Sunday, November 29, 2009

by Sophie


Here's just one of my dirty little secrets - but it's a big one:

I hate doing research.

Oh, I don't have any objection to learning, as long as I can do it my own way (which is to say, solitarily, in a circuitous fashion, stumbling onto facts like pretty shells on a beach). I was terrible in the classroom. I don't have much luck with reading lists or bibliographies or course outlines. I can't stay on track for anything.

But if, instead of thinking of learning as a point-A-to-point-B exercise, wherein a specific question is put to rest by a focused search for information, you consider it as a lovely amorphous cloud, I'm all in.

Oh, would that all learning could look like this!!

"Reading room" - surely that has to be one of the most delightful phrases in the language. A place you can go, and - and - and just sort of glom about, soaking up bits of this and that. Gorgeous leather-bound dictionaries on stands. Hoary old thesauruses and collected works and compendiums listing on dusty shelves. Rows and rows and rows of volumes in the stacks, each one a little world unto itself, a peek into the mind of some like-minded book person.

Because everyone here is a book person. Right? or they wouldn't be here.

(So NOT like today's libraries. I'm digressing, but... They built a zillion dollar library up the road across from the new middle school. And this is in a neighborhood of well-heeled folks, my friends. People who don't have to send their kids wandering over there after school for a little free babysitting. Try to work on your novel there - just try - while hundreds of texting, chattering kids carom through the place sticking gum under the tables and making out and eating Dip'n'Stix and basically anything but reading.

And I'm a person who actually adores teenagers!)

Wait wait, back to the subject. The reading rooms of yore are, sadly, mostly of yore. They're an anachronism, ill-wired for digital mod cons, their soaring ceilings bringing unsupportably high heat bills, their mullioned windows and carved balustrades and intimate galleries merely souvenirs from another, quainter time. Any coffee shop with free wifi is, to many, a more hospitable environment, one in which one's pinging iPhone and headphones are welcome and stray intelligentsia are not, so much.

And of course a preponderance of research can be done online. Not all, or so I hear, though you couldn't prove it by my oeuvre. A guideline I've adopted, somewhat defensively, for recent books might be summarized as: "If you can't google it, readers won't really care."

(I might point out that the book before the one that sold - book number eight, for anyone who is counting - marked a yeoman's - yeowoman's? - effort on my part to get the facts straight. Actual research, of the phone-calling, appointment making, site-visiting sort was done, along with the usual interweb claptrap. Verdict: no takers.)

Some of my friends adore research. (I'm sure you'll hear from them shortly, right here at PF.) Some of my family members have built entire careers around it. I remain uncharmed and resistant.

Recently, I made a happy discovery - by a mere shift of genre, one can land oneself in a place where research is not only not required but might actually get in the way. It's called worldbuilding, and it's the domain of those who write scifi and historical and horror and a variety of other things where the only fact-checking to be done is in one's own imagination.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Letter

By Laurie Perry (Crazy Aunt Purl)

Every December my mailbox fills with glossy catalogs, credit card bills and those long, slim legal-sized envelopes decorated with candy canes or green Christmas trees that herald the beginning of the onslaught of mass-produced personal holiday letters.

Each one is carefully typed in a cute font and printed on cheerful holiday paper. It describes a year filled with the highs and lows and adventures of family life. Little Sarah excelled this year at volleyball and debate, while Matthew is a star swimmer and played the lead in the second-grade play. We finally got the dog/house/car/riding mower of our dreams, and we're all thrilled about baby Jessica's first little steps.

Sometimes a terrible thing happened but the author of the letter finds a way to make it somehow uplifting -- a learning experience or a life lesson. Husbands are loving and hardworking, wives take on charity work and head up committees at school or work and everyone had a great time on this year's family vacation.

I love these letters. I love them the way I love watching award shows on television -- I can't imagine what it's like to actually wear a fancy dress and walk the red carpet at the Oscars but I watch with rapt attention anyway, every single year. And every year I read these pre-printed, mass produced family holiday letters, some from people I barely know, with an outsider's fascination and curiosity. I don't have a huge network of acquaintances who need a one-page summary of my year to keep current on the exciting and happy news in my home. I am a single woman living in Los Angeles with three cats. The most exciting thing that happened to me in all of 2009 was finding out that Magic Eraser makes a mop.

But sometimes I still compose a little holiday letter in my head. If I did have some cheerful snowman stationary and a list of addresses, what would I say?

Dear friends and loved ones,

Well, 2009 is almost over – goodbye and good riddance! Then again, I work at a bank and it’s been Angela's ashes over here in the world of finance. The fact that I still have a job is miraculous, but just in case check with me when you get this letter to be sure I am still employed. A lot can change in three days.

I experimented with home hair color this year to save some money. People at work gasped out loud when they saw I had turned from blonde to deep, electric orange overnight. I lied and said I was experimenting with reviving the punk rock scene in Los Angeles but I'm pretty sure they guessed it was a disastrous Clairol moment. My hairdresser doesn’t work on Mondays and I was afraid to call in sick because of my hair so I did the best I could with a headband and an updo but I fooled no one. Did you know there isn’t really any shade of lipstick that goes with orange hair? Fascinating. Fixing my hair cost me twice what I would have spent in the first place and my hairdresser kindly said I looked like a refugee from the tacky nation of Tragicstan. Lesson learned.

Dating took a turn for the absurd this year. That guy who invited me over for dinner? Yeah. He had printed out a meal plan for me in case I was interested in going on a diet that he swore worked like a charm. He just knew it could work for me, too. I left immediately and drove directly to the nearest McDonald's which was childish but somehow very satisfying. Then there was the guy who was trying to feel me up on a lunch date and I was surprisingly unoffended. There was the guy who smelled like bongwater. The guy who tried to pick me up on the metro who was on his third DUI and couldn't legally drive again until he was 70. So many stories, so little wine.

I still have that 1995 Jeep Wrangler that I am deeply, emotionally attached to and refuse to give up on. My mechanic got thrown in the pokey so I had to start going to a different garage. Sometime in the summer I took my car in for an oil change and came out with yet another new radiator and a bill I had to pay in installments. When my mechanic got released from prison I took him a dozen donuts and bottle of tequila, which was as close to a successful date as I had all year.

The cats were cute and pooped a lot this year. I wrote a book, it's OK. It comes out next year and is just a longer version of this letter with more complaining, but there is a great recipe for fried zucchini and some knitting patterns. I think we can safely assume it will not win a Pulitzer.

I got addicted to Netflix and decided it was a better investment than dating so I upped my subscription plan. After a gardening tragedy I decided quite hastily to up and move and only later discovered that everyone in my new building except me is Russian and might be in the mafia. Or I could be making that up, my Russian is a little rusty. (That's what she said!)

And now it's December and the holidays are upon us. That should bring you up to speed. In the year ahead, may we all drink too much, eat too much and be felt up at lunchtime. I wish you many donuts and tequila and for the love of God please stay away from anything in the drugstore called “August Amber.” It’s a three-hour ordeal to get your hair back to a color that occurs in nature.

Love, Laurie

Laurie Perry lives in writes in Los Angeles where she chronicles her life in her online diary at Her first book was Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair. Her next book, Home Is Where The Wine Is, will be available in February, 2010.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Holiday Traditions? Bring 'Em On

I can't say I'm one for traditions. I've spent Christmas in Orange County, Berkeley, San Francisco, London, and Cornwall. And that's just in my adult life. I've done Christmas trees to chili pepper lights, Nutcrackers to Christmas crackers (including the silly paper hats inside). I've eaten eight-course meals and leftover baked potatoes.

The important thing about these places and experiences is that they all captured the spirit of the season. I've been fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful family and friends wherever I've ended up for the holidays. I love going with the flow of whatever the traditions are where I happen to be.

Can you guess that I'm the child of two cultural anthropologists?

Be it walking down the street and catching the winter light reflecting off a festive ornament hanging in the midst of autumn leaves (left), or making silkscreen holiday cards to send friends (below), there really is something magical about this time of year.

My silkscreens are somewhere in an unpacked box in the garage, so I think I'll skip making hand-made cards this year. But I'll still figure something out to share the spirit of the season and connect with the people in my life. (I'm very much in the camp that favors sending tangible holiday greetings instead of an email, and I have even been known to send dinner party invitations by snail mail--yes, in this century.)

Every year is different. This year begins a new phase that's especially exciting. It's our first holiday season in our new house, and we're hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas at our place.

Don't worry--I have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

I'd better get cooking... Happy Thanksgiving!

-- Gigi

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

With Gratitude

I love holidays. I especially love Thanksgiving.

And for me, it’s all tied up in the food. In our house we celebrate with both tradition and new experiences. Some dishes always stay the same, roasted turkey, old-fashioned stuffing (bread, celery, onion and spices), sweet potatoes mashed with marshmallows on top, pumpkin pie. And then at least one dish is always new, smashed cauliflower, bourbon corn pudding, fancy mashed potatoes.... I’m not sure what it’s going to be this year.

There is such satisfaction in preparing a meal of thanks. Bustling around the kitchen on and off all day, the warm air redolent with mouth watering scents: sage, butter, and onion from the stuffing, the savory aroma of roasting turkey when we open the oven to baste the bird (every twenty minutes) until the breast is covered in a crisp brown shell and the pan is replete with dripping juices, the overlay of cinnamon and nutmeg and allspice from baking pies. The sounds of the Macy’s parade and football drifting on the air.

When my kids were little, Thanksgiving was a difficult meal. They liked the sweet potatoes (really they liked the marshmallows) and maybe the mashed potatoes but not much else. As it is my favorite holiday, I couldn’t stand that they weren’t completely in love with it. So, as a way to get them involved in the process, I had each one pick a dish, and then we prepared it together. It took exactly one time to make this practice a standing tradition.

Now cooking the meal is a family affair. My husband does the turkey and the kids and I cook the rest. Every moment of the day centers around creating a banquet of thanks. Emotions swirl in the air as heavily as the scents, sadness for relatives far away, the loss of our loved ones, gratitude for our own health and happiness, and underneath it all, thanks for the abundance we are blessed to have.

Hindus believe that your body absorbs every nuance of the food you eat. So it is very important to cook with joy, to imbue every stir of the spoon and every pinch of spice with love and gratitude. As we cook the meal, so we celebrate the day, counting our blessings, be they big or small, trying to acknowledge and honor each one. And at the end, we have a really incredible meal together.

Happy Holidays!


Monday, November 23, 2009

L.G.C. Smith

I love the winter holidays. There are so many directions I could take this, and I have to pick just one? Oh, to be Martha Stewart and have decades worth of television segments in which to develop my vision of the holidays.

Food. Decorating ideas. Crafts (though I know my limitations here). I could write about safety tips for lighting real candles on the Christmas
tree -- yes, I light 'em up when I have a fresh enough tree, or I want to scare someone.

There are all my slow food old-fashioned holiday recipes, and my new-fangled gluten-free ones. The picture above is a slow and GF Buche de Noel I made last year. There's my abstract Advent gift tree made from bamboo stakes, ribbon, and wooden beads, glue-gunned and tied together, then hung on a shoji screen.

Or, I could go the cultural commentary route. A childhood spent moving between American suburbs and non-standard places like Guam and assorted Indian reservations makes it easy to notice cultural weirdities. Like the enthusiastic Christmas light displays filled with Santas, reindeer, snowmen, and elves that filled the Filipino and Korean contract-worker housing enclaves in the tropical Western Pacific. Or my mother-in-law's 'stuffing,' which consists of tiny cubes of buttered, baked white bread. Nothing else. Bizarre.

Or the way we have these competing public conversations about holidays whereby the exact same experiences inspire loving behavior of the highest order in some folks, and angry condemnations of hypocrisy and gross consumerism in others. Or, why it becomes a mark of a more sophisticated holiday aesthetic to forego the classic Santa-suit red and Christmas-tree green color palette for, say, pink and turquoise. I can go highbrow or low. It's all good.

I could go the spiritual route because I love that stuff, and you can get away with it in public sometimes during the holidays. No matter what one's religious affiliation or lack thereof, holiday good-will embraces all comers. And personally, I love Advent. Love , love, love it.

When I was a kid, my mom made sure we always had an advent wreath. The year I was seven, my Sunday School class at the Presbyterian church in Window Rock, Arizona, I made a red construction paper cover for a tiny Advent book of folded, mimeographed pages. Inside was a Bible reading, a Christmas carol, and a single simple sentence that a second grader could memorize to say as we lit each week's Advent candle.

The next Christmas, my aunt g
ave us another little book called the "Advent Chain of Stars." It had a paper star to cut out and hang on a wide ribbon, one for every day of Advent, along with a little story to go along with it. For years we used these two simple books every day of every Advent season, and I loved the way the created the anticipation of waiting for a promise from God. I wouldn't say my sense of God is quite what it was then, but those daily, family observances of Advent helped me find deeper meanings to Christmas. They still do.

No, I haven't decided what to write about. I find so many holiday ideas, images and icons productive and fun to play with. Like a total sap, I know I'll catch myself singing "It's the most wonderful time of the year" as I put together the gingerbread house with my sis
ter and her daughter, all the while thinking about cultural reproduction and negotiation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bella Andre's New Moon Holiday

Thanks so much to Rachael for asking me to be a guest here today! She told me I'm supposed to talk about the Holidays, but really, don't you think that's too much to ask when NEW MOON (the movie) IS OFFICIALLY OUT TODAY?!?!

Yeah. I thought you'd agree.

So, here's the thing. I, like most people on the planet, read all of the Twilight series. (And am dying for Edward's POV Story to come out....what I've read online is mind blowing. Anyone know a date for release?)

And throughout, I was Team Edward. Not even a glimmer of Team Jacob. Didn't understand a damn thing about Team Jacob. Had words with my editor about not getting the point of Team Jacob. (How fun is it that one of the facets of my job is to talk about these characters with my editor?) Wondered why the author even tried to make us think Bella would consider being with Jacob? When really, he was just a sweet kid who turned into a wherewolf at some point because of some ancient curse.

When Twilight hit theatres, I watched (and giggled at some of it). And still, no love for Team Jacob.

Until I saw the first preview for New Moon. And um, here's the thing. It turns out I'm a sucker for thirty pounds of muscle. For a guy who says things like, "I know what Edward did to you. And I would never hurt you." For a guy who rescues the heroine out of the ocean and then levers himself over her on the beach so all of his lats and pecs and triceps and biceps flex just so. (On a side note, don't you kind of think the guy on my HOT AS SIN cover has it going on in a very Team Jacob kind of way? Love the wet t-shirt....)

And just like that, I've switched sides.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I can return (start!) with the whole holiday theme. In fact, going to a New Moon matinee next week is going to be my holiday gift to myself. I'd love to know what your gift for yourself is going to be? And if you haven't thought of one yet - if you've been solely focused on what to get everyone else - I say, why not put yourself at the very top of this list this year? Seems to me that we're all so busy trying to please other people, that we often forget to please ourselves.

One more thing - if anyone happened to go to the midnight showing of New Moon - tell all!

Happy Holidays!
Bella Andre

GIVEAWAY: I'd love to give a copy of WILD HEAT (the first book in my Men of Fire series) out to someone who comments!

HOT AS SIN (2nd book in Men of Fire Series) blurb:
Sam MacKenzie is a wildland firefighter with few peers. He's utterly fearless - there's no one waiting for him at home, no reason not to risk it all. Out of the blue, the only woman he's ever loved - the same one who ground his heart to dust ten years ago - shows up begging him for help. Dianna's sister is in big trouble somewhere in the rugged Colorado Rockies, and he's the only person Dianna knows with the skills to track her sister down.

Working together on their quest to find Dianna's sister, they soon realize there's a killer on the loose and his true target isn't Dianna's's Dianna herself. Using his extreme outdoor skills, Sam needs to track down the killer, before he loses the woman he loves forever.

HOT AS SIN ~ out now! ~
"A breathtaking, terrific, hot, hot, hot romantic suspense." ~ Allison Brennan
"A love that burns up the pages." ~ Brenda Novak

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gift Anxiety

--Adrienne Miller

I don’t want anyone to panic, but there are only 35 days left until Christmas, people. Sure, it may seem like enough time now, but it’s not. It never is. Not when I have him to shop for. 

That’s right, I have massive gift giving anxiety. 

Not for everybody. The kids are relatively easy. Just open up the Amazon toy page and pretend you’re a kid again. For everybody else there are the trips to the bookstore and See’s candies. And I’m not sure words can truly capture how much I love Target. 

I love buying presents.

Unless they are for my darling husband, Tom. Because when it come to presents Tom is  like Mr. Miyagi and I’m...well, I’m not even Ralph Macchio. I’m like when they brought in the girl for the fourth movie (by the way, do you remember it was Hilary Swank? Ya. Me neither.)

He knows the little things that thrill me, not just the big, shiny things (though I do love me some shiny things). 

Things like bad english translation - enter the Violence Action Figures with all their awesome phrases like, “Small child might cause suffocation” , “One both hands to make it have an extra are stuck respectively” and “Nice Ho Liquor”. He saw these and thought,  “Adrienne will love these and keep them forever and for always”...and I did.

Or when he found he could buy me a Scottish title by purchasing a piece of land on a highland wildlife preserve. Now most people just give their spouse’s real name...those people lack vision. When given the decision of what great honor to bestow me, Tom thought back to a conversation we had months earlier about what our pope names would be and dubbed me “Adrienne, Lady Awesome”.

There are other cool prezzies: the ostrich plume pen, the Doctor Who sonic screwdriver replica (are my geek stripes showing again?), but the best has to be the time he got me trapeze lessons. That was the gift that told me how much faith he had in me. It takes a special kind of love to believe your overweight wife, the one with the crippling fear of heights, when she declares in the middle of the circus that she can “totally do that”.

So, I ask you, what in the world am I supposed to get him in return? Somehow a new sweater just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t help when I ask him what he wants. I either get, “Oh, nothing in particular,” which leaves me scratching my head, or “I’d love a Ibanez BTB570FM” which means there will be no surprises come Christmas morning.

In the end, I know the gift giving problem lies with me. You know those people I mentioned who lack vision? I’m afraid I’m one of them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hazardous Holidays

Nothing says Christmas like a tale of disaster.

Okay, it's true.... I have sappy, bring-tears-to-your-eyes tales from my childhood...complete with warm cocoa and footie pajamas reading stories featuring Santa and Rudolf. We had the tree and presents and friends and family and everything one might expect from a beautiful, indulgent, fortunate Christmas. And when my son was young, I recreated those scenes: I tied the bow on the dog, hoisted the angel atop the tree, and brought in a mound of presents. And of course we loved all the great holiday shows: Peanuts and the Grinch (tops in my book) and It's a Wonderful Life, and the fabulous campy antics of that wacky quartet in A White Christmas.

But one of my fondest memories of my youth is when I escaped from the family festivities one Christmas afternoon with a bunch of other adolescent malcontents and went to see that unbeatable double feature of damnation: Earthquake and the Towering Inferno. Now that's a holiday.
Maybe it's partly in reaction to all the joy (genuine and forced) around me, but I like to celebrate the season with a smattering of mayhem and End of Days and imminent cataclysm. And clearly I'm not the only one: I am never alone in the theater on Christmas Day.
Here are a few other catastrophic favorites: The Poseidon Adventure (the original, of course), Airport (hole in the cockpit...Classic!), The Andromeda Strain (blood turns into powder! Gnarly!), and who could forget Soylent Green? (It's PEOPLE!!!)

I realize I'm giving away my age. Yes, I was raised during that golden era of disaster movies: the 70s. More recently there have been some pale imitations: The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, Volcano, Deep Impact. They don't have the same oomph, exactly, as those early calamitous movies...but the smell of popcorn and Red Vines never changes.

(Looking for a movie the whole family can enjoy? Fargo is always a crowd favorite, even though you have to re-create the theater at home. And it's not really a disaster movie per se, but the leg-in-the-wood-chipper scene makes it say "holiday" in my book.)

This year? Wanna see stuff get destroyed? I recommend "2012". They seriously blow s**t up, and then send the rest (Los Angeles first) to the bottom of the ocean. Awesome.
And if you're looking for me on December 25, I'll be at my local theater, the venerable Grand Lake (complete with a Mighty Wurlitzer), at the matinee for The Road, a post-apocalyptic world where hottie Viggo Mortensen still reigns supreme.

That's my kind of holiday movie.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rachael is Sparkly

Sometimes I think I should try harder to be a grinch. I'm often (but not always) surrounded by them. People make very, very good points about holidays lights going up right after the 4th of July. And it's true, it seems like we just finished summer, and we're eating turkey for dinner next week, and then the Christmas shopping season will be upon us (BOOKS FOR EVERYONE!), and then eggnog will keep us merry, and then POOF! it will be all over again.

Sometimes I do a good job of hiding my excitement. How crass. How commercial. How gauche.

But inside, my heart is doing little shiny sleigh-bell cartwheels and hoping it will snow in the East Bay, like it did once when I was about six (I'll never forget my disappointment when Mom told Christy and me it was snowing and ushered us outside to look at the flakes -- I could barely see them, and WHERE WAS ALL THE WHITE STUFF? The world just looked like the world! I could not make a snowman! She was full of crap!).

Last year was hard. It was the first year without my family's holiday center: our mother. She'd died over the summer, and we were terrified to do it without her. We weren't grownup enough to hold the traditions without her. No one could cook the stollen, the lebkuchen, the fruitcake, the plum pudding but her. Who would play the piano while we pretended to not want to sing? I felt sick every time I thought about it, and I was grateful that I had to work (and felt guilty about feeling grateful -- good times).

But on a fluke, in early December I went to New York on a cheap flight found online with some friends. We found our holiday spirit. We tried to make it to the tree lighting in Rockefeller Center and failed to make it through the crush of the crowds, but found beer instead. We marveled at the skating rinks. We watched the lights go up all over town. We listened to carols being piped out into the cold air. I visited my agent and my publisher for the first time in my life:

I remembered again what that happiness felt like, that excitement that came from looking at sparkling lights reflected in happy, loving faces. And I found it, when I went home for a Christmas that had been delayed until the day I could get home after my shift, for a Christmas that had been made less traditional and more about being together, remembering. It was hard, but good.

And still surprisingly sparkly.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wistful (kinda) rhymes with Mistletoe

by Sophie


If you ever doubted that holidays are all about traditions, go get yourself a couple of teenagers. Their awkward loping famished selves will confound you with their refusal to conform to any standard, expectation, or societal norm 360 days of the year, but just try changing one tiny little detail of your family holiday practices and prepare to be run over in a raging whirlwind of adolescent angst.

Put a plaid bow over the fireplace instead of the red velvet...try a new stuffing recipe for Thanksgiving...serve a frittata for Christmas breakfast instead of cinnamon rolls. Go ahead, try it - and then stick your fingers in your ears to protect them when your little sugars scream -

"BUT THAT'S NOT THE WAY WE ALWAYS DO IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Well, I've learned that lesson. Yes ma'am, I dutifully drag all the boxes down from the attic and follow the holiday blueprint from years past, and it's all worth it too, for that sparkly little moment when the kids wander into the living room on Christmas morning and for a moment - if you squint - you can see them standing there in their footy pajamas, dragging their teddy bears along the floor.

Traditions glue one year to the next, and ease the passing of time and the relationship of all our past selves with the present and future ones. But inevitably there comes a day when it's time for change. Everything changes - we don't doubt it, but for some of us the transition is more demanding, more raw, more shattering than for others. I don't do change well...but even I can see, looking through the wrong end of the telescope, the one that makes close-up things look very far away, that change can be good.

Do you remember when you were a young adult, spending your first holiday away from home? Maybe you were with friends or a lover, in a strange town. Maybe you couldn't afford much. Maybe you were a little more homesick than you cared to admit, but I bet there was a moment when you realized hey - I can do this. Even without the gold star your dad always put on the top of the tree - the Willie Nelson Christmas cassette - the cookies your mom made with the rolling pin from Poland - - even without any of that, it was still Christmas, and it was still magic.

I remember standing a little forlornly in my first high-rise apartment watching my fiance rig up our tree and thinking of everything I missed, when he said "Well, we'll just start our own traditions." He came home the next day with a $14.99 ceramic nativity set from Ben Franklin and we set it up on the coffee table. I thought it was funny. It was badly painted and tacky and I figured I'd start collecting a real set - you know, the Wedgwood set you buy piece by piece over two decades - as soon as we had a little money.

But that never quite happened. We moved around, we grew up, we had kids. Every year I got that box out, with its cast-styrofoam bed that the pieces molded right into, and set up the nativity with a three-dollar bag of raffia "hay" from Michaels. Every year I put it away in January, shaking my head and thinking how I really had to find something nicer for next year.

But then suddenly twenty years went by, and that ugly set had pride of place every December. It was as much a part of the holiday as the stockings I sewed myself or the handprint plaster preschool ornaments. I am certain that my kids would be horrified if I ever suggested replacing the awkward misfired plaster wise men and camels and baby Jesus with stately bone china.

Until they find themselves out on their own one day. It won't be so many years now. The thought makes me terribly sad in a way; I can't imagine Christmas without them. But I'm excited for them too. They'll miss that ugly old nativity, but they have their own discoveries to make.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pens in Action: LGC Smith's Birthday

Last night we had a birthday bash for our own L.G.C. All the Pens were there with a few other writer friends, Trish Cetrone, Cyndy Rymer and Alicia Rasley. Here are some pics from the event :)

Juliet, Rachael and Sophie chatting the kitchen....

Here are some candids (okay, not really, we posed)

Cyndy, Lisa and Adrienne

Alicia, Adrienne, Trish and Martha

Juliet, L.G.C. aka Lynn, Adrienne and Rachael

Gigi and Rachael


Friday, November 13, 2009

Carrie Ryan: One Month To Put Writing First

Today we welcome Carrie Ryan, author of the amazing young adult novel THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH and its sequel, due out in 2010, THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES. MTV News calls The Forest of Hands and Teeth "a pretty freakin' amazing, empowering and absolutely thrilling young-adult post-apocalyptic zombie love story."

I’m convinced that it’s because of National Novel Writing Month that I sold my first book. When NaNo came around in 2006 I’d just had a partial rejected by an agent and I was stuck at 40k words on that project (long story how I ended up sending in a partial when the book wasn’t done - I don’t ever recommend doing that!). I’d also just started a new project for a class on writing YA novels but… the rules for NaNo were clear: you had to start day one with a zero word count. That meant, I couldn’t work on either of those two projects for NaNo.

And that was okay because really, I was having a hard time making the voice of my character from project 2 stand out from the voice of project 1. I needed something new to shake myself out of it -- cleanse the palate so to say. And I figured a month of playing with something new would be just the solution.

Of course, that meant coming up with something new. Which meant a lot of whingeing on my part as I complained about having to start something new AGAIN. This is when my fiancé uttered words that changed everything: Write what you love.

I said, “You mean the zombie apocalypse?” He smiled. I reminded him I’d been writing chick lit and he smiled wider (he loves it when he’s right). And so when a first line popped into my head on the way home from work in early November, I ran with it. It was just NaNo, after all, and I could afford to take a month to play with something new.

Unfortunately, I didn’t “win” NaNo that year, we adopted a special needs dog and I ended the month with only 20k words. But I loved the idea and I kept writing and in April I started revising. I queried in August, signed with an agent in September and sold the book in October. Just under a year from a first line to a two book contract.

I’m not sure I ever would have forced myself to risk trying something new if it hadn’t been for NaNo. I’d spent most of 2006 so wrapped up in one project, so tied to those words that I needed the forced break. I needed something to shove me out of my comfort zone and allow me to experiment.

To me, this is one of the best parts of NaNo, that we all take one month to put writing first, to focus on the basics: words on the page. And we all share that goal together, blogging and supporting and talking craft. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in life and work and other obligations that we move writing farther and farther down our list of priorities. Even writing full time it’s easy for me to put the actual writing last.

But not in November. NaNo is our chance to, for one month, indulge in the basics: writing. We send the internal editor on vacation, we tell doubts we don’t have time for them, we play and experiment and perhaps gnash our teeth a bit. And hopefully, we remind ourselves how much we really do love putting words on paper.

Hopefully, we end up with something great we can revise and work with. Hopefully we learn something about ourselves, our writing style, our worlds and characters. And hopefully we have fun, even if we don’t “win” because in the end, we’re all in this together.

Happy NaNo everyone!!

Born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina, Carrie Ryan is a graduate of Williams College and Duke University School of Law. A former litigator, she now writes full time. She lives with her writer/lawyer fiancé, two fat cats and one large puppy in Charlotte, North Carolina. They are not at all prepared for the zombie apocalypse.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gigi's NaNoWriMo Tips and Timeline

by Gigi

Here's my secret for finally managing to finish that novel I wanted to write "someday": NaNoWriMo.

I was introduced to National Novel Writing Month 5 years ago, in 2004. I had been bouncing around ideas for mystery novels for years, having fun with it along with the rest of my creative pursuits. But while I got better at art, photography, and the guitar, I never seemed to get further on a novel than than jotting down ideas and over-editing a few scenes to death.

I'd come close to finishing a novel during college, but with all my rewriting, I could never quite get to THE END.

That's the beauty of NaNoWriMo. It asks you to throw editing out the window. In accepting that charge, it forces you to let go of your inner editor. And what a freeing force that can be.

Don't get me wrong--editing has its place. And if you're going to do it right, editing will probably take longer than writing that first draft. But you cannot get to that place until you finish that first draft.

By signing up to write 50,000 words in a month, you make a deal with yourself to avoid the temptation to go back and read what you've just written. You move forward, rushing to get 50,000 words down on paper. Much of it will be nonsense you'll never use, but you'll also have brilliant ideas you never would have thought of if you hadn't gone through the exercise.

I loved reading Sophie's NaNo timeline, so I thought I'd share mine:

November 2004: I discovered NaNoWriMo and wrote a whole book. THE ROSE didn't fit into any genre (was it a mystery? a ghost story? a YA book? a paranormal romance???) but it taught me that I could write a whole book. Not a good book, but a complete book. What fun! Now back to regular life.

November 2005: I wrote over 50,000 words of a mystery novel, ARTIFACT. When I stepped back and read it a few months later, I thought for the first time that I might actually have something with what I'd written. I decided it might be worth editing this book.

November 2006:
I didn't win NaNoWriMo this year. I used this November to furiously edit that 2005 book.

In December, I submitted it to the Malice Domestic grants competition for unpublished mystery writers. A few months later, in early 2007, I found out I'd won one of their two 2007 grants. Excited about this validation of my writing, I queried a few agents. I subsequently learned that 1 month of editing isn't enough. I needed to learn how to edit a book.

November 2007: I wrote what I thought would be Book 2 in the mystery series. (Yeah, it's much more fun to write a new book than to edit an old one.)

I had such fun with this caper that I decided to hunker down and put in the work to edit Book 1. I knew that was what I needed to do if I ever wanted either book to see the light of day. I joined local writers groups, bought some writing craft books, and got to be a better writer this year.

November 2008: I got my creative juices flowing by writing something completely different: a YA ghost story.

Simultaneously, I submitted ARTIFACT to a bigger mystery competition--one that gave the winner a publishing deal. I found out a few months later that I was a finalist. I didn't end up winning, but I knew then that my book was ready to send out. I queried agents, and this time there was a lot more interest. I signed with a wonderful agent.

November 2009: My agent thought my idea for Book 3 in my mystery series was much stronger than Book 2 (she's right), so I'm currently writing Book 3--which is now Book 2--tentatively titled PIRATE. I passed the 20,000 word mark yesterday.

Whew! It's been a fun few years.

p.s. If you want to read even more about what I have to say about NaNoWriMo, you can check out the guest blog post I did on the NaNoWriMo blog last year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nanowrimo Wiped The Floor With Martha (But That's Okay)

Lisa and I have the same problem. "No" isn't in our vocabulary.

Swim Alcatraz? Sure.
Pole Dancing? Why not.
Juice Fast? Yum.
Breakdancing? Awesome.
Triathlon? Bring it.
Nano? I'm in.

Fortunately, I'm blessed with a little something known as non-attachment to the outcome.

Alcatraz? I came in dead last.
Pole Dancing? Face planted twice.
Juice Fast? Nervous jittery breakdown.
Breakdancing? Pulled my shoulder.
Triathlon? Fell off my bike three times and cried.
Nano? Hella behind. No way I'll "win."

But that's okay. I've never needed to be the best. I've never even needed to be particularly good. Perfection? What's that?

Nike trademarked the slogan in 1988 but it's been my motto since 1977.

No whining. No excuses. No naysay.

Just Do It.

So even though this month is sucking pretty hard, I'll see you again next year, ready to roll.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No, Yes, I'm a NaNo Mess

I have a little problem.

I try not to talk about it. I’ve been working on it over the last few years and I’ve gotten better. But I’m still not completely cured.

I have trouble saying NO.

My default answer (even when I reset) comes up, “sure, you need me to:

1. Moderate an online class for the month

2. Cook food for 20 people twice in one week

3. Buy and donate food for the high school barbecue fundraiser

4. Have my parents and sister visit for a week

5. Start an exercise challenge

6. Do Nano”

Okay, so I admit the last two are for me and I signed up of my own free will. But whenever I embark on NaNo I have the best of intentions and the desire to ‘win’. And every year other stuff comes up (you’re supposed to cut out everything but writing) and I feel guilty if I don’t say yes.

So here I am, once again, ten days into NaNo and all six of those things are on my To-Do list. And now I’m caught in the middle. As my parent’s visit starts tomorrow (my house is semi-clean), I’m going to exercise class once a day, and I’m writing every day, and monitoring and shopping and cooking and attending end of season, soccer, waterpolo and cross country banquets. I’m trying to squeeze everything in but something will have to give.

So I’m I continue on my path to physical health and wellness or my spiritual path to completing NaNo? And isn’t it amazing that the choice comes down to the two things I chose for myself?


ps. I want to win but I always figure that every word I get down in November is a WIN

Sunday, November 8, 2009

No, No, NaNo

by L.G.C. Smith

I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year. In fact, I've never done it. I tell myself this is because it didn't exist in my salad days, those crazy years when I wrote fast and furiously, fueled by the desire to avoid the academic world where I thought I would have a career. That right there should have been a clue I wasn't going to make a happy professor. I was also dodging an ever-present anxiety that lent an obsessive-compulsive quality to my writing practice.

Looking back, I know I was staving off depression. Nothing in particular had happened. I was born depressed and anxious. It runs in my mother's side of the family. I thought I could control it by carefully attending to diet, exercise, using positive-thinking mantras/scripts/self-talk, meditation, prayer, taking personal responsibility, letting go of blame and resentment, forgiving rotten and/or clueless people, and so on. All that made me more tolerant and kinder than I had any right to expect given my innately demanding, persnickety, and critical temperament.

Did it help the depression and anxiety? Not so much.

Writing helped. I could shift out of the obsessive-compulsive self-defeating thoughts by going OCD on my books. Instead of fixating on what a lame-assed idiot I was, I would get lost in another time and place, creating characters whose heads I could spend hours in at a time. It was a joy and a relief. I found an arena in which I could function without constant anxiety and self-criticism. I knew I had a lot to learn about writing fiction, and I didn't yet have the skills I wanted, but I didn't torture myself about it.

I've never been so thankful for anything in my life.

Then something that truly warranted depression and anxiety did happen, and none of my strategies alleviated the anguish an iota. Worst of all, writing didn't help. I kept writing, but it wasn't the same.

At the point where all I could do was sit around and cry, my doctor finally talked me into trying an anti-depressant. I'd resisted for years. It didn't help overnight, but over the next several months, while I still had all the same self-critical thoughts I'd had before, I didn't get stuck on them. I went through them. I discovered there was life on the other side of the abyss I'd been mired in. The meds knocked out that destructive obsessive component that had kept me scrambling all my life.

They also changed the way I write. I could no longer automatically rely on the long-term drive that had seen me through a lot of manuscripts, four published books, and a doctoral dissertation. If anything, I was writing better than ever. But I felt differently about my books when writing wasn't the only way to escape my self-inflicted torment.

This change required a lot of adjustments. Every other aspect of my life was better. More productive. Less fraught. My writing wasn't the refuge it had been. It was still joyful. Still creative and fun. But I didn't get lost in it the way I had. The obsessive-compulsive fire burned out.

I decided I had to learn to write differently, because I still loved it. I still loved my characters, and the worlds they live in. I loved telling their stories and figuring them out. I still loved research.

It's taken a long time to figure out what works for me now. Slow and steady works. Every day works. No panicking if it takes me an hour to get half a page. No comparing myself to other writers. I can, occasionally, write four thousand words in a day. When that happens, I'm grateful.

I'm even more grateful at the end of the 300 word days that I can live in peace with myself, not trapped in a vicious loop thinking about what a loser I am and why can't I be more like Lisa/Sophie/Julie/Adrienne/Gigi/Rachael/Martha or whomever.

So I'm not doing NaNo this year, and I probably won't do it next year. Maybe someday I'll be up for that challenge. When I am, it will be very different from when I wrote 150,000 words in three months while in grad school full time and teaching part-time. In the meantime, I write a little bit every day, and it's good. Just wait 'til you see what I've done working the tortoise end of this career.