Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Knitting Celebrity

I made a knitting celebrity.

I didn't mean to -- it just happened. In my series, the Cypress Hollow Yarns, the overarching character who spans all the books (even though she's dead when the first one opens) is Eliza Carpenter. I wanted to create a character who was one part Barbara Walker, one part Alice Starmore, and two parts Elizabeth Zimmerman (all are BIG names in knitting -- you are forgiven if you don't know who they are).

The funny thing was that when I don't really remember writing Eliza's epigraphs for the books. I get emails all the time from people who love the things she said, and I think, Oooh! That IS good. That Eliza is something else, all right.

And then I remember I made her up. She kind of seems to exist all on her own, though, and she says things much better than I could:

If you can believe one thing, believe this: No one will notice your mistakes.

The magic of knitting is that very small acts add up into something substantial, useful and beautiful. [Kind of like writing, that, no?]

Of course, patience is only a virtue to a point. A decision will have to be made, but you'll know when it's time to make the change that's needed.

Eliza became someone more than just a character to me, and what's interesting is that she's grown to mean more to others, too. Down Under, there's going to be a book of her aphorisms collected together as a gift book. Here in the States, she props up a line of actual yarn -- and I love that Lorajean decided that Eliza's color would be cream. She would be too difficult to pin down to one specific color. Better that she represents them all.

From left to right, Cade, Abigail, Eliza, Lucy, Owen.

Eliza would be proud, I think.

And this is the epigraph from the second book that people keep quoting to me, and I'm glad they do, because it's TRUE (and I always forget it).

When you start a project, have respect for the fact that it may turn out to be something completely different than the item you originally intended it to be. It may be prettier, longer, shorter, or stranger altogether. It will certainly be better.

And I think that perfectly sums up a lot of my take on life (but Eliza said it better than I ever would). We never see a project out the way we imagine it will go, but generally, it ends up better. Doesn't it?

That Eliza. I'm glad I know her.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Rubbing Elbows On Rooftops

by Sophie


Last week at BEA in New York city, I had the good fortune to attend the sparkly fancy rooftop Harlequin party. I had been looking forward to this for ages and I wasn't disappointed. Amazing food, splendid views of the Chrysler building, attentive bartenders, awesome company, everyone dressed to the nines and feeling festive.

I was chatting away with Rachel Vincent and Julie Kagawa, pinching myself and wondering how on earth I arrived at this moment. Rachel and Julie are as nice as could be, and down-to-earth as all get out, but they are both also New York Times bestsellers. Considering that a few years ago, being published seemed like the impossible dream, I am still stunned every time I find myself in the company of famous authors. These are the celebrities of my life, the people I'm tongue-tied around.

In the last four decades I've had a chance to meet a few luminaries here and there. My ex's company often had celebs entertaining at company parties, and for a while we lived in an area where lots of bay area sports stars lived as well. They were generally nicer than you'd expect, but they didn't ever give me a *thrill*.

Not so with authors. You know how, on the back page of Bon Appetit, they always interview some celeb and ask them who they'd invite to dinner? For me, the answer's easy - authors, start to finish. Old ones, young ones, dead ones, literary ones, trashy ones. My list might include Jayne Anne Phillips, Cormac McCarthy, and Daniel Woodrell. Or it might be Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Weiner, and Joe Hill. Depends on my mood.

Actually, speaking of Daniel Woodrell, he was the subject of my biggest fan-girl moment ever: a friend offered to introduce me to him at a party last fall. Suddenly, I turned to mush. I could barely nod, my knees knocked together, my hands shook, I nearly fell over, and I couldn't manage a single word for the great man other than "uh, hi."

I was an eleven-year-old school girl meeting Joe Jonas. He was kind, solicitous even, and all I could do was stammer until I was dragged away.

After I'd been chatting with Rachel and Julie a while, that same look suddenly took hold of their faces. I was seated across from them, with my back to the party, so I twisted around to see what they were looking at...just as one of them whispered in a voice full of awe:

"It's Margaret Atwood."

No lie, people. Atwood, for reasons unknown, had come to the party and was standing in the middle of a crush of smart, talented literati.

I knew the look on Rachel and Julie's faces - I'm older than them, old enough to have read A HANDMAID'S TALE at an age where my ideas about the world were being formed, to read CAT'S EYE in the confusing thunderous arrival of adulthood. Her words shaped me. She is, without a doubt, a more significant presence to me than any actor or reality TV celeb on the screen in the last decade.

I never did make it over to wait to shake her hand. For me, gazing from afar - spellbound and star-struck - was enough.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Garden Gnomes Beckon

by Gigi

Several years ago, I was traveling with a friend in Italy. While out walking one day, we came across this beautiful gate, beyond which we could see a number of stone garden gnomes standing within the greenery. (That's the gate in the photo at below.)

My friend and I looked at each other, and without a word we took the mysterious path beyond the gate.We knew those gnomes would lead us somewhere interesting.

Sure enough, after hiking along a hidden stream, what we encountered was one of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen, filled with flowers and stone caves.

I remember the experience so well because it hadn't been planned. If it had been a tourist spot that we had planned on visiting, I doubt it would have made the same impression on me. 

I don't believe the garden is even really that beautiful. But because it was an unplanned adventure, it stuck with me. I don't remember where we were initially headed that day, but I remember that secret garden.

The reason I love unpredictable adventures in real life is the same reason I devour mystery novels. I want to be surprised. To be wowed. To think "ah, of course!" when I reach the end.

I love where I am in my life right now, but at the same time it's quite predictable. I rarely have adventures like that of the mysterious Italian garden gnomes these days. (Getting stranded due to the Icelandic ash cloud while on vacation last spring doesn't count--at least not until I've forgotten the details of our 40+ hour journey getting home.)

I'll take these adventures when they come along, but in the meantime I've got mysteries to provide my twists and turns. The set-up has to be done right, like those gnomes that beckoned to us, and then I'm along for the ride to see where the adventure takes me.

p.s. All right. You got me. My life isn't that predictable these days. I've got my first author reading coming up at noon on Saturday, June 4, at M is for Mystery in San Mateo, CA. I'll be joining other Sisters in Crime mystery authors--including Juliet Blackwell--and reading from my locked-room mystery short story that appears in Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology. If you're in the area I hope you'll stop by!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Martha's Take On Unpredictability

Unpredictable story twists comes in three forms.

1. Delightful
2. Deus ex machina
3. Dud

The second never fails to piss me off, even when used ironically (I'm looking at you, Adaptation). I don't care if it was good enough for Greek tragedies. If I wanted a random act to solve all the story's problems, I would have asked my five year old niece to weave a tale.

This leaves us with Delightful and Dud. Please pardon this spoilerific post as I break down the most famous unpredictable moments in movie history and how they cross the line for me.


1. The Usual Suspects
A gimp describing to the police how a mysterious and nefarious mob boss toyed with and took down his gang turns out to be the mastermind he's been describing.

2. Planet of the Apes (original)
Human trying to escape back to earth from a planet overrun by apes realizes he is on earth...in the future.

3. The Empire Strikes Back
Whiny teenager learns the big bad guy he's trying to take down is his father.

4. The Sixth Sense
Psychologist trying to help a kid overcome his ghostly encounters realizes he himself is one of the ghostly encounters.

5. Memento
A man with no long term memory avenging his life will never remember he's already had his revenge but will never remember it and thus never know peace.


1. Life of David Gale
Man allows himself to be wrongly executed for murder to make a point about the death penalty.

2. The Village
Simple villagers learn their life is a grand experiment to leave behind the evils of the modern world.

3. Fallen
Guy describing his attempt to stay alive at the hands of a demon is oops, really the demon himself.

4. The Forgotten
Woman tries to find her missing son who everyone insists didn't exist and realizes she's part of an alien sociological experiment to test parental bonds.

5. Identity
Ten strangers die off one by one in a motel and turn out all to be the imaginings of someone with schizophrenia.

Here's my call on the difference between the two: the twist needs to be on a character, not on the audience.

While The Usual Suspects gives us an aha moment, Kaiser Soze was pulling a fast one on an arrogant police detective, not us, and we feel along for the ride as the lame stuttering character proves to be the clever one.

In Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston realizes his arrogance in assuming humans were the top of the evolutionary ladder.

In Empire Strikes Back, it's Luke's world that is ripped apart.

For Six Sense, Bruce Willis's revelation of his dead state comes with character catharsis.

For Memento, Guy Pierce doesn't even get to be in on his unpredictable twist, only we realize that his quest for revenge is fruitless in every possible way, as most quests for revenge are.

Point is, across all five, we live the lesson only secondary to the characters in the story. For the five duds, the characters almost seem not to be the point.

The Life of David Gale crams a message down our throat about the death penalty and didn't bother to make me care about the issue nor the characters involved. It doesn't matter to the guy who dies nor the reporter telling his story because they were already on board with their respective moral codes.

The Village does the same on the perils of modern life. We don't see this realization change anyone - it's supposed to change us. Well, no thanks.

Same with Fallen for making me root for a demon. We end the story exactly where we started (literally, same scene) and I'm supposed to be the one who feels taken for a ride instead of any particular character.

The Forgotten was just so bizarre - aliens, really - and a message about the bond of parenthood being unbreakable. Geez, thanks.

And Identity - once I realize the ten people are essentially not real and neither are the murders I checked out.

The latter five try to be clever at the expense of the audience, try to be didactic. Don't make me part of your story. Don't have your message, your twist, depend on me. I'm a mixed bag. You never know what you're going to get. I'm as unpredictable as you're trying to be in your story.

Just tell the story.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Somewhere in the English countryside...

in a stately manor home, Madonna is weeping!" Quote from Sue Sylvester, Glee, The Power of Madonna


Unpredictability: What Makes Characters Interesting

by Lisa Hughey

Have you ever had a friend you thought you knew and then you found out something about them that really surprised you?

Every person has a secret passion or hidden dimension. In fiction our job is to discover what secret our character is hiding.

Creating characters who are real, fully dimensional, and not boring requires the surprise of unpredictability. Of course as writers we’re required to find the deeper meaning beneath this surface unpredictability and use that motivation to give our characters depth. That unpredictability is what can make a character more sympathetic or more likeable and hopefully more interesting.

Sometimes the secret is the source of a hidden vulnerability. Sue Sylvester from Glee is a perfect example. The writers of her character are pure genius.

Sue constantly criticizes Will Schuster’s hair, poking jokes about elves baking cookies inside and giving him shopping tips for buying hair gel in bulk. And then in the Madonna episode, we find out she is insecure about her own thin hair. Before the hair jokes were just plain mean, but they take on a whole different context based on that hidden vulnerability.

Initially Sue comes across as a horrible woman who has it out for anyone who isn’t popular. She’s the grown up example of the popular kid who makes the unpopular kids feel terrible about themselves. She seems to hate anyone who is different. When she recruits Becky, the cute little girl with Down’s Syndrome, for her beloved award-winning Cheerios squad, everyone believes she is going to do something horribly mean to her.

And then we find out that Sue’s sister has Down’s Syndrome. Watching her read to her sister is heartbreakingly poignant. Their parents basically abandoned them and Sue is both mother, father and sibling to her. She guides Becky, not always nicely, but in every interaction, the writers manage to reveal some new and softer side of Sue.

By doing this, they change her from a caricature into a more dimensional and sympathetic (sometimes!) person.

Whether it is in the written word or a visual performance, that unpredictability is what we search for in our fiction.

For your listening pleasure, here's one of my favorite songs from the Madonna episode.

Sadly, apparently, Fox doesn’t put very many video from the episodes online for people to share so you’re only going to get music, no actual video. And just to be unpredictable, it isn’t Sue. :)


ps. I only realized as I was looking for video, tonight is the Glee Finale for this season. Gleeks unite!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pattern Recognition

L.G.C. Smith

I’ve been thinking about unpredictability all week, reading the other Pens posts and nodding along in agreement. I’m pretty much in Adrienne’s camp in that I don’t wholly support unpredictability. Serendipity is fine. Unexpected events are often interesting, if not always fun. Unpredictability can be way too challenging.

Except in fiction. It occurs to me that one of the more salient distinctions between popular and literary fiction lies along the unpredictability fault line. In general, and there are scads of exceptions, I know, in literary fiction it’s entirely acceptable to explore the predictable and how characters shape, respond to, and cope with it. There’s some magical realism here and there, but it’s mostly lots of secrets and emotional pathology, heaping helpings of death, disappointment, loss, love, failure and regret. Small victories loom large. Quiet moments resound with import.

Popular fiction can be a lot more unpredictable and maintain credibility. This is the realm of time travel, zombie apocalypse, vampires, werewolves, elves, ghosts, ghost cats, regular folks who solve murders, journeys across the galaxy, and epic romances. Treasure maps and worldwide conspiracies abound. Urban shamans wrangle with the gods of a hundred cultures in five hundred nameless cities while aliens walk amongst us. Angels, demons, nanobots and electric sheep prance across the page.

I enjoy popular fiction because I rarely run into these potentially interesting things in everyday life. In good popular fiction, the emotions are as real as they are in more literary fiction, but they come in response to much more unpredictable events.

This is fun. This is one big reason more people like popular fiction better than literary fiction. Again – not everyone. Obviously. But if literary fiction were called Unpopular Fiction, it wouldn’t be as far off the mark as we might wish.

So. Time travel. A popular fiction staple. Love it! Not only would it be unexpected in my regular life, it would be totally unpredictable. Nothing in my experience or my limited understanding of physics and our current state of technological development leads me to predict that any of the kinds of time travel by which fictional characters zip through time and space are going to occur in my natural lifetime.

This, predictably, brings me to a pet peeve. Why do so many characters in time travel romance novels, and I focus on romance because that’s what I know best, act like going back and forth in time is normal and predictable once it’s happened to them? Let’s say Missy Schoolmarm-1885 gets zapped into the present by a lightning strike. Odds are she’ll assume she can go back. Why? Why doesn’t she assume it was a one-time deal, a total fluke, and will never happen again? Has she ever seen lightning induce time travel before? How many thunderstorms has she seen? Balancing previous experience against the one time occurrence, only a moron comes up with, “Yep, I can now travel in time.”

Wait. What was my point? I’m not sure I had one. Because that would be so predictable. But you all know me by now…I’m down with predictable.

Except in fiction.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Regret: Or When Carping Your Diem Kicks Your Ass

This post will have two introductions, as I originally wrote it for last Friday, but Blogger went psycho and ate the world's posts for a day. Then it finally came back. In other words, Blogger was UNPREDICTABLE, which is actually this week's theme. So in blogging about last week's theme, because Blogger was unpredictable, I am, in turn, BEING UNPREDICTABLE. Which fits. So here's my unpredictably last-week blog for this week.

God I'm unpredictable.

Without further ado, here it is . . . And thanks again for having me, ladies.

Hello my lovelies! Let me start out by saying that I could not be more excited about this topic as my introductory blog post. For I am a great carper of the diems.

Basically, everyone has already said why we should all grab life by the horns and then pole vault over it to straddle it and ride it into the ground. That's how I think of my existence, and that's how I try to live. Everyone has already done a lovely job of telling you how living life with guts and gusto often leads you to better, more beautiful horizons. How, if we don't try, we never succeed. And, finally, how unfulfilling can be a life led in the shadow of regret.

I live by this credo, and I've succeeded by this credo.

I've also, on more than one occasion, been gored by those horns I was too slow to grab.

So I want to take a second to talk about regret, and those times when our battle cry of "Carpe Diem!" has left us lying, poleaxed, on a field of carnage that was once our life.

Living life hard hurts. I've got skid marks the size of Minnesota. I've fallen (and occasionally gotten trampled) far more times than I've managed that pole-vault/straddle combo. And there have been quite a few moments when my life's ridden me into the ground, rather than vice versa.

So what do we do when seizing the day gets us hurt? How do we deal with regret?

I've come not to believe in regret. Now, don't get me wrong. This is not to say I've not done any stupid things. I've done enough stupid things for ten little girls, and I'm doing at least two really stupid things RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT. Indeed, I oftentimes do something that I realize is both seizing the day and stupid. When I inevitably am lying on the floor seeing stars, I think, "Wow, that was stupid. And probably only stupid. So stupid I would regret this if I had any sense."

And I do regret! I spend a few weeks gnawing open my wounds so that they can't heal, going over everything I did that was idiotic, and telling myself, "You shouldn't have done that, dummy."

But then a few more weeks pass, and I stop berating myself so much. I stop keeping the wounds open, to punish myself, and I let them heal a bit. And then I'm able to pause, and think, and realize that I really, really needed that lesson.

Sometimes such lessons have been general, "I need to apply some brakes," lessons. In the past, my living hard has taken typically immature routes, and I've learned lessons that helped me cut down on or cut out certain behaviors. Nowadays, those lessons are usually about me learning to say "no," and learning to give myself what I need to stay healthy to write.

Other times, the lessons have been really specific. For example, I've never been sure if I wanted children, and I hid behind this screen of, "I'll have kids as long as I'm partnered up with a Breast, like Nathan Lane in the Bird Cage." Then I was called on my bluff in an otherwise silly relationship that crashed and burned, and that--for a few weeks--I really regretted even getting into. When I was able to think clearly about everything, however, I realized that having my bluff called made me admit some hard truths to myself, and to stop hiding behind shady excuses. So yeah, the relationship was a bust, but I thought through something really tough because of it.

Finally, some lessons have been ENORMOUS. Like when I realized I'd finally turned a corner in my life: I was older, I had responsibilities, I was kind of a mini-public-figure, and I shouldn't date people who'd been to prison or who have never had a real job. While most of you probably knew that already, it was a big moment for me.


Stop judging.

Seriously, though, carping your diem isn't about always making good decisions. It's just as often about making bad decisions. After all, it's as much through mistakes as success that we grow, and we learn a hell of a lot more about ourselves from how we deal with rejection than we do through being honored.

So live expecting to get hurt. Expect life to be bloody, a little embarrassing, and probably full of things you regret for a few weeks. And then let those bruises heal, get together with friends over some cocktails, and talk about what an ass you were and how much learned from the experience.

Because that's also what life's about.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Never In Doubt

--Adrienne Miller

Unpredictability is overrated. Yeah, I said it. I know most of say that we like it when life throws a few curveballs our way, but we really mean is we like it when we like it pitches us surprises that go our way. I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly batting a thousand against Life.
Enough with the baseball metaphors, I hear you say. Ok. Ok.
Which is why I love me some genre fiction.  I always have. You always know what you’re going to get.
My first love was horror. Monsters and murder. Demon dogs and reanimated children. Scary stuff, and I faced everything alongside the protagonist. I never knew who was going to fall away during your journey to the last page, but I knew by the time I got there the worst of the shadows would be vanquished. They just had to be.
There were a few mysteries in there too. Sherlock Holmes (still a major literary crush) and Hercule Poirot (not so much). Big puzzles and concrete answers. Satisfying stuff. 

Then came romance and its HEA’s, and I was lost. Nothing I read before could compare to the promise of a happily ever after at the end of every story. No matter how bleak things seem at the beginning, no matter how much animosity exists between the hero and heroine, they will find happiness. Together. And that’s a promise. 
The end of these stories is never is doubt. You know it before you ever plop down your cash. Some critics point to these predictable endings as proof of the inferior nature of genre fiction, but I think they’re missing the point. The joy of them comes in witnessing the dance that happens in that middle bit, the adventure. That’s really why I love these books. I know something that our hero doesn’t--that the monster isn’t invincible, that the mystery is solvable, that the two of them were meant to be together--and because of that I can focus on the journey instead. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Simply Unpredictable

--by Juliet

Not long ago I was asked to provide a "five word bio" to the woman introducing me at a book signing. This is a tough exercise on a number of levels (go ahead, try it, I dare ya). My first couple of tries sounded like laundry lists of my occupations, attributes, or interests...*yawn*... Finally I happened upon a string of words that actually reflects my life:

Happy Accidents Trump Best-Laid Plans

(Okay, maybe I cheated a little...but "best-laid" counts as a one word adjective, right?)

I make plans all the time-- I daydream about them, think out detailed scenarios-- but they never come true. Instead, the best parts of my life have been the results of happy accidents. Like the time I sort of forgot to apply to college, then ended up at the perfect school for me (rather than the one I really wanted). Or all those friends who just happened to cross my path throughout the years, and became essential parts of my life. Or the times I backed into a job as an artist, or wound up living in Oakland, or had a baby -- my son was my happiest accident of all.

When I look back over the years, all the best moments of my life have been serendipitous. The stars aligned and the moon was on board and all was set for a perfect confluence of people and place and events....all completely unplanned, and unpredictable. Luscious.

Conversely, when I try to make things perfect, they slip and slide until they escape from my controlling hands...and they tend to wind up mundane and mediocre.

Also, I have found that there's very little use in trying to plan for unhappy accidents. Other than setting a little money aside, and making sure you have some friends to lean on, you can't really plan for the bad stuff.

Are you all familiar with the graduation speech (later made into a song) called Wear Sunscreen by Mary Schmich? The whole thing's great, but this is one of my favorite parts:

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

So roll with it, trusting that life will throw out some doozies from time to time...and learn to love the unpredictability of it all. If nothing else, it's sure to make a good story.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Didn't See That Coming (Never Do)

Things today were unpredictable.

1. I wrote a scene I'd been planning on writing, but instead of it being about Kate and cleaning out her child's room, it turned into being about Kate trying unsuccessfully to cover a homeless person with a sleeping bag her son once cherished.

2. I received a tax adjustment saying they owe me money! (I still don't believe it, and if they give it to me, I plan on handing it all back, just in case. I think there may actually be a mistake here. See this NYT article on how things are jacked this year for some of us.)

3. The car, which we dropped off last night (at the mechanic's, in a sketchy part of town, with the doors unlocked and the key under a hammer on the passenger's side floor), was still there in the morning! And it didn't take long to fix. Surprise!

4. I suddenly needed to get to the mechanic's shop to pay him before he closed. I didn't have a car. So, for the first time in fourteen years of living in Oakland, I got on the bus. I'm a big BART-rider, but the bus? Not so much.

5. And EVERYTHING on the bus was unpredictable. My favorite person was the smallest, oldest Asian woman I have ever seen. She couldn't have been more than four feet tall, and my border collie Clara probably weighs more than she did. She wore a black sweat suit and, surprisingly, a Raider's skull cap. On her back she carried an old white wicker crate-shaped basket held to her shoulders with frayed green ribbon, and inside the basket were fish that I swear were still twitching. She played with a cigarette the whole time she was on the bus and when she disembarked, she only took two steps before lighting and inhaling deeply. She was lovely.

6. It started to rain when I finally picked up the car, and I sat stuck in a traffic jam, thinking longingly of the bus and the way it zoomed along without me having to do anything. I couldn't have predicted that.

And my day isn't even done. I think I'm going to go lie on the couch and try to be as boring as possible, with a book and a cup of tea. It's not unpredictable, but it's nice.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Here We Go Again...Eleventh Hour Blues

by Sophie


Oh people, I'm so sorry, but I have only a few more short hours before my manuscript (the third book in the AFTERTIME series, titled HORIZON) is due on my agent's desk. I will be squeezing every second to put the final polish on my little manuscript. Hence, my post today is going to be a bit abbreviated.

This is not an UNPREDICTABLE turn of events. On the contrary, I am learning - a number of manuscripts in - about my deadline process. It involves setting up a schedule for myself, and then *mostly* following it. I'm not a slacker, but I tend to be hopelessly optimistic about what I can get done. I never build in room for wrong turns, missteps, stare-at-the-screen days, and life's little emergencies.

These add up like lint in the dryer until I have an entire fluffy gray pile of excuses, a list of manuscript to-dos (unwritten scenes, plot threads to un-knit, chapter breaks to renumber, and so on) and only a few hours left to go.

The only good thing I can say, as I stare at the clock on my computer screen morosely, is that my family has adapted. They know what to expect now. My sister arrived before lunch with food, took my children away for an entire day (mall! movies! fast food!) and arrived home to do the dishes I've been leaving in the sink. My children forgave me in advance for all the yelling I would do this week, and when I had a tearful meltdown a couple of days ago - and an equally tearful apology afterward - Junior forgave me and said not to worry, she's used to my "drama" and just ignores it.

So the news is all good, but I need to get back to it. Wish me luck!!

BONUS Pens photo of the week: here's me and Adrienne, plus one more special lacrosse fan, watching a heartbreaker of a game Friday night. Wolves lost by one to the mustangs. DAMN!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Help Gigi Decide How to Seize the Day (Take Two)

Blogger ate this original post along with its comments when it went down on Thursday, so here's a recreation.

Exciting news: Beginning this summer, I'll be taking a part-time sabbatical at my job to work 28 hours a week for a whole year! The question is... What do I do with all of my new free time? Now that the day is quickly approaching, I don't know which projects to focus on.

Below are some of my ideas. Any arguments as to why I should focus on one over another would be greatly appreciated! I can do more than one of these, but I can't do everything.

(Note: I already arrange my schedule so that I can already spend 10 hours per week writing without giving up my nights and weekends with friends and family. Thus, I'm not going to simply say I'll "write more," because I already feel like I can handle one book a year in my Jaya Jones mystery series after kicking things off with an intensive NaNoWriMo draft.)

1.  Read the John Dickson Carr canon. There's never enough time to read everything I hope to read. The classics don't make it to the top of my reading list nearly often enough -- and by "classics," of course I mean mysteries from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

John Dickson Carr, who wrote brilliant impossible-crime mysteries, is my favorite author of that era. He wrote 70 novels, but I've read only 30 of them so far. Many of his books are out of print, so it's a challenge to track them down, but I've been working on it and wanting to do more. His books also have gorgeous pulpy covers (like the one shown here with Dorian the gargoyle), so I love collecting the these books for their cover art as well. I'm thinking I could find and read one of his books per week in addition to my usual pile of books, perhaps also posting a photo of the cover with some thoughts over at Gargoyle Girl.

2. Try my hand at book cover design. Since I'm a graphic designer and love book covers, perhaps I should try to break into doing book cover design.

The challenge? I have no idea how that side of the publishing industry works. I took at book cover design class in art school (photos of my class projects at right) so I know the creative side, but that's it. So this is an idea that has zero basis in reality, but is a daydream about another way I'd love to be involved in the book world.

3. Rewrite the Young Adult mystery book I drafted last year. My agent and a very wise critique partner insist that this book, DEVIL'S CREEK, needs a major rewrite if it's ever to see the light of day -- as in splitting the book into a trilogy so it has depth and focus and isn't so damn complex. I'll need a whole lot of help if I'm going to do it. Is this massive amount of work worth it? I'm not sure.

4. Take French classes.I've always been good at seizing travel opportunities that arise, but I've never been good at mastering foreign languages. I studied French in high school, so with some work I could get to the point where I could converse with people. I know it's possible to get by in a country without the language, but I feel like I'm so close to being able to do it right.

5. Do more with photography. I started the Gargoyle Girl Blog for my New Year's Resolution as an incentive to organize the thousands of negatives and digital files I've shot over the years -- the majority of them gargoyle and other mysterious photos. I've got a lot more work to do to tackle my negatives.

I've also toyed with the idea of selling my gargoyle photos at istockphoto, or maybe even selling fine art prints through Etsy. But the reason I've got a day job as a designer, rather than working as a freelancer, is because I suck at business. Etsy sure is tempting, though...

6. Write a steampunk novel. I don't have a fully formed idea here, and maybe I'm just inspired by reading Gail Carriger's very cool Parasol Protectorate series right now (Alexia reminds me of a supernatural version of Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody).

What I've got is an idea of a kick-ass female alchemist who popped into my head while I was writing a short story. Bethany Faust can solve impossible-seeming crimes that end up having rational explanations. She looks a bit like Switch in The Matrix, she's got a pet gargoyle -- and the imagery surrounding her in my head is very steampunk.

7. Take art classes. I miss creating random art like the silkscreen print at left. My screens are currently gathering dust in the garage. I meant to set up a messy art table in the garage when we moved into our new house in late 2009, but it never happened. Now it's already two years later.

Figuring out how to seize the day is proving to be tougher than I thought!


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How Martha Learned to Carpe Diem

The first I heard about carpe diem it wasn't from my parents or a friend.

It was Mr. Robin Williams.

I offer the scene in question to you, because he said it better than I could.

We are food for worms, lad.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Savor the Moment

by Lisa Hughey

To me, Carpe Diem, seize the day, has always meant this epic, larger than life ideal to really live life to the fullest.

I’m a little conservative, a little cautious. I need to plan and organize and construct things. That doesn’t mean I never did anything or went anywhere but even when I seized the day, I had a plan.

And then I had my children. It’s quite a bit different to wax poetic about grand adventures after you come to the understanding that your children depend on you for everything.

It was a moment fraught with tension and sudden irrevocable shock when life finally hit me over the head with the realization that these perfect little beings, who will grow up to be neither perfect nor little, will need me (as some form of caretaker, guidance counselor, financier or friend) for the rest of my life.

For someone who tried to plan, not necessarily every moment, but make a structured outline for life, my children came in and detonated those plans like a suitcase full of C4 and life has never, ever been the same.

Every mother has that day...tired and overwhelmed and stressed about all the small things you need to deal with before you have to get up and do it again tomorrow. The kids’ futures, the past due gas and electric bill, the bully who won’t leave your kid alone, the refrigerator doesn’t seem to working properly, your spouse’s job is not going so well, your job is going even worse, laundry, what to fix for dinner because suddenly the kids don’t want the pasta that you’ve been making for years, bills, your own hopes and disappointments.

And then your sweet, adorable yet still a total PITA child tells you at six o’clock that they forgot they need to make a complicated African recipe for English class tomorrow. Or they need to talk about a boy or a girl they like. Or they want you to proofread a paper, but it’s not quite done yet.

And your first instinct is to sit down and weep because really you can’t handle one more obligation right now. Forget seizing the day, how about a dark room and little peace.

For awhile I got so wrapped up in the minutiae of handling every day life that I forgot to take time to savor the small moments. And then one day, I suddenly realized that while being there on the day they graduate from pre-school, their first day of kindergarten or middle school, the first time they take a step, ride a bike, or ask a girl to prom is important...it’s just as important to seize the love and gratitude and wonder in those private quiet moments when it’s no one else but me and my baby. Now I take the time to connect with them, talk to them. Instead of wanting to cry, I’m thankful that they trust me to be there for them no matter what happened and what kind of help they need. They know I love them.

And I finally learned I need to savor that joy...because in the grand scheme of things, those small fleeting moments are just as epic as seizing the day.

Monday, May 9, 2011


L.G.C. Smith

For those of us living in 21st century developed countries, the aphorism carpe diem resonates with all the echoes of more uncertain times and places. Affluence and technology buy us insulation from the ravages of the unpredictable. War. Famine. Disease. Tyranny. We enjoy advantages on a scale unimaginable to most of the people who have ever lived.

Yet our margin of grace remains fragile. Death awaits us all. Chaos and unlooked for change are ever with us. Loss, real and imagined, defines so much of what we want and what we do. Thus do we take heart in the charge of those two Latin words: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

Pluck the finest bits, as the other Pens so articulately wrote last week. Wear your best perfume just because you love it. Spin orange merino/silk yarn and kiss your wife. Rent a villa in Italy for your 50th birthday. Greet with joy the husband and children you never expected. Spellcheck your tattoos.

It can be a challenge not to use an ethos of carpe diem to justify anything we want to do, especially things that are self-indulgent, unwise, or which carry potentially sobering consequences. We all do this. I surely do. Rather than enumerating that tedious (and lengthy) list, I want to share some thoughts about a dear friend and family member who died Friday, a woman whose spirit captures some of the ways in which I would most like to seize the rest of my days.

I don’t know all the details of Betty Carlson’s life, and what I once knew I’ve likely forgotten in the thirty years since I first met her. Betty was 61 years old then and had lived three times as long as I had and packed quite a lot of day seizing into those years. She was a writer, a woman of faith, and a gentle soul possessed of deep feeling and insight. She didn’t needed to show off how smart she was or how witty she could be, though she was both wickedly observant and quietly funny. She and my husband’s beloved Aunt Jane, a great Godsend to us, with whom Betty lived for a long time – again, I don’t know how long, but at least forty years – are among the most gracious, generous people I’ve ever met.

I met Betty when I went to study at L’Abri Fellowship in HuĂ©moz, Switzerland in 1981 where she and Jane worked. I met my husband there, and more wonderful people than I can count. I was particularly impressed with Betty. She was a working writer.

(Here's a detail from one of Betty's drawings. That's her in the lounge chair with a glass of lemonade while Jane gardens.)

I knew I wanted to write, so I watched her and talked to her when I could. I read her books, which charmed me completely. She was encouraging, steadfast, and immensely kind. She spoke softly and smiled often. She traveled, studied constantly, and lived a simple (though far from small) life in a tiny village in glorious mountains. She met new people with an open mind and heart. She wrote diligently. When it wasn’t always easy, she didn’t stop.

I could see myself being a writer the way Betty was a writer. She gave me images of a writing life that countered the storied excesses, instability and despair of so many famous writers. I didn’t want to be like Sylvia Plath or Hunter S. Thompson. Betty opened possibilities to me, ways to be a writer that would allow me to cherrypick the worthy aspects of carpe diem and not begrudge the ripe fruit left beyond my reach for those with longer arms or wings. It remains a rich and treasured gift, just one of many given throughout Betty’s long and loving life.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

We wish our Mommy Pens a Special Mother's Day.

To Sophie, for being not only a mother to her kids, but a den mother to us.

To Lisa, whose material instinct extends beyond her children as she checks in to make sure our flights arrived and our drives were save.

To Adrienne, for being an example not only to her boys but to us in that the pursuit of a personal dream is something you don't give up, not in the face of a full time-time job or personal adversity or raising wonderful children and not even when all of these things converge at once.

Just like any children, we forget to tell you how much we appreciate you.

Happy Mother's Day to you, and to all our readers who are raising or have raised a family.

- The Pens

Friday, May 6, 2011

Tattoo You

I'll start off by admitting that I forgot to get a post on Lies ready for last Friday. And yes I could come up with some fabulous lie about why I didn't do it but I won't. I'll just, uh, seize the new topic. ;)

I could get all deep and philosophical about Seizing the Day but I'll leave that to you writers -- the four of you who have gone before me have written such beautiful stuff. Wow! So instead of competing I decided to look up Carpe Diem on Google to see what it means to various people... and I'm afraid I got distracted. I mean, who wouldn't??! Check this out!

First of all, is that a stomach? If so, where's the belly button? I'm so confused!

And I couldn't stop there... apparently Carpe Diem tattoos are all the rage. Here's another awesome one.

I'm imagining the conversation when a lucky lady pulls up the shirt above those camo pants -- Carpe Diem right on what we used to call the "pathway to pleasure" (you know, that line of hair that leads from the belly button down)-- yeah baby, seize the day, and while you're at it, seize the, you know...

Okay this one is serious -- this guy is actually super cool...

He is known as "Da Pirate" and he's a HIV/AIDS survivor who is a passionate advocate for HIV and AIDS education - he has truly seized the day. Sounds like an incredible individual.

OMG here is a great one!

At first I was like what the hell? And then I realized it's a CARP. Wow. I mean WOW. That must have been seriously painful. And it suddenly makes me wonder -- if I get my ass covered by a tattoo, would it make it look any smaller? I'll get back to you on that.

Looking at tattoos online is sort of like playing "name the body part" -- anyone have a guess at this next one?

I need to know. In case I want to get one there. Oh wait, my daughter just said it was someone pulling down their pants -- and now that she's said that, I can totally see it. I thought it was like half a boob. Really, stay with me here, that crack could be cleavage, right? Dang! I guess it's been a long time since I've seen a naked bod. ;)

Okay, last one -- I couldn't resist!

Might want to, you know, check a dictionary perhaps, before you're branded for LIFE. Some other really funny misspellings here.

This reminds me of my fave tattoo parlor name: "Scarred for Life Tattoos" (in Boulder, Colorado). Love that!

Okay, enough! :) Now back to your regularly scheduled programming of posts by real writers... Though thanks for inviting me over to play!

maddee, who has tattooed eyeliner and a swirl on her foot, but no Karpe Deims as of yet.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Seizing Different Days

--Adrienne Miller
When I was nineteen I accompanied my friend, Abbott, to the tattoo shop. He was getting his family crest on his arm and it was going to take a while. I kept him company. I remember the sound of the place and the traffic passing by on the busy street outside. I remember his first winces until he became used to the steady pricking at his arm. And I can remember that we laughed a lot that day. But the only topic I can specifically recall us talking about was how profound it was to willingly put a mark on your body that would follow you to your grave. 
Life is fabulously simple when you’re nineteen. Back then I knew exactly what I wanted out of life. I was an actress and it was all that I wanted to do. I thought that I might get married someday to some one dark and artistic, but no kids, thank you very much. I would travel the world. I knew my own mind and there was no one that could tell me different. Abbott was off to play football at UNLV. 
But then life came at me quick, just as it does to most people. Years passed, and I fell out of touch with most of the friends that I’d had when I was nineteen. A few, like Abbott, I regret, but most I can look back now and see that we either outgrew our friendship or were never all that good for each other in the first place. I met a man who made me laugh and feel good about myself, and that ended up being far more important than anything else. I fell out of love with the theatre and in love with the stories in my head. I still wanted to travel but now had to figure out how to do it while juggling a day job and two kids. Life didn’t look a thing like the plan I’d had when I was nineteen.
Looking back, I can’t imagine what my life would like if all of my nineteen-year-old dreams had come true. That’s not entirely true. What I mean to say is, I can’t imagine me happy if those dreams had come true. I seized different days than I thought I would. I said yes to things my teenage self never could have imagined agreeing to, and no when my heart didn’t line up with my head’s vision of the future. 
I was in a pub when I found out that Abbott had died. An old friend who worked there told me. Car accident. His memorial service was filled stories of all the things he’d done since I’d seen him last. He’d mastered kung fu and become a vegan. Wow, didn’t see that coming. He lived a short, brilliant, beautiful life. And while I’m sorry that I only got to share a little of it with him, the truth is when we walked out of that tattoo studio that day fifteen years ago, he and I just choose to seize different days.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

To hell with Someday

by Juliet

My mother's recent death --and before that, her long slide into ill health and dementia-- taught me precisely the opposite of what my ever-practical and frugal parents would have intended: I'm more determined than ever to live for today. I'm planning on spending my money and my time with abandon and joy and love.

I should mention that I'm a capitalist's nightmare. Shopping malls give me headaches. My stereo is at least twenty years old, and my TV is a cast-off relic the neighbors put out on trash day. I still own (and use) a VCR. My wardrobe might gain or lose a few pieces over the years, but if you compare conference pictures from five years ago to today...well, let's just say I'd prefer the internet didn't have such a long memory.

So I'm a natural saver, and I understand it's important to pay one's bills, and save for a rainy day, and to put away for retirement.

Still, I can't help but notice the following:

1) People sometimes die unexpectedly, never able to enjoy their savings
2) Conversely, a lot of people get progressively ill until they die
3) A whole lot of people never get to enjoy what they've worked so hard for because, by the time they're ready to, they're too old, too sick, or too dead.

So whenever I get too practical, too sensible, I remind myself of the summer I spent in Italy.

My whole life I had a fantasy of studying art "someday". Though I've painted all my life I had never taken an actual class in the subject I loved, because art seemed far too frivolous to pursue seriously.

Then one day, in passing, someone told me about the Florence Institute of Art. My fantasy surged up and took hold of my heart. I tried hard to talk myself out of even thinking about it.

I was self-employed at the time, running my own business. I had no such thing as paid vacation. Work wouldn't get done. I had a young son. There was no legitimate reason to go.

But when I looked into it...it became impossible to say no. I discovered it was affordable (the dollar was strong back then). My six-year-old's father agreed to pay his way. A friend of a friend put me in touch with someone who had a cheap apartment for rent, three blocks from the Duomo. For the price of a plane ticket, a good friend agreed to come along and look after my son while I painted.

I ran out of "someday" excuses, and wound up spending an entire summer in Firenze with my son, one of my best friends, and thousands of the most beautiful, artistic, people in the world.

It still counts as one of the best times in my life.

I don't remember the expense, or the work I didn't do, or the hassle of traveling -- with a child, no less. Instead, I remember the scent of linseed oil and the glistening skin of the artists' models (with no air conditioning, Firenze is a sultry place in July.) I remember holding original Da Vinci drawings in my hands. I remember meandering down the paths of the Boboli gardens, and laughing with my son as we tried to eat our gelato before it melted in the heat. I remember drinking wine in cafes with fellow artists from all over Europe. I remember my son being coddled in restaurant kitchens, playing with local kids in the city pool, and learning to shout "scuzzi!" as we navigated the crowded stone streets of the city.

I remember the magic.

So even though I don't really have the time, the money, or any legitimate reason for doing it...I'm planning on renting a house in the Italian countryside for my 50th birthday, in 2012.

I plan to dedicate the trip to the memory of my mother, a sweet, sensible soul who would have loved to go to Italy, "someday". She never made it.

Any adventurous friends willing to throw caution to the winds, shout carpe diem, and join me?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Where We End Up

I was thinking about our topic today, on my day off. Carpe Diem is one of those phrases it would all do us well to hang in front of our computers and put near our beds, because we forget it so often. Or at least I do.

I think of myself as an accidental Buddhist. Accepting the now is one of the most important things to me, and therefore, it's the thing I have the most difficult time remembering. I'm constantly living in the future: when I sell another series of books, when we have a little more money, when I manage to get more sleep. I put off things that are important (walks with friends, meals made from scratch, letters written by hand) for those things that are easy and expedient (email, microwaved dinners, sleeping pills).

So today, with our topic in mind, I:

* Cleaned out my office. I couldn't stand the way it was cluttered for one more day. The way my office looks is the way my mind feels, and the three hours it took to remove/trash/sort was rewarded INSTANTLY by the way my brain feels as I sit at my desk now. Calm. Relaxed. Unafraid.

* Packed up the dogs and met my sister in the cemetery for a long ramble. We talked about hard stuff, and good stuff, and writing stuff, and then we just peeked into the crypts to see what we could spy (playing cards! a banana peel! nothing of interest in the Ghiradelli crypt, and there SHOULD be!). There's nothing like a jaunt through a gorgeous cemetery to remind you that now is all we have.

* Threw a bunch of things in a pot for a dinner of chipotle black bean soup. The immediacy of chopping things is something I love. I'm not at all good at it, and I frequently chop my fingers as well as the onion, but making good food is one of my favorite things to do. I want to remember to do it more often.

Tonight, I will: Spin some orange merino/silk on my spinning wheel. I will watch some TV because I haven't in a few weeks, and I love relaxing in front of it when I can. I will kiss my wife and tell her I love her. I will laugh at the dogs' ridiculous antics. I will cuddle a cat or two. I'll rejoice when I lie down flat in my bed, and I'll sleep with the window open because the jasmine is blooming. It's worth the stuffy nose in the morning to be able to wake at 3am to that dark, sweet scent.

PS - If I do end up kicking it early, scatter my ashes like this: at the top of Mountain View Cemetery (don't pay for it! just walk and scatter -- I won't tell) in Oakland, with a wee bit kept out to put in the SF Columbarium and a wee bit for Venice, too. Oh, lovely. Isn't it? I've never really known where I wanted to end up (really, who cares?) but I like this plan very much.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Wrapped in Tissue and Tucked in a Drawer, a Life Not Lived

by Sophie


I was not always a seizer of days. I was once a parsimonious hoarder of things precious. Like so many women of my mother's generation, my lovely things were put away, saved for special occasions, shored up against some future in which I would be prettier, more elegant, more deserving.

My mother almost never indulged herself. As we grew up, my sister and I became more and more determined to bestow luxury on her, to force her if necessary to enjoy it. And yet she never did. I remember bottles of perfume, expensive cosmetics, gift certificates for manicures, scarves and purses - all tucked away in tissue and stowed in a drawer. After she had died, it was a particular heartbreak to discover these things - much diminished by then, as she lived her final years in a nursing home. Their saved-up patina had always faded. The perfume had evaporated, leaving a dried yellow rime on the bottle; the pretty things were no longer in style.

Here are some of the things I saved up: beautiful clothes, gifts from my husband, that were too expensive to wear "just" to work or for a day running errands. My first pair of real gold earrings. The good shampoo - I used Head and Shoulders for everyday. My own bottle of extravagant perfume, also a gift from my husband. This last I received before my daughter was born...just the other day, not long after her sixteenth birthday, I found it tucked away with a little bit left in the bottom.

You don't need me, if you are a certain age, to tell you the rest; middle age brings a knowledge of the brevity and fragility of life, the way the years slip through our fingers. Many of us (and how I grieve for our mothers, who never arrived at this day) take the silk blouse out of the closet one day, dressing for a trip to Target, and think "fuck it, I'm wearing my damn blouse." (Forgive the language; the voice of my personal mid-life journey is deliciously vulgar.)

The full translated text from Horace reads "Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future", and is a reference to drinking the wine that might spoil if you don't. More and more often I find myself doing just that. In fact, just last week I bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate the completion of the book I am working on, but for various reasons the end of the book has stretched into the future. The prospects for the bottle, however, have not - I intend to drink it before the week is up.