Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Stopping to Kiss the Roses

by Laurel Corona

Life has a way, doesn’t it?

It’s been a little over a year since I lost my beloved Jim to cancer, and exactly a year since I moved into a shabby-chic little rental near the San Diego Zoo.  I kept to my routine I established when I lived with him downtown near the bay, of walking to the college where I teach, passing every day by the rose garden that was one of Jim’s and my favorite stops on weekend afternoons.  

I sprinkled some of his ashes under many of the rose bushes, and for several months I could still see signs of them under one yellow and one white rose bush. I have paused in front of those two bushes coming and going over this past year, just to say hello, catch Jim up on my life, and whisper my appreciation for him. 

 I think there is something profound about the idea of mourning for twelve months and a day, because getting through the anniversary is such a big step.  I have now done without him all holidays, birthdays, memories of special times, and have relived the pain of those last days and hours.  Slowly, I have moved on, found my balance, retrieved the spring in my step. Little by little I have found there is less to say when I stop, though I always brush my lips against one of the roses which have taken in what I brought of him to that spot. Amazing how much rose petals feel like lips, and how truly I felt kissed back.

I don’t cry anymore when I talk to Jim. The vision of him in his sailor cap smelling a flower is dimmer now. That’s all right.  It all still really happened. 

Sometime this spring I learned that I would need to sign another year lease where I was living. Since I hadn’t planned to stay, but didn’t want to buy anything while I was unclear about my life, I decided the time was right to make the commitment of buying a place of my own.  Last week I moved into a beautiful one-bedroom condo on the other side of Balboa Park, with a spectacular view of downtown, the bay, Point Loma, and the ocean beyond.  

I won’t be passing by the rose garden anymore, though I will be making the occasional special trip.  Instead, I bought a large armful of beautiful artificial yellow and white roses to put in my new home.  No, they don’t kiss as well, but they are a way of saying that we never completely say goodbye.  

Perhaps, though, it’s a good thing for both of us that my move created a natural end to my stops in the garden. Jim, you are free to take on the universe without worrying about me anymore.  Now I am free to take on the other side of the park and the life that goes with it.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Going to the Festival

By Caitlin Rother

Being invited to participate in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend to discuss my latest book, LOST GIRLS, was a great honor for me, a personal and professional milestone as well as an opportunity to see and hear some of my favorite authors speak on various panels.

Books have always been a part of my life. Ever since I was a little girl I have been a voracious reader, riding my bike home from the library with the straps of my little canvas backpack digging into my shoulders from the weight of a stack of hardcovers. I kept a checklist too, so that when I finished each one I could check it off. Mission accomplished.

Growing up, I read stories about magic gardens, fantasy and all those classics about times gone past. Later, I went into the darkness: neurotic women, dangerous men, medical mysteries, forensics and murder. I spent many late nights turning pages, with characters taking me on trips into the beyond and detectives solving puzzles. Escaping.

Sometimes it was about the writing, or studying the craft, or learning the formula or searching for inspiration. But for as long as I can remember, it was a goal and a dream of mine to have a book published. The authors I chose – sometimes reading most every book they wrote – were my role models. They represented what I wanted to be. And that hasn’t changed.

Last week, I was thrilled and humbled to join them on those stages, and yet I was also at the festival as a fan, listening and learning. Watching and taking it all in. Overwhelmed by all the information they imparted and seeing that they were real people too, eating soup and salad at the next table in the Green Room.

Many of them still are who and where I want to be someday, so I took notes on things they said, things I could do to emulate them, and to pass on to you folks here on the blog. Here are a few tips I want to share, some of which I already do and some I aspire to myself:

  1. Some of these authors said they write every day, whether it’s 500 or 1,000 words, or more if they are on a roll. Sometimes they just do what they can, or when they are in the zone, they simply go until they run out of steam.
  2. Sit your butt in the chair or at your desk and don’t get up until you do get those words down, even if it’s just a writing exercise you give yourself to break through the blocks.
  3. If you run into a block or feel yourself fading or stuck, switch gears, pick up another project or task. Just. Keep. Going.
  4. Keep in mind that even the best authors experience rejection (with the exception of one of my favorites -- Ann Patchett, who I’ve heard say had her very first short story AND first novel both accepted on first try by a reputable literary journal and publisher, respectively.)
  5. To keep your name out there and to maintain and expand your platform, write short stories, essays and op-ed pieces in addition to a continuous stream of books. (This is where I started wondering, when do these people sleep?)
  6. Don’t focus on the book that’s about to come out. You’ve already finished that one. Always be thinking about and working on the next one. Keep the momentum going. (I do recommend taking a break in between, though, because too many books written too fast can drain your creative juices.)
  7. Stay up to date on changes in the publishing industry. It is changing faster than you can say “New York Times bestseller.” Start thinking “singles,” i.e. 30,000 word pieces published online.
  8. When you get rejected, get the hell up and back at it. (I’m well acquainted with that one.) To me, persistence and rebounding are the two keys to getting published and staying published.
  9. Don’t expect that once you write your book that your job is finished, that it will sell itself. If you aren’t big enough for your publisher to send you on a book tour (most of us aren’t), then get to work months in advance to come up with a promotions plan of your own.
  10. Seriously, and above all, don’t expect to get rich. Books, for the most part, don’t pay much, so you’d better really love the journey, the writing and the writing life. And feel like you couldn’t live without it. And be sure to enjoy the occasional highs and joyous surprises, as I just did, of getting your panel discussion televised live on C-SPAN. Sometimes they come when you least expect it.
 Write on.

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as an investigative reporter for nearly 20 years, has written or co-authored eight books: Poisoned LoveDeadly Devotion/Where Hope BeginsMy Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted TriangleNaked Addiction, and Dead Reckoning. Her latest book is Lost Girls, about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. Next up is I'll Take Care of You. For more information, please check her website, 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Testing... Testing..."

by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

It might be assumed that a “writer’s tricks” are about fooling readers. For me, it’s about fooling myself.

New projects are intimidating, so I begin by telling myself that I’m not a great writer, just a good one. I don’t have to be literary, merely clear. I’m composing a new version of Fun With Dick and Jane rather than the Great American Novel.

But I’m happy in retrospect, having just completed a new work of American history, to find I can at least clear one bar.

Another blogger recently asked me to take the “Page 99” test established by the great English poet, novelist, and literary critic Ford Madox Ford. (His parents must have had that wacky British sense of humor.)

Ford famously said, "Open the book [any book] to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

I fretted of course. What if page 99 of American Umpire (released March 4 by Harvard University Press) was a blank sheet between chapters, or worse, filled with the antlike footnotes that spell geek?

But I now feel I can look Ford in the eye at a Bloomsbury soiree.

Turning to page 99 of American Umpire, I found the dramatis personae all on stage in their customary poses. The year was 1823. The American president (played in this scene by cleft-chinned James Monroe) worries that the United States is unprepared for foreign threats. Craven Cabinet members echo and amplify his fears. The Secretary of State (starring the prickly, gimlet-eyed John Quincy Adams) suffers fools silently, if not gladly, and bides his time before introducing the solution he knows will take others by surprise. Off stage, British Foreign Minister George Canning is overheard in soliloquy, plotting the grand strategy of the Pax Britannica.

On page 99 and throughout, American Umpire re-examines the familiar terrain of U.S. foreign relations between 1776 and the present, discovering new overlooks and hidden trails that reveal the nation’s place on the terrain of world history.

The first thing it finds is that—contrary to many scholarly and even casual critics—the United States is not an empire. Instead, because of its unusual federal structure, the government has always functioned as a kind of umpire, compelling states’ adherence to rules that gradually earned collective approval.

My book traces America’s role in the world from the days of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to the present. It argues that the United States has been the pivot of a transformation that began outside its borders, in which nation-states replaced the empires that had dominated history. The “Western” values that America is often accused of imposing were the result of this global shift. American Umpire finds that the United States has been distinctive not in its embrace of these new values but in its willingness to persuade and even coerce others to comply. Yet there are costs, some quite terrible. Taking sides in explosive disputes imposes significant financial and psychic burdens. By definition, umpires cannot win.

On page 99, my umpire looks outside the domestic ballpark for the first time, and onto the international playing field. Uncle Sam must decide whether to join with Great Britain in defending the right of Spain’s colonies to declare independence. The larger question on Page 99 is whether America should guarantee “international security” to ensure its own–or not?

Here, friends, is Page 99. Tell me. Did I pass the test, or am I fooling myself again?

American Umpire, by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (Harvard University Press)...

The offer was an extraordinary compliment coming from the victor of Waterloo. For the first time in its brief history, the United States was being asked to sign on to a high-level international diktat. George Canning, foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and America’s former adversary, courted Washington’s opinion.

Only the U.S. secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, disagreed. He shrewdly waited until others had vented their enthusiasm and then appealed to every politician’s soft spot: vanity. Britain wanted to deter France and Spain from forcibly re-imposing imperial control over the breakaway Latin republics. This was splendid. Adams himself had acerbically lectured Britain’s minister in Washington that “the whole system of modern colonization is an abuse of government and it is time that it should come to an end.” But America ought to proudly issue its own preemptive declaration, he said, rather than rowing behind the Royal Navy. “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified,” Adams observed, “to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of a British man-of-war.” Actually, it would have been more candid for the United States to acknowledge that the whole idea of a public protest had been England’s from the start.

By the end of the long afternoon, Monroe was nearly persuaded. The president certainly did not wish to be seen as deferring to the United Kingdom, not after the United States had just lost 2,200 men defending its honor on land and sea in the War of 1812. Not after the carpenters and painters had just finished restoring the burned-out shell of the White House, torched by British troops in 1814. But with the weight of the country on his shoulders, Monroe remained anxious that Spain, France, and Russia might send as many as 10,000 troops to quell republicanism in the Americas. He could not quite bring himself to adopt Adams’s breezy self-confidence. Britain was the only country equipped to stop the menacing European powers. Prudence counseled acceptance of its offer.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Dealing with Bad Reviews

by Margaret Dilloway

Today, I read J.A. Konrath's tongue-in-cheek blog about how to deal with bad reviews. Which got me to thinking how I deal with reading my own bad reviews.

It used to be a lot more difficult, when I was newer and my skin was as thin and pink as a naked molerat's. I'd read all the Amazon and Goodreads posts and fret.

But I never responded, no matter how much I wanted to. It's counterproductive-- it makes people feel defensive and it makes you, the author, look too sensitive and egomaniacal. If I get a bad review on a blog, sometimes I'll thank them for reading it anyway, because I am happy that the blogger at least looked at it.

These days, I hardly ever read my reviews. If I see a five or four star, and thus know it's completely brilliant critique, I read it. It's just so easy for everybody in the world these days to have a big old fat opinion about everything.

It's like when I watch the news. Every station in the world does this Twitter thing now. They discuss a story, and then the anchor says, "Let's see what people are saying on TWITTER!" and then they broadcast a bunch of Tweets with whatever their hashtag is. As if a bunch of random people have valid, newsworthy opinions about complicated subjects that they can express in 140 characters or less.

I guess allowing everybody to voice their opinions is very egalitarian. But what if they're not basing their opinions on a reasonable critique, but something like, "I wish Dilloway wrote about outerspace instead and left Japan out of it. Or had more recipes. I only like sci-fi and cookbooks. One star"?  It's even worse when people who didn't bother reading the book give you reviews. Those should be deleted. If you did not read the book, at least lie about having read it.

Still, I don't say anything. You will never win. People like to argue. It's not just on the Internet. People argue with me during bookclub discussions all the time. They challenge me over imaginary characters-- characters that I wrote.  And readers say shocking things to my face all the time-- things you would think they'd only be comfortable with saying on an anonymous Internet forum.

Which brings me to this revelation I've recently had. Once you write a book and put it out into the world, it is no longer yours. I feel this way when I speak at book clubs-- like I'm engaging in a literature class discussion about the book, like I'm no more knowledgeable about the book than anyone else in the world.

So these days, I just take reviews less personally. It's an individual reader experience. I can't force someone else to like anything.

And please, if you read my book and wished it was a different book, then feel free to go ahead and write the book in your head. But don't judge the actual book against the imaginary one.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

San Diego Writing Women: a Tribute
by Susan McBeth
March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday seems like the perfect time for this token non-published member of the San Diego Writing Women to count my blessings and honor each of  the eleven talented authors that comprise this  elite group.

Kathi Diamant is the dynamo who invited me to attend my first SDWW meeting, and I will forever be grateful.  I first met Kathi at a book signing event and was impressed with her energy, intelligence, enthusiasm, and vivacious personality.  Fast forward a few months later when I encountered a situation which drew remarkably similar parallels to Kathi ‘s search for Kafka’s “Last Love,” Dora Diamant.  I invited Kathi to lunch for advice on how to proceed with my situation, and not only did she offer impeccable advice, but that meeting changed my life when she demonstrated through word and deed the power of a supportive woman.

Marjorie Hart will always hold a special place in my heart and ranks as the dearest author I have ever had the privilege to meet.  The words “sweet,” “authentic,” “charming,” and “humble” don’t even begin to describe this talented octogenarian whom I am proud to call a friend.  Like everyone who meets her, I fell in love with Marjorie the first time I met her, so much so that I have made it my personal mission to ensure that everybody I know has read her Summer at Tiffany.  When I founded Adventures by the Book a little over two years ago, Marjorie honored me by being the first author I ever hosted an event for, and it will forever remain my favorite event.

Laurel Corona is talented and accomplished, of course, but it wasn’t until I really got to know her that I learned about the positive, supportive, and happy woman behind the beauty and brains.  I will never forget the moment she was seared into my heart forever.  At one of my first SDWW meetings when I was just starting Adventures by the Book, Laurel immediately shared her trust and faith in my new endeavor and asked if I would host an event for her.  When I expressed concern that I might not yet be in a position to offer her the event she deserved, without hesitation, her reply “I still choose you!”  forever seared her into my heart.

Zohreh Ghahremani stormed onto the book scene in an enormous manner as a One Book One San Diego winner, which is kind of ironic considering she comes in such a petite package.  But anyone who knows Zoe quickly learns that her size is the only thing small about her.  I marvel how such a tiny package can be filled with such an enormously caring, generous, and thoughtful spirit.  I have had the privilege of attending many of Zoe’s events, and it is evident that she has an enormous effect on everybody, and is able to connect with people in a big manner.

Caitlin Rother is the brilliant force behind SDWW and works tirelessly to ensure that this talented group of women remain a united, supportive force.  With a successful investigative journalist background, Caitlin often comes under fire for the controversial and difficult stories she writes, but it takes a special person to forge ahead with the passion and energy she possesses in spite of those challenges.  For that, I admire her immensely, and hope that I can forge ahead with her courage whenever I have to face my own professional challenges.

I immediately connected with Judy Liu because of our common bond in telling our mother’s stories, but I remain connected with Judy because she really has it all.  Brilliant? Check.  Successful?  Check.  Caring? Check.  Compassion? Check.  Honored daughter? Check.   She is a valued daughter, writer, educator, and  friend, yet she possesses a special gift that makes you feel the valued one when you are in her presence.

Margaret Dilloway is a wife, a mother, and a bestselling author, and it is clear that her subtle sense of humor is one of the resources she draws upon to succeed in all three roles.  I look forward to every interaction with Margaret, whether it is in person, via book, or via social media, because I can be sure that in each instance, I will come away smiling and appreciative of her talents and her humor.

To say that Georgeanne Irvine is the most passionate author I know is a huge statement, because every author I know is passionate about what they do, but I stand by my statement, and I am always recharged by her enthusiasm.  Case in point:  on a recent San Diego Zoo trip to India, George achieved a lifelong goal to spot a python in the wild, and to hear her tell the story is a treat, so make sure to ask her about it so that you, too, can become ignited by her fire.

Divina Infusino, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, and Caitlin O’Connell are the three members of SDWW whom I haven’t gotten to know very well yet, but how exciting is it that I have that to look forward to?!

San Diego Writing Women – I thank you for your gift of the written word and for your gift of support and friendship.