Saturday, December 29, 2012
Friday, December 28, 2012
Several weeks ago, I was in the middle of drafting a blog post, when I clicked over to another screen and learned the news about Newton, Connecticut.
I grieved for those parents and those children and those teachers with my entire body. Not just tears, not just sobs: entire back-breaking heaves that I only hoped could somehow ease something there, just a bit, somehow. If I took on one woman’s pain, just one tiny atom of its immense and universe-sized volume, I hope I helped her.
Their world was altered in mere minutes and they will spend lifetimes trying to return to the moments before that man entered the schoolyard with his assault guns. They will never succeed.
My love and my grief to you, town of unspeakable misery.
Poem for Newtown, Connecticut
that is what they can remember
maybe it will be her cowlick
or her arm really at the wrong angle
to write correctly, coming down
to the paper, not up to it. That report card.
She was supposed to improve
her sloppy handwriting but they didn’t
get around to it yet.
She was wearing spirit wear.
Her room is still messy.
She had that light husky cough.
They talked of keeping her home.
They can’t really remember those
who passed, elderly parents and neighbors,
without photographs. And so it will be
It will someday be impossible
to conjure up exactly how she was.
They will study
the worksheets and the papers
with their dotted lines inside solid lines
like a road, really, an escape route
that showed her how to correctly form
her letters. They will scrutinize
the drawings: mermaids with wings,
fairies with crowns, beetles crawling
the margins. They are going to try
very, very hard to retain her.
They are going to fail.
She was brevity itself.
She is already unsnatchable
from the air, a vapour,
a hint of something dear,
something so wrenched
from their very blood,
the threads of their meat,
the throb of their pulse,
the water that still
rocks inside them,
like they are oceans set
They will comb the air
for her, they will claw
the air, they will scry
the air for her,
they will look
and look and look
and look and look
. . . .
Sunday, December 09, 2012
Saturday, December 08, 2012
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Each of us has a slightly different take on witchcraft and already via emails we've had some thought-provoking conversations, so I think this will be an interesting panel. Some of us believe in witchcraft; some of us don't. Some of us see it as a feminist issue; some of us don't. Some of us descend from women accused of witchcraft; some of us don't. Come to find out which is witch....er, which!
Kathleen and Suzy's books look at the Salem hysteria, Mary's book is about the Pendle Witch trials in England in 1612, and my book is a fictional account of a woman accused in Germany in the early 1500s.
The link to the conference is here. It's for both readers and writers--and agents and editors will be there too. I attended in 2011 and met fantastic people, one of which is now a very close friend. It's a fun time to get together with people who love history and love reading: a powerful combination.
. . . .
Saturday, October 20, 2012
When I asked Heyday Books to use her photograph for the book jacket, all I knew about her was what I just typed in the previous paragraph.
Over time, readers have contacted me with different little tidbits to add and/or directed me to other references that source her. That was how I learned her real name was Rose Vastine, and that she had tried to kill herself: both facts that I found shocking. She does not look like a Rose to me! And I was very upset to learn that such a strong-looking woman had succumbed to such despair. I learned that Timberline was her nickname because she was over six feet tall.
Recently someone named David Huerbin contacted me to let me know her full name was Rosanna (again: surprise!) and that her nickname arose because she would ferry whiskey and girls to men living in the mountains above the timberline. That seems more plausible to me. She somehow just doesn't look six foot in her image, and given that people were even less tall in the 1800s than today, I just found the other explanation hard to swallow.
. . . . .
Saturday, September 15, 2012
The A/C Ratio is terribly important for writers. It is a part of everything they do. It's integral to productive work days.
A = Ass. And C=Chair.
It's monumental. It's cataclysmic. One has to actually SIT DOWN to write.
Sure, you can dictate while you breeze through your workout. You can certainly come up with devastatingly clever dialogue while standing talking to someone who is boring you. But at the end of the day, at some point: yes, you must sit.
I love this bit from Stephen Koch's The Modern Library's Writer's Workshop.
And you must sit down and write. It doesn't even really matter if you feel like writing. As Tom Wolfe says, "Sometimes, if things are going badly, I will force myself to write a page in half an hour. I find that can be done. I find that what I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I'm feeling inspired."....Joyce Carole Oates agrees: "One must be pitiless about this matter of 'mood.' In a sense, the writing will create the mood....I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes...and somehow the activity of writing changes everything."
Let's see if we can all improve our A/C Ratios in the upcoming weeks. I know I'm working on it.
. . .
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
Oftentimes, we want to take a class but just can't commit to the weeks of work involved. So....how about a three-week class?
are still a few spots in two of my online (wear PJs!) mediabistro
classes: "How to Research and Write Historical Fiction" and "Nailing the
First Pages of your Novel" July 16-Aug. 1. It is a mini-class as part
of the online Literary Festival. Susan Orlean is our keynote speaker!
We'll have two hour-long live chats on July 16 and 23 (historical class)
and July 24 and 31 (first pages class). Info is here: http://www.mediabistro.com/
And just so this post isn't completely self-serving, here's a link I recently discovered that I just LOVE. Make sure not to visit until you've got a good mug of coffee with you because you will probably be glued to your seat for hours cruising through the archives. It's a wonderful look at the past (my favorite place!), and with a tagline I find irresistible: "the past is a foreign country. This is your passport." I give you: Retronaut.
Friday, June 29, 2012
Governor George Pardee (1903-07) was the first to use this as a gubernatorial residence; it was initially built for another family. Of course, we were interested in this house given our interest in George! He brought his wife and four girls in from Oakland and installed them in the three-story mansion.
Over the years, time has taken a toll on the building despite its still-stellar exterior. You can only visit the first two floors, although the third is due to open soon from water-damage reconstruction. We toured the building with the belief it was to close on July 1; our tour guide reassured us that the museum had been given a temporary stay of execution, operating with reduced hours. Yay!
. . . . .
Friday, May 25, 2012
I love literary festivals...but it never occurred to me one could happen online. Luckily, the idea did strike someone at Mediabistro, and I'm excited to be teaching several classes for this cool concept.
I'm teaching "Nailing the First Pages of Your Novel" and "How to Research and Write Historical Fiction"--and there's a host of other classes. The festival takes place July 16 through August 1. Forget reading summer beach reads: WRITE one!
Learn more here.
Friday, April 13, 2012
All my life, I've loved being around creative people. Last week, thanks to a freelance assignment, I gained access to the closed campus of Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California.
This was incredibly exciting to me. I love the playfulness and true drama of Pixar films, so yes, it was worth it to me to travel four hours round trip (and squeeze in a visit with a few old wonderful friends too) to be on campus for a few hours and watch a thirty-minute teaser clip of the new movie Brave.
Driving through the monumental front gates (and seeing each car ahead of me really get grilled; there is no such thing as being waved through here), I felt the thrill of being in a place where everybody is thinking story.
I parked (even that was exciting) and waited in line to enter the main building. In this photo, you can see that it contains an atrium with lots of light. That room was filled with hanging banners for Brave (set in old-world Scotland) and almost has a Hogwarts kind of feel. Backing up a bit, in the photo you can see the tiered seating of an outdoor amphitheater. For this visit it held a Stonehenge-like circle of stones, and across the meadow, a bunch of archery targets. Having not yet seen the film, I thought these were, respectively, permanent art and a recreation opportunity for staffers.
Waiting in line to enter the main building, the woman ahead of me chanted to her friends, "We're at Pixar! We're at Pixar!" I felt the same way but curbed myself, since I was alone and you never look healthy when chanting to yourself. Immediately inside, you're greeted by giant replicas of Scully, Woody, Buzz and other buddies from the oeuvre. There's also a glass case of trophies including six Oscars and a million other glinty pieces.
Security to enter the theater itself was much stricter than the airport. All cell phones had to be turned in to a sort of coat check for electronics, and when they look through your purse, it's not a cursory glance. They are moving things around and really looking. I had not thought of my Garmin nuvi ("Jack") as a person of interest, but I had to go back and add him to coat check too!
The director and producer made wonderful introductory remarks, the movie clip was delicious, and we were all escorted to another building for a lavish refreshments spread. This was held in an open-air patio reminiscent of the Standard Hotel's rooftop in L.A. A great view of the campus could be had from here: I saw one guy swimming lonely laps in the pool, and there is a volleyball court, basketball court, gym, and cafeteria: basically, Pixar is a village and no one need go home until their creativity lapses.
Thanks, Pixar, for the opportunity to visit this incredible facility. (Now, would you like to hire me?)
Monday, March 19, 2012
I originally wrote this post as an email to a Facebook acquaintance, who was clearly getting depressed about his inability to find a traditional publisher for his novel, but as it lengthened I thought it'd be worth posting here. I remember those dark days myself very clearly, and my heart goes out to anyone in this situation--because getting a novel published isn’t just something that would be cool for us; it’s something that validates how we see ourselves.
I remember that if I met someone new and identified myself as a writer, they’d invariably ask, “So have you published anything?” and then you have to embark on the Road to Apologia, why this is, and how hard you’ve tried, and you came close with that one agent, and you attended that conference and had a nice talk with that publisher, and how you keep trying and you…
Yes, it sucks.
So I’m appointing today National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers. I have a few thoughts to share that hopefully will serve as a bit of a pep talk.
1. Nearly every published writer I know (myself included) had about six novels under the bed when they finally got that offer. Count up your own manuscripts: two? Three? You may need to keep churning them out, because with each novel your craft improves. Writing is mysterious, and I do believe in innate talent, but as with everything single thing in this life, we get better with practice. So keep practicing.
It occurs to me that this bit of cheer may backfire, that a writer may say, “I can’t keep doing this to myself! I just finished my third book, and that’s IT. You’re telling me I have to write three more?!” Someone who really cares about their career will nod philosophically and take the long view that it’s worth it to keep working, keep improving, and finally get a publication contract for a book that’s your best effort.
And after all, you can’t force a book to sell. You can revise based on editorial feedback, you can try again; you can try multiple times! But at some point, you have to cut your losses and start the next project. Soon, the joy of creating a new world within your novel will ease your feelings of feeling frantic about the previous book. And with what you learned from the new novel, you may wish to launch another revision on the old. But at least you’ll have another fresher, better book to try to publish.
2. Joining a writers group really helps with the emotions of being unpublished. Kvetching together, sharing the anticipations as queries go out, consoling each other when rejections happen, cheering each other on to try again: that’s something that non-writers can’t really offer. They don’t “get” what’s so important about being published.
I heartily recommend finding a real-person writers group, but online works too. For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have just the group for you. It’s led by Tamim Ansary, it meets for free every Tuesday night, and there’s incredible camaraderie and support. Tamim’s an incredible mentor and generous critiquer (generous in terms of the thoughtfulness involved in his responses, not that he necessarily praises) and your writing will improve if you listen to him.
The other thing about joining a writers group is that suddenly the idea of being a writer becomes more real. It’s one thing to type away in your home, but when you’re sharing your work with other writers, equally serious about their craft as you, your idea of yourself as an author gains more weight, validity. It will seem more possible that you can do this successfully.
3. Keep reading books you love. It’s not escapism, it’s not a reason not to write. It’s research--because every single sentence you imbibe resides in you. The more you read, the more those different ways of constructing a sentence moil around in your head. You give your brain more options. You are tutoring yourself subconsciously.
4. “It only takes one person to say yes.” I’m sure you’ve heard that dozens of times, but it’s so true in the publishing industry. It doesn’t matter that 50 agents sent you form rejections, if one says, “I love it!” Your onus is to find the person most likely to say yes. Like I said in #3, keep reading…and when you find a book that’s similar to yours in tone or aesthetic, look at the Acknowledgments section to see if the author thanked their agent. That’s a good person to target.
Another good tactic is to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (you can do it for $20 for one month, jam through the archives, and cancel, if money is an issue): you can see what’s selling right now to editors, and which agents are doing that selling. See an agent’s name several times, linked with books that are similar to yours? That’s another good person to target.
You can also look through those thick tomes of agent directories (or better yet, www.agentquery.com), but that doesn’t give you a feel for what the agent likes. Just knowing they represent historical fiction, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that they like books set in Colonial America. Look at the agent’s website and rifle through their client list. Can you get a sense of the agent’s personality through the books he/she has chosen to represent?
Keep your chin up. There’s a part of this process you can control, and you should: the rest of it is out of your hands. The best thing you can do is move to the next project, and let the current novel marinate. Mark your calendar for six months from now, and re-read it.
Is that chin in the air yet? Higher! Like Cora in Downton Abbey, let me see that plastic surgery scar! I offer you an e-hug and a rueful e-smile, because I’ve been there. Believe me, I’ve really, really been there… and I hope the Gods of Publishing will soon smile on you and your novel.
. . . . .
Saturday, February 25, 2012
Friday, January 06, 2012
A reader emailed me recently. She had remembered my (long ago! dating to 2002) Montclarion column about Storybook architecture in Oakland. This style is near and dear to my heart. The article is not cached online, so I’m going to post it here on the blog, slightly rewritten from its original text.