Monday, July 28, 2008

I Left My (Chocolate) Heart...

...in San Francisco. 25 years ago. (Because the last time I was there I was, um...younger. :-) But I'm going back. Oh, so soon. And I will reclaim it.

I suspect it's still roaming around Ghiradelli Square, awaiting my return. It's invariably accompanied by a large, chocolate-covered ice cream sundae. "You've missed me, Marilyn," it's murmuring, the voice of decadent temptation. "C'mon. Taste the luuuuvvv."

So, yes. Like the nearly 2,000 members of RWA who'll be in attendance, I'm looking forward to this year's National Conference. An exciting perk (aside from it taking place in my Chocolate Mecca) is that I'll get to present this year's Golden Heart Award for "Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements"--the category my manuscript According To Jane won last year--and I'll get to watch someone else stumble up to the microphone in a semi-mute state of shock, sputtering words she'll have no recollection of 10 minutes later. You just can't buy fun like that!

I'll get to see friends and acquaintances from prior conferences and online loops. I'll get to cheer on my roomie Simone Elkeles (who's up for a RITA in the YA category)--whoo-hoo! I'll get to catch up with my lovely agent and finally meet my wonderful editor. And, oh, there'll be cocktail parties and late-night chats and interesting workshops and loads of books/dessert receptions/enthusiastic writers/adventure. And, for me, there'll also be vitamin C tablets (to ward off the colds I always seem to catch post-conference), a fully charged iPod (for when I need a musical break) and stern self-warnings not to let my circuits get so overloaded that I reach for too many chocolate treats as energy pick-me-ups (because I do that...every year).

Gotta love the thrill of an event that has so many people excited about romance and reading. I look forward to being there. To seeing warm, familiar faces. To meeting new ones. To anticipating reuniting with friends who won't be at this conference but will be in D.C. next year (we'll miss you folks this week!). And to all the smooth milk/dark/white chocolate that awaits. Heart-shaped and otherwise.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Tour with Jess Riley

Please join me in welcoming Jess Riley today for a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Q&A on her debut novel DRIVING SIDEWAYS!!

Her book tells the story of Leigh Fielding, a twenty-eight year-old kidney transplant recipient who—six years, hundreds of dialysis sessions, and a million bad poems after being diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease—finally feels strong enough to pursue a few lofty goals she’s been mulling for years: find herself, her kidney donor’s family, and the mother that abandoned her over twenty years ago.

And what better way to do just that than a solitary road trip across the country? Well, maybe not entirely solitary, because Leigh suspects she may have inherited more than just an organ from her deceased donor. It’s this sneaking suspicion that takes her trip down some unexpected detours—and the juvenile delinquent who blackmails Leigh into giving her a ride is only the beginning.

Driving Sideways (Random House, May 2008) just went into its second printing and has been hailed as "hugely entertaining and genius" by Marian Keyes, and "a hopeful and hilarious debut" by New York Times bestselling author Jen Lancaster. When she’s not reading or writing fiction, Jess is reading or writing school grant proposals in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and their neurotic terrier. She's hard at work on her second novel.

It's a delight to have you here, Jess! Thanks for visiting today and answering some questions :).

Did you use any musical references in your novel? If so, do they play a significant role? YES! Wilco and Aimee Mann feature prominently in the book. Mostly because, well, what road trip is complete without a decent soundtrack? I also mention Radiohead and Coldplay, Jack Johnson…but there are so many more, because when you’re driving through six or more states, you can only listen to so much local radio and audio books. (I'm a total road trip music junkie...and a fan of Coldplay...so I'm sure I'll be singing along with Leigh in the car!)

Who was the first person you told when you got The Call announcing you'd sold your first novel? Well, it’s not a person, but I actually first told my dog. I’d just returned home from a meeting when I got The Call. It was winter, and I almost hit a flock of turkeys driving home through the snow. I got off the phone with my agent and smiled at my dog and said, “Well, we did it!” Then I called my husband, of course, and we celebrated by going out to dinner that evening.

Would your high school friends be surprised to discover you'd become a novelist? No way—I wrote like mad in high school. Mostly moody poetry or embarrassingly personal ‘humor’ pieces I hope never resurface. And I was always passing notes, making Top Ten Lists and drawing cartoons, trying to make people laugh. Some of my old friends have contacted me since the book’s been out, telling me they always knew I’d publish a book someday. I love them for that.

What's one piece of writing advice you've found valuable on your journey to publication? You always hear ‘never give up,’ and there’s definite truth to that. But the most eye-opening thing about all of this has been how different writing is from the publishing side of things. Luck and timing plus talent and perseverance…they all come into play. One of my smart author friends has said that “writing is a craft, publishing is a casino,” and there’s some definite truth to that. Also, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has been an invaluable guide through all of this. The whole book is one amazing piece of writing advice. (Oh, I LOVE Anne Lamott, too! Everything she writes in that book has the ring of honesty wrapped in humor.)

What's a personality trait you love about one of the characters in your novel and why? I love my protagonist’s best friend Jillian, and her new-agey optimism. I love people who are willing to suspend disbelief on a daily basis—who are open-minded, curious, and big-hearted, yet still willing to make raunchy jokes with you in the back of the classroom.

Congratulations on the success of your first novel, Jess! I'm sure we'll be hearing much more about DRIVING SIDEWAYS and about your upcoming books in the near future.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Night of the Tiara

Writers often complain that, aside from their fellow author pals, the "other people" in their lives (i.e. parents, husbands, siblings, childhood or neighborhood friends, that nice checkout lady at Piggly Wiggly, etc.) don't understand the joys and frustrations of the publishing world.

While this may be true in the sense that these others do not personally have in their basements stacks of agent/editor rejection letters higher than my mountain of unwashed laundry, nor do they routinely stay up until 2am trying to make completely fictional people say emotionally truthful things to each other on their computer screens...they can, if a writer is very lucky, really "get" you anyway.

They'll hug you when the "your story's just not right for us" pile grows ever higher. Support your dream by encouraging you to read inspiring books or see presentations by successful novelists. Be shockingly interested in hearing explanations of the hierarchy of a writing organization--with all its little pins, awards, traditions and ceremonies. And keep you grounded through the ups and downs by reminding you that you have a family and a community and a life outside of the sometimes claustrophobic publishing industry.

And, if a writer is luckiest of all, these wonderful others will celebrate your biggest writing milestones with you by bringing you a tiara (one with flashing yellow lights!) and taking you out for a tasty Mexican dinner. And then, when you think you can't eat so much as another tortilla chip, they'll reveal their Ace of Hearts: a much-anticipated visit to The Chocolate Lounge!!! With games. And truffles. And so much laughter you may well be in danger of frightening the 20-something girls behind the counter.

They'll present you with cherished cards and beautiful handmade jewelry that show their thoughtfulness and their own tremendous creativity. And they'll top off the night with a trip to a local wine and martini bar where the friendly servers have been known to offer celebratory "pineapple cake" shots on special occasion...

Thank you Joyce, Sarah and Karen for the most incredibly, memorably and unbelievably fun "debut book contract party" I could imagine. And, best of all, for being such dear and amazing friends.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Reluctant Artist Within

Today I was reminded of why I'm not a painter.

I've been working in bits and pieces on this "landscape" lately, for want of a better description. Because it's for someone I love, I'm trying to do a good job replicating the photograph that was given to me. Striving to get the proportions right. Making it visually interesting. Using vibrant colors while still keeping somewhat true to the original, etc., etc.

The project required a primary sketch on a large canvas, which I actually did months ago. It brought to mind many of my early plotting notes on a novel: very rough, broad strokes that suggested (rather than possessed) the detail and design intricacies necessary to make the finished product a solid creation. But, however pleased I may have been with this pencil draft "full of potential," I struggled repeatedly with the motivation to put real paint onto all that canvas whiteness.

Well, this past week I started in on the paint. I did the easy sky first. Skies are forgiving. They don't mind too much if your wispy cloud swirls aren't in the exact places they were in the photo. I painted a fair approximation, stood back and took a look. Not Michelangelo, but not kindergartenesque either.

Then I moved onto the background, which required lots of browns and tans and peaches. After a couple of hours dabbling in shades of beige, I found myself adopting a "That's good enough, eh?" attitude, which I've been saying to myself this entire summer--but always in regards to my writing of the first draft of Novel #8. With the novel, I know I'll have to go back and deal with the fragmented backstories and the secondary plot issues that, currently, are messy, indistinct and often read like boring scene summaries. The new book is in want of layering and a type of precision that only happens for me when I'm seriously editing and revising.

With the painting, though, I kinda feel like I might just get away with it if I left it as it is... It's just the background, after all...

Well, the time has now come for the foreground to be painted. For the main event. For the transferring of the original photograph's central figure to the canvas. And the time has likewise come for perfectionism to finally step in and claim this project.

But, so far, it just hasn't.

I spent most of the weekend tempted to throw paint at the thing and hope it'd magically arrange itself on the canvas to make the central object look shaded, blended and richly colored without my having to do any of the painstaking detail work that I know is needed.

Can't tell you how often I've wished the same for my manuscripts ("Just type a bunch of words and hope the scenes sounds well crafted, eh?"), but I'm a draft writer. I know it takes 17+ passes before the collection of pages I wrote start to seem like "a book." I've accepted this and have even come to appreciate that stage in the writing process when I can correct my earlier plot missteps and re-draw my characters with better chosen phrases.

I don't know how many passes it'll take for this collection of acrylics to look like "a painting"... But I'm fairly certain it'll need more than I have the patience to deliver.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tears and Bikinis

So, I'm in one of the fitting rooms of a major department store this morning trying on formalish dresses for the RWA National Conference. I need a couple of them and, considering the issues I had with the design, the cut and/or the fabric of most everything I encountered on the racks today, it'll be a miracle if I find one gown, let alone two, that I like before the month's out.

However, while I was admittedly annoyed, and while I could've happily envisioned myself doing almost any mundane task at home instead of dress shopping for 2 hours, I was not reduced to tears by the experience.

Not so for the woman with the white slip-on shoes in the fitting room next to mine.

This lady was miserable. Granted, she was trying on bikinis, which would make most sane women at least marginally depressed. I get that. But I heard sniffles first, then those quiet sobs that you recognize as much by their strained, intermittent silences as by the sound itself. This was interrupted by a young child's voice--a girl who, when I saw her a few minutes later, couldn't have been older than 7.

"Mom," she pleaded. "It's okay. We're all beautiful. You know how you told Leah she had to love her body? You have to do that, too."

The mom didn't answer.

I was torn between wanting to hug the child for being both incredibly perceptive and so loving as to say these words to a person who clearly needed to hear them...and wanting to wring the neck of her juvenile mother for not having enough sense to keep her body-image insecurities to herself for 5 minutes while she tried on a stupid swimsuit. (Why did she have to drag the girl into the fitting room with her? Was she angling for an audience?)

As if children today don't have to deal with enough stress...

Their cell phone rang a moment later and the woman did speak up then. "It's daddy," she told the girl. "You talk to him." The man was, apparently wandering around the store in search of them.

Anyway, I left my little cubby, deposited the stack of dresses I wasn't buying on the appropriate rack and lingered outside of the fitting rooms--feigning interest in beige capris and brightly colored Sonoma t-shirts--until a lady with white slip-on shoes and a young girl appeared. The two were greeted at the door by a pleasant guy in his 30s. "How'd it go?" he asked, smiling.

Oooh. Wrong question.

The woman huffed and muttered something I couldn't hear. She was taller than I (well, who isn't?), but an average-to-slim woman otherwise. I'd guess she wore about a size 10, a 12 at most. But she had this angry, perpetually pissed-off expression on her face as she marched out of the dressing area and tossed the offending bikini on the nearest rack, her husband shrugging and trying to talk to her, her petite daughter trailing after them both.

I wanted slap that woman. I still do.

Even though I don't have a daughter, I hate witnessing body-image messages like this being force-fed to little girls (I shudder to think of what that woman says and does when she's not in public), and I hate even more the position she put her daughter in today (and how many other days, I wonder?): to have to act as the compassionate parent to such a childish and needy mom.

The thing is, I loathe clothes shopping. I despise trying on swimsuits. I do not have a model-like figure and would rather be forced into a straitjacket than a strapless Vera Wang so, truly, I sympathize with fitting-room frustrations. But, as women, we have to constantly combat the unhealthy messages we receive from magazines, TV, the entire film industry and ad campaigns everywhere... Elementary-school girls don't need noisy, adolescent, drama-queen displays in real life, acted out by women who should know better.

And, let me tell you, neither do I.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Amy Wallen's Moonpies and Movie Stars

I'm excited to have Amy Wallen visiting today as she goes on tour with the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit this week!

A little background on Amy: Aside from studying fiction under writers like Janet Fitch (WHITE OLEANDER), Amy also gives creative writing workshops in California and hosts an open mic night in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York called Dime Stories Live, which is in collaboration with the national public radio show aring this summer. My Texan friends and family will especially love her funny debut, MOONPIES AND MOVIE STARS (Plume, 6/24/08), a novel that chronicles the journey of a group of spunky Texas ladies from their small town to the glittery streets of Hollywood. Beyond the many laughs, it's also a poignant story of dreaming big, finding home, and coming to terms with family.

Welcome to Brant Flakes, Amy!

Can you tell us the basic premise of your book? Ruby Kincaid is the owner of a six-lane bowling alley in Devine, TX. When she spots her runaway daughter on a ButterMaid commercial she sets off for Hollywood to find her and make her own up to her responsibilities.

What's one scene from this story you loved writing and why did it excite you? "The Price Is Right" scene. I had a blast researching it, writing it and it was the only scene in the book that I didn’t rewrite 12 times. I learned some things about dreams coming true by watching the show for 3 straight weeks.

Name 3-4 of your favorite musical artists/groups. Did you use any musical references in your novel? If so, do they play a significant role? My favorite music tends to be weird, eclectic African beat kind of music. Usually acoustic and instrumental. Or, I like the really popular stuff on the radio. Pop mostly. I used country and western like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline and Hank Williams in my novel, but the characters are Texans, so it was appropriate. I grew up listening to their music as my parents are Texan, and my grandmother owned a honky tonk (beer joint) where live music was played every weekend.

Do you have a favorite food? Chicken pot pie. Or just pot pie. I’m a fiend about them. But now I make my own and will have none of the frozen ones. My favorite one to make and serve at dinner parties is Salmon and Portobello pot pies. Yum.

Who was the first person you told when you got The Call announcing you'd sold your first novel? My boyfriend, Eber, and then I wrote a group email to my family.

What's your Writer Fantasy--i.e., to see your book make into a feature film, to be on the New York Times bestseller list for 40 consecutive weeks, etc.? My fantasy is to see my book as a Broadway musical. Like Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I would love to see that. I don’t know if it’s the right kind of story to be on stage, but it’s my fantasy and has been since the first draft.

Would your high school friends be surprised to discover you'd become a novelist? I think they know. I don’t think all of them, but I know my best friends from high school who I’m still in touch with know.

What's one piece of writing advice you've found valuable on your journey to publication? Just write.

What's a personality trait you love about one of the characters in your novel and why? That they are happy with who they are, and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks of them.

Amy, thanks so much for being here and for sharing your book with us! Looking forward to reading it :-).