The Newest Additions

Not much to say this week, except for Welcome to the Family, Wyatt and Virgil. My cute new guys came home on Monday and they are so much fun! They love attention and will even sit in your lap as long as you scratch their ears. I see a picture book featuring goats in the near future.

Wyatt&Virgil

Janis and Me

Back in the days when we had record albums and turntables, when you had to keep the music at a low enough volume so your sister didn’t bang on the wall from the room next door, I would sometimes bring records to school and swap them out for a day or two with friends. For a few days with Heart’s double live album, I might give up Goodbye Yellow Brick Road temporarily. But I never could part with Janis Joplin’s Pearl for fear it might get scratched, or worse, broken.

Music marks eras in our life, whether it be a teeny bopper idol phase  (HELLO Shaun Cassidy) or the moment we conceive of something powerful coming from art (like the first time I heard U2). Janis Joplin’s music was one raw nerve that was so brutally honest, sometimes it hurt to listen to it. I gobbled up every biography I could find, bought all of her albums, then the “remastered” and “lost” editions, and when my album collection had been carelessly lost, I replaced them all with CDs and downloads. And I marveled at how one person could put her bare soul on display. Because I discovered Janis, I discovered Odetta and Otis Redding (it is rumored she modeled her stage act after him). I tried to recruit my friends into the fandom of Janis, but unlike many 1960’s legends like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, somehow Janis never generated a cult of personality at the same level. This is a shame.  Not only did Janis break through the “just a girl singer” mode of the fifties and early sixties (another exception being Aretha Franklin, who is a whole different fangirl blog topic), but because she revered African American artists who are often overlooked for their influence on early rock and roll (Leadbelly, Big Mama Thornton). Today’s female artists followed trailblazers like Joan Jett and the Wilson sisters; before them, artists like Deborah Harry and Patti Smith (moment of silence for the my lost Horses album). But Janis was first.

PBS recently aired a documentary about her life, which of course, I watched.  I found the special oddly tame for a woman who was a Texas-sized force of nature, and for the most part, a re hash of old clips that glossed over some important parts of her life and death. All in all, it didn’t quite do justice to a woman who was my first real music idol (not counting Shaun Cassidy, of course).

Somewhere in a dusty bin in a secondhand store, I hope my copy of Pearl is waiting to be plucked from obscurity by an unsuspecting fourteen-year old. I hope he or she will take it home and listen to it beginning to end, then re position the needle to play whichever tune really grabbed him. I recommend Cry Baby.

Reasons to Love Sue Heck

“The Middle” has been a Wednesday night staple in my house for several years. The travails and triumphs of the Heck family, who, as the title implies, live both literally in the middle of America and in the disappearing middle class, are comic gold. Middle child Sue Heck, in particular, is a character that I find both adorkable and worthy of admiration. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Her moral compass points due north. Sue is unfailingly honest and true. She can’t abide committing a transgression and is the first to blurt out the truth when a lie would better suit her needs. Consider the episode where she tried adding “…and so on and so forth and what have you” to the end of a sentence to omit crucial information and in the end, just couldn’t do it. Sue cannot tell a lie. She’d make a lousy politician.
  2. She is relentlessly optimistic. If you watched Sue ask for her special achievement ribbons for her high school graduation, your heart broke a little for her when she found out she had none, not even perfect attendance (“But I’ve been gunning for that one!”).  Even so, she soldiered on. She tries out for everything, even, as her brother points out, she never gets picked. Sue may have had to make up her own version of a cheer squad and didn’t get a single invitation in sorority rush, but she still has an unshakeable faith in herself and in the goodness of the world.
  3. She is fiercely loyal. Sue is a faithful friend to Brad. She loves her family. She worries for them. Of all the Hecks, she is the touchstone, the one who will pull out all the stops to make Mom and Dad’s anniversary special, the one who will drive her little brother to a con and make sure he has a good time. She’ll even let it slide when Mom and Dad forget her birthday.
  4. She reminds us all a little of our younger selves. The mall job. Finally getting your braces off. Having a crush on a professor. Feeling overlooked (looking at you, Frankie, for forgetting your child’s birthday). Sue encapsulates a piece of just about everyone’s adolescence.
  5. She is genuinely excited about life. That patented Sue Heck enthusiasm is contagious. Whether she’s making an elaborate Disney schedule or trying out for a job a Dollywood, you just know Sue Heck isn’t going to walk into a room without a huge smile and a can-do attitude. Leave the brooding posers at the door, Sue is my kind of millennial.

So there you have it. This is why I love Sue Heck. If you’re like me and watch entirely too much television for your own good, who is your favorite character(s)?

Raised on a Dirt Road, Part II

A few months back,  I wrote a post about my country roots.  I was looking through some photos the other day and came across the image above of our camphouse. Looking at it made me a bit nostalgic so I thought it was a good opportunity for a “Part II.”

This structure is probably a hundred years old, give or take. It sits across from a set of cow pens that were also originally built almost a hundred years ago, although they’ve been spruced up and remodeled since then. My great grandfather  bought the property during the open range days when people had gunfights over the prospect of fencing in land. When I was a kid, I used to play in and around the camphouse during the month-long process of gathering cattle on horseback. It was a long, muddy slog in those days and the cowboys ate three meals a day (all home cooked) and some slept in the bunk beds. There was, and still is, a hand pump, which until the 1980’s, was the only source of running water. Along with a proper kitchen sink, we eventually installed actual indoor plumbing and tore down the outhouse. Progress and all.

What I remember most about summer cowhunt, as we called it, are the smells. Muddy cowpens mixed with humidity so thick it made the air seem viscous along with sweat and horses and dogs that had never been on a leash in their lives (and ate table scraps instead of Alpo). When we were older, my sister and I helped out too, mostly opening gates and counting cows, and occasionally getting chased up a fence by an ornery Brahman bull. The noon day meal was usually something like chicken fried steak or fried chicken, fresh peas, corn, squash, biscuits and rice with tomato gravy. Suffice it to say, we did not use summer as a verb in our household. I will never forget one visitor who came out to take pictures and marveled to my dad that it must be so great to be able to ride horses in the middle of the week. My dad nodded politely. I like to say that he was a cow man, not a cowboy.

These days, gathering the cattle takes days, not weeks. We don’t ride horses as much as we used to, and the people who work day labor don’t call themselves cowboys so much and they don’t want to sleep in an un-air conditioned  bunkhouse.  I haven’t ridden a horse in years. My dad has been gone over twenty-five years. But this place is still standing, with a tin roof that makes the rain sound like a dance and walls that, if they could speak, would tell you tall tales of cowhands past, of poker games played with toothpicks, and the stillness that comes from crouching under a metal awning waiting out the rain so you could get back to work.

It was definitely a different way to grow up, as compared to my school friends, but I wouldn’t trade those muddy cowpens for anything.

Have a fond memory of your childhood? Drop a comment below.

 

In Which I Finally Get Around to Reading “Weetzie Bat”

When I first started querying Coriander Jones in 2012-13, one agent’s submission preferences referenced her love for Weetzie Bat. I admit I hadn’t heard of it, but I put it on my to-read list, where it stayed until recently. I was intrigued by the setting, Los Angeles, and its reputation as a ground-breaking YA book that embraced magic and allegory.

Weetzie, along with her Secret Agent Lover Man, her best friend and his partner, make their own version of family in a Los Angeles that is half in the present and half in the soiled glory of its ritzy past. Having lived in LA in the late eighties, I can see it as a sort of tear-stained love letter to a city that was probably never as grand as people imagined it was during the golden era of Hollywood. Weetzie starts off the book in high school, but after a few scant pages, that locale is never mentioned again. If you like linear story-telling with internal logic, then this is not the book for you.

There is a lot to admire in Weetzie– The writing flows along dreamily as if the characters are having a lucid dream. Some events are constructed on the flimsiest sort of pretense (a magic genie provide Weetzie with just what the “plot” requires, Weetzie decides to become a mother by sleeping with both her friend and her friend’s lover) not to mention the suspension of disbelief about how the lot are even able to buy food. But that misses the point, because the mundane aspects of life (going to school, getting a job, paying bills) are not at all what the book is concerned about.

This is not to say that the magical realism totally overshadows the characters’ genuineness. Weetzie has her first real and true heartbreak when her father dies. The  AIDS epidemic (not mentioned by name) hits close to home. In the play within the play, where Weetzie is starring in a movie and can’t figure out how to end the story, her character decides that it is only by dying in the real world that she can wake up in the perfect fantasy world that she wants to live in. Although Weetzie herself doesn’t go the suicide route, I guess the takeaway is that you have to assume these characters only exist in a dreamlike state where all things are possible, where babies show up on doorsteps and no one questions it, and where someone tosses Burt Reynold’s toupee out of a limo window so that it can used to adorn a rubber chicken.

I’m guessing that there was not a whole lot like Weetzie Bat in bookstores  when it first came out. It had to have been mind blowing and I wish I had read it when I was closer to Weetzie’s age and closer to my years living in LA. For someone who came of age reading “edgy” contemporary YA by Norma Klein, or other books by SE Hinton or Judy Blume,  I can only appreciate Weetzie Bat from a distance. From my perch as a fifty-year old, still working on the writing craft, and parenting a teenager, it’s more of a specimen to me than something I will treasure having read.

If you’ve read it did you love it? Hate it? Wonder what the heck you were looking at? I’m interested in your thoughts.

Rediscovering John D. MacDonald

Recently I added “A Purple Place for Dying,” by John D. MacDonald to my kindle queue. One of several books featuring iconic Florida detective Travis McGee, I originally bought it as a pleasant diversion for a long plane ride, you know, the kind of pulpy crime novel that you read and then instantly forget about. I hadn’t read a McDonald novel in decades and had quite forgotten that he was far more than a grinder of pulp fiction.

In the novel, Travis is out west on a potential job when his would-be employer is shot and killed in front of him. This character appears only on a scant four or five pages, but consider his description:

I read female characters from sterns. Hers was hefty, shapely rich and  unapproachable. This one, I decided, would consider any gift of her favors a truly earth-shattering event, to be signaled by rare wine, incense and silk sheets. And she had the look of almost being able to live up to her own billing.

Lest you think McDonald’s narrative is limited to cops and femme fatale types, consider his description of college students that Travis observes as they scurry to and from their classes, noticing, but uninterested in, a middle-aged beach bum who is on campus following up on a lead.

The kids hustled to their ten-o’clocks, little and young, intent on their obscure purposes…They were in the vivid tug and flex of life, and we were faded pictures of the corridor walls-drab, ended and slightly spooky.

And the final blow, in which Travis imagines how life will eventually turn out for the young, unsuspecting coeds.

They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

Mind you, at its core,  this is a crime novel, the type of popular fiction that is all too often derided as unsophisticated fodder for the masses. But I’ve read a lot of prize winning literary fiction that can’t hold a candle to the voice in this book.  I was struck by how well the story and characters hold up in today, where someone with a cell phone and Facebook could have probably untangled the complex family dynamics at the heart of the story.  Yes, there are outdated bits, and as far as some of the women characters, well, we’ve come a long way baby. But the writing is so good, Travis McGee so compelling a hero, that the reader can settle in as if it’s still 1964 and enjoy the ride.

My apologies for overlooking you for so long, Mr. MacDonald, who was also a Floridian, albeit a transplant. You will have a permanent place on my actual bookshelf from now on.

 

A Home for Kayla

If you take even a cursory glance at my blog, web site or social media, you’ll see I am an animal lover, and in particular, a lover of rescue pets. I recently completed the journey of publishing my first picture book with illustrator Yis Vang, who did the cover for Coriander Jones. This book is my love letter to our very special rescue, Kayla.

My husband and daughter brought her home from the pound one Saturday, unannounced, likely because they knew I’d start chanting “NO MORE PETS!” But my heart broke for the little stray. She’d been found wandering a busy street, perhaps a casualty of the recession when people starting abandoning their pets with alarming frequency. She was emaciated, fear aggressive with other dogs, and painfully shy with  people.

Fast forward a few years later and our girl was happy, healthy, and even a teeny bit overweight due to our compulsion to give her treats whenever she gave us that doleful look. My daughter started taking her to 4-H. Kayla learned that other dogs were friends. She even won blue ribbons and high points trophies against pure bred dogs.

We estimate that our grand old lady is about ten years old now. She started slowing down a bit and a little grey has creeped into her face. When she started limping late last fall, we took her in for a checkup. The vet diagnosed her with bone cancer, not the kind one can treat surgically or otherwise. We were, of course, devastated. Her diagnosis hasn’t stopped her from chasing the yard cats and begging for treats, and we are grateful for the medication that is giving us some extra time with her. Of the many animals I have had over the last fifty years, Kayla, I think, has the sweetest soul of them all.  I started working on this picture book with Yis last year as a purely personal endeavor and so it’s bittersweet that it is coming out just as Kayla is in her twilight.

If you feel like checking out Kayla’s journey from sidewalk stray to beloved family member, the book is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I will probably be doing a Goodreads giveaway soon. And, as I always like to get a plug in for our angels in fur coats, please visit a shelter next time you are looking for a pet.

kaylaw:book

 

 

The Long and Winding Road to Publication and Back

In the summer of 2012, I packed off my daughter for her first summer camp- an entire month away from home at a traditional summer camp where the kids went on canoe trips, swam in the lake every day and participated in the annual “color war.” During the time she was away, I resolved to finally write that book I’d been talking about for years. Over the course of my life, I’d resolved at different times to write a book. Sometimes I aimed for a straight up thriller, or sometimes a horror tale, but that particular summer, I resolved to write a book for kids. Specifically, I wanted to write a book about kids away at summer camp who have to save the world. And not cotillion kids, or kids at boarding school, or chosen ones- I wanted to write about kids who lived in a trailer park, who didn’t have iPhones and who used the public library for internet.  My goal was to write a book my daughter would enjoy, and heck, maybe I could even get it published.

Three months later I had Coriander Jones Saves the World.  Actually, I had a first draft of CJ but little did I realize the importance of putting the book away and then coming back for multiple rounds of edits. By then, my compulsive nature had lead me to many hours of researching publishing, agents, and how to query. Even with all that information, I still managed to make every rookie mistake the good folks at QueryTracker warn us about.  If only I had discovered the forum sooner!

Genre? Who really cares if it’s MG or YA? Um, everyone. Fantasy? Adventure? Magical realism? What’s the difference? Lots, as it turns out. Even with all my mistakes, I still had a few nibbles, and even a few offers from small presses. Their contract terms were so one sided I didn’t bother to negotiate. A mistake? Maybe. Should I have followed up on the R&R from an agent? Maybe. But long about then I had decided that my personal goal of writing a book was enough and I could publish it myself. And then I decided to close out a partial request from a small press with a nudge so I could cross it off my list, and the editor immediately responded that yes, she had received the partial and could I send the rest. And then she asked what part of Florida I was from, and noticing my maiden name, asked if I knew an old high school friend of hers, who, as it turns out, is my cousin. Best of all, she love Coriander and her friends. She got what i was going for with the characters and the story. And I knew that going this route was not significantly different than self publishing as far as distribution. But the book was published. It even received some very flattering reviews and a few small awards, but as expected, sales were in the basement.

By then, I had kept writing, hopefully improving my craft, had made friends on Querytracker and  Twitter and felt like I was ready to not only write CJ II but also that quirky thriller I’d been thinking about for, literally, decades. So armed with Gator Bait, I dipped my toes in the query trenches again. This time, I struck gold when Gina Panettieri saw past the flaws and gave me a chance to make revisions. With those, she took me on as a client and GB is currently on submission. Along with, I might add, CJ, which I had mentioned to Gina, she asked to see, and decided it might have a second chance. So it’s on submission as well, with the second book done, edited, and ready to get in the queue. My small press is going in a different direction with their projects and they wished me well and gladly negotiated with me to return my rights early.

The odds are definitely against a previously published book like Coriander Jones, especially in a tight market like YA. But everything from here is gravy. I like my trailer park girl. Of everything I’ve written so far, her voice spills out the easiest. I may end up toting the series around to indie bookstores and craft fairs, but honestly, I wrote a book I liked, and my kid liked it too. Recently, a little girl that had been given a copy of the book very shyly asked me if I could please hurry up and finish the second one. It’s not a starred review in Booklist, but it’ll do.

On a side note, my own daughter hated summer camp and came home early. Go figure.

Check out the “Which Character Are You” quiz on http://corianderjones.com

 

 

 

 

My Year in Books

According to my Goodreads stats, I fell woefully short of my original reading goals inn 2015 as compared to 2014. But, it was all for a good cause. I read fewer books, yes, but I managed to edit my YA novel, finish my thriller and get representation for it, (Thanks Gina Panettieri!) dabble in some horror short story writing and outline a new YA book. But I did read some books I loved, some that surprised me, a couple that didn’t live up to my expectations and one that blew me away. So here is a brief run down of just a few of the books I read in 2015.

Stephen King can do no wrong in my book, and not just because he is a part time resident of my home state. “Finders Keepers” was a juicy thriller that kept me up late. I can hardly wait for the last book in the trilogy to come out so I can grab it up quick.

A book I would not have ordinarily picked up was my QT buddy Marissa Clarke’s romance novel “Sleeping With the Boss.” It was a good reminder to occasionally venture out of my reading comfort zone and try a genre I don’t normally gravitate toward. Even if you’re not a romance fan, give her books a shot.

Another unexpected gem was “Help! A Bear is Eating Me” by Mykle Hansen. It was dark, twisted and funny. In the laugh-out-loud category, I have to say “Let’s Pretend this Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson had me in stitches the whole time I was reading it.

How I’ve never read a Jack Reacher novel is a mystery to me, but in 2015 I finally picked one up. With “Persuader,” maybe it was just one of those can’t-explain-it-but-didn’t care-for-it things, but in my book, a middle-aged, marginally employed transient who is constantly under scrutiny by law enforcement is a serial killer, not a potential hook up.

One of my favorites from 2015 was “Second Hand Souls” by Christopher Moore. I don’t know how he manages to make death and the meaning of life both funny and poignant in the same sentence, but I’m thankful that he does. If you haven’t read his books, then do yourself a favor and run out and get one now.

And to top the list, I have to say “This Dark Road to Mercy” by Wiley Cash was just absolutely brilliant, not a single wasted word, and a book that I thought about long after I finished it.

There were more, but this is my highlight reel for 2015. What were your hits and misses?

Thrillers, Women Characters and the Barbie Effect

I love reading thrillers, the pulpier the better. Airport kiosks bursting with potboilers are my playground. But  if I let myself stray from reading for sheer enjoyment to a more critical analysis, I sometimes conclude that in order to be a woman character other than the MC, one must be 1) in her early to mid-twenties; 2) smoking hot 3) single and ready to mingle; and, 4) if the plot demands it, have an advanced degree enough to earn the grudging respect of colleagues but not enough to prevent said character from getting kidnapped or murdered or both.

Of course, this isn’t true across the board, and there are plenty of great women characters that don’t fit this archetype (Detective Rizzoli, “Bones” Brennan, for example). But it does seem that a good number of suspense thrillers use the supporting women characters either as a plot device (their brutal murder haunts the MC) or as a luscious love interest in the prime of her youth. It doesn’t matter if the male MC is fifty-something with scars and a beer gut, that lithe coed/neurosurgeon is gonna be all over him by the end of Act One. I read a book awhile back where a female assasin (in her twenties and with a perfect body, naturally) went about her bloody business… topless. ‘Cause, you know, sometimes the girls gotta breathe. The reader was also assured that her assets were spectacular. So that was a relief. Also, these women have no  body fat, no kids to distract them and really shiny hair.

God forbid a forty-something gal with roomy hips and maybe a few gray hairs wants to get in on the action. Yes, attractive people make up the bulk of fictional characters in books, television and movies. Pretty sells better. I get that. But surely the women characters can be a little rounder, a little more realistic. Start small. Make them less Barbie and more “Bones.”  And for Pete’s sake, put some clothes on those poor girls. They might catch a cold.