Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gone Writing

I'm off to the lake for a few days of intensive writing in a desperate effort to catch up to where I'd hoped to be by the end of this month. See you next week!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Innocents Abroad

Remember being this young? Remember having the energy to explore all day, day after day, and still be ready for more? Remember the excitement of discovering the world on your own for the first time?

And no, my daughter isn’t huge. Kim is tiny, tiny, tiny.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Novel Sound Tracks

John Connelly was in New Orleans this weekend signing his newest book, THE UNQUIET, at the Garden District Bookstore. If you follow John’s blog, you know he’s on a grueling booksigning tour that’s taking him around the world in something like three months (rather too much of a good thing). If you ever get a chance to go listen to him talk, grab it, because while John the author writes brilliantly dark, poetic books set in Maine, John the man is an energetic, passionate, insightful Irishman who’s funnier than a standup comedian.

One of the side benefits of attending his booksigning is that he was giving away CDs of THE UNQUIET’s soundtrack. That’s right, he put together and produced a CD of the wonderfully moody, evocative pieces that he felt best captured where he was going, emotionally, with his book. John is very interested in music and, well, I did say he’s Irish, didn’t I?

As I listened to the CD it started me thinking about music and books and how the two often intertwine for a writer. When I was writing WHISPERS OF HEAVEN about a nineteenth-century Irish patriot transported to Australia, I got a couple of CDs of Irish ballads and played them constantly while I was writing. The soundtrack from Immortal Beloved bled into WHAT ANGELS FEAR. Ravel provided the rhythm for MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS. But I can’t think of any other writer who’s ever put together his own CD. Obviously, it’s both time consuming and expensive. Which is a pity, because listening to John’s CD while reading John’s book brings one that much closer to looking at the world through John’s eyes. More than that—experiencing the world with John’s emotions.

This is the second CD he’s done, since he also did one for BLACK ANGEL. I don’t have that music, and now I realize what I missed.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Meme By Any Other Name

Eight random facts about myself? Hmmm. Sphinx Ink tagged me, so here I go…

1. I’m a vegetarian.

2. When I was 30, I broke my back tobogganing. I now avoid skiing, sledding, ice-skating—anything that involves sliding over frozen H2O.

3. I have a reputation (undeserved, of course!) as a jinx. I’ve been accused of causing floods, droughts, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic explosions, hurricanes, riots, coups, and revolutions all around the world. It’s been suggested I should start a business getting cities or even entire continents to pay me to stay away.

4. I have no depth perception. Zero. (The result of being born with one extremely nearsighted and one extremely farsighted eye so that my brain can’t put the two images together.) If you see me driving down the road, get out of my way!

5. Every morning, I spend an hour practicing yoga and meditating.

6. One of the greatest frustrations of my life is that I was never given music lessons as a child. I sort of taught myself to play the guitar as a teenager, but it's not the same. Maybe when I retire...

7. From the time I was 17 until I was 37, I never lived in the same house, apartment or hotel for more than 18 months.

8. I love gardening. I used to draw and paint; now, my garden is my canvas and plants are my medium.

I haven't posted the rules because I don't like rules. And I think everyone else has been tagged, except perhaps Steve Malley If you're interested, Steve, give it a go. It is fun.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

On Getting the Details Right

This is from Martin Cruz Smith, in an interview about his book ROSE, a mystery set in a Victorian mining town (thanks to Sphinx Inkfor the link). He really nails my thoughts and feelings on the subject:

“I feel very bad about getting things wrong. I've taken a few liberties, but I wanted them to be liberties I'd taken deliberately. . .The worst thing in the world would be for some [reader] you don't know to say, "He's balled it all up. He doesn't know what he's talking about." …[Y]ou can feel that small buzz of contempt on the periphery of your subconscious, no matter how far away you are, the diminishing of your own enjoyment and their esteem -- their trust really -- because there is a relationship of trust between writer and reader, I think. You are walking a curious tightrope in which you maintain your consciousness of reality, of what is actually possible, which you can then manipulate. But if you get that universe wrong, you are just manipulating stupidity.”

Monday, June 18, 2007

An Invitation to the 2007 Louisiana Book Festival

A couple of years before Katrina, Louisiana started their Book Festival, held over two days in and around the lovely old state capitol building in Baton Rouge. Now, Louisiana may be backward and crooked and just plain crazy, but this is something they do right. It’s educational and entertaining, with great food and music as well as great speakers, and most of it’s free! (The food’s not free, but it’s reasonable, and the music and the Saturday speakers are free.)

The 2005 Book Festival had to be canceled because of Katrina, but they managed to pull off the 2006 Festival, and this year’s event should be better than ever. I’ll be doing another panel with Laura Joh Rolland on Saturday, 3 November. I’ll also be teaching a six-hour “Wordshop” on Friday, 2 November, on Writing Genre Fiction. (Like the food, the Friday Wordshops are not free, but they’re not expensive.) I’m excited to be able to do it, and it should be great fun.

So if you have the time, come on down to Baton Rouge the first weekend in November, eat some gumbo, sip some wine, listen to some blues and jazz, and mingle with thousands of book-loving people. Who could resist?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Happily Ever After

According to a 2006 poll taken on World Book Day, most people prefer happy endings. Well, duh! So why do readers like happy endings? Most people say reading a happy ending puts them in a good mood all day. According to 37% of the respondents, it’s because happy endings give them a sense of satisfaction.

Only 2.2% of readers like sad endings, although women are 13% less likely to like sad endings than men. In fact, almost 20% of men say they prefer books with ambiguous endings.

Interestingly, young people are most likely to prefer books with sad ending—8.6% of those under 16 turned up their noses at happy endings. In contrast, only 1.1% if those aged 41-65 said they like sad endings.

No big surprises here, but it’s always interesting to see your gut feelings hold up under scrutiny.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Empty Nest Syndrome

I never thought I’d fall victim to ENS. After all, I’m not one of those women whose life has been defined by her children. I came to mothering late in life. I have a very demanding career and many interests. And you know what? It doesn’t help.

Yesterday I put Danielle on a flight to Europe. It was traumatic, from so many angles. She’s traveling with a friend, Kim, and they will be spending most of their time either with the various branches of Kim’s extended family or with Danielle’s own half-sister and maybe at one point her dad. Yet I’m still worried. Of course I’m worried. I remember all the scary things that happened to me when I knocked around the world alone (hence the security net of the traveling partner and the various strategically placed family members). But it’s more than that. It’s only been a week since she returned from her senior cruise to Bermuda (when I was a senior, we got one day at a frigid mountain lake!). Then there was the whirlwind of her graduation. Now she’s off to Europe. She’ll be home just in time to pack and get ready to leave for college in the fall. She’s taking her fledgling flights and our lives will never be the same again. That hurts. That hurts a lot.

Sam is spending the summer working for a law firm in Florida, jetting off to Sweden and the Caribbean and god knows where else. She hopes to come home for a week or so before heading back up to Yale in the fall. Yes, I talk to her on the phone every day, sometimes for hours. But I still worry about her constantly and her absence still hurts.

I have this sneaky suspicion it always will. This is the new normal.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Moral Superiority of Rats

An interesting tidbit from the world of neuroscience: brain scans of volunteers have shown that altruism lights up the part of the brain also activated by sex and food. Now, this is a very, very primitive part of the brain. What it suggests is that morality is not a product of “civilization” or religion but a species-benefiting instinct hardwired into the brain. And not just our brain, either. Studies have shown that if every time a rat is given food his fellow rat receives an electric shock, then the first rat will eventually give up eating.

It seems that the basis of morality is empathy. Patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex come up with cold “the end justifies the means” answers to moral dilemmas. Psychopaths, of course, typically feel no empathy or remorse. (I could say something here about American politicians, but I’ll resist.)

For some people, these findings have very disturbing philosophical and spiritual implications. They suggest (prove?) that morality is not something that elevates us above our baser impulses, nor is it something handed down to us by philosophers and gods. It is a natural, evolutionary development, like language.

In fact, difficult moral decisions—such as is it right to smother a crying child to prevent it from betraying the location of a busload of people hiding from a murderous enemy (as in the last episode of M.A.S.H.)—create a clash between the emotional part of our brain that tells us it’s wrong to kill a child and those parts of our brain that are involved in impersonal decision making. This area of the brain—the inferior parietal lobe—is relatively new, evolution-wise. Thus the triumph of cool reason over empathetic morality may be peculiarly human, or at any rate the result of a long evolutionary process (no one knows yet which other species share this trait).

Which brings us back to those poor rats suffering electric shocks. I find myself wondering, first of all, what kind of a morally deficient sadist engages in that kind of an experiment in the first place? Then I think about putting our sadistic scientist in a cage and giving his lab partner a shock every time our sadistic scientist gets food. Want to bet on the chances that our sadistic scientist would use his “human” reasoning ability to decide it was better for him to eat and survive than for him to starve?

Which means that the rat….

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Tagline Envy

I was on the other day (internet movie database) and I started noticing that their movie listings include, among other useful details, the movies’ taglines—often more than one. Some of these taglines are very good. Consider The Bourne Identity: “He was the perfect weapon until he became the target” or, All the Pretty Horses: “Some passions can never be tamed.” Other taglines struck me as fairly lame. The Departed: “Lies. Betrayal. Sacrifice. How far will you take it?” or, “Underhanded. Unrestrained. Undercover.” Yet there were enough good ones that I started thinking, This is what I need—a really clever tagline to help sell my Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series. The problem is, I’m lousy at coming up with that kind of thing.

So what are these taglines, anyway? Basically, they’re bumper stickers. Visual soundbites. Text so short that people will actually read it, that communicates one simple idea in a way that makes it both graspable and memorable. The idea is to come up with a catchy, enticing phrase that will help sell your book/movie/car/investment firm/shampoo. Quick! Sum up your plot, theme, or tone is one memorable phrase. Ummmm….

Frustrated, I wandered the net looking for pointers. I was advised to use taglines to differentiate myself from the competition and help build my brand (Publishers are always talking about “branding” authors. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I get this Rawhide image of singed cowhide.) Taglines, I’m told, are shortcuts to help my target audience know me and remember me. Sounds great. But how do I this?

I’m told to sum up my product’s essence in a way that uses memorable phrasing, creates personality, and telegraphs the message I want to convey. Yes, I know that, but HOW? Ask a question, say the experts (“Does she or doesn’t she?”). Use a two-fold delivery with a twist (i.e., Shooters’ “Yesterday was about honor. Today is about justice.”) Use specifics rather than vague words or generalizations.

In the end, I’m left with the realization I can write a 100,000 word book but I can’t write a one sentence tagline. I should have known. Hell, I didn’t even come up with a clever name for my blog.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

If Only

It’s every author’s dream: the freedom to dedicate hours and hours a day, day after day, to writing.

I used to think, if only I didn’t have to write this report on that stupid abattoir in Qatar… if only I didn’t spend most of the day riding herd on a couple of preschoolers… if only I didn’t spent hours and hours chauffeuring teenagers to school and lessons and practices… if only I could just sit down and write, I’d get so much more done!

Maybe for some people it works that way. For me? Not as much as I’d expected.

The problem was, I soon realized that all those hours I once spent doing other things were not really wasted, writing-wise. All the while I was building Lego castles and watching swim practice, I was also fleshing out my characters’ personalities, developing their backstories, imagining scenes. (You’re right; I couldn’t do that and write reports on Qatari abattoirs or South Australian grain production; that kind of distraction sucks.) But in the old days, when I was finally able to grab an hour or two to sit down at the computer—or with pen and paper—I knew exactly what I wanted to write. Once most of my day was devoted to writing, I found I had to do my thinking at the computer. It was a huge change. Not only that, but writing shifted from being something I did to relax and became something I did to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. Another big change. Because no matter how much you enjoy something, once its success becomes vitally important to your children’s future, it’s inevitable that your attitude towards it is going to alter.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. What actually started me to thinking about this was a blog entry over at Razored Zen . Charles is a university prof taking the summer off to write. For him, it’s bliss. But he has also very quickly discovered that spending all day, day after day, at a computer can take a physical toll. The fact is, almost every full-time writer I know has neck and shoulder problems. Which started me to thinking, What are some of the other changes that come when writing shifts from being a hobby or an ambition, and becomes a profession?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Polar Star

Ever since I finished GORKY PARK I’ve been wanting to read POLAR STAR, Martin Cruz Smith’s next Arkady Renko story. I put it off because I was determined to plow through the “bestselling” thriller I had set myself to read next. Problem was, I hate the thriller so much I’ve made little progress in a month. Yesterday I finally caved and picked up POLAR STAR.

GORKY PARK was such a wonderful reading experience I worried I might be disappointed, but of course I’m not. Yes, it’s a very different story in a very different setting. Yes Arkady is different, impacted by the horrors set in motion by the events of Gorky Park. But I’m still having a hard time putting it down (not a good thing when the galleys for the paperback WHEN GODS DIE are due Wednesday), and even when I’m not reading it I find the characters and story drifting through my mind.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Arkady’s character is that as much as he hates totalitarianism and bureaucracy and coercion, he genuinely believes in all that is good and noble about the pure communist philosophy. This came out in Gorky Park, and now it’s coming out again in Polar Star, which is set in 1989 as Russia lurches towards the greed and corrupt materialism of capitalism and the Western world. It’ll be fascinating to see how this develops in future books. I already have HAVANA BAY and WOLVES EAT DOGS sitting here waiting for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love with an author’s writing like this. Bliss.

Friday, June 01, 2007

And So It Begins Again

Today is June 1st, the official start of the 2007 hurricane season.

Of course, the year’s first named tropical storm already formed off the coast of Florida weeks ago (not a good sign). But even when hurricanes do blow up in June or early July, they usually aren’t intense. The really nasty storms tend to come later—during the three weeks on either side of September 10th, I once heard someone say. So the scary time is yet to come. And yet…

And yet there’s a palpable tension in the air here in New Orleans today as the city draws a collective deep breath and thoughts turn to the long, hot, tense days ahead. My mother says, “I’m not going to worry about it. What good’s it do to worry about it? If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”

Wise words. But I find myself looking around my house, with the repairs of Katrina’s damage still not finished. And I think, Hurry October.