The Ten . . .

It’s New Year’s Eve. Time to do the Ten Best Books List or the Ten Best Movies List or . . . except I don’t think I had the chance to read ten books this year and I know I didn’t see ten movies. It was, as usual, an insane year, so I and everybody I love and work with have resolved to be calm and steady in 2008, For writers, that a big deal. In keeping with that thought, here’s my ten worst and best of 2007. Listing the ten worst didn’t do a thing for me except depress me, but the ten best was just lovely, so I’m focusing on that in the future. If I were you, I’d do that, too.

Ten Lousy Things about 2007:
(in no particular order)
I still didn’t finish You Again.
Bernie died. A fine, fine dog and a credit to his species. And I wasn’t even here.
My knees went wonky on me.
I didn’t lose thirty pounds. I didn’t lose three pounds, either.
Joss Whedon isn’t going to do Wonder Woman.
I lost my agent.
I cleaned my office and two weeks later it was a pit again.
Everything my government did.
Uhhh . . . okay eight lousy things. After that, I got nothin’.

Ten Good Things About 2007

(Note: Do not expect these to be deep. I don’t do deep.)
(Again, no particular order.)

The Agnes and the Hitman Cover

Pushing Daisies

Collaborating with Lani and Krissie on Dogs and Goddessess

Veronica and Milton

Scrivener and Curio

Amy and Jodi (my new agents)

Music and Lyrics (movie and soundtrack)

Cherry Con

The new They Might Be Giants album, especially “The Mesopotamians.”

My beach skirt

Books. All of them.

Chocolate from England.

Actually, I have so many good things. I’m sitting here looking at the river with four happy dogs on my bed (the cat is in the bathroom because the floor is heated in there and she’s wallowing), I’m almost finished with the first full draft of a great collab book, and I’ve got three great books to work on after that. The sun is shining FOR ONCE, and I have a meeting and then I’m going to the fancy grocery store which means lunch will be really fun (the deli is Satan’s playground). And then I’m coming home to write while puppies chew my shoes, thereby alleviating that nasty I-have-too-many-shoes-for-my-closet problem. And Milton, while refusing paper training, is now bubble-wrap trained. Milton takes his own path, which is as good a plan as any for the new year.

Happy New Year! May your path for 2008 be new, may your ten worst list come up short, and may your ten best list spilleth over into the triple digits. Nothing but good times ahead.

Review: Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots by Arne Svenson

My friend Meg gives amazing presents which is not why she’s my friend but it helps. Meg is the one who, when stuck on Christmas Eve wrapping Christmas presents for the next day and birthday presents for that night for her daughter, ran out of Christmas wrapping and substituted birthday paper by writing “Jesus” under all the Happy Birthday designs. So I opened up her box with fear and longing. Inside was the Ultimate Santana CD and Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots by Arne Svenson. Meg scores again.


Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots is a collection of photographs of Alba Ballard’s parrots, dressed in costumes she made for them, a passion that led to her appearing in Broadway Danny Rose and on Letterman and Saturday Night Live. The pictures are funny (two sailors buying a doll a drink), disturbing (General Patton trapped under his jeep, and worse, General Patton putting the moves on an Army nurse) and evocative of the era in which they were taken (Tiny Tim and Miss Vicky, Freddy the Freeloader, Dean Martin surrounded by Barbies), but they’re also amazing. The parrots aren’t stuffed, they were her pets (at one point she had forty) and she and her family made all the props and backdrops by hand and filmed them in a spare bedroom. The whole idea is mind-boggling–as one Amazon reviewer wrote, “We have owned Zeppo, a Mexican Red Head, for almost thirty years, and I can’t even get him to wear a hat”–but after awhile you forget they’re parrots.

But what I liked best was Svenson’s short piece at the beginning of the book, talking about how he came to have the photos (they were originally sent to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), how he tracked down Alba Ballard (there were no names on the photos), and what he found out about her life. A lesser man would have snarked; I mean, come on, this is a woman who dressed up parrots and tried to make a show biz career out of it. You’d think the temptation would be overwhelming. Yet he treats her with the respect she deserves, a respect he clearly has for her, and tells her story simply and swiftly, making you want more. And then he gives you more; he turns you over to the photographs and never adds a caption, just lets the work speak for itself.

The pairing of Svenson’s introduction with Ballard’s bizarre and wonderful photos makes a book that gives you a moment in time. It won’t take an hour to read Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots, but for that hour, you’ll be happily in Alba’s world, where a red parrot is the best Quasimodo you ever saw. It’s the perfect book for a guest room which is where mine is going, but you’ll be tempted to read it again, just to see if it’s as bizarre as you remembered.

The Santana CD was excellent, too.

Christmas Card Guilt

I didn’t get mine out again. They’re beautiful, too. I bought them last year after I lost the ones I didn’t sent out the year before. I’d like to tell you I don’t do it because it wastes trees or something, but the truth is, I love holiday cards. I’m just too disorganized to send the damn things out.

But I love the ones I get. (More guilt.) I don’t know if most of them have dogs on them because I love dogs or because the people I know are dog lovers. I got one from Susan Wiggs that was a beautiful beach scene with “Peace” spelled out in shells. She put a picture of her dog inside. (He’s darling.) Kathleen from Dachshund Rescue sent me a cute card of a Christmas tree filled with animals. There were no dachshunds so she drew one on. I had to look close to tell she’d added it, but it was so much fun.

I love the newsletters, too. I know it’s fashionable to make fun of those, but I love hearing what everybody did. My life is so boring–I wrote, I fed the dogs, I wrote, I fed the dogs, I wrote–so to hear about the places people went and all the things their kids did makes me happy. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has the best one: it’s all pictures with captions.

And then sometimes people send me stuff, and that’s lovely, too, although really you don’t need to. I rip the packages open with great glee, but you don’t need to. My second fave there: both my agencies give to charity instead of sending gifts to their authors. Makes me feel good all over, not just for the charities but also because I was so smart to choose such thoughtful people to work with. My fave because I’m greedy: Lani made me a blue canary night light to put in the outlet by my light switch which just plain makes me happy. And then there’s Milton and Veronica, my gifts to myself that keep on giving. And chewing.

The truth is, the holidays just sneak up on me. I’m not going to get the tree up this year, although I’m determined to do better next year. I’m not much for carols, either, although I do like watching this one. Best Christmas caroler ever was Judy Garland, extremely good for listening to while looking at a lighted Christmas tree in a dark room. (My favorite comment on this video is “I like her nose. I’ve always liked her nose.”) Holiday food is good, but it’s fattening. Plus it’s the end of the year. Time is running out to keep those resolutions I can’t remember I made. Time to look back at all the things I screwed up this year (like my Christmas cards) before looking forward to all the things I’m going to do brilliantly in 2008. Maybe that’s why looking a lighted Christmas tree in a dark room makes me kind of melancholy. Or maybe it’s Judy.

But I want to get those cards out. And a lot of my friends do other holidays besides Christmas so it’s not as if they have to go out now. Next week would be good. If I could find them . . .

Happy holidays to everybody I owe cards to. Next year, I’ll get them out in time, I swear. I think I’ll send them in January.

And especially happy holidays to all Argh readers everywhere. Whatever you’re celebrating, I hope you’re merry and bright and safe and warm and surrounded by those who love you. Especially if those who love you are dogs. Listening to Judy Garland. In the dark under a lighted Christmas tree.

Waiting for the card that never comes.


Shar 12: Not So Bad

This is the 12th Day of Shar and I’ve actually gotten a lot done. This is the first time the 12 Days thing actually worked–well, it worked pretty well cleaning my office–and I think it’s collaborating that really makes the difference. As long as we give ourselves lots of space, we can really push ourselves and each other. This past month has been really interesting as a lot of what we’ve been doing is figuring out how we each work, and how that changes within the collaboration. We’re all seat-of-the-pants writers, but Lani and I have really taken to doing one rough and then analyzing the hell out of it. Krissie needs more time with her drafts before we come in with our scalpels but she loves to brainstorm. So a lot of it is just seeing where everything fits. It’s such a good collaboration.

So this was the day that I went through all my Dogs and Goddesses file. There are literally hundreds of them since I’ve been working on this for over a year. Got rid of duplicates, organized the images, recovered all the fragments that are going into the last three acts, wrote more on the scenes, skipping around. Lots done. I’ll definitely have Act 3 done by Dec. 31 and may even have Act 4 done. Now if I can just hold onto this process for Emmeline, I might have a really good year (Bob will keep me moving on Wild Ride, it’s just the solos I get blocked on).

I love this part of the book, when a story that started because it seemed like a fun thing to do suddenly reveals itself to be so much more. This is when things really get crunchy and the rewrite becomes a whole new book. So the last week of 2007 is going to be good times and dogs and goddesses and great friends to write with. Can’t ask for more than that.

Shar 11:No Killing, No Cookies

Lani posted her first scene for Act Three and made me applaud. It’s so sad how much she needs reinforcement. Krissie printed out the book and did rewrites on hard copy which makes a huge difference. I’m trying to hold off on the hard copy edit until we have the whole book but it’s hard because I so want to see this on a page. And we talked in the afternoon in Campfire and got this fabulous idea for the third book and were brainstorming a mile a minute and then Lani started screaming, “No killing! No killing people!” She wouldn’t last a minute in a book with Bob. Krissie, on the other hand, was all for it. Krissie is not wimpy like some people I could mention. But won’t.

And I wrote some but not much. Reread my research on Sam, worked out a move in a Kami scene that’s going to echo a Shar scene, it’s all coming together. But as far as writing goes, I was worthless.

Oh, and I made cookies. They weren’t the right recipe, either.

Shar 10: Death and Laundry

You know, I worked all day and I don’t think I got anything done. Well, some laundry and I went to the grocery, but I didn’t write anything. I did do a lot of research on Mesopotamian kings and death, but I fell asleep and lost the afternoon. Just a weird day.

But we got a lot done in Campfire, including some very crunchy Christopher brainstorming, and then I googled for Mesopotamian death. And I pretty much know all the scenes I have to write for Shar now, I have Act 3 completely blocked out and I have a good idea of Act 4. Oh, and Kira asked if there were big scenes after the climax: not generally. The climax finishes the story, so anything that comes after that has to be fast and then out the door. No cuddling. Kills the end of the book.

So I have maybe nine Shar scenes left to write, and two or three Kami scenes. And I have pieces of those written. I have no idea why this is going so fast, but I’m not questioning it, either.

Shar 9: Act Arcs & Other Stuff

After patting each other on the back for the good job the three of us did on the first two acts, Krissie had to go out–and where she lives that means out–so Lani and I brainstormed for three solid hours in Campfire, doing the act arcs of Shar, Sam, Daisy, and Jamie.

It’s an easy concept: the book is divided into four acts that diminish in size (for us Act One is about 32K and Act Two is 28K and the remaining 40 to 50K will be divided into Acts Three and Four). And in each act, the character is at a certain point in his or her character development. If you go for classic character development, it’s a 180 degree arc. Shar begins as a mortal too withdrawn to assert herself and ends as an enraged goddess. Sam begins as a god from another time and place and ends as a mortal with a hybrid SUV. Our markers for each act are a little more sophisticated than that, we look at what’s happening to them not only internally but also externally so that what’s happening in the plot echoes and reinforces what’s happening to them as characters, but we end up with a sentence for each character in each act that tells us what we’re going to be writing. I think it was crucial for us to write the first 60K and look at what we’d written, plus we already knew what the climactic scene was, so we could sort everything out and focus the acts we’d done to figure out what the characters were doing in Three and Four.

Then we blocked out the scenes we had to have to keep the plots going. Lani and I each had four we needed in Act Three, and they were probably going to run between eight and ten K for each of us, so we’d already used up sixteen K before Krissie got there (she’ll write whatever she needs to, of course) and then there’s the Big Bad’s POV because she has crucial scenes in this act.

So we’ll write what we need put it together, and start cutting when we’ve got everything we need. You can revise acts as you go and make them better, but at a certain point, you just have to see the whole book, knowing your character’s arc (which you discover writing the whole book in the first draft), and then cut it so that every word is essential.

And then we talked about the sequel. We couldn’t help it. There’s so much we didn’t get to do in this book, and frankly, just because these couples are together at the end is no guarantee that they’re going to make it. They have real issues–she’s a flower child, he’s a math professor-and some of them have the most hellacious in-laws you’ve ever seen. And as Lani and I talked we realized that there would probably be a third book, and the good news is, the trouble gets worse in each book. We have no idea if we’ll ever do more than this one, but it was so comforting to know that even though Milki just gets a drive-by mention in this book, if we do another one, he’s going to be there. Being a complete pain the ass, but still, we had to cut him from this book and we miss him.

Brainstorming and business took up most of the day, so I took the rest of the night off, read a book on how to make stuffed animals, talked to the dogs, and then went back to work and wrote 1400 words. Which isn’t bad. Especially if they turn out to be good words.

2020 Note: There is no sequel and never will be. I had fun collaborating, but I think I’m done with that now.

Shar 8: 59,000 Words

That’s how much good draft we have done, the first two acts. It’ll need revised of course, but it’s good solid draft. I’ve never written this fast before. And I love what I’m writing.

I’m probably doomed.

Speed has it’s drawbacks. I haven’t done anything on the collage and I keep forgetting the music, which is crucial because that gives me so much of the emotion. So when the first draft is done, I’m going to collage fast and the go through my scenes again, revising with the music. There’s no depth to my stuff right now because I’m going so fast, but I think the speed is good. This is such a great collaboration.

And the book is even better now that Milton is in it. Of course, in real life, tonight Milton ate my shoe. One of the black flats with the crisscross elastic. Which crisscrosses no more. You put a dog in a book, he becomes a diva, going right for the expensive stuff.

Shar 7: Brokeback Publishing

We’re rewriting Act Two this week, now that we have all the scenes done, but we’re all exhausted. Krissie’s taking a break until Wed., Lani took yesterday off, and I’m looking at a book called “Stupid Sock Creatures” that came in the Amazon box and thinking that maybe tonight I will watch TV and sew instead of beating my head against D&G again. Crashing a book is okay for publishers, not so much for writers. Brain hurts.

But I did have a break-through on part of the book. I have two characters, Shar and the Goddess Kammani. And I was having a hard time getting Kammani on the page, and then I read an article on How to Be An Alpha Dog and realized that that was what Kammani was, the Alpha Dog. So we’re going to use the Alpha Dog Guidelines for Kammani. Should be fun.

Meanwhile I tried a butter cookie recipe last night that wasn’t anything amazing, and then did a variation with honey instead of granulated sugar which was better but still not D&G-worthy. We’ve been writing about magic butter cookies all week and it was making me crazy, but now I’m sated. And full of honey-butter cookies. Moving on to another recipe . . .

And today Veronica tried to eat my monkey slipper. I don’t know how Milton missed it.

Oh, and the title for today’s post came from a conversation I had with Lani. I told her publishing was like a bad relationship with a hot guy: as long as publishing tells me I’m pretty and gives me money to buy groceries, I’ll stick even though it makes me feel like hell. Lani said for her it was more like Brokeback Mountain, aka “I don’t know how to quit you, publishing.” We’ll be okay again tomorrow. We just need some tea and a cookie.