Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banned Books Week (Pt. 2)

David Ulin, books editor over at the Los Angeles Times, has an interesting piece in today's paper. We should fight the banning of books, he says. But to ignore the potentially inflammatory nature of some books ("Mein Kampf," for example) is disingenuous. In other words, don't be simplistic.


Not exactly PC

Just got to interview the charming and thoughtful John Hodgman, author of the spanking new More Information Than You Require. We spoke for an upcoming piece in the Boston Phoenix; I'll post a link when that runs. But in brief, I will say he was a lovely, intelligent (for a Yalie) conversationalist. We ended up talking more about politics than about humor, and he cheered me up with his insight into why we may end up electing the Democratic ticket.

We did chat about humor some. To wit: "What amuses me, particularly when we’re talking about historical stuff, is using absurdity or exaggeration simply to remind us how absurd reality actually is – and was. The idea that Jimmy Carter actually went on television to tell us to turn down our thermostats and wear a sweater is so bizarre. It’s so removed from what we consider political reality today that it seems like it must have been a dream. One of those weird "I was eating peaches with Jimmy Carter and Ralph Waldo Emerson showed up and told us to get lost” sort of things.

And by the way? He uses a Mac.

Monday, September 29, 2008

How We Do It: Two Writers Talk Technique

My dear friend, the lovely and talented Caroline Leavitt, and I have decided to start a regular Monday trade-off of blogs based on questions we've gotten over the years. This week, we're both taking on the balancing act that most working writers face: how we make money and art, ideally without losing our minds.

Clea Simon and I have been talking a lot about how people perceive writers and the work we really do. Outside of a very lucky view who get gigantic advances or movie deals or who are married to people of means, most writers I know have to have other jobs. (Note: the key words are HAVE TO.) A lot teach and have jobs at universities. Most oil in freelance writing world. It isn't always easy.

So what do I do and how do I do it? I teach advanced novel writing through UCLA, a dream job if there ever was one. It's all on line, and I can do it at three in the morning if I want. I write press releases for a vanity publisher. I name things for a few namers. I have private clients whose manuscripts I mentor, and I sometimes do this work for agents. I write children's books for two different companies and I ghostwrite. I write a book column for The Boston Globe and I'm the books editor for Dame Magazine and I am a book critic for People.

I love all my jobs. I really do. They're all varied and interesting and creative and I get to do some good and give back. But most importantly, I can make my own hours. I can work at home right across the hall from my honey. Is there a downside?

Well, my husband, a writer and editor at Jazz Times, works the same way I do, which means we pay for our own health insurance, which is the price of a small country. We know all too well the ebb and flow of freelance jobs (My husband lost one big one the day he told his boss I was pregnant.) We have a son and we worry about money all the time.

it's hard sometimes, too, to remember that the writing has to come first. You might have twelve things due that day, but you have to get in those thousand words. Or at least, in an emergency, 500.

But this kind of life is really lucky. It's a gift. i wouldn't trade it and it suits me. The one time I held a fulltime job, at the now defunct and odious Columbia House Video Club, I had anxiety attacks. I was yelled at for not having "a marketing personality." I was told that everyone knew I was a novelist and there fore I must be thinking more about plot than videos, and so every mistake would be blamed on me. But I was fast and smart and good at my job and I knew they would never fire me. I left on my own, saying that while I was physically able to do the job, I was spiritually unable. I never looked back! And I never, never, ever wake up with that rock in the pit of my stomach anymore.

Thanks, Caroline! You can read my thoughts on Caroline's blog.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Read...while you still can!

Sound like something out of Orwell's "1984"? It's not. If some folks have their way, a huge range of books – covering everything from health (including our reproductive systems) to fiction (including Phillip Pullman, Mark Twain, and that great, terrifying Orwell novel) – will not be available in our public libraries or schools.

Does this matter? Of course it does! Especially as the economy worsens, more and more of us will be looking to read, and to educate our children, using public resources – resources our tax dollars have paid for.

Today marks the beginning of the Banned Book Week, a time when we should celebrate our freedom to read – while we still have it! Read one of the most frequently challenged books of last year. Support your local library. And make sure you know which candidates support our continued intellectual freedom.

And what radicals are behind this? Well, the American Library Association is one co-sponsor. Their literature points out the importance, saying:

“Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate; and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of the work, and the viewpoints of both the author and receiver of information. Freedom to express oneself through a chosen mode of communication, including the Internet, becomes virtually meaningless if access to that information is not protected. Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tricks and treats

Wow, summer is just barely over and already there's a chill in the air. The trees are beginning to blaze orange and red. And for anyone who loves cats - or a slightly scary bit of woo-woo, that can only mean one thing: Halloween is on the way!
One of the groups I chat with was looking for Halloween read so I'm going to blow my own horn and remind you all that my Cattery Row works as a Halloween-themed mystery. As it opens, it's early October in New England. The leaves are changing and Violet's shelter is preparing to host a Halloween party that will have games and prizes centered on cat-themed myths and legends. But someone is stealing cats...

In terms of other spooky/scary fun: I confess, I've been totally won over by the very real-seeming Southern Gothic of "True Blood" on HBO. I wanted to like them because I'd read so much about how Charlaine Harris, once a midlist author (like me), trusted her muse and came up with the idea of telepathic waittress Sookie Stackhouse and a near-future in which vampires would be campaigning for their rights - and I love them! So, tell me, do you have a favorite Halloween story or show? Something spooky for the season?

(and yeah, the new Worldwide Mystery edition of Cattery Row is less than $5, too.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Books for Barack!

Man, most of the writers I know are broke. No exaggeration. And yet check this out: Author Ayelet Waldman sent out an email asking authors to donate books for a Barack Obama fund drive and she's gotten more than a thousand donations. She's gotten so many books that instead of trying to auction them all off, she's started "Books for Barack." The idea is that anyone who donates $250 will get a package of ten books, chosen at random, from the hundreds of signed, often rare first editions that she has received. And she continues to get more books! (That's her up top, surrounded.)

Writers are the coolest people – tied only by people who read. So check it out. Put your money where your heart is. Donate a book (or three) or send a donation and get the best surprise package in the world: Ten books ... and change!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Respect for the reader

I am not a master of mysteries. With each book, I learn more about plotting, characterization, spinning out the strands that will keep readers involved. But I love mysteries, and I am grateful for the interest and support of the readers who have encouraged and maybe even enjoyed my fledgling efforts.

That's why I was so ticked off when I opened Entertainment Weekly and read the following from Dennis Lehane, talking about mysteries: ''I was never comfortable with them anyway. I'd be writing these friggin' whodunits,'' he laughs, getting excited, ''and I could care less. I wanna tell everybody on page 2, he killed so-and-so, he done it! If you look at my books in that regard — and I'll be 100 percent honest about my flaws — you can see how I was whipping out the kitchen sink just to obscure s---, like the identity of the serial killer or whatever, and that's why the books got so labyrinthian in the last 100 pages.''

Lehane, for those who don't know, just published a non-mystery, an E.L. Doctorow-style historical epic called "The Given Day." I'm happy for him. But to launch his new venture, he has stirred up the whole genre war issue (are mysteries literature?, etc.) and it has given me a headache. I understand trying to drum up attention, but this simply shows a lack of respect for the reader (never mind the genre). I've never been a fan of Lehane, and after reading this I'm even less inclined to try his so-called "serious" fiction. If you don't love the genre – and respect the readers – you shouldn't have been writing mysteries. Shame on you, Dennis.

Friday, September 19, 2008

First, you get the rust...

As you've heard me complain, getting back into the writing discipline is hard, hard, hard. But I've been making myself churn out some words every day - knowing that they maybe total trash - following the theory that you let the tape run and eventually clean water comes out. Well, it's not exactly gushing yet. But I did wake up last night thinking, "Of course! she doesn't understand!" (which makes sense in the context of my work in progress). Very refreshing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More than 140,000 responses...

from women of all ages, religions, and ethnicities. Read some of them here. And please do what you can: donate your money, your time, get a friend registered. Wear a button.

And vote.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The book is dead

The book is dead!

Long live the book!

In other words, kiddos, there's been yet another high profile story on why publishing is a dying industry, focusing on the multi-million dollar deals that don't pan out. Sure, it's hard. But guess what? We midlist authors keep on publishing. So if you all will just keep on reading, I think we'll be okay.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Christie speaks!

Wow! Today's New York Times reveals that a box containing 27 audiotapes of Agatha Christie talking about her life has been discovered!

The reels contain dictation, seemingly done in preparation for writing her autobiography. And what does Dame Agatha, grand mistress of the mystery, have to say? Well, Poirot – her first and most famous detective – was "a complete egoist." Miss Marple, another of her beloved creations, was "puffy and spinsterish."

Friday, September 12, 2008

My pride (Cat Lovers for Obama)

In the lioness sense, that is. Just bought this here. But, hey, if you order the button for fun, you should also go here and make a real donation, too. Every little bit helps!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cats against Palin ...

Thank you, Paul Krugman for this link and quote (in yesterday's NYT blog):

We already had Dogs Against Romney. Now we need Cats Against Palin:

When asked to reveal something about Palin that no one knows, one woman offered, “She doesn’t care for cats very much,” and another chimed in, “Oh, yes, she’s afraid of my cat.”

... the king is dead, long live...

What's in a name? If you're Dr. Hector Carpentier, an impoverished young physician in 1818 Paris, everything....
(my review of Louis Bayard's The Black Tower in today's Boston Globe).

... and finally

Let's not forget those who died seven years ago today. And, let's face it, how the Bush Administration could have averted these attacks.
The warnings were going straight to President Bush each morning in his briefings by the CIA director, George Tenet, and in the presidential daily briefings. It would later be revealed by the 9/11 commission into the September 11 attacks that more than 40 presidential briefings presented to Bush from January 2001 through to September 10, 2001, included references to
bin Laden.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How We Write: Getting Started with Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the kind of friend a writer needs. Highly accomplished (eight novels - see her home page) and unfailingly generous with her time and good thoughts, she's also about 100 pages into her latest novel. But when she and I sat down to discuss writing, "how we get started" came up. So here are Caroline's thoughts on the subject. Mine are running today on her blog.

I’m really honored Clea asked me to guest on her blog. Part of my writing day is always checking in with her. How’s the work going? What are you having problems with? That constant support and connection keeps me going. The lucky thing is we are both starting new novels now, so we’re going through this whole process together and every once in a while, we are going to guest on each other’s blogs to talk about our writing progress. (So be sure to check my blog today for Clea’s entry!)

How do I work? Slowly---I’m in the honeymoon phase right now, where I have about 100 pages that work. The beginning of a novel is always wonderful because you are newly obsessed with the idea, you have a passion for the characters and the first chapter seems great every time you have read it (which at this count, for me, is about ten thousand times.)

But now, today, I’m venturing a little deeper into my novel, and the ground is giving way a bit. I set up my premise, but now what? (You should know I’m deeply superstitious, and while I can talk about the writing process forever, the thought of talking about the actual characters and plot gives me brain panic) So I gather my courage. I always start by rewriting a little of what I did the day before—say a page—the way you warm up your muscles with stretches before really getting into the exercise. Then I line up music that I know takes about three to four hours to finish. And I work. Today, I’m obsessed with my character Simon’s past and how it impacts his present, so I get to weave in some back-story.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sarah Palin does not represent us

On Wednesday, Sept. 3, two concerned women sent an email to 40 of their friends and colleagues, asking them to respond to Sarah Palin's candidacy as vice president of the United States. These 40 friends and colleagues forwarded the letter to others. By Sunday, the bloggers had received more than 6,000 responses. Here are those responses.

"Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving."
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Monday, September 8, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008


Okay, I'm not sure exactly who did the murder, but if it turns out to be who I think, then I have my murder weapon. I also have a ton more information on the fall guy (or fall dog, to be specific), thanks to a long and very fun conversation with Eddie Ramos, the Duxbury Animal Control Officer (thanks, Eddie!). And I'm facing the hard truth.

It's hard to write. Damned hard.

Especially after a summer of revision and smaller projects, of cleaning up and paring down. It. Is. Difficult. To. Sit. Down. And. Write.

But, you know, after a while research can just be a way of avoiding the necessary. So... I'm doing it. (My current policy is to tell myself that if I can just bash out a rough draft before the new year, I can always trash it and start a new book in January. Reduces the fear element.)

Thought for the day, courtesy of W.B. Yeats:

'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.'

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Looking for a murder weapon

So after much back and forth and the kind of agony that involves getting a cup of tea. Putting it down. Walking around the house. Checking your email. Putting a load of laundry in. Making another cup of tea, and then realizing you already had one cooling. Checking on the laundry, which hasn't yet reached rinse cycle. Checking your email. Pouring out the tea because it has gone bitter. Checking your email. Finally putting laundry in the drier .... I think I've finally started writing again.

At any rate, today I am going to a nursery/garden supplies store. I'm getting ahead of myself, but if I can find what I hope to find, some of the crucial pieces may just fall into place. I'm looking for a murder weapon!

Back to ... school?

The air is crisper, the brain a bit more alert. Time for new projects. And since I'm hard at work, please let me direct you to the guest blog I wrote on just this topic for Musings of a Bookish Kitty.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jumping the gun....

OK, more on this when Banned Book Week starts on Sept. 27. But why not start early? After all, it seems quite possible that we may end up with a book banner in the White House if we don't keep on this.

(ADDED LATER: I am, of course, referring to Sarah Palin. And while there has been some question about whether she actually went forward with her plans to ban books from the Wassilla library or what books she wanted banned, the New York Times has reported - after talking to multiple sources - that she "approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books." When the town librarian vowed to resist censorship, she fired her. That's enough for me. More than enough.)

Celebrate your freedom while you still have it. Read a frequently banned book and pass one along to a friend. I'm going to start by re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's wonderful A Wrinkle in Time. Dangerous stuff, ideas.