Welcome back, sun!

For the past month, it’s been grey. Grey with cloud, grey with rain, grey with just more grey. But this week has seen the return of the sun and it’s glorious! Of course, the temperature has also shot up twenty degrees, but I’m not complaining. It’s just nice to see sunshine again. Summer is a-coming, and that brings a change in reading. Warm weather and sunny days send some people scurrying for thick family sagas or gritty adventure memoirs, but not me. I like lighter fare, the book equivalents of bias-cut dresses and fizzy cocktails and dancing on the veranda. Here are some of my perfect reads for lazy days:

*MURDER AT THE BRIGHTWELL. If you haven’t dug into Ashley Weaver’s series yet, grab this first installment. Set in a seaside resort with a glamorous sleuthing couple, it’s the perfect warm weather read. Like it? There’s a follow-up, DEATH WEARS A MASK, and the third book in the series is out in the fall.

*HAVING THE BUILDERS IN. Reay Tannahill’s medieval mystery doesn’t seem like an obvious summer choice, but trust me. It’s not a weighty, serious journey into the Middle Ages. It’s light and fun and thoroughly enjoyable. If you enjoy, there’s a sequel, HAVING THE DECORATORS IN.

*Anything by Mary Stewart. So many of her romantic suspense novels are set in the warm climates of the Mediterranean. THIS ROUGH MAGIC, THE MOON-SPINNERS, MY BROTHER MICHAEL–these three have Greek settings and are particularly good for summer reading.

*THE ROYAL WE. Newly out in paperback, this royal romp by the Fug Girls, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, has been a HUGE hit. And with good reason. If you loved watching the courtship of Prince William and Kate Middleton, you need this book. Plus, the paperback edition has an exclusive extra scene.

*EVIL UNDER THE SUN. An Agatha Christie novel set in a seaside resort and featuring Hercule Poirot, it was adapted into a fabulous film in the 1980s. (Track it down if you get a rainy day. The script is great, and Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith are sublime.)

*Suzette A. Hill’s BONES series. Starting with A LOAD OF OLD BONES, this short series follows the exploits of an accidentally murderous vicar…how can you possibly resist that?

 

 

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Pondering play

Have you noticed lately that there seems to be a return to play? Adult coloring books are huge–I have two myself, and everyone I know seems to be collecting Funko Pop figures. (I might also have a few of those…I tried to resist but the Maleficents were just too cute. And then there was Wonder Woman.)

I think it’s a good thing. The world seems scarier and more violent these days. It’s not; that’s just our perception. By every possible measuring stick, we are doing better than at any other time in recorded history. We just have social media to broadcast hysteria about every damn thing that happens. And the message on mainstream media seems to default these days to BE AFRAID OF EVERYTHING. DID YOU KNOW YOUR HOUSEPET MIGHT KILL YOU? ALSO, YOU’LL DIE IF YOU SIT DOWN TOO LONG. YOU’LL ALSO DIE IF YOU SLEEP TOO LONG, BUT IF YOU DON’T GET ENOUGH REST, OH, GUESS WHAT? YOU’RE DEAD.

All that hand-wringing gets exhausting. So we turn to things that are simple and comforting instead, things that remind us of childhood. Creative play is consoling. It encourages mindfulness and serves creativity. There is no compelling reason NOT to do it. Well, there are always people who are sniffy about other folks having the wrong kind of fun, but we can ignore them. They don’t deserve another thought.

For Mother’s Day, my parents tucked a giant bubble wand into my gift bag. It’s silly and messy and I LOVE it. I blow bubbles for the dog who thinks I am made of magic, and that’s always fun. And conjuring those bubbles for him reminded me that it’s been FAR too long since I played for the sake of play. I started thinking about the kinds of things I did as a kid and compiled a play list, inspirations for the things I used to love and can love again. I plan to take at least a few minutes each day to do something silly just because I can, to do them without an inner critic commenting on how poorly I might do them or the fact that I might be doing something more productive with my time. That inner critic is just no fun and she needs a time-out.

So here’s my play list:

*Language lesson. Doesn’t sound much like play, but when I was a child, I was determined to teach myself French. I checked children’s books in French out of the library and pored over them, certain if I kept at it long enough I’d be able to decipher them. Yeah, it didn’t work. But I still get a thrill out of mastering the odd phrase in another language–and Italian seems like a frivolous language to learn. You can only really speak it in one country, so it’s impractical, decadent even! And the Duolingo app makes it seem like child’s play with their quirky little illustrations.

*Logic puzzle. Again, not the obvious choice. But I was in the gifted program, so my early school years were lousy with logic puzzles. I bought a book of Sherlock conundrums just to make it extra fun.

*Poetry. I loved poetry as a child, and skimming a classic poem takes me right back. The Poetry Foundation has a superb app that’s full of lovely things sorted by theme or age, so it’s easy to find children’s poems. I think they’re the best anyway…

*Drawing. I can’t draw. Like, at all. People always think I’m exaggerating when I say that even my snakes are a straight line, but NO. REALLY. I tried and tried throughout my childhood to draw anything better than a plain box house, but it never happened. I recently discovered Sachiko Umoto and I’m not looking back. Serious representational art is far too intimidating. Umoto’s illustrations are whimsical and fun–exactly the sort of drawing to appeal to a child. She breaks down her images into manageable lessons, and I can’t wait to start doodling. I managed a teacup the other day thanks to a quick lesson in Flow magazine, and IT LOOKED LIKE A TEACUP. It was five lines and some squiggles for steam, but it was the first recognizable thing I’ve ever drawn, and you would have thought it was the Mona Lisa for how proud I was of it. I have a feeling I’m going to be good at drawing chubby bear cubs…

*Collage. The refuge of the person who can’t draw. I have glued together magazine pictures for years to make collages for my novels, but once or twice I have done mixed media projects with a little watercolor paint and some glittery embellishments and they were beyond fun. I want to experiment with taking a classical image of a piece of art I love and zhuzhing it up.

*Needlecrafts. I’ve always played with needles, yarn, and fabric but I always put it down again because it seems like you should be making something USEFUL. Ugh. Why? The most fun I ever had with yarn was when I found a bright scarlet skein and crocheted 80 feet of chain stitch. It was perfectly useless, but I enjoyed it immensely.

*Coloring. I LOVED to color as a kid, and I loathed every teacher who criticized my color choices. (Holly Hobbie looked slamming in a black dress, Mrs. Cabla.) I have two coloring books I haven’t even opened yet. Time to break out the markers.

*Music lesson. I have never understood music. It’s mathematical and the assignment of notes to sounds seems so arbitrary. Here’s a real conversation I had with my piano teacher:

Her: This note is a C.

Me: How do you know?

*crickets*

But I’d still like to learn. So I might ferret out a kids’ music book and try to figure out the basics. (Pro tip: anything is more fun if you use a kids’ book to learn it. I studied endless knitting books and tutorials. I didn’t crack it until I found a book for children.)

*Sculpting. I’m talking PlayDoh style modeling here. I only ever sculpted snakes or snowmen as a kid, but a few weeks ago I was in an art supply store in New York and was utterly drawn to bricks of Roman clay. It was so SOLID, wrapped in Italian waxed paper. I just wanted to tear bits of it off an start MAKING something. Maybe a snake because my technique will certainly not have improved over the years, but I don’t care.

The key to all of these types of play is that I finally understand that there doesn’t have to be a point. I don’t need to pick up music with the goal of learning to play the cello. Hey, it could happen, but let’s be real: it won’t. And that’s fine. I don’t have to become fluent in Italian or learn to replicate the sketches of the Old Masters. I can just PUTTER with no goal except pleasure. Pleasure should be its own goal, its own justification for anything. The dog doesn’t expect anything out of the blown bubbles except to enjoy them. I need to take a page from his book.

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Things I Quite Like

Every once in awhile I like to share things I’ve discovered that I quite enjoy. Usually frivolous, sometimes silly, they are always items that have added a bit of pleasure to my day. Here are a few of my newest finds:

*Wraps. I spotted these in the Hudson Square Pharmacy in New York and dove for them. They are earbuds that wrap around your wrist like a Bohemian bracelet, keeping them close at hand AND untangled. I wrestle with my earbuds every time I travel. Whether I keep them in the case or shove them in a zipper pocket, they are always thwarting me. The Wraps solution means no more tangles EVER. I tried them out on the train trip home, and they’re perfect. A simple idea that works.

*My pal Jomie turned me on to Butter London’s Sheer Wisdom Tinted Nail Moisturizer. This stuff is STELLAR. It comes in six nude shades to suit different skin tones and it paints on like regular nail polish. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t wear like nail polish. Rather than chip, it dulls a bit which keeps you looking much more “put together” than missing hunks of nail polish. I have only been wearing it a few weeks, but Jomie has been using it for a couple of months and swears her nails have never looked better. Stronger, smoother nails and a beautifully-neutral look in the meantime? Sold.

*Urban Decay Revolution Lipstick in Naked. As much as I love my red lipstick, a girl occasionally needs a good nude. When I went hunting for the perfect neutral shade, I headed for Urban Decay, the maker of my fave crimson, F-Bomb. (Their lipsticks give great coverage, last beautifully, and don’t dry out my lips.) Sleuthing out a good neutral is a tricky thing. Many “nude” shades are too pink, too peach, too brown–or worse, they are too pale and give you “concealer lips”. Naked is the perfect shade for me. It’s enough color to make it look like I HAVE lips without adding too much of a good thing. Usually $22, the lipsticks are on sale 50% off now.

*Amope’s Electronic Foot File. I hate commercials that show people grinding dead skin off their feet, but what can I say? This works. Whether you’re between pedicures or prefer to DIY, this thing does the job, leaving soft feet behind. Just be careful when you’re wielding it…I’m not saying I got my kimono caught in it, but…

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Last week is a blur…

Oh, last week was rough, my dears. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I was engaged in copy edit reviews. This is my least favorite part of being a writer–even less enjoyable than writing synopses, if I’m honest. The reason I dislike it so is that it calls upon my weakest skills. Reviewing copy edits means reading slowly and thoroughly, considering every word, every query by the copy editor, making decisions about whether to accept their suggestions or ignore them. The problem is, I don’t read that way. I am a fast reader who tends to skim a word rather than see every letter. I am prone to missing mistakes; I’d make a wretched copy editor myself. In order to keep my focus, I have to divide the manuscript into manageable bites. I can usually get through 40 pages before things start to blur.

When I finish that day’s chunk of manuscript, I try to disengage entirely. My brain is usually not functioning well at that point and my eyes are tired, so I watch TV for awhile–something like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” where I can just zone out. After an hour or two of that, I’m still too muddled to read anything taxing, so I turn to comfort reading. Here are the things that fall under that heading:

*Magazines. I love Faerie and a host of English travel and history periodicals; anything with lush photographs. While I read, I pull tear sheets for inspiration.

*Children’s lit. Not dystopian YA, mind. I mean classic children’s books. Mary Poppins, Eloise, Dorrie the Little Witch. Anything that reminds me of my childhood. Even better if it has lavish description of food, particularly teatime.

*Royal biographies. Not the historical sort, thick with footnotes and written by historians. I’m talking the gossipy stuff about contemporary royals. I know a ridiculous amount about the queen’s corgis…

*Agatha Christie mysteries. As long as I’ve been reading Christie–almost 40 years–I’m still finding books I haven’t encountered before. It’s oddly consoling, particularly if Poirot is around. (I have managed to get through all the Marple stories.)

*Home memoirs. Managing a stately home, rehabbing a property in a foreign country–it’s all good stuff. I’m wildly interested in other people’s domesticity. There’s also a fair dose of schadenfreude when I read because I can console myself that even if I’m feeling entirely depleted, at least I’m not trying to organize a plumber in rural Umbria. I’m also very fond of books written by servants in the great houses, particularly in the 1920s and ’30s. I love the peek behind the green baize door into a world that doesn’t really exist any more.

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We have a visitor!

Today I’m delighted to welcome the always delightful Tracy Grant to celebrate the release of her newest, LONDON GAMBIT.

Sometimes my characters surprise me.  Take Harry and Cordelia Davenport. I added them four books back because i realized I needed a soldier character in Imperial Scandal, which focused on the battle of Waterloo. And with the tangled marriage and competing loyalties of my central characters, Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch, it seemed thematically appropriate for Harry to have an estranged wife. I knew Harry and Cordelia would become friends of the Rannochs and appear in subsequent books in the series, but I didn’t quite realize that they would become the Rannochs’ best friends and major ongoing characters who are an integral part of each investigation. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the series, or Malcolm’s and Suzanne’s lives, without Harry and Cordelia.

Then there are Malcolm’s Oxford friends, David and Simon, who are closer than many married couples in the series, but have to maintain the pretense that they are friends who share lodgings. I had long thought David and Simon would  make wonderful parents, but I couldn’t see a way to make it happen. And then the end of my previous book, The Mayfair Affair, left David’s nephews and niece orphaned. And suddenly it was obvious to me who would raise the children. I hadn’t thought about how David and Simon would actually interact with children, but when I started writing actual scenes, it was very clear, including the fact that Simon is the only one (including the nanny) who can get two-year-old Jamie to sleep.

Laura Dudley, governess to the Rannoch children, was originally intended as the romantic partner of one ongoing series character, but several books ago it occurred to me that she was a much better partner for another ongoing character. I wasn’t able to begin their story until The Mayfair Affair, and I was so excited to finally do so.

One of my writer friends says that characters can’t really walk away with a story, because the author is creating the characters and can always change them. And I agree with that. Except that in an ongoing series it becomes a bit more complicated. Certain things about characters are established in prior books.  We already know Harry fell in love with Cordelia across the ballroom at Devonshire House, that Malcolm had a very limited romantic history before he met Suzanne, that Cordy had an early interest in intellectual pursuits that warred somewhat with her interest in society, that David felt the burden of being the heir to an earldom from the moment his father inherited the title, that Simon can’t stand the thought of compromising for appearances, that Laura had affair during her marriage, that Suzanne didn’t believe in fidelity until she met Malcolm.

Some long planned twists in the overarching plot of the series make perfect sense when I finally get to the point where I can write them, such as Laura’s love affair with spymatster Raoul O’Roarke. But others, that made theoretical sense in the planning stage, don’t make sense for the characters on paper when I actually get to writing that point in the series. The denouement of my new release, London Gambit, is a major game changer in the series which shifts the board the game of the series is played on and affects just about every major character. I’ve had this plot twist in mind for some time and I was excited to write it (though I still dithered about it and worried I was being mean to my characters, which probably means I was doing just what was good for the series). But while most of this plot twist played out as I had long anticipated, David’s and Simon’s reactions didn’t quite match what I had envisioned, particularly now that they were raising the children together. So I had to go back and rethink, in the light of who my characters had always been and particularly in light of who they now were. They surprised me. Which, as a writer, I find a pure delight. I love that my characters are like old friends, and I also love that they can still surprise me.

For more info about Tracy and her books, please visit her site.

London Gambit

Tracy Grant

(Photo courtesy of Raphael Coffey.)

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I am BACK!

Hello, my dears–it’s lovely to be back home after a splendid week of travel. And I have news! The next Veronica Speedwell adventure is ready for pre-order! A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING is the newest installment of Veronica’s mysteries, and it will be published hardcover in January. Publishers love pre-orders, so I am offering a thank you for readers who put in their orders now. Simply click on this form, fill it in, and you will receive via email:

*a Veronica digital vignette–an exclusive 3-page scene featuring Veronica and Stoker and an unusual visitor

*a piece of digital fan art created by Latvian artist Jekaterina (@Nightlizard on Instagram)

*two downloadable Veronica coloring pages commissioned by Jekaterina

APU_CoverReveal

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Hey, look–it’s Robyn Carr!

I am in New York on business this week, so I am reposting one of my favorite pieces ever, a bit of excellent advice from my pal, Robyn Carr, who will be receiving the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award from RWA this year–that’s how awesome she is!

So last week I was chatting with my writer pal, Robyn Carr. Yes, I totally just name-dropped there, but I did it for a reason. I wanted to pick Robyn’s brain about some writerly things, and I knew if I told you where I heard these marvelous things, you’d listen even harder. Robyn is one of my very favorite people in this business; hell, she’s one of my favorite people PERIOD. She’s honest, kind, loyal, and talented, and she has 35 years in the publishing business. She’s been down and she’s been up, and right now, she’s VERY up, since her latest book just hit #1 on the NYT list! (That would be THE WANDERER, the start of her brand spanking new series. Haven’t gotten it yet? Go. I’ll wait.)

Anyway, this isn’t even Robyn’s first #1, so when I had a little noodling to do last week, I knew she was the perfect person to ask. I had dropped her a congratulatory email on her firstie, and later that day I sent her another, telling her I would love to chat in a few days when she had some free time and was done drinking champagne and dancing on tabletops. My phone rang within ten minutes because that’s just the type of person she is. I told her that I was pondering some options about a couple of different projects I had in the works, and needed to get some clarity. I knew by talking to her, I’d start making sense of the cloudy soup in my head.

The Wanderer

In typical Robyn fashion, she managed to be brilliant over the course of the next hour. And after we got off the phone, I felt MILES better. So much better that I jotted down the main points of what she’d said because I knew someone else would find them helpful too. And because Robyn is awesome, when I asked for permission to blog about what she’d said, her response was, “Go for it, babe.” So, here is some straight up wisdom, Carr-style. Her points are in bold, my commentary follows.

  1. Write to your brand. If you have a choice between two projects, equally good, pick the one that most closely allies with the brand you are creating.  None of us like to think of ourselves as brands. That’s commercial and crass and we are ARTISTS. But it’s a commercial world we’re selling in, and the clearer our message to the reader, the better. Ideally, what you write, how it’s packaged, how it’s marketed, how you engage in social media—all of it reflects the same message. That won’t always be the case, and that isn’t to say your brand can’t evolve, but the closer you can stick to that brand, the easier it is for a reader to know exactly what they’re getting when they pick up your book.
  2. Write to yourself. And if you thought that first point was too commercial, Robyn was very quick to point out that your brand MUST REFLECT WHO YOU ARE. You can’t fake this; there is no substitute for authenticity and no shortcut around it. You write what you are. And let’s be clear, who you really are may not be apparent to anybody but you at first glance. But that inner voice, that clear bell that rings out your name is yours and yours alone. You can’t imitate, you can’t settle, you can’t wish you were something you’re not. There’s a great t-shirt making the rounds that has an owl and the words “Be who you be.” Always.
  3. Write the first book in a series as if you were writing a stand alone. BRILLIANT. Robyn sussed that the greatest difficulty in writing a first series book is the pressure to world-build, to throw every damn thing in there that you’re ever going to need in the series. That means writing in a pressure cooker. You’re constantly judging every word, every detail, every scrap of dialogue lest it come back to haunt you in a future book. Forget that. Write the book as if you have ONE chance to tell this character’s story because, actually, that’s all you’ve got. You have one opportunity to introduce people to this character and tell THIS part of the story. So tell it as its own story and stop thinking of it as anything other than its own book. (That’s how I wrote SILENT IN THE GRAVE, and I can promise  you, it was much  more freeing than it would have been if I’d known how many books were to follow.)
  4. Readers will forgive bad behavior in a hero far more quickly than in a heroine. She’s not wrong. Her theory is that readers get attached to heroes so they are more forgiving, whereas they want to BE the heroine and therefore judge her more harshly. SO TRUE. My newest heroine, Delilah Drummond, the disgraced flapper in A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, is not immediately likeable. She’s strong, she’s wild, she’s fairly amoral. But she’s no worse than some of the men I’ve written—in fact she’s a good deal tamer! Yet people refer to her as difficult and terrible even as they come to slowly appreciate her. Double standard? Absolutely! But I think Robyn was absolutely right that there’s an identification issue going on with the reader and the heroine and that makes the reader more demanding of her.
  5. Write with your gut. I told Robyn that with the last book, CITY OF JASMINE, I could NOT get things started. In defiance of all the common writing wisdom, I kept rewriting the first chapter. I KNEW that every time I rewrote it I was getting closer, and I further knew that I couldn’t properly move on until I had it. I needed to get that first chapter done to figure out exactly who Evangeline was. And once I did that, the rest of the book clicked into place. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Robyn had done exactly the same thing. This is one of those great taboos of writing. You are never supposed to let yourself get bogged down in one spot–you’re supposed to keep going NO MATTER WHAT. But Robyn writes from instinct. Like me, she knew what she had to do to get where she had to go. That sort of instinct comes from long experience and she was smart enough to follow it. I followed it but in a state of abject terror. Robyn was considerably more cheerful about it because she knew everything would be alright.

 

And that brings me to something Robyn didn’t say, but sounds like her. It’s a line from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, and it’s become something of a mantra for me. “Everything will be alright in the end. And if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.”

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Things I know that work for me

As I am traveling, I’m reposting one of my favorite pieces, some writerly advice I first posted in April, 2013.

This is one of those blog posts that usually gets an appalling title like “Advice to Young Writers”. We’ll call it something more modest—like “Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along the Way”. These are bits and pieces I’ve collected, parts of the picture that I’m assembling as I go. I’m about to release my seventh novel; I’ve been published for six years. I am no longer the newest kid on the block, and I have picked up a few shiny pebbles along the road. And I’m posting them here because there’s a chance they might be helpful to someone else trundling along the same path.

  1. If you want to be a better writer of prose, read poetry. Poets are my gods. As I’ve remarked before, they say in ten words what I say in ten thousand. They are precise as surgeons, wielding their scalpel-words to hurt and to heal. It doesn’t take much—even a single poem a day can pierce your subconscious, raising your appreciation of rhythm, metaphor, and language.
  2. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research. And then leave 70% of it out of the book. This is a bit of advice I gleaned from Persia Woolley’s book on historical fiction, and it’s brilliant. The criticism I hear most often of this particular genre is that readers bog down in the history bits. Yes, they love history or they wouldn’t read this type of fiction, but it must never supplant the story in importance. It is there to support the story, and if any fact—no matter how delicious—takes the reader out of the moment, it has to go. These are the cuts that hurt, but they are essential. There is an art to weaving fact into the fiction and achieving plausibility and readability at the same time.
  3. If a scene isn’t working, let another character drive the action. This is a piece of wisdom from Phillip Margolin that he shared when speaking to a Sisters in Crime meeting I attended donkey’s years ago, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy. Say you’ve written a scene that just isn’t working. Let’s further say it is between a mother and her teenage son and it’s about his girlfriend. The mother has reservations about the relationship. You’ve begun the scene with the mother haranguing the boy and he responded defensively. It evolves, quite naturally into a fight. Now, imagine you rewrite the scene and this time the son initiates the scene by telling his mother he can tell she has a problem with the relationship and he wants to clear the air. Instead of the expected dynamic of hectoring parent and sullen teen, you have a thoughtful teen and a responsive mother. The scene would be quieter, more vulnerable. Perhaps it would open them up to confidences, to mutual understanding. Now, that may not suit you at all, and all of this depends on the nature of your characters and how they need to respond to a situation, but it can absolutely shake loose a scene you’re having trouble with. It’s also a good strategy if you have a character who takes charge too often and needs to take a backseat once in awhile. And it’s fabulous if you’re suffering a wee case of block.
  4. “Write what you know” is bunk. This is the single worst piece of writing advice out there and it’s ubiquitous. It’s also limiting. Yes, I understand that you need to grasp something thoroughly to write it effectively, but this advice presumes that you can’t get to know something THROUGH writing it. And that’s how some very accomplished writers prefer to work. So toss this one out. If you want to write something and you don’t yet know it, be a Kipling mongoose and go and find out.
  5. The book you want to read is the one you need to write. Pretty self-explanatory. Don’t try to write something simply because it’s commercial or because “everyone is writing lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances”. Unless you LOVE lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances. In that case, rock on with your furry, fiber-loving, girl-on-girl self.
  6. Never take criticism from someone who doesn’t create. This is taken from someone entirely brilliant whom I have now forgotten—I want to say Aldous Huxley? Anyway, it’s worth repeating OFTEN. People who do not create are a species apart from those of us who do. They do not understand the work, the challenges, the vulnerability, the process, the discipline it takes to carry a project from idea to completion. This doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to an opinion about your work; of course they are. They are entitled to have an opinion, to share it, to discuss it. But they are not entitled to have that opinion living in your head. Keep it out.
  7. On a related note, be careful about giving away your power. It sounds cynical and gross, but the truth is there are people who will be happy—nay, GLEEFUL—to find you have an Achilles heel and will amuse themselves by poking pins in it. So be careful about where you reveal your vulnerabilities. Do not show your work to just anyone; do not confide in everyone. Choose your confidantes with consideration. It takes discipline and willpower not to spill your guts to everyone you know and not to share your manuscript with anyone who will read it. Exercise that discipline and willpower—it will be well worth it. I’ve seen FAR too many people torn down by snarky critique partners or jealous writing groups. It can take a very long time to build that confidence back up again when someone’s sharpened their claws on it. If you share with someone and never come away feeling better about yourself, this is a very good sign that you need to move on.
  8. Just write. You can enter contests, create your website, attend conferences, go to workshops, find a writing group, join writers’ organizations, blog about your goals, tweet until you’re blue in the face. But NONE OF THOSE THINGS IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR WRITING. ONLY WRITING IS WRITING. If you’re not sitting down at your desk putting words to paper, you are not writing. You are posing. Stop it. Writing is discipline and craft and about 2% as glamorous as non-writers think it is. If you’re not willing to put in the work, you’re not a writer. And that’s fine—most people aren’t. According to a recent study—I want to say New York University, but don’t hold me to that—writing a novel exercises the same mental circuits and makes the same demands as writing a symphony. I loved reading that because it’s the first example I’ve seen that illustrates clearly what it feels like to write a novel. Each instrument has its own part to be written then the parts must be combined into a harmonious whole. There are themes and counter-themes to develop, ideas to explore and refine. Thousands and thousands of notes, put into precisely the correct order not just to make sense but to make art. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But most folks don’t walk around thinking they have a symphony rattling around inside and they’d write it if only they could find the time. But this is what you hear on a regular basis about books. (An NYT article from 2002 said a recent poll revealed 81% of all Americans thought they had a book inside them. I’d say after the advent of self-publishing that number is up even higher.) Here’s the thing—that book is going to STAY inside you if you don’t write it. So write it and stop talking about it already.
  9. You’re never as good or as bad as you think you are. We are creatures of extreme. We believe the absolute worst of ourselves and sometimes the absolute best. The truth is usually somewhere in between. Don’t let your head get turned with praise that is too fulsome, but don’t believe the worst of yourself either. Now, if you’re a person who NEVER thinks poorly of your own writing, you need to explore the middle ground a bit because if you never doubt then all I can say is: WRITING. UR DOING IT WRONG.
  10. Nice matters. Publishing is a surprisingly small industry. SURPRISINGLY small. You can show your ass all you want, but eventually people will compare notes and it will come back to bite you on that same ass. The editorial assistant you abused today can be an executive editor tomorrow with the power to refuse your newest project at the acquisitions table. The blogger you got into a flame war with on Twitter could get a job writing a review column for a major online magazine. You never know. I’ve seen people time and again think they were getting away from working with someone only to have that same person crop up again. Bad pennies abound in this business and they do keep turning up. Reputations MATTER. Make sure yours is a good one. If you act like you are terribly special and important, nobody walks around saying, “Oooh, it’s the terribly special and important author on the phone.” They roll their eyes and avoid you and tell their friends. And word travels. So, be nice. It costs nothing and generates a truckload of good karma that just might come back to help you when you need it most. Besides, the world needs more nice. Why not let it start with us?

 

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Taking care of you

I am traveling this week, my dears–off to Malice Domestic in the Washington DC area (Bethesda, to be accurate) and then to NYC! I’ll be appearing at Malice and also doing a reading in NY at Lady Jane’s Salon at Madame X on May 2, so please check the links on my Appearances page for details! Since I am out of pocket, I am reposting a piece on self-care. Because, as RuPaul says, “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

I am doing a system restore of myself. The last year, in particular the last six months, have been challenging and demanding ones. I love my work–LOVE my work–and would never complain about it. But it is also true that having a creative job means that what you take in is just as important and essential as what you put out. It means that sometimes the tank feels empty, and that once in awhile you have to be very, very still and small and quiet and do as little as possible. So a system restore is called for, a return to factory settings, a defragging to smooth out all the rough and jagged edges and wait for serenity to stop by for a visit.

Ideally, a proper system restore would include a “rest cure”, the bygone term for vacation, a mental health break in which I would rent a villa in Greece, pack a stack of books and a few sarongs and not come home for a month. Rest cures take time, you know. I had even planned an abbreviated version for the husband and myself–a few days on a Caribbean island. That plan got scuppered between the puppy and my trip to New York, so I am attempting a refurbishment at home with a few things I already had lying around:

*Sally Hansen nail polish in Marine Scene. I swiped it from my daughter. It’s insanely tropically turquoise. I may not be swimming in the Caribbean, but my nails at least match the water.

*L’Occitane Rose Incense Cones. They don’t burn long, but for the short time they do, they smell delicious. Rose and smoke doesn’t sound like a good combination, but there’s something oddly summery about it. (I am STILL mourning the fact that Banana Republic discontinued their Presidio incense years ago. Hands down it was the best incense I have ever, ever smelled. It smelled like a eucalyptus grove after a rainstorm, which ordinarily would put me right off, but it was divine.)

*Alba coconut lip balm. It’s organic and it smells like Hawaiian Tropic.

*NUMI tea in White Rose and Apricot. Unlike other teas–these are pale and wan and fragile. They are scented rather than flavored, and surprisingly refreshing, even in the heat.

*Yankee Candle company candles in Coconut Bay. More Hawaiian Tropic yumminess.

*Trader Joe’s sorbets in lemon and mango-tangerine. Non-fat and so flavorful that a tiny portion is all you need. Much more fun than ice cream.

*Lilies from my garden. My daughter picked some yesterday for us to wear in our hair. We felt very Polynesian.

*Vacation films. Last weekend I watched “Niagara”–very noir, very suspenseful with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. Beautiful shots of the falls and I love the idea of renting a tiny cottage and pulling up in front of it in a huge convertible with a scarf tied over my head. (“Shirley Valentine” is good for a dose of Greek escapism.)

*Naps. I find myself dozing on the sofa over my armchair travel books for about twenty minutes each afternoon.

*White cotton. I’m digging every white petticoat out of my closet right now. I think I was inspired by watching “Much Ado About Nothing” a few weeks ago and seeing Emma Thompson and Kate Beckinsale frolicking around in full white skirts and pretty white bodices. It’s crisp and cool and there’s something terribly Isak Dinesen about it.

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Appearances!

If you’re in the DC or NYC areas, I’m heading your way! I have a panel discussion and signing on Sunday, May 1, at Malice Domestic. Monday, May 2, I’m reading at Lady Jane’s Salon in NYC. Check out the details in the links on my Appearances page. Hope to see you there!

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