Monday, August 30, 2010

Republicans Vs. Democrats: It Could Be Worse

Good morning, Clyde. Guess what? I finished another tome for my research on all things 1850s called Why The Civil War Came, edited by Gabor S. Boritt.

Sounds like a real page-turner.

No, this isn’t beach-reading material, but my next novel takes place just before the Civil War breaks out, so I need to paint a picture of the political atmosphere of the times. Clyde? Stop snoring and pay attention.

What? You lost me after after “No.”

Come on, this is good stuff. Hey, here’s something I bet you didn’t know . . .

Abraham Lincoln was an alien?

Ha, ha. Seriously, though. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican—the first candidate to win the presidency for a sectional party.

Neato. What’dya mean by ‘sectional’ party?

Before the Republicans, the political party opposing the Democrats was called the Whigs. Both the Whigs and the Democrats were national parties, but the Republicans, who first ran a candidate for the presidency in 1856, weren't national, but strictly northern.

Okay, Republicans in the north, Democrats all over. Dandy. Why’s that so fascinating?

The Republican Party was coming to power incredibly fast while the Democrats were falling apart. In many respects, the Civil War was a perfect storm. For decades before the first shot was fired, a small number of extremists on both sides of the slavery issue kept raising the public's awareness until moderate politicians were forced to choose on side or the other.

Do what now?

It's like this. Take two kids in a crowded cafeteria and start a food fight. Other kids will take notice; it's impossible not to. Eventually the whole room will take sides and join in. You can destroy the entire room based on one tossed spaghetti noodle.

Okay, but a perfect storm? You telling me they didn’t see the war coming?

Not exactly, but Lincoln and the Republicans weren't expecting four years of bloodshed and over a half-million casualties. For years, the southern minority slaveholders used secession as a threat whenever things weren't going their way in Congress. The Republicans were tired of the ploy. I love this 1856 quote from Ben Wade, a republican from Ohio: “We have had the Union saved five or six different times within my day, and is the only thing I ever knew to suffer by salvation.”

Hmmm, slightly witty, I guess. I still don't see why you're all fired up about this stuff. Where do politics fit into your book?

I’m thinking of the plantation owner and his son. I see the father as a politician, someone who loves a good debate and has trained his son since childhood the art of verbal jousting. I’m seeing the son as new generation: raised in the south, but schooled in the north. The son's adventurous, looking at the west, ready for travel and excitement. His father wants someone to take over the old family plantation. Their fights are going to be political, personal, and delicious to write.

Good luck with that.

Thanks, Clyde. I’ll need it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Query Woes and a Checklist: Before You Hit Send

Hello all you aspiring writers out there. I have an important question: Where is my brain? I'd like it back, now, please.

Detective looking through magnifying glass

Yesterday I was agonizing over my latest query letter. With virtually no information on my intended audience, I decided a one paragraph description of the book was too risky--better to go with two. But that second paragraph took me hours to polish. And since our ambassador of goodwill to aspiring writers, aka Nathan Bransford, says it's okay to attach the first five pages, I went ahead and did that too. A set of newly edited, hopefully richer and more enticing first five pages.

Fast forward ahead to 3 pm, the TV's blaring Barbie's latest adventure, my four-year-old is snoring blissfully on the couch and my six-year-old is yelling for her chocolate milk. I swear, I should give that kid a silver bell and be done with it.

Big Bear: Bartender, BARTENDER! Send in that mug of Intense Chocolate Moo Juice and make it a double!

Me: Yes, master, right away, just let me hit send and get this hopeless letter off.

I come back to the computer and my stomach falls through the floor. Oh no. No, no, no. I didn't. I couldn't. Crapola-manola, I didn't spell check the sample pages. Here's the damage:

Frawely instead of Frawley
bigtime instead of big time
tweny instead of twenty

and, the worst, the one that really makes me cringe: quadrapaligic for quadraplegic

Ironically, I was reading a submissions checklist for a small publishing company yesterday that said you'd be surprised how many people don't spell check their work. I chuckled, thinking, "Boy, you'd have to be a real idiot to forget that! Hyuck, hyuck!"

Man hammering brain

Okay, enough whining, here's a checklist to consider BEFORE you hit send.

While still in Word:

1. Start on the right foot. Look at the Dear ____. Do you have the correct name? I know you cut and pasted from the last letter, so LOOK. Is it spelled correctly? Do you have Mr. when you should have Ms. or vice versa?

2. Now peruse your contact information. Make sure it's typed correctly.

3. Stare hard at words like their, they're, and there. And it's (only for "it is" not for possessives) and its. And too, to and two.

4. Spell Check the whole letter including sample pages and synopsis if those are included. Even though Word will put red lines under most names, don't ignore them. Make sure each one is spelled the way you intended.

Now go to your email and paste it in.

1. Send a copy to yourself. Check the formatting. Read it out loud. Fix any problems. If you make any changes, send the new version to yourself and repeat this step as many times as necessary.

2. Once your letter looks perfect, you could send it off to the agent, but don't. A better idea is to leave it overnight, come back the next day and read it over one more time. I'm not always able to follow this advise, but I have bolted up in bed with the realization that a letter I'd sent that day had an error.

Okay, I'm banning myself to the basement for the rest of the morning. Our 23-year-old air conditioner is facing retirement on Monday and I have a storeroom to clean out before the crew from "Hoarding Nightmares" shows up. Who knows? Maybe I'll find my brain.

Have a great weekend, y'all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Most Wanted by Jacquelyn Mitchard

I'm going into the vault today. Mitchard's The Most Wanted is her second book published in 1999 after The Deep End Of The Ocean, which was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Ocean was very good, but I read it once. The Most Wanted is something I could read year after year and not get tired of it.

This novel centers on Texans Annie Singer and Arley Mowbray--two extremely different women brought together under unusual circumstances. Arley wants a conjugal visit with her convict husband and Annie is her lawyer. The catch? Arley is fourteen. Yep, you read that right, fourteen. Now this brings up an immediate stereotype. Arley must be poor white trash, right? Not so. She's poor and white, but also an honor student on the track team.

To contrast Arley and her convicted husband's bizarre relationship is the more conventional one between Annie and her long-time, live-in beau, Stuart. He wants to get married, Annie's in no rush. She's thinking about kids, but he's consumed with his work as a lawyer fighting to keep death-row inmates alive and has no interest in starting a family.

Against her own judgement, Annie gets the conjugal visit approved. Worst night of Arley's young life? Guess again. And that's what makes this story so compelling. The stereotypes are broken. What's expected doesn't happen, yet the characters and plot never lose their believability.

1999 was a long time ago. I've should go see what else Ms. Mitchard has written since then.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fishing with Clyde

Man fishing

So Clyde, why do you like fishing so much?

My dad taught me how to bait a hook when I was four or five. We’d go out to Lake Hartwell on Saturdays before Momma got up. She was still teachin’ in those days and that was her only day to sleep in.

What about Dill?

Dill was four years older’n me an’ he would sleep in too, then go find Bill and Dutch for baseball or petty, uh, not larceny but screwin’ up other people’s property . . .


Yeah, or some such foolishness, so it was just me and my pops, on this beat up metal boat that’d sink in a hard rain, polin’ for catfish or sometimes trout.

So it was a bonding thing.

Yeah, but there was more to it than that.

Father with son (10-11) in small boat fishing


My seventh birthday fell on the school year’s first Friday, and when I got home from school, the house was empty. I ate a Ring Ding with some Nehi grape soda, ’an went out into the back yard to mess around. Dixie, our mutt, was outside the back fence whinin’ and scratchin’, pushing her snout between the links.

I almost let her in, before I noticed a chicken-wire pen sitting by the back porch in the shade. At first I thought there was a squirrel stuck in there—Dixie’d go mad chasin’ ’em up every fool tree in the yard, so that’d explain it. But this critter didn’t have a fluffy tail. When I got closer, I saw why—it was a rabbit. Looked young—the fur was smoothed down pretty, brown on top, white underneath and the ears were perfect—not a nick in ’em.

Eastern cottontail Rabbit

Since the pen was kinda hidden, I got all exited, thinkin’ it was a surprise birthday present. One of my school mates had a pet rabbit—a long-eared thing she’d drag in to school from time to time for show ’an tell. Katie Bucane—what a snot she was.

Anyway, I stuck my fingers through the wire and to pet it and it didn’t move, so I decided it must like me too. I knew I’d get ’in trouble, but I didn’t like the way Dixie was so fired up over my new friend, so I carried the pen up to my room.

I grabbed a plastic bowl from my mom’s Tupperware stash and a roll of Scotch tape and some paper and made my rabbit it’s own personalized water dish. I named it Bugs, cause that was the only named rabbit I could think of. Katie called hers Fluffy or some other girly name.

Couple hours later, I had taught the thing to hide in the closet every time I whistled. The rest of the family had trickled into the house, unnoticed by me until my dad started hollerin’, “Clyde, you up there? Get down here, right now!”

Boy he sounded pissed. I knew a spankin’ was coming, but I didn’t care, so I went down to face the music.

“Clyde, what’d you do with that pen by the porch? I gotta get that rabbit skinned ’fore your mother gets home to fix supper.”

My mouth dropped open, but nothing came out. Then I burst into tears and ran back up the stairs. Dill was comin’ out, holdin’ the cage and grinnin’. “Hey Daddy, look what I found.”

I didn’t dare turn around. Instead, I ran into my room and whistled. Bugs knew the drill ’an shot from under the bed into my closet. I jumped in with ’em and closed the door.

Momma showed up about two minutes later and knocked. “Clyde, open the door, honey.”

I didn’t move a muscle, but there wasn’t no lock on the door, so she opened ’er up to find me sitting cross-legged on the floor with her supper in my lap, cryin’ with snot runnin’ down my nose.

Boy (8-11) embracing mouse outdoors, side view (B&W)

She had somethin’ behind her back, and I knew what it was—the willow switch. But I was wrong. It was my real present, a bran’ new fishin’ pole. She gave me twenty minutes to run down to the pond behind the McGibbons barn and catch supper—or else.

Silhouette of boy on dock fishing

I brought back two bullheads ’an she doused ’em in parsley, fried ’em in butter, and served ’em with red taters and cornbread. Daddy took one bite and spat it into his napkin. Dill snuck his to Dixie under the table. I choked down every nasty bite even though it tasted like butter-flavored mud. I knew eatin’ that mess was much better punishment than a whippin’.

Mom ate hers without flinchin’, which I guess was her punishment for lettin’ me keep Bugs. And Dixie? She ran into the living room and barfed that shit all over Gramma’s oriental rose rug. Guess who got the switch that night?

So that’s why you love fishing?

Damn straight.

Friday, August 20, 2010

There's Gold in Them There Rejections

Hello Writers!

Small bottle of gold flakes panned from gravel in Northern British Columbia, Canada. Placer gold means gold that is in the form of loose individual grains which has eroded out of the host rock in mountains and hills freeing it so they can be recovered without further crushing of the host rock. This includes things such as gold flakes and nuggets. This is the type of gold which is of the greatest interest to individual prospectors.

Nobody likes rejection, but like mosquitos on hot summer evenings, they're unavoidable. Agents rarely have the time to offer constructive criticism, so even though it stings, these nuggets can be valuable.

For example, one agent told me they liked the idea in the query (high five!), but the prologue didn't grab them (bummer). After pouting for a few moments, I took action. The prologue features a kidnapping and I made it too easy on the kidnapper. Oops. Stealing a child should be difficult. Readers, do NOT try this at home (or anywhere else.)

Before criticism:

Without protest, Melody let the stranger carry her out of her bedroom and down the stairs. A middle stair fired off a loud CRACK and the stranger froze. Upstairs the child’s mother stirred uneasily in her sleep, registering the sound. A minute passed. By all rights, the child should have complained, or at least fussed a bit. Then the mother fell back into a deeper sleep and the stranger continued. They descended the last few stairs in silence.

After criticism:

Melody let the stranger carry her out of the bedroom. Before they reached the stairs, a floorboard fired off a loud CRACK.

Behind the stranger’s back, the master bedroom door lay open. Bedsprings creaked and squealed as Melody’s mother sat up. The stranger remained still as the woman pushed her legs over the end of her bed. If Melody’s mother turned even slightly to her right, she would see them.

Seconds passed. The stranger fought the impulse to turn around, the silence far worse than bedsprings. The child grew heavy and hot in the fleece blanket. She began to struggle.

A whimper arose beneath the black folds just as the mother hoisted her body off the bed and walked into the master bathroom. When the mother turned on the bathroom light, it clicked.

Gripping Melody tighter, the stranger hurried down the stairs.

What golden nuggets have agents left you?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

At a book-signing of Ms. Atwood's I grabbed two books: The Blind Assassin and The Year of the Flood. I started Assassin first which is a complex story in a story in a story. About half way through, I gave up--something that almost never happens. I liked the fantasy story buried in the middle, but the past and present of the central character, although written beautifully, just didn't move. Please note, Assassin won the Booker Prize.

Reluctant to start The Year of the Flood, I let it sit around until last Saturday. I finished it yesterday (Tuesday). It was fantastic! If you like Stephenie Meyer's The Host and Stephen King's The Stand, you will enjoy this book. It centers around a green religious sect in the (not-so-distant?) future before and after a plague--the waterless flood--wipes the planet free of man.

This book is rich in two ways: setting and plot. There's plenty of suspense: will Ren escape her isolation chamber before she runs out of food? What horrible thing happened to kill all humans pretty-much instantaneously? But my favorite part is the setting. Things in Atwood's future poke fun of what we have and what we've done in the here and now. Bimplants for woman. Secret-burgers made of stray pets and possibly assassinated humans. Happicupachino. The greenies or Gardeners eschew cell phones, grow mushrooms in the basements of abandoned buildings, and sing hymns about "Saint" Dian Fossey. There's a delicious moment when we discover (slight spoiler here) that the leaders, known as Adams and Eves, secretly use laptops in a hidden chamber, bringing to mind Animal Farm.

The only part I question, as a writer, is how so many of the main characters survive a plague when 99.9 percent of humanity is (melted) toast. However, you don't pull on Superman's cape and you shouldn't nit-pick with a writing legend. Now I've got to get my hands on Oryx and Crake--it features some of the same characters--glee!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Meet Clyde Beauregard

Man Fishing On Pier At Sunset

Hey Clyde, since you and your beer are featured at the top of the blog, I think our readers should know more about my imaginary friend.

Imagine this.

Now come on, Clyde. Don't be like that. Say! How would you like to be in one of my books?

No thanks. You'd probably get me drunk an' drown me in my beer cooler.

I would not. That would be way to obvious. How about I let you inhale one of those fancy fishing doo-hickeys on the intake of a surprise sneeze and you aspirate with the hook through the back of your tongue?

Fly fishing fly with hook

Ha! Shows what you know. I only use my teeth to bite through the line, not ta bait the damn thing.

Good point. So let's start with the basics. Where you from?

Besides your medulla stupida?

That's right prefrontal , smartman, among other areas.

Have you donated to Wikipedia yet?

Don't change the subject.

Fine, I'm from Honea Path, SC, my dad was in the armed services, my mom was the principal of Whitehall Elementary, and my older brother, Dylan, we call 'em Dill, regularly beat the piss out of me until I outgrew the sonofa--

Thanks, Clyde. We got it.

Well you asked.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson

I've seen this book everywhere. In bookstores, grocery stores, pet stores, and it's probably sold in tattoo parlors. Why not? I had no burning desire to read it myself until it was highly recommended by a friend. She warned me the beginning was slow.

Stuck on a plane to Calgary, having already read the inflight magazine and flipped through Sky Mall, I had no choice but to slog through it. Laborious. But my friend said she couldn't put it down. So I started looking at the page number, waiting for that magic moment of "Oooh, this is getting good now." 250. Yep, it took that long for it to pick up for me. And yes, I put it down several times to gaze at the tiny fields and clouds and wonder if the line for the bathroom would ever disappear. It made me wonder how in the world this story got through the publication process. Swedish editors must be far more patient with story development compared to their American counterparts.

The beginning deals with financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist's trial for commiting libel against a corrupt businessman. I got bored with all the details--finance ain't my cup of tea. I did wake up whenever the story switched to the titular character, Lizbeth Salander. With her dubious background, young age, and unlikely position as an investigator for a security company, this character jumped off the page.

The middle of the book is the best. Blomkvist is charged with discovering what really happened to the missing-presumed-murdered young girl from a prominent family chock full of nuts--including a Nazi sympathizer. It's a who-done-it with a large cast of suspects, plot twists, and a shocking ending. Good stuff.

Reasonable place to end things, right? Nope, we go for another 140 pages for Blomkvist and Salander to expose the corrupt businessman from the beginning. In case you're wondering, the paperback version I'm holding is nearly 650 pages. I like long books, but would have been sorely tempted as an editor to cut way back on the beginning and ending. Is this a good book? Yes, it is, but it takes a while to get going.

As a sad footnote, Larsson passed away before the books in his wildly successful trilogy were published.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Language Lessons in Banff

Last week my husband and I went to Banff in Alberta, Canada. The lake was blue green, the streams clear, spruce trees were everywhere, and the temperature was a perfect high 60s, low 70s. Even the chipmunks were extra cute and ready to jump on your lap for a power bar crumb or two. No, I was a good girl, and didn’t feed the wildlife. All in all, a hiker’s paradise as long as you don’t mind going up.

One thing about this destination—it attracts people from all over the world. So, for example, when I was clinging to a mountain side temporarily halted by my troublesome vertigo and the urge to scream, “I’m gonna die!” I heard, “What an idiot!” in several different languages. At least, that what I think they said.

On the second morning, we went for a canoe ride across Lake Louise. It cost about 40 bucks for an hour and they promised to charge us for a second hour if we were late. So off we went, with the rising sun at our backs and soon discovered that rowing straight requires some cooperation. Me: “Honey, you’re steering us into the rocks. They said stay ten feet from the shore. Honey!” Husband: “Wait, let me take this picture.” On the way back, the lake was full of red canoes and I realized the sun shining off the water was very, very bright, sparkling like a disco ball from migraine Hades. I pulled my hat over my eyes and squeezed them shut, rowing to beat the clock. We came close enough to the other canoes for me to hear “Anata wa baka” and “Du bist bekloppt”.

That afternoon we went to see Takakkaw Falls. It was gorgeous and quite cold at the bottom. All that pounding, flowing water had a predictable effect on my bladder, but alas, there were no port-a-potties around. “T'es un imb├ęcile!”

French is such a pretty language, isn’t it? I can’t wait to go back.