Archive for July, 2008

Tell No One, and come to Crime Bake

My husband and I went to see Tell No One last night in the indy theatre downtown (based on the thriller by Harlan Coben.) Very good movie–there were only a few spots where I had to cover my eyes and ask John to let me know when the violence was over. At one point, my hands still plastered over my eyes, I thought the music sounded different. He’d gotten so caught up in the story, he’d forgotten his assignment. Subtitles can be a grind, but neither of us minded the French. In fact I majored in French in college, but my “mastery” has declined. Francois Cluzet is absolutely adorable. Here’s a review from the BBC–yes you had to suspend disbelief, but the acting and the action was so good, we simply didn’t mind.

Most exciting is that Harlan himself is going to be the guest of honor at Crime Bake this year. So it tickled me to see his cameo in the movie–you can’t miss him, he’s a head taller than the star as he follows him at a train station, and grinning like a monkey.

Waiting for reviews…

Now comes the nerve-wracking part of getting published where I’m waiting to hear what readers and reviewers think about Asking for Murder. Actually, the first words have trickled in! Dr Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, TN, blogged about the book yesterday. It’s so odd to hear my characters described by someone who doesn’t know and love them as I do…

I would say this is one of the great challenges of a writer–to take what’s in your own head and translate it accurately to the page so the reader sees it as you do. On the hand, is this ever truly possible? Because aren’t we each reading through the lens of our own personality? Anyway, drop over to see what Dr. Helen has to say about Dr. Butterman. And then be sure and let me know what you think!


Just wanted to send on a couple of interesting links that came through on the Sisters in Crime list this week. The first comes from Shanna Swendson’s blog on the topic of good being the enemy of great and how this applies to writing.

And the second was going to be on the criminal mind, but now I can’t find the link. Instead you might find this article by a clinical psychologist of interest. He contends that criminals become criminals because of their character and the choices they make, rather than economic, sociological, and educational problems.

And last but not least, don’t miss Jungle Red writers this week–we have a wonderful post on the wedding season up, with guest Dennis Palumbo visiting on Wednesday.

Creative Procrastination

For a while, I thought of myself as a sort of “expert” on procrastination. Braa ha ha ha! The first time in eight years I don’t have a deadline to meet, and I’m having trouble putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!) Luckily, the garden is going full throttle. Back in one of my other lives in Tennessee, I lived off the land, sort of. We had an enormous garden and I taught myself to can and pickle all kinds of things. I even used a pressure cooker, thought I was certain the lid would blow at any moment, taking the roof and me with it. I became addicted to fresh okra–nothing like the slimy, brown cylinders you find in the northern supermarkets. (Slice okra, dip in beaten egg, then cornmeal, fry with a chopped onion and green pepper in olive oil–or bacon fat if you’re feeling decadent. Sprinkle with Tabasco sauce…my mouth is watering.

This week we harvested over 25 cucumbers And what’s a woman to do? Make pickles, of course. It’s the perfect procrastination method–it has to be done. Really. And there’s a concrete product at the end that we’ll enjoy all winter. The bread-and-butter pickle recipe comes from PUTTING FOOD BY. Just make sure you read all the warnings about botulism and how to can safely! Trust me, these are head and shoulders above the grocery store brand.

Ps. if you really do need some help with procrastination, try the procrastination website on my blogroll or click here.

Thoughtful reading

I agreed to write up a reader’s guide for my pal Hallie Ephron’s website in celebration of her new book, 1001 BOOKS FOR EVERY MOOD. If you don’t know what to choose next, Hallie will guide you! I chose Mark Salzman’s TRUE NOTEBOOKS.

In 1997, writer Salzman agreed to make a guest appearance at a writing class for violent teenage offenders held in Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. Moved by that experience, he allowed a Catholic nun to talk him into launching his own class. In spite of his disaffection for creative writing workshops and his concerns about not being able to relate to or handle the prisoners, he earned the respect of both students and staff and grew deeply involved in their attempts to put words to their experiences. True Notebooks gives his view of life inside the detention center and into the psyches of the young men who reside there. Salzman chronicles his time at the prison both with own observations and through his class’s essays. Many of the young men expressed feelings and hopes through writing that their prison and former street gang lives would never have allowed. True Notebooks may both open your eyes and break your heart. To read more about Salzman and the discussion questions I wrote (this would be a fabulous book club read), click here.

I also whipped through THE TORTILLA CURTAIN by TC Boyle this weekend. One of my book club buddies had described this as an “anxious read.” Couldn’t agree more. Boyle sets up two couples, one privileged and white, the other illegal Mexican immigrants, on a collision course. And then the calamities, both man-made and natural, begin to befall them. I was in awe of the breakneck pacing…

Driving Sideways

I’m delighted to introduce another new book from my Girlfriend’s cybercircuit: DRIVING SIDEWAYS by Jess Riley.

Cellular Memory: Is it possible for our organs to retain our energy if donated to another person?

Can we really channel someone else’s tastes in music, food, or hobbies?

And what happens if you’ve had a transplant and simply CONVINCE yourself this is true?

Jess used these questions as the premise of her entertaining debut novel Driving Sideways, which tells the story of Leigh Fielding, a twenty-eight year-old kidney transplant recipient who—six years, hundreds of dialysis sessions, and a million bad poems after being diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease—finally feels strong enough to pursue a few lofty goals she’s been mulling for years: find herself, her kidney donor’s family, and the mother that abandoned her over twenty years ago.

And what better way to do just that than a solitary road trip across the country? Well, maybe not entirely solitary, because Leigh suspects she may have inherited more than just an organ from her deceased donor. It’s this sneaking suspicion that takes her trip down some unexpected detours—and the juvenile delinquent who blackmails Leigh into giving her a ride is only the beginning.

Driving Sideways (Random House, May 2008) just went into its second printing and has been hailed as ‘hugely entertaining and genius’ by Marian Keyes, and “a hopeful and hilarious debut” by New York Times bestselling author Jen Lancaster.
“Smart and funny without being forced, sentimental without being maudlin, Riley’s funny, picaresque vision of America will make readers wish they could go along with Leigh on her next trip.”

“Brilliant…Jess Riley proves herself a huge new talent.”
–Kristy Kiernan, author of Catching Genius

When she’s not reading or writing fiction, Jess Riley is reading or writing school grant proposals—which some would say are still pretty fictitious. Jess lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her husband and their neurotic terrier. Driving Sideways is her first novel, and she’s hard at work on her next.

And now hot off the press, here are Jess’s answers to my questions.

ROBERTA: If your protagonist made an appointment to talk to Dr. Butterman of Deadly Advice fame, what would that first session be like? What deep dark secret or problem would she be there to discuss and how much of it would she tell?
JESS: I think it would have to be fear of death. My protagonist, Leigh, has a life-threatening condition (Polycystic Kidney Disease) and is living with a transplant, so daily existence is about managing pain and symptoms and simply getting the cells in her body to keep kicking for another day. Leigh uses humor as a coping mechanism, so she might deflect the first few questions with jokes. But yeah—mortality. We all struggle to come to terms with it, but some of us have the luxury of a lifetime to do so. Leigh feels the ticking clock more than the rest of us, so for her, it’s all about making peace with that fact.

ROBERTA: At the times you fall victim to writers block, what’s most likely to be going on in your life? What gets you out of the woods and back on the writing path?

JESS: Oh, grant deadlines for sure! Between January and April, my life is the back-to-back writing of grant proposals for my client school districts. I don’t even have time to think of writing a haiku. So, the month of May is a godsend. Other stumbling blocks (family crises, that freshly vulnerable feeling right after your book is newly released, reading David Sedaris and never wanting to write another word again) are healed by time and perspective, mostly. To me, writer’s block is a little like heartache that way. Sometimes you just need some distance to heal. But once the muse returns, look out.

ROBERTA: If you were magically transformed into your protagonist for a day, what would you most look forward to experiencing? And what might you dread?

I’d look forward to the entire road trip!! And that feeling of fresh discovery—everything is new, everything feels vibrant and ripe. How often do we receive just the catalyst we need to do the things we’ve always wanted to do?

As for what I’d dread, that’s easy: we circle the wagons right back to illness and pain. But I think the journey itself gives my character the real skills she needs to cope, to manage that pain and move forward with hope.

Good luck with the new book Jess–wow I’m in awe of how much you manage to get done!

Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s

I’ve just returned from visiting my father at an assisted living facility in Florida for most of a week. He has Alzheimer’s disease, though in an early enough stage that he recognizes and misses his family. It’s a tragic disease and we’re working hard to make the most of the time left with him.

On the plane ride home, I read FINDING LIFE IN THE LAND OF ALZHEIMER’S by Lauren Kessler. Kessler took a job as a caregiver in an Alzheimer’s facility with the idea of working through her difficult relationship with her mother, who died with the disease, and writing a memoir that would help others understand both Alzheimer’s victims and the system caring for them. She did a heartbreaking job. Why should it be that the folks caring for the elderly–hoisting, cleaning, feeding, bathing–are making minimum wage and barely keeping their own lives afloat? Are these facilities the best we can do at the end of life?

If you have elderly parents or are getting older (and who are we kidding, aren’t we all?), this is must-read. A touching, eye-opening look into the world of dementia care facilities and a wake-up call for all of us about our futures as we age.

Happy Fourth of July!

Writing Advice from a Pro

When I began the quest to get my first mystery published back in 1998, I didn’t know a soul in the publishing business. I did all my research like the lifetime student I was: Locate the best books on the subject and study their advice. One of the most useful books I found was Elizabeth Lyon’s THE SELL-YOUR-NOVEL TOOLKIT. And I’ve recommended it to hundreds of aspiring writers since then. Elizabeth is the guest blogger at Jungle Red Writers today, and I’ve posted part of her interview here.

All the way from Oregon, welcome Elizabeth! I have so many questions. Let’s start with this one: Can good writing be taught or are you born with talent?
ELIZABETH: Yes and yes. We all learned how to write the equivalent of “See Spot run.” We can all learn the fundamentals of good writing. We are all born with talent–differing in degrees and manifestations. I don’t believe you need talent to get published. Polished good writing founded on authenticity of character and author passion can win the day.

ROBERTA: When we hear panels of agents talk about what excites them, the number one answer is probably “voice.” Please talk about what that means and where the heck we can find ours.
ELIZABETH: Voice is the expression of individuality in a writer’s choice of words that is appropriate to her characters and stories. We’re each unique so in theory all writing should be stand-out original. But for the fact that we learned how to write through conforming–to grammar and syntax, diction of the culture and times, and other forces of expectation, social mores, and censorship.

We can find our original voice behind the big rock of these factors–by practicing riff-writing–free-associating and pushing what you let out on the paper to an extreme. Take tight or “right” writing and open it up by letting the outrageous come through. Later you can revise to delete what you don’t want. We’re great monkeys, too, so imitate by replicating or modeling other authors’ writings. Imitate to then innovate.

ROBERTA: What would you say are the top mistakes beginning writers make?
ELIZABETH: Quitting. Expecting instant success. Not finishing a first draft. Revising till the cows come home. Not revising till the cows come home. Writing in a vacuum–without critique, support, or editing. Repeating the same mistakes but expecting a different outcome and blaming the agents for rejection. Using “look” too often.

ROBERTA: Any advice for writers who are discouraged about the publishing business today?
ELIZABETH: Broaden your repertoire; write in a different genre. Write as much as you can as often as you can. Study marketing and get savvy. Go to workshops, author talks, conferences, and get-away retreats. Enter contests and apply for fellowships. Study and apply what you learned. Use your connections and be as helpful to every other writer you encounter as you can. Use a print-on-demand outfit like Lulu to complete the artistic circle and share with family and friends. Then keep writing; keep marketing. Be as flexible as Gumby and as persistent as Wiley Coyote.

ROBERTA: What are you working on these days?
ELIZABETH: I’m writing a memoir set in 1967, in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was 17 years old, and the only white student at a summer humanities program. I’ve started this memoir in various forms at least half a dozen times over the years, never finding “the voice” or the entry into the whole piece. Now I believe I have found both. That experience was my coming of age about race, about community, and about writing. After completing this work, I have two other memoirs, one novella revision, and a new novel all circling O’Hare waiting for landing instructions.