Friday, November 28, 2008


I finally tackled the monstrous chore of cleaning out my office closet. You know the one: phone books stacked taller than Mount McKinley, file boxes stuffed as much as my post-Thanksgiving stomach, random board game pieces littering the floor like they'd staged a grand escape and plummeted to their death. I culled and filed and organized until I'd reduced my life into fifty or so labeled letter-sized folders. Neat bundles, just the highlights-death, taxes-you get the idea, until I ran across one dot-matrix printed page with the words Discover Module 4 at the top.

In 1993, I sat down at a computer console in the counselor's office of my high school and logged answers to a UNIACT interest inventory to determine a possible list of occupations. The questions reduced my values, perceptions of my own abilities, and experiences into a mathematical quotient, a left-brained analysis of dreams.

Some of them I knew would be there. I'd wanted to be a teacher since I presided over a captive classroom of Cabbage Patch dolls when I was five. Teaching was always a no-brainer for me. Something I never once questioned, as preordained to my human experience as breathing. Out of thirty-six possible occupations UNIACT listed for me, 34 percent fell under education. Vocational. Elementary. Physical Ed (though if the questionnaire had addressed eyeliner and my aversion to track pants this clearly wouldn't have made my list). Back then, had I read an inevitability into the results, barely glancing at the other possibilities?

What were the other occupations? Museum curator, foreign language interpreter and librarian all make sense. Customs inspector, parole officer and sanitarian do not. Cataloging rat droppings in Waffle Houses doesn't light my fire, although the thread here really smacks of rule enforcement. FBI agent? Only if I get Mulder as a partner. But when I opened myself up to read the others, a full fifteen years later, I found a message from the past more perfect than I could have imagined.

#87 Columnist
#112 Book critic
#140 Editor
#354 Radio/TV Program Writer
#423 Technical Writer
#438 Fiction Writer

I was meant to be here. Crunched by numbers, culled from a place of values, abilities and experiences, the second most prevalent occupation predicted for me was exactly where life led me: a writer. A mathematical, left-brained answer to the venom of doubt that creeps in when I read another's masterpiece or can't find myself in the words I've committed to the page. A true gift to a heart filled with second dreams. Remember when I said there are no coincidences? On a day more uncertain than most, when I'd escaped to a diversion of insurance forms and file folders-tangible, concrete evidence of a day well spent-I found something far more valuable than deposit slips. I found my place on a road map drawn long ago. A quiet spot with the resonance of a dream and a life well spent.

A badge and an "I Want to Believe" poster in my office still would have been a close third.

What were your early dreams?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What on Earth?

Today, I'm all about shopping. Mind you, I'm a freaky female because shopping is one of my least favorite pastimes. I'd rather listen to someone rip my protagonist to shreds as one of the least valuable members to ever occupy literary society. Almost. I had to decompress from the absurdity of men clearly out of their element pushing grocery carts and the incessant chatter of women on cell phones buying cell phones at the AT&T store with 45 minutes of yoga. After which, I fell asleep in the corpse pose and awoke to my cat's one eyed-stare.

Then, behold. My favorite catalog came in the mail. One hundred and twenty seven pages of snarky t-shirts, pop culture items and deliciously non-politically correct gifts. My yearly thank you for the one-time purchase of a Hilary Clinton nutcracker. This, my dear blog readers, is Feliz Navidad to my spirit, weary from commercialism and the grinches already clogging the Wal-mart check out lines. Nothing says "Merry Christmas" more than a bog monster rising out of your toilet bowl or alien crash figurines for your garden.

So here, I give you my top ten favorite holiday gifts from the What on Earth catalog in the hopes that you might find inspiration or at least a smile to counteract the tool up the street who already has antlers affixed to his SUV:

1. Who doesn't need a snarky shirt for those days you just want to set the PTA all atwitter? My favorites? "Yet, despite the look on my face, you're still talking" and "If you woke up this morning, it's because Jack Bauer spared your life."

2. Hooray for the Bra-a hardback coffee table extravaganza for the feminist or perv on your list. Comes complete with ten interactive pop-ups and a bra hook closure.

3. The Michelangelo's David switch plate. The caption reads "Turn on the light--and David, too." Art as an interactive experience, the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

4. The Loo With a View book. Gorgeous photos depicting vantage points from inspiring toilets all over the world: the summit of Mount Fugi, under the Northern Lights and at the Station Inn in Yorkshire Dales (wherever that is-Miladysa help us out). A perfect way to class up the uncle on your list who clutters his privy with skin mags.

5. Not everything in this catalog is bathroom humor, but who can live without the You-Record Talking TP roll? The temptation to pre-record a message for a captive audience is almost too much to resist.

6. A rain chime music box, reminiscent of the Native American sticks, gives you 30-45 minutes of magical rain sounds from its hundreds of tiny steel beads randomly falling on internal chimes. Long enough to drown out the digestive sounds of your in-laws post-holiday dinner.

7. Crime Scene Scarf, meant to duplicate the plastic ribbon used by law enforcement. "Extra long for stylish looping and layering."

8. What Monty Python fan/writer doesn't need the Killer Rabbit stapler? Wrestle your synopsis together using this attack bunny's bloodstained fangs.

9. The flying monkeys plastic gun, direct from the land of Oz. Comes with a set of four terrifying one-inch red fedora-ed and caped primates.

10. And for spiritual moments around the tree, an ornament that reads, "Go Jesus-it's your birthday, Go Jesus!"

Happy Shopping, everyone!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Life in Pictures

Not sure if this post should be related to time travel or time suck, but both are completely perfect. Life magazine just released its entire archive to Google Images courtesy of the Library of Congress. This union marries the delicious searchability of Google with creme de la creme photographs from every decade beginning in 1860. How great is that?

I lost an hour, easy. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Vj Day, August 14, 1945, Times Square

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I don't always respect my reader. For reasons beyond me, I'm allergic to transitions that would provide perfect guideposts through my stories. Time and time again, my critique partners point out these oversights in bold red Sharpie-marks "I'M LOST!" I take it for granted that I've made the connections-why should they need the vanilla staples of transitions such as "Later that night" or "Afterward"? Ick.

Because they do. According to Jessica Page Morrell in her craft book Between the Lines, transitions are a courtesy to the reader to help them keep the fictional dream going. They help the reader to trust the author to lead them through the turns while freeing them to anticipate what's ahead. She cautions, however, "Do not imagine your reader is an intellectual invalid. While you should always guide the reader along in the story, there is no need to hover or announce every change." So how to find the balance?

In my quest to finally put this shortcoming to rest, I dove into Morrell's eight purposes of transition:

1. Moving readers through time

The most used of all transitions. Let's face it, sometimes we just want to inject the vitals. If a writer skips around in story time, the lost moments, hours or weeks must always be accounted for in the reader's mind.

2. Bridging the gap between scenes

Scene cuts are useful in a well-told, well-paced story, but if every new scene jumps into a new viewpoint or setting without warning, the reader will grow tired. These can be in the form of clues about where the scene is taking place or how the character arrived there. This type of transition is especially important when crafting an emotional sequel.

3. Compressing time

Not every moment in the story is of equal importance. This type of transition summarizes events when the reader doesn't need to know a huge amount of detail. If you find you've cut a scene because it doesn't advance the plot, but the information is necessary to the story's greater understanding, a transition is the perfect writer's tool. Morrell suggests, "It's a good idea, when you compress information, to focus on a few poignant details. Piecing together memories emulates the fragmented recollection we have in actual life."

4. Anchoring flashbacks

Indicates to the reader a shift backward in time or forward to present story time. Use of a sensory device or object is a full-proof way to make the transition believable and natural, as it is often how we access our own memories.

5. Indicating a change in setting

If a scene drops your reader into a new location, especially abrupt or surprising settings, a simple transition using sensory clues will keep the reader from becoming disoriented. Also, if a writer is employing multiple viewpoints, often in more than one locale, make sure the reader is re-grounded in the new viewpoint.

6. Indicating a shift in mood, tone or emotion

According to Morrell, "Shifting mood, tone and emotion as the story progresses ensures variety in your story. If every scene plays out as light and hilarious or somber and distressing the sameness of mood and tone will flatten out the story and cause the readers to become bored or restless." Although this is the most difficult transition to pull off, emotional shifts are often underscored with setting and lighting changes.

7. Indicating a shift in point of view

Morrell highlights Cold Mountain as a good example of point of view shift. Charles Frazier establishes the simple pattern of one viewpoint per chapter, which, in itself, serves as a transition the reader can easily internalize. Clues are still necessary to let the reader know how much time has elapsed since he last visited the viewpoint character.

8. Clarifying relationships

Often when a new, secondary character is introduced, a short transitional biography accompanying the physical description can help the reader "make room in his imagination."

Morrell's most important piece of advice about transitions? Variety, variety, variety. Be sure when you edit, you've sampled many different ways to transition. Here are some further transition cues found in Between the Lines:

Lighting, weather, seasons/years/eras, objects, mundane activities, a character's appearance and health, specific references to time or date, indirect references to time passing (ie--a garden growing, a crowd thinning), activities, interruptions (telephone, doorbell, arrival of another character), sound, space breaks and chapter breaks and datelines.

Lastly, (did you like that one?)I'll gush, again. If you're looking for fresh topics on writing, an examination on the subtle aspects of fiction and a comprehensive list of transitional words and phrases, you need Between the Lines. It's absolutely one of my favorite craft books.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Grand March Into Random Thoughts

You caught me again in a scattered moment. I can't pin my thoughts into one cohesive, philosophical waxing, so I won't even try. Maybe after this brain purge, I can get back to focusing on my novel's final read-through.

Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Contest is streaking an excited path through all the listservs and blogs, the second-round promise of that paved highway to publication leaving all the unpubs atwitter. I know. I was an entrant last year. Any contest of that magnitude the year of its inception was destined to have problems. I hope they've worked them out. Most who read this know I'm a glass half-full kinda person; and, far be it from me to advise anyone considering entering the contest, but I aim to shoot it straight. I met some wonderfully talented writers in the same boat as me. You'll find all kinds in your peer group of entrants. The cutthroats. The ones spewing peace and moments of zen that would put the 60's to shame. The "expert" unpubs who deem it their job to comment on everyone's work. Although Amazon will ask you to label your entry a specific genre, I don't believe the hugely talented panel of judges is looking for genre fiction, certainly not romance. It is free; it is a shot. I do preach writers must get their stuff out there. I'm just sure the there is not where I want to be. To read a post I wrote in the thick of the competition, click here, or visit Maureen McGowan's blog and do a keyword search for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. Her novel made the one hundred cut last year, which is a huge accomplishment. Yeah, Maureen!

Wal-Mart on a Sunday is some kind of cosmic punishment for something I haven't fully realized yet. Snark, maybe, or putting a half-moon up for a post last week, which inspired almost no one to speak up. Anyway, I found the perfect way to pass the time while subjected to this counter-culture shopping event. Wal-Mart bingo!

Crazy electrical things keep happening around me this weekend. Not that I'm self-important enough to think a huge grid of power is based on me, but a peep told me Friday night that it's easy for spirits to manipulate electrical things. Suspicious activity has increased here at Casa Mitchell. Of course, the incidents have been firmly relegated to my I'm-delirious-from-edits part of my left brain. Did I just see what I thought I saw-twice?? Na.

I participated in my first Grand March this past weekend. Nothing says bonding like a hundred strangers bouncing up and down to polka music, exploring the limitations of their Right Guard. I smiled so much that day, my cheeks ached. Now that is a day of life well spent.

If you haven't played Loaded Questions, get it. Not only will it teach you things you never imagined about the people you surround yourself with, it's like every writer's perfect fantasy of "what if". Now my critique group knows I think about Eric Estrada on occasion, believe the dirtiest job in the world is airplane bathroom cleaner and look in the mirror X number of times per day. I'm SO not revealing that one. My favorite question? I'll leave it with you here:

If you could be invisible for one day, what would you do?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tiny Anonymous Gifts

Picture this:

I’m sitting at my most-conquered Starbucks table, premium writing real estate because of its rare size and proximity to a wall plug. I’d scored the location five minutes ahead of a grumbling business type forced to huddle around a cramped rounder and dine on my second plug scraps of electricity. Behind me stands a stack of exorbitantly priced coffee pots (does anyone actually buy a $500 pot from Starbucks??) that teeters on occasion when I scramble away to recapture the time writing has snatched. Across the aisle, a woman in pea-green Crocs taps her foot to an i-pod tune while studying a textbook.

I feel guilt, so I justify the space by spreading out manuscript pages. I do this at home in deep edits so the highlighted colors tell a story. Totally unnecessary here, but to stave off the nasty glares from grumpy executive man. And there, something new creeps into my awareness.

This manuscript is two years old. I unearthed it that morning from my closet to enter it into a prestigious contest. The final version my agent had on file, one sent to two dozen publishing houses, had sprinklings of a mysterious maroon-colored penmanship on several pages. The handwriting, not of anyone in my critique group nor writing friends I sometimes send pages to, was quiet. Small and unassuming, but dead-accurate. The comments were like tiny gifts packaged into calligraphic bows.

In the cacophony of bean grinders and frothing machines and chirping cell phones, I waded through the mental rolodex of readers who’d had this manuscript in hand. The dinosaur method of handwriting should have provided hard evidence; most critiques I get now come via fattened emails loaded with track changes. Someone physically held these pages, and I can’t find him or her to thank.

The comments stop around page thirty-six. Does that firmly relegate the time period to the novel’s inception? Did the reader grow weary of the mistakes? Was that all I had to offer at the time? To whom did I entrust my raw words at the time that I no longer recognize the script?

I may never know, but it scarcely matters.

Those red marks are someone and everyone who’ll one day dive into our pages looking for an escape, a truth. Every fastidious cursive letter represents a bond, not with print runs or book clubs, but one anonymous reader who, through our stories, will become more intimate with us than almost anyone else. A thought both frightening and comforting.

We don’t write for many, we write for one. A full circle of writer to reader, complete.

And if anyone out there makes their “g”s like figure eights and crosses their “t”s only when inspired, don’t tell me. I love anonymous gifts.

Who do you write for?

Monday, November 10, 2008

From Castles to Chest Hair

Congrats to the winner of the First Line contest: Sue L. Here it is again in its glory:

It seemed funny, at the time, to see the world land in my yard, roll forward and squash Marin.

Sue, email me at and let me know where to send your DVD. A huge thanks to everyone for tossing the ideas out there. Never underestimate how huge that is. Since I was twiddling my thumbs wanting to comment on each, you’ll find my gush on each one in the previous post.


After a weekend of gorging myself of all four episodes on Heavy: The Story of Metal (OMG-Janey Lane) and two Victoria Holt classic gothic romances, is it any wonder I have gothic on the brain? Purely from a marketing standpoint for my own novel, I needed to wrap my brain around the definition and feel of a classic gothic romance to know if The Night Caller fits into a modern version several NY publishers purchased in the past month. Without benefit of seeing these on the shelves for at least twelve months, I’ll have to concoct my own theories about this resurgence.

Gothic romance novels (like Metal, actually) never really go away. At times, editors may laugh in the face of anyone trying to sell one, but in the past decade, Dorchester has taken a chance on them with their Candleglow line authors Christine Feehan, Evelyn Rogers and Colleen Shannon in 2001; and, more recently with debut author Leanna Renee Hilber’s The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. With recent word St. Martin intends to repackage and rerelease Victoria Holt’s 1960’s classics, I smell a trend resurgence. That stale odor of the paranormal vampire and shapeshifter romance, masked by the yet-to-be-explored gothic sub-sub genre with a modern take.

To understand the modern prediction, I had to lay out the ingredients of the former. Against a backdrop of the true gothics-Rebecca, Jane Eyre, even Poe and Jane Austin’s mockery of the gothic, Northanger Abbey, I dove into the mid-twentieth century version. Here’s the recipie: Two parts angst to one part suspense/mystery. Add a castle-sized medieval stone, handfuls of eccentric secondary characters tied to the house, a smattering of charming, mysterious, brooding men, secrets and curses, and stir with spirits, real or imagined. The reader maintains an element of distrust toward the brooding hero—everyone, actually—which makes first person heroine narrative essential. The heroines are by no means waifs, but confined by their station in life, which naturally gravitates the setting to historical.

Therein lies a built in audience for readers of historical romance. But how to freshen and appeal to women who read contemporary paranormal? Here’s my theory:

Modern romance readers are sophisticated. They dabble in mainstream suspense, watch James Bond movies and can dissect LOST mythology far beyond how Sawyer’s chest hair (or lack thereof) plays into it. They crave the hero’s POV to draw them closer to his inner conflict and magnify the intimate relationship. They no longer want him storming home from “business”, leaving a frightening wake in the castle upon their arrival. The modern gothic romance hero is the darkest of all tortured heroes, but this time, the reader’s distrust of him comes from the horrors within. He is the supreme challenge to love, leaving the modern, strong heroine the only one to reach him. She must be as formidable in character and courage as he is dark in his, manifesting her strength through either occupation or insurmountable odds. She must have a damn good reason for investing herself in the chaos surrounding her; her motivation becomes the touch point to the entire plot.

The heat level, understandably, must go from a slow, simmering kettle to what modern romance readers expect. While a kiss to the hand has its charms, no NY romance publisher will take a chance on selling propriety.

The setting, while essential to a modern gothic romance, must be tight. Gone are the dense, undigestable passages of portraits and curtains and tableware. The writing must be fiercely economical to bring the classical heroine out of her musings and smack-across-the-face internalizations and into the action-meat of the story. Quirky secondary characters are still welcome.

So that’s my take. Does The Night Caller fit? That’s for me to know and an editor to find out. Let’s just say we're not contemplating Sawyer’s chest hair. Or are we?

What’s your take on gothic? Did I get it right?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Elect Your Favorite First Line

In honor of Michael Crichton and the sad news of his passing, I offer up the DVD film adapted from his novel, Timeline, as a treat for the Vortex First Line winner.

Of course, you knew it would be time travel, didn't you?

Cast your vote in the right sidebar before Sunday, 11pm CST; and yes, you can vote for yourself and more than once. If you'd still like to enter a first line, I'd be happy to add. Here's the photo again:

A: Mac Jennings guided his sixty foot Wellcraft through the Atlantic, thankful for the calm seas.

B: As he saw the great gray orb sprout up between the still-fragile leaves of young barley, old man Grant couldn’t suppress a wry grin. They were right. With good enough fertilizer, you can make anything grow.

C: I was the only witness, at the end of days, when the sun was gone and what was left of the moon settled in a desolate field crackling with the fading energy of a dying ember.

D: In the twilight evening, the moon came down to earth, and I found myself standing in its shadow waiting for the world's destruction to begin.

E: Zoltag clapped his hands in delight. "The new planet's here. The new planet's here."

F: It seemed funny, at the time, to see the world land in my yard, roll forward and squash Marin.

G: Scientists proved that the Spaghettio meatball's properties, when tested on alien soil, were not in accordance with the "Nutritional Information" found on the label.

H: It took thirty hours of driving on rain slick highways, each of us taking a six hour shift behind the wheel in between half-drunk groping in the back of the van or head bobbing to iPod-islands of personal meditation, and then after we ditched the car the stumbling slog through November fields with muddy ruts and stalks and rocks hidden in the night with only the beacon ahead to guide us, the light on the banks of the river and in the shadow of the mountains, some crazy Kinsella-if-you-build-it masterpiece of a bankrupt farmer gone batshit and in glow of this monstrosity looking like God's own Brunswick 16 pound bowling ball all Bobby can say is "Where's the little flag the astronauts left?"

Next week, I tiptoe through the market minefield of old skool Gothic Romance versus this-doesn't-have-nearly-enough-sex-in-it modern market demands and I play detective trying to figure out the mysterious handwriting on an old manuscript. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

First Line Fiesta

Participation Day here at the Vortex. I love this picture. Write the first line of the story....

Oh, and because you probably have election hangover and your brain is screaming, "Please, don't ask me to think!" I'll sweeten the pot. We'll all cast our votes Friday for best first line. The winner gets a secret DVD from me to be revealed Friday.

Who's first?

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Scent of a Hero

My relationship with the hero of the novel I'm still diddling with, The Night Caller, has crossed firmly over into the he-refuses-to-pick-up-his-socks phase. We've surpassed the honeymoon first draft, navigated the second draft plot hole bruises where each of us refused to see eye to eye and are in the final edits before the pages are shoved into submission. We're languishing in the too-familiar zone. I know as much about how he looks as the back of my own hands against the keyboard. I know he clips the first word of his sentences when he's angry, drinks more coffee than my high school AP history teacher, works only in boots past midnight and hates American cheese.

So in final edits, while I polish every nuance of his character, I'm struggling to find the one thing about him that will breathe fresh life-the turn of a phrase or description where I'll remember discovering him for the first time in that blissful first draft. Enter semi-neurotic writer on a quest for the perfect hero-scent.

It started innocently enough. A postcard-sized card tucked into a Belks sales ad. I rarely smell the women's perfume samples that pass through my hand. We all know on us they transform magically into God-that-smelled-so-much-better-on-the-card-stock-wand. Male fragrance samples I always embrace, because I know they'll stay manufactured and uncompromised by the seven other warring cosmetic products on my skin.

This one was called Unforgivable. Am I supposed to know who Sean John is? I'm guessing from the "vibe that is explosive yet chill" description, he's firmly off my pop culture radar in the netherworld of hip hop. But the name, ahh, that had me. What man in his right mind would perpetuate a state of erotic allure and proclaim his unworthiness all in one breath-or inhale-in this case? Does the black bottle further this dangerous enticement for the woman who dares to purchase this for her man? Does the scent resemble anything of the unforgivable nature of my hero? I had to know.

I unfolded the flap, closed my eyes and firmly entered the Unforgivable vibe. My first thought was the back room of my grandfather's house when I was ten. Utilitarian red carpet, scorpions in the shower, black vinyl pull-out sofa my cousins were forever using as a whoopie cushion. Not exactly the "explosive, yet chill" Sean John was hoping for, I'm guessing. It did whet my appetite to find the one scent that was my hero-the final touch of realism that would evoke that writer-reader magic.

Armed with enough card stock wands to stretch from here to a NY editor's desk, I braved the male fragrance counter and spritzed until the nostrils of the Katie Holmes wanna-be salesgirl flared from the ambush and she offered her services to narrow the search. I smiled politely and said, "Research."

By the time I reached home, even the Kleenex wad in my purse begged for mercy from the metrosexual locker room ambiance I'd created. I laid each one out, disappointed I'd not had the wherewithall to write the cologne's name on each wand. No, that would have been neurotic. My hero wasn't in the name, anyway. He isn't explosive, yet chill or any of a dozen other empty words crafted by ad teams in high rise buildings. He's not on any of the soggy cardstock wands or in any glossy black bottle. The time has come for him to stop breathing in my mind and start anew with someone else. A reader who'll bring her own scent-memories and olfactory tastes to the pages. Someone who'll complete that writer-reader contract where I've left off.

Somehow, it feels unforgivable that I'll move on. Take a new story on a honeymoon. Dance words around another hero. But the real betrayal lies in not letting go. Writing is a balance of many things, the hardest of which might be knowing when a piece is truly finished. There will always be a different verb, a more specific noun. The real magic comes from a place not of pimped-out scents and glossy description but from the vibe within the writer all along.

Even Sean John would chill on that.

Too bad there's no Smell-O-Blog technology. I'd share Sean John's humid-August-crickets-through-the-screen-door vibe with you. Gah. And who knew cologne had trailers now? Get his vibe. Uh.

Your turn...what semi-neurotic thing do you do to jump into your story's reality?