"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Five reasons to go to the Southern California Writer's Conference

The Southern California Writers Conference, Los Angeles*, is less than a month away and I'm getting excited, as usual, to be in that warm environment of people who don't back slowly out of the room when I start talking about my characters as if they're real people.

A lot of people, though, writers and non, wonder why I still go to writer's conferences. Aren't I already a writer? A published writer?

Yes and yes, and here's why I need to go:

1. The SCWC is not just about the process of writing, it's also about the business of writing. I've already blabbed about the state of publishing, but a writer's conference is a great place to hear industry experts talk about what's being done and what's falling out of favor and what are the pros and cons of anything I'm considering doing. Where's the market for marketing? Are bookmarks still a viable way to advertise your books? Are there any good websites out there for publicizing what you've done? There's always something new to be learned.

2. Guest speakers have been through the process. Almost all of the SCWC's speakers are people who have current tales to tell about getting published. Although I love to hear from the old guard, they've had the same agent for 40 years and the same publisher for 35. When I was at Bouchercon a couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to end up sitting next to Lee Child at the bar. His advice to all the newbies was to "forget Facebook and all that social media and just write good books and be nice to people." Writing good books is good. Being nice to people never hurts. But Lee is a famous guy who is, by now, surgically attached to his agent/publisher. He doesn't need social media - yet. I'd like to hear how someone did it in this era.

3. Even though my last two books have been self-published, I still like to learn about writing a good query letter. Why? Because I need to sell my books, and part of that advertising is a good hook, a good jacket blurb, a good way to get people to want to pick up my book and plop down their money. Even if I never queried another agent/publisher, I want to hone my book's description until it's taut and enticing. I don't want to go to an author festival and tell people, "Well, my book is about this private eye who used to be a housecleaner but she doesn't want to clean houses anymore, so she gets her license and this wealthy man hires her to find out if his wife is cheating on him, but then funny accidents start happening and..." Gah. After cutting and sanding and honing and working, I can say, "A housecleaner-turned-detective is hired to investigate a wealthy, possibly cheating wife, but the wife's best friends have other ideas. After all, a friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a body."

4. My writing can always be improved. Any author who says their writing is perfect is deluded. My writing is good, but it can always be tightened or even expanded, and I can always learn new ways to use first person or write someone's thoughts without being boring or mix up description and action to keep the pace moving. Years ago, I heard Willard Scott say something interesting (okay, granted, I don't listen to Willard very often). He said, "When you're green, you're growing, and when you think you're ripe, you're rotten." I don't want to ever be rotten.

5. There is the night life. After the workshops and the speakers, etc., there's always a table where drinks appear and writers and agents and publishers and the conference staff gather to talk about how the day went and laugh and make plans for the next day. The agents don't huddle by themselves. The writers don't pounce on said agents. Everyone just talks about writing and publishing and where it's all going. At least, when we're not making stupid jokes and making the waitresses miserable because people keep arriving and leaving and joining tables until the entire bar is just one big table.

I love this conference.

*Why they call it the Los Angeles conference when it's held in Newport Beach, I don't know, but it means I don't have to get a room because I'm pretty local, so I don't care.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's my motivation?

I'm weepy today.

It could be that my hormone meds are no match for my mood swings. Or the post-vacation blues. Or a general letdown from the rigors of life. Here's what I do know:

1. The vacation was accompanied by a splash of stress. It was the first year without our friend, Jim, who passed away from pancreatic cancer last September. We all felt the loss in little things. A favorite food not eaten, or drink not taken, an empty chair at the dinner table. No one played the guitar.

In addition, the "kids" are barely that anymore. They are all in high school or college. Some of them couldn't come because they have jobs and obligations. Their independence is wonderful and exciting and frightening, because some of them are trying to spread their wings into dangerous winds. For those of us who've been there, done that, and have the scars, it's worrisome.

There were other forces at play as well, problems that run deep within other families and are not mine to discuss, but I feel the pain of them anyway.

2. Marcus is leaving this Saturday to return to college. Yes, it's his second year, and I was very excited to see him go the first time. This is different, mostly because he now has a car. When he was a freshman and needed to come home or go somewhere beyond Long Beach, I drove over and picked him up. It's 20 minutes from our house. Now, he no longer has to wait for me to drive into the dorm parking lot and pick him up.

I'm no longer needed.

Add to that his current plan, of finding work in Long Beach and getting an apartment over the summer (with a friend). At that point, it will feel like he's really gone.

So this afternoon, as I cruised through Facebook, I found myself looking up Jim Barnes' page and crying, in a quiet, tears-down-the-neck, way. No sobbing or heaving. But weeping. Weeping about everything.

Why am I sharing this?

Because, if I'd put that scene in a story, I think most readers would stop and say, "WTF?" Why is she crying? This makes no sense. If I layered in a bunch of reasons for an extended crying jag, I run the risk of boring the reader with backstory. Maybe, instead of sympathy, my character comes off as having a pity party. The readers would say, "Geez what an annoying character."

Then they'd stop reading.

The secret life of characters is a difficult sell, especially in genre fiction. Genre readers (I'm speaking in generalities here) want to move through a book quickly. They don't want simplistic characters but they want their motivations to be clear-cut. Anything that makes them stop and absorb a complex moment has to work. Or else.

Literary fiction is, of course, different. You can let your characters wallow, as long as it's well-written wallowing. To show a master at work, I've selected the last paragraph of W. Somerset Maugham's Christmas Holiday. It's a rather long paragraph and I'm kind of laughing at all the long sentences with semi-colons (secretly I'm loving them because I adore a good semi-colon), and don't worry that it will spoil it for you if you've always wanted to read Christmas Holiday and never got around to it. Trust me, you can still enjoy the book.

* * * * *

The clock struck twelve and they bade one another good-night. Charley went to his warm and comfortable room and began to undress, but suddenly he felt very tired and sank into an armchair. He thought he would have one more pipe before he went to bed. The evening that had just gone by was like innumerable others that he had passed, and none had ever seemed to him more cosy and more intimate; it was all charmingly familiar, in every particular it was exactly as he would have wished it to be; nothing could be, as it were, more stable and substantial; and yet, he could not for the life of him tell why, he had all the time been fretted by an insinuating notion that it was nothing but make-believe. It was like a pleasant parlour-game that grown-ups played to amuse children. And that nightmare from which he thought he had happily awakened - at this hour Lydia, her eyelids stained and her nipples painted, in her blue Turkish trousers and her blue turban, would be dancing at the Serial or, naked, lying mortified and cruelly exulting in her mortification, in the arms of a man she abhorred; at this hour Simon, his work at the office finished, would be walking about the emptying streets of the Left Bank, turning over in his morbid and tortured mind his monstrous schemes; at this hour Alexey and Eugenia, whom Charley had never seen but whom through Lydia he seemed to know so well that he was sure he would have recognized them if he met them in the street; Alexey, drunk, would be inveighing with maudlin tears against the depravity of his son, and Eugenia, sewing, sewing for dear life, would cry softly because life was so bitter; at this hour the two released convicts, with those staring eyes of theirs that seemed to be set in a gaze of horror at what they had seen, would be sitting, each with his glass of beer, in the smoky, dim cellar and there hidden amid the crowd feel themselves for a moment safe from the ever-present fear that someone watched them; and at this hour Robert Berger, over there, far away on the coast of South America, in the pink-and-white stripes of the prison garb, with the ugly straw hat on his shaven head, walking from the hospital on some errand, would cast his eyes across the wide expanse of sea and, weighing the chances of escape, think for a moment of Lydia with tolerant affection - and that nightmare from which he thought he had happily awakened had a fearful reality which rendered all else illusory. It was absurd, it was irrational, but that, all that, seemed to have a force, a dark significance, which made the life he shared with those three, his father, his mother, his sister, who were so near his heart, and the larger, decent yet humdrum life of the environment in which some blind chance had comfortably ensconced him, of no more moment than a shadow play. Patsy had asked him if he had had adventures in Paris and he had truthfully answered no. It was a fact that he had done nothing; his father thought he had had a devil of a time and was afraid he had contracted a venereal disease, and he hadn't even had a woman; only one thing had happened to him, it was rather curious when you came to think of it, and he didn't just then quite know what to do about it: the bottom had fallen out of his world.

* * * * *

Now then, if Mr. Maugham had told us Charley began to weep, we'd completely understand.

How about you - do you want to see this much depth in your characters, or should they just cry when they've stubbed their toe?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Am I back?

I must be. I'm at least sitting in my family room.

We got in last night around 7:00 p.m. which was just early enough to unpack the car, wander through the house wondering how I left it in such a mess, start a load of laundry and discover the dryer vent needed to be vacuumed out again, and finally rummage through the pantry and ice chest for something approximating dinner.

So even though I'm here, I'm still kind of sleep-walking, trying not to admit I'm back to chores and commitments. I'd show you pictures of the idyllic mountains, still dotted with snow, and the crystalline lakes that are uber-cold, but I didn't take any. Here's a picture from 2004 of our children, enjoying the stream that runs through the lodge:

The boy in the middle back is Thor. He's 21 now. His brother Nick, front center, just graduated from high school, as well as Alanna, to the right. Marcus is on the left, looking so much smaller than today's version, a sophomore at CSULB.

I don't have pictures of them this year, although Dale might. As odd as it sounded, it was painful for me to think of them as growing up and going off. Thor hasn't been able to join us since he graduated from high school. Who knows who will be able to join us next year.

Yes, it's fun to see them become fine young men and women. Yes, I know they must become adults. But look back at that picture, feel the innocence and tell me it doesn't hurt to see them slip away.

In addition to the mountains, the ladies took a day to scamper over to Portola and shop. I stuck my head in Kelly Peroni's indy shop, High Sierra Books. This is what I found:

Too cool, yes? I'm right next to Lee Child. Kelly ordered more books, which is even more cool.

To cap everything off, we had a one-nighter in downtown Sacramento.

I loved-loved-loved walking around the neighborhood with the dog, and on Sunday morning, I went on a tour of the old Governor's Mansion. I love touring old neighborhoods and houses and hearing all about how people lived.

Before we left, I made my family walk back over to the mansion and take a picture of me and Duffy. The mansion WAS only across the street from our hotel, and the Governor DOES have a Corgi.

Yes, I know he doesn't live in the mansion, but still. Corgis rule.

And now, as Dale said when he turned on Hell's Kitchen when we came home, "Back to reality."

So - anyone else want to share what you did on summer vacation?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The doctor is out.

I'll be away from the Internet for a few days, retreating, relaxing and rejuvenating at a little place called the Gray Eagle Lodge. Check it out.

In the meantime, please enjoy a few of my favorite musical selections. I'll be listening to these and more on my iPod as Dale drives and I sleep.

That this woman suffers from extreme stage fright amazes me:

And because I'm not JUST old school:

See ya on the flip side!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Who are you?

There is a new horse and owner at the ranch where I have my own two ponies. She's a nice lady, if a bit chatty, and her horse is a fairly steady-Eddy kind of guy, for a 6-year old. Sure, he's a little insecure about his new digs and trying to decide how to adjust to everything, which in horse language translates to a few spooks and blowups because he's overloaded with information. However...

I've yet to witness his owner actually touch him.

She talks to him. She takes pictures of him. She feeds him carrots by the bagfull. But she won't put his halter on, lead him out of his stall, or kiss him on the nose. She's owned him for four of his six years and has never been on his back. The one time she was handed his lead rope at the ranch, she burst into tears.

In short, she's terrified of him.

She may own a horse, but is she a horse owner?

I used to be a skier. I spoke with excitement of hitting the slopes, picking the intermediate runs, staying out all day in all kinds of snow to see how many times I could take the lift up and take the run down.

Here's the thing: I hated getting dressed for skiing. Hated the prep work. Doubly hated schlepping my skis to the lodge, clumping about in my stiff, Frankenstein boots. Stressed about the lift. Would my timing be off and I'd stumble getting on? Or maybe I'd fall getting off? The only part I truly enjoyed was going down the slope... as long as it wasn't too fast and I stayed in control of my skis.

At some point, I looked in the mirror and said, "I freakin' hate to ski."

I did the same thing with scuba diving. Loved the silence under water. Loved the sights of coral and plant and fishy life. Hated checking my cylinder, hated calculating air and depth and oh-my-god don't get me started on squeezing my body into a neoprene suit that's PURPOSEFULLY cut two sizes too small.

I may have told people that I can scuba dive, but I am no scuba diver.

Part of my desire to be a skier and a scuba diver was that, as a sickly child and nerdy teenager, I was anxious to break that mold and be a tough girl. And part of it, as you can imagine, was that I was dating/married to someone who had expectations of the kinds of things we could enjoy together. I'm wondering what is in this woman's life that makes her want to be a horse owner, when everything in her body is rejecting that notion.

What is it that you only think you do, and why? What would you let go of if you could? What keeps you hanging on to activities you only partially love, hobbies you are bored with, things you do because of expectations but not passion?

Who are you?

By the way, after all these years and all my reincarnations, I am a horsewoman and a writer, a wife and a mother, and a friend. Because they are my passions.

Proud Member of ALA!

I support fair and equitable library access to ebooks and so should you.