Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Medusa's Come to Call

Today is the last day of November. How did that happen? November can’t be over. All of the things that have to get done before Christmas aren’t.

I do have the Christmas photo done. But my Christmas letter sucks. I have three decent paragraphs in the whole letter. I’ve been waiting for the beautiful muse of writerly inspiration—her name is Calliope. I think she's visiting Steven King. So the only Greek available to help me was Medusa—and she turned my prose into stone.

I haven’t bought Christmas presents for anyone. My daughter is almost done with her Christmas shopping. Even my husband is done with his shopping—though that hardly counts—he buys one gift, mine. And I buy the gifts for everyone else.

Now before you remind me that there are twenty-five days left until Christmas, I have to tell you that we have three surgeries before X-mas. My mom’s, my son’s, and my daughter’s. And don’t forget the pre-op visits. So my days are limited.

And even worse, I promised my kids that I’d have the first draft of my sequel to Screwing Up Time ready to be read by X-mas break. Break starts next week Friday and I’m only halfway. Plus, I’m not one of those writers who can work for 48 hours straight, surviving on coffee, Red Bull, and M&Ms. I’m usually drooling after I finish editing one chapter. (I think this makes me really bad, but I’m figuring that I can edit while I do my motherly post-operative comforting.)

Oh, well, time to pour some brandy on the fruitcake. And spike the eggnog. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Holiday Overview

Thanksgiving didn't happen quite like we planned. My mom ended up with a badly pinched nerve in her neck, so we hosted Thanksgiving dinner at our house. The kids all pitched in, and it was wonderful. (Can you believe that while I was at the gym on Wednesday, the kids started doing the things on my To-Do List?) First, thing they did was straighten the Christmas tree.

Ariel got out all the linens, china, crystal and silver. Here's a photo of the table she set.

Then on Friday after everything was put away, and Ariel and I finished shopping. (I got a beautiful pair of $70 black leather pumps for $19--now I don't have to wear the hand-me-downs that are a half size too small. That's really my own fault, I'm too cheap to buy anything not drastically reduced and I haven't been able to find anything at the thrift store.) Anyway, after all that, the kids decorated the Christmas tree. Matt made spiced cider from scratch, it even had thin slices of lemon floating on top. Jacob did the lights--the tree looks like it's light from inside. Ariel sort and organized all the ornaments. And then the kids put them on. Cal and I sat on the couch and sipped cider. (Though he did make comments asking why it took them so long to do it--he's not used to sitting down and doing nothing.)

Here's the finished product. (And we didn't have to buy garland or ornaments despite the tree's 9+ height. Yay!)

I'm trying not to ponder the fact that in a couple of years, Cal and I will be doing all this alone again. Why is it that when kids finally become useful, they grow and move away?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Early Christmas "Cheer"

On Saturday we got our Christmas tree. (We bought a tree early because it was a fundraising event for a crisis pregnancy center.) The tree was supposed to be 6 ft. tall. I would’ve been happy with a 5 ft. tree, but with ten foot looks kind of dumb. So we ordered the 6 ft. tree. They must’ve run out of 6 ft. trees. This tree is at least 9 feet tall, maybe more. It takes up half our living room. Okay, a quarter. And it didn’t fit into our old tree stand. So we bought a new tree stand. Old stand was easy to fill with water, new stand is not. New stand was created by an engineer who was a Grinch and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. With new stand, you can’t tell how much water is in the stand because the stand is so deep. It should have come with a dipstick. Instead, you fill up the stand and water drips out the screw holes—there are eight screw holes. I’ve tried sticking my hand into the tree stand and feeling where the water is, but the girth of the tree forbids access. Not to mention that it’s just too deep—my hands are long and skinny, so if I can’t get my hands in there, no one is. So I mop up the dripping water every fifteen minutes.

Of course, the tree itself is gorgeous. It looks like something out of a movie set—full, perfectly balanced. (It’s leaning a bit, but that’s because we’re a bit frustrated with the stand and the eight adjustable screws.) Eventually, the tree will be fixed. We have too many “picture straighteners” living in our home for the tree to stay tilted.

The other problem with the tree is that Luke started sneezing when we brought it home. He’s kind of been sneezing non-stop since Saturday. Yesterday when he was playing piano he was rubbing his eyes between verses. But before you say tree allergy, I don’t think it’s the tree. Luke doesn’t have pollen allergies. He’s allergic to molds. I’m sure the tree is covered with molds (most trees are). This means that today I get to spray the tree down with Lysol. I wonder if they make Christmas tree scented Lysol.

The tree is still undecorated. I am not an eager decorator. It’s even worse because there’s no way we have enough lights, garland, balls to cover a tree of this magnitude. Even if we don’t decorate the back side.

I’m beginning to think that maybe I’ll drop the hint that we should skip the tree thing next year. But then I’d be known as a Grinch for the rest of my natural life.

Child 1: “Do you remember back in 2012 when Mom didn’t want to put up a tree?”

Child 2: “Sad, really. She’d been such a nice mother up to that point.”

Child 3: “Though there was the time when she made us scrub the sidewalk...”

But that’s another story.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chicken Pox

Wednesday Matthew said to me, “Mom, would you look at my back. I’ve got all these itchy pimples.” At the words “itchy pimples,” a muscle in my face twitched. A shudder went down my spine. And a voice in my head said, “Oh, no.”

I said, “Let me see, Matt.” So he lifted up his shirt. And my suspicions were confirmed. “Matt, sweetie, those aren’t itchy pimples. Those are chicken pox.” My fifteen year old son, who has had the chicken pox vaccine AND who had chicken pox twelve years ago, has CP again! This is NOT supposed to happen.

Luke, Ariel, and Jacob all expressed their disapprobation in varying ways as they contemplated the possibility of getting chicken pox before/during finals. To keep the peace, every surface of the house has been sanitized and Matt has been banished to our bedroom though everyone realizes that they’ve already been exposed.

Matt, who now has pox everywhere, is getting by on Benadryl, oatmeal baths, hydrocortisone, books and movies. His plan is to watch the entire extended version of the Lord of the Rings. In the meantime, we’re all scrutinizing every red dot/spot that shows up on our skin.

Incubation is 10 to 21 days. So if we don’t get the pox by December 8, the last day of finals, we should be good to go for the rest of the holidays. If I don’t comment on a lot of your blogs in the next month or so, you’ll know why—we’ll be having a Jolly Spotted Christmas.

(Note: If you’ve been waiting to buy Screwing Up Time, now’s the time. I’ve put it on sale for 99 cents for the holidays.)

And here’s something fun. "Christmas Can-Can." Give it a moment--it starts kind of slow.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Yesterday we were streaming a tv show and a Lady Gaga advertisement came up. Now I don’t know much about Lady Gaga other than her meat dress, which was really gross and mortally offended all my veggie friends. I mean seriously—wearing meat? No wonder no one wanted to sit next to her. Anyway, this isn’t about her clothing. She had some kind of Tweet going about all her little monsters and she was Mama monster, etc. It was a Gaga celebration of life thing, but it got me thinking about monsters, especially since the show we were streaming was Grimm.

One of the things I like about Grimm is that the monsters are really monster-y. Monsters should be scary. That’s kind of the point. In Grimm, even the beautiful women who turn out to be monsters are hideous looking—the pretty blonde is an uber-creepy hexabeast. Have you ever noticed that many times gorgeous men/women become attractive monsters? A kind of that Disney Beauty and the Beast approach. The beast isn’t ugly; his only negative features are his animal ears (which are cute in a puppyish way) and long fingernails. His grotesquery is something that a good shave, mani/pedi, and, okay, a nose/snout plastic surgery session could cure.  

Maybe handsome/beautiful monsters are supposed to appeal to the rebel in us, who wants to fall in love with the bad boy/bad girl monster. (The bad boy never appealed to me, I’m too much of a realist—can you see a bad boy rocking a puking baby at 2am?) At any rate, the handsome bad boy could be a marketing thing, or maybe it’s a vanity thing and the actor/actress said, “I’m not going on stage looking like that.” In any case, I prefer my monsters scary. What about you?

Monday, November 14, 2011


I’ve decided that allergies are a hoax. They’re real enough—just ask Calvin. This past week, I’ve been waking up sneezing during the middle of the night. I sneeze for about an hour, then sniffle for thirty minutes more before I can go back to sleep. Of course, this isn’t a new experience for me—I’ve been doing the allergy merry-go-round for years. It started with the fun allergy tests. Which consisted of “Excuse me, nurse, um, that little red mark has now spread up my forearm past my elbow and is heading for my shoulder.” The nurse made a squeaky noise and slathered me in Benadryl. Afterwards my allergist has explained that I’m allergic to dust mites, birds, cats, dogs, horses, mold, mildew, kapok, etc., etc. (Kapok? Really?)

My allergist gave me all kinds of meds. BTW, I can’t take decongestants. (The doctor discovered this when my heart was beating so fast it couldn’t get enough oxygen—who knew that could happen?) Then he prescribed the inevitable topical steroids. After a couple of weeks, he said, “Why aren’t these working?” I was thinking, silly me, “You graduated from Yale Medical School, so maybe you should know.” My allergist visits were also punctuated by the allergist pressing on my face or thwunking it with his finger and saying, “Aren’t you sure this doesn’t hurt?” Yep—no pain. (Unless you count the bruises from the thwunking.) After multiple painless thwunkings, he ordered a CT scan. Guess what? No frontal sinuses, which explained the painless face issue.

Then we did allergy shots for a year. After the 365 days, the allergist said, “This isn’t working.” Yeah, I sort of guessed that since I was still sneezing all the time. Eventually, he gave me more meds and called me “the walking sedated.” He also told me that I should avoid all allergy triggers from dust mites to mold to birds—basically, I need to live in a sterile bubble.

But I’m beginning to think that contrary to all medical knowledge, allergies aren’t really the body’s immunological overreaction to stimuli. Nope. I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities. One, a hybrid virus developed by pharmaceutical companies to increase their profit margins. Or two, my favorite explanation for unexplainable things, allergies are a sign of the coming zombie apocalypse. I’m pretty sure it’s number two. (I'm pretty sure the CDC would agree. Check their website for their zombie apocalypse preparedness novella.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Head in a Bag Plot Device

Did the title get you? Yes, this blog post is about the infamous head-in-a-bag plot device. But first, a foray into literary theory. (Sorry, I have to find some kind of use for those college classes. But I promise it will be brief and fun—which is not a use of irony.)

Anyway, lit crit folks have an idea that only a handful of stories exist and most stories, no matter how dissimilar, can be boiled down to one of these “genres.” Allow me to oversimplify with a couple of examples. Greeks thought stories were either comedies (ends in a wedding) or tragedy (ends in a death). Hence Shakespeare’s works are divided into Comedy and Tragedy (and, of course, “histories,” but if Richard the Third isn’t a tragedy, what is?) Detective/murder mysteries are viewed as modern versions of the quest epic.

So if all stories fit into just a couple of categories, how do we keep it interesting? That is in the telling. (Enter head-in-a-bag plot device.) Jasper Fforde writes the Thursday Next “mysteries.” Thursday is a literary detective/fixer. (According to Thursday, she actually “repaired” Jane Eyre. In the “original” version, Jane and Mr. Rochester never got together. Thursday almost lost her job over that fix.) Anyway in Mr. Fforde’s world, characters often try to improve their novels by buying plot devices. One character, who is afraid that his novel may be shredded, goes to the plot device store to buy a plot device. The-head-in-bag device is on sale because, you know, it’s been so overdone, so there’s not a lot of demand. A couple of months ago, I saw an episode of Castle. Guess what? It had the head-in-bag. But the writers made it fresh. (It was a mediocre episode, but still it was the head-in-a-bag. And my kids yelled, “No way, the head-in-bag plot device!”) In the episode, the dead man had his head stolen and stuffed in “cryogenic head container.” The “bad guy” claimed it was for cryogenic purposes. But the truth was that the brain contained evidence of experimental cancer drugs ineffectiveness—which is a totally overdone plot device—the writers need to go back to the plot device store.

All that to say, even if there aren’t any new stories, all you need to do is find a fresh way of writing it—and avoid the head-in-bag plot device. After all, you can only toss the bag through the air and say “Heads up” once or twice before is gets lame.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


When I was in college, class titles were kind of self-explanatory. I took stuff like Restoration Literature, which was literature of the Restoration period. (Surprise, surprise.) And World Lit was literature of...wait for it...the world.

My daughter (the math major) is registering for classes in spring semester. And she’s getting emails from professors about their classes. They explain the classes they’re teaching. For example, “Non-Linear Operations Research.”  The blurb is “using scientific methods to determine the best way to analyze, operate, and predict (yada, yada, yada).” Then the professor listed “celebrated applications” of this type of math study. Celebrated? Really? Does anyone celebrate math?

But there’s more behind these emails. They’re worded like advertisements. Hey, take my math class, you’ll love it. It’s “celebrated.” I suspect the profs are trying to make sure that they have enough students for the class. You see, the department rotates professors through the classes that no one wants to teach. And who wants to teach remedial math? (Though most of those are taught by grad students; Ariel’s friend had a student whine, “You want us to memorize three formulas?! But that’s too hard.”)

Or perhaps it’s to combat Here is a sample of an average entry of a math professor: Nice guy, who’s really good at math. However, he has only a nodding acquaintance with English. The average grade in his class is a 30, but it’s okay because at the end he distributes a few good grades just for the heck of it.

So I can understand why they’ve resorted to advertising (i.e., propaganda). Maybe the lit departments should consider doing something similar. I can imagine how they’d advertise Restoration Lit. Instead of “obscure literature written by giddy royalists who never met a clause they didn’t love,” it would read “forgotten plays and essays by writers who are thrilled to be rid of Milton/Cromwell and are pre-modern precursors to the bawdy situation comedy.” Literature studies would never be the same.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let the Holiday Season Begin

For me the holiday season begins at the end of October when I bake my fruitcake. Before you groan or crack a joke, this is not the doorstop brick that your grandmother used to buy. This is an old Southern Living fruitcake, which is actually called "light." Not because it's low calorie, but because it's less dense--leaving more more for the brandy to soak in. YUM.

I start with this:

And end up with this:

Notice the white cheesecloth, it's there to keep the fruitcake damp with brandy. And it's sealed in a Tupperware container.

In early celebration of the holidays, here a Straight No Chaser song. Who knew that a'capella could be cool?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing Style

Several writing friends and I have been discussing writing style. What it is, how it works, its difference from voice, etc. What precipitated the discussion was I’ve noticed that agents who have asked for fulls of my current novel are often those who have asked for fulls of my earlier novels. That might not sound unusual, but the genres I’ve submitted to these agents are very different—young adult, murder mystery, and literary fiction.  And it’s over a long period of time, so it’s not as if they remember my name. I’ve been pondering what it is that makes some literary agents consistently ask for my work and others not. (Note: And these agents are not those who ask for lots of submissions.)

One writing friend (Adele) mentioned that she’s always been taught that while voice can/should change from book to book, style does not. I think she’s right. Maybe that’s how computers identify the authors of those “anonymous” books—they analyze for style. According to M.H. Abrams (you know you’re a lit fantatic when his Glossary of Literary Terms is at your fingertips):

“Style is the manner of linguistic expression in prose or verse—it is how a speaker or writer says whatever it is that he says. The characteristic style of a work or a writer may be analyzed in term of its diction...its sentence structure and syntax; density and types of its figurative language; pattern of its rhythm, component sounds, and other formal features, and its rhetorical aims and devices.”

I suspect that the reason I’m more “successful” with certain agents is that, like all readers, agents have certain styles they enjoy reading. And certain ones that they don’t. That may explain why agents often turn down books that later end up on the NY Times best seller list. The style just didn’t work for them. And I guess that’s not surprising since we see this in classics all the time. Some people love James Joyce—though why they do is a mystery to me—and some people love F. Scott Fitzgerald.

One of the lessons to take from this (besides that you should query widely) is to keep records of which agents requested your work—they may be more likely to consider your next book. It also explains why query letters are so important. I’ve heard a lot of writers gripe that query letters are archaic and hard to write. But query letters are an opportunity too. A query letter is your chance to introduce an agent to your style. It’s a chance to see if your styles will mesh. And you really don’t want an agent who doesn’t “get” your style.

What about you all? What are your thoughts on style? What are your experiences querying multiple books—are they similar to mine?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

College Football and Embroidery

Baseball season is over! Yay! I’m doing the happy dance. it’s college football season. I really don’t get the whole crazed sports thing. I don’t mind watching a baseball game now and then. As long as I know a bit about the team. But college football is another beast altogether.

For example, last night he watched the last quarter (thankfully, he’s not one of those, I have to watch the entire game people—he’s too busy for that) of the Northern Illinois vs. Toledo game. (It’s not like Cal actually cares about either team.)

 I asked, “Why are you streaming this game?”

Cal said, “Because this is the highest scoring game ever in this division.”

Me: “And you care about that?”

Cal: “Yeah, because neither team has a defense to speak of.”

Me: “So you want to watch a lot of losers play football?”  Okay, I didn’t actually say that—I thought it.

Watching a game for no reason other than a statistical anomaly, only shows how statistics obsessed sports is. And obscure stats can make any game seem special. For example, “This game has the most punts by a left-footed kicker who’s blind in one eye.” (And yet the earth keeps spinning. Imagine that.)

Cal and I have been married 23 years, and I knew this college football thing was coming. I’ve tried “getting into the game.” I assumed that if I knew enough about the game, I’d get involved and interested. Nope. It’s still mind numbing—though I did enjoy watching Colt McCoy a season or two back.

I’ve tried writing while Cal watches the game, but it’s hard for me to mumble appropriate words of encouragement/agreement while I’m writing. Cal: “Check out that running back—both blockers missed him.” Me: (In the midst of rescuing a character from destruction) “Oh, that’s too bad. Maybe next time.” Cal: “No, our team just scored.” Me: “What?”

This year I’m doing something different. I bought pillowcases and I’m embroidering them. (Yes, mom, your years of torture are paying off. My mom was a firm believer in the old European training of daughters. I can sew, cross-stitch, embroider, etc. And I know that the tidiness of the back side of the embroidery is as important as the front. My aunt Louisa, who’s a Swiss boarding school teacher, used to grade her students on the back of their embroidery as well as on the front. She once gave me a “C.” That’s the last time I ever showed her my embroidery.) Sorry, back to football. Anyway, I’m embroidering.

Now Cal and I have the following conversations.

Cal: That coach should’ve called for a time out—that’s rotten clock management.

Me: Yes. I agree. (Holding up my embroidery to his face.) Does that row of satin stitches look even to you?

Cal: Looks great.

Me: You give it an “A,” right?

Cal: Absolutely.

Me (smiling like a Cheshire cat): I love college football.

p.s. Check out this great post on self-promotion by Stina Lindenblatt.