Sunday, December 28, 2008

I'm in Charge of Celebrations

In a recent email conversation with a friend, I was reminded of a kids' book: I'm in Charge of Celebrations written by Byrd Baylor, illustrated by Peter Parnall. I remember reading it to my 3rd graders when I was a teacher, and I got a copy for my son when I thought he was old enough to appreciate it. Thing is, much as kids seem to like this book, I think it resonates with me more.

The girl who narrates the story explains that people often ask her if she's lonely growing up in the desert of the American Southwest. She suspects they're talking about a sense of isolation in living with fewer humans and more cactus plants, rocks and coyotes, but she's surprised, nonetheless, by how unimaginative these question-askers are. How they don't realize she's the one in charge of creating her own celebrations, and that the holidays she's made are more memorable for being personally chosen and entwined with nature. (I'm extrapolating a bit here.)

Anyway, the last celebration she mentions is the one she created for the New Year--which, in her case, comes in the spring, not on January 1st. How it's not a day printed in ink on the calendar but one she waits for until "wildflowers cover the hills" and her "favorite cactus blooms." How she plans her celebration for a Saturday in April when the air feels just perfect, and how she then wanders along her most beloved trails and admires everything she encounters.

Despite decades of devotion to the act of making New Year's Resolutions (always the same ones, as I mentioned last year), my New Year's Day is really not in January. I celebrate the New Year on July 1st, and I have since I was sixteen. Maybe it's a function of living in the Midwest and having a perpetual case of brain/body freeze during winter, but I need to be in the sun, fully thawed and at least marginally active to be capable of celebrating the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Of course, years of teaching added onto 2+ decades of traditional education have me entrenched in a school-calendar mindset where June finishes out a year and September means full emersion in a new one...so that plays a part too, I suppose.

In any case, though I fervently wish you all a Happy and Healthy 2009, I am not yet ready to take the plunge into a "new year" myself. At least not in any sense beyond the most literal one--the changing of the date numbers on my notes and checks. I'm still dealing with the half-finished plans of the year that began for me in the Summer of '08 and am nowhere close to completing those projects. Plus, after all the pressure of the holidays, I'd be afraid to add to the pre-2009 stress by trying to honestly take on anything more.

But what does this coming Wednesday night/Thursday morning mean to you? Is it your New Year? Do you make resolutions? Typically follow through with them? However much--or little--you celebrate, may it be wonderful for you :).

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Naughty, The Nice & The Clueless

I stupidly went to the mall this morning. In the face of such horrors, and in an attempt to stay connected to my happy, joyful, non-Scrooge side this holiday season while maintaining some small measure of perspective, I've taken to distinguishing between the different social behaviors I've been forced to notice over the course of the month, slotting them into one of three categories and sending the various recipients my holiday wishes accordingly.

The Naughty
A small but repugnant group that includes:
*Drivers who purposely cut you off on icy roads or who stop indefinitely in the middle of a narrow parking-lot lane, trapping you there.
*People who push and shove on escalators so as to beat everyone to the sales items.
*Those rotten individuals who steal store merchandise, wallets and purses, gifts intended for others or someone else's identity.
May Santa bring lumps of coal to each of them...and pelt them with it.

The Nice
A far larger group that includes:
*Thoughtful souls who bake gingerbread or sugar cookies from scratch and insist on sharing them.
*Those incredibly dedicated people who serve others by volunteering in soup kitchens, donating time and resources to charities they believe in and smiling sincerely at all who pass by.
*Anyone who shovels or plows anyone else's 10-inch-deep, snow-covered driveway without any expectation of payment or even a word of thanks.
May they receive gifts back in kind--tenfold.

The Clueless
This may be the biggest group of all. They include but are not limited to:
*The accidental line cutters.
*Visitors who stop by "for just one minute" but manage to track in an hour's worth of slush, salt and mud.
*Guests or relatives who, in forwarding an agenda or a timetable of their own, unwittingly create innumerable inconveniences for others.
May they one day see their actions through a more perceptive lens, cease their not-mean-spirited-but-still-really-annoying behaviors and choose to either embrace a heightened sense of awareness during the holidays or hide away until after the New Year.

But back to The Nice category...while I rarely have a chance to see any of you in person and, thus, you are relieved of having to witness my usual December Grinchiness firsthand, I think of you all just the same. With my deepest gratitude for a year of sharing blog posts and my heartfelt joy at having gotten to know you all just a little better through our exchanges, I send one final wish: May your holidays and the coming year be filled with good health, happiness, delicious (and miraculously calorie-free) treats and the fulfillment of your dreams.

Merry Christmas, friends.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lazy Sperm and an Exciting New Novel

The Girlfriends Cyber Circuit is going on its last, high-speed tour for 2008! There are only a couple of GCC book releases slated for the next few months, so it's an extra treat to get to end the year with a visit from Melissa Clark.

Melissa is the creator and executive producer of the award-winning television series, "Braceface," and she's written for shows on the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Fox. She received a master's degree from the writing program at U.C. Davis, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Her debut novel is called Swimming Upstream, Slowly (Broadway Books/Random House) and it has--to use an Audrey Hepburn term--a "most unusual" premise.

Welcome, Melissa!

Tell us about your book and the inspiration behind it.
"Swimming Upstream, Slowly" is a novel about Sasha Salter, who wakes up one day to find she is pregnant. Only problem is she hasn't had sex in over 2 years. The doctor's diagnosis is that Sasha's body has been harboring a 'lazy sperm'. Sasha must now open up the Pandora's box of her past loves to figure out which of her exes is the father - and what the future holds in store. The idea was born because I was having lunch with a friend and overate. I lifted my shirt to expose my bloated belly and the friend said, half joking, "Are you sure you're not pregnant?" and I said, "Yeah, right, from a lazy sperm." I went home that night and started outlining the idea for a movie. I decided, eventually, to write it as a novel instead. (What a fantastic story concept! And I bet it'd be great as a movie, too.)

Could you please tell us a little about your writing background?
My dad is a writer, so I was always playing on his typewriter and writing on legal steno pads. I wrote short stories from the time that I could write. I studied writing and literature in both college and graduate school. In my 20's to mid-30's I worked as a writer in television. I created a kid's show called "Braceface" which ran for 5 seasons. I loved that experience, but really wanted to write a novel, so I quit my own show and set out to write "Swimming Upstream, Slowly." It was the best risk I've ever taken!

What comes most naturally for you to write, dialogue? plot? character? And what's hardest?
I love writing dialogue. I've written a few plays in the past and found it incredibly satisfying. I learn so much about my characters through what they say. I often have the feeling that they speak through me and I'm just listening and transcribing their words. I know a lot of writers feel this way. It's hard for me to slow down and be descriptive - really describe a setting or something. I am very aware of this and tried to do it more consciously in the new book. (I SO can relate to this. I think I'm missing that descriptive-writer gene. :)

What do you love most about this book?
I appreciate this question because I feel a little weird loving it so much. I feel genuinely tender toward my characters and feel very disconnected to the fact that I created them. I appreciate their personalities and foibles. Every time I reread the book, I enjoy going on the journey with them all over again. When I was writing the book I had that swoony feeling of romantic love. I couldn't stop thinking about it, I bumped into things all the time, etc. I've never told anyone this before!

What's the most surprising thing that has happened to you on your publishing journey? Have you learnt things about the industry you never knew before?
I was invited to speak at the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival. There is a famous food writer named Melissa Clark who writes for the NY Times and I was sure they meant to invite her. I wined and dined with the likes of Frank McCourt and Elizabeth Edwards. I gave a talk during which I explained that I thought they invited the wrong Melissa Clark. The audience thought it was hysterical. They were cracking up, but I was really venting my insecurity. The head of the program came up to me after the reading and said it was great, but never assured me... a few months later a friend, after hearing that story, told me she knew the other Melissa Clark - they had been in a wedding together - and gave me her email. I wrote about that experience and she replied, "That's okay, everyone thinks I wrote the lazy sperm book." (Ha! I love that!!)

Thanks so much for being here, Melissa, and congrats on the release of your first book!

And, to anyone in the Austen World...or to anyone outside of it who needs a reason to celebrate...today is Jane's 233rd birthday. Let's raise a glass of something toasty warm and/or heavily spiked in her honor :).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Great Links

On the subject of visual modalities, take a look at these "Foodscapes"--food art by photographer Carl Warner (and HUGE thanks to Brett for hunting down this artist and letting me know about him!!). The first image is called "Salmon Sea" and the second is "Tuscan Kitchen." Even more can be found on his website. Remarkable.

And, in the Wonderful World of Austen, hugs of gratitude to both Eliza and the Smart Bitches for providing me with this fantabulous gem: Austenbook, a.k.a. the story of Pride and Prejudice as told through Facebook updates.

I'm loving the Internet today.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Synesthesia, Metaphors and Digital Cameras

The auction to raise money for Jo Leigh is still going on. (FYI for anyone interested: The historical partial manuscript critique by GH finalists is up only until Monday, and the contemporary critique is up until Wednesday...) Because I've been thinking about her, I've been popping over to her website and reading several of her blog posts this past week. The topic of one of them, from September 19, 2008, continues to fascinate me.

Jo was talking about her research on the brain, particularly in relation to creativity and, more specifically, to the use of metaphor. In her post she writes:

"People think in all different ways, and it turns out that a great many artists are synesthetes, where the brain blends two or more senses. For example, someone hears the word cat and simultaneously sees the color blue.

There are various grades of synesthesia, some profound and some subtle. Some people are simply visual thinkers, or perhaps that should be visual rememberers. When they see a cat, they don’t see blue, but their memories pluck out things that somehow, someway resonate with cat and bring them to the fore. As in: cat-soft quilt from childhood-scratch of sandpaper on fingertip-squish of Jello-distant thunder-etc. All in a split second of course, but the remembrance of somewhat similar, vaguely suggestive memories are available for use. Sometimes they’re just thoughts, but sometimes they become a book by Barbara Samual or an image that lingers from Stephen King.

Some people simply think metaphorically, and when you read their words, they are filled with color and light and images that surprise and delight, that give the reader the gift of their special sight.

And some people do not think metaphorically. Like me. Instead of images and sensations, what happens to me is that odd bits of other conversations come to me. Real or imagined, I don’t know, but my associations are predominantly heard, not seen."

I not only loved her insight here, but I appreciated it for personal reasons. It added a critical piece to an unsolved puzzle of mine. (Or, to expand the visual reference, it was like one of those X-shaped puzzle pieces that you just don't believe is really going to match the others around it, but when you slip it in, it DOES and it illuminates the whole section.) Jo goes on to talk about how she's a dialogue writer. How she's had to struggle with the use of metaphor in her own writing. That her strength turned out to be auditory in nature as opposed to "word-pictures," but that doesn't mean her process isn't a good one, too.

I nodded as I read this. Part of my unsolved mystery has to do with modalities--and the fact that I've never been able to pinpoint my primary one. I seem to slide around, depending on the art form, from visual to auditory to kinesthetic--and it disturbs me that I'm so inconsistent. More than that, it makes me wonder why I can't seem to tap into my more visual side when I write--at least not in that first draft, where the only visual things my characters do are smile too much and shrug too often. I'm very dialogue heavy in fiction, and I find myself forgetting to describe...stuff.

I kept thinking about Jo's interesting post tonight as I was buying my first digital camera. Finally. And laughing at myself and my mysterious, long-standing resistance to getting one. It was behavior so completely polar to the reaction I had when getting my beloved iPod, it almost made me think, "Ah-ha! I'm one of those auditory learners after all! Mystery solved. Case closed."

But then I found out that little camera could take movies (I know, I know, everyone else already knew this) and the world was suddenly orange and gold--a Florentine cupola blinding passersby with its relentless glinting--and I wanted to be visual again. To try to capture it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dating Da Vinci (and a Visit with Malena Lott)

I'm pleased to welcome Malena Lott to Brant Flakes today! Her book DATING DA VINCI (Sourcebooks Casablanca) is her latest women's fiction release, which Publishers Weekly said was "Written smartly...satisfying and uplifting." (Nice!) Aside from writing novels, Malena is a brand and marketing consultant who lives with her family in Oklahoma. She also facilitates personal and professional development workshops for women.

Welcome, Malena! Can you tell us about your book? Dating Da Vinci is a Texas-based Under the Tuscan Sun meets How Stella Got Her Groove Back. A young widow, 36-year-old Ramona Griffen, searches for joy with the help of a handsome younger Italian immigrant named Leonardo da Vinci. Her humorous and heartwarming journey takes her on some unexpected adventures of body, mind and spirit as she learns to let go of her grief to make room for a wholly new life.

What pulled you into this story, and as a writer made you think "I have to write this"? What do you consider the heart of your story? Women, especially mothers, tend to put themselves last on the list. I wanted to share the story of someone who has lost the love of her life and has focused on just “getting by” each day, but is ready to find a way to be joyful again, even through the pain. The heart of the story really is, is there love after death, and the courage it takes to not only survive but to build a great life again.

Any tried and true tricks for beating procrastination? I have to say, I'm pretty lucky. Hugh (Jackman) typically promises a shirtless steak dinner (him, not me) if I meet my word count goal. If that's not enough motivation, Brad's aromatherapy massages usually get me in the mood, though sad to say, it's not for writing. Heck, usually my imagination can trick me into getting back on the laptop to write away into the sunrise. Like, "finish this and you'll be as famous as Sophie Kinsella and you'll never have to buy groceries again and you can spend all your time lounging on the beaches drinking frozen Flirtinis!" I'm so easy.

What is your author fantasy? Writers already have active imaginations, so this one is a no brainer. Vision board, here I come! Hit the top 10 of the New York Times bestseller list, have a long line waiting for me when I arrive for book signings, have my books optioned for films that actually get made and made well, and a few national TV appearances to boot. TODAY show, The View, Oprah, you know. Just the small stuff, you know? Not that I’ve given any of this much thought. Not a bit.

Do you pay attention to book reviews? If so, has there been any particular review that made your heart do a little dance? I use Google Alerts so I’m kind of like Santa. I know when people have said naughty or nice things about my book! Fortunately, reviewers have enjoyed Dating da Vinci, so that’s a thrill when you click that link and get to read what people are saying about your “baby.” I’ve selected some of my favorite quotes on www.malenalott.com.

Oooh, not only does she have favorite quotes, she also has contests, book excerpts AND cooking recipes/videos on her website! She has one for "Monster Cookies"--Yum!! Thanks to Malena and you all for stopping by :-).

Monday, December 1, 2008

ABC's of December: Auctions, Blog-Love and Chilliness

The lovely and kind Robin Bielman honored me last week by including my blog in a list of seven of her favorites. Having met her only once in person (and very briefly at that) did not stop me from wanting to span the 2,000 miles between us to give her a huge hug of thanks. You're a sweetie, Robin!

On the other hand, the downside of this honor is that I'm allowed to pass along the blogging love to ONLY seven others...not an easy task, as I've frittered away numerous days in compulsive clicking from blog post to blog post, learning and laughing as I go. Limitations such as these find me fleeing to the tightly packed containers of leftover Thanksgiving treats for greater mental acuity and energy. I do believe heated apple pie (with ice cream) can put almost any crisis into perspective.

So, with that inspiration, I've chosen people whose posts are--like that pie--longtime favorites of mine. Many of these are the first blogs I read as I entered the Blogosphere, written by people who kept me posting because they cared enough to cheer me on in those early days (as well as now :). Thanks to you all! And thanks, again, to Robin for choosing Caryn and Pam on her list, because otherwise I'd have had to disregard the rules, add the three of you, and end up with 10 nominees on mine!! Not that I'd consider that a bad thing, either...

Eliza of not quite lost, not quite found
L.A. Mitchell of Writing in a Vortex
Maureen McGowan
Pamala of Time Flies
Brett of Cultural Observations
Nadine Dajani
Sandra of Lone Star Meanderings

In other news, author Jo Leigh lost her husband to cancer this past summer. In an effort to help her deal with the resulting medical bills, an array of writers have come together to host an auction for her. Among these, several of my fellow '007 Golden Heart Finalists are offering a 55-pg. partial/synopsis critique, to be read by a bunch of us simultaneously. Actually, we're auctioning off two multiple critiques--one for a historical manuscript and one for a contemporary. Five of us, myself included, are critiquing the historical for the winner of our bid, while another six finalists are critiquing the contemporary. But we're not the only ones with something good for sale! If you're interested, or know someone else who might be, check out the link below:

And, finally, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here. We got several inches of snow last night, so my little suburban world is blanketed in pretty whiteness. But, it's also freezing, so I'll be staying in and enjoying it from the warmth of my living room.

Happy December, my friends!