Friday, July 30, 2010

The Cat and the Bag

Yesterday I went to the post office and mailed off one of my books. I can't tell who I mailed it to, because it seems like that might be tempting fate or daring God, and because, for the moment, it's nothing more than a book in the mail.

Still, I stood there and watched the mail lady take it and dump it in a big bin behind her, and I thought, That package might change my life.

You know that feeling, when you are standing in a room full of people who look like they are all ordinary people, and you look like you're ordinary, and yet you have a secret no one can know... a secret that is about to change your life.

I felt that way when I first found out I was pregnant and we weren't telling people until we thought it was safe, and so I went around my little world carrying my future inside me and thinking, "Nothing is going to be the same," and yet everyone else thought life was going on as normal.

I felt that way the first time I put a manuscript in the mail for an agent - even for the first time I sent a query. Thinking: this could be it. This could be the one email that changes everything for me.

I feel that way now. Like I am standing on the cusp of something that might be nothing, but might be something. Might be something very, very big. It is somewhere between the less than certainty of a query and the very certain certainty of the baby. It is still a dream, a hope, a wild fluttering in my heart if I think too much. It is possibility. It could change everything in my life. Or it could only change somethings in my life. It could lead to other things. Or it could just be a book in the mail.

But until I know if it is something or not, I have to smile and nod and drink my coffee and wash the dishes and answer emails and vacuum the floors.

Because for now, everything is just the same.

For now.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Needed: Good Books!!

As I've been looking into MFA programs, I've noticed a trend among the programs that top my lists. While all require extensive reading, nearly all also allow you, the student, to compile your own reading list. That way, each student is able to tailor their own reading to the genre in which they write, peppering it with contemporary bestsellers as well as literary classics.

I think that's brilliant! And in the optimistic hope that I will soon need to be compiling one of these lists, I've been trying to think of great books to put on it.

Sadly, I'm having difficulty. So I'm asking your help. What are some great books you've read that you'd definitely pass on to a friend?

They need to fit into one of the genres I write, which means general or literary fiction (to include women's fiction) or Christian fiction.

Surely even those of you MG/YA writers have read something aimed at adults you can add!

Okay, I'll start you off with some of my favorites:

To Kill A Mockingbird (a classic)
Barefoot and Summer Affair (by Elin Hilderbrand)
The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffeneger)
The Blue Bottle Club (Penelope J. Stokes)
You Belong To Me (Marisa de los Santos)
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (Annie Barrows, Mary Ann Schafer)
Blue Water (A. Manette Ansay)
Lottery (Patricia Wood)

Okay, blogging buddies. I'm counting on you! I need 60 books! Get at it!  :)

(And if you want something just fun to do, with possible prizes, head over to Sharon Mayhew's blog or Jackee's blog for their Really Random Double T-800 Blog Party. What a blast to just peruse the comment section, but by all means, become a follower and join the party!)

Friday, July 23, 2010


I had a whole post planned for today, it being Friday and me having 3,000 photos from Germany still left to share and all...

But my publisher ruined that.

In the best sort of way.

For those of you who don't know, my debut book, Some Kind of Normal, is about a family dealing with the diagnosis of their 12-year-old daughter and sister, who suddenly gets type 1 diabetes, and then develops complications from it.

One of the reasons I wrote this book was because I have type 1 diabetes, and because I constantly have conversations with people who have no idea what diabetes is, and how it effects someone's life. And thought here are plenty of books with characters with cancer, I've found hardly any with diabetes. So I wrote one.

And I contacted the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, the world leader in research and cure-hunting for type 1, and asked if they'd be interested in reading my book.

They said yes.

Yesterday I got word back from my publisher that they not only liked the book, they are going to feature it on their website in the fall ( They are setting up an entire new webpage for book reviews, and I am going to be the first book they review.

This is huge for me. HUGE. As in, international exposure on the world's largest diabetes website. My book is going to have the backing of the world's largest diabetes organization.

Newly diagnosed family are going to be put in touch with my book.

When I started writing, all I wanted to do was make a difference with my writing. Even if only with one person, I wanted my books to impact someone and change their lives. And now I have the opportunity to have thousands of families, hit with the shock of diagnosis. to not feel so alone, and to have a little hope that a cure is so darn close.

The book is so much more than diabetes, but this one avenue is a great start.

Can I do my little dance of joy yet? The dream continues to come true...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Cake That Almost Killed Me

I'd like to start off by saying I'm not entirely incompetent in the kitchen. I've been baking since I was 9, and in charge of my own kitchen for 19 years. About the only jobs I had before I graduated college and got a teaching job was working as a cook. One boss even told me I should go to culinary school.

I say this, because the rest of this post is going to convince you otherwise.

I wanted to make a German chocolate cake. This is how the story begins. It doesn't even begin with wanting to eat the cake. I didn't care about eating it. I wanted to bake it. Not from a box: although it would probably have tasted better and been easier, it wasn't the quick throwing in of water and eggs I want. I feel the need to create. Something fabulous.

I found a recipe and started setting things on the counter. It was a long list. Longer than most ingredient lists of things I cook. 21 to be exact. And I had almost all of them.

I did not have evaporated milk. I googled and figured out I could cook regular milk down. Sounded simple enough. Workable, I decided. I was not going to the store.

The recipe also called for Baker's Sweet Chocolate. I had semi-sweet. That would work, right? Close enough. There was enough sugar in the frosting to put this diabetic into a coma just making it. Semi-sweet was probably better anyway.

And it called for buttermilk. Seriously. Does anyone keep buttermilk in the house anymore? My mom told me a trick years ago to just add 1Tbs of lemon juice to one cup milk and you've got buttermilk for recipes. Another problem solved.

I'm rolling right through this recipe now. Butter and sugar beat, egg yolks and vanilla thrown in.

Cake flour. Whoops. I have regular flour. I've got bread flour. But I don't make cakes from scratch that often so no cake flour. How different can it be, right? So all-purpose it's going to be.

Sifted. Apparently this is important. You gotta sift all the lumps out or the cake will turn out all horribly.

I have no sifter thingy. But I have a colander. That should work, right? I throw the flow in the colander and start to sift... and realize the colandar is wider than the bowl. Flour proceeds to fly everywhere.

(I should stop here and remind you I can really cook. I can make the meanest jambalaya you've tasted... to die for. And chocolate chip pancakes that'll melt your heart... really. I cook. A lot. Usually well.)

The rest of the ingredients go in without incident. Mix 'em up and move to fluffin' the egg whites.

I might add here that I'm not the best egg white fluffer. For some reason, they don't usually peak that well. And this recipe had warning bells and flashing lights around the egg white fluffin' part. Make sure there is NO yolk in there!! Make sure the egg whites are room temperature, but not too room temperature they've gone bad. Beat them and then fold them immediately into the batter. If you wait, they'll droop and you'll have to start all over. Fold ever so gently or it'll ruin the batter. Slowly fold, and gently. Don't whip. Don't beat. Don't even stir. Gently... carefully... softly...

You've got to be kidding. I've gotten sweaty and my heart is pounding that I'm going to ruin it here, now, after my entire kitchen is coated in a fine mist of flour and I've triumphed over my lack of ingredients.

Softly, gently, nervously I fold. Softly, gently, nervously I pour into pans. It requires three 8" cake pans. I have one. But I have two 9" pie pans that are 8" on the bottom. I can put them together and even out the sides and WA LA! Three layers of 8" cakes. Gently, softly, I pour and put in the oven.

It has taken a ridiculous two hours. Two hours!! I could have assembled a three course meal in that time.

I arrive at the frosting side. I sigh. This is the easy part. I've got my evaporated milk I've handmade (how many people can say they made their own evaporated milk??). The rest is easy. I put the milk and butter in a pan and go to gather the shredded coconut (which I bought just for this occasion) and the pecans.

I'll stop here for a sec for some important backstory. My mom sings. In a choir. An important choir that went to NYC to sing at Carnegie. Big stuff. Anyway, big stuff costs big money, so they had fundraisers - like sixth grade band students. They sold pecans. For several years, they sold pecans. I had so many packages of pecans I didn't know what to do with them all. I put them in everything. Cookies, stuffing, trail mix. I froze them by the bag full. Pecans... not a problem.

Except.... I realized tonight, furiously going through my freezer.... I used them in everything. I used them all. There were no pecans.

You've got to be freakin' kidding me. There are no pecans in the house. This isn't something you can google and figure out how to substitute, either. It's not like you can take peanuts and add lemon juice and boil for ten minutes and get pecans. No, if you want pecans, you have to go buy them.

I call the kids. Put on your shoes. Put up the puppy. Climb in the car. Mommy is crazy enough that she's going out in rush hour traffic to get pecans.

Covered in flour.

Which I didn't realize until I got out of the van at the store and looked down at my dark purple shirt, which was more... white.

We got the pecans and went home.

I cooked them. I chopped them. I set them aside.

I set the milk and butter to cook and added the egg yokes. EXACTLY LIKE THE RECIPE SAID!!

You know what you get when you add egg yokes to some liquid warming on the stove? 


That's right.. the frosting now consisted of butter, milk, and scrambled eggs.

I was out of butter. My milk was carefully evaporated and I wasn't going to do that again.

I strained out the eggs and started over. I cooled the liquid. I separated more eggs. I'm running close to four hours now. This is the craziest cake I've ever made, and only about a quarter of the ingredients are actually what the recipe calls for. This can't be good.

I put the now cool liquid slowly into the egg yolks and whip with a wisk until I'm sure there are no breakfast food present. I put it on the stove and heat again. I throw in a little more sugar, and extra egg yolk, and some spreadable margarine (I'm out of butter) to thicken it up. It looks a little soupy for frosting.

I cook it. I stir it. I cook some more. When I'm sure it's going to suffice, I add the coconut and precious pecans and pray. I set it aside to cool.

My husband calls. He's on his way home. It's getting dark outside. It's past dinner time. I have no dinner, and only three separate layers of dry cake waiting for frosting. I pull out frozen chimichangas I bought last week for emergencies. This is beginning to feel like an emergency.

I throw them in the toaster over and start to clean. By the time he gets home, the counters look normal and clear, the dishes are done, the frozen dinner is ready, and a lopsided if not decadent cake stand waiting for him.

So we eat frozen dinner and gourmet cake. And everyone agrees:

It's delish!! Much better than boxed cake! Fabulous!!

Still... I think next time I'll get a little help from Betty Crocker...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Luxurious Necessity of Reading

It's not as though there aren't things to blog about. My mind is filled during the day with constant posts I wish I could sit and write, even as I'm standing in line to pick up clothes from the dry cleaners or dodging fat raindrops from the grocery store to the car.

Even last night, I woke in the middle of the night with a fantastic blog post in my head - something about photography and bokeh and aperatures, and how it all relates to writing stories. I'm still trying to remember that one, because in my foggy, sleepy head it was brilliant.

I don't blog enough because I just am not making the time these days. It feels like both a necessity and a luxury, but in these summer months when I'm either traveling or entertaining kids, it's a miracle I can keep my brain from oozing out my ears.

This weekend, after my husband returned from a long business trip, I took Sunday afternoon off and laid by the side of the pool in the sweltering sun... and read. A book. That I wanted to read.

It sounds easy but it wasn't. Choosing the book alone was difficult. I've got a teetering pile of 16 books I've bought with the intention of reading that I've barely cracked. A few of them I've ventured into a chapter or more, but been bored with.

That's right. Bored.

There's a stress I put on myself in the summer... to find a great beach read. One of those easy, captivating, can't put down eye/brain-candy kind of books. And somehow I've found myself with a TBR pile of serious literary fiction. Did I mention my brain is a little melty right now?

But Sunday I hit the right one, and I lazed about for several hours devouring it.

When Monday rolled around, I kept sneaking into it, reading snippits as I cooked dinner or cleaned the vaccum attachment that suddenly stopped working. (Hey, if you've gotta be standing at the counter holding a screwdriver and mindlessly pulling hair and carpet fibers from a machine, you might as well have a book open while you're doing it).

I told a friend I couldn't wait to get into grad school so I could justify curling up with a good book as work.

Then, somewhere in the last third of the book, as I was reading and mentally filing lists of things to change and add and tweak in my own novel, I realized it was work. It was, in some sense, good for my writing, and for my future career, to read good books. I can honestly say now that I learned some great writing tips from reading this weekend. Things about structure, and slipping in important details and background as the story progresses to add layers and depth and tension.

I rarely drag out reading books though, and so tonight I'm already done with it and wondering what to do next. Ignore my family and read another good book? Ignore my family and dive back into my WIP? Or go back to doing 5 loads of laundry and 5 rounds of dishes a day?

Decisions, decision....

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Voice Vs. Writing Style

(This post was originally written by me for my writing group blog.) 

Since I started getting serious about writing, I've done a lot of research about the various elements of fiction writing, and about what agents and publishers are looking for, and one specific nugget has stuck out: It's all about the voice.

For three years I've read various agents - probably everyone that writes a blog - tout how important voice it. If you've got it, almost nothing else matters. They can fix plot problems. They can deal with weak characters. But voice... well, either you have it or you don't. And if you've got it, you're golden.

The problem I stumbled over time and time again was trying to figure out what voice was. What was this thing I needed to have that would snag me an agent and get my book published? And why was it such an indefinable, vague thing that no one could tell me what it was? After hemming and hawing over post after post, most agents ended up with the incredibly not helpful: "We just know it when we see it."

Lately, though, I've seen more and more trying to define it, and it usually goes something like this: "It's what makes you sound like you. It's how you pick up a Hemingway and know it's Hemingway, or a Grisham and know it's Grisham. It's your personality. "

In the humblest of ways, I'd like to say that's wrong. That isn't voice. That's writing style. A person's writing style - the words they tend towards using, the length of their sentences, their use of punctuation, the casualness or formality with which they approach writing – is something that usually remains somewhat consistent once a writer finds his groove. If a writer stays within a certain genre, the writing style can be fairly recognizable from book to book.

But the voice... the voice should reflect the story, the characters, their mood and social standing and education, where they live and where they've come from. If a character is uneducated or mentally challenged, the way Perry Crandall is in Patricia Wood's LOTTERY, you expect the voice to reflect that. If the character is sad or rebellious or buoyant, the language an author uses will show that.

And that is something that changes from book to book, from character to character. A voice can change within a single book if the narrator changes. There's nothing more frustrating to a reader than reading a book with several main narrators that you need a notation at the top of every chapter to tell you who is speaking now.

When an agent says they love your voice in fiction, they aren't talking about the length of sentences or sentence structure; they aren't talking about the style that makes you sound like you. They are talking about what sounds like your characters. Not the characters themselves, but the way the writing reflects the characters. Which is why the stronger the character, the stronger the voice.

Very few readers are going to fall in love with you. They aren't going to rave at coffee shops with friends about the way your writing sounds like you. They're going to rave about your characters. And how they love them. And how they feel like they know them and want to spend time with them.

And isn't that the way it's suppose to be?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Biergarten Community

One thing I loved so much about Germany were the biergartens. Not because I like beer or anything. I'm not a beer-loving gal at all. But I loved it for the community it created.

Everywhere we walked in the cities and towns, there were plazas and gardens and open spaces full of tables and chairs. There were umbrellas to cover people from the sun, and blankets on the backs of chairs in case it was cold. There was usually at least a small stand where you could buy something to drink, and often there were waiters who produced menus and food, often from seemingly nowhere.

Maybe it was the World Cup that brought the people out. Every biergarten had a ginormous TV set up, and if there was a game playing, you could hear the mosquito buzz of the horns all the way down the cobblestone path. Sometimes there were long picnic-like tables that people shared whether they knew each other or not. Sometimes they were small tables that were crammed in so tight you couldn't NOT get to know your fellow lingerers.

The point was, everywhere we went, there were dozens of places for people to gather. People who didn't know each other. Places where, on your way from one place to another, you could stop for a minute and sit down. Where you could smile at someone and chat over a game or a drink or the sun peeking through the clouds for the first time in Spring.

We don't have that in America. At least, not anywhere I've lived. There are the occasional restaurants who put out patio furniture when the weather turns nice, but even there... well, we Americans like our own space. And we rarely have time to linger. Maybe on a Friday night, but certainly not at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday.

As such, we live in these bubble worlds, many of us traveling place to place by car, hardly touching other lives and being plenty glad of it.

We are in a rush. We don't have time to stop in the middle of the day on our way from point A to point B to have a drink or eat a pretzel, catch some conversation, enjoy the weather. We are working, carpooling, commuting, shopping; we are shuffling kids from activity to activity, barely keeping our heads above water sometimes, no time for real friendships.

The internet has become our biergarten. Blogs and Twitter and Facebook. I like these things because they are all we have left of the community gathering places. They are the only places here left of random meetings of people you don't know who take a minute to sit and chat and get to know you over lunch, even if it is across continents. You can share news updates and cheer for your team and pass along funny tidbits. It makes us feel connected to something larger than the bubble we live in.

Still, I miss the biergartens. I miss happening upon one in the middle of the day, an agenda a mile long, and saying, I think I'll sit for just a sec and catch a coke and enjoy the sun before rushing on to finish the rest of my to-do list. Somehow a computer just isn't the same.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Eggs Are In One Basket, and The Writer Can't Read

How random is that title?  It's a little scattered like my brain these days.

I've nearly fully recovered from the jet lag that's been kicking my bum, and this week I've been determined to finish my application to grad school. Gah. I knew I'd been losing brain cells since the birth of my first kid, but I had no idea exactly how mushy my brain had become!  Trying to write two essays, one personal and one a critical analysis, has been beyond frustrating. I'd like to just point the people who read those things to the blog and say, "There I am. That's about as me as you can get."

Except, you know, I want them to think higher of me than this. So I'm cracking open books and relearning how to properly quote and structure a paper, and I'm reading over other's MFA critical analysis (which, truthfully, is making my eyes glaze over... how can writers make books sound SO boring??). I'm crying, pulling hair out, starting over from scratch every 8 hours. There is a tiny side of me that says it's been too long since I've been in school: I can't do this anymore.

The funny thing is that during college, I took every writing class I could, and my senior year, the senior level professor invited me to join his graduate writing class. At graduation, when considering my options, he told me: Don't make the mistake of going directly into a masters program. You won't have anything to write about. Go. Get a job. Live and gain experiences. Mature. Then go back to school.

It totally made sense to me. Everyone in my writing classes except me was writing about college kids and fraternity parties gone wrong. I was writing about teens who'd been abused and a kid who's sister was dying of cancer (I LOVED that story!!). But even I could admit that my frame of experiences was pretty thin.

The problem with this is that the longer you are away from school, the harder it is to go back. There were bills to pay, and a job we needed me to have to pay those bills. And then there were kids. And there was no time.

And now my brain is mush.

But I don't think the timing will get better, so I'm going for it. In a way, it's a fitting continuation of the question that started my writing career a few years ago: I always said I was going to do it. Do I really want to get to the end of my life and not have done it?

But in typical fashion, I only have one school I want to apply to. So I'm putting all my theoretical eggs in one basket, and hoping I will be one of the 20 or so students they accept. Odds are slim, but I'm hopeful. If I don't get in, I'll start looking at back up schools. For now though, two essays are all I can tackle.

And as for the other part of the blog title.... there is a link everyone should click and read. It's a story about a detective writer who woke one morning to discover he couldn't read. It's both scary, and inspirational. And makes me thankful for the little things in life.

Like being able to read the drivel that is my critical analysis.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I'm Back! With News! And Photos!

I'm back from my blog break! Phew! Two weeks almost. Crazy. In that time I think I opened the computer only twice.

So what did I do with all that time?


Yes, that's my family. Standing on top of the Zugspritze, the highest point in Germany. That's right. I spent the last two weeks in Germany.

It was a heck of a trip. My parents, my family, my sister's family... all 11 of us piled on a plane and flew from Washington D.C. to Germany for an amazing tour of my childhood stomping grounds.

We saw castles:

and more castles:

We actually spent the night in castles:

We took boat cruises down the Neckar and Rhine Rivers:

We climbed mountains:

We traveled 6,000 miles by plane, 1800 km by tour bus, countless miles by walking, hiking, taxis, cable cars, trams, strassenbahns, trains, horse and carriage, boats, and vans.

I took over 3,000 pictures.

How can you not take that many pictures when this is what there is to see?

I drank tea in the morning, wine in the vineyards, watched the Germans and Americans play the World Cup games in biergartens, ate delectable chocolate while walking through century old downtowns, sat on the edge of a river in the Munich English gardens and put my feet in ice cold water, made a snowball while wearing short sleeves, became entranced with the mystery of Mad King Ludwig, and fell in love with our tour guide.

And on the way through the Black Forest, between exploring a working farm and visiting the world's largest cuckoo clock, I opened my computer for the first time and finished the first draft of my current book.

So now I'm back, buried under laundry and impending summer plans, seemingly endless emails, and weeks of blogs to catch up on.

But my book is complete and ready for revisions, and I'm excited to get back to it when my head clears a bit. In the meantime, I have marketing to work on for Some Kind of Normal, and an application to grad school to work on. And though jet lag is kicking my bum a bit right now, I feel good about it all. Taking a break was such great thing.

So you tell me: what have I missed?