Sunday, December 27, 2009
I've spent a bit of time today trying to find a digital picture of the house we used to live in. I have a framed one on display to remind all of us how things used to be, but the scanner's not working, so I'm going to have to give you a brief description instead: It was a little, square, flat-roofed box of a rental--about 400 square feet. Twenty feet by twenty feet. And since I'm less than 2 inches shy of being six feet tall, I like to keep it in perspective by saying it was three-and-a-half of me this way by three-and-a-half of me that way. I also like to say that the bugs were just letting us live there. The windows were cracked (or BB gunned) and painted closed, the kitchen floor sagged over the dug-out basement, and the plaster walls and ceiling were peeling and had a recurring mold that I couldn't seem to bleach away. We fixed it up the best we could--repainting, re carpeting, putting up a little white picket fence--but as Mark says, it's not really possible to polish a turd. He's also the one who promised me that someday we'd look back on our years there and think of it as being our honeymoon cottage. (He's that kind of optimist.) And really, the first few years were all right. Well, except for the gang activity in the neighborhood, the domestic violence across the street, the burglary, the drug deals in the alley behind us, and the homeless people on our porch. We got two big dogs (to guard against the goings on in the neighborhood), and then we started a family. Now, as you might imagine, I've got lots of stories about living in this place. There's Dead Cat Bob and Fat Larry and...well, the list goes on and on. And for those of you who have read them, there's a lot of Sammy Keyes world created from that environment. "The Bush Man" and Hudson...they live "down the street". The Salvation Army? It's right around the corner. As is St. Mary's church and the mall and the police station... But really, I need to reign this in and talk about the reason I'm bringing this up in the first place, and that's Christmas. I love a Christmas tree. Everything about it -- the smell, the look, the lights, the ornaments--it's like a festive piece of outside in the comfort of inside. We did not have room for a regular tree in this house. With two big dogs, two small kids, and us, we barely had room for ourselves. So every year we'd store a bunch of our stuff under a collapsible table, put a table cloth that draped to the floor over it, and pop a little table-top tree on top of it. And every Christmas I would tell Mark, "This is the LAST Christmas I'm going to spend in this house!" 400 square feet felt like 200 on a good day, but around Christmas that shrank to about 100. But it takes some time to save up enough to buy your own house, and since neither of us had a job that paid a lot, we scrimped and saved and dreamt of "next Christmas". One year turned into two, turned into five, turned into ten, and meanwhile, I was getting up early in the morning before work to write a little on these stories about a girl named Sammy. I had a dream that someday I'd be a published novelist, and even though no agent or editor in New York seemed to share that dream with me, I wrote four complete Sammy Keyes books at a fold down desk, using the edge of the bed as a chair. Ten years in this house turned into twelve, and finally we'd saved enough money to start building our very own "dream house". Too bad for Mark, because shortly after we started the process of building our own house, I got my book deal with Knopf / Random House for the Sammy Keyes books. And right around the time we moved in, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief won the Edgar for Best Children's Mystery. So of course everyone thought we were now "rich" because of Sammy, not because we'd scrimped and saved and lived in cramped quarters for a dozen years. But anyway, back to the tree. We now get a full-sized tree. (An entertaining process in and of itself, as Mark likes the bushy pine and its pine-y smell, and I love a fir and how it allows you to dangle ornaments between the branch levels. You should see us in a tree lot battling it out.) Anyway, this year we found the most beautiful tree ever--not huge, just perfect for the space we put a tree--tall and not too broad. (It is a fir, but even Mark agrees that it's the most beautiful tree ever.) We spiraled white lights through it, and hung ornaments that are all music related, with "drums only" on one side (my concession to my drummer-boy husband, for bringing in a fir instead of a pine). But the point is, since we've moved I always think of Christmases in our little rental and how far we've come. And I know that I wouldn't appreciate the tree I have now, if I hadn't gone through several years of table-toppers. And no, I don't look back on the little place as being a honeymoon cottage. I still have nightmares about spiders. But I do see the value in having lived there. I recognize that from struggle comes appreciation. I also think that trying to forget about the past interferes with appreciating the present. I don't romanticize those dozen years, but I don't shove them from my mind either; I'm not glad I experienced them, but I do appreciate how they've help shape my outlook. I'm really, really glad for what I have.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
I have some serious ground to cover! As if December isn't busy enough, our son had a birthday on Friday (and we gave him a surprise "retro" party, which was quite a trick to pull off), and I only today got my head into the fact that Christmas is less than a week away. But concerning this blog, I really need to celebrate the contributions of people who participated in the Exercise the Right to Read campaign, as this cycle comes to a close at the end of the calendar year, and I have some spotlighting to do! But I've also promised the Sammy fans following this blog that I'd present them with an idea this week, so for this entry, I'm going to focus on that. The people at Random House are looking at different ways to generate sort of a drum roll about Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher. After all, it's the 13th book in the series, and there are some pretty major developments in the overarching storyline. RH has some cool ideas, but I'd be interested in hearing what would appeal to you, or what you think might help spread the news that there's a new Sammy Keyes book coming out. Now, let me make really clear that "dumb" ideas can lead to good ideas, and believe me, I've had many dumb ideas...but you have to start somewhere, right? So if you think something's "dumb", maybe it'll spark an idea for something better--which means that the original idea wasn't really dumb at all, but a catalyst for something cool. Also keep in mind that ideas will only work if they are practical and affordable. If it's not both, it won't fly with my publisher. So to get the ball rolling, let me give you some of the ideas I've had: My awesome sister-in-law has given me a charm for every SK book that has come out. I have this amazing charm bracelet with a charm that symbolizes each title -- binoculars for Hotel Thief, a jack o' lantern for Skeleton Man...you get the idea. I've always thought that having a charm that went with each book would be very cool... But how would they get distributed? Packaging them with the book is not practical....mailing them to readers is not practical...distributing them at the POS (point of sale) could be...but the whole idea is a little fussy. and really, are charm bracelets even in style for teens? I don't think so. Which brings me to an adjustment on the idea. How about a leather band that you could add beads to? A bead for each book? Does the idea have any merit at all? What would YOU think was a cool thing to have / collect? Another idea: shoelaces. I've thought it would be so cool to give away Sammy Keyes shoelaces with the purchase of a book -- ones you could lace through your own high-tops ('cause, of course you've got high-tops, right?). It's more practical than a charm bracelet (because it's a one-time thing)...but I don't know if other people will think it's as fun as I do. And what would you want to see printed on the shoelaces? A string of all the titles? Or just "Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher"? (Seems too "commercial" to me.) "SK" repeating? (Don't say SK + CA, 'cause much as I love him, there's more to Sammy Keyes than Casey Acosta :-)) When it comes to practical and affordable, the Internet is king. So Random House has tossed around ideas about maybe having "Sammy" tweet, or blog, or...have some sort of Web presence which was more personal than the sammykeyes.com website. My reaction to this is that it might be more interesting to hear "tweeting" or on-line comments from Sammy's friends...Marissa and Holly and Dot and Billy and (especially) Casey. And of course we'd have to include Heather :-) Does that idea have appeal to you? Do you think people would follow? And anything that could be downloaded from the website...that would be practical and affordable...but what? Educators (and publishers) tend to think in terms of bookmarks and test-your-knowledge quizzes...but I'd like to know what YOU think would be a cool thing to find you could download from a website. Maybe you like the idea of a bookmark...maybe you've got an idea that's new and unique and, you know, more Sammy. So send me your brainstorms, your preferences, your "that's cool" and "that's lame". I want to hear what you think. I'm excited to invite you to be part of this process--from the comments some of you have posted, I know you're the right people to ask! If you don't want your comments / ideas to go public, you can always send them to me via the "Contact Us" button at the Exercise the Right to Read website (www.exercisetherighttoread.org). So get on your idea skateboard and ride!
Sunday, December 13, 2009
It's been sort of a dark week. Family matters (my mom's health), work load (two manuscripts landed! 700 pages of rewrite due when???) and the weather (dark, cold, rainy). Then suddenly today the skies cleared and a magnificent rainbow arched clear across the canyon.
I tend to get a little overly excited by things like rainbows and moon rises and deer grazing in our yard. And although I used to run for my camera, I've learned that I prefer to just enjoy the moment. Before I know it, the rainbow will fade and vanish, the moon will leave the horizon behind, and the deer will flick their tails and move on.
I no longer want to live the moment trying to capture the moment.
I just want to live the moment.
So soaking in the rainbow today (while Mark ran for his camera), I thought about the proverbial pot of gold. When I was a child, I believed in the pot of gold. It was probably a hope more than a belief. but still, I harbored enough of a hope that I chased after it a few times.
Today, I could actually see the end of the rainbow and it was very clear that there was no pot of any kind. There was simply a field, with a few cows. Not a leprechaun in sight.
I wondered at chasing for gold. How when you want it so badly, it just eludes you. The end of the rainbow keeps shifting, keeps changing, keeps disappearing.
And it occurred to me that the rainbow, in all its dazzling beauty, is the pot of gold. By chasing after something more you lose what's right in front of you.
So, reflecting on the bright and beautiful, I've decided that the colors of my rainbow for this week are:
- The people who have been leaving me comments at previous postings at this blog. You guys are crazy and I love you! (And I will answer your Sammy questions at the entries where you posted them.)
- The out-of-the-blue call from a screen writer who loves Swear to Howdy (my little overshadowed book that is so near and dear to my heart) and wants to write the screenplay for it.
- A report from someone who has seen a preliminary screening (without music) of Flipped and says (breathlessly) that "it's brilliant".
- A counter on the Internet that reports that there are "only" 277 days until the premier of Flipped.
- The unexpected gift of a cut glass punchbowl that belonged to Mark's grandmother.
- The friends who took the time and braved the storm to jingle bell rock the night away.
- My family, whole and healthy and home.
Who needs a pot of gold?
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Sometimes, the best strategy is simply to step back for a moment while you change your expectations, then lower your head, put your new plan into effect, and just keep going… Hi guys! Mark here, filling in for Wendelin as she takes an extremely well-deserved recovery nap after today’s event. I will say this right now: That girl is a trooper! Yes, I’m extremely biased, and yes, we saw others out there today who faced challenges of their own. (One poor woman went down maybe 50 yards in front of us, somewhere around Mile 23. Total bonkage – likely glycogen depletion and/or dehydration. We stopped for a second but some kind spectators were taking care of her.) But still, Wendelin has my admiration for hanging in there until the end, under very trying circumstances. She got very little sleep last night, and woke with a migraine headache. Luckily we got a ride to the start from some friends (thanks, Ellen and Stuart!) so we avoided some of the usual standing around in the cold & dark. The start was delayed ½ hr, and the sun was up by the time we got going. We took it easy during the opening miles, but even so, Wendelin felt whipped by headache-induced nausea by Mile 6. A bad sign indeed. (When training for a marathon, anything under maybe 12 miles is considered a short run, and we had a couple of recent 20-milers under our belts, so this was unusual for her to feel this bad so early.) Her nausea never got better, and as we approached the halfway mark I lobbied for her to consider stopping at that point. No way. So we pushed on. She had to make a couple of pit stops, and we did some walking near the end. (Her legs were fine, but the act of running made her want to puke. Not the best condition to have during a 26 mile race, to say the least!) But we eventually crested the last big hill and made it down to the coast and that beautiful finish line. (The finish line is always beautiful, but today it was doubly so.) Then we finally had some good luck. We had originally planned to walk back to our motel from the finish, to cool down (maybe 2 miles). But clearly that wasn’t the best plan, so I stuck out my thumb and immediately this nice couple with their daughter stopped and gave us a lift. (The woman was a participant also, so she took mercy on us.) Wendelin was sitting next to the daughter, who looked like the perfect age to be a Sammy Keyes reader, so Wendelin asked her if she’d heard of SK, and it turns out she's a big fan. The family was happily surprised to learn they'd given the author a ride. Totally cool. The young lady’s name was Lucia, and we want to thank her and her parents again for rescuing fellow runners (and readers!) in need. So, that was a bright spot in our day. And at this moment Wendelin is tucked in and sound asleep, with her shiny finisher’s medal still around her neck. I’d say she’s definitely earned the right to wear it…
Sunday, November 29, 2009
I've had several good laughs this week, and the funny thing is, they've all come from people who love Sammy Keyes. They laughs have come from the sack of physical fan mail (that I'm finally sorting through and answering), from e-mails at the Exercise the Right to Read mailbox, and from comments made to postings at this blog. They've been good laughs. Really make-my-day laughs. I think my favorite from this week is, "I have OCD!" -- Obsessive Casey (or, I suspect, Cammy) Disorder. How funny is that! When I read it, I actually ran across the house and interrupted my son (who went as "Casey" last Halloween) and his girlfriend (who went as "Sammy" last Halloween) with the news. Yeah, it can be embarrassing having me as a mom... Anyway, I guess the thing about being a productive author is that you spend much of your time alone. Or really, alone with your characters. So what happens is, the characters you create become real to you, and when you discuss them with others you find yourself having to explain to peripheral listeners that no, it wasn't an actual person who cemented a gangster's tush into a wheelbarrow--it was Sammy Keyes. Now, that's what you tell them, but in your head, she really did it. In your head, Casey and Billy and Heather and Grams and Hudson and Marissa and Dot and Holly and Mikey and Officer Borsch and everybody really exists. It all sounds a bit mad, I know, so generally I don't let on about this in public. But when I get mail from readers and they are SO excited about developments in the series, it makes me feel good--like I'm not alone in my madness. The letters are physical proof that I'm not the only one who cares who Sammy's dad is. I'm not the only one who wonders if Billy has a secret crush on Sammy. I'm not the only one who wants Casey to be the prince we think he is...despite Sammy's heart wrenching suspicions that he may not be. And I'm not the only one who'd like to see Heather doused...even though there's still a lot of gasoline left near her fire. I am, though, perhaps the only person who doesn't wonder how it all will end. I know what the last book will be and how it will tie everything together. I can't wait to get to it, because it's going to be unique and surprising and...well, good. But I have to pace myself to it. Sometimes I feel like Sammy Keyes is the dark horse in the Series Races. I see other series gallop ahead, but I just remind myself as they burn brightly and then fade that I'm in this for the long haul. And I have confidence in the long haul because I know that my "fans" are individuals. They're not followers. Sammy Keyes is not the flavor of the month to them. They're in it for the long haul, just like me. I'm thirteen books done--about two-thirds of the way there. And instead of being tired or burned out, I feel like I'm just hitting my stride. That I can do this and that I will finish strong. Part of that is that my love for Sammy continues to grow. Part of that is that I get letters and messages from people who love her too. If you're one of them, know that you're like a tailwind. I feel you at my back, and I'm grateful that you're there.
Monday, November 23, 2009
There is a huge turnip in a Charles Shaw wine box at the end of my driveway. I have no idea who put it there, or why it's there. Is it a gift? A suggestion for my yardscape? Will someone be returning later, expecting soup? For some reason seeing the turnip in the box reminded me of running over a camping pot and a sorry-looking yucca "tree" with the family car when I was a teenager. The turnip at the end of my driveway rivals the yucca. Really, it does. Bulbous base...not much in the way of greens...lurking in the dark.... Plus the yucca was scrawny, and this turnip is huge. So yeah, I could make the case. Why a wine box reminds me of the camping pot is not exactly clear. They both hold stuff, but my trash can makes regular appearances at the end of the driveway and it has never reminded me of a camping pot. I guess the brain just sometimes yields curious connections. I should, perhaps, explain that I ran over the yucca and camping pot not because I was inebriated or taking the driveway turn too fast, but because I was still new at driving and terrible at backing up. It was a look-over-your-shoulder-turn-wrong-and-panic-with-your-gas-foot maneuver. My parents didn't seem to care too much about the yucca. Perhaps they'd considered taking it out themselves and I'd just saved them some time. And since by some miraculous stroke of luck I hadn't caused any harm to the car, I got off easy with the yucca. It was the camping pot that I caught heat for. It was our big one. Some sort of prized aluminum, no doubt. One that I needed to buy a replacement for. I should have just chucked the pot in the trash with the promise that I would buy a new one. After all, what good is a smashed camping pot? But I took it inside and put it in my closet instead. And every time I opened my closet door, there it was, reminding me. Making me old. I didn't use that phrase at the time. It took me many years to coin it, but the Camping Pot Incident was the event I trace the feeling of a nagging burden back to. It was like the turning point of responsibility, where instead of hoping I'd get out of something I'd been told to do, I was now weighed down by the fact that I hadn't yet done something. It's different than a conscience. It wasn't about having done something wrong. It wasn't even about not having done something to make it right. It was knowing I had to take care of something...and putting it off. I look at my life now--at all the things I've been meaning to do, all the people I've been meaning to contact, all the promises I've yet to fulfill--and I wonder at the unappreciated simplicity of a life where buying a camping pot could free me from the sense that something was "making me old". And I would pontificate on this some more, because I find the whole concept of avoiding things that "make you old" quite compelling, but Mark just walked in with a Charles Shaw box announcing, "Someone left us a present!" Really. So I better go. I think he's planning on making soup.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Hi, guys! Mark here, filling in for Wendelin as she takes care of some pressing writing biz. Since the primary themes here are running and writing, that’s what we’ll discuss. Running first… We’re now three weeks out from the inaugural Santa Barbara International Marathon (where “Team ETRTR” will cheerfully be representing Exercise the Right to Read!) so this morning we did our final ‘long run’ before we start to taper. Today’s run was a 20-miler, but it was relatively civilized, all things considered. Our previous long run, however, was another story. It was a hot day and we’d headed inland. Big mistake. The heat and attendant dehydration took its toll, and it ended up being more of a death-march than the fun little jaunt it should have been. So this morning we stuck near the coast (perfect weather – clear and 60 degrees out), took plenty of hydration breaks, and set a good, moderate pace that we could maintain over the distance. (Correct pacing is everything! Okay, except for a decent training program. And pre-run nutrition. And fueling and hydration during the run. And rest & recovery afterwards. But other than that, trust me, pacing is everything!) SO… all of the above-mentioned factors made today’s trot a much more pleasant experience, and we’re feeling good about the upcoming marathon. We’ll post a short ETRTR video update after event (similar to what we did for the San Francisco Marathon a few months back). And now writing… Wendelin’s been discussing her writing process here lately, and the short story here is that—while not identical—my process is pretty similar. Like her, I’m a huge believer that much of the real creative stuff actually has its beginnings in the subconscious, and the best thing you can do as a writer is to facilitate the delivery. It seems that often, great ideas come bubbling up when you’re otherwise occupied in some semi-mindless task. (Running is great for this. So is driving. And standing in the shower—especially after a long run—is about as good as it gets…) And contrary to some conventional wisdom, I’m also a big believer that talking about writing ideas can do a lot to “unstick” the creative process. My theory on this is that talking uses a different part of your brain, and verbalizing your thoughts allows you to access this otherwise-unused part of the mind. Wendelin and I frequently “talk plot” on long car trips, and it’s helped us both immensely. One area where Wendelin and I differ, however, is that she has learned to really love the rewriting process. I enjoy it somewhat (and certainly recognize its value) but perhaps I’m less evolved than she is (I’m a dude, after all) because I still prefer the “oh yeah!” moment of initial creation over the incremental improvements of repeated revisions. It occurred to me today (probably because I’m in the middle of a revision) that writing—at least, writing for publication—is actually a collaborative process. Which seems strange, because writing is often thought of as a solo creative effort. But between your initial manuscript and that shiny new book on the bookstore shelf stands something very important—an editor. And a good editor does a lot more than acquire projects and do all the admin stuff and schedule the various steps of the process like a corporate Project Manager. Good editors also edit. (Well, they do all that other stuff too, but they’re called editors for a reason.) I used to tell Wendelin she was lucky, because at least she got to see (and revise) the various editings of the various editors who have edited her various works before they went to print. I used to write primarily non-fiction, and frequently in non-fiction you send off the manuscript and don’t see it again until its edited version is on the pages of a book or magazine. So that’s sort of a one-way collaboration (which I guess isn’t really much of a collaboration at all, is it?). But with fiction, you send off your manuscript and get back (at least initially, way before the copy-editing stage) comments as to how the story might be tightened up and improved. And that’s where I am today—trying to incorporate an editor’s suggestions into my manuscript. And if the ideas were contrary to what I was trying to say in the story (or just plain lousy) then I could brush them aside and be done with it, one way or the other. But this editor is a very good one, and I can tell that her comments will make it a stronger book in the long run. But you can’t just tack things on with glue and duct tape, or you’ll end up with a literary version of Frankenstein’s monster. It requires many small additions, subtractions, and “smoothing over” of the transitions so that there are no obvious scars. So in keeping with our monster metaphor, what you want instead is more like perfect plastic surgery, which by definition should be both an improvement and unnoticeable. (Which it rarely is, by the way, which is where the simile falls apart. But you get the idea…) So here I am, hopefully learning to “love the process” as much as my wonderful wife does! And really, I’m only too happy to have the opportunity to make the revisions myself (rather than finding out what the editor’s done only by reading the finished product). So yes, it’s really a back-and-forth collaborative effort, and if done right the final result is better than it could have been any other way. That’s my take on it…
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher---part mystery, part comedy, part fairy tale (!?). Woot! Done! Well, not actually done done, but that's okay. I'll start the revision process tomorrow, but I took the weekend "off" to celebrate this hard earned (and joyous) milestone. The last 30 pages of a Sammy Keyes book is where all the set up in the previous 250 pages comes together. The last 30 pages are a tumbling together of subplots and punch lines (or both kind) and theme. It's the big, fun payoff for the months and months and months of buildup. My editor once asked me if I ever write the fun scenes of a book first--as in out of order--before it's their turn in the sequence of pages. I was shocked because I'd never even considered it, but apparently some authors do this. To me the fun scenes (and the climactic ones) are the reward for all the work I've put into setting them up. To write them before I've "earned" them? That seems like cheating. Or, you know, like charging something I can't yet afford to my credit card just because I can't wait to have it. Speaking of my editor, she's actually the one who taught me the value of rewriting. I used to dread it. But now it's a process I thoroughly enjoy. It's the part where I get to go back and tweak (or out-and-out fix) places that could be smoother (or just don't work). And now that I'm at this major milestone, I can relax a little. I know Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher works...so going back through it to make it tighter and funnier and more cohesive is actually fun. Everybody has a different way of writing, but I find that what works best for me is to print each chapter after I finish it, rewrite it using a red pencil (and yes, the pages can look quite bloodied at this phase), enter the changes, print again, and add the stapled pages to my growing stack of chapters. Then, when things start to get a little muddied--after 6 or 7 chapters I may have added a character or changed my mind about something--I will take the entire stack of chapters and rewrite through it. Then I enter the changes on my computer, print it again, and go on with the writing of the next chapters, until I stop, take the whole manuscript up to that point and rewrite it again before moving on. There are about thirty chapters in this book, and I have already gone through the majority of the manuscript (the first 25 chapters, or so) at least a dozen times (with the earlier chapters having accumulated more attention at this point than the later ones). By the time I am through the revision process (it'll be a few weeks), I'll have gone through the entire manuscript at least 20 times. Then, when I think it's "perfect", I'll send it off to my editor, who will (usually after many months) get back to me with ideas on how to make it even better. Oy. But I've learned to take an objective look at her notes and appreciate the fact that she's put so much thought into the story, and that she has managed to come up with ideas to improve the story. After I've mulled over her comments, I go through the manuscript another few times, resubmit it, and months later it finds its way back to me with comments and technical corrections made by a copy editor. Double oy. Comma placement can drive me batty. So even when I'm done, I'm not, but I'm ignoring that for now. For now I'm celebrating that Sammy 13 is "done" and that the "Cammy" fans (Casey+Sammy) who have been begging for the next installment will be ecstatic to find out what happens next. Woot!
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Based on my tales of materializing pigs and slobbery carrots, you may not believe this, but I'm a big believer in the importance of plot. Earlier I talked about writing as being like a road trip, and to go with that simile, I'm not one of those people who sets out on a journey without a destination in mind. I also always map out places that I intend to visit along the way. In other words, I always have an outline of some sort. I don't just "wing it". I especially always know the ending, or, in the case of Sammy Keyes, who-dun-it. I'm not one of those authors who "discovers along with the reader". Especially in the case of mysteries, I think that's cheating. How are you able to drop fair clues for your reader if you're going to pluck your villain from a cast of red herrings five pages from the end? Anyway, the ending is very important to me, and if I don't have one I really like, I won't start writing until I find one. For me, the most extreme case of this was Runaway. I knew that Holly's teacher was going to give her a journal, I knew that Holly (who lives in bad foster care) would think it was the lamest thing a person could give her--what good was a journal to someone who was being locked up in a laundry closet, and whose head was "Sani-flushed" in the toilet? I also knew that the journal would become Holly's lifeline and most prized possession after she ran away and embarked on a harrowing journey across the country, and that Holly would intersperse poetry throughout the journal which would reflect her growth and ability to finally get down to "the heart of the matter". So I "knew" a lot about this book I wanted to write, but it took me a good, what? seven years to hit on the way to end it. And then, once I did (and got over being all weepy about it--something any teacher will totally get when they read it), I dove in and started writing. So for me, it's imperative to have a strong beginning, a killer ending, and good solid plot posts along the way. But (as you know from the whole pigs and carrots thing) I drive forward not always knowing what I'll run into, and for me that's the fun of embarking on the journey. If I know every little place I'm going to visit, every person I'll meet, everything that's going to happen, why take the trip? I like the surprises. They're what turn the journey from a trip to an adventure. Yeah, it can be a little dicey. It'll make you sweat through passages because you're pretty much in the dark, groping your way along, hoping to be rescued by...well, you don't really know what, but something. You shake your flashlight in an effort to get it to work better, you let out a warbly "Helllooooo? Anyone there???" and you press on. And here's the deal. You have to press on. Even when you're scared that you've lost your way, you have to press on. I've had my characters at the threshold of a doorway and not known what was on the other side more times than I can count. And the interesting things is, every time my character has knocked, someone has answered. Don't be afraid. That's the key. Who answers the door is infinitely variable. You have nothing to lose by knocking. If you don't like who you see, slam the door and try again. But I promise you that whoever answers will be someone of interest; someone you (and your reader) will want to know more about. I think my best example of this is in the second book of my new The Gecko and Sticky series for young readers. In one scene in the book, Dave Sanchez (the hero of the story) is making his way through dark and deadly passages located beneath the "maniacal mansion" where Damian Black (the story's diabolical [and completely mad] villain) resides. My "plot post" was to get Dave inside the mansion via a strange subterranean labyrinth, but how exactly he was going to do this was up in the air. I was just going along with him on this adventure, discovering things as I wrote. It's dark. Dave's scared. And (like me) not at all sure where he's going. Then up ahead, there's a faint glow. A light. Sort of. Dave's not sure what it might be (and neither am I). But as we proceed, the glow gets brighter. Dave imagines that it's the glow of ancient Aztec gold (as Damien is a treacherous treasure hunter who would, for the record, have piles of the stuff hanging around). Then there's a blood-twisting screech. The screech gets louder. And fiercer. (I have no idea what's screeching, and believe me, neither does Dave.) But thoughts of gold persist, and so Dave (and I) press on until we get to a corner--one we must turn to discover what's screeching and glowing around the bend. So here I am, at "the door", and no, I have no idea what's there. But I take a deep breath (and a few trips to the refrigerator) and finally I "knock". And around the corner Dave (and I) discover...oh, good grief, this is going to sound so wacky, but it totally fits with the story so here we go...a (small, moderately cute, but highly intelligent) rhesus monkey inside Damien Black's subterranean espresso cafe. There are cushy couches, recessed lighting, and a full-service coffee bar, and the monkey is trapped inside, not as Damien's pet, but as his coffee boy--Damien,you see, had trained him to brew rare and exotic blends of Himalayan coffee (which Damien enjoyed drinking black, of course). Now, being trapped inside an espresso bar, the monkey had developed a taste for (and an addiction to) coffee and was, in fact, a java-junkie monkey. Dave (being the kind and compassionate hero that he is) frees the monkey only to later learn that the monkey will (in an effort to offset fearsome headaches from caffeine withdrawl) stop at nothing to grab the grounds, jack the joe, make off with the mocha! See? Wacky, I know. But the monkey became one of my very favorite characters, and he will appear (in a pre-planned way) in subsequent titles in the series. But I would never have met him had I been afraid to "get up to the door and knock". So that's my advice for you for this week. Don't be afraid. Go on the adventure. Knock on doors. Turn corners. It's called "organic writing" and some of my very best creative work has come from a willingness to not know exactly how I'm going to get to where I know I'm going. It's like pulling up to a "hole in the wall" diner instead of a Denny's. You don't know what to expect, but open the door anyway and go inside. It's what will turn your trip into an adventure.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
It was during a family reunion at a cabin in Oregon--I was stuck on the plot for Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy and it was driving me crazy. It was like the pig incident, but this one involved a carrot. Now, let me state right off that the carrot was innocent of any wrongdoing--it was, in fact, all my fault. I'd let it pop into the story for sentimental reasons. You see, my older brother (Mark) had a dog (Bear)who was a fan of carrots, so when I gave the priest (Fr. Mayhew) in Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy a dog (Gregory), that dog soon adopted a lot Bear's personality traits. For you writers, it falls under the write-what-you-know umbrella. Bear really was part of the family. He was my brother's constant companion. From the day Mark brought him home inside the folds of his motorcycle jacket, to the day they died together in a car accident, those two were best of friends. So yeah. Sentiment played a big part in my giving Gregory Bear's carrot-chomping habit, and as I neared the end of the book, sentiment was what made me battle the glaring need to remove it. I mean, this carrot-chomping business was in every scene that Gregory appeared. The carrot was slimy and slobbery and Gregory was constantly nudging his little carrot-gnawing nose into Sammy's leg, trying to get her to quit sleuthing and start throwing (because Gregory likes to play fetch with his gnawed-down, slobbered-on carrot). It had become like the proverbial gun. Conventional writing wisdom: If you introduce a gun in your story, you must fire it before the end of the story. Otherwise why have a gun? I mean, guns are not toys. You don't play with them. And in writing, if you bring it out, you've got to shoot it. Anyway, the carrot had become like a gun. I'd mentioned it over and over and over, but why? I knew I had no compelling reason, and it had gone way beyond giving Gregory a personality trait. Sentiment did not justify my having made such a big deal out of a stupid carrot. The carrot had to either lead up to something or I needed to get rid of it. But, see, I was attached to the carrot on several levels and I didn't want to tone it down. It reminded me of Bear. And my brother. I wanted it to stay. Now, maybe I was feeling so attached to the carrot because realizing the carrot had to either be a plot device or be gone occurred in the midst of a family reunion. My husband and our kids, my siblings, their spouses, their kids and our mother were all under one roof in a cabin in Oregon. I missed my brother Mark. I missed his carrot-chomping dog. So I redoubled my efforts to find a reason for Gregory to hold onto his carrot habit. I thought and thought and thought and drove my husband nuts discussing the potential uses of carrots in my story. I spent four solid days thinking about carrots. And then, finally, I decided I should hold one. It was sheer desperation. I thought that maybe hanging out with a carrot would help me. Maybe the veggie would find a way to talk to me. And the funny thing is, it did. Now, maybe you don't know of any carrot-chomping dogs. Maybe you've never tossed a slobbery orange root just because a perky-eared canine gave you his best puppy-dog look. But if you ever have you know that a carrot that's been mauled all day by a dog is (besides being utterly gross) at dog-breath temperature. It's warm. The instant I retrieved a carrot from our Oregon cabin's icebox, I had my clue. It was (of course) cold. And with that clue came the plot device and the purpose for the Gregory's carrot-chomping habit. I was overjoyed. The carrot stayed! It seems obvious now, but at the time I'd been looking for ways to use the carrot. Ways to have it be a tool for Sammy. And all the thinking in the world wouldn't yield a solution. It was actually holding the carrot that did it. So the moral of the story is, you can't always move forward with just your imagination. It helps to feel the earth, climb the tree, absorb the sounds and smells and temperatures of your story. In other words, commune with carrots. Whatever your carrots may be.
Monday, October 19, 2009
I'm afraid that my last entry might have given the impression that my process consists of eating and sleeping. What I was actually building up to was what I believe is at the core of my success as a writer. Actually, I think it's at the core of any successful person's process, and it's probably the single most valuable tip I could give you. And it is... Learn to program the default mode of your brain to your story. Our brains are always working on something. The trick is to train your brain to work on your story even when you're not physically writing it. I believe that humans are born problem solvers and our brains crave having something to chew on, to solve. If there's nothing meaty around, it'll find some small problem and stew on it until it becomes meaty. If we have no drama in our lives, we'll soak up the drama of others and apply our problem-solving skills where needed. This can be with a real-life situation, or (I think more insidiously) a fabricated one that you follow on television. We get sucked into the drama, real or fabricated, and wind up turning over our mental programming to others. It's not just the time it takes to watch the program, it's the time we spend thinking about it afterwards. Our brain is on a problem-solving quest, so it wants to figure out who's doing what on the island, or what's going to happen next with the love triangle in the emergency room, or who's going to get the kids--the Doofus or the Money Grubber. We spend WAY too much time chewing on fabricated problems, and where does that get us? Nowhere. What you need to do is switch the station back to your story, your book, your life. This is actually way easier said than done, because years and years of bad habits and preconditioning interfere. Still, once you get the hang of it, you'll find an amazing improvement in what you accomplish. For starters: turn off the television, the radio, the phone if you have to, and your casual Internet use. They are all distractions; ways your brain can get a quick fix of something that has nothing to do with what you need to be working on, yet give you the false sense that you're working on something. Next, force your brain to focus on what you want it to work on. In this case, this means think about your story--an upcoming scene that you're planning to write, a character that you're developing. When you're first attempting this, it helps to choose something small and build up from there. Start with a line of dialog and let it blossom into a whole conversation. Go back and fix it, redo it, take a different path until you love it and can really feel it. Or start with a physical trait and let it help you better define a character. Or visualize a place. First the tree, then the leaves, then the wind and the flowers and the smell of the earth. See it in your mind's eye, hear it in your...mind's ear? Let the characters and their words roam around in your head. Make your brain stew on that. You'll find whole scenes will develop, ideas will drop into your brain from nowhere, or you'll get goosebumps because you finally know the theme that will tie your subplots together. It takes time, and it takes discipline, but it's what makes your imaginary world real to you, and in the end that's what makes your world come alive to your readers. What helps: White noise--the car, the shower, the vacuum cleaner. I find it also helps to do a menial task while story-stewing. Sweeping, folding laundry, washing windows, mowing the yard...it's like part of my brain is tied up with the menial task and can no longer interfere with the part that's attending to my story. If a task is both menial and creates white noise it seems to work the best for me. (And by the way, not only does this work much better than just staring at the computer screen as you try to come up with what to write next, it also makes for a clean and tidy home--multi-tasking at its best.) Now, your brain will not want to mind you. It enjoys roaming around. And it expects to be allowed to, seeing how you've probably always let it. So it's time for some tough love. When you realize that you're thinking about something else, get that bad boy back in line and start again. The more you do this, the better you'll get at it, and the more productive you'll be, to the point where some part of your brain will be thinking about your story 24/7. When I had a full time job teaching school and two little kids I would answer the (very common) question "Do you get writer's block?" with the quip, "I don't have time for writer's block!" But the fact is that while I was away from the writing desk, my brain was stewing in the background--my subconscious was puzzling out what would happen next in my story. It was a quiet hum back there, going all the time, and each morning when I got up at 5:00 to write, I had a good idea about where I was going. So there you go--the key to my writing universe. I hope it works as well for you as it has for me.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Adults often ask me how I write--they want to know what the process is. Kids just want to know, "How do you think up this stuff?" That's probably because inside every adult is a story wanting to be written, and inside every kid is an assignment having to be written. My process is probably very normal, but it still feels a little odd to me. Like I'm always about to run off the rails. It's a little like getting in a car of questionable reliability and saying, I think I'll drive across the country. I know there'll be breakdowns (both mechanical and emotional), but I leave the driveway with a good dose of optimism (and a prayer for good luck) that I'll be able to dig through the trunk for appropriate tools when things go wrong. Anyway, depending on its length, since a novel takes between six months and a year of solid commitment to research, write and re-re-re-re-rewrite, I have to be really smitten by the idea of the story to embark on the journey. It's not something I enter into lightly, and once I begin I am determined to make it to my destination. There's no turning back for me, or quitting. Usually the idea for a story comes to me all at once. BAM! I blink a bunch out the plane window, or sit straight up in bed, or drop the laundry basket in the middle of the hallway. Sometimes, as in the case of Runaway or Swear to Howdy or the project I've just finished, I tell myself, No...you cannot write that story. You don't know enough about the subject...it will take up WAY too much time...you have other commitments...there's too much else going on. But the thought persists and I finally give in and say, Well maybe...let me think about it. Then I spend shower time, drive time, running time, vacuum time, floor-scrubbing time, plant-watering time, (well, you get the idea) thinking about this story idea; forming characters; locations; plot threads; sub-plot threads. And when I'm fully obsessed with the idea (which, obviously, at this point has won the battle), I sit down and write the first few scenes. At this point it's all over--I'm hooked. And completely obsessed. I play through scenes in my head, then type them at the computer. (If I had to write longhand I would definitely not be a novelist.) When I had a full time job teaching high school, I'd get up at 5:00 AM to write for an hour before beginning my day. Now that I'm a full time writer, I have the luxury of sleeping in until 6:00. I get the kids to school, and once I'm home, I'm at my desk, writing. Now, I can't write for a solid 8 hours. I need think time. Stew time. Because once a scene is typed, it's always a little different than I'd expect. Things happen. Like, pigs appear. Who knew the little old lady walking down the road would be walking a pig? And that the pig would be wearing a big black bow tie? Not me. But suddenly there's the pig. And I say to myself, A pig? Why? But the pig insists it's needed and necessary and before long the pig is named Penny. Now, it may very well be that this pig will cause me nothing but trouble; that it doesn't really need to be in the story; that it does nothing to further the plot or contribute to character development. Which means that I'll have to get rid of the pig later on. But for now, I go with the pig. Especially since the pig makes me laugh. But back to the process: Since a pig has appeared in the story, I must stew some more, considering the new twists and turns caused by the pork-bellied intruder. And, of course, a little old lady that has a pet pig is a different woman than the one I'd originally envisioned, so I need to spend some more mental time with my character, getting to the bottom of why she owns the pig in the first place. This is where the refrigerator comes in. Such a handy appliance. I open it up, gaze upon it's varied contents, and think about my story. Maybe I'm hungry, but for what, I'm not quite sure. All I know is there's a comfort to hanging one arm on the open door and gazing inside this box of coolness. Sometimes I don't even rummage. I just hang there, looking. And sometimes I'll get a brilliant idea for what to do next with the story, close the door and leave the kitchen without taking a bite. The refrigerator really works for me. You should try it. The couch does too. I'll lie back on the couch, close my eyes, and play through the scene in my mind. I go different directions with it--sort of like trying on different outfits. Of course, sometimes I just fall asleep. When he sees me on the couch with my eyes closed, my husband will whisper, "Are you plotting or napping?" Good question. Sometimes it's something somewhere in between. The alpha state, where your mind is freed from the box of restrictive thought. The alpha state is an awesome place to plot. Wow. This is already long. And all I've done, really, is tell you to check out your fridge (only don't eat anything) and take a quasi-nap. But I need to stop, so practice the fridge thing and the couch thing. Really. Consider it homework. Then come back next week--I'll see if I can't get us a little farther down this writing road.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
"You're going to Fargo?" people asked me. "Why?" And yeah, my initial reaction to an invitation to do school visits in Fargo, ND was lukewarm at best. That's not because of the movie Fargo or because Judy, the LMS inviting me, said "Oh, ya" and "You betcha!" (as I haven't seen the movie, and she did not). It was because after years of traveling to do school visits, I've learned that getting there is the hard part, and I knew that getting to Fargo would not be easy. Besides, isn't it flat? And cold? And...what's to see? But then Judy told me the plan. The three middle schools in Fargo would all do the Exercise the Right to Read program and time it so that it ended the weekend of the Fargo Marathon. Each student who completed the program would receive an ETRTR t-shirt (in their school’s color) and they wanted me to give presentations at each of the schools during the week and then run the 5K portion of the marathon-day programming with kids from all the schools on Saturday. Suddenly Fargo seemed like an awesome place to visit. So after some intense planning, the event went off last May without a hitch. What an amazing sight to see an MPR full of yellow ETRTR shirts one day, blue the next, and gray on the third. And on Saturday morning students and staff (and even the superintendent!) from all the schools came out in their ETRTR t-shirts and made a BIG statement as we trucked through the 5K together, ending up in the Fargo Dome alongside runners from all over the world. Everyone had a great time, and felt a real sense of accomplishment. One boy told me he “never finishes stuff like this” but was so glad he did. I get the feeling he’ll be “a finisher” from here on. Budgets across the country are in crisis – if you want to do the ETRTR program as a fundraiser for your school, that’s how it’s designed. But if you just want to do it to get your kids reading and running, that’s fine, too. All the content on the website ( http://www.exercisetherighttoread.org/ ) is free—it’s there because we want to help, so adapt it any way that helps you and your school. And remember, I’m not the only running author – if you like the idea of tying the program to an author visit and your town’s local run, by all means invite your favorite local author. Our goal is to get kids running and reading and anyone who wants to help is welcome! As for my new friends in Fargo, we've stayed in touch and I'm delighted to tell you that Judy--who was pretty much a a "non runner" a couple of years ago -- ran her very first marathon today. Am I proud of her? You betcha! Would I go back to Fargo? Oh, ya!
Sunday, September 27, 2009
I find it difficult to talk about my book Flipped being made into a movie. It's not because there isn't a lot to say--it's because the unfolding of events has been so surreal. It started with a phone call from Rob Reiner (who is the film's director). He related how he came to find out about Flipped (his son was reading it for school), what he loved about the story (that it captures the magic of your first love in a way he hadn't seen done before), and how he intended to adapt the story to film (by following the book).
There would be changes, of course, but after hearing his thoughtful analysis, I understood why he wanted to make them. For example, he sees the book as having an innocence that was representative of a different era. And in considering the events that transformed us as a nation, he felt that the assassination of JFK was the point where our country lost its innocence. So although I wrote the book as a fairly contemporary story, he's setting the film between 1957 and 1963.
I had no idea what a huge undertaking a "period piece" movie was. But this summer my family and I made a trip to Michigan, where Flipped was filmed, and now I get it. Wow. The attention to detail is unbelievable. From wardrobe, to set "dressing", to street signs, cars, bikes, license plates, t0 playground structures...it all has to be verifiably "period". Being on set was so educational...and strange.
For one thing, everyone was so nice to me. So Wow-It's-The-Author. That was completely unexpected. My impression of Hollywood's view of authors (based on some very credible reports) was, Oh that was fine for the book, but a movie is not a book, so don't even think we want anything to do with you! But here a lot of the cast and crew told me they had actually read the book, and I was also surprised by how many of them said, "It's thanks to you I have a job!" My reply was, well, no--if it hadn't been my book it would have been someone else's, but they weren't buying my (very logical) line of reasoning.
Another thing I found strange was that this little thought in my head had blossomed into the enormous project with multiple set locations and warehouses of equipment. In addition to the schools, houses, "fake" houses, and other locations that were used, a former GM assembly plant was transformed into the Flipped warehouse, with construction, paint, art design, and costume departments, plus the business offices and a whole "house" set inside it. Just coordinating everyone's daily schedule seemed a mind-boggling undertaking.
Then there was the filming of scenes that came straight from the book. Something about witnessing this was hard to wrap my head around. I had an idea that became a book that turned into a movie. That's cool. I can follow that. But hearing these real life people speak the words that the characters I had in my head spoke in my head, was weird. It's like everything was backwards. Like I was witnessing something that had been created years ago but was now happening in real time...yet looked like it had happened in the past--a past that occurred before the time of creation.
Yes, I know they were actors delivering lines, but it felt so strange.
Like I said, it's very hard to put this whole experience into words.
But the truly cosmic moment has to do with the sycamore tree they used in the film. As you probably already know, Juli Baker loves the sycamore tree in her neighborhood. In the book (and in the movie) the tree gets sawn down to clear a lot for the building of a home. The destruction of this tree is a pivotal moment in Juli's understanding of her crush's character (or lack thereof). Also, Juli has a special-needs uncle named David. But apparently in the making of movies, names get cleared for use. So if there's some potential conflict with the name of a character (like, say, someone by that name lives in a town by the name used in the story), the movie makers will change the character's name to avoid any legal hassles. Because of this, David Baker became Daniel Baker in the movie.
Rob Reiner told me that the big hurdle for them with the making of this movie was finding the right tree. He wanted to stay true to the story and have it be a sycamore tree, but it couldn't be just any sycamore. It had to be the perfect tree. And it had to have school bus access. And have a surrounding area that worked right. And, and, and. So they were having trouble finding the right tree. But finally the location scout came upon one in a public park that was alongside a basketball court. RR declared it to be the perfect tree and arrangements were made with the city to tear out the b-ball court, pave in a street, shoot the scene with the school bus, tear out the street, and replace the b-ball court...such is the world of movie-making.
But of all of the sycamore trees in the world that might have been chosen, this tree happened to be a very special tree to a certain autistic boy. He has been climbing this tree--climbing way up in this tree (just like Juli does in the story)--for years. He has written things on the limbs ("I love this tree, this tree loves me"). So that connection right there was enough to make me go "unbelievable".
But then I found out this boy's name. And of all the names in all the world, this special needs boy who loves this sycamore tree happens to be named Daniel.
Now that's what I call cosmic.
(Next week: How I Wound Up In Fargo)
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Earlier this year I made an awkward twisting motion as I moved a guitar amplifier and I wound up wrenching my back so badly that I couldn’t go from sitting to standing, or roll over in bed without being in excruciating pain. It was terrifying. Even using the toilet was a major ordeal. And as I caught glimpses of myself hobbling around the house I felt like I had become an old lady overnight. I have an injury from many years ago—a broken vertebra in my lower back – so I’m no stranger to back pain. This time, though, I was very worried that it would be permanent. It had been about a year since I’d run the New York Marathon for Exercise the Right to Read. As you may already know I’d only run it for the program and had said that that was it for me—I was not going to run any more marathons. It’s a hard distance and the training, I complained, was way too time-consuming. I had other things to do with my life than run! So during that year I’d fallen into a pattern of running four miles every other day. And not having any real goal except fitness…well, it was easy to rationalize not going for a run. My view on it had become tired—it was something I did for wellness, not joy. And then I wrenched my back, and like a slap upside the head I saw how fortunate I’d been to be able to run and how much I’d taken it for granted. Luckily, my back did heal, and when I was able to hit the streets again I had a whole new attitude. Mark and I even ran the San Francisco Marathon this summer for ETRTR. Every day I can run is a blessed day. From now on I intend to celebrate that. (If you want to see a sometimes funny, sometimes educational, sometimes embarrassing overview of our adventure at the SF marathon, click here.) Next Sunday: Cosmic (or, That’s Unbelievable!): Tales from the Flipped Set
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Sundays. That's my plan. I need some structure that's manageable for me in this fast paced world. With tweeting and texting and blogging and social networking gone mad...and most people seeming to want something, or have nothing to say (do we really care what people are having for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Do we really need to see photos of scrambled eggs?), I figured nobody would miss my contribution to this communication chaos. But apparently some of you did, and I'm touched that you let me know. I also feared that this blog and my efforts on behalf of Exercise the Right to Read might be misconstrued as self-promotion. I'm allergic to that idea. It breaks me out in an itchy-witchy rash. I know quite a few authors who are rabid bloggers and seem to have self-promotion as their main focus and end-goal. I understand that it's a survival thing--how else will their book get noticed?--but I don't want to join that race. I'm not in a race against anyone or anything except time. (Time, I know, will defeat me, so how smart am I, huh? Choosing the one race that's impossible to win.) Anyway, just so we're clear on the whole motivation thing, okay? If I talk about my books, it's not because I'm trying to sell them to you. It's because it's a huge part of my life and it's part of sharing that with you. If I talk about Flipped being made into a movie and how amazing it was to see it being filmed, it's not because I'm trying to build up my stature or convince you to see the film and oh, read the book first--it's because it was an unbelievable experience and I want to share it with people who wish they could have been there, too. And if I talk about our band and the songs we're recording, it's not because I want you to buy a CD -- it's because it's a blast (and the most effective therapy ever) to be in a rock band with your husband and sons and make like you're in the Clash. Sound good? Then I'll meet you here next Sunday. 'Til then, I'll be reading and running and of course writing (and rock'n'rollin'). How about you?
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I'm receiving a lot of emails regarding my well-being (and the status of ETRTR). Sorry for neglecting the blog! Yes, I'm alive and well, and yes, ETRTR is still running strong. I've been communicating and coordinating the program with people via the site's e-mail link -- you're always welcome to write to me there. We have lots of great pictures from events around the country, and I hope to add them to the slide show on the School Program main page soon. Also to come, updates on writing (and movie) projects (because I've gotten lots of mail regarding that, too!). Sorry to have been so out of touch. Regular blog entries and updates start now :-)