Friday, June 30, 2006

July is Interview Month

July on my blog will be dedicated to dialoguing with other writers, specifically the writers of mysteries. Naturally, I find these to be some of the most fascinating people on earth, and I think anyone stumbling across this web log will be interested in what they have to say.

In the process, I look forward to getting to know some of my comrades in the publishing world. No one else can better understand the struggle of the new writer, or the fascination with characters who, once born in the mind, cannot be ignored. This month you'll meet the creators of those characters.

Happy July!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What's Funny?

It was once said that writing is hard work, but writing humor is really hard work. Or words to that effect. So what does it take to write humor? Well, I would suggest that the first step is to have a sense of humor. This would be easy for an author to determine. They could just ask a few honest friends: Do you think of me as a funny person? If the answer is no more than once, then an author probably shouldn't attempt humor writing, since they would lack an authentic voice.

But what is funny, and how would a writer know that it would be funny to all people?
Read the works of certain classic humor writers and you'd get a sense of this. Read Erma Bombeck, for example. Or P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber. Their humor is timeless, like the humor of the Marx Brothers. Consider some classic examples from the authors just mentioned.

If you're writing a dialogue about a teenage boy having breakfast with his family, and he wants someone to pass the jam, you might write, "Phyllis, please pass the jam."

In the hands of the great PG Wodehouse, this becomes "Jam please, Phyllis, you pig." (From Mike at Wrykyn).

This is still a quote bandied about in my family, even though my brother, who read it aloud to us when he was in the eighth grade, is now 45 years old. Why? Because it's funny.

It's also funny that James Thurber, in "The Night the Bed Fell," focused not on the falling of the bed, but on the eccentricities of everyone in his family, including his odd cousin Briggs Beall, who had a fear that he would stop breathing in his sleep, and kept spirits of camphor next to the bed in case he needed reviving; or his strange aunt, who was so afraid that a burglar would come and chloroform her in the night that she would stack all of her possessions near the door each night and leave a note saying "This is all I have, so please do not use your chloroform, as this is all I have."

Also a family classic, and an American classic, to be read over and over again, because humor is timeless. That's why I still laugh when Groucho Marx says to poor Margaret Dumont: "Do you know why I was having dinner with her? Because she reminds me of you."

And what person couldn't appreciate the simple, but hilarious, wisdom of Erma Bombeck? For example, her take on matrimony: "Marriage has no guarantees. If that's what you're looking for, go live with a car battery."

Reading humor is a good litmus test for whether or not you're cut out to write humor, in my most humble opinion. Another is whether or not you make people laugh on a regular basis. If you do, start jotting down some of those bon mots and see what you create.

There's very little humor in my first mystery, but my Madeline Mann series is meant to be humorous, and was in many ways more fun to write. But we will save Madeline and her eccentric family for another post.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Fear of Flying

I've published a book now, which was a long-standing goal. Now of course the goals simply escalate. I need to publish more books, build a readership, build a reputation, make more money. But what if the big break really happened? What if someone called and said my book was being made into a movie, or a new book had been offered a huge advance, or some other unlikely scenario? And what if, in addition to all that, I was required to get on a plane?

The answer is, I don't think I could do it. I've never been on a plane, aside from my babyhood. I've been told all of the rational reasons why this makes me a fool: car accidents are much more common, airplane technology is so advanced, most airlines have very few accidents on record, some have none. Blah blah blah.

My fear of planes isn't about anything rational, although it is about a need for control. Number one, I feel that if I'd prefer not to die in a fiery crash (and I do prefer that) then one way to guarantee it doesn't happen is not to leave the earth. Makes sense to me. Number two, I'm a Capricorn. The Goat. We goats were meant to keep our little hooves on solid ground--it's written in the stars. Number three, I see no logic in placing my trust in a pilot that I don't know. And number four, it only took one glimpse of wreckage floating on the ocean--way back in the seventies--to make me say, "No thanks" to planes. And that was long before September 11 gave me more horrible visuals.

I think I may have inherited my fears from my mother. I literally think some fears are implanted in the DNA. My mother never told me to be afraid of water or of planes, but I'm afraid of both, and so is she. I really don't know how she made it here from Germany without having a major panic attack. When we were children and we would walk by some lake or river on a family vacation, my mother would become pale with fear, would nip at our clothing with her fingers, pulling us back from the sides of bridges that had huge safety gates. It didn't matter, and now I feel that same fear with my children. I fear that they have no fear of death, and therefore no built in protection. I also obsessively think of the worst case scenario. What if they fell in to the lake, the river, the deep end of the pool? I can't swim. I can't save them. I have become my mother, and now we worry about the children in tandem.

I can't swim. I took swimming lessons twice, once as a child and once as a young adult. I failed. In my defense, the teachers were terrible both times, but still, this is bad for my own children, who might enjoy water fun if I ever felt like indulging. They've been to the pool with neighbors and friends; they've been in hotel pools. But Mommy doesn't join them.

Naturally, if I were ever forced to get on a plane, I would have to fly over water. Then I'd be forced to confront two fears at once, and I'm not convinced this is a good thing. People who love flying should fly. People who don't, I think, should stay on the ground.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Much Ado about Prologues

My mystery lovers' listserv has hosted a running debate about whether or not a writer should indulge in writing a prologue. I confess I don't really see what the fuss is about. It's a literary convention with which one can dispense if they don't care for it, or use if they enjoy it. My first book contains a prologue, and obviously I felt it was necessary or I wouldn't have structured the book that way. But I never really sat down and consciously debated the issue.

When I was growing up and reading all sorts of books, they often contained prologues, and what I liked about these little introductory chapters was that they were often mysteries within the mystery. You would read it and ask, "But how could this event in Alaska in 1850 possibly affect the characters in chapter one--two librarians in New York in 2005?" and then your mind could be working on it, in the background, while you read the story. It gave the reader a dual purpose until both mysteries came together in the resolution.

The fact that some in the publishing world are saying that prologues are dead or that prologues should never be used is strange to me. Why insist on absolutes? Isn't this a sort of mental tyranny? Or worse, doesn't it suggest a lack of originality on the part of the people who follow the stricture? I don't really care whether the books I read have prologues or not, but I certainly wouldn't want to leave out what I thought was important just because someone said it was verboten.

Writer Bill Cameron kindly said that my prologue was an example of one that was used well. Thanks, Bill. It would be nice to hear what other people thought about this unexpectedly controversial topic.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

An Ode To Cover Art

I don't agree with the fact that we can't judge a book by its cover--or at least with the fact that we don't judge a book by it's cover. I do it all the time, in that if a book has a gorgeous cover, I may well buy it. That's why I was so thrilled with the cover art that my publisher's designer, Kevin R. Brown, created. It's mysterious, it's compelling, and it goes well with the title of the novel. I think cover artists are rather unsung heroes. They get a tiny credit inside the book, but people who respond to the beauty of a cover may never look to see who might be responsible for that particular design.

I'm convinced that Kevin Brown's cover will attract far more people to my book than will any copy written to describe the story, so I'm certainly grateful to him. In the meantime, I'm anxiously anticipating what my next cover will look like. It's a much different kind of novel, much more lighthearted and focused mostly on one person, the protagonist, Madeline Mann. I assume, therefore, that Madeline herself will be on the cover. I can only hope that their vision of Madeline is similar to mine. Time will tell . . . .

Monday, June 19, 2006

Beauty and the PR Beast

While perusing the digital photos that my husband took at my first big book signing, I was distressed to see that I looked rather--pudgy, curvaceous, generously endowed, fluffy--and other gentle euphemisms for fat. How in the world had this happened? I wondered. Hadn't I, once upon a time, been a svelte young woman? Then it dawned on me: I'd basically been sitting at a computer for years. Years of writing novels in my free time, making handouts in my work time. And then, as a break from sitting at the computer? Sitting in a chair, reading. The variety was not in my physical action, but in what I read. I read books for work; I read articles and wrote papers for night school; I stole occasional blissful hours for recreational reading. While I sat at the computer or in my big stuffed chair, I often snacked on whatever I craved. This usually meant something made with chocolate or butter, or sometimes chocolate and butter. At the very least I should have expected to develop gout, not to mention additional poundage.

The other problem that I faced, as a fiction writer, was that I had a totally fictional picture of myself, one that was securely rooted in 1985 or thereabouts, back when I had a killer body. In my mind, I was a veritable Catherine Zeta Jones of the keyboard, ever lovely and graceful as I munched my chocolatey butter snack and dreamed up mysterious scenarios for my characters. So naturally, when forced to look at a picture of me in my new signing jacket (which was sized Grande, a beautiful Spanish way of saying Extra Large), it was no wonder that I said, "Who the heck is that?"

So what does one do? I pledged to join Curves so that future book jackets wouldn't make me look like such an example of American excess. I vowed to get up and walk in between creative endeavors at the keyboard (including my newest pleasure--blogging). But what I'm really fighting here is a lifetime of indolence which has become second nature. Perhaps becoming a writer was my unconscious escape from jogging. But the pendulum always swings back. I need to brush up my public image, which means I have to start jogging anyway, and hope that jogging the bod will also jog some new ideas out of my brain, and I will have finally achieved harmony of mind and Grande body.

Children and book signings, oil and water.

I made my book signing debut yesterday at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park, Illinois, hosted by the wonderful Augie Aleksy. See the children in the front row, looking bored and mischievous, respectively? Those I claim as mine, and they were the only ones to ask rude questions. I should have thought of paying them to be ringers and given them questions ahead of time, like "What made you think of that fascinating title?" or "Mother, how do you find the time to nurture us and still write mystery fiction of this calibre?" But instead I got "Why is there so much profanity in the book?" That comment was provided by my eldest son, a whippersnapper with a bold attitude and more cleverness than he can handle. This will most likely be the last signing they'll be attending, despite the pride that I'm sure was in there somewhere, deep within their callous, youthful hearts.

Still, it was a lovely signing for my book, The Dark Backward, and I was pleased to see friends and colleagues, neighbors and writer's group supporters, and even strangers who had read the book and liked it, all converging in one room to hear me discuss my work. It was very rewarding, especially when someone asked, after I gave the briefest of background, if I would read from the book. I had avoided doing this, fearing people would be bored, but they seemed, in fact, to want to hear it.
That was fun. I was almost starting to get a swelled head, but my children, if nothing else, will keep me eternally humble. My littlest son walked up to me while I was signing a book and asked, in a weary voice, "When will this be over?"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

My husband is Jeff Buckley--but not THAT Jeff Buckley

Some people think my husband died in a tragic drowning when he was a mere thirty something, after taking the world by storm with his avant-garde music. But that, in fact, was a different Jeff Buckley, and ironically he died on the above Jeff Buckley's ninth wedding anniversary.

My Jeff Buckley has been married to me for eighteen years, and has read many a manuscript while I watched him from across the room, hoping for praise. The most coveted mark he can make on my page is the smiley face, which he only bestows upon things that make him laugh out loud. Sometimes he'll return a piece of writing to me and I'll say, after a quick perusal, "This page should have had at least one smiley." He shakes his head. The smileys are not given randomly.

Jeff is a good father and a nice man, and if he were more ambitious I'm sure he could have published books himself, especially a compilation of the stories he tells our children, which are outrageous, outlandish, and hilarious. I'll have to start recording them on his behalf.

But in the meantime, I wanted to sing the praises of a lesser known Jeff Buckley, especially as Father's Day approaches, because he's doing a wonderful job.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Writer's Day Job: Teaching English

This is an essay I wrote a couple of months ago about the chaos of teaching English for living. Now, from the calm of summer vacation, I can appreciate it even more, although it seems horrifying by comparison to my current quiet days . . . .

Breakfast is chaotic. My children are watching Spongebob and not paying attention to the clock; then there is much yelling as they try to find homework, lunches, jackets, and somehow I am to blame. This is nothing new, so I don’t bother to protest the injustice. We run to the car, I with my bag and lunch, they with theirs. On the way my little one decides that he doesn’t like school and starts to cry. I reach awkwardly into the back seat to pat his leg, my eyes on the clock. If we are late, I will be blamed again. Parents, I find, are blamed for everything. At school we find the appropriate lines, say our goodbyes; I dab at my son’s eyes and tell him everything will be fine. He marches bravely in, his face as grave as a soldier’s.

So I feel guilty as I drive to another school, the school where I work. I rush in to check my mailbox and my voicemail, not to be confused with my e-mail, which I will check upstairs on my computer. Maybe someday there will be mindmails. Clutching my pile of correspondence, I stand in line at the copier with my handouts for the day. Two faculty members are ahead of me; obviously their children didn’t watch Spongebob. When I get to the front, my precious quizzes and worksheets in hand, the machine mocks me with its flashing message: “Needs toner.” This is the copy machine’s way of saying “Ha, Ha!” It turns out there is no toner; the copy machine, alas, will be unavailable for a time.

Copyless, I trudge upstairs to face Period One. They are primed and ready for the vocabulary quiz. I explain, after we pray and say the Pledge of Allegiance (with varying degrees of patriotism) that I do not have the quiz copied. “But I studied all night!” yells one indignant vocabularian. Teachers, I find, are always blamed. “Sorry,” I say. “It’s not like you’ll forget the words now that you know them.” The class disagrees, loudly and at some length. I glance at the clock. I need to transition into a grammar lesson and then into a bit of background on the roaring twenties before we launch into a discussion of last night’s chapter of The Great Gatsby. Time is always of the essence, even when there are ninety minutes. Trying to brighten the atmosphere, I paste on a smile and say, “Who can explain the term ‘irregular verb?’” This is met by a stony silence. Students apparently hate verbs, perhaps more than any other part of speech.

Gatsby doesn’t fare much better. Nick Carraway is less popular than a verb today;
F. Scott Fitzgerald will not be recommended to friends as fun spring break reading. I have somehow failed to convey the majesty of grammar and good literature. When the bell rings they rush out, some smiling sympathetically. I wouldn’t want your job, their faces say.

In homeroom I take attendance, then pass things out and collect other things, all the while making a “ssssshhhhhh” sound so that students will be quiet during announcements. I sound like a leaky furnace, and I receive about the same respect.

In Period Two I hand a detention to a girl with a large nose stud. “What’s this?” she asks. “It’s a detention,” I say. “For your nose jewelry.” She glares at me. While all the students know the rules, not one cares to be reminded of them. In fact, this is another thing which has become my fault. “That’s not fair,” she says. She seems to believe this, even as the large faux diamond in her nose glints in the fluorescent light. Her friends glare at me, as well. I have committed a dreadful crime. I feel suddenly tired.

In Period Four I write several isms on the board: Naturalism, Darwinism, Socialism, Nihilism. I hear sighs. Students hate isms. Still, for a time we have a lively discussion. Then students are asked to write a response to something on the board. “Write?” one of them asks. “Why?”

It might surprise people to know that despite the fact that this is an English class, I get this question all the time, as well as the “Why must we read?” query. I’m not sure exactly how students, given their druthers, would go about studying language, but apparently I haven’t hit on it quite yet. Surveys, however, don’t always help me to answer this dilemma, as they elicit responses like “Try to be less boring.”

After school I race to the grade school where my children are waiting. I have broken several laws to try to get there on time, to avoid that inevitable blame. I fail. “You’re late,” my sons tell me, piling in the car. “We were the last ones here.” They are surly in the back seat, punishing me with their silence.

“Sorry,” I say. I drive home. There the dog and cat blame me for my absence in their own ways; I must walk the dog, even though I sense he has not waited, but left his blame in a concrete form on the basement floor.

I sit with the boys as they do their homework. I try to do some of my own; there is a huge pile of essays and journals that I must grade, but I am interrupted almost every minute. Concentration is something I once achieved, in a quieter past. By the time they are finished (and I have made hardly a dent) I must clear the table and scrounge around for something resembling dinner. I am rarely enthused about this process; I have my own homework waiting for me, tons and tons of scholarly reading, as well as an assignment from my writing group. I have a meeting this evening, so nothing will get done, which means that tomorrow I must face the eager faces asking if I graded essays and say, “Sorry.”

“I need field trip money,” one son tells me, as the other digs through his father’s shirts for an art smock. I am distracted from dinner. When I finally provide it, it is not impressive. My husband comes home and peers into the lonely pot on the stove. “Hot dogs?” he asks, disappointment carving itself into his features.

“Sorry,” I say. Wives, I find, are always blamed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Life to the Everlasting Cat

I'm wondering at the preponderance of cats in fiction, especially mystery fiction. What is it about cats that sells books? I am a cat lover, and if my husband didn't object I'd probably have three or four strolling around. As it is, I have one, the cat above, who bears the unfortunate name of Pibby Tails because a very insistent two year old named him. My husband suggests that one of the reasons our cat fights so much is that the other Toms in the neighborhood are outside mocking him, calling "Pibby Tails! Pibby Tails!" with great glee.

In any case, I'm curious what makes cats so naturally loved by those who love literature. Is it because cats have always loyally sat upon us (and our books) while we read? Is it because of their natural grace and beauty, or what T.S. Eliot called their "unashamed felinity?" (And I'm quoting Eliot in my title, too.)

So far cats have not worked their way into my books, but I'm guessing it's just a matter of time. Right now, perhaps because my children are still at home and very loud, I tend to put children into my fiction. But when they leave home, perhaps my eye will stray to my cat, and suddenly the ideas for feline-inspired fiction will flow.

An Odd Literary Coincidence

I'm reading a wonderful novel by Cornelia Read called Field of Darkness. The story centers around a young woman, Madeline Dare, who stumbles across a clue in an old murder case and worries that one of her relatives might be involved. It's a great story, but even more impressive is Read's writing, which is delicate and poetic even when she is describing the grisly murders of two girls.

What surprised me, about a third of the way through the book, were several similarities that Read's book had with mine--and mine hasn't come out yet. My book, Pity Him Afterwards, will hit shelves in 2007 (although, as my agent will attest, I wrote it back in 1995, when my son was a baby). My character, Madeline Mann, has the following in common with Read's character: she is a reporter, she has a boyfriend who is distressed by her inexplicable behavior, she is often called Maddy. Read's Madeline has a friend who once or twice refers to her as "Madwoman." My character, Madeline Mann, has her name shortened to "Madman" by her brothers, and she is called that throughout the book.

I feel a bit uncomfortable, even though this is obviously a coincidence; after all, Madeline is a very common name. It's what I would have named my son, had he been born a girl. He was going to be Madeline Rose (much to his manly horror), and instead I gave that name to the first character I ever created. But I wouldn't want anyone to read my book, which will come out more than a year after Cornelia Read's beautiful debut, and think, "This author was so unoriginal she had to borrow several ideas."

My publisher tells me that these coincidences are surprisingly common; still, I am distressed to find that I am now an example of a literary coincidence. I would rather be an example of a literary success, or a literary coup, or a literary darling, or some wonderful thing with the word literary prefacing it. And in all honesty, coincidences are a lot easier to bear when your book is the one that came out first and was an instant hit for many well-deserved reasons.

Are there any other people out there who have found themselves a part of a coincidence of this nature?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cool Weather and Summer Vacation

Spring is almost over. I must be one of the few people alive who love the coolness of spring and dislike the heat of summer. Today it is cool; in fact all of May and the beginning of June has been unusually autumnal, and I enjoyed every chilly minute of it while the weather reporters continued to drone on about how sad it was that it wasn't hot. I simply don't understand this way of thinking. My husband says that this is one of the reasons we were drawn together, as he dislikes the heat as well.

It's summer vacation now, even though the weather cries otherwise, and all those lovely spring flowers and fragrant bushes are already dying. I am free of lesson plans and paper grading for several weeks, and I must say it feels good. We're always suffering from what I call "genteel poverty," so we can never really go anywhere on a long summer trip, but it's fun just to wake up in the morning and not have to panic about deadlines, to hunt for socks and school uniforms, to summon up lunches and breakfasts, to make sure everyone is fed and watered and looking polished in about half an hour of chaos.

Summer means I can get up in a leisurely fashion, often much later than I do during the school year because I stay up late reading mysteries, and wander downstairs, where I will undoubtedly find my sons already watching cartoons and eating cereal, they of the perpetual early rising. I keep telling them they should learn the joys of sleeping in, but even at the ages of eleven and seven my children don't have much need for my opinions.

So now it will be time to plan our summer calendar, trying to work in adventures that are both economical and memorable. Although even if we spend the whole summer reading mysteries and watching cartoons (respectively), I think we'll find it to be a healing experience. Especially if it's not hot.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

My son, who is in the first grade, wrote a haiku. He read it recently at a very cool first grade poetry reading. Here is his poem:

Pigs Like Mud
Pigs are sitting down.
They like to roll in the mud.
They have lots of fun.
by Graham Buckley

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Getting Started

The entire notion of a weblog is foreign to me and I'm not sure what to write here. It's seven in the morning on a Saturday and I got up too early, so I'm half tempted to go back to bed, but I have so much writing to do! My youngest son got up too early, too, and he's stomping around the house in a tiredness-induced tantrum. This could last all day, which is a shame, because he is normally sweet-tempered and lovey. So I may have to return to the depths of my covers just to avoid Graham, who wants to play PS-2 and has been told that he cannot until some chores are done. Is this too harsh a task for a seven year old?

My older son is still deeply and wisely asleep. He has matured just in the last few days, not only because he looks older and taller, but he has decided, with the growing mercenary tendencies of an eleven year old, that he can sometimes babysit his younger brother and make money in the process. So I am letting him do so for short periods at a time, zipping out to the store, or, as I did last night, going to a book signing by Marion Moore Hill (Deadly Will) while my son watches his brother. I still wouldn't leave them for long periods, though. They are far too likely to kill each other. When I got to the book signing I immediately called them on the store phone (I don't have a cell phone--am I the only one?) and I wondered how old they will be before I don't feel the need to check on them. Perhaps I'll still do this when they're married.

But today I will be with them all day, aside from the time I am on the computer. We will pop in a cd and clean the house for twenty minutes to see if we can get it looking like something other than a pit of despair.

And then I will try to write. I'm working on a book, the first non-mystery I've tried to create, and it simply isn't long enough, so I'm pounding in words and scenes and feeling as though I'm totally ruining the pacing I had established with my pared down first draft.

Oh, and I'll be paying bills and "balancing" my checkbook, which hasn't balanced in about fifteen years. I just go through the motions.

Now that I read this over, how glamorous my life looks!