"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

Thursday, August 30, 2012


I'm always learning things about myself, things that surprise me. I suppose when I stop learning, or stop being surprised, I should just pick out my coffin.

Last weekend, I learned one of two things: either I am a professional writer who sets the terms under which she creates, or I am a foot-stomping diva.

Here's the story...

For a few years, I've participated in the 48-Hour Film Festival. It's kind of like a weekend version of Project Runway/Top Chef/challenge show, where teams compete to produce a movie in a 48-hour time period. At 7 p.m. on Friday, you're given the genre, the name and occupation of a character, a prop, and a line of dialogue. At 7 p.m. on Sunday, you hand in a 4-7 minute movie that contains all those things.

I'm the writer. I spend Friday evening hashing out the story with the director, then creating the script. Then I go home and let everyone else do their jobs.

The fun part of this for me is the challenge of creation. I'm given a bunch of disparate pieces and the vision of the director, and somehow, I make it work. As anal as I am when I'm writing my novels, I love the spontaneity of this exercise.

This year, I was excited to write the script, that is, until Friday came. Our air conditioner was out (in 90+ degree heat), and trying to read my current manuscript through my cataract was giving me an insane headache. I was hot. I was sweaty. I was in pain.

It's possible I was a little cranky.

Nevertheless, I told the director I'd write the script, so I drove for two-and-a-half hours to the meeting spot, taking as much pain medication as my body could tolerate and stopping for coffee in the hope caffeine might help.

Once I got there, I found that I had collaborators. I can think of several authors/writers I'd love to collaborate with. These people were strangers. Not bad people. Not bad ideas. Just strangers, with whom I could not get in sync. It was hard to think through my headache, much less listen to a bunch of ideas spoken in purposeful voices.

At some point, I realized we were going to brainstorm all night if I didn't stop and start writing SOME kind of story. I snapped like some little toy dog in designer booties, listened to what the director wanted, and wrote his story.

Everyone wanted to change this little thing and that little thing, and at one point, the whole script threatened to become a camel (that's a horse designed by committee) and I had to defend my work. This included chasing people away from the computer, where they were deleting lines and adding new ones. Finally, I changed enough to please the one person I always answer to: the director.

It was after ten o'clock when I drove two hours home. Let me tell you, driving on the freeway in the dark when you have a cataract is an exercise in terror. I arrived home feeling like I'd been rode hard and put away wet.

Throughout the weekend, I kept hearing snippets of how the filming was going. Apparently, it went super-uber-well and everyone loved the movie and they were incredibly proud of their work.

They also, apparently, didn't use the script I wrote.

I don't believe in time wasted. Time is always spent learning lessons. By the time Monday rolled around, I had decided what the weekend had taught me. I am officially retiring from participation in the 48-Hour Film Festival. I don't feel angry. It's not a tantrum. I'm just either a skittish writer who is incapable of collaboration with strangers, or I'm a full-scale diva who has demands.

Or I should have stayed home this year and nursed my ailing head.

I'm a little surprised by the whole thing. I believed I liked collaboration. I thought I'd always be up to writing these scripts. I believed I wasn't a foot-stomping diva. Who knew?

Oh, well. As my friend, Robin, would say: you say foot-stomping diva like it's a bad thing.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jeff Sherratt: A life well lived

I went to a memorial service today for an author friend of mine, Jeff Sherratt. I met Jeff a very few years ago at the Southern California Writer's Conference. He had just had his first Jimmy O'Brien mystery published by Echelon Press. Later that year, my first mystery, Freezer Burn, was picked up by Echelon.

So we had lots to talk about at book festivals and other author events. I used to tease Jeff that he could sell books to a corpse. I was almost not kidding - that man could talk. He was the kind of guy you could just hang with and not worry about running out of conversation. If you didn't have a tale to tell, he had plenty.

I have three stories to tell you about Jeff to show you what kind of man he was.

R to L: Pam Ripling, me, Jeff, Alyssa Montgomery

1. The Ray Bradbury Event. A couple of years ago, I got to not only meet Ray Bradbury, but I gave him an autographed copy of Freezer Burn. I blogged most of the story in this post - however, I left out one part. When Jeff heard that Mr. Bradbury's assistant was going to introduce me to Ray, he ran off and got one of his books to sign and give to Ray. At the time, I thought he was pretty cheeky to horn in on my action, and might have thought, briefly, about hitting him in the head with something to thwart his plan. I had to kind of fight him off just so I could get my picture taken and finish giving Ray my book.

Afterward, Jeff hugged me and apologized, and sounded as ecstatic as I felt. As I processed the scene later, I realized that my friend was having a Fan-Boy moment. He couldn't help himself from jumping in on the fun because, well, this was Ray Freakin' Bradbury. Giddiness overruled any sense of decorum.

How can you stay angry about that?

2. Newport Beach. I've been going to the Southern California Writer's Conference for years now, long enough to have made lots of friends. Still, every time I go, I feel a certain level of excited apprehension as I walk into whatever the venue. I have no explanation, but it's a weird, First Day of School feeling, like I'm not sure if the Cool Kids will laugh at my shoes or welcome me.

Yeah, I'm a nutcase sometimes.

The first year it was at the Hyatt in Newport Beach, I walked through the lobby on my way to check-in with Cricket at Registration. I was a little aflutter, trying to look calm but feeling nervous. There in the lobby, Jeff sat with his friend and editor, Mike Sirota. Jeff saw me, got up with a smile and announced, "There's my girl!" (Of course, a hug followed.)

All my apprehension melted away. Jeff's greeting was like coming home, comfort food, and warm fuzzies all in one. It was the one thing I needed and he was there to provide it.

Jeff doing what he loved best: signing books!

3. The Placentia Library. This past year, I asked Jeff and Michele Scott to be the guests at the Author's Luncheon that is hosted every year by the Placentia Library Friends Foundation. The theme was "Make Mine a Mystery" and I knew they'd both be dynamic speakers.

As the date approached, I was hearing from another author friend that Jeff was in ill health. Uh-oh. I called Jeff and asked how he was.

"Fine, fine, how are you?" he told me.

"I heard you weren't feeling well. Are you going to be okay to come to the luncheon?"

"Oh sure, I'm fine. I can't wait."

We had this conversation more than once. My other friend kept telling me Jeff wasn't well, I kept calling Jeff, and he kept reassuring me. When the date arrived, Jeff came with a portable oxygen kit by his side, along with his wife, Judy. That's when he told me he was on the list for a lung transplant.


Jeff and Michele, in deep discussion no doubt

That was Jeff. You didn't know he was in ill health. You didn't know he had a prosthetic leg. You didn't know he had any disabilities. (I'm typing this now with a headache so bad, I'd like to weep, and I feel bad admitting it. Jeff wouldn't.)

I've said this before, but the best thing I ever heard at a funeral service was a minister who said, "You write your own obituary by the way you live your life." Did I know Jeff well? I never met his daughters or grandkids, or knew where he went to school or everything about his life. But did I know the man? I think maybe I did. Exuberant, generous, curious, optimistic, driven, uncomplaining. He was a man who made me want to stop and ask if I really need to grouse about something, if I can't just write one more chapter, if I've told someone how glad I am to know them. He made me want to at least try to be a better person.

Good-bye, Jeff. I'm sure gonna miss you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The vacation de-brief

I'm going to be busy today, mostly editing (and taking care of household stuff in the breaks), but I wanted to give you a brief recap of our vacation. My humor column is on hiatus while I run for office (Placentia Library District Trustee), so I need an outlet to tell people about my latest adventure.

As I said in an earlier post, we went to the Plumas National Forest, where we stayed at the Gray Eagle Lodge. This is what it looks like:

We've done this for I think about 10-12 years now, with several families. We are all friends, with children of similar ages, and it's been wonderful and frightening and significant to watch these kids grow up together. This is how I'll always remember them, no matter how old they get:

When I think about the trip, there are a lot of, well, unwonderful things. I hesitate to call them negatives or lowlights. Weirdlights. That's what they were.

For one thing, there was the heat. We left the 100-degree heat of southern California, drove 10 hours (in two days) to arrive in the 90-degree heat of northern California. Wasn't much of an improvement, I can tell you. There were some cool-ish days by the lakes, and we were even rained on once, but every morning's walk was done in short sleeves and bug spray, every evening's meal left me feeling sweaty when I got up from the chair, and we slept with all the windows open and the fan on.

This was not our normal trip.

Then there was the changing makeup of the group. I've written about our friend, Jim Barnes, who used to join us but passed away from pancreatic cancer. This was our second year without him, but I felt his absence even more than the first year. Perhaps we were trying to be too brave and upbeat last year. This year felt emptier.

Now, we have a family in the midst of divorce. I'll spare you the details, except to say my darling friend was blindsided by the husband she thought she knew for over 20 years, which has shattered my trust in him as a friend. They split the vacation in half this year. She took the front end and he took the back end. I enjoy her company so much, I hated to see her go and I hated to see him arrive and I just don't know what to even say to him that doesn't involve striking him with a large, heavy object. Yes, people are fallible and I'm not the boss of them and I need to forgive him for something that's none of my business.

I'm a bad witch, okay?

To top everything with an extra helping of WTF?, it turns out our dear little Lady Spazzleton is not quite what the doctor examined. After a thorough round of finding a scar and palpating her insides, he pronounced that she had been spayed, even signing off on the papers for her license.

While we were on vacation, she came into heat. There is no mistaking it. The licking, the tail-lifting, and the advances made by the intact boy dog at the lodge made it absolutely clear. Now we have to wait a few weeks (dogs are in season for at least 21 days) to get her REALLY spayed. You know, with all that money we have lying around the house after our vacation.

Oh, and she ate another leash.

Otherwise, she had fun at the lakes, except she wanted to be in the water All. The. Time. And if there were ducks or squirrels or chipmunks around, she wanted to catch them. She wanted to catch them badly, to the point of making a whiney-gargle sound if she couldn't at least try. It sounded like a soprano Chewbacca.

Duffy pretty much though she was an idiot.

The kids all had fun, too. They went on the kayak and the innertubes and the stand-up paddleboard, and got sunburned and laughed a lot and seemed to be kids again for awhile.

The thing is, despite the icky parts of the trip, I still remember it with a light heart and believe I had a good time. I hung out with my friends, went on some nice hikes, ate great food, and even managed a horse ride.

Am I delusional or just an optimist?

Friday, August 17, 2012

LOOK over here

God bless that Tameri Etherton. I just got home from a week's vacation in the Plumas National Forest. It's about a 10 hour drive if you want to come back in one day, which we did. We managed to make it home by 10:30, ripped through a drive-thru for instant food, then drove home and found we'd been locked completely out. Our lovely son broke in, but by the time we had brought the bags in, eaten, and checked the Facebook status, it was after midnight.

Today, I am completely wiped out, feeling the need to hop back into real life, and not knowing what to do first, or even second.

Enter Tameri, who was tagged in a little blogging game and tagged me. It's called LOOK and I'd post the little picture of the meme (or is that redundant?) but I'm exhausted and likely to post something that would crash computers worldwide. The rules are to go to your latest work-in-progress and search on the word "look". Once you find it, copy and paste the section to your blog. Then tag a bunch of people. They're supposed to do the same.

I'm so tired I barely know my name, so tagging is out, but thanks to Tameri, I'm at least kick-started in forward progress today. If you want to join the game, copy and paste your work to your blog, then leave me a link in the comments. I can probably still read.

This is from the second chapter of the third, untitled, unedited, mystery.

* * *

The smell had hit her first, followed by the smoke. A private investigator's job is to be curious, so she loped toward the source, and saw fire engines pulling out of Angelina Drive, onto Morse. Two police cars were at the corner, officers directing traffic away from both streets. Fortunately, it was already mid-June, meaning the elementary school was out for the summer and keeping the police from having to re-route frazzled parents.

Now she stood and looked at the devastation. She wanted to cry, and it wasn't even her house.

It belonged to Benny Needles.

Benny was a one-time client, part-time assistant, and full-time needy little man with a big obsession for Dean Martin. He had spent the last couple of years running through his inheritance, stuffing his house with Dino items that he bought on eBay. Peri was never sure whether he was actually a hoarder. While his house was so full it was difficult to move around, it was full of specific things. Tables, chairs, sofas from the sets of Dean Martin movies littered the living room. Posters, and photographs, all signed, were on the walls, And then there were the tchotchkes – ashtrays, barware, even an ice cube tray that had been the center of Peri's first murder case.

She wanted to get a closer look at the damage, but she wasn't certain if the police would let her past the barricade. She knew almost everyone in the Placentia Police Department. Peering at all the uniforms, she was hoping to see someone who didn't just view her as an over-snoopy private investigator.

All I can do is try, she thought. The worst they can do is say no.

The tall blonde adjusted her ball cap over her ponytail and approached the officers. She spotted Officer Chou on his phone. He was always very courteous. She caught his eye and he motioned her over.

"Hey, Peri," he said after he ended his call. "I was just calling Detective Carlton."

She smiled. If Chou couldn't let her pass, Skip Carlton might. For one thing, he was a reasonable man. For another, they had been dating for ten years. But why was he needed on the scene?

"For a house fire?"

"House fire's not the problem. The body inside is." Officer Chou looked worried. "I'm assuming it's Benny."

"No." She shook her head. "I happen to know he's out of town this week. It's Dean Martin's birthday, and he went with Phil and Nancy Nickels to some town in Ohio. Dino's birthplace and all that."

* * *

It's now your turn. I'm going to go have some coffee, start a load of laundry and take a nap.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What's new with you?

Just a brief check-in today to share a couple of things:

1. The third mystery is officially finished. Okay, it's the first draft, but it's written, like, all the way to THE END. The angels sang and the heavens wept tears of joy. I should just know, after three mysteries, that the last 20,000 words are a bitch. There's no nicer way to word it, kids. They usually manage to stretch themselves out to 30,000 at least. I feared I was coming in a little short on this story, at about 68,000 words. Final total was over 76,000.

But I like it. I really like the way it ended. Uber cool, and I say this as a person who really hates every ending in every book she's ever read or written. I'm now sitting back and wondering about the pacing, but I'm not going to open the file again for at least three weeks. It has to age a little, without getting rotten.

By the by, I still don't have a good title for it. Let's work on that, shall we?

Finishing that one means I get to start on my Snoopy memoir, which I'm super excited about. I did write about 10,000 words on that one, but I think I want to go in a different direction. For a writer, that doesn't necessarily mean I'll throw everything away. I'll probably just rearrange it.

2. I finally settled on the logo for my very own self-publishing company. I really didn't plan on being such an independent girl. I searched for an agent/publisher and got lots of nice feedback. No "you need to go back to Grammar School, Missy" letters. I just never got a contract. So, oops, let's put it on Amazon and see what happens.

Now I've surrendered. My books will be published under Dancing Corgi Press. Here's my logo:

Joe Felipe designed it. Love it. Soon you'll be able to look for the union label, so to speak.

That's all the news that's fit to print these days. What's happening in your world?

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