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Still Life with Turkey Pie - 1627 - by Pieter ClaeszThe other day I realized I hadn’t updated the blog in over a year. Partly it’s because I wanted to focus on writing books rather than blog posts. But this being the holiday time of year, I figure a blog post can function a bit like the traditional annual Christmas letter to sum up my life for the people I don’t otherwise keep in touch with as well as I should.

Life for me still largely revolves around writing, and this has been a pretty productive year on the writing front. Two posts ago I mentioned that I had finished a historical novel (the third novel I’d written) set in France in the late 1850s. In the Fall of 2011 I queried a small number of agents on it, mostly to stick my foot in the water and get a sense of how much interest there might be in it. A couple of agents asked to see the manuscript, and one liked it but sent me five pages of editorial notes on changes she wanted to see. This was encouraging but also helped me see that there was a lot more work to be done. I had in the meantime started on a new manuscript (novel #4) that I was thinking would be a contemporary comic novel in the style of Christopher Buckley, with Mormons and spies in it. But I wasn’t very happy with how it was going, and it was dawning on me that I was not Christopher Buckley, so I set that one aside. I went back and spent about 6 months rewriting the historical novel, aka Novel #3.

In the spring I sent the revised version of Novel #3 to the agent who’d been interested in it. In the meantime she’d gotten very busy, and so while I waited for her to read it and get back to me, I started on a new book idea, which I’ll call novel #5. As the months dragged on with no answer on Novel #3, I kept thinking I should start querying other agents on Novel #3, but was crazy busy at that point myself, between working full-time, trying to keep my daughter entertained, trying to keep our apartment mostly free of health-code violations, and squeezing in writing time wherever I could, to keep up the momentum on Novel #5. So I didn’t get around to querying anyone until about a month ago. To my surprise, I’ve gotten a much stronger response than I ever have before on a book. I don’t want to get anyone’s vicarious hopes up, but I have sent out some partial and full manuscripts to some pretty good agents. What’s next? If you guessed “a lot more waiting for responses,” a gold star for you!

Meanwhile, I’m about 26,000 words into the first rough draft of Novel #5. It’s going to be another historical novel, but this time set in the ancient world, in the time of Christ, about the life of Judas Iscariot. Credit for the initial idea goes to my boyfriend, who is also a writer and is nice enough to let me steal his ideas. Apart from being a wonderful person, he has more cool story ideas in a morning than most people could come up with in a decade. One major challenge with this book, however, is that the historical research is so much fun, I keep just wanting to read and read and read instead of getting down to writing.

Also, I’ve signed up to go to my first ever full-blown writers conference! It’s in New York City in December, and is sure to be an adventure.

On the publishing front, it’s been a busy year as well – through my little micropublishing imprint, Strange Violin Editions, I’ve published Steve Peck’s novella A Short Stay in Hell as well as a nonfiction book by two former-Mormon sociologists of religion, Ryan Cragun and Rick Phillips, called Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion. (Spoiler: They don’t tell you who to vote for in the end.) And I’ve committed to publish one more book, a novel by Eric Jepson called Byuck, which is coming out shortly … in fact, writing this blog post handily allows me to procrastinate on some work I should be doing for it right now!

But the biggest news of all is on the personal front: My daughter is now in kindergarten! Yes, she is a big sophisticated school-ager now. She has definitely enjoyed the increased prestige. But the actual going to school? Not so much. I can’t say I blame her, because I never really liked school either. Luckily she only has seventeen more years to go!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Here’s hoping yours is wonderful and food-filled!

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Ketchup

Photo by Gordon Joly, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I haven’t updated the blog in a few months, some catching up is in order. Here’s what’s been going on with me:

September

At the beginning of the month, I had an exciting work trip to Kansas City, Missouri. I hadn’t realized (as you probably hadn’t either) that Kansas City is actually a very cool place. My coworkers and I were there for a week, and during the days we were busy working, of course, as that was the point of the trip. But in the evenings we had some memorable meals. Kansas City is known for its barbeque, so one night we made a pilgrimage to Gates, a local chain. They are known for yelling, “HI, MAY I HELP YOU?” at you the second you walk in the door. In the spirit of adventure, I had the barbecued mutton, just because I’d never had mutton before. It was rich, fatty, and wonderful. (I am a fan of fat when it’s not (yet) on me.)

Another night we went to JP Wine Bar in the artsy district, and I had foie gras with peaches. Yum. It was as chic and the menu as sophisticated as any DC wine bar, but at better prices. We also went to Garozzo’s for red sauce-Italian one night. Hoo-eee, lots of garlic. I will never forget my appetizer of stuffed artichoke, which the waitress described as “light,” but when it came turned out to be an artichoke solidly packed to the gills with shrimp, cooked proscuitto, melted cheese, garlic-lemon-butter-suffused bread crumbs, and Lord knows what other sinful things, swimming in a big pool of cheesy melted butter. I’m not saying it wasn’t good, and I’m not saying I didn’t eat it, but it was about as light as an anvil.

The culinary highlight, though, was The American Restaurant. The restaurant was founded by the owner of the Hallmark Corporation, and the decor was a mix of really cool art-nouveau built-in architectual details and kind of odd hotel-ish furnishings.

American Restaurant

The American Restaurant in Kansas City, via CitiesAndMe.com

But the food was beyond amazing. If this place were in DC, you’d be paying $200 or $300 a plate, but being in Kansas City, it was considerably less, and hence a great value. I had foie gras (again!) with a sweet wine called Picolit, and a truly amazing poached egg, and … I just wish I’d taken notes on everything I had, because in the meantime the menu has changed and it was several months ago, so I can’t remember the many details. But there were cubed geléed things and homemade fruit leather-type things and tableside flambéed-things, seemingly incongruous combinations of things that worked wonders for each other as the flavors melded. If you’re ever in KC and you’re any type of gastronome, that’s the place to go.

I stayed an extra day and night in KC so I could do a little exploring and meet up with a friend from grad school who I hadn’t seen in ten years. Luckily for me, the day I was there on my own was a First Friday, which is a monthly event in the arts district where all the galleries and many other businesses stay open late and people gather and walk around and mingle. The morning before it started I found a nice independent coffee shop in the arts district, called Crossroads Coffee, and sat there and worked on editing my book for a good solid four hours.

As I was wrapping up with my writing and getting ready to go out to see the galleries, some musicians started playing. Normally I don’t go much to live music shows these days – they don’t fit too well with the mom lifestyle – but felt it would be sort of rude to leave just as they were starting. So I stayed and listened a bit and then got hooked and ended up staying through the whole first set – the singer, Danny McGraw, turned out to be extremely talented. I liked the music so much that I ended up going up to buy one of his CDs when he paused for a break. Definitely worth a listen if you get the chance.

INKubator Press

INKubator Press, via http://artsincubatorkc.org/

Then I hit the galleries, and the evening became increasingly surreal. There was an old-fashioned book bindery, and an “arts incubator” place with a real old-style printing press as well. I wandered down to the end of one street and found a hair salon that was functioning as a gallery for the evening, packed with art and people. In one corner, DJs were spinning vinyl records. I came out of the salon with my mind slightly blown by that, only to see a pack of about 20 men running down the street wearing nothing but diapers and athletic shoes. No explanations, just men in diapers.

I wandered in and out of more galleries and stopped to hear a few bands playing in alleys or on streetcorners or in parking lots. I stopped for a while at a drum circle in a vacant lot. There were heavily tatooed white girls, their hair in red dreadlocks or tiny braids, their eyes made up with curlicues of kohl at the corners, wearing black lingerie and giant electric-blue furry boots, dancing to the drum music with hula hoops of flashing lights in every color.

Later I wandered into a small gallery where the artist, a guy, was blatantly hitting on every girl who came in. I allowed myself to be hit on, because as a mom it’s not something that happens so frequently, so I figured why not just enjoy it? Then the artist-guy’s friend came by and the three of us got into conversation. Casanova-artist’s friend had a very elaborate tattoo on one leg that went from his thigh down to his toes, and he took off his shoe and sock so I could see it better. I mentioned that I had a daughter, and it turned out Mr. Casanova-artist had a daughter too … and a wife (ick). And then it turned out that Mr. Casanova-artist’s tattoo-toed friend and his wife (not Casanova’s wife, but the friend’s wife) had quadruplets. Yes, quadruplets, and they had them naturally – it was a one in a million chance. They were born very early, of course, and only three of the four babies survived, but the rest were healthy. So basically, they were raising triplets.

And no, I wasn’t taking any hallucinogenic drugs that evening. That’s just Kansas City for you.

Shuttlecocks at Nelson-Atkins Museum

Shuttlecocks at Nelson-Atkins Museum (via Matt Unruh, Emporia State University)

The next morning I met up with my long-lost friend from grad school, who’s now a professor at the University of Missouri, and met her husband for the first time too, which was great. We went to the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and then went for barbecue at Jack Stack’s. Jack Stack was good, but the menu is a bit meat-heavy. You can get a meat appetizer, a meat main course with a side of meat, and then for dessert, they have a selection of meat brulee, creme de meat, meat parfait, or, on the lighter side, a few scoops of meat gelato. Okay, I’m kidding, but it was a whole lot of meat.

All in all, an excellent trip.

October 

  • My daughter and I moved from the DC-Maryland suburbs into a new apartment in DC proper.

November

  • The one-year anniversary of this blog!
  • Started a new novel! (See my Writing page for details.) Have not gotten much time to work on it so far, but it’s coming along.
  • Spent Thanksgiving in Tucson, and my daughter got lots of good Grandma time in and got into all kinds of highjinks with her cousins. After Thanksgiving, I drove her down to Tennessee, where she is going to stay with her dad for six months (we decided to change to a 50-50 custody arrangement, because I was getting kind of overwhelmed with solo-parenting). The plan is that I’ll be going down to Tennessee to visit every other weekend or so. Was very excited to learn that Megabus now runs a Chinatown town bus express to Knoxville! That is going to make my life a lot easier.

December

  • Won free tickets to a really cool event at the National Geographic Society – my favorite singer Neko Case did a showing of her photography.
  • Bought an inexpensive, used piano off Craigslist. Very exciting. I played piano seriously through college, but haven’t had a piano at home in 15 years.
  • Due to peer pressure, finally caved in and joined twitter. One of these days I am going to figure out how to get one of those twitter-widget-thingies up here on the blog.

That’s all the recent news – cheers and happy holidays everyone!

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A shiny new bag

A Shiny New Bag

Chanson of Letters from a Broad has memed me. I am flattered to be memed, plus meming people back is much easier than thinking of a blog post on my own, so here goes. (For opaque reasons, the meme is called “Happy 101 Sweet Friends,” hence the title of my post.)

The instructions are: List 10 things that make your day & then give this award to 10 bloggers.

Okay, then, ten things that make my day, in no particular order of preference:

1. My daughter. Yes, I realize that is not very original, but really, honestly, I absolutely am monkey-bananas crazy about being a mom, and the great thing about it is that there is no social disapprobation there, the way there might be with other things I like such as eating warmed-up Spaghetti-os with meatballs from the can, or enjoying Stephenie Meyer novels. It’s rare for me to have a day that is not made far more awesome by having my daughter in it. (Although yesterday, when we had a long plane ride which began with her peeing on the seat, yesterday may have been one of those rare days …)

2. Badger sightings. There is this badger who lives in the neighborhood, and every now and then, I catch sight of him gamboling on the grassy hill between my row of townhouses and the one facing it. As sort of a city girl by nature who grew up in the desert, it never fails to astonish me that I am seeing an actual badger, live, in the flesh, right before my very eyes.

3. A shiny new bag. I get a good, old-fashioned, girly thrill from stalking a potential new purse for weeks online, drooling over it in private, mentally calculating how much I need to save up to afford it, fretting over other things I could buy instead of it, finally just breaking down and ordering it, and then wearing it everywhere even with outfits it doesn’t remotely match. Same goes for shoes.

4. Catching an obscure literary reference. It is so deeply satisfying when someone tosses off a phrase like “young Werther, here” in conversation (see the movie (500) Days of Summer), or has a quote in Classical Greek up on their Facebook page, or somebody refers to something as Proustian, and you’re all like, “Ah, yes, of course, so Proustian, that!” or “Ha, he is just like young Werther!” or “True—as they say, meden agan.” And you are suddenly filled with the happy sense that your many painful years of over-education may not have been a total waste.

5. Getting a piece of writing accepted for publication. This has happened to me a handful of times now, and it always feels like winning ten thousand dollars in the lottery, even though the most I’ve ever been paid for a piece is … oh, never mind … and even though I know from the start only my friends and family are ever going to read it.

6. Hearing about new, mind-blowing scientific research. Example: a philosophy prof friend told me about this book The Imprinted Brain, and it sounded so interesting I checked it out of the library and started reading it. So interesting, although I won’t bother trying to explain it here—read my friend’s review instead; the author has this mind-blowing theory involving the relationship between autism and psychosis and male vs. female brain characteristics and genetic expression. And then there was that great piece in the Atlantic on the orchid vs. dandelion genes a while back. Anyway, I just love stuff like that.

7. Communiqués from long-lost siblings. I love all my family to pieces, but certain siblings who shall not be named often go for weeks or months without calling or writing, which makes hearing from them extra exciting. Maybe that is all part of their devious plan, to be more appreciated as a sibling by being mysterious and rarely seen or heard from, but if so, I totally fall for it.

8. Seeing a large body of water. As mentioned previously, I grew up in the desert, so I still get a little frisson whenever I first catch sight of a river or lake or ocean or beach. All that blue, all at once. Heck, I even get excited about the creek in the park behind our neighborhood.

9.Participating in the pop-cultural zeitgeist. By this I mean those times when there’s something everybody is excited about—the new Harry Potter film, or the latest Battlestar Galactica episode, for example—and I am also excited about that same thing. I feel all swept up in the cultural  moment and one with the rest of humanity.

10. Offers of babysitting. Much as I love being a mom (see #1, above), the occasional break from motherhood is also very nice.

Here are my 10 blogs—again, in no particular order of preference. It was kind of hard to come up with this list because I don’t have too many friends who are really into blogging, at least not that I know of. I realize not everyone is into being memed, and for some of you the meme would not fit into the theme of your blog at all. So I will not be offended if you don’t meme back, no worries.

  1. Self-Portrait as
  2. Chocolate & Garlic
  3. Dan-Dee-Lyun
  4. The Post-Pessemist Association
  5. The Snarr Zoo
  6. The Sundance Burtons
  7. LDS Food Critic
  8. DCARTOONS
  9. Yopping
  10. Abdul Ali

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Columbus, OHAmandine and I are in Columbus, OH, this weekend visiting friends. It has been a pretty low-key visit so far, mostly just hanging out, chasing Amandine around, eating, and reading. I figured I might as well take advantage of not having a job yet to get a little traveling in before I start work.

The most exciting thing we’ve done so far was the Columbus Race for the Cure yesterday morning—it was fun to walk around the downtown area (my friend and I were both pushing strollers, so it was definitely a walk, not a run) and see all the buildings, hear the bands play, and get high-fives from all the biker-dudes and -dudettes who parked their motorcycles on the sidewalks and revved their engines for the last stretch. Afterward we had brunch at a place called the Northstar Cafe, which I really liked.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about some of the similarities between writing and parenting. The friend I’ve been staying with was a single mom for several years, and so is full of constructive tips and advice about how to manage. In general, as a parent, one gets all kinds of advice from all directions, sometimes conflicting or contradictory. Be more laid back. Be less laid back. Be stricter. Don’t hover, or your child will be too dependent on you. Do hover, or your child will end up kidnapped.

Likewise with writing. You have your anti-adverb people, your show-don’t-tell obsessives, your pro-purple prose people, and so on. There are people who profess to love your writing, and people who, given half a chance, will stab at your pages bloodthirstily* till your manuscript is soaked with red ink.

The trouble is, with both writing and parenting, I have blind spots where I need advice. There are places in my manuscript where I know that I don’t know whether or not there’s something deeply wrong with it. The only way to get a better sense of the major flaws is to get input from other people. It’s frustrating, because often when I look at other people’s writing, their mistakes stand out glaringly to me, and these turn out to be the same mistakes I’m making with my writing.

And with my daughter, I have a sense of where my faults as a parent lie (tendency to be a pushover, absent-mindedness), but it’s hard know the best ways to counterbalance them so as to make sure I don’t accidentally ruin her life and render her forever socially inept. Having so little experience at parenting, sometimes it’s hard to gauge when your countermeasures go too far (e.g., being extra strict to balance one’s pushover tendencies, or being extra attentive to make up for one’s absent-mindedness).

And then, with both writing and parenting, sometimes your critics disagree with each other, and sometimes their criticisms just sound wrong. So where you have these blind spots, you end up having to do a complicated triangulation between other people’s opinions and your own instincts, paying careful attention to what’s coming from which source.

I wonder if the best writers—and the best parents—are the ones with the fewest blind spots, or if even the best ones still need outsiders’ perspectives, but have just gotten very good and quick at doing the triangulation on those outside opinions to measure them against their own judgments. In any case, I’m hoping I can improve over time both at having fewer and smaller blind spots and at making the best use of other people’s advice. I’d love to hear what others think  …

*Take that, anti-adverb people!

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Illustration by Sylvia Long

Illustration by Silvia Long, via http://www.sylvia-long.com/

The morning daycare for Amandine is working out great so far. She seems to like it, and I’ve been able to get some revisions done on my book. I think the manuscript is just about ready to send out to some of my friends who’ve said they’d be willing to take a look at it. Apart from that, I’ve been filling out loads of federal job applications, some of which require the applicant to write more or less a novel-length description of their KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities). So the writing stamina I’ve developed by getting novels down on paper has stood me in good stead. You can’t say novel-writing doesn’t have its collateral benefits, even if one never gets published.

A friend lent me The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I finished that this week. I enjoyed the book as much as the movie, even already knowing the main plot points. The prose style was nice in the English translation, although obviously I can’t say how well it reflects the original Swedish. It’s kind of Ikea-style writing—clean and uncluttered lines, with function taking priority over form, but concern for pleasing design as well.

Amandine, who’s going on two-and-three-quarters now, is becoming very talkative and using complex sentences. She also makes up long, interesting songs about cats and bunnies and naps and diapers. I was particularly impressed the other day when she modified the lyrics of a lullaby that I’ve sung to her a lot. There is a children’s book by Sylvia Long with beautiful illustrations and alternative lyrics to the “Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird” song, that go like this:

Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mommy’s gonna show you a hummingbird.
If that hummingbird should fly, Mommy’s gonna show you the evening sky.
And when the night-time shadows fall, Mommy’s gonna hear the crickets call.
As their song drifts from afar, Mommy’s gonna search for a shooting star.
Etc.

The author’s idea was that the traditional lyrics are too materialistic—“I’ll buy you this, I’ll buy you that.” So instead she wanted to make the song about a mother comforting her child with the beauty of the world around them and her own love. I liked the idea, so I’ve always sung that version to Amandine as a bedtime song. The other day she was putting her favorite stuffed cat down for a nap and singing the song to the cat. Except Amandine’s version went like this:

Hush lillel baby, don’t say a wook, Mommy’s gonna show you a … cupcake.

Alas, the non-comsumerist subtext has clearly not sunk in. But at least it appears my daughter is a poet in the making. At any rate, I took the hint and made cupcakes yesterday.

Some soothing music to send you on your way:

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Sailor Baby

If, like me, you’ve got a child who’s learning to talk, you may occasionally hear some shocking things coming out of his or her mouth. Rest assured, these are not what they sound like. Here is a handy decoder chart to set your mind at ease:

Sounds Like Means
THE F-WORD “Fork.” Or maybe “Frog.”
POON No, your child is not a PUA discussing the results of a night of sarging. This means “spoon.”
ASS “Ask” or “asked.” As in “I ass Mommy fo’ chockit” (I asked Mommy for chocolate).
THE S-WORD “Sit.” As in “Mommy – I sh**ting on a tair!” (Mommy, I’m sitting on a chair!)
THE D-WORD Okay, this just means Mommy has been swearing too much and really needs to start watching her language better.

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Mothers and Children

Gustav Klimt, Detail from The Three Ages of Women

Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Women (detail), 1905

When I have an intimidating pile of books I want to read and am not sure where to start, sometimes I’ll go through and read the just first chapter of each book in turn. Then I’ll read the second chapter of each, and so on, until I get hooked on one and drop the others. Last week, the book that hooked me was Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. I was already tipping at Chapter 2, and when Chapter 3 started it was a done deal. (First sentence: “He should just be castrated.” And that’s before you even get to the kissing and lust.)

I haven’t seen the movie, which everyone said was good, but this is was a great read. Perrotta’s writing is close to my ideal. His prose is clean and uncluttered, and he seems to follow the principle that the story takes precedence over the language, without the language suffering from its supporting role. There is very little here that’s extraneous, either in the diction or in the plot.

The magic of the book isn’t in the level of craftsmanship in the writing, although the craftsmanship is there. Rather, it’s the sympathy every character gets. Even the repugnant characters are humanized and we feel sorry for them. And the hero and heroine conversely aren’t idealized, but I still fell hard for both of them. Compassion and liking for your own characters is something no writing class or book can teach you. Tom Perrotta seems to have both, and they elevate the book from a clever, self-aware tale of modern marital malaises to something beautiful and deeply satisfying.

Also, in a bunch of places, the writing is funny. Not guffawing, thigh-slapping funny, but funny enough to make you stop mentally every now and then and say “ha!” It’s so rare to find literary writing that’s also funny, although maybe it’s just the books I pick. I can count on one hand authors of good literary fiction I’ve read in the past decade who were funny: Tom Perrotta, David Lodge (e.g., Therapy), William Kotzwinkle (The Bear Went Over the Mountain), and grudgingly I might put Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) on there too, because whatever other failings The Corrections has, I have to admit there were some funny bits. But I think Perotta is a much better author than Franzen—unlike Franzen, Perotta doesn’t come across as trying too hard, and Franzen especially suffers by comparison on the measure of character likeability. I should have been able to like a tormented bisexual female chef, for example, but Franzen made even that difficult. While on the other hand, Perrotta arouses my sympathy (to a limited extent) for a convicted pedophile, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.

Of course, part of the problem is that I just don’t get to read nearly enough (does anyone these days?) If anyone has more suggestions for funny-but-literary authors, I’d love to hear them. A dear friend from high school who like me is an aspiring novelist recently posted on his troubles with overly serious writing. So hopefully he’ll eventually write something “allegedly funny,” as he likes to say and I can read that. But in the meantime, suggestions welcome.

Speaking of little children, last week was my daughter Amandine’s half-birthday—she’s now officially 2 and a half. So in Amandine’s honor, and in honor of all my mom friends who recently had a baby or are about to have one any minute, I thought I’d link to a few songs on the theme of mothers and children.

The Neko Case song isn’t really a mother-child song, but the refrain used to run through my head constantly when Amandine was just born and would cry all the time. I find the Madonna song simultaneously kitschy and moving, like a lot of her songs that I like. But it’s not often that pop megasuperstars sing about tender feelings for their children rather than hookups and doomed love affairs and such, so I just think it’s awesome that song exists. And the Lucinda Williams song is an amazingly good description of the ache and richness of mother-love.

Book status update: Still revising and revising and revising. Starting to trade off critiques with a few people, which is going to be helpful but involves a lot of work reciprocally critiquing others’ manuscripts. I do think the book is gradually sucking less, so that’s good. If anyone is interested in being a beta reader, give me a holler.

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