books

Bookcases, Bookcases, the Joys of Bookcases

The thing about bookcases is that you always need more of them.  At least I do, because the stream of books in my life is never ending.  Books are like rabbits and ideas, they reproduce themselves automatically.  One minute you have plenty of room in your bookcases for more books and then suddenly there are books piled all over the house and it is time to buy a new bookcase, or several. 

I have so many full bookcases in my house that sometimes I think it will sink into the basement from the sheer weight of all of them.  Perhaps, you might suggest, it would be prudent to shed some of the books.  And in truth, I have gotten better about doing that.  Used to be, I would never, ever, let go of a book once it came into my possession.  But once the problem of storing them reached crisis levels I had to rethink that obsession.

One thing that helped, in a sink-or-swim kind of way, was the fact that many years ago half my house burned down.  The half that didn't burn down, the bottom floor, sustained serious smoke and water damage, and since that is where many of the books were, we had to go through them and throw a lot of them out.  Yes, I know, it is painful to contemplate, but it is true–some of the books were so badly damaged that they couldn't even be given away.  In the process, I lost some of my favorite books, that I mourn to this day–my omnibus edition of the Caroline books, for instance.

But I gained the knowledge that physical books are just that–things that are far less important than human connections.  Because, you know how everyone asks you what you would grab if your house is on fire?  When the real thing happens the only thing going through your mind is getting the living, breathing creatures out–in our case, the kids, the cats and the dog (who refused to leave and cowered under the kitchen counter as firemen tromped through the house).  You don't spare a thought for the family photos, or your carefully designed scrapbooks, or even the computer with your novel on it.  All you think about is getting your loved ones out safely.

Since then I've managed to convince myself that letting go of books is good.  And I have the great good fortune to live in Portand, where Powells is located, which means any time the bookcases get a bit too bulgy, I can sort through them and go sell a few boxes there.  The problem is they give you more money if you take a store credit, so one must be disciplined in this endeavor as well.

Oh, who am I kidding?  I still have way too many books to fit in my bookcases and they spill into every room in the house.  (Which is just as well, because I distrust houses that do not have bookcases and stacks of magazines in them.)  So when the nice people, or the one nice person, at CSN Stores offered to send me a bookcase to review, I leapt at the chance.  Actually, they offered me a choice–review the bookcase myself, or offer it as a prize in a contest.  Um, I thought about offering you guys a chance to win it, really I did.  But my need for bookcases won out.

So just as soon as they send me my bookcase, I'll be reviewing it. You will read it here first!

Guest Review: A Sudden Country

And now, while I am on vacation, I have a guest post for you.  It is from my dear friend Paula, one of the most voracious readers and excellent writers I know.  I trust her opinion and you should, too.  Be sure to check out her bio at the end of the review. 

A Sudden Country                0812973437

Karen Fisher

Random House

13.95 Trade Paperback

I really love good historical fiction, “good” being the operative word. It’s not so easy to find. There are many historical novels that are, as far as I can tell, historically accurate but dull, dull, dull, totally predictable, written in such a plodding style that it takes a reader with far more patience than I to get through them. Then there are historical novels that are real pager turners but so lacking in historical accuracy that even a casual historian like me is put off by glaring errors. So when I run across a book like A Sudden Country, I savor every page, can’t wait to see what happens next but hate it when I see I’ve almost reached the end. Where the heck was I when the book was published in 2005?

In the opening paragraphs James MacLaren, sick with smallpox himself, treks through the snow carrying his one surviving, very ill child, trying to reach medical help. The bitter cold, his desperation and exhaustion leap off the page. Then we meet Lucy Mitchell. She’s just given birth to a daughter and is greeted with the news that her husband is thinking of taking the family over the Oregon Trail. Her pain at leaving the home she’s made and cherished, her foreboding that she will loose one of her five beloved children along the trail and her lack of choice in the matter is a knife twist to the gut.

This beautifully written book tells the parallel stories of Lucy Mitchell, reluctantly traveling the Oregon Trail with her family and James MacLaren, once a successful “gentleman” of Hudson’s Bay Company, trader, and mountain man. Lucy is grieving the loss of her home and the life she’s always known. James mired in sorrow for the beloved wife who has deserted him and the death by small pox of his children. Tracing the man he believes has stolen his wife, James finds that man driving a wagon for the Mitchell family. At this point, James and Lucy’s stories merge.

The beauty of the land she is traveling through is not lost on Lucy but neither is the hardship. She dutifully and capably tackles every chore set before her, carefully monitoring and instructing her three older daughters and little son while nursing her baby. But her sadness at leaving the old life behind and her disappointment in her husband’s subtle ineptitude creates a growing distance between husband and wife.

James, realizing he has, however unintentionally, deprived the Mitchell’s of a driver, reluctantly helps them along the way. But his search for Lise, his lost wife, never ends nor does his mourning lighten. How James and Lucy find the courage and strength to go on to a new reality makes wonderful reading. This book is lyrical, almost dream-like in places; yet it makes so very real the difficulty, the brutal reality, the beauty and wonder of the grueling journey westward.

Reviewed by Paula Harris

Contest Winner!

I've been running a little contest this week to give away a free copy of The Midnight Disease.  Today I chose the winner in a most scientific fashion–I wrote the names of the people who commented on pieces of paper, and had my daughter choose.

So, drumroll please….

The winner is….

Heather Justesen!

Heather's new book, The Ball's In Her Court, has just been released and it looks like a good one, so you should hop on over to her blog and check it out.

Heather, email me your address and I'll get the book in the mail to you just as soon as I return from vacation.  

Thanks to everyone who participated!

It is done, it is done, it is done

A ritual from an energy-healing technique that shall remain nameless ends thusly: it is done, it is done, it is done.

This is meant to be the signal that the healing has taken place.  But today I am co-opting it to announce that the novel is done.  Finished, finito, fini, DONE. 

I can hardly believe it.

I can also hardly believe how carefree and energized I feel–ready to tackle new projects, and return to some old ones as well–like organizing my office.  It is bad, I tell you.  If I took a picture of it you would be shocked.

But first it is off to New Mexico for a week.

No matter how painful, and I know it will be, I promise to share the ups and downs of the novel submission process.  Current status: query sent to agent I have personal recommendation for.  Please think good thoughts.

DON'T FORGET THE CONTEST to win a copy of The Midnight Disease.  You have until the end of today to comment on that post and then I will choose a winner, randomly.  And let me just say, as of now, your odds are very good.  So get on over there and make them bad. 

It Is All For the Book

When my kids were little, it seemed like every other week there was a social event I didn't want to attend.  I'm a pretty social person (all these hours I spend alone writing need some balance) but sometimes there were things I just didn't want to do–school parties where all the mothers seemed far more together, knowledgeable and hip than I come to mind immediately.  I was shyer then than I am now, and far less confident.

But I always went to these events.  Always, once even after I'd had gum surgery and was in so much pain I could barely talk.

When I was moaning and groaning about having to go, I would tell myself one thing–it is for the kids.

It didn't matter what I thought, or what anyone thought of me.  The most important thing was that I was going for the benefit of my child and I needed to be there for her/him.  This bit of perspective has actually served me well through the years when I've used it to remind myself what is important in other arenas.

And I've thought about it a lot lately as I wind down the final revisions of my novel (ha! you knew I'd get it in here). 

I'm reworking a crucial bit in one of the last chapters.  By all accounts, I had a problem with this scene.  My critique group recommended solving in one manner.  Other readers had different ideas.  And when I started working on the changes, I knew that neither were right.  However, dumbly, I kept going.  I tore apart that chapter. I kept telling myself that my instincts were wrong and that I needed to listen to others because they knew best.  I was too close to the work, I told myself.  I couldn't see the forest for the trees.  (Those thoughts, of course, alternate with panicked ones like, Who is going to want to read this damn thing anyway?)

Finally, after much heavy sighing, staring out the window, and pacing (all crucial aspects of the rewriting process that honestly don't get their due) it hit me.

It is all for the book.

It doesn't matter what I think, doesn't matter what my critique group thinks, it doesn't matter what my readers think.  What maters is what works for the book.  Period. 

It is all for the book.

That brilliant epiphany cleared the path for magic to happen–a third direction appeared.  A different way in which to solve the problem occurred to me, and it is a stronger, better way.  It is the way that is best for the book.

I had a nutritionist who dabbled in Jungian psychology once, and she would have called this grace.

I am grateful for it.  (And honestly, I really am close to finishing this protracted rewrite.  Truly.  I'd probably have been done with it ages ago if I'd just quit writing about it.)

PS.  Don't forget to enter the contest to win a free copy of the book, The Midnight Disease: The Drive To Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty.  You can find out how if you go here.

The Writing Disease

I'm not exactly sure where I am going with this, so bear with me as I attempt to connect two trains of 311973_steam_train thought.

Train Number #1–On Writing a Novel (you knew it was coming)

When I was a MFA student, I loved always having an excuse to get out of things I didn't want to do, such as certain social events.  Since I had harrowing deadlines every three weeks for two years, I could always says, "Sorry, I can't come, I've got a school deadline."  This always worked magically, with people taking pity on me and absolving me of all guilt.  But for some reason, once I graduated from school and got out in the real world (a cold, hard shock for MFA students) this excuse no longer flew.  Even though I was gainfully working on paying projects for clients.  Somehow, being a student trumped all. 

Flash forward six years (lord, has it really been that long?) and here I am finishing up my novel.  My office is a terrible mess (I was going to post a photo but I can't, it is too embarrassing), important things are going undone, like picking up cleaning and sending cards, and I broke down and hired a house cleaner so that we didn't get a visit from the department of health.  I dream of being able to actually concentrate on a whole book, start to finish, and not just peruse bits and pieces of nonfiction, and I have knitting projects I would love to work on.  Emails go unanswered, and everything on my body widens and spreads as I spend hours at my desk.  But it is all for a good cause–my novel.

Train Number #2–On reading The Midnight Disease

At bedtime, I am reading (at least in the 5 minute snippets I manage to focus before my eyes close and the book falls out of my hand) The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty.  She is a neurologist who takes as her starting point hypergraphia, or the incurable writing disease.  It is when people, often in a manic state, take up the pen and write pages or even volumes of florid prose.   Through this lens, she examines the drive to write and create and it is fascinating reading which perhaps sheds a wee bit of light on Train #1.

What Flaherty says in the current chapter I am reading, is that creativity is ultimately judged on both its novelty (if it is same-old, same-old, where's the innovation?) and value (something that is "useful or illuminating") and that these standards are essentially socially defined.  Says Flaherty, "Creativity is not the property of a work in isolation: novelty and value have to be defined in a relation to a social context.  When I use a lever and fulcrum to move a rock in my garden, I don't get the creativity points that I would were I a Cro-Magnon."

So perhaps my messy office and tardy answers to email will be forgiven because they are in the service of art and my little Cro-Magnon mind has been creating something that will illuminate your lives.  (I know writing novels doesn't fall into the category of useful innovation, especially in the case of Emma Jean, which is something I struggle with.  Shouldn't I be spending all this time doing something real and important, like saving the world?

My measure of success for myself is whether or not I have written.  I am not hypergraphic, but I am driven to write.  I suspect many of you out there are, too.  It is an interesting drive, and sometimes a frustrating one which is why I am enjoying reading The Midnight Disease, so that I can learn more about it.

And sometimes I wonder at what price the drive to write comes.

Are the hours that I spend at my desk worth it?  Defining this from a social point of view the answer is, that depends. If I get an agent, a contract, and the book sells well, everyone will think I'm a fantastic, creative heroine.   But if it doesn't, I'm just another poor sap who thought she had talent but didn't.

Here's what counts: never, ever in my life have I worked as hard on anything as I have this novel.  I've written other novels before, but always stopped short of truly having a finished product I was proud of.  I loved My MFA novel, a chapter of which was published last year, but I could never get it to a place where the whole thing hung together as a coherent work.  It was close, but never quite made it.  I knew there was more I needed to do to make it work  but then I got so sick of working on it and the obstacles to revision seems so steep, that I've put it aside.  The fire for it just isn't there anymore.

But Emma Jean is different.  I am finishing up the eighth draft, and it was only a few days ago that I realized what one of the major themes of the novel is (for the record, it is: if its love, the Lord won't mind).  With every draft I've gone deeper and deeper into Emma Jean's head and heart and strengthened the throughlines of the novel so they are nice and taut.  Many a friend has urged me just to send what I have, that it is good enough, but I've come this far and I'm not going to quit now.  There is a lot to be said for knowing when you are done. 

If the novel never sells, I will have the satisfaction that for once in my life I have done all I could do with it  I have done my best in every way.  It feels really good to be able to say that, and though I'll be terribly disapointed if it doesn't sell, it will be enough.

And that, to me, is what the drive to write is all about.

NEW CONTEST

The thought occurred to me as I was writing this post that I have a copy of The Midnight Disease to give away.  Amazon sent me an extra copy (maybe I ordered it by accident, who knows) and this copy could be yours!  Leave a comment on this post and I'll randomly pick a number for the winner.  You can comment up until this Friday only because I'm leaving for Santa Fe next week and I will want to get it in the mail before then.  Comment away!

Put it All On the Page, Put It All on the Page Now

I'm a junkie for writing books.

The good ones get me so excited about writing that I have a hard time finishing them because I put them down to go write (sort of like what I hope this blog does for people).  And even the bad ones generally offer some tidbit or another.

So when I saw a new book on writing by Annie Dillard, called Give it All Up, Give It All Up Now: One of The Few Things I Know About WritingI eagerly snatched it off the shelf.  The book had a colorful, bright cover done in gorgeous watercolors and that was enough to drive me to the bookstore cash register, even though the entire thing was shrink-wrapped.  No matter.  I anticipated serious and weighty thoughts on writing, precious secrets, and glorious inspiration.  I was excited and couldn't wait to get home to read it.

Imagine my dismay when I slit open the plastic that surrounded it and found that it is essentially a gift book, a coffee-table type volume that opens up in accordion folds.  The watercolors are awesome, but the words on the page are few, and to save you the trouble, basically they are variations on the theme of the title:  Give it all up, put it all on the page, don't hold back, don't hoard words…and so on.

I was angry at myself for succumbing to the lure of yet another book (something I've been doing since I was a tiny child so I don't know why I ever expect to change) and mad at Annie Dillard for enticing me to buy this worthless piece of @#$%^.

But here's the funny thing:  I've found those words ringing in my head ever since.  Give it all up, I hear as I open the computer.  Put it all on the page, the voice whispers as I begin to right.  Don't hold back, gets told to me as I pick up my pen to write in my journal.  It is not a new sentiment.  One of my most favorite self-help books ever has a chapter titled with similar words.  (I can't remember the exact book, but check out the amazing Alan Cohen's site and read anything by him.)

And so now I have come to believe that these are the most profound words on writing you'll likely ever hear.  So deep and yet so simple.  Give it all up, give it all up now.  Put it all on the page, put it all on the page now.  Don't hold back, splash it all out there.  Collapse, exhausted, from the effort, rest awhile and then rise to do it all over again.

STAY TUNED for an announcement about an exciting contest with an awesome prize to be held right here on this very blog.

John Updike, 1932-2009

John Updike has died, of lung cancer.  You can read the New York Times obit here. 

I'm sad.  I didn't even know he was ill.  The obituary is one of those that has been on file for awhile and so doesn't talk a lot about the circumstances of his death.

Love him or hate him, he was a huge literary figure and he published over 50 books throughout his career.  The Times referred to him as "prolific, even compulsive." 

Not a bad epitaph, considering that so many of us struggle to even get words on the page.

(And, for those of you who thought I had gone to the same place as Updike, I assure you I'm still here.  I've got four, count 'em, four posts, written out to put up.  Circumstances in my life has been a bit, um, overwhelming shall we say.  My mother in a nursing home, my daughter deciding to get married in less than a month, a trip to Chicago for AWP to moderate a panel in a couple weeks and three ghostwriting projects.  Oh, and I just adopted my Mom's ancient, frail cat, who thinks the blind pug is a big scary beast out to eat her for breakfast when the truth is I'm not even sure he knows she exists.)

The Sinner’s Guide to Confession: Blog Stop

The Sinner's Guide to ConfessionSinners Guide to Confession

By Phyllis Schieber

Today I have the pleasure of hosting a blog stop on Phyllis Schieber's virtual book tour.

Wouldn't it be refreshing for an author to pay attention to women of a certain age (especially if you are a woman of a certain age)?  Well, Phyllis Schieber has!Her novel has been called chick-lit for boomers. The characters–Barbara, Kaye, and Ellen–are best friends in their 50s, all smart, gutsy women who face challenges that are universal to all females, no matter the age. 

In an interview at the blog, Bookshipper, Shieber said, "The women in Sinner's certainly have some of the same problems that women have in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but these women have far more serious issues to contend with in their late forties and early fifties than the problems that drive 'chick lit'."

What follows is a bit more information about the book.  Be sure to scroll down to find out how to win a free copy.  Nothing better than a free book!

About Sinner’s Guide to Confession:
Kaye and Barbara are longtime friends, now in their fifties. Ellen, who is several years younger, develops a friendship with the other two women years later, solidifying this close-knit group. The three women are inseparable, yet each nurtures a secret that she keeps from the others.


Phyllis Scheiber
About Author Phyllis Schieber (in her own words):

The first great irony of my life was that I was born in a Catholic hospital. My parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had settled in the South Bronx among other new immigrants. In the mid-fifties, my family moved to Washington Heights. The area offered scenic views of the Hudson River and the Palisades, as well as access to Fort Tryon Park and the mysteries of the Cloisters. I graduated from George Washington High School. I graduated from high school at sixteen, went on to Bronx Community College, transferred to and graduated from Herbert H. Lehman College with a B.A. in English and a New York State license to teach English. I earned my M.A. in Literature from New York University and later my M.S. as a developmental specialist from Yeshiva University. I have worked as a high school English teacher and as a learning disabilities specialist.

My first novel , Strictly Personal, for young adults, was published by Fawcett-Juniper. Willing Spirits was published by William Morrow. My most recent novel, The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, was released by Berkley Putnam. In March 2009, Berkley Putnam will issue the first paperback publication of Willing Spirits.

Win A Free Book from Phyllis Schieber – It's very easy to be entered in a drawing for a FREE book by Phyllis Schieber. Post comments on any blogs during the virtual tour and you will have a chance to win a book from Phyllis. One random person will win – but we are also asking visitors to share a secret and one secret will also win a free book. As a bonus the blog owner that hosted the winning comments will also win a book. Share some interesting stories and questions with Phyllis Schieber during her tour – and have a chance to win a book.

For full details about Phyllis Schieber’s virtual tour, visit her tour home page -  http://virtualblogtour.blogspot.com/2008/12/sinners-guide-to-confession-by-phyllis.html

Order Your Copy here – http://tr.im/2x1g

You can visit Phyllis Schieber at www.thesinnersguidetoconfession.com or www.phyllisschieber.blogspot.com

It’s Sunday: Do You Know Where Your Niche Is?

I just found mine.

It wasn't really lost, in the sense that it was something I desperately missed.  It was more like it was buried under the multitude of interests and ideas that crowd my sometimes-mushy brain (too much going on in there!) 

It wasn't even something that I felt I needed.  The experts, however, say otherwise.  It took quite a bit of convincing, and reading a book to get me searching for my niche.  And then, as is so often the case, I found it right under my nose.

Are you ready?

My niche is information about creating a writing life while writing your book or waiting for it to sell. Or, in short, creating a life devoted to writing.  That has a nice ring to it.  Right?

I know.  Duh. Like I haven't been writing about just that already.  But you'd be surprised how difficult it can be to decide what it is exactly that I do.  Because, like many writers, I do many different things.  I'm terrible at networking events because my 20-second elevator pitch goes something like this:

"And what do you do?"  (Woman dressed in killer designer suit with beautifully lacquered nails.)

"Um, I'm a writer."  (Me, in my usual writerly outfit of gypsy skirt and lots of jewelry.)

"What do you write?"  (Killer woman.)

"Well, I ghostwrite.  And I teach writing.  And I coach writers.  And I run a writing program.  And I write this blog that talks about writing.  And then there's my own writing, the novels and short stories."

I'm telling the last part of it to the woman's back–the suit cuts a gorgeous line from the rear, too–because I've lost her.  She is off looking for someone who can tell her succinctly what he can do.

Since I'm not a big fan of networking events anyway, except for one I belong to in LA, I've managed to convince myself I don't really need a niche.  I have now seen the error of my ways and will spend the next year repenting. 

Actually, I'm really happy about this because identifying my niche gives me permission to do more of what I'm already doing.  I'm going to continue writing posts about craft and creativity and how they apply to making a life devoted to writing. 

One of my twitter friends, Mary, asked me to define "writing life" after I proudly tweeted about my niche.   And so here goes.  Creating a life devoted to writing can mean actually making a living writing, supplementing your income with writing, or just learning how to make contacts and attend events relating to writing, even if you don't need to earn a living from it.  A life devoted to writing implies that you make time for it regularly–another thing I talk a lot (some would probably say too much).  Creating a life devoted to writing means that the written word (and you practicing it) is front and center in your life.

So, there you have it, a niche, found.  And now excuse me while I go practice my elevator pitch.