pretty sweet now: tight and muscular, with a distinct line of definition down the middle. There follows many days of slow, slow progress, as the definition creeps from the top of my abs downward. My weight on the scale still hasn't moved, but that's ok: I know muscle weighs more than fat.

Day 30: I notice a sexy dent of definition between the ball of my shoulder and my trapezuis muscle, the one that stretches along the top of the shoulder to the neck. This is also the day when the scale miraculously jumps down by five pounds, and I pull up my shirt, look at myself in the mirror and decide that I am officially more Hot than Not.

So, after 30 days I don't feel as dramatically "shredded" as Jillian suggested I might be. That's fine, though; I like my new look enough to stick with it for at least another 30.

In Which I Get Angry

The web has been buzzing over the past few days with news of a horrifying gang rape outside a high school homecoming dance. The details of the crime are absolutely staggering: as many as twenty male students watched as a 15-year-old girl was raped and beaten for over two hours.

This event comes just a few months after the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine massacre. I remember watching the news of that event unfold ten years ago, and thinking what we were probably all thinking: How in God's name could a thing like this happen? What is wrong with the world, that something so evil can take place?

But now I look back ten years and think that Columbine was a lot easier to understand than this. Although the damage Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris wrought was many times more grievous than that in the current California case, at least their actions could be dismissed as the actions of a couple of wackos. A couple of sick, sick teenagers who operated outside of normal society.

But that's not the case in today's case. Twenty people -- twenty! -- watched the assault, and although they are not criminals in the legal sense, in the moral sense they are. In this case it's not just a couple of individuals who are sick, but rather an entire community.

So what's that sick community, is what I'm asking myself. Is it Teens Today, or California, or 21st-Century America? Could it be as small as Richmond High School, or as big as Humanity itself?

A lot of people have been decrying the fact that there is no law under which the observers of the rape can be charged. And while I, too, would like to see them punished, I have to ask: what does it matter? Because if not one of those twenty young men had enough compassion in his heart to help that girl, what good are laws going to do us?

In Which the Web is Awesome

OK, you already knew that the web was awesome, right? But perhaps you don't truly appreciate the depth of its awesomeness. Like how you can get from one teensy granule of information to the exact knowledge you're seeking.

I was looking for a paragraph. Just a random graf, from a random page in a random novel that I read when I was in high school. It was from a fantasy, and concerned the protagonist's freshly cast spell -- how she could sense the spell's fullness and rightness and completeness. The idea of the graf had always stuck with me, but after seventeen-or-so years, the actual words had faded from memory. I only had one scrap left: if she had tapped it with her nail, it would have rung like a bell.

I typed that phrase into Google, but I didn't get any relevant hits. It's just full of too many generic words (though Google helpfully suggested that maybe I meant "if she had taped it with her nail.") Moreover, I wasn't sure I had the exact words; like I said, it had been awhile.

The next step was to look for the book itself. I remembered that it was a fantasy, I remembered the plot, and I remembered that there was a red-headed girl on the front in a purple dress.
After scouring my brain, I remembered that the protagonist was a magic user referred to as "mageborn" and that one of the minor characters was called "Alix." I was worried that both of these search terms would be too common (I'm sure more than a few books use the word "mageborn"), but a simple search for "mageborn Alix" returns several results for Barbara Hambly's Stranger at the Wedding.

At this point I considered just buying the book. It is out of print, but there are used copies available on Amazon, and I remembered greatly enjoying it as a teen.

But I wanted to see if I could get further, actually uncover that paragraph. And so I turned to Google Books. This service allows you to search for text within books -- lots and lots of books -- which Google has scanned. Search for "Call me Ishmael" and you'll get Moby Dick. Search for "Tarleton twins" and you'll get Gone With the Wind. Search for "Richard Parker" and you'll get Life of Pi, which I highly recommend.

Google doesn't let you see the whole book unless it's out of copyright or the publisher has granted permission. But it's a fun place to bum around, and if you don't believe me, try paging through a few old Life magazines from the thirties. The ads alone are delightful.

So I searched for "Stranger at the Wedding," then searched within it for my one key phrase: "if she had tapped it with her nail, it would have rung like a bell." After a few variations, I hit on it. But I still didn't have the whole paragraph! Google would return a few lines at a time, but they didn't have permission to reveal a large excerpt, so I was left with fragments. After several minutes of playing around I had the beginning of the paragraph, and the end, but was missing a few words from the middle.

The final step: I took those opening words and typed them into a regular Google web search. And found myself directed to Scribd.com.

Scribd is a self-publishing webstite; I'm guessing that after Hambly's publisher let her book go out of print, she turned to Scribd so she could continue to sell it. Interestingly, in the Scribd version, Hambly has edited out the final phrase, the one phrase I remembered for all these years, the phrase that enabled me to start this search in the first place. But when I put the Scribd text together with the Google Books text, I finally had the graf I was looking for:
To her inner perception of magic, the spell felt hard and smooth, like blown glass cooled perfectly to its final shape; if she had tapped it with her nail, it would have rung like a bell.
And now that I see the thing in its entirety, I remember why it stuck in my head for so many years. This is exactly (exactly!) what I am always trying to achieve with my writing. Not for my writing to feel like Hambly's, but for it to feel the way her protagonist's spell felt: solid and cohesive and unblemished and resonant.

I can imagine my nails running over that blown glass she's talking about, feeling the smoothness, how there's nothing on that surface that catches or snags. In my head, the glass's final shape is a sphere, and when I imagine tapping it I can almost hear the chime.

And.... I'm Back

I've been absent from the blogosphere for almost two months now. Sorry to disappoint you, Mom! But I had gotten my groove back, writing wise, and I didn't want any distractions.

Now that I'm settled into the groove, I'm back to blogging. More tomorrow, but for now I'll just mark my return with:

Three Things I Learned While I Was Away From Blogging
  1. The Atlanta Bread Company has so-so bread but killer wifi.
  2. Skirt steak prepared very well and cut against the grain is still skirt steak.
  3. The "drainage pipe" can also be called the "sewage pipe." Note to husbands: If your wife is currently mopping up overflow from said pipe, use the word "drainage."

The First Annual Kitchen Fest

Last week I was home in Texas (ah, Texas!) to visit the fam. My sister, Kate, just got back from a 2-year teaching gig in China, and as it happens, both she and I are really into cooking at the moment. Long before I arrived on site, we had agreed that we might spend basically my entire visit cooking. And it turns out that's what we did.

We sauteed. We pureed. We seeded. We boiled and roasted and baked. We also goofed around. There was some Whitney Houston, and some Journey. Also a cucumber-microphone.


Somewhere around day 2, deep into the pasta-rolling phase, I asked her what I should call this event for my blog.

"I could call it, um, Kitchen Fest '09?" I said.

Kate gasped. "We should have a Kitchen Fest every year!"

I gasped. "That is the best idea ever!"

We fell deep into discussions of exactly what Kitchen Fest entailed and how to commemorate it.

"We could have t-shirts that said Kitchen Fest," Kate said.

"No, aprons!"

"With badges!"

Kate was in favor of having our aprons read "Co-founder" in the event that Kitchen Fest eventually expands to include other participants. But I personally feel that this is against the spirit of Kitchen Fest. While we were negotiating this, Mark happened into the kitchen.

"Are you playing Kitchen Fest?" he asked.

"Playing?!" I said. "We're not playing!" said Kate.

And thus Kitchen Fest was born.

We have every intention of repeating it next summer. Currently on the slate for 2010 is canning, though that's certainly not set in stone. Here's what we made this year:


This recipe was already a big success for me on the home front, and in this wider showing it did not disappoint. Friends and family alike declared it delicious. If you use this recipe, I think it's best to remove a few big spoonfuls of stock before pureeing, so you wind up with a nice, thick texture. Also the cream is, for me, not essential.

Ravioli
We added a bit of wheat flour to the dough, with ok results, I think. We used three fillings: Alton Brown's meatloaf filling, a spinach ricotta filling, and a butternut squash and carmelized onion filling that was my personal favorite.

By the time we were done (and we did this a lot) we thought we had developed a good hand at making the dough reach the right consistency. I feel like I haven't perfected ravioli yet, though... sounds like there's more rolling in my future.


Sorry, I don't have a picture of this one. But let me just tell you that it was phenomenal. It totally overwhelmed the ravioli, but that was ok, because it was just... so... fantastic! It was perhaps a little too spicy; we didn't have chili flake, so we used red pepper instead and cut back on the amount... but perhaps not enough. Red pepper is wonderfully healthy, though, so in the future I may try to just tone it down instead of going over to chili flake.

Chicken Stock


Yes, there's a chicken somewhere in that pot. I feel almost certain of it. This was Kate's recipe, so I don't have a link, but basically it goes like this: Wash a chicken. Chop some veggies. Boil them for a long, long, long, long time.

We let it go five hours, and the flavor was pretty darn wonderful. Afterwards, Kate cut the flesh off the chicken to use for soup, and it too was just delish.


Don't let the title fool you; these are dessert bars, plain and simple. They're like brownies, but with fruit. Yum! Look in the lower right, and you'll see the corner we sacrificed to immediate tasting. I'm looking forward to trying these with strawberries, or maybe blackberries. Although, to be clear, there was nothing wrong with the raspberry filling. It was positively delectable.

And there you have Kitchen Fest '09. I'm willing to declare it a great success, because I had fun with my family and also learned a few things. As for Kitchen Fest 2010, well... does anyone know where I can get some custom aprons?

Good Business and Adequate Salsa

The other day at Borders I was browsing the tables up front and came across this interesting find: America's Most Wanted Recipes.

It's a collection of recipes from popular restaurants, like Chili's, the Olive Garden, and KFC. What a great idea, I thought.

Because it is. An interesting book, one that should appeal to a lot of people--even people outside the normal cookbook market. A good seller.

I flipped through the table of contents and found exactly one recipe I really, really wanted: Chili's salsa. And then I did a thing that I perhaps should not have done:

I copied it down.

Ok, yes, I know this was wrong. But it was literally the only recipe I wanted. And after I went home, I made a discovery. The recipe was very, very marginally different from this recipe, found all over the web:

Chili's Salsa Copycat Recipe

1 14.5 oz. can tomatoes with green chiles
1 14.5 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
4 tsp diced jalepeno
1/4 cup diced onion
3/4 tsp garlic salt
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp sugar

1. Pulse fresh vegetables in food processor.
2. Add everything else and process.

This information cast a new light on America's Most Wanted Recipes. Was it possible that the author didn't actually develop the recipes for the book? That instead he just copied info from the web, tweaked it, collated it into a nice format, and sent it off to be published? I don't actually know how true this is, of course--I only read one recipe--but it seemed possible.

When I encounter something like this, I feel slightly... irked, even ripped off--as though the author were cheating at life. Hey, what gives, I want to say. Why do you get to be in the front of the bookstore?

But then I have to slow down, climb off my high horse, and remember that:

  • Bringing a product to a new market is a valuable service.
By putting together that book, the author brought those recipes to a new demographic, the demographic of people who doesn't search the web for copycat recipes, but might be interested anyway. That's valuable. And if he can earn some money from that, well, he deserves it. But it doesn't really even matter if he deserves it because...
  • The success of others does not impoverish me.
There's no reason in the world for me to feel jealous or annoyed when somebody else thinks of a good way to make money--or publication, or critical acclaim, or any of the other things I sometimes get jealous of. Even if it seems to me that what they're doing doesn't have value, or that their effort was not commensurate with the reward--well, who cares? Why should I begrudge them their success? The bottom line is: I shouldn't. An the end of the day, they're them and I'm me. I can find my own way to success and be happy for them too.
***
Once I got my head on straight, I took a look at my purloined salsa recipe. It was darn easy; apart from chopping a few meager veggies (which I like), and cleaning my food processor, there was basically nothing to do. I whipped it up and tried it. It was good.

But it wasn't just right.

I let the flavors meld overnight, but it still didn't taste like Chili's to me. So I packed some up in a ramekin and decided to taste test it against the real thing.

For those of you who knew me pre-2002, you're probably thinking, "Hey! What's going on here? Jane hates salsa!" The truth is, Mark's been training me up: first on chili, then salsa, and now we're up to crazy things like chicken wings. So I was excited to see how close I had come to the real thing.

Just from the picture you can see a few differences. Mine is chunkier. Also, they didn't seed their jalepenos, and I did. (like I said, I have a history as a spice wimp. I panicked.) Also, their chunks of pepper are a softer, more mossy green, meaning that they were cooked rather than fresh.

But the real differences were in the taste. Chili's salsa tastes miles more fresh and spicy. After a bite of mine, I can distinctly taste garlic and cumin, whereas the Chili's seasoning was more of a piece with the whole dish. Theirs was also much brighter; I wondered if it might contain some lemon juice. Mark thought it might have hot sauce.

So, the upshot is that we have a laundry list of things to try with the next batch. Roast the peppers. Leave the seeds. Try hot sauce and lemon juice. And Mark's interested in trying some other peppers, not just jalepenos.

I believe I can conquer that salsa. Just give me time...

The Truth About Working at Home... With Your Husband

A while back I wrote about the ugly Truth About Working at Home. Since Mark's joined me at home while he works on a programming project of his own, I thought it was time for an update about life in a home office for two.

1. You will spend more time making food.

I'm perfectly willing to make a lunch out of string cheese for myself. But if Mark's around, well, it's at least gonna be string cheese and a veggie.

2. You will feed off each other's moods.

You know how hard it is to maintain a cherry attitude when your office mate is grim and grumpy and monosyllabic? Well, now imagine he's your office mate AND your husband.

3. You will uncover previously unknown flaws in your beloved.

I just have to ask: how can a man fill up his office trash can every day? Every blessed day? I know for a fact that his work is mostly on the computer. So how does this happen?

For Mark's part, I'm sure he is just now realizing how many stashes of unmated socks I have in various corners of the closets. And how bad I am at disciplining the cats.

4. You will lose all sense of time.

When Mark was working, it was fairly easy for me to stay anchored in the real world. I nearly always knew what day of the week it was. Now I work on Sunday, relax on Tuesday, and stay up 'til 4 a.m. on a regular basis. When neither of us have any time-specific commitments, it's just all too easy to lose track of the clock.

5. At some point, the honeymoon will be over.

You will realize that this is not in fact some wonderful working vacation -- a rare chance to spend more time with your man. Instead, this is your new life. It's no longer romantic, and thrilling, and blissful. It's just real, and present, and, from a financial perspective, a little bit scary.

When this realization hits you, it's not a bad thing. It's a chance to come down to earth and appreciate your situation with new, more grown up eyes. After all, when the honeymoon's over, that's when the real marriage begins.

Me, Myself, and Kitty

As I'm editing my book, there are a lot of tasks on my plate: smoothing plot, seeding suspicions. But one of the most important things I'm doing is crystallizing the character of my protagonist, Kitty.

It's a lot of work. When I started out I had a vague idea of who she was: sort of a template to get me started, to give me a name to put on the page. But as I worked my way through each of the scenes, I gained a much stronger knowledge of who she was and what she wanted. Now it's my job to make sure that all that I've learned is there from the start: that on page one, Kitty is the whole person I know her to be, complete with flaws, quirks, and everything.

The truth of it is, she's a lot like me.

Not in any of the actual details, the things I'd list if I was describing her. I'm not a mystery-solving farm girl in the big city. I'm no master manipulator. And I'm not (at least I hope I'm not) wildly self-involved.

No, Kitty isn't what I am at all. But underneath all those details, Kitty is very much who I am. Her turn of phrase, the way she looks at the world, the things she observes about other people: these are all me. Starkly, obviously me, to anyone who knows me well enough to see.

I used to think that this was lazy, that as a writer I was supposed to be able to craft characters from the ground up, to give them unique voices that had nothing to do with mine. Now I think that was just naive. The fact is, lending Kitty my voice, my outlook -- my me-ness -- layers a lot of reality upon the fictional skeleton of her character. It makes her feel solid to me, tangible, true.

It's strange but true: Kitty isn't me. But she is.

World Building 101

Fantasy writers know what world building is. It's where you flesh out all the details of your story's strange milieu. How does magic work? What do they eat for breakfast in Upper Malefickia? And what is the name of those pirhanna-like fish you put in the river your heroes have to cross?

But my book is set in the 1920's. The real 1920's. No need for world building, right?

Wrong.

One of the most important parts of sci fi and fantasy world building is deciding on "the rules of the world." If you decide that wizards and witches generate their power by chowing down on the legs of spiders dipped in tabasco sauce... well, weird, but ok. It's a rule. You establish it early, and you're expected to stick to it for the remainder of the story.

In more reality-based genres, a lot of the technical rules have already been established (the sun rises in the east and sets in the west). But I still have to answer some metaphysical questions about the way my world operates. Such as:
  • Do bad things happen to good people?
And if so, how bad? Is my world one in which an innocent woman could be kidnapped? In which she could be raped and killed? In which a child could be raped and killed? Or is it a world in which, in general, if something awful happens to you, you deserved it?
  • Does true love conquer all?
Most romances would answer this question in the affirmative; so many that I'd say it's an underlying rule of the genre. For other genres, it's not always such a clear answer.
  • Does everyone get their just desserts?
Is justice a sort of force in my world, one which just can't be denied (no matter how much it seems like it can deep in the middle of Act II)? Or is justice only for a certain part of society, those that can afford it? What about injustice? Are there forms of it that are rampant, expected, part of the cost of living in this world?
  • What are the roles of various groups?
Are the cops generally the good guys or the bad guys? Are politicians crooked or honest? Are women independant or helpless? Are children innocent or cruel?
  • What is the role of accident and coincidence?
Is it acceptable to have the plot turn on an accident? Or is everything the result of carefully orchestrated events?
  • What kind of humor exists in my world?
Is it at all possible that my protagonist will slip on a banana peel? Can her character be wildly over the top? Or is my world a grittier, realer place where humor consists mostly of bitingly clever dialogue?

No matter how factual the setting, I have a lot of leeway to play with all of these things. And I have an obligation to keep all of them consistent. Otherwise, I'll get the same reaction as the fantasy writer who suddenly has her wizard draw power from eating butterfly legs dipped in ketchup:

WTF?

No One Cares Whodunit

I recently finished reading Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. (Loved it!)

Although it was chock full of useful info, the one piece of wisdom that really resonated with me was a single word: Whydunit.

That's the term the author uses for the mystery genre. When I read it, it was like one of those lightning bulb moments. Because, of course, duh! No one cares whodunit.

The most disappointing mysteries are the ones in which everyone has an obvious motive, and at the end of the book... well, it turns out one of them did it. For exactly the reason you thought they might. Boooo-rrrring!

Much more interesting are the ones in which the motive is obfuscated in some way, and comes clear just before the end. There are a ton of ways to do this... including the one I've chosen for my book, which I hope people will find interesting and surprising.

I wonder: are there other questions that can provide a really satisfying end to a mystery? Maybe "Howdunit," for a locked room mystery. Or "Howcatch'em," for a Columbo-style story, in which you know the guilty party from the start.

But I think it's the Why that really gets to the heart of mysteries... maybe to the heart of stories in general.

Guest Room Reads

I love having house guests. Love it so much, in fact, that I am always trying to tweak the guest facilities. The last addition was a pen and stationary pad for the bedside table. And I'm currently considering adding a power strip.

Then there's the stack of books that sits beside the bed in the guest room. If I have time, I try to tweak this collection for each new guest, to offer something that appeals to their interests. For some people this is easy; for others... not. But here is a list of the criteria I use to arrange my guest room reads.
  • No more than five books.
Five is really the maximum number that a person can mentally sift through all at once. Try for more, and people will ignore them, because nothing jumps out as the One, the One Book They Want to Read.
  • Make sure no two books are very similar.
You can include two mysteries, as long as they're from very different sub-genres. Or two histories as long as they're of very different eras. But in general, each book you offer should stand on its own, as a sterling example of the best you could find of its type.
  • Include 1 or 2 "Bathroom Reads."
These are books that you can pick up, read for a while, and then put down with no sense of disappointment. Anything episodic is good. Some of my favorites are Miss Manners books, or Calvin & Hobbes collections.
  • Include some fiction and some nonfiction.
Fiction is the bulk of my library, but I know I can turn to authors like Bill Bryson or Malcolm Gladwell for good, widely appealing nonfiction. And of course, I have a staggering glut of books like this for any writer friends who come calling.

Those are my basic rules for organizing my guest room shelf. It's a fun task I get to do right before company arrives; after the sheets have been washed and the floors have been scoured, I get to comb through my library and try to pick out just the right things for my friends. Which leads me to my last rule:
  • Don't push it.
Nobody wants to be quizzed about their reading habits. Just select the books, and then shut up about it. If the stack was disturbed at the end of the visit, you'll know you've done a good job.

Oh.... of course!

One of the smartest things I ever heard about writing is that the end of your story should be surprising and inevitable.

What's that? Surprising... and inevitable? Surely those are contradictory.

Well, sort of, yes. But you still have to do your best to hit them both. You're going for an "Oh... of course!" moment. The ending shocks the reader, but then very quickly they begin putting it together with little facts and suggestions you've seeded along the way. The nagging feelings they've had about the characters are suddenly justified. Scenes that previously didn't make a lot of sense now make plenty. Everything comes together.

It's a hard thing to accomplish, and something I greatly admire. So I made a quick scan of my bookshelves and here is a list of books that really hit that note for me. It's not long. If anyone else has some good ones, please post.

  • The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
  • Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
  • Lion in the Valley, Elizabeth Peters

I Do Like Their Cartoons, Though

Just finished reading an article in the New Yorker, whose contention is that "writing can't be taught." And I have to laugh. Because of all of the great myths about writing, there's none I know to be so profoundly false.

I don't really understand why people go around saying something so patently stupid, unless it's to create a belief in a literary elite to which only the elect can aspire. I mean, think about it. No one would say "painting can't be taught."

Sure, they might contend that you can't make a master painter out of some guy off the street. But they would understand that you can take that guy and put a color wheel in front of him. You can teach him how to gauge perspective, how to identify a good paintbrush, and what the human anatomy looks like from different angles.

And if that guy was in fact not some random joe off the street, but a guy who came to you and said, "I like to paint. Please teach me how to paint better," well, then, he'd have a real shot, wouldn't he? Similarly, the people who enroll in a creative writing program are the ones who can benefit most from learning writing techniques.

Because of course there are techniques. There are techniques for dreaming up ideas, and there are techniques for transmitting those ideas effectively to paper, and there are techniques for engaging the reader's emotions while you do it. And anyone who claims that such techniques don't exist, frankly, isn't a pro.

I can't claim that writing programs are perfect; they're not. If I look back on the really valuable things I've learned, I find that most of them came from my own self-directed study, or from conversation with my fellow writers, or from analysis of movies and books. I've got big problems with the way writing is taught in major institutions, to tell you the truth.

But I absolutely can't abide the idea that "writing can't be taught." It speaks to an elitism and a mysticism that has nothing to do with the craft as I know it. And when people perpetuate this myth, it's a way of saying to new people in the field, "Give up. Don't bother. You're not that guy."

The way I see it, you can be any guy you want to be. It takes effort and practice (you better believe it!) but you can do it. Even if you have to teach yourself.

Got Issues?

I think it was Grace Paley who said something like, "A story needs two stories. Not plot and subplot, but two stories that relate to each other."

When I'm planning something to write, I refer to these two stories as the Acute Issue and the Chronic Issue. Acute Issues are, well, acute: "Don't get eaten;" "Kill the monster;" "Stop the bomb before it hits zero." And Chronic Issues are more internal and long-lasting: "Stop feeling guilty;" "Find someone to love;" "Admit your mistakes."

I believe both issues are essential to a really good story. I think this is why everyone universally agrees that Terminator 2 is a better movie than its predecessor. Both had the same great Acute Issue: "Don't get blown to bits." But it's in the Chronic Issue where they really diverge.

Terminator has a love story as the Chronic Issue: it's fine and all, but we've seen it before. But T2 had a boy looking for a father figure he could trust. A great Chronic Issue, which was really well-developed in the script. And even though T2 is a thriller, even though its Acute Issue is what drew you into the theater, you just can't help but respond to the power of that Chronic Issue. And that makes T2 the winner hands down.

When you read thrillers that fail to include a good Chronic Issue, or literary novels that fail to include a good Acute Issue, you notice the lack. You may not know exactly what is missing, the way I wouldn't be able to tell you what's missing in mediocre music--but you know it's something.

I Know You!

I wanted to expand a bit on my "Character is about constancy" statement from a few weeks back--mainly because it flies in the face of all conventional storytelling wisdom. My writing group is always talking about character change: "What changes for this character?" "Yes, but how is he changed by these events?" "I'm not seeing any change in this story." Change is the main rubric by which we figure out whether what we've read is a story, or just a bit of a ramble.

So I don't mean, exactly, that characters should never change. I just mean that they should remain knowable.

Your love for a character, I think, is built on those moments when the character behaves predictably. Spock gets into a verbal tussle with Dr. McCoy and makes a scathingly arch comment. And you smile, and shake your head, and think to yourself, "Oh, that Spock."

If the new Star Trek movie hadn't contained any "Oh, that Spock" moments, it wouldn't have been about Spock. It would have been about some other dude who happened to have Spock's name and biographical data.

Because, here's the deal: You can't love somebody without knowing them. The things you know about them don't have to be good things, they just have to be individual and predictable. We love Dr. House when he's rude. We love Mr. Monk when he's painfully awkward. And we love Remington Steele when he's lazy. (ok, maybe you don't--but I do!)

It's true in life, too. Think back to your favorite story about a loved one. Do you like to tell it because it's really all that funny, or heartwarming, or clever? Or do you just like it because it illustrates, to a T, who that person is?

You can't love someone without knowing them: ok, no big surprise. But here's the kicker: the reverse is true too. In most cases, you can't really know somebody without loving them, at least a little bit. The two are a sweet little package deal.

The Curse of Knowledge

I used to love to read.

In grade school, reading was my preferred recess activity, far above four square, jumping rope, and doing flips on the jungle gym. By high school, I must have scaled up to a good four or five hours a day spent cracking open a book and just blissing out. I considered it more than a hobby; it was part of who I was.

But lately reading has become a rarer activity for me. And it's easy to figure out why.

I know too much.

I've spent years thinking about, talking about, and analyzing the craft of storytelling from every possible angle. I can recount well-thought-out opinions about plot, character, scene, and structure. About beginnings and middles and ends. I can illustrate with examples from television, movies, and books. And I can make you believe me, because frankly, I know what I'm talking about.

And when I pick up a book, even if it's just for fun, I can't shut off that knowledge. If a character is flat or a scene is emotionally blah, I can't help but notice. If the plot is a little hinky or predictable, I'll notice that too.

And I guess, overall, I'm glad. Because it means I've learned a lot. But it does make reading a lot less fun. These days I bliss out on one in ten books, or maybe one in twenty. The rest... well, I enjoy them, but always from a rather clinical perspective.

I'm reminded of a anecdote from the very funny book The Last Catholic in America. The young narrator decides to give up, for Lent, a habit dearer to him than life itself: thumb sucking. Oh, how he loves to suck his thumb! Yet for forty long days he resists temptation. At last Easter arrives, and he can indulge to his heart's delight.

But tragedy strikes. After a month of no thumb sucking, he discovers he simply doesn't like it anymore. I'll never forget the last line of that chapter:

By winning, I had lost.

8 Totally Random Things I Like, or Don't

I don't like:
  • Drying off after showers
  • Pushing grocery buggies
  • Taking out my contacts
  • The smell of clams
I like:
  • Taking my socks off in bed
  • Buttering toast
  • Chopping veggies
  • The smell of garages
How about you?

The Buddy System Continues

Well, the first two weeks of my Buddy Pact with Becky are over, and so far it seems to be a success. Neither Becky nor I have missed a deadline. Which is good, especially since she as a real-life deadline looming and I have a desperate desire to get my book in the mail. Three cheers all around.

But, frankly, it's been hell. There's been very little blogging for me over the past few weeks, because all my time was taken up with worrying, snacking, playing online games, asking Mark how I got myself into this mess--in short, procrastination.

Come the last few days of each week, I managed to kick myself into high gear and work from sun-up to sun-down to avoid losing my precious $50. Does anyone else have this problem: you're capable of Herculean effort, but for some reason not ordinary effort?

It's like, I have to keep reminding myself, "Hey, Jane, this is something you chose to do. It's not, like, something you have to get through. It's your life's work, for crying out loud!"

But everybody's life's work has parts that are pure joy and parts that are, well, pure work. I guess I'm in a pure work place right now.

Now, sending it off? That'll be pure joy.

OMG Star Trek OMG

What can I say about the new Star Trek movie? I mean, what CAN I say about the new Star Trek movie? Because the last thing I would want to say is anything that might spoil it for anyone.

So I will simply try out a new maxim I've been floating around in my head for a while:

Story is about change. Character is about constancy.

Whoever wrote the new Star Trek movie Gets It. Which is why, despite any of its charming imperfections, we hard-core Trekkies love it.

Five Things My Mom Does Better Than Anybody Else

  1. Make lasanga
  2. Plan birthday parties
  3. Fix disasters
  4. Scrapbook
  5. Love me
Happy Mother's Day, Mom! I love you!

Buddy Buddy

Of all the things that are hard about being a writer, cultivating discipline is probably the hardest. I've been struggling with it for years, for what feels like my whole life. And I don't think I'm alone. Other people struggle with it too.

A couple of years back, when I was looking for a house, my Realtor mentioned the program she had developed to deal with her occasional lapses of discipline. She had a buddy system with another Realtor, and they would give one another weekly assignments. Her buddy might tell her that her job for the week was to get two new clients, or fix up her office, or catch up with her filing, or whatever. And if one of them failed to complete her assignment, she would pay a penalty.

"If she doesn't do her assignment, she has to pay me a hundred bucks," my Realtor explained. "And me... well, I'm also motivated by money. But in smaller amounts. So if I don't complete my assignment, I have to give her twenty bucks."

Hmm... ok. So, let's set aside for the moment the fact that my Realtor was obviously running quite the racket on her "buddy." It still seems like a good idea. And since I heard about it, I've been looking, casual-like, for a buddy of my very own.

And I've finally got one. I brought up the system to my friend Becky the other night, and she agreed to buddy up. She has a dissertation; I have a book. We both want to get done. We're designing our own assignments for the moment, since we don't know all that much about one another's processes, but I think that should be ok. And we have equitable penalties -- fifty bucks apiece.

So, it's on. Ten pages for her, three edited scenes for me: all by Sunday morning. I feel pretty confident about getting there because... uh, yeah, fifty bucks. Which means it may not be long until my book is packed into on envelope on its way to New York.

I Want to Sell My Soul to HBO

I was in the bookstore yesterday and I noticed there was a new cover for Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Book publishers like to update their covers every once in a while, to keep them looking fresh and modern and on code, so this wasn't exactly a big surprise. But as I leaned closer, I got one.

Emblazoned across the top were these words: "Now an HBO original series."

I tell ya, HBO is all about the cozies lately. Less than a year ago they released True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris' wildly popular Sookie Stackhouse mysteries. Now they've fallen in with the traditionally-built ladies of Botswana's first all-girl detective agency.

Next year? Who knows. But all I'm saying is, if a bright young writer were to come out with something awesome... well, the sky's the limit.

Make Mine Sushi

Lately, I've had a real thing for sushi. I can't get enough of it. For dinner, for lunch... heck, I'd even eat the stuff for breakfast.

Problem is, you just can't get sushi cheap. So last Friday I got out my much-read-but-never-used sushi cookbook and decided to give it a whirl.


My sushi cookbook, I should mention, is entirely Japanese in character. It cares very much about aesthetics, technique, and Doing Things Right. As evidence, I submit the following quotes:

"Hold the rice ball up to the light. You should be able to see light filtering through it."
"The best way to grate wasabi is with a piece of sharkskin attached to a small wooden board."
"Thou must toast the nori for ten seconds, and the seconds of the toasting shall be ten. Thou shalt not toast eleven, nor shall thou toast nine (excepting that thou then procedest to ten). Twelve is right out."

I ignored most of this. Not because I don't appreciate the eternal Japanese pursuit of perfection (in fact, I dote on it), but because if I hadn't, the intimidation factor would have killed this project in the offing. I also had to pass on using actual raw fish, because I wasn't feeling ambitious enough to drive all the way to the Asian market across town, and I had this conversation with the girl behind the seafood counter at Kroger:

Me: Hi, I was interested in making sushi tonight. Do you have any tuna that's fresh enough for that?

Fishmongress: We have it, but it's frozen.

Me: (aside) I don't think you understood my question.

So, I was stuck with the following seafood:
  • smoked salmon
  • imitation crab
  • cooked shrimp
I also prepared the following roughage:
  • spinach
  • mushrooms
  • green onions
  • avocado
  • cucumber
And the following condiments:
  • homemade teriyaki sauce
  • soy sauce
  • pickled ginger
  • wasabi from a tube (my local Target was all out of sharkskin graters)
And, just to be original, a banana and some cream cheese. I assembled the ingredients, and then I rolled. And rolled and rolled. Overall, I was really happy with the results. The rice had a good texture, and the dressing seemed evenly distributed, though just a touch too vinegary. I definitely need to work on my rolling technique, which I plan to do next week with some real, legitimate fish. And next time, I might just toast my nori.

Cracking the Code

Whether you realize it or not, you know the code. The code of packaging. It's the code that tells you that chips that come to you in a muted-color bag are healthier than those in a bright one. That Milano cookies are a perfectly respectable snack to serve to adults. That Target's generic shampoo is exactly like Head & Shoulders, only cheaper.

Tropicana recently had to abort their latest packaging redesign when their sales plummeted. The reason? They were off code. Looking at it now, I can't imagine what they were thinking.

Tell me that doesn't look like a generic store brand: low cost, low quality (at least in consumer perception). Tropicana didn't look like a premium brand anymore. And the sales reflected it.

The code, of course, isn't limited to the grocery store. It ranges far and wide, touching everything we shop for.

Like, say, books.

Walk into any section of the bookstore, and you'll find a wealth of cover styles, each designed to attract the fans of different sub-genres. Take, say, the mystery section. Cozies have bright colors, cartoonish pictures, and punny titles. Historicals have muted colors.Serial killer thrillers love red, black, shadows, and serious-looking fonts. And femjep tends to stick to a dusky, wistful palette. (That's "female-in-jeopardy", y'all.)


One shelf over, in Romance, we see the same kind of division.


And we'd see it in Sci-Fi, YA, Literature, and Self-Help as well. I imagine it must be a constant challenge for cover designers to turn out something that is both eye catching and on code.

Code is a double-edged sword. It attracts readers who are predisposed to like your work, but it also has a way of limiting you. That cozy cover, for example, says, "Hey, girls, lots of laughs!" but also, "Men, keep walking."

This is why you'll see some writers with really excellent word of mouth go around naked (code-wise, that is). They've already attracted a huge fan base; the best the cover artists can do is avoid turning anyone away. Janet Evanovich gets codeless covers. So does Sue Grafton, though that wasn't the case when I first read Grafton back in the 90's. (That frame and font, by the way, are 80's-90's code for cozy.)

All this isn't really something for me to worry about. I won't be designing my cover, and my input might be minimal. But I think it's an interesting look into the world of branding and marketing. So the next time you pick up a bag of chips, ask yourself:

"Are these really healthy, or do they just look like they are?"

Man, I Didn't Know the Economy was THAT Bad

If you've ever been to Zaxby's chicken shack, you know what it is to get lousy customer service. Zaxby's is sort of the Anti-Chick-Fil-A; it is staffed almost entirely by stoned, sullen college students who evidently have a lot more important things to do than get me my food in a timely manner. But I keep going back, because the chicken is delish.

So you can imagine my surprise about four months ago when a Zaxby's employee greeted me with an expression that was not only alert, but also not unpleasant. Fast forward two months, and a drive-through clerk actually called me "ma'am."

"Maybe it's the economy," I theorized to Mark. "Workers are having a harder time getting jobs, so Zaxby's has a better pool of potential employees to pull from." In other words, people who previously wouldn't have touched a deep fryer with a ten-foot pole are having to lower their expectations, and Zaxby's is reaping the benefits.

But the real shocker came last night, when an older gentleman, obviously a new Zaxby's hire, took my order, told me it would be about five minutes, and then asked if I would like a glass of water while I waited.

Did you hear that? He offered me water. In a glass, no less. It was as if I had stumbled into the Mirror Universe from Star Trek, and was now standing in the Nega-Zaxby's. When I ventured forth, would I find that Chick-Fil-A had become apathetic, that Atlanta traffic was snarl-free, that I could get in and out of Wal-Mart in less than half an hour? Was my life about to be turned completley upside down?

No, as it turns out. Because at least they forgot the napkins. And I found myself relieved; there are still some things in life you can count on.

Three Things I Learned While Cleaning out the Fridge

  1. Pillsbury makes a pizza crust. Moreover, at some point, I bought one.
  2. My refrigerator drawers come out a lot more easily than they go back in.
  3. Yes, a jar of caramel ice cream topping can go bad. And the best way to test this is not with a spoon.

Media Blackout: The Wrap-Up

My self-imposed Media Blackout is officially over. Overall, I'm really pleased with the results. Productivity went way up, and while I don't think this is all due to the Blackout, it was a factor. Some stats:

Important news stories I missed out on:

None that I can find. I knew about the new trillion $ spending package, because Mark told me. They do know there are numbers lower than a trillion, right?

Pissy little news stories I missed out on:
  • Octomom fires her kids' nurses
  • Yet more dishing about singer Rihanna and what she should do about her relationship with abuser Chris Brown (my vote: tune out the media completely and just take care of herself)

Times I cheated:

Several. Most of these were fairly innocent slips: Mark likes to watch Mad Money; I like to sit with Mark. I can't follow most of what Jim Cramer says anyway.

The worst offense was probably the first night, after I spent several hours on the web dealing with various government forms (it turns out my marriage license IS my marriage certificate). After that I really felt like I needed to float in the billowy warmth of the interwebs. So I loaded up the Freakonomics blog and just scanned through the post titles. I did not inhale!

Times I greeted Mark at the door with an irate comment about what Congress had been up to that day:

Zero.

Changes to Productivity:

Substantial, and all for the better. I'm not sure this can be attributed solely to the Blackout; I also acquired a lovely new car, which enabled me to get out the the library more often. And I got back to blocking out my schedule in a serious fashion, which also helped.

But the Blackout was a boon to my work life, I think. It increased productivity at least somewhat, especially in the morning, when I often spend a good bit of time surfing the web. And increased productivity leads to increased momentum, which creates mroe productivity... you get the picture. It was a good thing.

Changes to Mood:

Also substantial, and for the better. Part of that is attributable to... let's hear it again... increased productivity!

But I honestly believe that lowering my news quotient was good for my soul. I was spending an unpleasant amount of time angry, and that's just no good. This week was a great break from all that. It reminded me of the kind of person I want to be: Someone who values other people, whether or not they agree with me; someone who looks for the best in others and not the worst.

Going Forward:

I want to take something of this week with me, but I don't necessarily want to tune out entirely. So here's the plan. Some of my websties will become dailies: major news sites, friends' blogs, and Murderati are a few. I'll look at these once a day, after work. Everything else will become a weekly: I'll check them out on Friday and ignore them the rest of the week. And I think I'll do a regular Blackout: say, every three months.

I hope this will let me keep my hand in without getting totally absorbed in the big media machine. If nothing else, it should give me more time for writing!

A Loaf of Bread Cost What?

Ever wondered how much your house would have cost in 1880? 1900? 1930? Now you can find out, with this handy dandy Inflation Calculator.

I only wish I had found this resource a year ago. I've been limping along by assuming the dollar was worth about ten times its current value in 1928; turns out I wasn't far off. But now that I'm in revision, it's nice to know I've got some real numbers to work with.

News Free Week

My day begins in a fairly predictable way. Get up, feed the cats. Check e-mail. Check Facebook. Then dive into a few of my favorite news sites and spend the next hour there. Check back a few times during the day in case something interesting has happened. All in all, I probably spend at least a couple hours a day on news.

I started doing this during the run up to the election. It was interesting, and also a convenient form of procrastination that felt reasonably meaningful and useful. But I have to face a simple fact:

It's made me a less happy person.

It turns out I don't like knowing quite this much about what's going on in the world. A lot of what I read makes me angry, or apprehensive, or both. I don't mean to suggest that a tuned out life is a better life... but maybe, just maybe, I could give it a whirl.

So I'm taking a week-long break from the news. No CNN. No FoxNews. No news on TV. I'll also take the opportunity to cleanse my life of a lot of the other websites I waste time on everyday. No Cakewrecks. No Murderati. No Twitter. I'll continue to read actual friends' blogs, because there aren't that many of them and it really shouldn't take more than an hour a week. Also, 'cause I just can't go cold turkey.

I'm looking forward to this experiment. The ideal results would be an improved mood and increased production on my book. But frankly, I'd take either.