Saturday, April 30, 2011

Constantinople Bound

Heads up! I'm going offline again, flying to Turkey today for some family stuff. I'll be back in a week, just in time to celebrate another year under my belt. Would Chuck E. Cheese be inappropriate at my age?

I was thinking I might bring my laptop along, but I'm going to leave it here. My brain is in a total snarl, and I need to let things go and relax for a while. You ever feel like you just cannot get your act together? That's me, pretty much every day. I want to do a hundred things all at once, and it paralyzes me to the point that all I can do is read Wikipedia articles about goats. When did I become such a spaz?

May is a great month for media--finales on tv, the beginning of blockbuster season at the movies, and in the next few weeks, some really exciting new books will be released. Are you looking forward to anything in particular, perhaps Veronica Roth's Divergent or Libba Bray's Beauty Queens? Will you be watching Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, or giving in to the guilty pleasure of The Hangover Part II? What are you planning on reading or watching?

Be back soon! I hope you all have an incredible first week of May.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A New Contender for Strangest Dinner Party

Some of you may recall a post I wrote back in February, about a dinner party where I threw my back out while serving dessert and spent the rest of the evening lying on the floor while one of my guests fed me apple cake. Last night's dinner party is going down in the books as well.

But first, let me tell you what I served! I adapted the menu from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Luques, one of my favorite cookbooks. Watercress salad with beets, avocado and crab in jalapeno-lime vinaigrette, saffron chicken with parmesan grits and snap peas, rustic cheese tart (with cheese I made myself, if you didn't see my cheese-making Tweets) and blueberry sauce. Folks, I take my dinner parties seriously.

I don't know how to describe what happened without sounding like I'm taking this too lightly, so let me just say that the guest of honor is a dear old friend who laughed and gave me permission to blog about this. Have you ever watched those videos on Youtube about the fainting goats? That's kinda what happened at the dinner table. Only as far as I know, the goats don't throw up after they faint. Beets! She almost made it to the bathroom, too.

Anyhow, after the scrambling was over and the carpet was Oxycleaned, we sat around and shared our most humiliating stories (the ones that will never, ever make it onto this blog) so that the poor girl couldn't stay too embarrassed, and I boxed up some cheese tart for her to take home and have for breakfast. A strange and startling evening, but as far as good company goes, it still beats the Famously Awkward Dinner Party, or the Dinner Party On A Worknight When The Guests Wouldn't Leave Until Two A.M.

Has something like this ever happened to you?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Let's Start At The Very Beginning (Or Not)

I think everyone in the literary universe will tell you that there is no scene more important than the one you use to open your book. This is your (nevergetasecondchancetomakea) first impression. Your powerful handshake. Your resume to apply for a position at the Published Authors Guild. A potential employer is going to glance at your resume, and if he likes what he sees, he'll ask you to come in for an interview so he can learn more. Don't mess up your resume.

These days, readers' expectations and attention spans are shaped by faster media: television, movies, internet. It makes sense then that writing styles have morphed correspondingly to become more visual and immediate. Am I the only writer who imagines an opening chapter like the beginning of a movie? Probably not. Fade in: A teary-eyed woman stands at the edge of a Dover cliff, preparing to leap to her demise...

Here's the deal though: Your opening has to be more than just a cool image. You have to dig deeper. The opening chapter is a promise of what is to come, a promise to the reader that if they invest the time to read your entire book, the payoff will be there.

First, the obvious: avoid the cliches. Don't open with a dream. What does this tell me about the MC? That she has nightmares about bad things in her past? Good, so does everyone else in the world. It may seem like a great idea at the time, but when you're done, look back, call it a rookie mistake and cut, cut, cut. I think you would be very hard pressed to convince an agent or editor that your dream scene is better than just opening with real, live interaction. This leads to a couple of other cliched openings: looking into a mirror, waking up (guilty!). See also: waking up with a hangover, waking up late for something. Everyone's day starts in the morning--that doesn't mean your book has to start there too. Be wary of opening with someone's thoughts, as thoughts are the gateway to exposition. Be conscious of whether you're writing an engrossing, immediate scene, or ten pages of backstory dump.

Once you've reached a level of enlightenment where you know what not to use for your opening, think about what you can use. How can you, in the most subtle and original way, reveal small, important details about your MC? What can you hint at that will make the reader say, I must know more! Try making a list of the most important details about your MC, the ones that will end up affecting the plot later on. Where can you tuck those in--in a thought, a line of dialogue? Here's a thought-provoking line from Les Edgerton's Hooked: "A good opening should contain at least the seeds of the ending."

Above all else, spend an obscene amount of time on your first sentence. A great first sentence can knock someone's socks off. Write every single word with purpose, and you'll find that you can provide setting, character and conflict right off the bat. Go pull some of your favorite books off your shelves, and see how much information their first sentences deliver about the world you're about to enter.

Your book's opening can be generic, or it can be awesomely, uniquely yours. Which do you want it to be?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In which I procrastinate, with apologies to Steely Dan

Um, I guess this is from the POV of the impatient spouse, or perhaps the self-deprecating writer. As you can see, I'm getting a lot of important stuff done this weekend...

Your everlasting edits, oh your will is fadin' fast
So you reach for an expression that you think is gonna last
Well, you wouldn't even know tight phrasing if you held it in your hand
The scenes you call your darlings I can't understand

Are you reelin' in the rewrites, sloggin' away the time
Are you gatherin' up the adverbs, oh your writing is sublime
Are you reelin' in the rewrites, sloggin' away the time
Are you gatherin' up the cliches, oh your writing is sublime

You've been telling me you're Hemingway since you were seventeen
In all the time I've known you, you haven't published one damn thing 
That book you wrote in college didn't turn out like you planned
The things you put on paper I can't understand


You've spent a lot of money and you've spent a lot of time
The trips you make to conferences are just to socialize
After all the words you've written now you still don't have a plan
The way you spend your weekends I can't understand

Friday, April 22, 2011

Spring is Springing!

I've been a California resident since the summer of 2001, and, having grown up in a town that receives an average of 128 inches of snowfall a year (in 1995, we received 28 inches in 24 hours), it's been fun to tease my family back home about our mild, sunny weather.

But I've got to tell you the truth: Los Angeles weather bores the hell out of me. Ingrate! I'm sorry. Those of you who are still getting the occasional freak late-April snowfall are free to chastise me, but I really miss that moment in early spring when you get that first whiff of fresh earth, and that day when you are finally able to walk outside without a jacket. Those rituals are gone here, in a city where the most we have to look forward to is the annual month of fog, or the Santa Ana winds that will set the mountainsides (and my sinuses) ablaze.

Living in L.A., it's easy to forget about spring altogether. It surprises me when my mom talks about tilling the garden in April, because I guess I just expect them to be covered with a thick blanket of snow until July. To remind myself this year, I bought a bouquet of tulips to set on my dining table. We associate the tulip with Holland, but according to my husband, the Dutch swiped their tulips from Turkey, where the flower was hugely popular with the Ottomans. In fact, the most prosperous era of the Ottoman Empire is called the Lale devri, or Tulip era. And that is your historical flower trivia for the day.

I hope you all have a happy and productive weekend. Happy holiday to those of you who are celebrating!

P.S. I'm not a big country fan, but Patsy Cline's been in my head all week, so for your enjoyment, here she is with her ridiculous voice:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Onward and Upward (aka, I am not a quitter)

Out of all the people in my life, the one whose opinion of me matters most is my husband. I'm not a criminal or anything, but I rely on him to be my moral compass. He gives it to me straight when he thinks I'm acting poorly, or making a bad choice. He's not perfect himself, but he's got a strong streak of the Dudley Do-right, and strong opinions that he will not hesitate to share (hey, he's Mediterranean).

For all his virtuous inclinations, I have never met someone with worse luck. I'm not talking bad luck at the craps table (although that may or may not have been the case last weekend). I'm talking eleven years of watching a brilliant, hard-working guy get kicked in the teeth by Misfortune, over and over and over. Like the second year we lived together, when during a three-month span he: 1) landed in the hospital with hepatitis A, 2) recovered well enough to rejoin his beloved rugby team, whereupon he immediately shattered his collarbone requiring a plate and four screws, and 3) struggled through the pain (no painkillers, because of the previous liver damage) to finish his exams and get his diploma so that he could go to the US with me to start grad school, only 4) then he got his rejection letter in the mail from Stanford.

And that's nothing compared to the year he lived through last year, which I won't go into because some of that is still ongoing. Just imagine horrible heaped on top of horrible. But I will tell you that he recovered from the hep, collarbone and rejection, came to the US with me anyway, and got into Stanford on his second try. Now he has a very successful, if rather high pressure career, and everything he achieved, he's gotten on the merit of sheer persistence. This man received zero help from Old Man Lady Luck.

So this morning my husband sat down with me and said, 'I'm worried about you. You worked so hard on this story, and now you're going to throw it all away because of a stupid piece of bad luck.' This did not sound as sweet as it looks on the screen. In fact it sounded pretty annoying to me, She who does not like to be told what to do. But...he has a point.

If you've been reading my posts for the past two weeks, you've seen me flip-flop on where I'm going at this point. The siren song of the shiny new idea has been damn near impossible to resist. The passion I've felt for my YA-but-more-likely-upper-MG adventure story got a little squashed, despite my declarations to do it up better than ever.

But to set it aside without finishing it? Without querying it? I know that most writers draft several books before they write the one that gets them to the next level, but shouldn't I at least try with this one? If my husband had let bad luck stop him, he'd probably be slogging away at some mid-level job in Darmstadt instead of launching rockets into space. And if I've learned anything from him, it's that persistence really does pay off in the end.

So, that's my decision. Finish the rewrites, give it all a whirl, and then I can get back to that shiny new idea, which I may or may not have already written several chapters of. Sorry for all the wishy-washyness--this has been quite the unexpected speed bump. And now, back to our regular programming.

Here we go again...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Adieu, Fair Flash Drive

Sorry, I kinda went underground for the past week. My father-in-law is visiting, and so there's been a lot of entertaining and adventuring and dishes (good gravy, so many dishes). We took him to Las Vegas for the weekend and gambled our way through half the casinos. Not much time for literary pursuits these days.

My husband finally took apart my corrupt flash drive last Friday, and sadly informed me that my hope of recovering any data is just about nil. I had been waiting on this final judgment before beginning any sort of new rewrites, and now that I have it, I can't seem to get started. Partly it's the feeling that I need to be totally and completely prepared to begin the most awesome rewrites EVARRR, and partly it's the urge to stash this complex and troublesome plot and start fresh on something else, to apply the things I've learned over the past year to a clean slate.

While standing at the corner of Indecision Junction, there's still plenty for me to do. I'm reading 'Hooked' by Les Edgerton, and I've got a stack of promised critiques that I need to get done now. There are about twenty good books waiting for me on my Kindle as well. I haven't been reading enough fiction lately, and maybe that would be the best thing for easing my brain back into a creative spot.

Deep breath. Om. This isn't a race.

Also - I registered for the SCBWI summer conference in August a few days ago. Are you going too? I surely hope so!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Joining the Virtual Road Trip

I haven't thought much about what to post today, but I saw the Road Trip Wednesday question over at YA Highway and thought I'd join in this time. The question this week is: What is the story of your best scar?

The answer to that question was what I wrote about in my very first post on this blog, back in November. How precognitive of me. The short answer, if you don't feel like jumping over to read it, is that I was fooling around on a toy that was too small for me, and I dumped myself over and bashed my head on the cement floor at my grandparents' home.

But wait! There's more.

About fifteen years later, when I was twenty-one and living in Munich, I celebrated my first German New Year's Eve, or Silvester, as they call it. Let's say I'd had a few. I'd gone to my room for something, and was heading back to the stairs to climb the four flights back to the party. I guess I wasn't really looking at anything besides my feet, because I ran head-on into a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall. Dong! I still remember that noise. Split my face open right at the same place where I hit when I fell off that damn red elephant.

I ran back upstairs (just to get the blood pumping, I guess) and walked into the party looking like I'd had a run-in with an axe murderer. Let's get this party started! I got yanked into a back room so as not to cause too much commotion and cleaned up, and someone with a low tolerance for blood called an ambulance.

The EMT who patched me up (by which I mean he laughed and slapped a band-aid on my face) told me "You look fine. Just like Cassius Clay." I walked around Munich for a few days with a black eye, and when it healed up, it was indistinguishable from the old scar. Kids, there's a lesson here somewhere.

That's a pretty bad story. Please, someone, tell me you have a stupider scar story than mine!

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Other Family

Like Indiana Jones braving a pit of snakes, my courageous critique partner Liz has traveled to the lair of Data Retrieval Inc. and reclaimed my damaged flash drive for me. The saga will continue tomorrow, when the flash drive makes its way to the cleanrooms of Space Exploration Technologies, where it will undergo a perilous dissection... 

In the meantime, here's something totally off-topic:

You guys know I love you, right? I have you all tucked away in a special folder in Google Reader, and I read your posts whenever I can, even if a busy week means I'm playing catch-up on a Sunday night. I have never been so motivated to write in my life as I have been since I started blogging.

But you should know, there are these...other blogs. These seductive blogs that beckon, siphoning away some of my free time.

The food blogs.

I am a huge sucker for a good food blog with tantalizing pictures and reliable recipes. Here is a secret: If I am going to try cooking a new dish, I usually go to food blogs to find a recipe for it. I trust the bloggers' advice more than I trust Allrecipes or Epicurious. Plus, they have better photos.

But it takes more than just nice photography for a food blog to end up in my reader--it's the writing that accompanies it, and the personality of the blogger. Today, I share with you some of my favorites:

Smitten Kitchen: If I could choose only one food blog to visit for the rest of my life, this would be it. Deb's photos are amazing, her writing is hilarious, and sometimes, when we're very very lucky, she throws in a picture of her adorable baby boy.

The Wednesday Chef: I love Luisa. I wish she lived next door, so I could go over to borrow a cup of sugar and sit in her kitchen while she makes braised cabbage and talk about the world in general. Only her apartment is in Berlin. And before that it was New York. I appreciate the openness with which she shares her life, and her almost sentimental approach to cooking. In another dimension, I'd like to think Luisa and I would be best friends. Is that creepy?

Steamy Kitchen: Alright, I'm going to link right to the recipes page because in the aftermath of her recent successes, Jaden's blog has become pretty commercial. Lots of giveaways and product posts. But her Asian-fusion recipe posts are still funny. And her photos have always been some of the best.

Almost Turkish: This blog might be more particular to me, since I am always trying to recreate my husband's favorite Turkish meals. Burcu's recipes are all solid, and she's hit most of the main traditional dishes by now. My favorite place on the web to look for Turkish recipes.

If you're into cooking, you should check these out! (Actually, if you're into cooking, you probably know most of these.)

Do you frequent any other kind of blog besides writing blogs? If so, what sort?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Continuing Saga

Friends, I had a look at my last saved copy of my manuscript, which was from about March 4th, before the Big Sur workshop. And then I realized the scope of what I had lost, and I was like, Whoa. Entire chapters, little nitpicky word changes: lots and lots of stuff. I began to lose my nerve for redoing it all from memory.

So yesterday morning I got up bright and early, hopped in my Prius and joined the commuting herds on the 110 to downtown Los Angeles, to find a company called Data Retrieval. An adventure!

Downtown looms ahead like the, um, Emerald City

Driving on the freeway in Los Angeles is a pain. We wish for a subway all the time. But Rachel, doesn't L.A. already have a Metro? No. The Metro is a cruel, stupid joke.

The L.A. experience

Thanks for the public transportation to nowhere

(I've got an awesome story about losing my house keys, sleeping on someone's floor in a party dress and taking the Metro through the scary part of town, but I'll save that for another time.)

When I finally got downtown, I had to park, but the building I needed to go to was valet-only, $4 for every 10 minutes. Wow. So I drove around. Why is all the parking in downtown L.A. all-day flat rate? I missed a couple of turns, and ended up in a tunnel that shot me out way over by the L.A. Times. Good grief.


Finally I caved and took the ritzy valet parking. I convinced the valet to let me park along the wall, ran upstairs and made an ass out of myself by racing past security and setting off alarms, took an elevator to the 36th floor with a man in a suit and scornful expression (apparently flipflops and frizzy ponytails are not the proper attire for the business district), and turned in my flash drive to an awkward but friendly young man named Roman.

I had high hopes.

This morning I received the diagnostic email from Data Retrieval. The data may be there, it may not. They're willing to give it a whirl to the tune of $762.77. OUCH. You know how many writer's conferences that would pay for? I just can't pay that much for something that currently has a market value of $0, so I sent a short reply, NothankyouverymuchmayIhavemymediaback?

My sweet husband, who runs an entire avionics department full of brilliant people, has promised to take my corrupt drive in to work when I get it back and see if anything can be done. I'm not counting on any miracles, so it looks like I'll be redoing the work after all. Thank you so much for all your supportive comments on my last post; it really made me feel much better.

I will redo this. And it will be awesome.

p.s. Don't worry Mom, I only took these pictures when the driving got slow and kept my eyes on the road the entire time, I promise.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Idiot

This morning, I suffered an avoidable tragedy. When I tell you this story, you are not going to feel bad for me. When I tell you this story, you are going to want to slap me.

It starts like this: I had the sole revised copy of my manuscript stored on a USB flash drive.

I use the word 'had' because, you may have already guessed, this copy no longer exists. My month-old flash drive has neatly taken its final bow, transforming my latest revisions into 364 pages of 'fffff' before becoming altogether unreadable.

You want to throttle me, I know. Trust me, I want to throttle me too. Why didn't you make backups??? That's a great question. I know all about data loss. I know about the fallibility of flash drives. I know and I am aware and I am all about the tech-savvy, I work at the center of the information technology universe, for heaven's sake. Here is what happened:

I got lazy.

Until someone invents the time machine, there's no way for me to go back to Monday evening and email myself a copy of the file before it converted into a twisted monster. I could pay between $99 and $599 for a data recovery service to try to fish the file out of the depths, but I am more tempted to force myself to redo what I've lost. It's about a month's worth of revisions, and I wasn't exactly steaming along at full speed. Also, I have a ridiculous, ridiculous memory. I know what I changed, so I can redo this. It's just going to suck.

Please feel free to ridicule me in the comments below. I am a good sport and can take what I deserve. Or, if you'd like to tell me something that can't be said in public, feel free to use my new email address, rachelsdatabackup (at)

I've learned my lesson.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Winner Winner

Happy Monday everyone! First thing first, let me announce the randomly selected winner of my Hapless Reader Giveaway:

who will be receiving
The Marbury Lens

Congrats to the winner! I hope you will all read these books at some point--I give them my highest recommendation.

Some people hate Mondays, but I love the prospect of a fresh new week. I don't have any big plans for the week yet, other than not traveling. My father-in-law is coming for a visit next week and we're taking him to Vegas, so this pre-visit interlude is for relaxing and getting caught up on my commitments. I tried setting the clock for 5:50 this morning to go to an early spin class, but I'm still sitting on the sofa in my p.j.'s at 8:30, so I think we know how that went...

What are your plans for this first week of April? Any great ambitious goals? Please share them so I can be motivated by your productiveness!