Here are some things that happened while I was gone:

1.  When you don’t write in your blog, but you keep your feedreader open, you have a lot more time to listen to what other people have to say.

2.  This makes you remember something you really value about being part of a community of people who write and read blogs:  People other than you have a lot to say — sometimes what they say is incredibly funny, or inspiring, or thought-provoking.

3.  There’s real joy out there.  Nova, whose blog I’ve been reading for a long time, and who thought at one time that no one would ever want her books, has written and sold a second book.  It came out today.  It sounds wonderful.

4.  There’s unimaginable sorrow.  Elizabeth, whose blog I’ve also been reading for a long time, is very sick and in hospice care.  She’s such a talented writer, and a wonderfully loving person.  Here is a story she wrote.  If you read one thing today, this should be it.

5.  Although it’s true that I learned a lot of other things while I was away, tonight these seem like enough to illustrate my point.  The people I’ve met while blogging aren’t virtual people.  They’re real, as real as flesh and bone, and as important.

Genre Queen

It could, of course, be Genre King.

I am not an ambitious woman.  Well, not any longer.  It  is true that, at one time, I wanted to be either the pope or the president, career paths I am clearly unsuited for, one by reason of biology and the other by reason of being utterly unskilled at making any kind of enterprise involving more than one participant run well.  Very briefly, I also thought I might become a partner at the big law firm where I landed when I graduated from law school, but the work was so soul suckingly boring, and I was so spectacularly bad at it, that this ambition ended ten minutes after I hung up from my first phone call with a lawyer on the other side.  “You’re unethical,” he hissed.  “You lied to me.  Where are my documents?  You said I’d get them all.  I didn’t get them all.  You’re unethical.”  It went on and on and on.  At some point, I should have said, “You’re an asshole,” but I didn’t.  Instead, when the horror was over, I hung up the phone, put my head on my desk and moaned and vowed that I would never again harbor any ambitions of any  kind.  I would be an underachiever.  People would be pleasantly surprised when I managed to do anything of note.

But you see, it’s also true that for my entire life — ever since I knew this particular job existed — I’ve wanted to write stories.  And it turns out I do indeed have an ambition.    It came to me the other day when I was reading an article about a kerfluffle in the literary community involving a woman who writes literary fiction.  Her advice to young writers?  Aim high.  Do not write derivative crap.  For some reason, this made people who write genre fiction mad because they felt insulted and made people who write literary fiction mad in her defense.  And me?  I just thought, “Okay, then.  I  will write the BEST genre fiction there is.” I will never be a literary innovator because I am not interested in literary innovation — but I can certainly aim high enough to write really terrific genre fiction.  So, that got me to thinking about whether there was such a thing as excellent genre fiction, and that got me to thinking about the day when fiction was not divided into genre and literary.  Wilkie Collins, for example, just wrote fiction.  It was mystery-type fiction, but it was shelved in Victorian libraries (if they even shelved things in any kind of order), relatively close to Dickens, who wrote just fiction too, fiction which also often had secrets and mysteries at its heart.  Like, who’s my real mother?  Who’s my father?  And what happened to all my money?

Really, all I want is to write stuff that’s so entertaining and so beautifully written that people will close my book and think,  “Wow.  That was worth the money.  Plus, what a nice cover.”  I do not want them to close the book and feel sort of bad, the reading equivalent of eating a big mac, plus fries, plus some frozen dessert thing.  That is what it feels like to read crappy derivative fiction and we all know that that sort of stuff is filed both in the genre section and the straight on fiction section.

Genre Queen.  That’s what I want to be.  And how do you achieve THAT?  Well, first you write the things you love to read.  If you happen to love genre fiction, as I do, particularly spy books and mysteries, then you write that.  And you learn how those stories are structured by reading them carefully.  And then you write one of your own, but you tell your own story, the one about a place you lived when you were a child, or a man you loved once, or an event that has never left you.  And you ask questions you’re afraid to ask, and then you go ahead and try to answer them, all the while using the form you really like to read as a way to answer them.  That’s what I do anyway.

It turns out that the great thing about becoming Genre Queen is that you don’t have to marry Genre Prince and wait for his grandmother to die in order to achieve your goal of being Queen.  Also, you will never have to worry that people will find out what your wedding dress looks like before you show up in your Rolls Royce and step out to the oohs and ahs of the world.  (Gack.  Who ever would submit to that kind of thing?  Crazy.)  It turns out there can be a couple of Genre Queens and Kings.  PD James is one.  So is Dorothy Sayers.  Eric Ambler.  Sometimes John LeCarre.  Me, I’m a Genre Scullery Maid at this point.  I’m aiming for Genre Lady in Waiting next.  After that, who knows?  There’s a lot of room on that throne.

Mother Ghost

I’ve been doing a lot of writing, but very little writing here on the blog. I have been shy about discussing my writing career because I haven’t really known the rules about what you should say and shouldn’t say. Having never had any rules at all in writing this blog, it’s really shut me up to think there might be some rules I don’t know anything about.

This morning, I e-mailed my agent to ask him if there WERE any such rules. So, we’ll see what he says. I’d like to talk about The Secret War and the loooooong road to getting that book ready. And maybe I will. (I mean, how much of a surprise is it to know that it’s been a looooong road to finishing that book?)

For now though, I wanted to say that I’ve been reading a really fun book about creativity — it’s by Lynda Barry, the cartoonist, and it’s called What Is It. (Or is that what it is?) Because she is fun, she has invented a fun exercise for doing some image-based writing that I’ve really enjoyed. It goes like this: pick a word(don’t worry — she has plenty of words)/flesh out the word (asking the famous who/what/where/when/why questions you learned before you knew you didn’t want to be a journalist)/orient yourself in the word  by doing a very cool thing:  asking what was below you, above you, to the right, to the left, and behind you? Got all that down?   Well, then, write for seven minutes about the word.

I did this.  I did it mostly because I was so sick of typing and the instant I realized you could do this on notebook paper in a three ring binder, my heart was full of love for Lynda Barry.  Plus, you can use colored pencils if you want.

I figured out how to use our scanner (who knew we even HAD one? — but we did). And because it’s almost mother’s day, I’m going to start posting Mother pieces, because the word I used was “other peoples’ mothers”). Okay, it was a phrase.  Shoot me.  It’s about the mother of a boy I loved once. Don’t worry, though, this is not about to become a blog where I post my seven minute writing exercises. I wouldn’t like to read that (well, I would, actually, if the pieces were short and illustrated).

PS:  That first line begins “I was in her dining room.”  It might be mistaken for a sentence that suggests I was in some kind of herding room.  I was not.

Know, sweet love, I always write of you

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing a lot of new fiction and sending old and new fiction out to a lot of places.  I keep thinking about my  blog, and how much I love writing it and how lucky I am to know all the interesting and fun and smart and kind people who come over here and say stuff.  But I haven’t posted, even though I have a series of great interviews to put up (Ingrid, the girl in the cafe is next, and then Lisa Alber and then Debbie Freedman…), which I’ll do this week.  Mostly, that’s because every time I go to write something here, I think to myself that I always seem to write about the same things.  That’s true of my fiction too. 

And then I found this sonnet, one I’ve not read before, and it made me realize that it’s okay to write, over and over again, about the things that matter to us.  It was okay for Shakespeare to do.  And it is okay for me too:


Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

On Reading

Kissing Games of the WorldI’ve spent my life reading fiction and poetry — anywhere from an hour, two hours, three, even six hours a day.  I’ll bet a lot of us are like that:  we’re the back-of-the-cereal-box readers, when we were kids, we walked home from the library while reading a book, we were late into the night readers with a flashlight under the covers (or, like my friend, C, the kid who read in the closet with the door closed after lights out).  Some of us were driven to book stealing when we ran out (will my brother really notice I’ve taken his Captain Underpants book?)

And then we became adults and found even more things to read — Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, you know big fat wonderful books.  Not to mention short stories and poetry.

Anyway, that’s what I was like until about four years ago, when I went from reading War & Peace in a week to reading a dozen books a year.  It was writing that led to this stunning change in my relationship with words.  There’s only so much time in a day, and the little time I had to devote to reading became the time I devote now to writing.

But you know what?  Something great happened last week.  I finished my novel edits.  (And Barack Obama — oh how great is that?  I still feel incredibly moved every time I think about him.)  And I had time to read.  With impeccable timing, Sandi Shelton’s new book, Kissing Games of the World, came out on election day, and arrived in my office, with the help of Amazon, the very next day.

You know, if you know anything about her, (that’s a link to the interview she did for this blog), that it’s a great book, but it’s made even more wonderful by the fact that Sandi has been such a lovely, approachable, encouraging presence — on her blog, on mine, and in my life.  She writes me e-mails every once in a while; wonderful, inspiring, funny, interesting ones that give me heart and make me think I can actually accomplish things as a writer myself.

The great thing about Sandi’s book is that it’s both fun and beautifully written.  You never feel like you’re being cheated when you’re in her generous hands — the characters are interesting, full of life, troubled, funny.  And my goodness, that woman can pull you in.  The book’s about a single mom whose life is turned upside down when the older man she lives with, a man who’s raising his grandson, dies and his son returns home to kick her out of the house and take his son home with him.

Now, that’s not the kind of book my husband ever reads (if they were on a boat while this was happening, maybe this would be different), but he picked it up the other night and he loved it.  He laughed more than he ever has reading those books about grim sea voyages.  And he e-mailed Sandi without even telling me, to tell her he really liked her book.  He’s in good company.  The book is getting terrific reviews, and rightly so.

So.  Go out and buy it.  Give it to people for Christmas.  We need to support each other’s endeavors!  Even more, we need books like this, books that remind us of what it was like to walk home from the library, glancing occasionally at the ground to make sure you aren’t going to trip, but mostly feeling like you are the luckiest person in the world because you’ve found a great, interesting, fun book and it was taking you to a different place, a place you liked being in.  That’s how it felt to me, for the first time in a long time, and I’m so grateful to Sandi for her terrific timing and her wonderful book, which have reminded me again just how much pleasure there is in a story well told.

Me and Barack

Oh, it’s been an exciting month.  Mostly for Obama, but for me too.  I’m a few chapters shy of being done editing my novel for the FINAL time.  In fact, I’ve set myself a goal:  I’ll be finished by the time Obama is elected President.  If he loses — well, he isn’t going to lose, that’s all I can say about that.   The time to get stuff done is right now.  Not four years from now.  

Nothing like hitching your very small wagon to a juggernaut.  I regret that I am unable to come up with any better metaphor for my slightly ridiculous and possibly unlucky goal — it’s the best I can do while I’m whacking away at my keyboard, trying to make sure that I didn’t call people by one name in the beginning and a different name in the end.  I’ve wiped out one entire relationship and replaced it with a far, far better one, even if it doesn’t seem to be about to end happily.  People are having more sex than they did in any other draft of this novel.  It is suggestive, rather than anatomical sex, I’d like to assure you, in case you’re worried I’ve taken a month off to write porn.  The minor characters are now, officially, a lot more real, even if they don’t get to be real for a lot of pages.  The weather changes more, as do the points of view of some of the chapters.  People drink an awful lot of coffee and ice water and beer in this book.  They eat sausages and candied peanuts more than any other kind of food.  (Brown bread and leberwurst make an appearance.  So does a cake.)  An adolescent appears and re-appears.   Spelling?  Check.  Grammar?  Check.  German words?  Check.  Czech people?  (sorry, that’s not really funny — but there are a lot of Czech characters. ) 

So that’s it, then:  I’m typing, typing, typing.  I’m also eating Halloween candy and hoping I didn’t jinx the entire presidential election by confidently predicting that both Barack and I will be finished with the thing we’ve been working on for a long time by midnight tomorrow.  I think hope is a great thing — and I’m going with it today.  I know many people feel it is best to be restrained and concerned today, and some are even spinning out scenarios in which McCain will somehow snatch this victory from Obama.  That strikes me as terribly unlikely.  This feeling that good things won’t happen, that people won’t vote out of the best in them, but instead will go into the voting booth and suddenly become racist and fearful makes a lot of sense given the nightmare that has been American politics in the last eight years.  But bad things aren’t going to happen tomorrow.  It is Obama’s singular achievement to have made that unlikely to occur, and it is one reason he is going to be a great president.  So, while I am not celebrating something that hasn’t occurred yet, I think it’s equally important to go into the next day or so paying attention to something that’s so new and different it’s hard to believe it’s happening.  But it is.  Obama marks a paradigm shift in American politics, an enormously hopeful one.  And that is something to be proud of and confident about, for the first time in a long time. 

And how have all of you been? 

(Wednesday I have lots of exciting writing news about OTHER PEOPLE to report.  Interviews to post.  Books to write about.  It’s so lovely to almost, almost, almost be where I want to be.)

Apples to Apples

It was a surly weekend, dear readers. Maybe the surliness was about having so many revisions still to do. Or maybe we’ve been staying up too late. I don’t generally talk about my surly days, because I think they’re a little boring. But sometimes at the center of surliness lies truth, or something true anyway, or maybe something sort of amusing — who knows, maybe when I get through with this post the surliness will have evaporated.

Our little family is probably the worst family in the world at playing games together, a terribleness in inverse proportion to how badly the children in this family want to have family game nights. The troubles are many. First, I refuse to play Risk, a game that goes on forever, is not very interesting, and has a goal I think less than admirable (world domination). Second, THEY refuse to play Scrabble, a game that does not go on forever, because I always win, and has a goal everyone but me finds less than admirable, namely my domination of them, word-wise. Third, that leaves pretty much only games nobody likes to play, so we end up watching a movie together, which is fine, but not as fine as playing a game sometimes.

Anyway, a few weeks ago they were at their aunt’s house and played a game they loved, Apples to Apples. A lot of fun, mom, they promised. You’ll like it because it’s about words

For the few remaining people on the face of the earth who haven’t played this game, basically, you get seven cards with nouns on them: funeral, Mata Hari, firefighter, George Bush, haunted house, for example. And then a person designated as the “judge” (a rotating position), turns over another card, which is always an adjective. Funny, cool, outrageous, sadly misguided, stupid. You lay down the card that you think is the most like the card that’s been turned over.

Fair enough. So, you’d think that the person who wins would be the person who has the good luck to have the noun that best matches the adjective — I mean, really, we all know which card goes with “sadly misguided.”

Sometimes, the cards don’t match up perfectly, and there the judge has to make the best call he or she can make.

The trouble is that people don’t always WANT to pick the best card. Sometimes they pick the dumbest comparison. Or the exact opposite. Or the one they’re pretty sure their brother put down, because they want to do something nice for him since he’s just picked THEIR card, which wasn’t anywhere nearly as good as mine.

Okay, so I’m a grump for not being amused by what is, by all accounts, a fun party game. But, really, what good is a game when there’s a judge who gets to be subjective about something that’s not actually all that subjective? Maybe the trouble here is that I work for a bunch of judges and I’m just not able to let go of my strong feeling that judges are supposed to do one thing: get it right. Or  maybe the truth is that I just hated losing.  Especially when I had the George Bush card.