Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bracing for Halloween at our house

Confession: I've never liked Halloween, even when I was a kid. I hated dressing up in costumes (still do) and candy and sweets just aren't my thing. However, when I had kids, I got into the spirit of it for their sake.

I remember when they used to dress up like gorillas or magicians or skeletons. They'd carry plastic pumpkin pails and their heads would swivel with admiration when they saw all the other faux-fir or glow-in-the-dark sequined outfits kids were wearing. Not so anymore. Now they're 10 and 12, and they're hanging a fake dead body from the basketball hoop, setting up fog machines & strobe lights, and trying to decide how many movement activated spiders dropping from the roofline are too many.

Since moving here four years ago, without fail, we've had 250+ kids come streaming up the driveway between 7 and 9 pm every October 31st. The first year it happened, I was dumbstruck. The second, my 84 year old father-in-law was visiting and couldn't stop shaking his head. Last year I stayed bent over at the front door for a solid 30 minute stretch without straightening, shoveling candy into outstretched bags.

Hmmm... Maybe next year a family vacation away at the end of October might be in order! Think they'd go for it?!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Kudos for an article worth reading

Patricia Wood, author of Lottery, sent me a link to this article from Poets & Writers magazine (a favorite of mine; check it out if you haven't already) Thanks, Pat! If you're in the business, and plan to stay, I'd recommend reading it.

I've never met Chuck Adams, but I'd like to. I like what he says, how he says it, and the way he leaks common sense all over the page in this Q&A. For those who don't know, Chuck was the editor who acquired Sara Gruen's now infamous Water for Elephants. I've pasted three excerpts below:

Q. What are you looking for in a piece of writing?
A. The first thing is the voice. If it's got a strong voice, I'm going to keep reading. And if a story sneaks in there, I'm going to keep reading. To me, those are the two most important things. I want a voice and I want to be hooked into a story. I believe very strongly that books are not about writers, and they're definitely not about editors—they're about readers. You've got to grab the reader right away with your voice and with the story you're telling. You can't just write down words that sound pretty. It's all about the reader. You've got to bring the reader into it right away. If the writing is poetic and so forth, that's nice. I'm reading something right now that has an amazing voice, and I'm only fifty-six pages into it, but I'm already getting a little tired because it's so nice, if you know what I mean. It's so pretty. It's like every page is a bon bon, and I want a little break somewhere. It's become self-conscious, in a way.

Q. How long does it take you to know?
A. You can usually tell after a paragraph—a page, certainly—whether or not you're going to get hooked. Every now and then, something will surprise you. I remember one novel at Simon & Schuster that I was reading, more as a favor than anything else. The writing wasn't great, and the story was a little on the predictable side—it was okay, but a little boring—but then I got to the end and it surprised the hell out of me. I went back and thought, "F**k, this is really something. I would have given up after fifty pages if I hadn't promised somebody that I would read it." I ended up buying it and it did really well.

Q. This is the magazine's MFA issue. Do you have anything to say about them?
A. Obviously a lot of good writers have come out of MFA programs—you see it in their bios—so I know there's a lot of good work being done. I will confess that many of the MFA novels I see are better written than they are good books, if you know what I mean. There's a lot of good writing, but that doesn't necessarily add up to a good book. I feel like perhaps in those programs too much emphasis is being put on style and word choices rather than actually thinking about how to communicate with people. It's too much about—to make it sound terrible—but it's too much about showing off and not enough about trying to please a reader.

Again, I go back to the whole thing about storytelling. I'm old enough to have started reading back when it really was primarily about stories. I guess there were a lot of quality literary books being published then, but my mother didn't buy them. I read what was around the house: Edna Ferber and Daphne du Maurier and Mary Renault and Thomas B. Costain. These are writers you don't hear anything about anymore, but they were brilliant storytellers. They were also good writers, mind you, but they were brilliant storytellers. They would grab the reader right away and just not let go.

Today, I'm seeing better writing than the writing in those books, but I'm not seeing better storytelling. That was why Water for Elephants excited me. Sara is a really good writer. She's not a great stylist or anything—you're not going to sit down and read her sentences just for the beauty of them—but she tells such a great story.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

I'm not who they think I am

Each afternoon at 3:30 when my boys get off the bus, I meet them at the door, give them a hug, and then head back into to my office to write. I’m usually wearing a sweatshirt, carrying a chapter I just printed out, but clearly they see someone else -- possibly someone wearing an apron, carrying a tray of still-warm tarts. I know this because not long ago my youngest said, “Mom? Why don't you bake anymore?”

I hesitated. It wasn’t that I couldn’t remember when I’d stopped baking. I couldn't recall ever starting!

I admire people who bake, but it's not my thing. I tried years ago and got the same results over and over again. My cakes either sank into oblivion, came out like extra large hockey pucks or bubbled like volcanos and made my eyes burn when I opened the oven (it took three failed attempts at that recipe before I realized it called for 1 TBSP of vinegar, not 1 CUP). Eventually I admitted defeat and gave away every cake pan, pie plate, and rolling pin I owned, happy to spend my time writing instead.

But back to now... and my boys, who were standing at my desk waiting for an answer. Why don’t you bake anymore?

I didn't have the heart to point out that I never had, so instead I decided to morph into whoever they imagined me to be, and when I promised I’d bake a cake this week their faces lit up like I'd just parted the red sea. Then after they'd disappeared upstairs, I scribbled CAKE MIX on my grocery list -- the easy kind, where you drop in an egg, a cup of water, bake 30 mins and serve (apron optional).

Now I just need to borrow a pan!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

There's nothing like a good pair of stilts

I had a pair of homemade wooden stilts as a kid, the feet rests worn smooth from use. When I first got them, I fell a lot. Let's face it, walking on stilts is an acquired skill. You're up, down, then up again. You loose your balance, take an unexpected tumble, get bruised, and climb back on.

I took them camping, where I practiced walking over the campfire. I dragged them down to the creek, where I picked my way across from one side to the other while neighbor kids bet on how often I'd wipe out. I even recall walking to the corner store with them to buy ice cream.

My sister thought I was crazy, especially when I came home cut or bruised. She'd roll her eyes and say, "What's the point?"

I had trouble explaining their appeal, my need to strap them on every morning and go for a stroll. Today I understand what made them so compelling, though. Beyond the joy of mastering something bigger than myself, it was the infinite feeling of possibility they gave me.

This past weekend, my kids were given a pair of old drywall stilts and they were a hit. Every kid at Grandma's thanksgiving dinner wanted to try them, and every kid who did wiped out big-time. We broke out the band-aids, the Ozonol, the ice packs, but nothing would stop them. (I myself didn't strap them on -- I may be nostalgic here, folks, but I'm not stupid). At one point, I looked up at my youngest, took his hand, and said, "How's the air up there, buddy?"

"Real good!" he replied. "Mom, they make me feel like I can do anything!" And I smiled, because the writer in me understood exactly where he was coming from.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Loving the leaves, preparing for winter

If I could, I'd freeze fall (specifically September and the first two weeks of October) and put those six weeks on a repeating cycle right up until Christmas Eve. I love this time of year! There's a certain winding down that happens, not only outside with the weather, but inside of me as well.

This is also the time of year where I start stocking up on things. I can't help it! I see squirrels scooting around our backyard, burying food for winter, and I kick into high gear without even realizing it. My husband will come home, open the pantry, and say, "Hol, do we really need 36 boxes of Kleenex?" or my nine-year-old will roll his eyes (as he did yesterday) and say, "Who buys 12 boxes of Frosted Flakes at the same time?!"

I tell them they don't know how good they have it. I also tell them "stocking up" is a woman thing, something they wouldn't understand. It is, right? A woman thing, I mean. Tell me there are more of you out there doing this!

P.S. This weekend is Thanksgiving in Canada and for me that means packing up the SUV and heading north to my home town of Athabasca to visit family. Of course, there'll be lots of good food and drink (hands in the air - Holly doesn't have to cook!) not to mention a few requisite tight smiles, topped off with polite but strained conversation between family members who aren't getting along and who keep switching places at the table so they don't have to sit next to each other.

Such fun! The writer in me (always on the hunt for new material or snappy dialogue) is already trying to pick a spot where I can hide my tape recorder for the evening and press PLAY.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Another French version of The Penny Tree

Each novel takes on a life of its own, so much so that authors sometimes have trouble staying on top of everything that goes on after the release date. Here are some examples.

I was aware sub-rights for The Penny Tree had been sold to Quebec Loisirs, the French Canadian book club and that they planned a big push for this fall, but until google alert picked it up I hadn't seen the new cover they'd come up with (which I really like because she's leaning against a tree and the English title of the book is after all The Penny Tree).

In addition, here's something you may not know. I might never receive an actual copy of this version of the book. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Authors have to push hard to chase down copies from book clubs, and in some cases I've simply given up, joined the club, and ordered a few copies of my own book for my personal library.

Stuff like this happens all the time. (ie., audio rights were sold for The Tin Box in Denmark, but I didn't find out until I read it on a royalty statement). Initially, when I was first starting out, I was appalled. I was the author! Shouldn't someone out there be communicating every detail with me, including the release of a new cover!?

Now I just laugh. I am, after all, only one fish in a sea filled with fish, and the publishing industry is in a constant state of flux and movement. Everything aside, I'm just grateful that my novels have been included in that movement.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lunch time musings

At lunch yesterday, I overheard an old guy at the table next to me tell the woman he was with that he had no regrets in his life -- not one. Maybe it was my mood, but I felt like swiveling around and calling him on it. Interesting as that sounds, how can it be true? How is it that he managed to maneuver through life and not have a few regrets?

Of course, he was probably posturing, if not for his lunch companion's benefit, maybe for his own. Regret is, after all, an intensely personal issue, one I believe the average person doesn't talk about with just anyone because it makes them feel vulnerable, and no one wants to voluntarily crawl out on that limb, right?

He smiled at me as he left and I smiled back, thinking about the novel I'm working on, knowing that if I want readers to fall in love with the story, as they do with any good story, I'll need to make sure they feel my main character has made them privvy to everything in his life, including the most personal regrets he'd never share with anyone else -- maybe even a few he's had trouble admitting to himself.