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.



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."