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Book of the Month

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Speaking of Dan Simmons, I just finished his novel, THE TERROR. The title suggests a horror novel – and the story is indeed very dark. But it is wrapped in an elegant historical novel, titled after the name of a nineteenth-century British ship which became trapped in frozen polar waters. Simmons’ ability to capture the sights, sounds and smells of the Arctic and the ships and crews that braved its seas is breath-taking. I was completely absorbed by the story, the setting, the characters, and the precise, stunning details.
His next novel, DROOD, focuses on Charles Dickens’ friendship with Wilkie Collins, the nineteenth-century author whose mystery THE WOMAN IN WHITE is considered a classic. His website states DROOD will be published in January 2009, although publication dates sometimes shift. I’ll be waiting…

Recently, I had the pleasure of stumbling onto Dan Simmon’s website. It includes the usual list of the author’s works, as well as a forum and a series of essays called Writing Well. The latter are so well-written and entertaining that I’ve linked to them for you here.

One of my favorite passages from Simmon’s essays includes the theory of developing a story (I think it’s a perfect description of what occurs when I write a novel):

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"I have been an author for twenty years and an ass for fifty-five." -- Mark Twain

Mark Twain has always been one of my favorite authors; I got hooked on him back in tenth grade, when I played Twain in a skit for Mrs. Dodamead's English class. (Alas, she wouldn't let me light that cigar, but I spent a year toying with Swisher Sweets...)

So for those of you who wish to know the rules I l write by, here they are, both large and small, as Twain designated them:

Large rules:
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

Midweek Musings

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On-strike writers from The Daily Show speak out today on the United Hollywood site, run by WGA strikers.

In the meantime, keep on keeping your eyes on this blog for updates on the strike...

And please do enjoy an article by Garrison Keillor, courtesy of Salon.com, titled "Author at Work." This is a guy who understands what it's like to write a book under a deadline (a subject uncomfortably close to my heart these days),. Funny -- I discovered the necessity of long walks, too.

MS Word went berserk today and ate two of my precious pages. I know why it happened -- a recent update caused it to lose my custom settings, and make repeated backup copies (the dreaded "Work Files") of my 1MB+ BLOODIEST QUEEN document. About 50 copies, as a matter of fact -- thus the memory snafu and the lost pages.

Add that to the carpet cleaner, two unwanted solicitors, a relative in crisis, and a car with a nail in its right front tire, and you'll understand why yours truly didn't quite make her page quota today. Being a resoundingly type-A individual who just happens to be really, really late on a book deadline, I can't stop my left eye from twitching...

I'm shutting the windows, locking the door (can you tell I live in a really small town?) and turning the phone off tomorrow...

Solidarity

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Go. Go to the United Hollywood site and see why you MUST support the Writers Guild of America strike.

If you don't understand why it's so important, please watch their video "Why We Fight." Then scroll down and sign the petition. Please.

Those of you who are fans of particular television shows -- be sure to link your fan pages to the United Hollywood site.

Hint: Keep your eyes on the writers this coming week, folks. There's some interesting action to come. Be sure to check back here and there on Wednesday.

YOU NEED THIS WOMAN

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Meet my good friend, Sherry Gottlieb. After being friends with Sherry for more than a decade, I finally turned to her for advice on my latest book (in frantic progress), THE BLOODIEST QUEEN.

What an idiot I was to wait.

Sherry, you see, is a Novel Doctor -- that is, an editor who is skilled at helping aspiring novelists bring their work up to publishable quality. (She was also owner of one of the world's most famous science fiction bookstores, A CHANGE OF HOBBIT.) I'd always suspected she was pretty good at what she did -- after all, her own novel, WORSE THAN DEATH, was published by St. Martin's Forge, her other novel LOVE BITE was made into a movie, and her non-fiction book, HELL NO, WE WON'T GO! about Vietnam War draft resisters was nominated for the PEN West USA Literary Award.

But Sherry and I have always been busy, off doing our own things, and somehow I never nailed her foot to the floor to make her read my work. She was always swamped with editorial work and her other businesses (she also runs a resume-writing service), and we never connected.

I'm so glad we finally did. THE BLOODIEST QUEEN will be my thirty-third published book; I've grown lazy and jaded and had thought there was little anyone could teach me. (Hah!) I went to Sherry just to see her reaction to a particular scene -- whether I was able to pull off a fast one on the reader or not -- and wound up being blown away by her editorial acumen. She understood all the nuances of the scene in question better than I did -- and pointed out exactly what wasn't working, and why. She then gave me a suggestion which was nothing short of brilliant in terms of making the whole thing work beautifully. (And then gave a dozen other suggestions which will make the book *so* much better...) Long story short, Sherry's going through the entire manuscript for me. And she's going to be my best pal during the writing of the next book, too.

I'm so impressed that I've added a link to Sherry's Novel Doctor page to my sidebar. Sherry charges the going rate for such editorial service -- and trust me, you'll be getting an honest, top-notch professional to look over your work.

If you're writing a novel and thinking of getting help, please consider Sherry.

Writerly Idiosyncracies

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We all know that Mark Twain dressed in white; but did you know that his shirts all buttoned in the back?

Edgar Allen Poe wore only black. And Forest McDonald writes naked on his front porch.

Behold, the list of writers' quirks and idiosyncrasies, courtesy of Judy Reeves.

Me -- well, I have a beautifully-appointed office. But I ignore it completely and write in bed, with a dog on my husband's pillow beside me.

Update on THE BLOODIEST QUEEN: I thought I had a 600-page book here... Turns out I'm wrong; try 800 pages, and I'm nowhere near the end. Ayyyyy! Anyway, take all those earlier comments about me being crazed and quadruple them. Take-out again tonight!

No, this isn't turning into a dog blog... at least, not until I get the new puppy. But after re-reading and re-thinking the post about Hershey the wonder Lab, I wanted to make things clear about my attitude on dog training sooner rather than later.

First, about the "take-down" Hershey endured: I do not, I repeat, I DO NOT condone the use of "alpha rolls" or take-downs. My point was that Hershey learned on the first go-round because he was so intelligent and he communicated the fact poignantly. The *method* Bethany and I used, however, was unforgivably harsh and unnecessary, and in that sense, the story is very sad; Bethany and I just didn't know a better way at the time. For about a decade, we've known that Hersh could have learned not to attack Sweetie Pie in the presence of toys if we humans had used a clicker and some food or other positive reinforcement. (Also, I should not have used the word "bribe" with "food." Food is a perfectly legitimate reinforcement for training, and no one should ever shrink from using it for that purpose.) It was the clicker (reinforced by Hersh's favorite treat) that allowed him to learn the really cool golly-gee-whiz tricks like turning the light switch on and off.

So for Hershey's sake, don't use negative training methods on your dog. Instead, go read about the magic of clicker training at Karen Pryor's website. (Her book DON'T SHOOT THE DOG, on reinforcement-based conditioning, has become a classic.) Be sure to watch the amazing short video of the mule.

The great thing about reinforcement-based training? You can use it on anyone: a dog, a cat, a chicken. Even your spouse...

Okay, everyone straight on that? Don't ever punish your dog for something he's done wrong. Or your spouse, for that matter. Instead, reinforce them for what they're doing right. You, and they, will be a lot happier for it.

For The Love of a Dog

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Hershey was the canine love of my life. He came to me back-yard bred and sickly, stubborn and independent, terrified of loud noises but certainly nothing or no one else.

He started out as dog-dog aggressive; when he was eighteen months old and I brought Sweetie Pie home as a puppy, he tore her face off when she went near one of his toys. I immediately recruited a local trainer. We set up a little sting: The trainer sat next to Hershey, her hand on his leash; I sat on his other side, my hand on the innocent ten-week-old Sweetie Pie's leash. Enter the jealously-guarded toy. We set it in front of the ninety-pound Hershey's nose, then coaxed Sweetie over to it. Of course he went for her, fangs slavering -- but Bethany, the marvelous trainer, took him down in the blink of an eye. He yelped, not because it hurt, but to signal his submission.

We set the trap up again. This time, when Sweetie wandered over to Hershey's favorite toy and began to play with it, Hersh looked up at the trainer, looked up at me, and buried his face in my lap while Sweetie played happily. From that instant on, he was a perfect gentleman with her. He had just needed to be informed of our pack's rules. And I was in love.


Hersh learned to heel off-leash and walk past barking dogs without blinking an eye; he retrieved the newspaper and the mail like a pro, whispered on command, and in the end, wasn't quite able to perfect his ability to turn lights on and off, because his crippling arthritis made it difficult to reach the switch. And as for being terrified of loud noises -- well, because I always praised him to the skies every time I turned the vacuum cleaner on (no food bribes, just praise), he eventually decided he got a blast out of walking up to the vacuum cleaner and lying down in front of it until I pushed the vacuum up against him. I guess he enjoyed watching me laugh.

He died in January at the age of 13. I grieve him as I would a person.

I thought perhaps that I was the only person to love a dog so deeply, and feel that love returned. That's until I began to read Patricia McConnell's beautiful, amazing books about her relationships with her dogs -- specifically, a border collie named Luke (who also died at 13).

McConnell is an ethologist (student of animal behavior), and her books are fascinating, educational, and poignant -- not to mention elegantly written. Please, pick up copies of THE OTHER END OF THE LEASH and FOR THE LOVE OF A DOG. And if you have an interest in dog training (or like me, a passion for it), please visit her website, www.patriciamcconnell.com.