Thursday, December 25, 2008

"The family gifts are the best"

This year Santa brought a few gifts addressed to the whole family. My sister spotted them right away and could barely take her eyes off them as we opened up our individual gifts.

"The family gifts are the best ones," she said.

And boy oh boy -- She was right! It was a Wii and Rock Band! Natalie was in tears of joy, and the boys almost fainted.

Now comes the hard work of getting it all set up --

Old Fezziwig's Power

"The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig, and, when he had done so, said:

'Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?'

'It isn't that,' said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self -- 'it isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as it cost a fortune.'"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Decor

I'm finally in Michigan after a harrowing day of travel. Perhaps I'll blog about that later. For now -- a few pics of the holiday decor at my family's:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Birthday 28

Another year -- this one to include more photos and more blogging. To get it started, here's a horoscope, and the last bite of my birthday cupcake--

TODAY'S BIRTHDAY (DECEMBER 10). You will get to know many new people this year and will take great pleasure in learning as much as you can about them. Your humor bonds you with loved ones through the holidays. Work projects find acceptance and support in March. Your financial picture gets sunny in April. June is romantic. Travel in October. Leo and Gemini adore you. Your lucky numbers are: 4, 2, 13, 20 and 17.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Three Rules of Writing a Novel

“There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” W. Somerset Maugham

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of conflicting rules on novelling. November is nanowrimo territory, so many of my friends are happily ensconced in that world where writers should:

  1. write 50,000 words as fast as you can.
  2. if your story isn’t working, write more. All first drafts are crap.
  3. just keep writing damnit!

Meanwhile in my workshop the rules are something more like:

  1. read the best novels to become a better writer
  2. slow, quality work is better than fast junk work. Edit every day, along with writing.
  3. this might take a while, and that’s ok

I’m feeling split between two worlds, because while I excel at the quantity method where there’s lots of company at write-ins and no grief over clichés or poor research, putting more time and thought into my writing is certainly giving me better quality work (albeit at a snails pace). I wish I knew those three magical rules to novelling, so I could continue on either path knowing I was guaranteed an exciting end product.

Now maybe you’re thinking the “three rules of writing a novel” is a joke. And sure, maybe it is. Just like immortality, the singularity, extraterrestrials, and robot super-intelligence. You know, all the best inevitable things in life that somehow the mainstream has given up on. Well, not I, my friend, not I.

Think how much better life is going to be once we figure out those rules. All the time we’ll save as writers, and as readers, too. No more reading 200 pages into a crappy book before you realize you just can’t slog through another page. By page 5 if you haven’t seen the scrappy sidekick or the terrier or the prominent use of the color green or whatever, you just toss it aside.

Or maybe we’ll decide not to use the three rules all the time. But won’t it be nice to know them anyway? Like discovering how to make gold or the final resting place of Amelia Earhart – the knowledge doesn’t serve any practical purpose, but isn’t it nice not to have to wonder about it any more?

So dear reader, I invite you to join me as I embark on a quest to discover the three rules of novel writing. I ask for your help, as we identify possible rules, try them out, and publicize the results. Please invite others to participate as well.

In the spirit of all scientific quests, I'd like to establish three guidelines for participation in discovering the three rules of writing:

  1. Put together three rules for novel writing, whenever possible drawing from at least two novels or a published author for each rule. Rule groups should be named to make it easier to discuss and compare them later.
  2. Share the three rules either by posting a comment to this blog (if you post as anon, please sign the comment), sending a note to the facebook page I’ll set up, or some other method. I’ll post the rules for others to try.
  3. Try out the three rules in at least one writing session of at least 500 words. You don’t have to incorporate each of the rules in that body of text, but you do have to have the rules in mind, so they can influence the writing you do. Did they work?

To break the ice, here’s my first attempt, which I’ll be taking for a test drive tonight:

Three Rules of Writing, Intrigue Version

  1. Include a big eye in the sky. (Sources: The Great Gatsby, Harry Potter, and The Stand)
  2. “Make [your] characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water.” (Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to his students)
  3. Somebody dies (too numerous to list)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


This morning I jumped out of bed a half hour early with no trouble at all – finally voting day! After 8 years of W we’re guaranteed a new president, and I’m so ready I can barely stand it.

Tonight Greg and I have Greek class after work, so we had to get up early to hit the polls right when they opened. This seemed like a good excuse for breakfast from Dunkin Donuts, and a free coffee (after voting, of course) at Starbucks. Ah, sweet indulgence. What fun to be at Dunks when all the trays of donuts and bagels were still full and enticing. We had our pick. It was wonderful to be up early, out among hoi polloi (see, already using that Greek) when conversation was buzzing and everyone was ready to marker in some circles on behalf of their favorite candidates.

Living the city life sometimes I’d give my right arm to have a car to get me from A to B, but on days like this, public transportation is perfect. The city feels like a cozy family of blue folks. Strangers on the T chat easily about ballot issues and for the first time in a long time people seem united about something besides hating the Yankees. Granted, it would probably be lonely to be a McCain supporter in Boston about now, but for a Dem it feels pretty good.

But the best part of the day is the part you do all on your own -- filling in that ballot. It sounds cheesy, but all the stuff you learn in elementary school about our rights is true. We have choices! We get votes! We shape the future of world with the circles we fill in! Freedom and Liberty baby! (in Massachusetts even for greyhounds and pot smokers!) Tomorrow most of the world will cheer or smack their foreheads when they see what we’ve decided, but today we get to decide. And everybody from stock broker to key grip to student gets one vote. Not even the pundits with their pie charts get more than that. (not to mention a free coffee from every Starbucks you mosey into)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Comment issues

I've had reports of some issues with the comment function on this blog, so for now I'm switching the comment access to "anyone" including anonymous.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Book Update

I’m feeling much better about my novel this week, despite my nerves this weekend. This Monday in class I shared 4 pages from the book. This was a bit of a milestone for me – the first time anyone had looked at a draft of something from this novel, or any of the work I’ve been doing in the last few years. I still have a buzz from the anxiety going in. I was worried beforehand about what the response would be, but the input from the workshop turned out to be very helpful. The course has a mishmash of people from different backgrounds and talents, so they were able to catch little details like – “malpractice” is different from “negligent malpractice” and “a broken eardrum doesn’t release enough fluid to drain down your neck”. And the group seemed to read right past the names I gave the characters in the story without blinking. For some reason I had the irrational fear someone would say – “that name’s ridiculous!” or “you spelled his name wrong!”. My biggest stumbling block has been naming my badguys. I have much appreciation for Julia’s help on this. Her suggestion that they be named after the insurance code they fall under saved the day. My readers all approved of “The Fives” (for Section V) as an appropriately ominous name for the baddies.

Sometimes I do feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of technical details that go into a book. Another member of the group has been researching her story for 10 years, and while she’s become a real expert on the topic (which of course I can’t reveal on this blog), I think it makes her sad to know that a lot of the work she’s done will never make it into the final book. I don’t want to spend 10 years studying gene sequencing, the legal system, and medicine, but I do need to know enough for my characters to sound like authorities and pass the B.S. test for readers. My story is science fiction, which means that when I need to I can invent workaround technologies that “don’t exist yet”, but I think the closer I stick to the real world, the more the characters and their problems will resonate with modern readers, so I’m doing my best to stick with what I think will actually happen in the future. Having a sounding board of writer-scientists and writer-lawyers reading my book is invaluable. Even hearing the thoughts of someone who’s closer in age to my characters makes a tremendous difference.

I’m also following the advice of the instructor to read fiction while I’m writing. One of my personal writing heroes on this book is Michael Crichton who, in Jurassic Park, perfectly straddled the line between telling a story the layperson could understand and including enough details to sound authoritative. I read the book when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and even I understood it (mostly). Unfortunately, his most recent, Next, seemed to sacrifice character development and plot to service the Gee-Whiz science details. (or maybe I’m giving Jurassic Park too much credit?) Another writer I’m paying close attention to now is Stephen King. Yesterday I picked up The Stand, which I’ve heard many people say is his best work, and so far I’m impressed. The book begins with a mutant flu virus with a 94% mortality rate. King doesn’t bother (at least so far) getting into the hows or whys of the virus’ creation. Instead he focuses on the character’s responses and the believability of the world around the epidemic. The book is riveting and scarier because of the vagueness of the science involved. The book’s realism comes from his specificity on the characterization. He doesn’t hesitate to use brand names and describe ailments in gruesome detail. It’s making me seriously rethink the amount of detail I want to include in each scene and where that details needs to be focused.

So overall, I’m getting some great insights from this writing workshop. My word count is still sadly low, but with luck the prep work I’m doing now (still working on that chapter by chapter outline) will mean less rewriting down the road.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Apple Picking

Here I am finally getting around to posting pictures from last weekend's apple picking. Enjoy!

Who Wants Soup?

As we look forward to the coldest weekend yet this fall, I'm looking forward to a weekend of writing, studying, and eating some healthy comfort food. Here's a photo from a recent trip to Le's in Harvard Square. Chicken Pho soup, with extra veggies and all the seasonings. Yum!

Stay warm, everyone.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Halloween Monsters visit the Writer

Writers block – I has it.

Work on my novel has come to a complete standstill as I try to figure out where this story is going and what approach I might take to get there. One thing my writing workshop has done, for better or for worse, is bring me face to face with my deepest fears in writing – the fear that if I read something better than I’m writing I’ll become completely discouraged and stop writing, the fear that if I plan my story out in advance I’ll have done all the fun work and won’t enjoy writing after that, and the fear that being around other writers who are working on more serious subjects will tempt me to abandon my work and switch over to a more literary story. After a month of classes it seems – my monsters are real! Because I’m feeling, today, like the well is completely dry.

How does one keep writing, even with the growing suspicion that the thing she is writing is total crap? Is it possible to do good work without feeling excited about it? I think I see a few tactics for getting out, but they’re strategies I’ve used before and the projects I used them on are still unfinished. How do I know whether to trust the strategies and hope this book is stronger than the previous ones, or to distrust the strategies and find some other way out? These are the options I’m considering:

1. Operation: Rewrite – start over from the beginning and rewrite it all with a stronger focus on the science aspects. Keep to the original Michael Crichton-esque thriller tone and build a tight, fast moving plot around that. My concern with this one is that I might not know enough science to make it interesting and the story could get dull.

2. Operation: Mrowsky – completely reshape the story to include a detective (who sooner or later invades everything I write). Throw in new locales, new characters, new themes, and the kitchen sink to make it more of a literary genre piece. I worry these are all distractions that are keeping me from writing the story I started with and this book will keep on morphing and never end.

3. Operation: EditorKill – kill my internal editor and just keep writing without any heed to what I’ve already written. Just push through until I reach the end of the story and then go back to edit later. This one will be tough in the workshop because how will I bring in anything for people to look at?

Whatever approach I decide to take, I need to do it soon, because my homework for class is a chapter by chapter outline of the whole book AND I have to bring in something for people to read on Monday. Much as I struggle with the assignments, I’m committed to giving this class the benefit of the doubt and trying out every assignment. And, I can see that ultimately this is the time when I should finally figure out what I’m writing about. 20k words is a hefty chunk of book to write without any end in mind.

What I want for this novel is above all else for it to be fun to read. So what's the fastest way for me to get back to having fun writing it?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Seasonal Activities in Massachusetts

Happy Monday! I hope everyone’s been doing lots of fun fall activities. Mine was loaded with fall –

Friday night Greg and I celebrated the end of the week in Boston’s North End with dinner at our favorite restaurant – La Familia Giorgio. This restaurant is great for gourmets and gourmands alike. The portions are huge, but also made when you order so everything is as fresh as possible. They also make a wheat pasta every day, so it puts a moderately healthy spin on a bowl of noodles. Every time we eat there I have to order the pasta with olive oil and garlic – total comfort food – but I mix it up with different add ins, this time calamari. Every dish is enough food for three meals, but we still order an appetizer of stuffed eggplant, because it’s too good to miss. (and for dessert pumpkin cheesecake – delicious!)

Saturday we finally made it to an apple orchard, something we’ve wanted to do since early September. After much deliberation we decided on Parlee Farms in Tyngsboro. We were just in time to pick at least 6 varieties – Golden Delicious, Macoun, Gala, Empire, Macintosh, and several others. All were very ripe, as next week is their final week of pick your own, but there were still lots of apples left on the trees. The apples were expensive there, but I would definitely return, maybe even earlier in the year for berry picking. The grounds were clean, the hay rides to the orchards were frequent, and everyone was friendly. The all important fresh fall snacks were inexpensive and delicious – $3.50 bought us 5 mini cider donuts and a bag of kettle corn. We were tempted by the hot apple pie with ice cream and the hot cider, but after “tasting” 3 or 4 apples out in the orchards our bellies were just too full. Later today I’ll post some photos from apple picking. The farm has a petting zoo with funny little goats. They were battling each other for the attention of the kids and their hands full of food. The goats have a “goat walk” in their pen that goes 20 feet up into the trees with a platform and food at the top. The walkway doesn’t have any rails or protection to keep them from falling off, but the goats are sure footed and every few minutes we’d see another one start up or back down. There was plenty of easier food to be had on the ground with all the kids bending over the fencing to feed them, so the goats must enjoy the exercise of climbing up.

On our way back Saturday afternoon, we cut east to check out the crowds in Salem. Unfortunately, my phone was dieing at that point so I didn’t get any photos, but there were plenty of spooky sights to see. I love Salem at any time of year, but in October it’s like a whole different world. The streets are filled with people of all ages in costume, and random ghouls and corpses wander the streets handing out flyers or just scaring tourists (/me). This trip we discovered an art studio with moody paintings of Salem landmarks like the House of Seven Gables and the Witch Museum. I would’ve liked to get a postcard or print by the artist, but all the ones in the shop were originals and too pricey for us in the current economy.

Sunday was mostly a low key day. I cooked a big pot of chili and turned some of our apples into an apple crisp. The sun is setting very early here now – by 6pm – so before it went down yesterday, I made an effort to get a quick walk on the bike path, and look at the wildlife around Spy Pond. I’m looking forward to November 2, and the extra hour of sleep, but it’s going to mean the sunlight ends before I even leave work during the week. In the last year, my group at work has moved to a different floor where I don’t have any windows or natural light during the day. I’m going to have to find a way this winter to get regular periods of natural sunlight in every day, and possibly a full spectrum light for my desk.

Anyway, that’s my weekend. Pictures to come!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Update

Last night I passed the 19,000 word count on my novel, which means I’m 6,000 words behind my goal for this point, and I’d have to write more than 2,000 words a day to reach 30,000 before Wednesday. In Nanowrimo days, that wouldn’t worry me, but my credo on this book has been “don’t write crap” so the writing is taking a lot longer. In past Novembers I perfected the art of tv watcher writing – cramming 250-500 word jolts into commercial breaks while I watched my favorite shows. Obviously, I didn’t put a lot of concentration into that writing, but it meant I could easily pound out 1,000 words in a half hour, including bathroom breaks. Provided I knew what I wanted to say, this was pretty effective. But, with this book, where I’m figuring out the story as I go, the tv would be too distracting. This month it’s taking me at least an hour to get a 1,000 word chunk written.

I’m also starting to run out of clear story ideas, which is making it tough to keep going.
E. L. Doctorow famously compared writing to driving a car at night where “you can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Well, last weekend I had a minor crisis when my headlights burned out. Saturday through Monday, the most I did was pad prior chapters and work on segues. There’s definitely work to be done in those sections, but I had hoped to have the major scaffolding for the book completed by the time I start my class in October, so plot and tone are where I want the majority of the first 30,000 words to go.

The hardest part for me in writing something so large continues to be maintaining the same point of view and mood over a long enough period of time to write the thing. I might spend an hour or 90 minutes a day writing a chapter for the book, but I need to spend 10 or 12 hours in that frame of mind beforehand in order to have ideas to write about. If I spend my subway time reading someone else’s fiction or a story about a celebrity, when I sit down to write, it’s going to sound like that. Probably the most common advice a writer receives is “write what you know”. For a short piece this generally means, “write about whatever’s bothering you right now”. But for a longer work it turns into “keep bothering yourself with whatever you’re writing about”. And before you Devil’s Advocates chime in -- don’t get me wrong, I do see the value in adding some new surprising elements if things start to get stale. Sometimes looking at my characters from a new angle can invigorate a story. But, in general for me that works best in the second draft or very late in the first. Too much distraction in the first draft just makes me want to scrap it and go write something else instead.

Tuesday and yesterday, I pulled myself out of the magazines and DFW tributes (I love Infinite Jest but my book is 1 million miles away from that style of writing) and started constructing the environment I need to stay focused on this book. To stay in a sci-fi frame of mind, I spend my 20 minute morning walk listening to science podcasts – WNYC’s Radiolab, NPR’s Science Friday, and science related TED talks. On the train and before bed I’m reading almost exclusively Ray Kurzweil books. (Last week I finished “The Age of Spiritual Machines” and I’ve now moved on to “The Singularity is Near.”) I’m trying to read slowly, because Kurzweil’s tone is so close to what I want to capture in my book – a kind of controlled optimism for the future -- appreciating the dangers that advanced computer and biotechnology pose, but embracing the inevitability of progress and focusing on the tremendous benefits that are possible. Getting dangerously close to talking about plot points here, but – the future in my book isn’t a dystopia, and I want to stay as far as possible from any science-run-amok, power-mad scientist clichés. So I’m drinking the Tang (=kool-aid for scientists) and reveling in technology.

On a sidenote -- did you know ants recognize dead ants entirely by the chemicals they emit? According to E. O. Wilson if you rub the dead ant smell on a live ant, the other ants come and cart him off to the dead ant pile. No amount of wiggling or antly protestations will convince them he’s still alive. (Let the Monty Python jokes commence.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Remembering Grandpa

I'm back in Boston now, after a difficult week in which my Grandpa suffered a heart attack, and sadly passed away. My Grandpa Sampsell was a wonderful Grandad and also a great writer. He was an inspiration to me, taking up writing late in life and having his nonfiction stories published in a variety of magazines as well as winning local literary awards in Kalamazoo.

Here is a piece that appeared in Good Old Days magazine about Dido, a recurring character in Grandpa's stories. A testament to the powers of language and technology -- even though my Grandpa is gone now, thanks to him a scrappy little dog lives on.

Monday, September 15, 2008


This week I'm in Michigan unexpectedly, and have a chance to check out my family's new puppy and kitty.

Here's a few snaps of my younger brother playing with Wallace, the terrier-mix:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Book Update - 8,427 words

One more quick post tonight before I hit the hay. An update on Book #3:

Things are going well so far on my nanowrimo-lite schedule. I’m aiming for a total of 30,000 words by the end of September, so on average 1,000 words per day. I’m up to 8,427 words now (I skipped a few days – including today) and am just wrapping up Chapter 4. I wrote a few bad beginnings before I found the one that “took”, but now I’m pretty happy with the way the story’s going. My characters have motivation, my story has conflict, it’s working! I’ll check back in in another week or so with any developments.

Also, I haven’t mentioned this on the blog before, but in October I’m taking a class called “Continuing Novel” at Grub Street. This will be my first writing workshop so I’m excited to give it a shot, but it’s also pretty scary to think that in a month I’ll be showing other people the book. For now the intimidation factor is keeping me focused on writing it, which is the important thing. Onward and upward!

Greg's Work Table

Work spaces come in all shapes and sizes. I named this journal my "big wood table", but Greg's new project requires a long cloth table.
Check it out --

Ta da! "T" Shirts!

Wednesday Reading - The Age of Spiritual Machines

You may have noticed the last couple Fridays I haven’t posted a weekend book recommendation. It turns out Fridays are just too hectic for me to do a regular post, so starting this week I’m switching the weekly book post to Wednesdays.

This week I’m starting the Wednesday recommendation with Ray Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines.” I’ve actually been reading this book for the last two and a half weeks, which is a lot of time for me to spend on one book. Between commute time, stationary bike time, and pre-bed reading, I spend an average of 2 hours every day reading. I have to believe our reliable public transportation system is a big part of the reason Bostonians are so well read, but … that’s a discussion for another time.

Anyway, the reason Spiritual Machines is taking me so long to read is that I’m literally re-reading every line twice. This book completely blew my mind. I have a hard time classifying Kurzweil. I guess the best term, which I’ve seen several times, is “Futurist”– he focuses mainly on the future of technology and the human race. But this is not to be confused with the early 20th century futurist painters, who embraced violence and anarchy.

The Age of Spiritual Machines was written in 1999, which means Kurzweil’s ideas have had a little time to age. Some of his predictions were surprisingly accurate -- the ubiquity of cell phones, video conferencing, etc – and some were not so – like cochlear implants being used to enhance everyone’s hearing and telephones being able to translate between two different languages.

I think the biggest idea he gets right is that as technology becomes more integrated into the world around us, it becomes integrated into our brains too. The kinds of things that used to be intelligent – memorizing facts and figures – isn’t intelligent anymore, because finding a specific answer to a question is as easy as looking it up online on your phone. Creativity is intelligence for humans now, but the expense is we rely on technology to fill in the knowledge gaps. Eventually, when machines are able to think creatively and make new connections, humanity will enter a new era of intelligence.

The biggest failure of the book -- I think Kurzweil fails to take into account the other forces at work besides evolution. He predicted a steady rise in the stock market from 1999 to 2099. And, he expected the US to be the reigning superpower of the world forever, with the rest of the world foregoing wars to compete with us economically. (although he did predict a rise in terrorism and fears of bioterrorism).

Is it really possible to predict what the world will be like 100 years in the future? Maybe not – there are so many variables. But Kurzweil makes some convincing arguments. If nothing else it’s worth reading so you can look back in 2099 and see what he got right and what he got wrong.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day Arts & Crafts

Happy Labor Day Everyone!

Although this is traditionally a holiday I plan some sort of travel over, this year finances dictated I hang around a little closer to home. Instead, I've been working on my new novel, catching up on Netflix, and doing some scrapbooking.

I made a few changes to my scrapbook, going back to include some holidays and events I'd skipped over before and inserting season markers to give the book a better sense of chronology. The season marker pages are pretty plain, but set the tone for the pages that follow. For example, I used a spooky silouette of a graveyard over an orange background for the Fall page, and glittery flower designs in bright colors for summer.

And, of course, I added our recent trip to the midwest including my Mom's birthday extravaganza and our trip to Shipshewanna. Here are some pics, what do you think?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Weekend Reading - Travels with Barley

My recommendation for this weekend involves two elements of the best late-summer celebrations -- a road trip and beer (I'm not advocating drinking and driving, of course - enjoy separately). In this era of international conglomerates buying up all the great American beers, Ken Wells goes looking for the best local brews and the perfect beer bar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Scrapbooking Steals

Today's fall-ish weather had me wanting to shop in the worst way, so I decided to take a trip to A. C. Moore for some art supplies.

Having never been to an A. C. Moore before, I didn't know what to expect. I found it to be much smaller than Michaels, with a disappointingly small selection of what-the-hell crafts. One thing I love about Michaels is I am guaranteed to find at least one bizzare craft-in-a-box kit that I can't wait to take home and sew/engrave/bake/all three. A. C. Moore was pretty bare bones, which I suppose probably saved me some money.

I wanted to check them out because every week the Globe runs their ad and it always has some really enticing items in it. This week the ad featured 40% off any full price item with a coupon and advertised that all K & Company items were 40% off. I've blogged before about my love for the K & Company scrapbooks, but my passion for all the other assorted pages, stencils, cutouts, and doodads they make borders on obsession. (oh yeah, and their borders!) I must have read that ad 20 times because I was afraid I'd gotten it wrong, but no - every K & Company item -- including the hard-to-find expander pages was 40% off. And, to top it off, a lot of those items were already on sale or reduced.

So I went, I spent, and I made a killing! Check out this haul (above), all for 40% off!
I was particularly excited by this sort of mix-pack the store put together of all different random doodads. Maybe you can see in the picture, it's labeled $49.99. That's the value of the decorations contained in the pack. The normal, every day price for the pack is $19.99. It was all K & Company, so I got 40% off of that -- just $11 bucks! The best part is that it's all mix/match stuff that I would never buy separately so I have a lot of cheap weird materials to work with and get creative on. I opened up the package and look how much was in there. Some cutouts, some glitter stickers, ribbons, alphabet stick-ons and my favorite, rub-ons. I could go on, but the night is young and I have a whole stack of photos just waiting to go into the book.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Weekend Reading - Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

Friday at last! It is just me or has this been a particularly long week?

This week I’m reading “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant”, essays on dining alone compiled by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. Some of the essays focus on the act of dining alone, and others are more focused on the recipes. Essayists include M.F.K. Fisher, Marcella Hazan, Amanda Hesser, Ann Patchett, Steve Almond and others I haven’t gotten to yet. The tone varies from essay to essay but all are masterfully written and enjoyable to read.

Reading the book has me thinking about what some of my favorite foods are to eat when I’m by myself. When I’m out I love a buffet – especially Indian – or any place where I’m likely to encounter new foods on my plate. I love a sushi combo platter too.

At home by myself, nothing makes me quite so happy as a bowl of lentil or veggie soup (something really tart and salty) with at least 2 types of pungent cheese and more bread than is healthy (heated 30 seconds in the microwave and drizzled in olive oil). My current favorite bread is the When Pigs Fly kalamata olive and roasted red pepper – very salty and spicy. After arranging it all on a plate I pour a glass of cheap red wine – I like blends with lots of zinfandel. My favorite is Beaulieu Vineyard’s Beauzeaux, but I haven’t been able to find it in a while so I usually end up with whatever’s cheap with an “Adjective Noun” name (Red Truck, Gnarly Head, Big House, etc. especially anything with big or red in the name. If my blog were a wine I would certainly drink it). The Barefoot wines are always good too. I could eat this for every meal every day.

What do you eat when you’re alone?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

New Work in Progress

Today I broke ground on my new book. I need to save all the ideas for the writing, so I won’t do any synopsis or story specifics on this blog, but I will go into process a little.

This will be my third novel, and the third approach I’ve taken to writing one. The first two were each pushed out in a month for National Novel Writing Month, and this will be my first outside the confines of November. A little about the approaches I’ve taken:

For my first novel, Loss Prevention, I paid a lot of attention to structure. I started with a character – a loss prevention specialist (sort of a supermarket security agent) who has a knack for detective work but who has suffered a series of losses in his personal life. I wanted to write the complete story in a month, so I drew out a character arc using Lew Hunter’s Screenplay structure as a guideline and multiplying by two (Nanowrimo guidelines require novels be 50,000 words / about 200 pages – roughly twice the length of the average screenplay). Next I broke the story down into 28 or 29 chapters of 7-8 pages each. I wrote a one sentence description of what should happen in each chapter, giving each chapter its own mini story arc, as well as using those pages to move the overall story along. I wanted the book to be zippy and cinematic so I committed myself to write in chapter blocks (usually one chapter per day) to keep the tone and pacing consistent within the chapter and to make writing the book feel like a series of small tasks instead of one overwhelmingly big one. That first year, I was concerned I wouldn’t finish the book in a month so the structure helped me gauge how I was doing and made 50,000 words feel reachable. The organization and plotting was useful for me, and boosted my confidence in my abilities to produce large works. I did finish Loss Prevention, but by the end I had lost a lot of my interest in the story. In retrospect, I should have chosen a topic that I knew better or that was more interesting to me. But my main goal that year was just to see if I could do it and what the process would be like, so it was, in that way, a success.
For last year’s novel, instead of a character I started with a theme – doubt – which I explored through a mystery/suspense book set in the woods of Maine. I still remember writing the first chapter with every light in my apartment on and the radio playing just to keep me from scaring myself. The idea for the scene developed out of my own claustrophobia one dark night when Greg and I stayed in an un-electified cabin near the end of the Appalachian Trail. The room around me was as dark with my eyes open as closed and it occurred to me that the nearest light might be miles away – with who knows how many animals and people between. That feeling of being vulnerable without sight stuck with me and I used it as an entry-point into a story where unseen forces were constantly inflicting doubt and anxiety on the main character. I gave myself a lot more leeway in my writing schedule. I wrote chapters out of order, rewrote chapters, and even wrote some pages that didn’t directly fit in with the story. I really enjoyed writing this book, and I’d love to go back and finish it one day. At the end of the month it wasn’t as well paced or filled in as Loss Prevention, but I did complete 50,000 words and had an ending of some sort.
With the new book I’m leaving things very loose and giving myself a lot of space to figure out how the story will work. I’d like to have a finished draft by the end of the year, but I plan to spend a lot of time at the start of this one finding the best entry point. Beginning the book is the hardest part for me because I can’t do the work in my head, I need to write it all out and read it to see if it works. My personal style on art projects has always been to produce 10 times what I need and then cut out the worst stuff until it looks like something manageable. I’m hoping I can do some of that editing as I go so I won’t need to actually write 10 novels before I get one good enough to show somebody. But, even if I do have to write 10, at this rate I’ll only be 34 by the time I write a good one, so that’s not too bad.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Weekend Reading - The Lace Reader

Happy Friday everyone!

This week I recommend Brunonia Barry’s “The Lace Reader”. This book is getting lots of attention in Boston both because of its modern day Salem setting and for the author’s unusual route to publication. The 58 year old author self-published the book first, then after it gathered a following with book clubs, she managed to sell it to Harper Collins for a $2 million deal. Of course, a quick look at the bio on her webpage reveals that she’s certainly paid her dues; studying literature, creative writing and screenwriting and a building a career history that spans the communications world from copywriting to screenwriting to young adult fiction to devising logic puzzles.

There’s a whiff of J. K. Rowling fandom in reviews of this book so I picked up my copy on Tuesday as soon as it was released. Even though I practically never buy hard cover books (they’re too bulky for my purse and usually too expensive), since it’s a heavily promoted new release, the big book sellers have it on sale for 30-40% off, meaning it’ll only set you back $15 and change. Just go buy it now on sale. Everyone you know is going to be reading this book by the end of the summer (at least if you live in the Boston area) so you’ll probably break down and read it eventually.
And no, sorry, I can’t lend you mine. My mom is already dying to get her hands on it as soon as I finish, which shouldn’t be long. After 3 days I’m already half way through it!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

two poems

Today has an article on Kay Ryan, the new poet laureate. Here's a poem of hers I like:

"Repulsive Theory"

Little has been made
of the soft skirting action
of magnets reversed,
while much has been
made of attraction.
But is it not this pillowy
principle of repulsion
that produces the
doily edges of oceans
or the arabesques of thought?
And do these cutout coasts
and in-curved rhetorical beaches
not baffle the onslaught
of the sea or objectionable people
and give private life
what small protection it's got?
Praise then the oiled motions
of avoidance, the pearly
convolutions of all that
slides off or takes a
wide berth …

Which somehow reminds me of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem I love:

"Pied Beauty"

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Things I love: Television without Pity recaps of Gossip Girl

Greg surprised me this weekend by shelling out for Season 1 of Gossip Girl on itunes, so we’ve spent the last couple evenings in the grips of new-show infatuation. Only taking short breaks to getadrinkandsomethingtoeatputlaundryintaketrashoutgotothegymdothedishesusethebathroom and then hurry back for more scandals.

For me, before there were Gossip Girl episodes on itunes, there were Gossip Girl recaps on televisionwithoutpity. I started reading these a few weeks ago at work when I undertook a massive email archiving project that froze up most of my computer for long stretches of time but left the internet window working. Before then I hadn’t used tv w/o p very much, because apart from spoilers, I don’t like to read about tv shows, but I was aware of it after one of my favorite tv guide podcasters, Angel, moved there when she quit tv guide.

I won’t explain what televisionwithoutpity is, because this is a blog so you’re one click away from seeing for yourself and you probably already know about it, anyway. The show recaps are long, sometimes taking as long or longer to read than watching an episode would, but they pack a big punch. They are simultaneously a recap of what happened in the episode (S and B have a catfight, or brunch at the waldorfs or something), a celebration of fandom for the show (who is hot, who is a great actor, who has smaller boobs than her character in the books), a critique of the production and writing on the show (whether the timeline makes sense, the song is the right one for a scene etc), and a celebration of modern culture in general. Reading the recaps is like watching the show with your best friend, who’s not afraid to drop allusions to Hamlet, BSG, or the OC because he trusts you’ll catch them all. You get a sense that he takes the show seriously, and cares what happens to it. And, the analysis goes deep into the relationships between the characters, the structure of the season’s story arc, the overarching themes and speculations about how the characters got to be the way they are now and what might happen to them in the future, but all in a snarky off the cuff way that always hits the mark.

I don’t know that I’ll be going back to televisionwithoutpity to read recaps of other shows now that I’ve finished gossip girl. They do take quite a while to get through and there isn’t another show I’m as interested in reading up on, but I wholeheartedly recommend the Gossip Girl recaps to anyone who’s interested in the show but hasn’t seen it yet.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Weekend Reading - Holmes on the Range

I like when bloggers cover a specific topic on a set day every week (see Boston Gal's Friday Sale posts or Melissa Morris' Monty Mondays) so I'm going to try that for a while on this blog and see how it goes. Each week I'll suggest a good weekend read that's season/weather/mood appropriate.

If you're so inclined, you can do as I do and sign up for Border's Rewards, to get a 25-30% off coupon every week by email and on every receipt. (in case you're wondering, I'm not making any money for this plug, I just love Borders). For mystery books also check out Kate's Mystery Books near Porter Square. That's where I got this week's book.

This week I'm reading "Holmes on the Range" by Steve Hockensmith. I just checked it on amazon and it's apparently a series, but it works as a stand-alone book too. The main characters are a pair of cowboy brothers -- a wannabe Sherlock Holmes, and his defacto Watson. The book is full of rough and tumble cowhands and bigger than the Montana sky characters. It's an easy book to get back into if you've set it aside for a while or gotten distracted, so I'd recommend it for a plane ride, weekend trip, beach outing, or morning commute.

Scrapbook Talk

Last night I got to spend a little time updating my scrapbook with photos and mementos of our July escapades. It's taken me a good week and a half of searching to find the right expander-pages to fit in my book. I'm really surprised by how hard they were to find.

It seems like every company that makes book has a different style of page. I have a couple of different scrapbooks, but my favorite is my 12x12 K & Company book. The book opens almost flat, so I can flip the pages easily, and it uses plastic page protectors (like this: so I don't have to worry about items on facing pages rubbing against eachother and getting pulled off. The book is held together with screws and rods, which can be expanded or swapped out for larger pieces as you add more pages to the book. I think this style is a lot sturdier than the clamped style some other companies use, and it's more versatile than the books where the pages are permanently fastened in. The only downside is that you need to find the add-ons specifically made for or by K & Company or the holes in the page protectors won't be in the right place. Michaels carries them, and the little art store in my town center does sometimes, but they're nowhere near as easy to find as the Kolo stuff.

It's taken me a while to find a book that works well for me. When I first decided to take up scrapbooking, I went to the Papersource store in Brookline, which is a great place to get arts & crafts ideas, but a very expensive place to shop. Kolo is the only brand of scrapbook they sell there (this is also the case at Pearl in Central Square, as I learned after a walk in the rain yesterday) so I didn't realize other places would have cheaper alternatives. I forked over more money than I'm proud of for a book I never use. Kolo's books are beautiful, but 2-3 times as expensive as their competitors and don't ever seem to go on sale. They do use the post system I like so much, but page protectors, new posts, and everything else you could want costs extra. A lot extra. I think the Kolo album I have is similar to this one. So far I haven't put anything in my Kolo album even though it was the first one I bought. It's so nice it freaks me out. I feel like I should wait until I get married to landed gentry, have a baby, or win a Nobel prize. Those archival pages would look silly behind my pizza-eating phots. The book just doesn't go with my life. Plus, I've never gotten around to buying the page protectors because Kolo uses this ridiculous system where before you can buy any accessories you have to know your book's corresponding letter of the alphabet and girl's/city's name. Oh yeah, I guess I should've known what I was getting into when they all had names like Ann Taylor jeans or Coach bags.

The second album I bought was this pretty valentines-y K and Company one: I have a few Valentines Day pictures in it, but haven't filled more than one or two pages because the pages are relatively small, and most of the stuff goes into my Travel Scrapbook. Plus, I love love love over-the-top bright colored florals and girly curlicues, but again most of my photos are me at a pizza place with cheese dribbling out of my mouth, or Greg and me with our heads coming out the headholes of a particle-board standup image of silly sheep, pumpkins, or pirates or something. The book is too pretty for my reality.

So I was lucky to discover my Travel album on the sale rack at Walmart in one of my random shopping trips in Michigan. It is K & Company (the posts have the telltale K engraved) but it was really cheap and has a real matter-of-fact look to it (I tried to find an image to post, but it's not listed on K&Co's site, Walmart, Michaels or Amazon and... I'm lazy). The big pages give me plenty of room to experiment with layout, and the generalized travel theme fits with most of the subject matter I have scraps for. So even though it's a pain in the butt to find the add-on pages to go in it, for now I'm going to keep on using this one. At least until I can find a 12x12 pizza/pirate themed book.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Lost and Found in the Woods

On Saturday, Greg and I decided to walk to Wilson's for some fresh fruits and vegetables. We're lucky to live so close to the bike path that instead of walking along the road side we could take a leisurely stroll through the woods. Here's a cute pic of Greg manning the granny cart:

New England woods have a special place in my heart, especially in our neighborhood, where I can imagine Paul Revere or William Dawes might have ridden their horses through the very spot I'm walking, warning their countrymen "the British are coming!" Or I can pretend I'm walking along Robert Frost's Road Less Travelled. Realistically, I know our bike path isn't that old, but it's certainly possible the trees and rocks are. And it's possible our squirrels' ancestors used to peek in on John Adams' household.

Anyway, my favorite thing to do in the woods is look for things. I'm a champion looker. For those who don't know me personally -- I have a gift for finding four leaf clovers and -- bizarrely -- a paperclip every day. But I'm not picky, so I also like to check out squirrels, birds, rabbits, and whatever else is around. There's something about observing nature that just resets all the clocks in my head and improves my mood, my energy and my sense of humor.

Early this spring, after reading The Omnivore's Dillemma (which I highly recommend), I decided that I wanted to take up mycology. It's very easy to find people who are interested in mushroom hunting, and easy to find books on it, but nearly everyone who knows anything about mycology agrees that the best way to learn it is by accompanying another mycologist out on a hunt. So far, I haven't been able to track down anyone to show me how, so a few months ago I set out on my own down the bike path to see what I could find. What did I find?

Four leaf clovers. Oh well. I guess when all you've got's a hammer, all you see is nails.

Not a single mushroom! It's possible I wasn't looking in the right places, or that I was looking at the wrong time of year. But whatever the reason, I pretty much gave up on it and figured I was destined for lesser discoveries.

Well, whyever I didn't find them then, we did find them this time out! Tons!

I didn't eat any, of course. But it was fun to find them, and when I wasn't even expecting them. I'm excited now to see how many more there will be this summer and fall. Last week was pretty rainy, so I'm guessing muggy hot days after it rains are a good time to go hunting.

I wanted to stay and look longer, and maybe take a few home to look up on the internet. But, we weren't even to Wilson's yet. And we had miles to go...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

This morning I managed to wake up on time, which meant 15-20 minutes for writing my “morning pages” which I’ve been pretty lax about the last few weeks. Now, on the far side of the morning, I can definitely feel the difference that getting those 3 pages written has on my energy levels. Starting the day on the right foot has a profound effect on my mental processes. The same way that lean protein for breakfast has me craving healthier stuff all day, focusing my attention on writing when I first wake up makes me feel more in control for the rest of the day. I’m now in week 10 of Walking in this World (from now on: WitW), Julia Cameron’s follow-up to The Artist’s Way (TAW), which means morning pages have been in my life for almost 6 months(!). Along the way I’ve added in the weekly “artist date”, regular long walks, and now the end of day “Ta-da list”.

I’ve always been a bit of a creativity manual glutton. I eat them up. I love reading about artists’ processes – Ray Bradbury writing out a list of random words every day and then doing a story about each, Stephen King putting out 2000 words a day no matter how long it takes until he has a finished book to edit, Robert B. Parker managing to be more prolific than King by writing 10 pages every morning and leaving the read-through to his wife. I always wonder how much experimentation went into arriving at those numbers. Does Stephen King get cranky if he has to sit down and write 2500 words? Does Robert Parker lose steam at 11? Being a writer is like being a word factory, so I love to see the leading manufacturers releasing their corporate manuals to the public. The machinery and end results may differ, but the raw materials and the process look remarkably the same.

I’m still figuring out the best conditions for my writing machine. Last week’s WitW called for a start to finish perfect day. At first I was thinking “Okay win Nobel Prize, swim in the ocean, deep dish pizza with Oprah for dinner...” but in truth the best possible day for me has all cylinders warmed up and running at their best. It likely would look something like this:

-Early am: wake up, write 3 pages
-Big breakfast – eggs, fake bacon, multigrain toast, coffee, fruit, milk
-Read and respond to mail/ emails (mail in the am? I’m dreaming big…)
-Walk to gym along bike path
-work out, with tv on Biggest Loser or SYTYCD
-Long walk home, catching up with family by phone
-Writing for 2 or 3 hours
-Dinner someplace I’ve never been and walk around different neighborhood

Not so tricky, huh? And I could put it into practice this weekend if only the mailman and TV stations would oblige.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

so far

As promised, a few pictures of my painting in progress:

This is my model, taken from a calendar of Maine scenery...

...and here's how the painting looked after the first day. It's a little hard to see with the lighting, but the water and sky are both overly green.

Here it is after yesterday's work. A little bluer....

And now I'm taking tonight off to let things dry before I add some detail.

Surprise - I need better supplies

Yesterday afternoon at work, there was a knock on the “door” to my cubicle – Elsa, a long term temp in the legal department, had stopped by to get a signature from my boss. It was a nice surprise to see her, since she’s always pleasant and upbeat, but her temp status means I’m never sure whether I’m seeing her for the last time. She’s been with the company practically as long as I have, but whereas I decided to push for a permanent position, Elsa seems to prefer to stay on a temporary basis while she devotes most of her energy outside the office to her painting career.

This morning she came by again to pick up the signed document and it occurred to me that fate might be doing me a favor in reminding me I know a genuine working oil paint artist who I can ask about the proper materials. So I asked her what she uses to clean her brushes and sure enough she had a list of provisions and stores to get them.

Over the past few nights as I’ve been working on my painting, it’s becoming increasingly clear that I haven’t chosen the best options for cleaning my brushes. I have a little glass jar of turpenoid with a kind of rough spongy thing in the bottom for rubbing excess paint onto. The sponge has two parts, which I’d hoped meant the bottom part would absorb the paint particles and clean the turpenoid solution for the next use. Where did I ever get this crazy idea? Instead, the first paint I brushed onto the sponge clung to it, and now any time I dip my brush in the jar the mixture gets a little darker and my brush stays dirty. Instead of cleaning my brush, I feel like I’m very slowly painting the inside of a jar.

It seems to me that the problem is the jar and sponge – I need something a little rougher to rub the brush on, but something that won’t hang onto the paint. In high school we had these big plastic tubs with built in ridges, which would be perfect, except that one of those tubs would take up too much real estate on my work space (nee coffee table), and increase the likelihood of things getting knocked over and ruined. As Quick and Simple would say – What to do?

Elsa’s first point of advice – before I can even finish explaining my situation actually – is don’t use turpentine.

Oops. Not for anything?

Not for anything. Painters today don’t use turpentine for anything except stripping paint off a canvas. I need to clean my brushes with a substance specifically created for that, and should use a separate oil thinner for thinning my paint.

Elsa was kind (and thorough) enough to make me a full list of cleaners, thinners, and a quality comparison of the different brands of oil paints (she recommends Winsor-Newton professional for value --I have Winton which I think is made by them. She says Old Holland is the best of the best for quality, but twice as expensive as others). Plus, a description of the process she follows for keeping her workspace clean (after cleaning brushes she wipes them onto a paper towel, which goes into a plastic bag in a clean, empty paint can).

I guess I’ll be stopping by another art store on my way home tonight. But what to do with all this foul smelling turpenoid…?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Oil Painting

Last night I finally opened up the oil paints Greg gave me eons ago, and got to work on a new painting. It’s nothing too spectacular, just a Maine landscape taken from a calendar we had at the apartment.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done any painting, especially in oils, and last weekend Danielle and I made a trip to Michaels so I could pick up all the assorted tools necessary (and so Danielle could get a few goodies of her own). I love painting in oils because it’s such a forgiving medium. My general creative strategy – in writing and visual arts - is to just get a bunch of stuff down on paper and then go back and refine things once there’s a good mess to work with. This tactic doesn’t lend itself to a medium like watercolor paints, but with oils, and to a limited degree acrylics, it gives me a chance to play around with the paints and try out new effects. Sort of a self-taught course.

I’ll see if I can post some pictures to this blog as I go.