Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rules for Reading and Writing (Not So Much with the 'Rithmetic)

You may have noticed that I've added a new page to the blog listing what I've been reading. I got the idea from another author-blogger and thought it would be interesting to see how having the list impacts what and when I read (if at all) or what people think about my writing.

Actually, I'd been thinking about this topic already when I attended a book club meeting a couple of weeks ago, and one of the members asked me about my favorite authors. I stammered for a bit in response, embarrassed that I couldn't rattle off a concise and relevant list.

Part of the problem, I realized later, is that there are countless answers. There are the building blocks for my love of literature: Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Kate Chopin, Shakespeare (feel free to throw up a little if you need to). The list goes on. Love them all. Haven't read them since college.

There are the books I read when I just want a good story with well-developed characters and settings: Jane Austen, the Harry Potter series, J.R.R.Tolkein, Carol Shields, Gregory Macguire, Diana Gabaldon. And then there are the books more like my own writing: Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, and Helen Fielding. When I have time to read, I also read lots of stuff from the psychology and business worlds.

I read different things for different reasons, and so it's hard to choose a 'favorite.' What's more, I have to confess that I am not exactly an avid reader (gasp!). I know, it's horrible. A writer who doesn't read is like a chef who doesn't eat, right?

That is certainly the conventional wisdom. I have been reading lots of articles lately (do those count?) with instructions for wannabe writers about everything from cover art design to daily bowel movements, and nearly all of them include advice about reading. Read for a minimum of 90 minutes a day. Read extensively in the genre in which you write. Read only authors who are better than you, to 'uplift' your writing.

It all sounds like good advice, but here's a revised set of rules that work better for me:

Rule #1: Read when you can. With a toddler, a three-month-old, a family and a part-time job, if I read for 90 minutes every day, that leaves an average of  negative 42 minutes for writing. I just don't have time to set aside an hour and a half each day for reading. Not if I expect to write at all. I do hope to read more, and my new Kindle (woo-hoo!) may assist with that, since it allows me to read more easily in the carpool line or while nursing in the middle of the night. Still, we're talking an extra 10 or 20 minutes a day, tops. It will just have to do.

Rule #2: Read what interests you, no matter the genre or format. My reading list spans everything from Freud to Nora Roberts, and I'm cool with that. Because of the aforementioned time issue, I also read in spurts. A chapter here and there, a blog post, an article. Sometimes I'm on the same page for days. Personally, I like a wide range of topics and perspectives because they inform my writing better than an in-depth knowledge of one particular genre ever could.

Rule #3: Don't worry about what everyone else has already done. My favorite English professor at UGA used to tell us not to read literary criticism before writing our papers because "then the critics just steal your ideas." In other words, if an idea is yours, let it stay yours. It might be similar to another's thought, but you have your own original voice and perspective. Run with it.

I was talking to a friend the other day about my latest novel idea, which delves a bit into the paranormal (!!), and he started asking me how much I have read in that genre. For a minute I thought, "Oh, no! I have to go read the top 50 paranormal novels on Amazon before I can even think about writing this!" But, why? If I go combing the landscape for what has already been done in order to either avoid copying it or to understand what's 'expected' in the field, I'll just be creating a minefield for myself to try to avoid while writing. Or worse, modifying what's already in my head to make it fit in the box created by the genre. Wouldn't it be better to just write my idea, my way, and not worry about what anyone else has written? Yes, it would.

Rule #4: Be inspired everywhere. Books aren't the only things that can inspire and uplift your writing. Sometimes a great song lyric or advertising tag line can tell you as much about the power of words as a whole novel. I'd like to write novels like Baz Luhrman directs movies, Etta James belts out a song, Paul McCartney writes a melody, etc. I tweeted once that if I could write a book like Paul Simon writes a lyric, I'd be pretty damn happy with that. And I would.

Rule #5: It's okay to read bad writing. Seriously, it is. Since my new Kindle has afforded me easy access to the world of 99 cent novels (not that I'm denigrating -- mine is 99 cents, too), I've been able to download and read some popular things without having the foggiest idea whether they'd be good or not. Some of them are, some are not. What's interesting is that some of the self-published and even traditionally-published novels ranked very highly on Amazon's lists are not nearly as well-written as mine and others that are far, far lower in the rankings. [BTW, as of today, my Kindle edition is #155,820. I'm pretty sure I'm ranked one spot above the receipt we brought home from Taco Bell the other night.]

There are a couple of benefits to reading something that does not 'uplift' your writing, but is commercially successful. First, it can be a major confidence booster. "If these guys can make it, why not me?" My senior-year English teacher did this for me when I told her I didn't think I was a good enough writer to be an English major in college. She asked me to come by her room and showed me some essays written by average college-bound students (she blacked out the names, of course). She wasn't trying to put down the other kids, but she wanted me to have some perspective on my own abilities. No matter what a wonderful person you are, it takes a bit of arrogance to put your writing out in the world for everyone to see, and evidence that you are at least as good as others comes in handy for that.

Second, if you read a few roughly-written bestsellers, you begin to see beyond the choppy writing and mixed metaphors to discover the common things that readers actually like in a book. If it's not impeccable grammar and brilliant scene structure that catapulted these guys to the top of the charts, what was it? Sometimes we snobby aspiring authors forget that we aren't generally writing for other English majors. We're writing for readers. I'm not saying that you can't be both a Pulitzer-prize level author and a commercial success. I'm just saying that there may be something to learn from books that people consistently buy and read, whether they are award-winners or not.

Monday, November 28, 2011

NaNoWriMo: One of my Best Failures Yet

Well, folks, it's November 28th, time for a status update. If you are one of those root-for-the-underdog, "maybe she'll pull it out of the fire at the last minute and surprise us" kind of readers, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I think it's highly unlikely I will write 32,940 words in the next 59 hours to complete NaNoWriMo. In fact, I took the last five days off from writing altogether, so that my official word count chart looks like a sad little plateau in the shadow of Goal Mountain.

And I couldn't be happier.

Why? First, the reason I quit writing this week was to give my family my undivided attention over the Thanksgiving holiday. Following a lovely meal with extended family and some midnight Black Friday shopping with my best friend, we had the most relaxing three days we've experienced in a looooong time. I think everyone in our house felt rejuvenated and more connected as we returned to work/preschool/play-mat today. And it was desperately needed. Even if I'd been giving up $32,000 instead of 32,000 words, that would've been worth it.

Second, it turns out that failing at NaNoWriMo was a huge success. As I described in my previous posts about this challenge, sometimes it takes insane ambition to force us to put in the time on something we love. Otherwise, there are too many excuses, too many alternatives, too many more sensible choices available. So even though I knew it was a goal I'd be unlikely to achieve this year, I started out the month with gusto anyway. And it worked.

I made time to dive back into writing by getting started on REGRETS ONLY, the sequel to THE MARRIAGE PACT, and things really started to flow. I got several great chapters underway and learned a little more about Suzanne (Marci's best friend in TMP, the main character of REGRETS). I'm looking forward to seeing how her story will continue to develop.... eventually.

In the meantime, however, the 'flow' has not restricted itself to the novel that I set out to write. In fact, as I plowed along, my conversation with Suzanne was interrupted several times by ideas for other projects, and other characters demanding that their stories be heard. One character in particular, a spunky young woman named Dina (whom you'll hear more about soon), just wouldn't let up. I don't know if Dina realizes that it's rude to interrupt a writer at work, but to be fair, she has an amazing story that I think you'll be clamoring for when it's written.

So, Suzanne, like any well-bred Southern belle would do, is stepping aside. Temporarily. Her story will be written in its time (and I have a feeling she'll get revenge for the interruption when it does). But for now, I'm going to follow the flow and Dina. I can tell by her crazy tattoos and bad attitude that it's going to be an interesting journey. So stay tuned. More fruits of my failure coming soon!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Voice

It seems writers are always talking about voice. Finding your voice, choosing a voice for a story... and even, on some occasions, hearing voices. (No one ever said we writers were the most mentally stable crowd.)

On a personal note today, I'd like to join the rest of the University of Georgia's Bulldog Nation in saying goodbye to a familiar and beloved voice: our longtime football play-by-play announcer Larry Munson, who passed away on Sunday night. 

Larry Munson was a spirited and colorful part of my alma mater's football tradition, and for many of us who grew up in Georgia, he was as much a part of fall Saturdays as washing the car or raking the leaves. Larry called the games for 40 years in his signature gravelly voice, using metaphors that were always lively, if occasionally incomprehensible. [Many will long remember his remark, ''We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose!'' after a big touchdown pass against Tennessee in 2001.] Since his retirement in 2008, there has been a void on fall Saturdays for Georgia fans everywhere, a void that deepened Sunday night on the news of his death. 

For me, the loss of Larry Munson is not so much about football, but rather the echo of a deeper loss. To be honest with you, I was never a huge football person, and it's only been in recent years that I have embraced watching UGA football on a regular basis. In fact, during the five years that I studied at UGA, I went to maybe four football games. And even then, it was mostly for the pre-game beer.

When I was growing up, though, my Dad watched and listened to the games religiously. Never mind that he didn't go to UGA, never mind that he spent most of his career working for in-state rival Georgia Tech. He was a bulldog fan through and through, and I can still remember the crackling sound of Larry Munson's voice on the AM radio while Dad cleaned the garage or worked in the basement. I wasn't really interested in the game itself, but my Dad was my hero back then. I didn't think anything was more perfect than a sunny Saturday watching him working around the house in paint-splattered jeans and a sweatshirt.

In recent years, things had changed. Dad didn't do as much around the house anymore, and didn't seem to enjoy life with the same fervor I remember from my childhood. Our relationship changed, too, as our family went through a series of painful experiences. While we were always pretty solid, there were strains between us that didn't exist when I was a kid. It wasn't long ago that I found myself nostalgic and longing for those quiet Saturdays when things seemed simpler. When the sound of Larry Munson's voice was the backdrop for moments of calm amidst the chaos. 

When Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, I was especially devastated because I felt that the birth of my older son (and the expectation of the younger) had finally brought us together in a way that we'd been missing. In fact, we watched more Georgia football games together in the last two years than we had in a decade. The last time I saw my Dad, he came to our house in early September -- you guessed it -- to watch the football game. Georgia lost that game to Boise State, but it doesn't matter. We had a great time together, and I'm so happy we had the presence of mind to take pictures of our family in Red & Black, sitting together, with my one-month-old son cradled in his Granddad's affectionate arms.

Dad died a little over two weeks later. Needless to say, the rest of the season has been bittersweet for me. The Dawgs are going to the SEC championship, but my Dad isn't here to enjoy it with our family, or to tirelessly analyze every step of the way with my husband. This past Saturday I got a message from one of Dad's best friends in the world, who he has known and loved since graduate school: "Guess I'll never glance at a Georgia football game and not think of your Dad." Me, either.

When a public figure passes away, we all have our own connections and reasons to mourn. I know I am not alone in missing Larry Munson, not just for who he was for my school, but who he represented in my life. For the memories and feelings that come flooding back whenever I hear that famous voice.

Thank you, Larry. You'll be missed more than you know.

Monday, November 14, 2011

NaNoWriMo - The (Almost) Halfway Point

Perhaps against my better judgment, I am participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. As I might have guessed when I signed up, I am more than 50% behind pace to complete the 50,000 words in my latest novel, REGRETS ONLY. With each day that passes, it becomes less and less likely that I will catch up by November 30. The folks at NaNoWriMo even provide a helpful graph so I can visually see my meager little word counts straining to keep up with the 1,667 per day line.

It's hard work, it's frustrating, and it's almost ridiculous given the busy, sleep-deprived state of my life right now. And it's exactly what I thought would happen.

So why bother?

One thing I have learned about myself over the years is that I work better with (a) structure and (b) dramatic goals. The combination of adrenalin and a very tall measuring stick seems to work well for me as a motivator. At the beginning of the writing process, motivation is the most important tool. At this stage of the process, motivation trumps talent and experience by a long shot. It doesn't matter what an awesome writer I am unless I write.

Lots of people want to write a book - whether it's a novel like mine, a self-help book, a kids' book, cookbook, whatever... In my experience, many people are held back by the idea that they have to be "ready" before they start writing. If they can't envision the final product perfectly, or can't figure out where they would get the thousands of hours required to complete the project, they don't start.

Does it take thousands of hours to write a novel? Well, yes. But it only takes one to get started. Then you find another hour somewhere and keep going. The luxury of many consecutive, uninterrupted hours that can be dedicated to writing is a rare gift. More often, people write books by stringing together lunch breaks, jotting down notes while holding a sleeping baby (I happen to be holding a sleeping baby right now, in fact), and tuning out the background noise on the bus.

To make that kind of schedule work, to dedicate yourself to filling spare moments with words, means you have to leave perfectionism and self-criticism at the door. Otherwise, you'll get bogged down and self-destruct before you even get started. That's why the quantity-over-quality endeavors like NaNoWriMo are so useful. Don't edit. Don't critique. Just write.

I've been amazed, even with my paltry 9500 words, how Suzanne's story and the characters who inhabit it are evolving and moving differently than I expected, simply because I've allowed them the freedom to do so. And I'm going to keep at it, even if I don't make the 50K goal, even if I have to go back and rewrite every word that hits the page in November. Because everything starts somewhere.

In the meantime, cheers to my fellow NaNoWriMo writers, and to everyone following a dream during life's stolen moments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Last night we took the boys Trick-or-Treating with some friends and had a great time. I didn't know whether Monkey would be able to keep up with the four- to seven-year-old crowd on his little two-year-old pirate legs, but he was a champ. I don't think he cares much about the candy yet -- last night he had perhaps his third piece ever and tried to eat the wrapper. Rookie mistake. But the thrill of running from house to house filling his bucket was irresistible and he loved every minute.

Apparently, the porch light code (lights on = candy, lights off = go away) either no longer applies or the people in this particular neighborhood weren't paying much attention to it. So the older boys who were leading our group adopted a scouting approach to each house, running ahead to ring doorbells and shouting back to the younger kids and adults whether each house held the promise of candy or was deserted. I'm not sure why, but after a while, they started saying that the empty houses were "haunted." I guess at six or seven, a lack of candy can be pretty scary.

So I started thinking about the concept of haunted houses. In my current philosophical state, I moved pretty quickly to thinking about haunted people. We all are, aren't we? Maybe not by ghosts and spirits, but by other things: Regret. Loss. Doubt.

Personally, I am haunted by mistakes I've made, things unsaid, and (perhaps more often) things I wish I hadn't said. I am haunted by song lyrics and poetry and even news stories. I'm haunted by longings for things I want desperately and things I can't even name. I'm haunted by reminders that life is short, unpredictable and makes no promises. Even when I count my blessings, I see their shadow -- the knowledge that everything is fleeting and nothing (no one) is mine forever.

Thirteen years ago I was hiking in the Scottish highlands, along a steep and rocky ridge next to a river valley. I'd been wandering around with nothing but a backpack and a credit card for nearly six months, and everything I owned was either strapped to my back or resting a few miles away in a tent, behind a tiny luggage lock. My companion and I had been hiking for hours in silence, waving away the midges and struggling for breath as we ascended into the thin Scottish air.

As we neared the top of a hill, we heard a sudden roar as a black RAF fighter jet zipped between our ridge and the one across the little valley. It flew past us almost at eye level, looking smaller than it sounded, and turned sharply to climb into the blue sky before disappearing over the next mountain. Another jet followed suit, and they both made a couple of passes between the mountains before eventually sliding off into the distance. (We learned later that the area in which we were hiking was a common training ground for fighter pilots to practice rough terrain).

Once they were gone, the beautiful mountain scene returned to its original quiet state and we almost wondered if we had imagined the jets entirely. It was pretty surreal. We continued our climb to the top of the ridge, took pictures, and worked our way back to the campsite a few hours later.

I can't say why, but I am haunted by that moment, even today. Maybe it was the intrusion of technology (instruments of war, no less) on my peaceful hike across the unspoiled Scottish countryside. But I have to admit that seeing the planes was a thrill, rather than a nuisance. Perhaps it was the way the scene changed and then returned to its former state so quickly -- a fleeting moment in time that can never be recaptured.

Or maybe it's because I felt freer in that moment than I have at any other time in my life. Even if it was a completely artificial way of existing, there was something liberating about being 22: carrying all I needed in one well-worn backpack, moving from place to place, snapping pictures and writing in my journal as though it were a real job. Climbing mountains just because they were there to be climbed.

Of course, I can't have that moment in my life back again. And frankly, I wouldn't want it back. There's too much that is wonderful and essential in my totally tied down, mortgage-paying, cheerio-sweeping life. But there are plenty of moments I would like to get back, to relive in a slightly different way. To hold my tongue in a precarious social situation. To speak up for someone who needed it. To hug my parents a little longer, and take the time to write down their stories, the ones I always assumed I'd be hearing again someday. So many choices I look back on and wish I could try out a different path. But then I wouldn't be where I am, wouldn't have the blessings I have. I'd be in an alternate universe that might be less perfect than my current life.

If you've read THE MARRIAGE PACT, you may have picked up on the theme of choices, and how they help weave the story of our lives. My next book is called REGRETS ONLY, and I hope -- through Suzanne's very unique lens -- it will at least touch on the idea of being haunted. By the past, by roads not taken, by moments and relationships lost forever.

Speaking of which, today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While I don't think I can crank out the 3,000 words a day I would need to complete REGRETS before December 1, I'm planning to make major progress this month and will keep you posted.

If you've been waiting for a cue to take a leap in your own life, here it is: November is a great time to seize a moment and accomplish something you've always wanted to do -- whether it's write a novel or pretty much anything else. We cannot recapture the past, but sometimes we can avoid regrets in the future, or at least choose what kind they will be. Better to regret the pain of loss, than of never having put your heart on the line in the first place.

So, good luck and get busy (or unbusy, if that's your thing), because time really does fly.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Words, Words, Words

I've had language on the brain this week.

First and rather unpleasantly, there is the language of the law. Despite a house-wide lack of sleep, the major disruption in our family right now relates to one poorly-written phrase in an outdated will of my father's. It's a long story I can't tell in detail, but there's an outside chance that a few unfortunate words may mean that a substantial portion of the modest inheritance Dad intended for me, my brother and my children could be siphoned off to someone else.

So instead of being free to grieve his loss and undertake the management of his estate, I am gearing up for a potential legal battle that can only end in tears and wounded family relationships. While frustrating and heartbreaking, it's a survivable event. Whatever happens, life will go on.

It's well-known that the legal world does not always share language with the average person, or even common sense. I was talking about this the other day with a friend whose husband is an attorney, and she recalled a time when he ripped up a will they had recently written in case of emergency while they were traveling. Upon re-reading the document, he realized that one particular word in the will would actually negate their overall intentions and cause major problems for their friends and family. One word. Sheesh.

I can read something and think it means one thing, while my lawyer sees something entirely different. We both speak English, as did the author, but it's like the difference between me staring up at the starry night sky and Stephen Hawking regarding the same scene. One sloppy turn of phrase written 37 years ago could impact many lives today, and undermine the whole purpose of a document. A painful reminder to the writer about the power of words.

On the other, more fun end of life and the language spectrum is my two-year-old. He is learning to talk in the messy way with which two-year-olds do everything. He picks up words and phrases immediately after hearing them and uses them -- right or wrong -- over and over and over again. He does this with wild abandon, until eventually he narrows down their meanings on his own. (And on his own terms).

My son is absolutely reckless with language and does not worry a bit about being wrong. One of his favorite new word games is to hold up his index finger dramatically and say, "Mommy, I have ONE question." Of course I oblige and say, "What's that, babe?" and then he grins broadly and picks a nearby object as inspiration to give me a one-word response: "Car!" "Box!" "Window!" "Candle!"

When I gently try to explain that those things aren't questions, they're, well, things -- it seems to fall on deaf ears. I try giving examples of questions as demonstration: "How are you?" "Where are we going?" etc. But rather than picking up on the definition of the word 'question' by illustration, he just answers all the example questions. Hilarious. And then we go back to what he really wants to do anyway, which is play the "I have a question" game his way.

I don't press the point. I'm almost positive that by the time it matters, he'll have worked out what the word 'question' really means, whether I try to teach it to him or not. And honestly, I love watching him explore the world this way -- shoving the square peg relentlessly into the round hole, not caring whether it fits at all. He's absolutely confident in his worldview, even though it may change from moment to moment. It's wonderful.

In the meantime, I find myself singing to both of my boys more than ever. Not just the traditional lullabies and kids' songs, but the music my Dad loved. He used to have classic and folk rock stockpiled in the car for long road trips: Crosby, Stills and Nash; Neil Diamond; Elton John; Simon & Garfunkel; Joni Mitchell; Janis Joplin; Roger Miller; Peter, Paul & Mary.... and lots of others. At 16, I thought these artists were mostly lame and outdated (or at least, that's what I claimed when I wanted to listen to Guns 'N' Roses or Nirvana instead). But now, those songs are the legacy through which I fondly remember both my parents, and that I try to share with my children.

The other night, I sang "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to my two-month old while I rocked him to sleep. I thought about Dad and our road trips, and how the lyrics of that song used be so full of mystery to me -- before I had an adult's perspective. Now I see so many things differently, and I turn to wonder how my boys will come to love and explore the mysteries of their world.

As a mother, I can't promise what the future will hold for my kids. But I hope I can pass on some of the wonderful characteristics of my parents to them, even if only through snippets of melodies and old song lyrics.

As a writer, I realize I have to tie all of this together to create anything worthwhile. The reckless abandon and unadulterated joy of a two-year old trying things out -- unafraid of results. The surgical precision of the lawyer who must have every word at its best and most meaningful. The love of a daughter/mother trying to capture a legacy for her children.

Writing is a journey that mirrors life. Somewhere along the road, I have to embody all those things to tell the stories of my heart. I'm not always sure how to do that, but I'm lucky to have some wonderful souls in the minivan with me. And great traveling music, naturally.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing the Good Fight

I posted my last blog entry seven weeks ago today. Two days later, my son was born. A beautiful 8-pound baby boy who looks like his father and loves to be held by his mommy. He is my treasure. Big brother is so proud -- already trying to show him the ropes.

The birth was difficult, though, and ended with an unplanned Cesarean. This meant a challenging recovery for everyone in our family, especially since I couldn't lift our older son for 4 weeks after my surgery. We had lots of help from our amazing friends and family, though, and somehow made it to the four-week mark.

Then, just after midnight the next day, my Dad died. He had known about his lung cancer since May and was undergoing treatment, but we thought he was responding well and at least had a few more months left. So his death was both expected and shocking at the same time. I don't think I'm ready to write much about Dad just yet, but I know I'll get there. He has always been a voice in my head whenever I had a decision to make, and I'm pretty sure I will always be trying to make him proud.

In the meantime, I am trying to unravel the mysteries of the probate system, work through the normal sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn, and figure out what normal is like from here. Several people have asked me when my next book is coming out, and I'm flattered by what is a really good question.

A blank page is a challenge at any time. But when you're feeling beat down and overwhelmed by real life, it is especially hard to face. Don't even get me started on trying to conjure up readable fiction while bouncing a baby seat with your foot, trying to get a little one to sleep.

That doesn't mean I shouldn't take on the blank page. After several weeks away from writing, and away from my work-in-progress, I am realizing that writing is part of what makes me feel human and normal. When I can't get to my computer, I write in my head. I do this constantly, sometimes without even realizing I'm doing it. In the shower. In the car. In the wee hours of the morning while I'm nursing the baby.

It's not always fiction, and it's rarely the latest chapter of my current project. More often I write snippets of prose, stream of consciousness narration, random connections between real life and the million stories I create in my head. Some of these snippets make it out of the shower or the car and onto a page. They might get woven in with a current story, or simply jotted down for future reference. Others just float away with the steam. I've done this since I was a little girl, and it's part of who I am, even when it's hard to distill anything out onto the page (or the screen).

So, the answer to the question of when the next book is coming is, I don't know. Given everything that has happened, and the fact that it's taken me three hours just to write this blog while caring for a fussy baby, the pace won't be a speedy one. But it's coming. I've never been one to stay down for long, and writing is one of the ways I find the strength to get off the floor.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Sex Blog

The weekend on bed rest gave me some time to catch up on a little reading around the blogosphere, including "What's Wrong with Sex?" by JA Konrath, one of the powerhouse voices in indie publishing. While Joe's books themselves aren't necessarily my cup of tea -- because of the genre, not the quality of writing -- I have tremendous respect for his views on publishing and read his blog whenever I can.

In this particular entry, Joe talked about adding some sex scenes to some of his very popular sci-fi/mystery novels, scenes he felt were important to the development of plot and characters. He was reflecting on the negative feedback (and even hate mail) he received from readers in response, describing his work as 'porn,' among other things. An interesting discussion ensued in the comments feed, with readers and authors alike expressing their views on when and if sex scenes are appropriate in fiction.

Some people think sex scenes in non-romance novels are lazy writing and cheap tactics to sell books. Others enjoy love scenes when they are well-written, appropriately placed and move the story forward or reveal something about the characters. Some readers are so uncomfortable with love scenes that they skip them entirely. Others will ONLY read books with a steamy scene or two. Or seven.

As I read the blog and the ensuing discussion, I found it interesting that more men than women seemed uncomfortable with love scenes in mainstream fiction (but not with out-and-out porn); while romance writers of all varieties were frustrated that even a single steamy scene in a book written by a female earned it the label "trashy romance" or "erotica."

As a writer of "women's" fiction (which incidentally has received plenty of positive feedback from men) I'm fascinated by the relationship between gender and genre. I still question my own decision to label The Marriage Pact as "Contemporary Women's Fiction," when I know that label confines both my writing and my readership in a way that is largely inaccurate.

Is TMP about love and romance and relationships? You bet. Do I imagine that the majority of readers taking that enormous engagement ring cover to the beach this summer were women? Probably. Do men also enjoy reading about relationships and drama and - gasp! - sex? I would argue yes -- particularly with good writing and strong characters in the right context.

For me as an author, that's the crux of the issue. There are the 'bodice-ripper' romance novels, which are often more sex than plot, and I know lots of women who love those books so much they go through four or five a week. Which is great for both the readers and writers. That just doesn't happen to be what I write.

The love scenes in TMP were a huge challenge for me, not because I'm personally squeamish about sex, but because I'm aware that in a novel like mine, sex is a little like a blow torch. Tee hee. Used appropriately, a love scene can show you something important about the characters: their vulnerability, motivations, state of mind, etc. Used gratuitously, sex is a mere distraction from the story, watering it down in a way that will cause readers to flip pages or lose interest entirely.

Just like scenery, suspense, violence, plot twists, and other writers' tools, sex has to be used intentionally and pointedly to help the reader connect with the characters and the world in which they live. It should compel you deeper into the story, not call attention to the author or the way the story is written. My goal as an writer is to constantly improve my craft, to bring you deeper into a world that is as real as it can be in every facet of the experience, sex (or not) and all.

What do you think of sex scenes in mainstream fiction? Does genre matter? Gender? Or is it all about the story?

Monday, August 8, 2011

I'm almost too embarrassed to tell you this

Maybe it's an occupational hazard (writer + counselor), but I often notice themes emerging in my life and work. Right now one of those themes, especially with my teen and adult female clients, is humiliating experiences. Most often things that might happen, and would be so devastating that the person would never recover. Falling down in front of the whole cafeteria, messing up a big presentation to the boss, giving a long speech with your skirt tucked into your underwear, etc.

This topic can be either horrifying or fun, depending which chair you're sitting in. We laugh when we see people embarrass themselves in the movies, and we can chuckle when funny things happen to our friends (provided said friend is unharmed and can't reach us with a right hook). But when our own pride is on the line, it stops being so funny.

These moments are part of what makes us human. That's why I write about embarrassingly funny things happening to my characters, especially poor Marci in TMP ("bless her heart," as we say in the South). It's not just to give the story comic relief, but to help readers connect with that universal experience of flailing around, feeling like an idiot, and somehow... surviving. Been there? I have.

With my teen clients, I sometimes try to offer perspective by telling the following story about my own life. And more than two decades later, I am only cringing a little as I share it with you...

It was my freshman year at North Cobb High School. The place seemed huge and alien to me. I was overweight and awkward, and always felt a bit out of place anyway. With its labyrinthine buildings, kids smoking and dipping in the parking lots, and more than two thousand souls roaming the halls, NCHS was pure chaos to me. My few old friends were a breath of fresh air when we managed to catch up in the cafeteria to compare battle scars.

Drama class had sounded like fun when we were choosing our electives. So there I was, with a few other freshmen and loads of upperclassmen. Cute, charming, and funny upperclassmen. Kids who auditioned for plays and participated in the talent shows and walked the hallways with their heads held high.

There was one senior guy in particular -- I would tell you his name but I think I have blocked it out -- the first of many crushes I would have on older men, especially actors. (We'll talk about that later.) Anyway, I mooned over Whats-His-Name for many weeks from across the room, trying to time my exit from the classroom so that I could bump into him and praying we'd be put in a skit together during class.

One day, my prayer was answered. Mrs. Walker, the larger-than-life drama teacher, asked me and Whats-His-Name to get up on stage and work through some kind of practice exercise. I'm sure I was shaking in my Keds and unfashionable khaki pants as I climbed the black wooden stairs to the stage. I vaguely remember standing across from him and that at some point in the skit, he may have needed to touch my hand for some reason. Hello, aneurism.

I don't remember anything else because of what happened next. We finished the skit, which must've required me to move around the stage a good bit, and instead of giving the constructive critique she'd provided all the previous teams, Mrs. Walker whispered something to my friend Melissa, who came up to the stage and in turn whispered to me, "Mrs. Walker says you're excused to go to the restroom."

Now all the ladies reading this probably need no further explanation, but for the guys, let me illuminate something. When you're twelve years old and you get your first period, the women in your life go to great lengths to explain what pads and tampons are, what a uterus is, and how you're way too young to have a baby in there, etc. What they don't tell you is that for some girls, periods don't come at predictable intervals you can mark on the calendar and plan accordingly. Sometimes they disappear for months at a time, only to return smack in the middle of drama class.

My cheeks burned as I tried to quickly gather my stuff and run to the restroom, holding my bookbag behind me to hide the red stain as I fled down the deserted hallway. I called my mom, who was nice enough to come and get me.

I'm sure before that day I had imagined some pretty awful and embarrassing things happening to me during freshman year, and none of them held a candle to this. When I left school, I was 100% positive that my life was over. In front of the whole class. In front of HIM. I knew people would be talking about it for years, which was okay because I had absolutely no intention of every returning to that school. They have schools in Alaska, right?

But it turns out my parents didn't think moving to Alaska just then was convenient for the family. Even less rationally, they seemed to think I would actually be able to survive returning to the same school the very next day. I probably should've called children's services to report this abuse, but I didn't know at the time it was an option. I don't remember how I handled the return to school, or to drama class, except that inexplicably, life eventually returned to normal. Somehow I went on to lead a full and satisfying life that did not involve being shunned by my peers (or at least, no more than usual) and did involve making new friends, dating, prom, etc.

I am, however, pretty sure I never worked up the courage to look Whats-His-Name in the eye again. Oh, well.

I do know that in the years that followed, I was less afraid of screwing up or being embarrassed. There were times when humiliating myself in public became a convenient, and funny, way to get the attention so many teenagers crave. As an adult, I've taken more calculated risks: backpacking through Europe, returning to grad school (twice), self-publishing a novel despite warnings it was "career suicide." I've done these things armed with the knowledge that the illusion of perfection means nothing, and flat-on-your-face failure is often the greatest teacher.

Perhaps some courage/chutzpah/stupidity was born as I recovered from horrifying moment on the drama room stage. It may not be profound, but I've learned that even the scariest outcome isn't usually life-threatening. The greatest risk in life is not getting on the stage at all.


You can get your hands on my most recent trip to the stage (and follow Marci's adventures - embarrassing and otherwise) at Amazon and Barnes & Noble (NOOK).

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Marriage Pact - Now In Paperback!

Just a quick announcement that as of tonight, you can now order the paperback of THE MARRIAGE PACT in real, touchable paperback for $10.95 by following this link. It is eligible for Super Saver Shipping, too!

Thanks for reading and enjoy!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

More Discovery Channel at Home

While we were having breakfast this morning, so was a little red fox in our backyard. And, yes, that IS a baby bunny he's devouring. Fortunately this time, we did not hear any screaming. Kudos to hubby for cleaning up the mess...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Journey So Far

As of this writing, THE MARRIAGE PACT has been out on Kindle for just over two weeks and also just came out on the Barnes & Noble NOOK. So far I've sold 37 copies. Not earth-scorching numbers (yet), but what I consider a healthy start for a rookie. Even better, many of the folks who've bought the book are telling me that they either really enjoyed it or are currently having trouble putting it down. Many more who aren't Kindle-enabled are asking about the debut of the paperback (which is coming soon, I promise).

Other questions I've heard a lot in the last couple of weeks: How did all of this come about? How long have you been working on this? How did you get published? Do you have an agent? What made you decide to write a book? Etc. So I thought I'd answer some of those questions by sharing an abbreviated version of where I've been and a guess or two about where I'm heading. I hope this will not only satisfy the curiosity of my friends and family, but maybe even help others who are considering following a similar dream.

The Original Goal: I have wanted to be a writer for just about my whole life. I majored in English and took creative writing classes in college and afterward. Over the years, I've pursued a number of other careers that I have also enjoyed, including my current occupation as a psychotherapist, but I have always loved the writing component of everything I did. As a freelancer on the side, I wrote magazine articles and web content and even a series of workbooks for students of English as a foreign language. These pursuits helped me stay in touch with my writing side, but were never as fun as the secret goal I harbored: writing a novel by the time I was 30.

Failing Forward: Needless to say, 30 came and went without my summoning either the courage or dedication to sit down and do it. The milestone, however, did get my attention enough that I began developing the discipline required to write a novel. During my grad school years, I camped out at a coffee shop between classes and wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 words on a novel that turned out to be pretty much unreadable. It went into File 86 (you're welcome -- trust me, you wouldn't have wanted to read that one). But I learned that I did have the capacity to put the time and energy toward a major writing endeavor.

Over the next few years, I did a few writing projects related to my therapy practice and tried to focus on reading fiction in my spare time. Not to mention having a baby and relocating my practice a couple of times...

The idea for the THE MARRIAGE PACT started simmering in my brain about a year and half ago, though I had no idea how I would find the time to sit down and actually write it. I made occasional notes and jotted down paragraphs that never linked up to what I would write the next time. Finally, around Thanksgiving of this past year, I finally decided to get serious about making the book a reality. I had just turned 35 and wanted to finish it before 36. I didn't know what I would do with it once I finished, but after a long talk with my very supportive hubby, we decided that my goal of finishing a novel was worthy in and of itself -- even if no one ever read it. (Have I mentioned what a fabulous husband I have?)

I'm happy to say that I can now cross that goal off my life's to do list. Even if the 37 people who have already bought the book are the only ones who ever read it, I finished it. I'm proud of that.

That said, now that one milestone is behind me, I have new goals for my writing. I want people to read my book and be entertained by it. I want to continue writing books that people will enjoy. And, ultimately, I wouldn't mind making a decent living at it. That's why I decided to self-publish.

Actually, I made the decision in the early writing stages of TMP. I did think about going the traditional publishing route -- sending letters to agents and editors and spending the next year or two hoping someone would answer a query, agree to read my manuscript and eventually decide I was worthy of publication. I thought about checking the mailbox every day looking for rejection letters, writing and re-writing cover letters on which my fate with an agent, editor or publisher would hinge. I have to be honest, the thought of doing that was not only daunting, it was downright discouraging.

Then I read an article about the trend in the publishing industry toward signing new authors who already have a platform of readers and fans. That's when I started exploring self-publishing. I am lucky that I have a few friends and acquaintances who are experienced with that world or had done their own research, and those folks were nice enough to guide me toward some helpful blogs and websites [I'll try to post some of those separately for readers who are interested].

I'll be honest, the snooty English major in me did have an unpleasant initial reaction to the idea of self-publishing. If you have to self-publish, doesn't that mean you're simply not good enough to get "really published?" Isn't it arrogant to just put your own work out there, without waiting for someone higher on the publishing food chain to tell you it's good enough? It's funny that when I put those thoughts into actual words, they seem ridiculous. And yet, that's how I felt, and that's the reaction I've heard from others about the idea of self-pubbing.

The truth is, I've read a few self-published works over the years, and while they aren't always as polished as books that have gone through the ringer of the big publishing houses, they are typically just as enjoyable or worthwhile to read. And because the author has full control over the content and presentation of the work, and reaps a far higher percentage of the sales price, I've found that self-published books often provide more bang for the buck.

E-books and printing-on-demand have entirely changed the landscape of publishing, too. With print-on-demand, the entry costs are minimal for getting a book to market and out to readers. My primary investment in the book has been my time, and while there are a few costs in getting everything ready to print, we didn't have to take out a second mortgage to make it happen. E-books (like those for Kindle, iPad and NOOK) have almost no hard costs, so I can price the novel low enough that a reader doesn't have to think twice about investing in an unknown author.

I don't have to be the next Candace Bushnell or Emily Giffin to be successful in my own right (though it would be cool!), I just have to be good enough that you feel you've gotten your 99 cents' worth (or $11 in paperback). And hopefully, you'll also think it's worth another 99 cents to invest in the next book...

So that's where I am now. I am reading and learning like crazy from more successful authors on how to get the word out about THE MARRIAGE PACT, which I hope you'll enjoy enough to recommend to a friend. I am also working on a sequel to TMP (Hint: think Suzanne's story). That way, when you're ready for your next entertaining read, I'll have something to offer you. I am also doing some short little pieces which will be available for free via this blog and/or the e-mail list, just to tide you over.

I don't know what the future holds or whether my books will be as successful as I hope. What I do know is that I'm proud of myself for finishing a huge project, taking a risk, and putting something of myself out there in front of the whole world. And instead of sitting around waiting for someone else to tell me whether my book is ready for the public, I get to let the public decide that for themselves. It's a very empowering (and scary) feeling.

Marketing is going to be a huge challenge. I know in some ways, the pressure I will put on myself to perform might be more intense than what I might get from an agent or publisher. But whatever happens, at least some of what happens next is in my own hands.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sure, we're in a relationship. But are we Facebook material?

I've spent a good bit of time on Facebook in the past couple of weeks, promoting THE MARRIAGE PACT, and it's had me thinking about how social networking is changing the way we think and talk about relationships. I've never been someone who pays a lot of attention to how many FB friends I have or, sometimes, even manages to scroll down past the fold on my news feed each day. In fact, it's not unusual that I will miss out on fairly major announcements from my friends until someone actually passes the news on in person. Though of course I expect all 350+ of my friends to take an active interest in whatever I've posted. It's very passive-aggressive social networking.

The other night, however, a good friend of mine commented about how he notices when his friend count goes down by a few numbers and wonders who has defriended him and why. So naturally I have started noticing that, too, and am suddenly obsessing about it. Why did my friends circle shrink from 354 to 351 today? Which three people did I lose? Was it something I posted? Something I liked? Or did those folks just close their accounts or decide to eliminate anyone they hadn't actually had a conversation with in, say, the last 15 years?

I was talking to Hubby today about this absurd new source of social anxiety, which of course prompted him to make fun of me relentlessly for a bit. A few minutes later, he said "You're going to defriend me now, aren't you? I'm going to be dumped on Facebook by my wife." Possibly, sweetheart. Quite possibly.

It's funny, though, that Facebook has added a whole new layer to romantic relationships and friendships alike. We learn quite a bit about our friends and lovers through their Facebook postings and habits. Sometimes it's great to have information we wouldn't get any other way; other times, it's way more than we want to know.

The relationship status itself is also pretty interesting. My status has been unchanged since I opened my Facebook account (despite my idle threats to the contrary), but through my single friends I've learned that updating one's relationship status is a delicate matter. How far into the relationship do you update from "single" to "in a relationship," and at what point do you actually link your status to the person you're dating?

The same friend I mentioned earlier actually had a fight with a girl he was dating a while ago, because she was upset he hadn't updated his relationship status in what she considered an appropriate amount of time. Her concern, of course, was that he still wanted his cute female friend base to see him as single. But if you do update your relationship status, it pretty much comes across as a major announcement; and the congratulatory comments start pouring in from everyone in your social network. I'm not sure where that is on the relationship ladder, but I think it's somewhere between meeting one another's parents and moving in together...

The flip side is when the relationship doesn't work out and you're faced with returning your status to 'single' in front of the whole world. Breakups and divorces used to be something we could do quietly, sharing with our friends and family in private as we felt ready... but now it's either hang onto a false status or share, share, share -- with everyone from your best friend to your third-grade teacher. And do you stay Facebook friends with someone you're no longer dating? How about someone you became friends with because he or she was dating one of your friends, but they're no longer speaking to each other?

Another interesting element in all of this (at least to me) is how the mechanics of Facebook insert themselves into the way communicate with our friends. Those who choose not to do Facebook at all miss out on lots of interactions and online conversation, but they at least miss out on everyone equally. I don't know how the little hamster on the wheel writing the algorithms behind FB makes decisions about what's 'important' enough to go in my news feed; but I do know that I see much more of some friends than others. In fact, I have several friends who post A LOT, which is great, and I guess because they post so frequently I comment on their stuff more often. So, I see more of their stuff. Lots and lots and lots.... Up to the minute news.

On the other hand, I am almost always missing out on the posts by 3 or 4 of my closest friends, who post less frequently -- and since I talk to them in person much more often, I am less likely to comment on their posts because whatever I might say has already been said. I guess to FB, it looks like I'm not interested in them. But that doesn't mean I don't want to see what they've posted; in fact, those are the updates I'd like to see the most. So how to tell the little hamster? I can't. Facebook doesn't work on a spectrum, doesn't allow us to "rank" friends according to our viewing preferences or categorize or own posts according to importance.

I can't assign an importance value of 100, for example, to the birth announcement of my child, or a 15 to the funny thing my cat just did. (Alright, alright, a 5 for the cat). I can't tell Facebook that my best friend is my best friend and that I want to see every one of her vacation photos, even the blurry one that no one else found remarkable. Facebook only allows for "Like" or not, comment or not, and "Hide" for when you just can't take it from a particular person anymore. It doesn't reflect the subtlety and nuance of real relationships, and yet it can impact those relationships simply by what we see or don't see when we log in for a few minutes at the end of the day.

I'm wondering if this will evolve over time as social networks become more sophisticated -- allowing us to organize in detail what we want to know when, and from whom. As though I'm not already spending enough time lost in FB-world, I really need to add a couple of hours a week managing it...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pride, Joy and Sadness

It's been a banner few days at our house. If you've read the last couple of blog entries, you know that I somehow managed to wrangle what was a story in my head six months ago into an actual, published e-book yesterday. (The paperback and non-Kindle versions are coming soon.) It might sell 10 copies or 10,000, but I'm pretty proud of the achievement no matter what happens.

I'm not the only one earning my stripes at our house. Not only did Hubby single-handedly cut up an entire fallen tree in our backyard with a hack saw this weekend, but tonight he brought in the first squash from our summer vegetable garden, where he's been working all spring.

Monkey will be two in a little over a week, and he just learned to count to SIX, in the right order and everything. He's an amazing little boy with a sweet nature and a goofy sense of humor. He loves trains, just like his namesake, a man I knew as a loving grandfather and who raised my mother from the time she was nine. And in about three months, he's going to be a big brother to another little boy who I know will bring equal joy to our lives.

All of this good stuff is laced with a little sadness, since my mother is not here to share in it. She died ten years ago today, and it's hard for me to believe that a decade has passed. I've been thinking for the last couple of months that I would have more to say to mark this milestone: about mothers and daughters in general, and about my own mother specifically. Her spark, her humor, her seemingly endless ability to love those around her (especially my brother and me).

I have to admit, though, now that the day is here, I am at a bit of a loss for words. Maybe it's because both the happy and challenging events of the last couple of months have overcrowded the more reflective emotions of a loss I have lived with for so long. Obviously on some level that's true.

The other thing, the harder thing, is this: when someone you love chooses to take her own life, the grief is different, the pain is different -- even ten years later. Just as sadness lingers, ebbing and flowing with the events of the years, so do the guilt and the anger. I still miss my mom every day, a feeling that has intensified since Monkey came along and I know how much she would have loved and enjoyed him (and vice versa). Underneath that longing will always be two unspoken questions: "How could you choose to leave me?" and "What could I have done to stop you?" Of course there are no answers.

I know from talking to others who have lost loved ones to suicide that these questions are an inevitable part of our reality. I also know that nothing is that simple. So rather than try to unravel the mystery of her choice, or linger on the complexities of our relationship when she was alive, today I focus on what I loved about her: her passion for music, boundless generosity, deep faith, beautiful singing voice, wonderful laugh, enormous capacity for friendship, and much more.

I try -- with mixed results -- to cultivate those characteristics in myself, and I already see them reflected in my son day by day. I believe that is what life, however it ends, is all about: leaving behind something of yourself that can be cherished and passed on in the hearts and memories of those who follow. My mother's life was imperfect and her death tragic; but her legacy can be beautiful. Ten years later, that's the story I would rather write.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Eat Tuna Bagel, Publish Book, Take Nap

I spent most of this morning finishing up the formatting for THE MARRIAGE PACT for Amazon Kindle. It's sort of mind boggling how quickly someone who is reasonably adept at computers can start to feel very old. Five or even three years ago, I would've rated myself somewhere around the 80th percentile when it comes to knowledge of and ability to navigate basic technology. Today, however... Well, let's just say many of the relevant e-publishing websites don't have answers to my questions in their forums because, what idiot wouldn't know that?

When I came to a stopping point, my family and I celebrated with our weekend tradition of visiting our favorite deli for some yummy bagels. We got home about half an hour ago, and Monkey is not yet asleep in his crib for an afternoon nap, but I have already uploaded the book for publishing. That fast.

Six months of writing and editing, a few weeks of trying to comprehend the mechanics of converting a word processing document to an ebook, and then 15 minutes to upload and click 'publish.' It's sort of an astonishing process.

I am starting with publication for Kindle, and then I'll move to other ebook formats and paperback in the next couple of weeks. The book is not yet completely perfect, and this is causing me some mild anxiety, but I've worked very hard editing it and had lots of great help, so it is far more readable than it was when I last updated. One cool thing about self-publishing is that I can make changes with relative ease moving forward (so, yes, you should let me know about the typo you spotted on page 39 if you're an early reader).

It takes the amazon system about 24 hours to make the book available for purchase, so I'll keep everyone posted. In the meantime, here is the dust jacket summary for those who may be interested in reading:
Marci Thompson always knew what life would be like by her 30th birthday. A large but cozy suburban home shared with a charming husband and two brilliant children. A celebrated career as an established writer, complete with wall-to-wall mahogany shelves and a summer book tour. A life full of adventure with her friends and family by her side.

Instead, Marci lives alone in 480 square feet of converted motel space next to a punk rock band, hundreds of miles from her friends and family. She works in a temporary accounting assignment that has somehow stretched from two weeks into nine months. And the only bright spot in her life, not to mention the only sex she’s had in two years, is an illicit affair with her married boss, Doug. Thirty is not at all what it is cracked up to be.

Then the reappearance of a cocktail napkin she hasn’t seen in a decade opens a long-forgotten door, and Marci’s life gets complicated, fast. The lines between right and wrong, fantasy and reality, heartache and happiness are all about to get very blurry, as Marci faces the most difficult choices of her life.

So, obviously, this falls under the genre of 'contemporary women's fiction.' But I will say that a few of my alpha readers were men who confessed to enjoying it, too. And just so you know, it's a grown up book - there's some explicit language and sexual content. YUM!

I'll try to update the blog when the book is available in various formats. You can also stay in the loop by "liking" my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/MJPullenbooks.

As a side note, there's some debate among writers and emerging writers about whether self-publishing is a "legitimate" way to get started, or if DIY publishing is the kiss of death for a new author. Some people say it's a great way to build an audience and get your work out there where it can be noticed by publishers, others say it ruins your reputation forever.

I can't speak to that with any authority, but I will say that writing a novel -- even light summer reading -- is darn hard work. I'm not sure how motivated I would have felt to keep at it over the last half-year if I'd thought that the only thing waiting for me at the end of the process was a slew of rejection letters from agents and publishers. It's nice to know I can sink or swim on my own. And instead of spending the next several months trying to convince someone in power that this book is worth reading, I can get to work on the sequel instead!

In the meantime, it is time for me to take a well-earned nap.

PS - If any agents or publishers are reading this, I didn't mean any of that stuff about sinking and swimming on my own. I need you desperately. Call me?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Animal Kingdom

We have this cat, Two, who is 13+ years old. She came from a shelter in Portland, Oregon in 1999, when she pawed at me through the bars of her cage and convinced me to look past all the adorable kittens in the next room and take a chance on a seasoned adult with a past. Ever since that moment, she has maintained this scrappy, aggressive sort of sweetness about her that I've always liked.

For more than half our time together, she's been an indoor cat. I started noticing in recent years that she was slowing down a bit, becoming less playful, and watching the birds and squirrels out the back window with only very passive interest -- as though she were only doing so because there was nothing good on HGTV.

So I was pleased to see her enjoying some time outdoors when we moved into a house with a yard last fall. I indulged her desire to move in and out of the house every fifteen minutes through the winter months. It's been fun to watch her stalking little critters in the backyard and proving that she still has her hunter's instincts. And when she started bringing us dead mice a few weeks ago, well... I had mixed feelings.

I'm certainly happy to see the old girl's still got it. I hope my reflexes and acuity are anywhere close to that when I'm the human equivalent of 13 cat years old. And considering the pest problems that have plagued us in this house, having a mouser on patrol in the backyard can only help things. The tradeoff, of course, is that at least twice a week one of us has to shovel our dead little 'gift' off the back patio and into the woods. Yuck.

A couple of days ago I was sitting at the computer with MLM, when we heard the most horrifying squealing noise coming from the backyard. At first I thought it was some birds fighting, but when I looked up I saw something through the window that's been nightmare fuel ever since. Two was in the middle of the yard, gleeful, as a screaming baby bunny tried desperately to free itself from her jaws.

Now I'm sure some of my animal rights friends will point out that there's no difference between the life of a gross little wood rat and that of a sweet bunny rabbit. Death is death, no matter how cute the victim. And I would say, you obviously haven't heard a baby bunny scream. It was awful.

So I grabbed MLM and rushed out the back door, commanding my very confused cat to let go of the poor thing as it struggled for freedom. She looked at me like 'Are you kidding me?' But after a moment, she relented, at least long enough for the bunny to escape to the nearest bushes. Two glared at me for ruining what was obviously the day's crowning achievement, then returned to the patio to sun herself resentfully. I don't know what happened to the injured little bunny.

It was all a little too Discovery Channel for my tastes. In fact, it was kind of like watching the Discovery Channel only to realize that the lion who is gnawing on the zebra carcass is actually someone you see and interact with daily, like Fred from the accounting department. If, that is, Fred also enjoys curling up in your lap and licking your chin on a regular basis. No matter how domesticated my sweet little cat is inside the house, her animal instincts are right there, just under the surface, ready to move in for the kill.

Fortunately, the bunny screams stopped ringing in my ears after a day or so. But MLM is still pointing out to the yard periodically and saying "I see rabbit. Let go, cat!" Hubby finds this terribly amusing. As for me, I think I need until the end of the week. In the meantime, Two is permanently banned from all forms of chin-licking.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hello again, hello...

I've noticed that the long gaps in my blogs (such as the one preceding this entry) seem to take place when I either have too little or too much going on in my life. Too little, and I don't feel I have anything of substance to share. Too much, and I have no time to formulate my thoughts or sort out what's interesting from what's... blogging banality.

This time around, it has definitely been the latter. I spent the month of May getting feedback from my alpha readers and doing some reworking of THE MARRIAGE PACT. I also did a little traveling for my other job, and we've been working hard to make plans for Little Frodo Baggins (the in utero name for Baby Boy #2).
Notice I said "making plans," rather than "making preparations," because preparations might be visible to the naked eye, while our plans have mostly been making lists of lists and talking things over in a general sort of way. It's a good thing the poor kid can't see how not ready we are for him, otherwise he might be kicking me even harder than he already is.

We've encountered some major new challenges as a family in the past couple of weeks, which I won't share now, but will definitely require some attention, energy, and spiritual focus on our part. Add a much-needed and wonderful family vacation with just the two of us plus Little Monkey, and it has been a jam-packed month. I'm hoping June will be calmer and slightly more predictable.

On the writing front, I am excited to say that TMP is currently being proofread by a very talented and forthright friend who I expect will improve its readability substantially. The cover design is in its final stages as well, so be on the lookout for that -- the amazing Marla Kaplan has rendered it beautifully. And while I'm spewing gratitude, my favorite band, The Old 97's, gave me official permission to use some of their lyrics in the book. Check them out, buy some music, enjoy the improvement to your life.

My official Facebook author page is also live and ready to go. If you haven't 'liked' it already [the word 'like' is slowly acquiring a whole new meaning thanks to social networking... along with 'friend'] please do so: www.facebook.com/MJPullenbooks

Meanwhile, I am navigating the world of electronic publishing, and probably making it way more confusing than it actually is. I have finally reached the point in my life where technology makes me feel very, very old. I may have to hire a brilliant 18-year-old to get me through it! Having lots and lots of other things on my mind is probably not helping my attention span, so I'm working hard on practicing those centering and relaxation techniques I'm always pushing on my therapy clients. Way easier said than done. 

The good news about all that's happening is that it will make being 6 to 9 months pregnant in the Georgia summer seem like a piece of cake! Sweaty, swollen, cranky cake. But still, as long as there's icing...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Alpha Readers, Passover, and Paci-over?

Hope everyone had/is having a wonderful Easter, Passover, and beginning of spring. We're on Day 7 of Passover at our house and I'm proud to say I'm still hanging with the dietary restrictions thus far. My track record during pregnancy is slightly blemished in this regard: when I was prego with Monkey I fell off the wagon around Day 6 after getting the distinct feeling that I would burst into flames if I didn't have a bagel immediately.

[As an aside, DH has a new theory that since the Israelites ate unleavened bread because they didn't have time to wait for it to rise before leaving Egypt, a more appropriate modern equivalent would be eating ONLY fast food for 8 days. I see a couple of issues with this, including both the health implications and the oddity of gathering around for a seder with a bunch of Burger King value meals. If he gets any rabbinical support for the idea, though, I'll keep you posted.]

Passover is all about freedom from slavery, and I always like to take advantage of the opportunity to examine the things that enslave me: especially bad habits, outdated ways of thinking, and even the overabundance of choices in my life that can sometimes be paralyzing in themselves. Of course, it's also a wonderful opportunity to be with family and friends and take stock of what is most important -- the things I would bring with me if I suddenly had to leave my current life with no time for the bread to rise.

In the realm of bad habits, we also decided that Passover was an appropriate time to try breaking Monkey of his pacifier addiction. He has only ever used a pacifier for sleeping and naps, and months ago gave it up for naps at school when I forgot to send it in with him for a week. But we've noticed lately that it is taking longer and longer for him to give it up after waking up in the morning, and I'm getting concerned that we missed our window to take it away before he got too attached. On top of potential orthodontic and speech issues, we'd like to avoid having that kid who is four or five and still using a 'binky.' So, yesterday we took him to pick out a "big boy toy" -- a drill and hammer set, nice -- and this morning allowed him to play with it after saying "bye-bye" to all his pacis and putting them in a bag.

Everything went great with the plan until nap time. He cried for almost 45 minutes, saying "paci" the whole time, and we totally caved. In preparation for this experiment, I'd read lots of stories online from moms who tried this technique -- usually on a slightly older child -- and the results were far better. The stories often ended with something to the effect of, "He asked for it once and we reminded him he'd given it away, so he calmed down and went right to sleep." NOT the case today.

I can't decide if he's not ready/old enough to give it up yet, or if selfishly, I'm just not ready to give up the easy nap. I almost always start out his nap time with a sizable list of things to get done while he sleeps, and listening to his tortured cries for an hour is pretty much never on the list. At any rate, once I handed over paci, he lay down and went right to sleep. So we're going to regroup and try another strategy in a week or two. My overall goal is to follow the advice of his pediatrician and get rid of it by age two, just under two months away. Tick, tock.

Finally, a book update: 'The Marriage Pact,' (working title) is almost complete in first-draft form, and I am collecting all kinds of feedback from my Alpha Readers, for which I am most grateful. We are finding character inconsistencies, plot holes and annoying phrases. One trusted friend and fellow English major has helped me identify a couple of key themes, and taken me to task for my myriad abuses against semi-colons. I haven't had this kind of feedback since I was part of a writer's group in Portland, and I have to admit it's been really fun.

I am beginning the first major revision now, hoping to have something readable in the next few weeks. I'd also like to express my gratitude to many of you who have volunteered to read the book and haven't yet been asked to do so -- I'll definitely be looking forward to your thoughts a little later in the process. In the meantime, if you haven't already done so, please visit  www.facebook.com/MJPullenbooks and click the "like" button at the top right to show your support, and follow all the latest!  

Monday, March 28, 2011

Super Mommy and the Amazing Choo-Choo Car

Until yesterday, I'd been away from the keyboard in almost every way for the last week. I barely managed to keep up with critical e-mails, much less to find time to blog or work on my novel. (Isn't it funny that I feel like a pretentious ass saying 'work on my novel,' even though that's exactly what I'm doing? I didn't say 'working on my awesome novel' or 'the Next Great Novel...' Weird.)

Early in the week, my working hours were absorbed by a very long trip to the car dealership so that we could pick up our new Sienna, and I could officially become a Minivan Mom. Over the years, I've been resistant to the idea of a minivan for a number of reasons: maintaining my individuality, disliking many aspects of suburban 'Soccer Mom' culture, thinking that some tiny part of me still had an outside shot at being cool one day... In fact, like many women I know, I'm pretty sure that I have more than once over the years uttered the phrase, "I will never drive a minivan."


And then we got pregnant a second time and I started realizing that it was getting harder and harder to hoist and twist Monkey into his car seat without blowing out all my abdominal muscles and shrieking in pain. We started evaluating my adorable, fun station wagon (a 5-speed Subaru Outback that I LOVE and will never entirely give up) in terms of camping, vacations, etc., not to mention seating space with two car seats. We looked at prices and fuel efficiency of SUVs, and... Well, practicality won the day. It didn't hurt that my new van comes with leather seats and satellite radio (which I've never had) and a sunroof (which I haven't had since I was single in my mid-20s). Compromise taken.

The day after we brought home the van, Monkey started to act clingy, whiny, etc. I wasn't too worried until we went out for lunch with Grandma and my child refused to eat. No one in our family passes up a quesadilla and chips unless there's serious illness afoot. Over the following couple of days, he developed a fever and croupy cough (the 4th time this year - yuck!); and by Friday he was a complete mess. He would actually sit or lie on the couch with one of us for upwards of 30 minutes, watching TV -- absolutely unheard of since he learned how to wriggle out of our arms at five or six months old.

Monkey wouldn't eat, drink, or take his medicine. I'd offer him ten different things to eat or drink or do and he would shake his head violently, say "No!" slapping away whatever I'd presented, and then cry even harder as though each failed attempt to please him was only adding insult to injury. He's been sick several times this year - first year in preschool, I guess it's to be expected - but I've never seen him quite like this.

Nothing made him happy. Well, almost nothing.

Our new van has automatic doors on both sides. You press a button, the door slides gracefully open. Press it again, and it closes in the same smooth, quiet way. This is pretty cool if you're a grownup (at least, I thought so when the Toyota salesman demonstrated it). But if you're an almost-two year old, it's the Greatest Thing Ever. From the first time Monkey experienced this feature, he began signing and saying "More" and then his version of "Open" (which sounds like "Apu").

The middle seats of the van where Monkey sits are also much higher than they were in my Outback, both in relationship to the ground and to the windows. So he can see much more as we drive around in the new car, which is nice. I've looked back a few times to see him mesmerized by the passing scenery. Also, apparently the van looks more like a train than either of our older cars, which I probably wouldn't have noticed except that at some point he started referring to the van as "Choo Choo Car." Looking at it, I had to agree with him.

Thursday was a beautiful day, and with my little guy not feeling well and a new set of keys on the table, I decided a bit of fresh air and commercial-free radio were the best medicine for both of us. It worked rather better than I'd hoped -- not only was he calm during most of the trip, but as soon as we got out of the car, he wanted to get back in. It took a few minutes for me to convince him that we needed to go into the house, the store, wherever, and each time we'd spend several minutes saying "Bye, bye, Choo Choo Car" before we could move on.

By Friday, my whiny wet mess would not accept any food or drink, or any of his usual sources of entertainment, including (GASP!) "Elmo's World." He wanted to be held at all times, except when he wanted to run to the front door and point, and the only thing he consistently said all morning was "Choo Choo Car, Go." So we went.

After a long visit to the pediatrician, we spent more than three hours in the Choo-Choo Car on Friday, making ambling little circles around the area near our house -- I didn't want to get too far from home so that we could be nearby if he took a nap or needed his medicine or decided he had had enough driving. Also, being four months pregnant means I already have a frequent need to pee, not a practical endeavor in a gas station bathroom with a 21-month old. So we came home every 45 minutes, and almost invariably, Monkey whined and cried until I strapped him back into the van for another ride.

There's nothing fun about having a sick child. You hate that they don't feel good, you worry if you're doing all the right things to take care of them, and (selfishly) you have to put your life on hold -- everything from working to showering -- to give them constant care. But as a parent, it's also a moment to shine. Somewhere amid the worrying and frustration, I realized that I was putting my needs aside and watching the odometer on my brand new car rise, because that's what Monkey needed in that moment. It was the best I could do; and that's the job.

Monkey is on the mend, and I'm happy to say that he's eating a little more at every meal and the fever is long gone. He'll be back in school tomorrow barring any unforeseen relapse. I don't know whether he's actually grateful for the care his dad and I have provided him in the last few days (Hubby had most of the weekend duty and was amazing, as always); but I do know that I came to sit next to him on the stair this morning while he watched TV, and he said "Hi, Mama!" and put his head in my lap. That's the payoff.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Rules for a New Era

Alright, people. I realize the modern conveniences of cell phones, e-mail, Caller ID, Facebook, etc. have created some social and professional situations that aren't covered by the traditional etiquette rules of Emily Post. Somehow I don't think the ladies who long ago made maps of appropriate forks and wrote the governing regulations on thank-you notes imagined a world like ours, in which we would be able to reach any one person, or hundreds of 'friends,' within seconds from wherever we are, anytime. In our world, the rules are pretty much based on whatever we feel in the moment and whatever we've seen others do. Sometimes with not-so-great results.

So, with my usual modesty and sensitivity (ha), and as a service to everyone everywhere (double ha), I have decided to weigh in periodically on these issues to help you out. You're welcome.

I'm going to start with a couple of simple things to get us started:

1. Cell phone callbacks - If I call you while you're in the car, in the bathroom, on the other line, or frantically searching for your cell phone in the floorboard of the passenger seat [that last one would be me, in case you're wondering], and you miss the call, you missed the call. Accept the fact that you missed it, and wait for my voicemail, or wait a reasonable amount of time to ensure I did not leave a voicemail before calling me back (I'm going to throw out 7 minutes as a reasonable time, but use your own judgment).

It's so annoying to be in the process of leaving someone a carefully-constructed voicemail, full of information, and halfway through, the person you're calling interrupts you just so you can repeat everything you've already said on the message. What's worse is when the caller-back actually leaves you a message before bothering to hear what you have to say in your message.  This happened to me the other day: someone called to ask me for information, I called her back and left the information she'd requested in a message, and halfway through she called me back. I decided to just finish my message since I knew she'd likely be in the car and unable to write down numbers, etc. So she left me another message, reiterating her original request. Urgh! Okay, okay, maybe not world-ending stuff, but inconsiderate nonetheless.

The exceptions to this rule are, of course, significant others and people with whom you have very close, intimate relationships. And anyone you are trying to meet at a restaurant or physically locate at a mall or concert. In those cases, it's acceptable to call back immediately without waiting for a message. Otherwise, wait, listen, then act. Okay? Okay.

2. Cryptic Facebook posts -- If you have big news (or a personal grudge) that you're not ready to fully share with your 352 friends, acquaintances, and people you vaguely knew in high school, please don't half-post it on Facebook. Here are some examples: "Just got some great news..." "Getting really excited...." or just plain ":)" or "Woo-hoo!" By themselves, these aren't bad posts, except that when questioned the authors refused to elaborate.

So what, again, was the point of posting something in a public forum that you didn't want anyone to read? If you can't share, don't. Or, whenever I read these posts in the future I will simply assume that you are excited about your upcoming sex change operation and/or decision to become a pig farmer. Because it's more fun than wondering, that's why. And face it, you look great in overalls.

Even worse than half-announced good things are thinly veiled jabs at other people. "Realized that certain people are no longer worth my time," etc. etc. etc. I think it's tempting to post stuff like that because we feel like we're rallying our 'group' behind us for support in a difficult time. But believe it or not, those posts do not make most people feel bad for you, they make you look like the one who's judgmental, rude and passive-aggressive -- whether those things are true or not. 

Maybe you're posting about someone who isn't even in your group of friends. The point is that we don't know, so anyone who's had any kind of interaction with you in the past week or so (or even posted something that you might have read, watched, etc.) now has to wonder if you're talking about them. When I read those things, too, I think how I'd better steer clear of that person, because when he/she gets mad at me, it's going to be aired out (sort of) in public.

If you have a problem with someone, please deal with them directly. Or don't. If you need to vent, call a friend and tell them what's going on and get some support that doesn't come in "Like/Comment" form. You remember phone calls, don't you? They're like Facebook, but for two people. With voices. Try it, you'll like it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mommy's Writing Process

Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience. ~Thoreau

Okay, sure. I'm on board.

I found this quote while looking for some motivation since I have been feeling a little disconnected from my writing lately. I do get ideas (some of them a little fiery, maybe); but always at random times of the day when I have no access to pen, paper, laptop, energy or privacy. In fact, I haven't had (made) time to write since Friday. But Tuesday is a workday for me -- in fact my only free day this week -- and I've been looking forward to hitching myself to the old plow. Bringing the heat and inflaming minds.

Here's how the schedule plays out:

4:45 a.m. - Wake up to crying toddler who sounds suspiciously like seal. Either my child has the croup for the third time in the last year, or I'm having that dream again where I'm the star attraction at Sea World. Hmmm...

4:47 a.m. - Decide this is not a dream (no applause, no fishy smell), but is actually child crying in the other room. Pee hurriedly. Retrieve Monkey from his crib.

4:50 - 5:10 a.m. - Turn on hot shower and attempt to keep surprisingly alert child entertained - away from toilet, cabinets - while confining to steamy bathroom. Take two breaks to fetch crackers, applesauce. The Monkey-Seal is hungry.

5:15 - 6:15 a.m. - Stare hazily at full episode of "Sesame Street" while failing to convince Monkey that he is tired enough to go back to bed or even to lie on the couch with Mommy and snuggle. Periodically think, "I should really be writing. I'll get up in a sec."

6:30 - 7:15 a.m. - Nap. Wake up with "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" in my head. Why?

7:15 - 8:30 a.m. - Get Monkey up, make breakfast for both of us, wrestle him to the ground for diaper and clothing changes, send an e-mail, take away toy broom due to its misuse as a baseball bat, soothe resulting tantrum, call doctor's office, attempt to get self dressed upstairs, run back down to solve new crisis (favorite car stuck under piece of furniture), vow to sweep under furniture later (yuck!), bring Monkey upstairs to finish dressing, explain what breasts are, pack Monkey's bag, pack Mommy's purse, attempt to put shoes on both, answer phone call, chase Monkey around dining room table with jacket, run back upstairs for forgotten phone, start car with "help," turn volume of radio back down from 40 to 10, buckle Monkey in seat, find my sunglasses, find his sunglasses, drive to doctor's office.

8:45 - 9:45 a.m. - Doctor visit. Lots of waiting, wrangling and "please don't open that cabinet." A double ear infection and croup. Explain to the nurse giving him oral steriod that he doesn't take medication well and suggestions are welcome. "This is flavored," she said, "It will be yummy." Attempt, with nurse, to hold Monkey down for yummy medicine. Medicine goes on his shirt, his face, his ears, the table. None in mouth. "I can't get him to take it," she says, "You'd better try." Try again. Red everywhere. Ask nurse if we should try putting it in his juice? "If you think that will work," she says. Pour out half of juice, add medicine. Monkey drinks. Whew. Pay copay and try to keep Monkey from playing with open trash can conveniently located at toddler height next to the check-out desk.

10:00 - 10:30 a.m. - Wander around grocery store while waiting for prescriptions. Wish I had not just done all my shopping yesterday. Explain to Monkey about one-cookie limit (bakery policy and Mommy policy - both very harsh). Wipe liquified cookie off jacket, hands, mommy, cart. Answer the question "What's 'at?" 4,500 times. Pick up prescriptions, head home. Call DH to make sure he can come home early so I can go to work later.

10:45 a.m. - Snack time. Through elaborate ruse involving yogurt smoothie, manage to convince Monkey that antibiotic is actually 'special treat.'  Victory for Mommy.

11:00 a.m. - Open novel document and attempt to continue scene in progress. Keep accidentally typing words from children's TV show in background -- hardly appropriate for love scene. Decide to open twitter account instead. 

11:30 a.m. - Still trying to pick twitter user name. Monkey claims to be hungry, start cooking fish sticks and butter beans. While cooking, complete sign-up and start 'following' some people. Try to ignore how creepy this sounds. Am not stalker, am not stalker, am not stalker....

11:35 a.m. - Put announcement about new twitter ID on Facebook. Suddenly feel pressure to write interesting tweets. Must learn what a 'tweet' is.

11:45 a.m. - Lunch is ready. Hungry? Monkey says no. Want yummy fish sticks? No. Wants Mommy to sit and watch terrible preschool TV with him. Say in best Peter Falk voice, "You're sick, I'll humor you." No one laughs.

12:00 p.m. - Make second attempt to serve lunch, Monkey upset that fish sticks cold. Put plate in microwave, apparently even more upsetting.

12:10 p.m. - Finally calm, both eating lunch. Three fish sticks later, Monkey is "all done!" Wipe down hands, mouth, pants, chair and floor. Explain that nap time is after one more episode of "Caillou."

12:30 p.m. - Naptime. Turn off TV and chase Monkey around room twice. Monkey yells "no, no, no, no!" and when caught, makes the sign for 'hungry.' Give children's ibuprofen for ears and one slice of cheese for good measure. Change diaper, locate pacifier, put in bed. Sweet! Writing time!

1:00 p.m. - Continue to stare at same sentence in document that I was working on last Friday. Upstairs, Monkey still awake, intermittent yelling has intensified. Return to his room to find pacifier, blankets, lovie, and all stuffed animals on the floor. Monkey says, "uh-oh." Grins.

1:05 p.m. - Debate the psychological merits and repercussions of returning everything to the crib or not. Weigh concept of behavior reinforcement against realization that we are both exhausted, Monkey sick, nap necessary. Cave. Monkey thrilled until he realizes I am leaving without him.

1:08 p.m. - Ignore screaming from crib, blow kisses and take shower. Enjoy first half-hour of solitude today.

1:40 p.m. - All is quiet. Sit down to write in robe, slippers, wet hair. Suddenly aware of headache. Caffeine withdrawals?

1:45 p.m. - Put on kettle for tea. Writers need energy.

1:50 p.m. - Read various tweets while waiting for water to boil.

1:55 p.m. - Prepare tea, return to novel. Notice bird outside. Watch cat in yard watching bird menacingly. Say to cat, "Who are you kidding? You're 13 and barely have any teeth." Apologize to cat even though she doesn't hear me through window. None of us are as young and talented as we used to be.

2:00 p.m. - Enjoy rare quiet in house. Run upstairs to make sure Monkey still breathing.

2:08 p.m. - Right. Time to write. Inflame minds with a hot poker or something.

2:10 p.m. - Solicitation call. Threaten caller with personal visit and slashed tires if call woke Monkey.

2:15 p.m. - Realize I have less than an hour before I need to get ready for work. Decide blog is more realistic goal for today than progress on.... what was I working on again?