Category Archives: reading

Once Upon a Time

(My dinner speech at the [virtual] Las Vegas Writers Conference… in case you missed it.)

Not long ago, children frolicked in playgrounds, families spent fortunes at Disneyland, people traveled to faraway places. Then we were told to “stay home, self-quarantine, shelter-in-place.” Bars and restaurants shuttered. Movie theaters locked doors and sporting events were cancelled. Libraries closed up shop. Businesses considered non-essential were told to take a time out. Even my housekeepers said they were working from home.

Golf courses, however, are still open. Go figure.

It was beginning to feel like a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Then I thought, hold on a minute. This is a writer’s dream come true. No distractions. No hanging out in a bookstore or the mall or going to the movies or the bowling alley (which, full disclosure, I haven’t been to since I moved to Oregon ten years ago). I can’t lounge in a coffee shop for hours chatting with other bibliophiles. I can’t even go to the gym. Nothing to keep me from writing my great American novel. Besides, if Mary Shelley could create Frankenstein in one weekend trapped indoors by stormy weather (at age eighteen, no less!), then I can certainly get a good start, if not finish, my own monster of a tale in the many weeks it appears I’ll be home.

 My age, you ask? Don’t go there.

Back up. I can’t go to the gym? I can finish off that container of double double chocolate fudge gelato in the freezer without feeling guilty about not going to the gym because I can’t go to the gym? That’s cool. I don’t have to worry that my dentist will give me a lecture about what the sugar is doing to my teeth because I can’tgo to the dentist? Double cool.

I now have all the time in the world to write. What could be better than that? I don’t even have to quit early on Sunday to go to my mother-in-law’s marathon family dinner. (Is today Sunday? I have no idea.) I can finish reading my library books and not worry about getting in trouble for returning them after they are due. I don’t have to organize all those receipts and documents to file my taxes for THREE. MORE. MONTHS. What a time-sucker that is.

This isolation is sounding better all the time.

So, since I have all the time in the world to write, maybe before I get started I’ll catch up on Stephen King’s twitter feed. Haven’t heard from him in a while. Then I’ll scroll through Facebook and read all the “we can do it,” “we’re in this together,” and “take care of yourself,” posts from friends. Except for that guy from high school who doesn’t know how to use there, they’re, and their.

I need to unfriend him.

But what about this “take care of yourself” message? I can’t even go to my hairdresser! Luckily, my Facebook feed has an ad for Madison Reed, a total hair color kit delivered right to my door. And it comes with a video tutorial! Awesome. I know I’ll feel so much better getting rid of the gray that I’ll have even more energy to write.

Maybe I’ll order two kits.

Then I wonder how others are taking care of themselves. Before I get caught up in character development or story arc, I’ll check Kim Kardashian on Instagram to see how she’s doing cooped up in her big mansion (isn’t cooped up and mansion an oxymoron?) Anyway, if she can survive being cooped up with four kids and Kanye, well, then I can handle my husband and my cat, Webster, (yes, he’s named after the dictionary) who just curled up on top of my laptop to take a nap.

I suppose this is a good time to make myself useful. Maybe catch up on ironing, which I haven’t done in two weeks, but then I realize, there is no ironing because I’ve been in my pajamas for two weeks. Or is it three?

This is the perfect time to watch the new season of Money Heist, which dropped on Netflix this week. Maybe I’ll sign up for Hulu’s 30-day free trial and binge watch the first two seasons (sixteen episodes) of Killing Evebefore the new season is released. I have so much time, in fact, I can sign up for Amazon Prime’s 30-day free trial and watch all three seasons (26 episodes) of The Marvelous Mrs. Maizel, which I hear is marvelous. I might have to create a spreadsheet to keep all this straight.

Or maybe I should just make a big bowl of popcorn (my go-to meal when it’s my turn to cook) and zone out on the Hallmark channel’s three-day “Miracles of Christmas Movie Marathon,” which aired last recently and my husband cheerfully recorded. Who doesn’t love a little Christmas in quarantine?

But no, I can’t do that. I can’t sit for all those hours doing nothing. Sure, I sit for hours in front of my computer trying to write, but that’s not nothing. That’s writing.

Maybe I need a project. Yes, I’ll go on Pinterest to see what I can do with all these wine corks, because, well … I seem to be collecting a lot of wine corks. And speaking of wine, now that I’m home all day, I’ll be here to sign for my next delivery when UPS shows up. Salud!

And while I’m waiting for UPS, I could start writing, but I really want uninterrupted time, so instead, I think I’ll go on Amazon and order … oh, toilet paper temporarily unavailable. Well, I can at least order a book or two, because— though my husband disagrees—I can never have enough books.

By the way, my husband wants to move to Portland. Not that the city isn’t quarantined like Bend, where I live—because it is—but because topless dancers are delivering take-out orders. I am not making this up … well, not about the topless dancers delivering takeout. That’s true. Seriously; google it.

So, back to writing, or rather, waiting for Webster to wake up from his catnap to start writing. Which gets me thinking: when we say a ‘catnap,’ we’re talking about maybe 20 minutes, waking up refreshed and ready for anything. I have never known a cat to ‘nap’ for only 20 minutes. Webster could be zonked out all day.

Anyway, listening to continuous news coverage, we’ll all be homebound for a while, which means I still have plenty of time to write. In the meantime, I can do a few things around the house that never seem to get done, like cleaning out that mystery drawer in the kitchen. How many pizza cutters do I really need? Who has 4 carrot peelers? I don’t even like carrots. There are extra sets of keys to cars I don’t own anymore and to houses I don’t live in anymore. There are plugs to electronic devices that don’t exist anymore. I find a corroded 9-volt battery for the smoke detector in case it beeps in the middle of the night (which, of course, it always does). There’s a mix-tape. Who even has a cassette player?

And then there’s all that loose change. I look at the basket filled with pennies and think it has to cost more to make a penny than a penny is worth. As soon as I can go out in public again, I’m lugging these pounds of pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters to one of those coin-counting machines and buying myself something with the payout. Based on the weight, it’ll be a new car.

I make a feeble attempt at moving Webster off my laptop so I can finally begin writing, keeping in mind that he is a descendant of the tiger and I don’t want to lose an eye, or a finger, so that I can’t write. He does not cooperate. Not to worry. I still have plenty of time to work on that great American novel.

And since the health professionals keep emphasizing how important it is to exercise, I’ve taken up curling … with my Roomba and a mop. Unfortunately, my husband thinks he needs to be my coach. Then I remember that golf courses are still open, so perhaps I should take up the game (again), but since my husband really was a golf coach, that’s not such a good idea. Maybe I’ll encourage him to move to Portland after all.

I’m running out of tasks. The lint screen in the dryer is cleaner than when I bought it. I arranged the spices in the cupboard alphabetically (which makes me so happy), then checked all the expiration dates and realize I should have done this before alphabetizing because now all I have left is basil and cumin. (Is it cue-min or coomin?)

It suddenly occurs to me that Webster (the dictionary, not the cat) on the bookshelf in my office is probably expired, too, so this is a good opportunity to clean up and organize the room. I don’t need to keep tax records from 1999. I can get rid of the warranty for a flip phone. I can pack up all those magazines I’ve been saving with good ideas for home improvement, Christmas cookie recipes, best yoga poses (what was I thinking?), and cool room makeovers. Hmm. Maybe I should rearrange the furniture, move the desk to the other side of the room.

Oh, wait … I see an article about procrastinating. I really should read this.

And then I need a nap. I’m exhausted from all this not writing.

Eventually, all the bars and restaurants and movie theaters and hair salons and gyms will open again and I’ll leap out of my unmansion like a tiger out of a cage. I look forward to watching endless trailers in a movie theatre, to hanging out in bars (which I never did before), and to wallowing in book stores. Maybe I’ll even join a bowling league. I’ll wander down every aisle in Home Depot, whether I need anything or not, I’ll stare at the shelves packed with goods at Trader Joe’s, and yes, I’ll visit my favorite shoe store and try on every shoe in my size just to give my feet a treat from weeks in slippers. I might even stop at the gas station, even though I haven’t been anywhere and don’t need gas, just to reminisce about how it felt when I had to fill an empty tank.

And after running around all day and I finally sit down at the computer to write my great American novel, I’ll think, gee, where did the time go?

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MindHunter is MindBlowing

I can’t recall ever wanting to comment on a tv, movie, or video series, but after watching 9 of 10 episodes of the first season of Netflix’ MINDHUNTER, I feel compelled to spew forth kudos and congratulations in an effort (however small and insignificant) to assure there is a season two, three, four … well, you get the idea.mindhunter

The fact that I’ve watched “only” 9 of the 10 episodes of season one is not an indication of my disinterest. Quite the contrary. I’ve purposefully and painfully contained myself to watching only one episode a day in order to delay the season’s demise and extend my gratification. Not sure whether to call it discipline or masochism, but regardless, MINDHUNTER is magnificent.

mindhunter bookThe basis for the series, from the book of the same name by John Douglas, is fascinating (rather than regurgitate a summary, google it), the cast is superb and surprisingly, not necessarily household names (again, google…), but most important to me – and the reason for my devotion – is the writing. The script is absolutely perfect. Like the recipe for a cake or the architectural plans for a house where each measurement is calculated for a specific outcome, the dialogue is so exact that each and every word sounds and feels like the only possible word that could be spoken. I found myself not only wanting to listen, but to write down everything I heard.

Granted, I’m already a true crime addict, so the theme of dissecting the minds of serial killers is my version of candy. For those who get squeamish on the subject of deviant and depraved behavior, this series could cause extreme emotional disturbance. Regardless, if you’re willing to take a walk down the dark alley to experience and appreciate the skill of MINDHUNTER’s storytelling, I believe your own writing will be the better for it.

You might not sleep well (if at all), but just think… you can use all those wide-awake hours to scribble something spectacular. #mindhunter #mindblowing

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Thanks for the Memories

As I prepare to participate in a panel discussion on writing non-fiction and memoirs for the Central Oregon Writers Guild (and shamelessly promote the event!) I thought I’d share these points:

Your best chance of writing a salable memoir is to read as many successful memoirs as you can. Here are a few examples (in alpha order by author, not necessarily by rank):

  • Augusten Burroughs ~ Running with Scissorsscissors
  • Elizabeth Gilbert ~ Eat, Pray, Love
  • Howard Shulman ~ Running from the Mirror
  • JD Vance ~ Hillbilly Elegy
  • Jeannette Walls ~ The Glass Castle

Each memoir is unique, but if your story can illustrate a theme that resonates so that others can identify with your experiences, you will have a more memorable (haha) book.

  • Surviving horrific challenges (Running from the Mirror)mirror
  • Coping with a parent’s mental illness (Running with Scissors)

Tell the truth (be real, for better or worse, because that’s what gives you credibility).

  • If you fudge on details to make yourself or others look better or change names, why are you writing a memoir? Write a nice fictional romance and be done with it.

But… don’t get hung up on accuracy.

  • Unless writing that you were home at 2:00 instead of 2:30 proves you didn’t rob the bank, don’t be specific with every detail, or readers will miss the big picture.
  • Eliminate junk words. “I remember being three-years-old when blah blah blah.” Of course you remember; it’s your memoir! Just say what you need to say: “I was three-years-old when …”

Come up with a great opening line to get the reader into your story.

  • Yes, this is true for any book — fiction or non-fiction. For some reason, though, memoirists feel it is more important to be factual than dramatic and entertaining.

Rewrite/revise mercilessly.

  • Cut scenes or situations that are irrelevant to your theme(s). You do not have to include every single life event. Remember, a memoir is not an autobiography!
  • Combine or rearrange sentences that begin with the word “I.”
  • Find and delete repeated words (-ly words, such as “quickly,” however, really, just). We all have favorites that we don’t even realize we overuse. Readers, will find them and get annoyed!
  • If you find yourself skimming a paragraph, consider deleting it. If it doesn’t interest you, it’s a good bet your readers won’t be interested, either.

Print out your manuscript. It’s amazing what you’ll catch on a physical copy.

Read your manuscript aloud. If you stumble over phrases or sentences, it’s quite possible your readers will, too.

And finally, competition for readers’ attention is fierce. For greatest chance of success, your story must be in the best possible shape. Hint: get a professional editor!

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“Pearls” of Wisdom

I collect books. I don’t mean in the sense of stalking garage sales or funky antique stores in search of rare tomes, though I certainly have and appreciate my signed first editions. I’m talking about collecting books whose titles have randomly caught my eye, reviews that have piqued my interest, or ones that friends have recommended. I have amassed a list — and pile — of books that will keep me occupied for a very long time.

But here’s the problem, and I’m guessing I’m not alone: I anxiously await the moment I can dig into a new book that I’vebook lust been coveting only to discover that I don’t really like it. The “digging in” becomes a chore. Thankfully, I discovered Nancy Pearl, librarian guru, whose 2003 book, Book Lust: Recommended Reading For Every Mood, Moment, And Reason gives permission for us to stop torturing ourselves!

Unlike the mantra we probably all heard—clean your plate, there are children starving in Africa—Nancy offers a formula for reading that relieves me of my guilt. As she explains in the book’s introduction, her “rule of 50” says that those under fifty-years-old need to read 50 pages of a book before calling it quits. Those over 50—who, she gently reminds us, have less time to squander—need only read the number of pages that is their age subtracted from 100.

6579841405_b8bf85a208_z

photo courtesy of Rebecca Wilson, Dec. 2011

Brilliant!

She also admits, and I wholeheartedly agree, that while we might not be able to slog through a book now (and can quit according to her formula), we might actually love the book at another time when we are in a different frame of mind. Case in point: I struggled with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road… the first time … and had to put it away. Six months later, I loved it.

With that, I am formally putting a few books on notice. I don’t want to identify them—to avoid hurting “their” feelings, or more importantly, influence anyone who might be swayed by my inability to lovingly devour a book that was rated 5 stars on Amazon or Goodreads. Being the optimist, however, I am hopeful that I will eventually embrace them. And if not, there’s a mountain of reading material to choose from waiting patiently by my bed, on my bookshelf, in the closet …

 

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Spring Cleaning

For many of us, warmer weather inspires us to want to clean out closets, wash windows, declutter. And with the latest onslaught of “organizing” books and blogs telling us to let go of items we don’t use, don’t wear, or don’t really like, the message is clear: use it or lose it.

I realized that this also applies to writing and to my efforts in editing. The goal is the same: help writers organize their thoughts, declutter their stories, and clarify their meaning. To put in more tangible, spring-cleaning terms:clothes

  1. Like washing windows, choose words and use words that sparkle and allow the light to come in. Instead of “She ran around the room making sure everyone was comfortable” … “She fluttered …”
  1. Donate (or delete) words that take up space. “… with a smile on his face” is just as effective using “… with a smile.”
  1. Throw away worn-out phrases like, “Her eyes twinkled like diamonds,” “Little did he know,” “Needless to say,” blah blah blah.
  1. Say goodbye to that old sweatshirt (your go-to favorite words) that you unwittingly sprinkle throughout your manuscript. This is tough, because you probably don’t even realize how often you are using your favorite words, but they usually pop out to me when I’m editing. They can be anything from “just,” “so,” “that,” to “quickly,” “suddenly,” “longingly,” or any “ly” words.
  1. If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it (or save it until you lose those ten pounds). That is, pulling out the thesaurus to find a word for “happy” sounds like a good idea, but replacing it with “jubilant” or “whimsical” might be overdoing it. Use alternatives with care.
  1. Maybe go-go boots and polyester pantsuits work at a 70s costume party, but they don’t fit well in today’s world. Same with words; be sure to use words and phrases that reflect the time period. Writing “on the world wide web” is awkward now, just as “swipe right” doesn’t mean a thing to that go-go dancer.

Good luck – and good riddance!

 

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Shelf-Life

As I prepare to donate many many many of my books, I wanted to pay tribute to some of them before they disappear from my bookshelves.

tidyActually, it was our most recent book club selection that inspired me to reduce my collection of books, which, I admit, is plentiful. A short and irritatingly cutesy book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo managed to motivate me to let go of hats, shoes, bags, and all sorts of clothing. The book has ignited conversation about our need for “stuff,” though author Kondo is clearly young, single, and comfortable financially, as evidenced by her naive and sometimes simplified attitude (“…if you find you’ve discarded something you really need later, you can always buy it again…”) And while I took into consideration the fact that the book was written with the help of a translator, I still found the writing awkward and at times, downright silly. But, then again, I have filled several bags and boxes with items for the local homeless shelter, family kitchen, and library (70 books to date; barely a dent).

Another book club choice, Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names: A North Koreangirl 7 Defector’s Story, was also translated, though the book’s tone was definitely more serious and “important.” Lee’s struggles as a teenager living under a brutal Communist regime … and her strength at such a young age to be able to escape and travel and manage to not only survive but thrive… reminded me again of how little one really needs to lead a happy, fulfilling life.

We also read Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup, a continent and several generations earlier than the previous two selections. The dedication and perseverance of the French to protect their wines — wine and wartheir heritage — was not only heroic, but frightening. Whether you drink wine or not, the history and stories were remarkable testaments to the cruelty and stupidity of war. Unfortunately, while I gained a greater appreciation for the grape, I was disappointed in the storytelling. Repetitious and a bit flat. A book that I was glad to have read but wouldn’t recommend.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls propelled us even farther into the past … late 1800s Paris. The story was aspainted girls beautiful as Degas’ work upon which the novel was based, and with as much painful description of a ballerina’s life at the time. Author Buchanan’s diligent research added exquisite detail to create a moving and touching book. After reading this, I wanted to paint and dance!

 

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Teed off

If you don’t know what’s wrong with this picture (or rather, T-shirt) and you intend to write

—a literary masterpiece or a letter to Grandma—you need an editor.

Call me.dumb

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En-TITLE-ment

Recent chatter about copyright infringement concerning music (see Spirit’s “Taurus” vs. Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams “Blurred Lines” vs. Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give it Up”) has reignited discussion of copyright issues in the literary world.

According to the Berne Convention (the international source for copyright law), your original manuscript is protected by copyright as soon as it is fixed in tangible form. That is, the moment your great American novel is written—on paper or your computer—you’re copyrighted. For how long, you ask? In the USA and much of Europe, it’s the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.

But here’s the funny thing; book titles are not protected by U.S. copyright laws.

grace 4To qualify for such protection, a work needs to possess “a significant amount of original expression” and the courts have ruled that expressions as short as book titles do not qualify. (That’s why, when my book club pals had heard about a great book with the words “Ordinary Grace” in the title, we had to get more specific; there are almost 2,500 books to choose from!)

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can name your book Fifty Shades of Grey. Some titles qualify for trademark protection (series titles like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, etc.) if the grace 3books become successful enough to be considered recognizable brands. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identify the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguish them from others.

So, while it would so clever to title your new cookbook, The Hunger Games, you can’t. But if you name it, A Place at the Table, nothing’s stopping you, except for the fact that 6 other writers have already done so. (Our book club read the version by Susan Rebecca White, if you’re interested.) I’d recommend coming up with some other imaginative wording – it avoids confusion. What if your fans buy the wrong book? Why help someone else have a best seller?grace 1

By the way, our book club chose the Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Thumbs up.

 

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On Your Mark, Get Set, Delete

8771980627_de67e9d87a_zNaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is over. You’ve completed the challenge—writing 50,000 words in a month. Congratulations!

Now comes the real work. Making every word count. Getting rid of the words that don’t.

Case in point: “began.” They began arguing. He began acting suspicious. I began to get irritated.

(The truth is, when I get irritated, I don’t begin to get irritated. I just am.)

Another word to think about deleting is the word think! If you’re writing a memoir and write “I think I was about five-years-old,” I suggest instead, “I was about five-years-old.” A small difference, but cleaner.

And just for fun, how about that word just? It’s a word that just isn’t needed. Search your manuscript – you might be surprised how often you’ve used it. Try deleting just a few of them; you probably won’t even miss them.

Enough of that. I mean it. “I wish that we could … whatever.” How about “I wish we could …”?

If you don’t miss it – if your story reads (just) as well without it, you will (begin to) write a much tighter, better story.

Take that.

 

 

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Living Your Dash

As I try to wrap my head around the loss of my friend and mentor, former publisher Carolyn Hayes Uber, and attempt to describe her influence, her persona, her life, I am struck by a remark I heard just today that helps put everything in perspective. And the fact that this remark mentions a common editing term (the dash), is serendipitous. Carolyn would be tickled.

abyssIn the documentary Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog interviews Fred Allen, who explains his role in executions as the former captain of the Death House team at the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, Texas. Allen is clearly conflicted (eventually resigning his post), as he sees the lives of inmates reduced to numbers: 1954 – 2011, for example. He realizes and explains, quite eloquently, that our lives are not reflected in a birthdate or date of passing, but the dash in between. (Granted, it’s really a hyphen, but I’m not here to edit today.) Mr. Allen then asks, How are you going to live your dash?

Which brings me back to Carolyn, who lived her dash with courage and strength and humor and love. So for Carolyn and my father and my “adopted” mother Patricia and other dear friends who are no longer here, I will live my dash, really live it… bravely, respectfully, happily. I hope you will, too.

 

 

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