Friday, November 27, 2009

Leftovers and Button Boxes

Yesterday was a national feast day; today may be less celebrated but surely it qualifies as National Leftovers Day. Leftovers get a bad rap. They serve as the center of jokes, elicit groans at the family table, and carry the image of something unwanted and unappreciated. I don’t think that’s fair. At my house we’ll be eating turkey sandwiches and making turkey salad and using the last bits of turkey as the base for soup. We will enjoy all of these dishes. They will be different from the roasted turkey that was the center of my family’s Thanksgiving gathering, but the difference is not a bad thing. And I am certainly grateful that the meals based on leftovers will mean less kitchen time for me. I’ll have more time to write this weekend because meals will be easier than usual. I’ll also save a few dollars, not a negligible consideration given current grocery prices and the Christmas shopping still to do.

Food is only one kind of leftover. I grew up with two sewing grandmothers, and one thing I learned from them is to never throw away leftover bits of fabric or trim. Scraps could be used for a child’s dress, doll clothes, quilt pieces, and Christmas ornaments. And buttons were always saved. My maternal grandmother had a huge tortoise-shell box that held buttons of every description. Anytime Mama needed to replace a lost button, add a decorative touch to a new item, or attach eyes on a handmade toy, she found what she needed in her button box.

It seemed beautifully apt when one of my mentors in graduate school cautioned me against throwing away a line he suggested I cut from a poem. “Never throw anything away,” he said. “Put it in your button box. You never know when you’ll find a use for it.” His advice has proved sound more times than I can count. My first published poem was built upon a single line that came to me one day as I was looking at a broken seashell. I tried to write the poem that day, but the rest was trash. The one line went in the button box, and when I took it out months later, it became the first line of an infinitely better poem.

My button box, filled by now with hundreds of fragments of poems and stories, is a computer file rather than a tortoise-shell box. But, like my grandmother, I keep finding new uses for the leftovers. One scene I had to write but cut early from The Long Way Home I keep to publish as a webpage freebie if TLWH ever finds a publisher. A drabble that proved too long for an EJ/JQ board Christmas anthology went in the button box and later served as a dream scene in my current project. A quick description of a scene I saw as I was driving one day will be the opening scene in my next writing project. I don’t know yet what I’ll keep and what I’ll cut from my NaNoWriMo words, but I’m sure my button box will have some additions from my November noodlings. Among them may be the seeds of an as yet undreamt of work.

Are you having leftovers today? Do you have any turkey recipes you’d like to share? Do you have a button box—real or metaphoric?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Reader's/Writer’s Gratitude List (in alphabetical order because no way could I rank them)

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a lovely, eleven-line poem called “Pied Beauty” that begins “Glory be to God for dappled things.” The speaker goes on to offer praise for the freckled, speckled beauty in the created world. I always read this Hopkins poem during the Thanksgiving season. It reminds me to be more attentive to all that is praiseworthy in my world. While I will certainly offer thanksgiving for big things—friends, family, faith—and small ones—a single, perfect, golden leaf, the curve of a baby’s plump cheek, the sound of rain at night—I will also give thanks for bookly things, and that will include the fun of coining a word like “bookly” when it suits my purpose.

So for Thanksgiving 2009, my bookly gratitude list includes the following:

1. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
I read lots of books on the craft of writing, and I have found useful tidbits in nearly everyone I’ve read. But my favorite continues to be this book by Anne Lamott. It’s wise and funny, and Lamott’s voice makes me feel that she’s someone I’d love to have lunch with. I’m thankful she wrote this book, and I’m thankful that I have all these pithy quotations from the book that I can copy and stick all over my desk. It’s as if she knew exactly what I most needed to hear.

I worry about whether my plotting is an irredeemable flaw, and Lamott says, “Plot grows out of character…. I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are… The development of relationship creates plot.” I battle perfectionism, and Lamott says, “Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I'm sure) forget to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here - and, by extension, what we're supposed to be writing.” I wonder if writing is too important to me, and Lamott says, “Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong."

2. Books on my keeper shelves
I have a couple of thousand keepers that I have collected over the years—mysteries, poetry, women’s fiction, and literary fiction as well as lots and lots of romances. The oldest ones belonged to my mother; others date from my childhood. These are books that I return to again and again, sometimes to reread in their entirety and sometimes to reread favorite passages. They make me laugh and weep and grow and remember. They hold within their pages pieces of the person I was when I first encountered them—the ten-year-old exhilarated and terrified by the idea of growing up, the twenty-something consumed with grief and finding healing in worlds that offered happy endings, the graduate student seeking escape from the “storm and stress” of literary studies.

3. Friends Who Are Fellow Aspiring Writers
When I feel that everything I’ve written is crap, when I want to shelter my progeny from the blasts of rejection, when an agent’s blog convinces me that in the current climate publication is an unattainable dream, I have friends who zap my self-pity, cheer for my word count, challenge me to send my offspring into the world, and give me the courage to get up again when I stumble. Each shares my dream of producing a publishable novel and battles the same demons that plague me. They inspire me and sustain me. I am immeasurably grateful for them individually and collectively.

4. Friends, Newly or About-to-be Published
This year had been filled with joy and excitement as friends have shared various stages of their journey to publication and beyond. Scarcely a week has gone by that has been unmarked by squees and virtual toasts to first sales, first covers, first Amazon listing, first reviews, and first sightings in bookstores. Four times I held in my hand a book I bought at a favorite bookstore that I had been given the privilege of seeing move from drafts to finished book. My jubilation was so great that I, shy sally though I be, buttonholed total strangers and persuaded them that they owed themselves the delight offered by these books. I’m grateful for each of these experiences, and I look forward to at least five repetitions in 2010.

5. Generosity of authors
I never cease to be amazed at the generosity of established romance writers to unknowns. I’ve had emails that left me smiling foolishly at my computer screen, rendered speechless by the thoughtfulness of authors who have taken the time to praise a blog, offer to talk about my writing, or speak of my publication as a matter of when rather than if. These emails replenish my hope and determination, and inspire renewed gratitude to the authors with every rereading.

6. More contemporary romances
Probably 70% of the romance novels I read are historical. I’d love to read more contemporary romances, but except for romantic suspense and erotica—not my favorite subgenres—contemporaries have been in short supply. But this year has given me wonderful contemporary reads by long-time favorites and new voices. I’m one grateful reader.

7. Libraries
My book budget is inadequate for the list of books I long to read, but thanks to my public library I get to read everything on my list. If I discover an OOP back title of a paperback romance that’s selling for $103 on, I can usually find a copy via my library. I have access not only to books on the shelves of my local library but to 9.6 million books on library shelves across the state,any one of which I can have delivered to my local library for me to pick up. Add to this bounty the more than 3 million volumes plus countless electronic copies available through my university library, which allows me to check out books for three months plus renewals, and the wonders of ILL and the resources are vast indeed. My gratitude is boundless.

8. Online romance community
The online romance community is huge and diverse. A quick google of the term offers 106,000 sites. I’m grateful for that larger community because it’s evidence of how large the romance umbrella is and how active romance readers are. But my greater gratitude is for my particular online community—the people I meet here at Just Janga and on the boards and other blogs I frequent, people who love the books I love (usually), read my raves and rants, make me laugh with their witty quips and bawdy humor, impress me with their intelligence and insight, and just generally make my world bigger, brighter, and better.

9. UBS
I’ve heard the arguments about the evils of the UBS, but I don’t buy them. I love my local UBS and I love the one in my university town even more. They make it possible for me to try new-to-me-authors upon whose books I am not yet willing to risk $, they allow me to fill in gaps in series that I start late, and the proprietors and their clerks are far more romance friendly than most of the new book venues around here. Probably half of my autobuy authors were first UBS finds. I’m so grateful they exist that the day after Thanksgiving when crowds are caught up in a shopping frenzy I plan to be leisurely wandering the aisles of mu local UBS.

10. Writers who keep writing
I’ve lost count of how many Nora Roberts books line my keeper shelves. I only know that I loved the most recent, Bed of Roses, as much as I loved the first one I read, All the Possibilities (1985). I grew misty-eyed this week as I finished To Love a Wicked Lord, knowing that it was the last Edith Layton book I’d read after more than two decades of reading her work. My Mary Balogh collection begins with A Masked Deception (1985) and ends with Seducing an Angel (2009). On shelves filled with books by Elizabeth Bevarly, Jo Beverley, Connie Brockway, Robyn Carr, Loretta Chase, Christina Dodd, Anne Gracie, Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, Teresa Medeiros, Mary Jo Putney, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and many others, tattered copies and shiny new covers coexist, mute testimony to my history with these authors. I love discovering new authors, and I am grateful for them; but my thanksgiving song is more fervent for those writers who after five years or ten or twenty-five are still giving me reasons to be glad I am a reader.

What about you, my reader and writer friends? What bookly things are on your gratitude list?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Are you all too young to remember that old Neil Sedaka hit from the 60s? Maybe you remember one of the covers. Everybody from Freddy Fender to Ruben Studdard on American Idol has sung it. The song’s been on my mental playlist recently because I’m party to a breakup. In fact, you might say that I’m the god of this breakup. The heroine of my NaNoWriMo book breaks up with her husband of five years. Theirs is not a highly emotional break up. It’s more becalmed sea than roaring tempest.

Still, goodbyes are never easy. I’ve found that they are not easy for the writer either, at least not for this writer. I wanted to show a relationship ending between two people who loved one another but had never been in love with one another. One is moving on to a new life; one fears she has nothing to move toward.

I didn’t capture what I wanted, but since NaNo is not about revision but about meeting goals, I succeeded in capturing 707 more words towards my goal of 50,000 (current total: 18,830). This scene and I have some major breaking up to do, but that’s for the future when I start revisions. Right now I still have 31,170 words to go on this #@%**& first draft, which seems more foully excremental with every reading. Wish me luck.

The First Draft of the Scene:

“Broken.” The sound of her own voice jerked Saja Hamilton from sleep. She pressed her hands tightly against her head. Why after all this time were old memories invading her dreams? The dull headache that had sent her to bed early was now steady hammer blows of pain. She weighed the relief a pill would bring against the worry she would see in Ben’s eyes. A particularly vicious blow above her left eye made the decision for her. Muttering obscenities in four languages, she staggered toward the door.

Ben was sitting at his desk staring at the telephone. The distant look in his eyes changed to concern when she entered the room. Without saying a word, he pushed her gently into a chair and flicked off the overhead light. Saja closed her eyes, feeling her heart keep pace with the waves of pain.

“Here.” Ben’s words were brisk, but his look was troubled as he handed her a glass of water and a pill.

She waited for the medicine to do its work. The silence was strangely soothing, devoid of the tension that had filled all the silences in this apartment in the three months she and Ben had shared the space as exes who couldn’t quite exit. She had almost dozed off when he spoke.

“I talked to Vic. Dad’s ill again.” He paused. “He asked about me. He wants to see me. She thinks he’s ready for a reconciliation.”

“He knows he almost lost the chance for one. You’re leaving.”

Saja’s words were a statement, not a question, but Ben chose to respond as though she had asked about his plans.

“Yes, I promised Vic I’d be home this week. She’s been patient.”

“So you and your Victoria are planning a summer wedding.”

“We hope to.”

“Be happy, Ben. Saja’s voice was suddenly fierce. “I do want you to be happy.”

“I will be. I’m ready to go home. Maybe it’s selfish, but I find I want the life I turned my back on years ago. Marriage to Vic, practice with my father, golf on Saturdays, church on Sundays.”

“And a child?”

“Maybe. Vic’s still young enough, or we may adopt. Vic’s brother and his wife have two daughters born in China.”

“Life in Chesney, Ohio. You once said you’d never go back.”

“I’m not going ‘back.’ I’m going home, but I know I’m not the same man who left Chesney seventeen years ago. The town’s not the same either, or the people I left there. But the connections are still in place. I can go home. You can too.”

“I don’t think so. It’s different for me. You have Vic and your father and a practice you’ll find rewarding, even if it’s a little dull.” Saja added the last bit with a twisted smile.

“You have people who love you.”

“But no one is waiting for me. An empty house and good friends who have full lives without me. Gentry’s not for me. I haven’t given up hope of talking Hammersmith into letting me return to DOM.”

“I hope you won’t succeed. I’m afraid you’ve used up all your extra lives, little cat. There’s a lot you can do for DOM here in the states, and there are children who need your skills here too.” Ben caught her hands with his and raised them to kiss her fingers. “I want you to be happy too. I do love you.”

“I believe you. Life would have been simpler if we had been honest enough to admit that we were meant to be friends, not lovers.”

“I can’t regret the comfort we found in each other when the world seemed comfortless.”

“Comfort’s not enough. Not when your heart belonged to someone else.”

“So did yours.”

“Maybe. But he was not as faithful to old vows as your Vic.”

“You left him without a word, sent his letters back unopened, refused to see him when he flew to Crete.”

“We fought all the time. I didn’t see any way to compromise when we wanted such different lives.”

“Well, if not Brody, there’s someone else for you. Just don’t close your heart to possibilities.”

Saja squeezed his hands without replying. She was making no more promises she couldn’t keep.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo 2009? Have you ever written a breakup scene or a #@%**& first draft? Have you ever read a breakup that you found particularly memorable?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dizzy . . .

Dizzy, I’m so dizzy my head is spinning;
Like a whirlpool it never ends.

Tommy Roe is singing my theme song today. Only unfortunately my vertigo is the result of an inner ear infection rather than love. I can’t stay on the computer long enough to type and post this week’s blog. It will go up late--Friday, or maybe Saturday. Check back then.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Connecting for Comfort

Among my fondest childhood memories are days, usually in winter, when I was just sick enough that my mother thought I should be kept home from school. The feeling of absolute comfort would start with my mother’s hand on my forehead and then her words, “I think you’d better stay home today.” Oh the joy of settling back in a warm bed and dozing for another hour or so, knowing that the day held TLC in the form of ginger ale and chicken soup and orders to “just take it easy and I’ll bring you a book.” A stuffy head might make me miserable for a bit or I might recall that I was missing showing off in a spelling bee or giggling at lunchtime with my BFF, but those were small sacrifices when weighed against hours of coddling and of losing myself in my favorite, familiar fictional worlds.

All these years later, when I hear the term “comfort read,” it is these memories I recall, and the books I consider comfort reads today are the ones that provide me with the same feelings of safety, warmth, and escape from temporary miseries that my mother and my childhood favorites offered then. Barbara Vey understands my idea of comfort reads. She once blogged about her own reading when she was feeling ill and out of sorts: “For me, the comfort book is all about spending time with characters I've grown to love and enjoy being around, even when I'm not fit for social situations.”

So when All About Romance announced they were polling for favorite comfort reads (along with favorite hanky reads and favorite holiday reads), I gave careful thoughts to the books I turn to when I need to forget the stress and strife that upon occasion overwhelms me.

Comfort reads and favorite reads are not synonymous, although they may overlap. For instance, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie is one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I expect when I next list my all-time top 100 romances that it will be on the list. But I would never consider it a comfort read. The same is true of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, Barbara Samuel’s No Place Like Home, and Carla Kelly’s Reforming Lord Ragsdale. These are all books I cherish, books I reread, but they are too emotionally wrenching to be comfort reads.

My comfort reads are not light reads, although many of them contain humor, but they are books in which hope is a steady presence, redemption—however it is defined for the particular book—is in process, and the happy resolution is never in doubt. They are books that remind me of simple pleasures, essential goodness, and subtle strengths. They are books that are heavy with memories of other readings. Rereading them is effortless, the way conversation with old friends whose company demands no pretenses or defenses is effortless.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I found it nearly impossible to limit my list to ten. Twenty-five would have been easier. After all, I have been reading a long time, and my keepers are in the four digits. But I persisted. I weighed choices, turned pages, reread passages, and finally settled on my ten favorite comfort reads. I had to rank them when I sent my AAR ballot, but since the ranking is subject to change at any moment, I present them here in alphabetical order by author.

1. Simply Love, Mary Balogh
I fell in love with the character of Sydnam Butler when I read A Summer to Remember and hoped then that Balogh would give him a happy ending. I had to wait through seven books (not a hardship when reading Balogh), but I did get the story I wanted. I wanted it badly enough to buy it in hardcover too.

Simply Love is the kind of story I love best. It’s all about character and internal conflict. Both Sydnam and his heroine, Anne Jewell, have torturous pasts, but they are not defined by those pasts. Each has built a life that has meaning and purpose. Together they create a life that is freer and richer than their separate lives, a life in which reconciliation takes place, impossible dreams are realized, and love—romantic and familial—is triumphant.

2. Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase
What is left to say about this book so beloved by readers that it ranks at or near the top of almost every list of all-time favorites? Like Simply Love, it’s a beauty and the beast story, a theme that I adore. It combines easy humor and emotional punch. It has a hero who captures my heart early in the story and a heroine who is one of the best ever created IMO. She is strong, intelligent, and sensually aware despite her lack of experience. Their exchanges exemplify what great banter is.

And I would love the book for this scene alone:

With the world securely in order, Dain was able to devote the leisurely bath time to editing his mental dictionary. He removed his wife from the general category labeled "Females" and gave her a section of her own. He made a note that she didn't find him revolting, and proposed several explanations: (a) bad eyesight and faulty hearing, (b) a defect in a portion of her otherwise sound intellect, (c) an inherited Trent eccentricity, or (d) an act of God. Since the Almighty had not done him a single act of kindness in at least twenty-five years, Dain thought it was about bloody time, but he thanked his Heavenly Father all the same, and promised to be as good as he was capable of being.

3. Frederica, Georgette Heyer
I classify all the Heyers I love as comfort reads. With the exception of An Infamous Army, they are easy, pleasurable reads filled with moments that linger in the memory and bring a smile. But Frederica is the one I turn to most frequently when my spirits need a lift. Both the love story and the family dynamics delight me. Rereading this one is as warming and reassuring as a hug.

4. Pleasure for Pleasure, Eloisa James
Since I met many of you on Eloisa James’s bulletin board, you know that I am a huge fan of her books. Even the couple of books that feature a character I don’t like are keepers for me because other qualities redeem them.. I think A Duke of Her Own is her best book, Rafe is my favorite of her heroes, but none of the other books can match the emotional investment I have in PFP. I even wrote an essay about all the reasons I was sure Mayne and Josie would end up together, and I can vividly recall the excitement of getting an ARC (my first one), ripping the package open, and reading the ending by the interior light of my car. Just thinking about Mayne in that pink dress, the garden scene, the consummation scene, and others makes me laugh or sigh with satisfaction.

5. Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, Carla Kelly
Carla Kelly is a genius at creating characters I feel as if I might have known had I lived in Regency times, characters who are not movers and shakers, but who have a core of goodness and honesty, although they are not without faults. Roxanna Drew and Fletcher Rand are such characters. Mrs. Drew is a widow who genuinely grieves for her husband, a clergyman who is remembered in such loving detail by his wife and children that the reader knows him as well as she knows the characters in the book’s present. Fletch, another of Kelly’s military/ex-military heroes, is unusual in that he is being punished by his world for having divorced a faithless wife rather than accommodating her infidelities. He is also a lonely man with a great capacity for love. The two come together in a marriage of convenience that turns into a romance and a family story. Reading this book reaffirms my faith in people and in the romance genre.

6. Dreaming of You, Lisa Kleypas
This is another of those perennial favorite romances that shows up on most all-time best romances lists. Lisa Kleypas is the queen of the creators of the self-made hero, and Derek Craven gets my vote for the most unforgettable in a memorable group. Derek and Sara are opposites--a child of the streets who has used brains, brawn, and daring to achieve wealth and power and a sheltered innocent. But both are more than they seem. He is truly a romantic hero, not just a sexy one, capable of words and actions that melt the heart. Beneath a proper exterior, Sara is an intelligent, passionate woman who knows what she wants. And while Kleypas writes sizzling love scenes, she also knows the value of creating and increasing sexual tension.

7. Shattered Rainbows, Mary Jo Putney
Integrity is an old-fashioned word; some would say an old-fashioned concept in the 21st century, but it’s a word that comes to mind when I consider this book. Catherine and Michael are both characters who refuse to compromise their honor. Catherine is a nurturer who gives loyalty to her charming but weak husband, devotion to her young daughter, solid friendship to a few, and compassion to the deserving and undeserving. Michael is a man consumed with guilt over a past betrayal and determined to live the remainder of his life with honor, regardless of temptation. The two belong together, but their journey to an HEA is a difficult, dangerous one. The scene in which their intimacy finally encompasses the physical as well as the emotional is worth waiting for. It’s my favorite love scene.

Integrity is also an apt word for this author who stints on neither the history nor the romance in this near-perfect historical romance. The depiction of military life, the details of the Battle of Waterloo and its aftermath, the practice of medicine in horrific conditions, and the insularity of life on the island of Skoal are vividly and powerfully rendered.

8. For Now, Forever, Nora Roberts
I love Nora Roberts’s fictional families. I visit the MacKades, Stanislaskis, O’Hurleys, Quinns, Concannons, etc. regularly, but I am fondest of the MacGregors. First, I have known them longest. All the Possibilities (MacGregor #3) was my first Roberts book in 1985, and I fell in love with the managing, matchmaking patriarch of the clan in that first book. For Now, Forever is the story of Daniel MacGregor and his beloved Anna.

The book begins in the present with patriarch Daniel MacGregor in the hospital and his wife, Dr. Anna Whitfield MacGregor, at his side. The story then moves backward to the first meeting of a brash, young Scotsman well on his way to building a financial empire and the surprisingly rebellious daughter of prominent and proper Bostonians. The story of their courtship includes the things they must learn about themselves and one another. Anna’s struggles to become a doctor at a time when few women entered the profession, her rejection of her parents’ rigid standards, and her determination that Daniel allow her to be true to her own dream make this story an unforgettable example of all a gifted writer can accomplish within the limits of a category romance.

9. Till the Stars Fall, Kathleen Gilles Seidel
I don’t use the word “perfect” lightly, but for me this is the perfect contemporary romance. The heroine and hero are multi-dimensional characters—strong, creative, intelligent, vulnerable, and deeply human. The reader understands how the pieces of their separate and shared pasts have made them into the adults they are. The setting, both place (Minnesota, Princeton, concert circuit, Washington, D. C.) and time (1970s, 1990s), are integral to the story. The story itself with all the layered relationships is compelling, and Seidel’s use of reviews, interviews, and retrospectives of Dodd Hall give the reader both exterior and interior views of the band’s history.

The prose is pitch perfect; the voice is endlessly appealing. I saw a used copy of TTSF offered for sale online. The price was over $50. I wouldn’t sell my copy for that because I consider it priceless.

10. In the Midnight Rain, Ruth Wind
I wish Pine Bend, Texas were real. I’d love to talk writing with Ellie, check out Blue’s orchids, and listen to music with them both in companionable silence. I’d love to meet all the other Pine Bend characters too. I’d laugh at their jokes, listen with interest to their stories, and congratulate them on their town. Ellie and Blue are characters who have known loss, but they become strong at the broken places. Their lives, indeed all of this book, from the wonderful title to the final scene, are like a good blues song—slow, smooth, sad, but with redemption at hand. And just like a favorite piece of music, each experience with it intensifies the pleasure it offers.

What are your favorite comfort reads? Have you voted in the AAR poll? If not, you still have time to do so.