Tag Archives: novel

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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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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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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Walking on Cloud 9

As I’ve mentioned before, writers have a tendency to rely on favorite words and phrases … often without even knowing it. Maybe it’s considered part of your style or personality, but from an editor’s standpoint (who advocates for the reader), these “catch phrases” can become annoying and distracting.

Because I’m being objective and looking at a manuscript with fresh eyes, I can easily see the repeated words (and can make suggestions or revisions). I can search for how often the word or words have been used. But you can’t do this, because you don’t know what you’re looking for! It’s like looking up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary … when you don’t know how to spell it.

But now there’s help. Word clouds. Thanks to an attendee at my recent writing workshop, I learned of an amazing tool to self-regulate your pet prose. There are many Word Cloud programs available, which take your text and visualize your repeated words. I found one, TagCrowd, which not only creates a very cool image of the words you use most frequently, but it can also tell you how many times you’ve used them.cloud

I worried for a minute that I was shooting myself in the foot by revealing this trick of the trade, but then I realized, if I can help one memoirist from repeating “I remember when,” one mystery writer from abusing “He couldn’t help but notice,”  or any number of storytellers from plastering “In fact,” “Of course,” “That being said,” it will be worth it. I’m sure I’ll still have plenty of work to do.

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So Much For That

In between editing jobs, I try to reward myself by reading just for fun. And how rewarding it is when I get to rediscover one of my favorite authors!

Several years ago I read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was riveting, heart-stopping, gut-wrenching… you name it. It took me a long time to stop thinking about this book and then even longer to think I could read another Shriver work, or really, that she could write something else that I would love as much.

so muchBut she has. I won’t entertain (or bore) you with a middle school book report of So Much for That; the story’s summary can be easily accessed at any of your online retailers. I can say that it is rich with sensitive topics and deeply personal issues—though Shriver refuses to wallow in any of them—as well as larger, more global concerns that she skillfully weaves into the background.

Her characters felt real, relatable; their dialogue sounded natural; their lives seemed believable. I could see what was coming but couldn’t stop it, no matter how much I wanted things to turn out differently.

It was a painful read, but one that transfixed me; in the author’s own words, “a black but improbably jubilant novel about illness, death, and money.” Once again, Shriver has encouraged her readers (well, me) to wonder: what would I do?

One thing I know I will do is read another Shriver novel.

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Shut the Front Door

Choosing a title for your literary masterpiece is not easy. That is, choosing the best title … the right title is not easy. How do you capture the emotion, the theme, the personality of your work in just a few words?

Think of your manuscript in terms of real estate: like selling your house, you want to sell your manuscript. And like any real estate agent will tell you, it’s all about curb appeal. That means you need to create a welcoming, inviting entrance to your “home.”

Your title becomes your front door. Just as a plain, hollow door does not encourage potential buyers, unimaginative titles might not grab the attention of potential readers. Conversely, verbose, meandering, cumbersome titles can be intimidating, like having a drawbridge and gates at your home’s entrance.

door1That’s not to say a blatantly obvious title—like a solid wood front door—can’t be appealing. Robin Cook has made a name for himself with one-word titles: Brain, Coma, Contagion, Fever, Toxin, to name a few. Monica Holloway’s Driving with Dead People is about … well, let’s just say it does involve a funeral home. Or that a brazenly outrageous title (think purple door) like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics won’t attract readers. They both got my attention.

Yet before you settle on a title that you think is just right—not too short, not too long—do a little googling, Goldilocks! Check out Amazon or Barnes & Noble or other online bookstores. Since titles are not protected by copyright laws, it’s perfectly legal to use one that’s already been taken (unless it qualifies for trademark protection, like blockbusters Twilight, Harry Potter, for example), but why not be unique? With almost 300,000 books published (2012 statistics – not including ebooks), it makes sense to do anything and everything possible to open that door. Your door.

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Good Things Come in Threes

Well, it’s official. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of winter.

Which means six more reasons to find a good book to read! If you don’t have a pile on a bedside table waiting, here are a few I’d recommend:

me before youMe Before You by JoJo Moyes

Think  My Fair Lady (original play – Pygmalion), The Sound of Music (The Story of the Trapp Family Singers), even You’ve Got Mail (based on play Parfumerie; little shopgirl/caregiver partnered with/pitted against wealthy “landowner.” Only with a twist: former Buttered Bun cafe clerk is hired to be companion for former stud-now-quadriplegic. More than a romance (thankfully, as not my thing), a story about choices. Couldn’t sleep until I finished it, and then I couldn’t sleep after.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and Fairyland by Alysia Abbottwolves

Both, coincidentally, swirl around the “gay” topic, and both are told from young girls’ points of view. In the novel Wolves, set in New York City, June unravels her uncle’s secret life. Revealed in bits and pieces only after his AIDS-related death, June struggles to understand him and herself. On the opposite coast in San Francisco, Alysia also struggles to understand, love, and ultimately forgive her own father in her memoir, Fairyland.


And while all three (of which all are now on my GoodReads list of favorites) feature female protagonists (which, oddly, was not why these books were chosen), fear not, testosterone readers. A strong male presence figures prominently in each book; in fact, without Will or Finn or Steve, there would be no story. The relationships between each of the pairs is of paramount significance. You must read them for yourselves; I will not spoil.

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What a Concept!

While writing the great American novel is not easy  – if it were, everyone would do it –  getting published is no longer impossible, as there are a variety of options these days, from traditional to boutique to “self” publishing, from hardback to paperback to ebook. (The pros and cons of these options – and the status of publishing in general – is for another discussion.)

The real difficulty is in figuring out how to get an audience for your great American novel among the plethora of titles out there. How do you spread the word? Schedule book signings? Attend book clubs? Build a website – write a blog? Tweet?

Bestselling author John Grisham posted an idea that I think is pretty cool. Granted, he probably doesn’t need any help getting readers, but still, it says that even well-known writers need to spread the word. He posted the following on his Facebook page:

Grisham fans: Post a picture of you in your favorite reading spot with your favorite Grisham book and tag it as “John Grisham” to put it in the Grisham album. Then we’ll shout out our favorite photos.photo

Wow.  The reader gets acknowledged and “rewarded” for being a fan, Grisham gets free advertising,  it’s simple … and from
the look of the images posted, it’s fun!

I wish I’d thought of it.

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Sour Grapes

Remember the implications of selecting a title for your
great American novel …grapes

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Insert Here

So I’m stuck on the romance novel concept – which I still don’t get. But obviously, there’s a market for it – and a BIG one. And now I’ve discovered that not only can you read a racy romance, but you can be in one as well! By answering just a few questions, your personal details can be inserted into one of several stories.

For only $44.09 (really, what’s with the “09”?) at “You Star Novel,”  you can be Indecent in Italy, have wild Safari Nights in Africa, run a hot Fever in France, learn a thing or two in Amersterdam Lessons,  have English Encounters of the close kind, or sink your teeth into Blood Lust.

Editing not included.



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