Saturday, April 28, 2012

Holy con man!

Here is the miniest of mini-reviews. Just because.
When I wrote a review of WHITE CAT, the first book in this series, I was blown away by the concept of blowback--immediate, physical consequences of magic use.
 In RED GLOVE, I'm awed by how these characters and plot have been further developed by Holly Black. Brilliant comes to mind to describe this.
 How can I love Cassel so much despite his con games, despite his mob family, despite his lies? Because at heart he's trying so hard to be loyal and make the right decisions even in the face of deception, betrayal and threats from all sides--the kind of experiences that would make most of us hide under the covers and never come out. He keeps trying to fix the messes, and the author keeps digging him in deeper.
The end breaks my heart How's this for a line? "I can survive on memories..."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

All fired up after this weekend

I hope your weekend was as good as mine. SCBWI Writer’s Days rocked. One highlight: a case-study panel discussion with debut author Sara Wilson Etienne, (HARBINGER), agent Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich, and editor Stacey Barney of Putnam/Penguin.

 For the first time, the event took place over two days. I signed up for a workshop on revision with Stacey Barney, in which she shared her editing process. Priceless. The newspaper reporter in me never dies, so I took notes. I’ll pass along some tips and quotes, because they’re too good to keep to myself.

The panel: Sara started writing HARBINGER a decade ago. “I didn’t know how to write dialogue, so I decided to just skip it,” she said, getting the first of many laughs from the crowd. She put it away for a bit, then added characters and got her page count up to about ninety pages. Then she discovered SCBWI and attended events, leaning more.

 Finally, she was ready to pitch and had a session with Michael Bourret, but she’d misjudged what to bring. “It was an elevator pitch, and we were meeting for half an hour. I was babbling.” But finally she relaxed and started talking about what she loved. “If you start to pitch, and it falls apart, don’t stress out. Agents are people, too.”
Another tip she offered was not to rush into pitching and querying. “It’s about patience and making sure you’re ready.” So, the next time she met Michael at a conference she told him she was revising and not ready to submit although he expressed interest.

Michael told us how he reacted, “Okay, this person is really taking her craft seriously, so when it showed up, I read it overnight, which doesn’t happen very often.” The manuscript went through a couple rounds of revisions between them, which took about a year.
When he considered editors, Stacey Barney came to mind. Even though he knew she might not go for the genre he thought she’d love the writing.
 “I trust him. I took it with me on vacation, sat by the pool, reading this book,” Stacey said. “The writing sold me. It was fresh. It felt special and imaginative.” She started making notes as she read. “If I care enough to have a pen in my hand on submission, I’m already editing, so I’ve bought it.” Normally, she reads through a new manuscript three times before fleshing out the editorial letter of places that need work.
“It was overwhelming,” Sara said when the letter arrived. “She’s great at giving you the good stuff first…I had a beer in hand. I recommend this to everyone.”
 Later, Sara talked about promotion and how her film and artist friends help her make a kick-ass book trailer and hold an art show of related works in an L.A. gallery. She also created a fake website for the story’s fictional school where she put up the artists’ work.

 If you wonder how to impress Stacey Barney think about these things she said in the workshop: “By the end of the first page, I want to feel invested in the character. I want a lot of heart and emotion to come across on the very first page.” “What’s the emotion you want them to walk away with? It’s not about the story it’s about how you’re telling me.”
 Here is her checklist for revision: Voice: compelling, prominent, tense? Characterization: personalities clear and compelling? Relationships: believable, important? Pace: slow, fast, how relate to plot points? Dialogue: does it develop character? Scene: 360-degree view? Setting: vibrant? Setting is a character. Writing: spare, lush, lyrical? What is the personality?

So, yeah, that’s a long checklist when you’re talking 300-plus pages of novel. But think how much tighter and dynamic the story would get.

There were many other good speakers, but I have to shout out Lee Wardlaw, who had us all rolling with laughter as she talked about what her cats taught her about being a children’s book author.

 Here’s a snippet from her award-winning WON TON, A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, about the adoption of a shelter cat:

 No rush. I’ve got plans.
Gnaw this paw. Nip that flea. And
 wish: Please, Boy, pick me.

(P.S. this is my first post with the new Blogger make-over, so I hope it doesn't publish wonky *fingers crossed*)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Weekend of loves

I've been waiting two months for this weekend when I'm going to SCBWI Writers Day in L.A. This was the treat I bought myself during the difficult days of my mother's trauma. It seemed so far away then and so much has happened in between.

Now, I'm shoulder-to-the-wheel to complete a synopsis for a mini-workshop Sunday with editor Stacey Barney, and I'm looking forward to Saturday's speakers who include agent Michael Bourret. Should be fun and interesting.

This weekend is packed with other events I hope get great turnouts, too.


Heads up if you're in L.A. for the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

I've written about my love of her books several times. She captures the wonder and imagination of children while grounding her fantastical stories in clever, wise ways.

One of my bookshelves is lined with her books. If you haven't discovered her, you've got lots of great reading ahead!

Publishers Weekly put this up. And GreenWillow Books.


And last but way far from least is Earth Day. My beloved planet needs us to love her all the time, but, if you can, do something special this weekend. Plant a tree? Clean a park? Make a donation to organizations that preserve wildlife habitat?

Tip: Here's a picture of my handy clean-up pincers that I've used in lakes and along beaches that get trashed. You can find this tool in dollar stores. It's cheap and works great at grabbing stuff without you having to bend over or soil your hands.


Wishing you a happy, productive weekend whatever you do. Even if it's relaxing in a deck chair!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Do you believe in magic?

I read three books recently that presented magic in ways I want to muse over. Each surprised me by how they explored what is real, what is not and what is left somewhere in between.

The books are BREADCRUMBS, a middle-grade by Anne Ursu; WHITE CAT, a YA by Holly Black, and THE WOOD WIFE, an adult mystery by Terri Windling that I recently wrote about.
In BREADCRUMBS, Hazel, an adopted girl who's darker than her classmates, feels she never fits in, except when she’s imagining fantasy worlds with her next-door friend, Jack. But one day Jack turns as mean as other kids and then he disappears. Even though she is more fragile than ever, Hazel is determined to bring him back from wherever he went.

Because Hazel is well-read, despite her trouble concentrating in school, Ursu drops references to all sorts of fairy tales and fantasy books as Hazel takes in the world. It’s as if Hazel steps in-and-out of stories every day. She accepts an alternate universe as not only possible but, often, preferable. In fact, when she met Jack years earlier at age six, she was disappointed to discover his eye patch was only for show until she realized that it was the imagining that mattered. “This was a secret truth about the world, one they both understood,” Ursu writes.

Alone, Hazel follows Jack into an icy wood where a white witch has taken him. Although Hazel faces all kinds of deceptive and nasty characters, who are real enough to hurt her, she never gives up on saving her friend.

A snippet: Maybe she could do it. In the real world Hazel was an ordinary thing, a misshapen piece with no purpose. Maybe here she could be a swan.

In the end, it isn’t the witch Hazel must defeat but the coldness Jack has let into his heart.
This is a story about real magic. How thoughts, wishes and dreams can alter our world and how believing in yourself not only helps you but others, as well.

What I like most about WHITE CAT is the way Black makes the price of using magic so immediate and real. She’s always been masterful at urban fantasy, at finding the underbelly in any world she imagines. In this story, she makes magic prohibited and, therefore, a tool of crime families.
The word "blowback" and its descriptions alone made me love this book. Many fantasy stories talk of a price to be paid for using magic, but Black makes blowback instantaneous and appropriate. Kill someone? Lose a piece of yourself. Mess with their memory? Part of your own past slips away. Play with another's emotions? You become a basket case.

Magicians are called workers, and everyone in Cassel's family works magic but him. He attends a private school where he tries to fit in but still uses criminal cons he learned at home to earn cash. As he begins to question mysterious events around him, he discovers he's a pawn in a dangerous con and the only way out is to out-con the conmen.

A few tidbits:
The family legend says that Barron is just like Mom, even though he works luck and she works emotion. Mom can make anyone her friend, can strike up a conversation anywhere because she genuinely believes that the con is a game.

My memories are full of shadows, and no amount of chasing them around my head seems to make them any more substantial.

She looks at me so intently that I drop my gaze. Then she clears her throat and starts talking like I wasn’t just incredibly rude. “Memory magic’s permanent. But that doesn’t mean people can’t change their minds. You can make someone remember that you’re the hottest thing out there, but they can take a good look at you and decide otherwise.”

I’m behind in this series and plan to catch up with RED GLOVE and BLACK HEART.


I already wrote my love letter to the poetic quality of THE WOOD WIFE here, so this time I’ll keep to the magic, which is steeped in the most ancient roots of earth. My favorite kind.

A woman, who lives between London and Los Angeles, learns she’s inherited property outside of Tucson from a poet who she only knows through years of correspondence. Once she arrives in the wilds of the desert, she feels a strange pull to the land, as if it holds some profound secret.
The longer she stays, the more layers of mystery peel away, only to reveal deeper mysteries. Here are little tastes of the writing from various characters’ POVs:

Shape-shifter: The voice of the wind was a rustle in the leaves, speaking in a language she’d once known and had forgotten. She did not have a name. She had not earned one yet. Or perhaps she had, and had forgotten that too.

Cooper: There are poems in these trees, in the rock underfoot. I resist it, this slow seduction.

Lines from a poem: Time is not a river; it flows in two directions…Time is a land I wander in, through smoke, through sage.


Letter from Cooper: We spend whole days in the hills. The nights are dark and growing cold. I am learning to wait, to watch, to listen. I have never been a patient man. I’ve never been so empty of words, and never felt so full.

Maggie: “He used words like they were an incantation, a spell, a glamour—do you know what that old word used to mean? A glamour was a kind of spell or enchantment. Somehow Cooper learned to speak the ‘language of the earth’ while he was living up here.”
Dora: “But those images in his poems: the Wood Wife, the Spine Witch, the boy with the owl’s face, the drowned girl in the river…Maggie, are you saying you think they’re real, not symbolic?”
Maggie: “Why can’t they be both?”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Finding beauty in the everyday

Some pix and musings from my stretch of shore.

Mussels are such unexciting shells that I never paid them much attention until I saw this. The sunlight had found the beauty and lit it like a small lantern resting on the shore.

For this walk, I'd taken my pincers and a couple of grocery bags. Before I'd gone a quarter mile I'd filled the bags with trash--plastic bottles, screw-on caps, a gazillion straws, cigarette butts, the occasional condom, a baby pacifier, cups, pieces of take-out plates, liquor bottles.

It's a never-ending task to clean a beach. The government trucks use giant rakes on the majority of sand, but there is always trash along the shoreline where it washes up. Sometimes I pick it up.

Sometimes I see the same hippie-guy or a grandmotherly-woman doing the same.

Each piece that doesn't wind up strangling or filling the intestines of a sea mammal or bird makes it worth the effort, even when it keeps on coming.


On the far south end of the beach I walk is a fenced-section where old-timey sand dunes still exist for nesting endangered California least terns. In this shot, they've left the fenced area to search for food by the water's edge. The photo is not in great focus but it was as close as I could get (with only my phone camera and no zoom) before they took to the air. You can still see how many there are.

When these shy birds burst into the sky, their black-and-white plumage creates an amazing visual of shifting light.

They're too fast for me to get that shot, but here's a haiku:

least terns flee safety

fences--white-and-black cloud of

fluttering petals

Monday, April 2, 2012

A novel of poetic beauty

Sometimes prose is poetry. As National Poetry Month kicks off, I want to shout out THE WOOD WIFE, a book that’s new to me but has been around since 1996 and won the Mythopoeic Award.
I ordered it after reading a good review and because I’m a fan of Terri Windling’s skill as an editor of many fantasy and horror anthologies. One of my all-time favorites is THE FAERY REEL, which she co-edited with Ellen Datlow.
I haven’t finished reading THE WOOD WIFE (about 2/3 inhaled), so this isn’t a review. It’s more of a love letter to a story that keeps fascinating me and to words that make me pause and sigh.
And because it’s about a fictional poet, Davis Cooper, and filled with snippets of his poetry, it’s perfect for National Poetry Month. The book isn’t a verse novel it’s just filled with poetic language, pieces of Cooper’s poems and musings on arts of all kinds.
The hills call in a tongue

I can not speak, a constant murmuring,

calling the rain from my dry bones,

and syllables from the marrow.—THE WOOD WIFE, Davis Cooper

This story is as elusive as its shapeshifter characters, making you question what is real, what is imagination. But it is solidly set. Windling, who is also an artist, paints the scenes with vivid words that carry the reader to the wild desert and hills surrounding Tucson:
She turned slowly, and saw the great white stag pick its way up the rocks of the creek. His eyes were black as a starless night. His hide was velvet, his horns were ivory, he was made of more than flesh and bones. He gathered the dying light of the sky into his being, like a radiant star.

The protagonist, Maggie Black, is forty and a respected poet herself who inherits Davis’s house after his strange death, which appears to be murder. She goes to check it out, not intending to stay but interested in the mystery and any writings he may have left behind. She finds herself enchanted by the desert and its magic and drawn into something beyond time and space.

The Drowned Girl leaves wet footprints,

plaits her hair with pond weed, fingers

white as milk, as death, as loneliness,

upon root, wood, black stone…--THE WOOD WIFE, Davis Cooper

At one point Maggie is surprised to figure out that she’d always seen Davis’s poems as set in England where he was born. But instead of lush, green woods, she realized he was writing about the desert landscape. Her new friend, Fox, responds: “What does it matter whose head those images came from? ‘Poetry is a conversation not a monologue,’ Fox quoted Cooper in a passable English accent. “A writer can only put the words on paper; the vision has to come from the reader, right? It’s language, not paint, not film. That’s the beauty of it to me.”


Anyone want to have a conversation on poetry, on this book, on the beauty of language?