Culls and Keepers

Last weekend I did a fairly ruthless culling of the bookshelves in my bedroom and living room. Romance, mystery, and science fiction, mostly. I’m a bookaholic and always have been. Always will be, I’m sure. But from time to time I have to deal with reality, and overflowing shelves.

I’ve been meaning to do this for quite a while, but I think the tipping point came when I wandered into the local Half-Price Books looking for something they didn’t have. Came out with three books anyway, two historical romances and Steve Berry’s latest thriller. I’ve downloaded a few books to my Kindle lately, too. And then there’s Amazon Prime, encouraging me to preorder books, pay no shipping, and find them in my mailbox on Tuesday. Yep, it’s been nearly every Tuesday lately, and I’ve got two more coming in August.

So I spent a good chunk of last Saturday and Sunday going through books, pulling out ones I have enjoyed but will probably never read again, and books I really thought I’d read, but haven’t. Let’s face it, there has to be a limit to how long a book sits on the To Be Read shelf. Sooner or later you have to admit that it’s just not gonna happen. When you realize you’ve fallen six books behind on a series you once read eagerly, it may be time to put those books back in circulation.

I didn’t touch the shelves of non-fiction and research books. Occasionally I have to hit those, too, but perhaps not as often. I look things up. I sort of, vaguely, know what’s there. Last week I went to a meeting of the Houston Bay Area RWA chapter. The speaker mentioned two books in her talk on gender differences in writing (referring to characters, not writers, but the audience that night was all women): You Just Don’t Undertand, by Deborah Tannen, and Fiction Is Folks by Robert Newton Peck. I’ve read those, I said to myself on the way home, but not recently. Searching the non-fiction shelves (in the hall and the unused office), I found Tannen’s book (must reread) but not Peck’s. Not yet anyway, although I did turn up two copies (two different editions on two different shelves) of Dwight Swain’s Creating Characters.

Don’t worry: I still have a lifetime supply of books on my shelves (and my Kindle) and no intention of boycotting the booksellers in the future. (Probably just as well I didn’t make it to the RWA National Conference this week—all those free books are impossible to resist.)

Here’s one that’s earned a place on my keeper shelf: Sally Kilpatrick’s debut novel, The Happy Hour The Happy Hour ChoirChoir, is a pleasure to read, treating some serious subjects with humor, well-developed characters, and a warm small town setting. Beulah Land is content playing piano at a honky tonk, with a jazzed-up version of her namesake hymn as her signature piece, until she’s maneuvered into playing piano for County Line Methodist Church—and its attractive but stubborn new minister. This is a wonderful story about what family really means—you may not be able to pick your relatives, but if you’re lucky you can build a family from scratch. Beulah has a lot to deal with in her estrangement from her family, grief for her past, the deteriorating health of a dear friend, and an unexpected bond with a new friend, but she handles it all realistically, touching the reader’s heart as she does. I really loved this book.

Memories of BK Reeves

My dear friend and writing mentor, Barbara Reeves Kolaski, passed away a week ago today. Although she had been ill for some time, she had a long, eventful, and happy life, but there’s an empty space in my world now that she’s gone.

BK ReevesBarbara published several romance novels under the name Barbara Reeves, and raised a family as Barbara Kolaski, but to her writing students and RWA friends she was always BK Reeves.

I met BK about twenty years ago through the Bay Area Writers League, which met here in Seabrook, southeast of Houston. We became friends working on BAWL’s annual writers conference, and BK read some of my work through its contest. She invited me to weekend retreats at her boat house in Surfside, where I met writers with wide ranging interests. In 1996 I went to a workshop sponsored by the Houston Bay Area RWA chapter, because BK was one of the speakers, and immediately joined the National RWA and the HBA chapter. I still didn’t know what I was writing, more science fiction than anything else, but I’d begun reading futuristic romance, and that seemed like it might be a good fit.

BK taught Creative Writing classes for the Continuing Education division of San Jacinto College, and I signed up for one. And then another. And then another. I have no idea how many of those eight to twelve week courses I took over the next few years. It wasn’t that the subject matter really changed much from one class to the next (I still have a fat binder full of the handouts), but the opportunity to spend one evening a week with other writers, and to have BK critique my work as it progressed was irresistible. I became fast friends with several other perennial students, as we fought our way through writing projects and hashed them out at the nearest IHOP with BK after class. I wrote the first draft of Tempting Fate in those classes, and the beginning of Paper Hearts.

When my late husband could no longer bear to stay home alone at night, I signed him up, too, and BK welcomed him. Jack and BK were about the same age, and I remember going across Houston to a writers conference with the two of them happily singing songs from the 1930s and 40s as I drove.

When BK no longer felt safe driving, she gave up the San Jacinto classes, but a group of us continued to meet at her house a couple of evenings a month; now and then we’d even have sleep-over weekends in the big house where she’d raised her three children. We called ourselves BK’s groupies: me, Kay Sakaris (we still call one another “Other Kay”), Kathy Gresham, Terri Richison, Ann Peake, and BK’s daughter Anne-Marie Novark.  Over the years Terri and Kathy moved out of the Houston area, Other Kay, Ann and I had full time jobs, life got in the way, and BK’s health worsened, until getting together became a sadly rare event, but BK’s inspiration remained.

BK (center) and the Groupies: (from left) Kathy Gresham, Terri Richison, Kay Hudson, Kay Sakaris, Ann Peake (Anne-Marie Novark took the picture)

BK (center) and the Groupies: (from left) Kathy Gresham, Terri Richison, Kay Hudson, Kay Sakaris, Ann Peake (Anne-Marie Novark took the picture)

I have so many wonderful memories of BK: her encouragement, her insistence that I have a “writer’s brain,” her faith in me as an editor, her kindness to Jack as he slipped into the fog of Alzheimer’s. She introduced me to the writing community, and through her classes, BAWL, and RWA I have met so many of my friends. I look at my bookshelves and see reminders of her: her books, of course; a little ceramic newspaper office she gave me because much of Paper Hearts revolves around a newspaper; my place card from a table she sponsored at a charity luncheon; a photo of BK, Kathy Gresham, Jack and me at another luncheon; a plaque from BAWL, because she made sure I was at an event I hadn’t planned to attend, so I would receive it first hand.

BK’s books are out of print now, alas. She wrote all her life, from the time she was a little girl in West Texas, but she didn’t pull out her manuscripts and begin rewriting them for publication until her husband, Stosh, passed away in the late 80s. She used to tell us that she bought her first computer on the way home from Stosh’s funeral—this may have been a slight exaggeration, but not by much. She published several traditional Regency romances in the early 90s, with plenty of sexual tension but no explicit sex. But she could, and did, write hot sex with the best, as she showed when she rewrote an early western story into an interracial historical romance called My Buffalo Soldier. She often made remarks that wildly contradicted her sweet, grandmotherly appearance, and (most) people loved her for them.

It wouldn’t surprise BK to know that one of my first reactions to hearing of her passing (from one of the Groupies) was, “Well, I have to write about BK.” Life was research to her, meant to be both enjoyed and recycled as material for the next writing project. It might surprise her to know it’s taken me a week, but I’ve written this in my head too many times to count. There are just too many memories to include (although we agreed that neither one of us could say “Hello” in less than five hundred words).

Barbara Reeves Kolaski was laid to rest on Saturday with her favorite pen in her hands. I have no doubt she’s using it today at some afterlife Writer’s Retreat. After all, it’s never too late to follow your dreams.

Fall Must Be Coming

When I left for the weekend Friday morning, I looked in vain for any sign of the hurricane lilies that pop up near the front of my yard every year.  Not a hint.  I was afraid that another very dry summer had shut them down.  But this noon when I returned from a weekend on Galveston Island, there they were, three or four full blooms, and quite a few more stalks at various stages.  According to a Q&A piece in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, mine are probably Lycoris radiata, also known as naked ladies because the foliage only appears after the blooms fade.  They’re late this year; they usually bloom in early to mid September, at the peak of the Texas Gulf Coast hurricane season.  According to our local weather reporters, our section of the Gulf Coast has been struck by post-September hurricanes only three times in the last hundred and fifty years.  The last one was a smallish storm called Jerry, which passed directly over my house in October 1985, the only time I’ve ever walked out my front door into the eye of a hurricane.

First Lilies

I spent the weekend on Galveston Island with friends from the Houston Bay Area chapter of RWA, talking about writing.  There was some actual writing involved, and quite a bit of wine.  Also some football games on the big TV in the living room, but the two or three dedicated fans were kind enough to leave the sound off.  Well, the TV sound was off, but there was quite a lot of yelling, too.   Colleen Thompson took this picture of me, and Cheryl Bolen and Leslie Marshman did the organizing.  Leslie won our eternal gratitude when she talked Sean at Mario’s Ristorante in Galveston into delivering pizzas, even though we were a bit outside their usual delivery limit.

Windsong

 

 

Scrivener Features: Project Targets

Earlier this year, I was asked to give a talk on Scrivener to the May meeting of the Houston Bay Area RWA chapter.  When I finally got around to putting it together last weekend, I had done so little writing in the last couple of months that I found myself practically rediscovering the software.  The program more than proved its worth, if I had any doubts, when I used it to organize and write up my talk.

In the process I also discovered that it is very difficult to compress a piece of software as large and complex as Scrivener into a relatively brief presentation.  I probably confused my audience (which fortunately wasn’t large), but I got some laughs, and some questions, and two people in the group have told me they are trying Scrivener out, so I must have done something right.

If a tour of Scrivener is a stretch for an hour’s workshop, it’s certainly far too much for a blog post.  But one feature at a time, now that’s doable.  So let’s start with one of my favorites, Project Targets.  This little widget floats anywhere on your screen.  Project TargetsDepending on your point of view, and/or your progress on your manuscript, it will either inspire you or kick your butt (hopefully into gear).  Here’s an example lifted from my current work-in-progress; as you see, I haven’t been making much.

To use the Manuscript Target section, you simply fill in the number of words you’re shooting for in your manuscript, and the widget shows you how many words you have, and where you are on a scale of zero to completion.  The bar starts out red and gradually changes color as it fills in; it turns to yellow and then green as you approach your target.

The Session Target is for more immediate word counts.  If you have a personal target of x many words per day, or you need 5,000 words to meet your editor’s deadline, just fill in the number and Scrivener will tell you exactly where you are.

In the same section of Scrivener (the Project Menu), you will also find the usual word processing info.  Project Statistics gives you Words, Characters, Pages (Printed) and Pages (Paperback) for the complete project and for the document you’re working on.  The Options tab lets you adjust which documents are included in the project count, the word count per page, etc.  Text Statistics gives you Words, Characters, Paragraphs, and Word Frequency for the document you are working on.

Eyes lit up in the audience when I talked about Project Targets at our meeting the other night.  Clearly I’m not the only writer who needs a measure of her progress, and Scrivener makes it easy to see.

Now I just need to make some progress worth measuring!

Novelists5

Another Ride on the Golden Roller Coaster

Last fall as the deadline for the 2013 Golden Heart® contest drew near, I found myself wanting to throw my manuscript into the ring again.  I had been successfully resisting RWA chapter contests for the better part of a year, but I really wanted to enter the Golden Heart.  I had become a GH junkie.

But I didn’t have a new manuscript to enter.  I had a couple of old ones, good books, I believe, but probably needing some work, and I hadn’t looked at them in years.  I didn’t see anything to gain in entering either of my previous finalists, although that is permitted and some writers do it.  The book I had started was far too short to finish by the deadline (it still is).

That left Jinn & Tonic, a book I love, which had done well, but not quite well enough to make the final round, in (mumble mumble) previous Golden Heart contests.  Maybe, I thought, those first chapters could use a tweak here and there.  Well, of course they could.  I’m a writer.  And a rewriter.  I read these blog posts now and then and often find something to tweak.  Legend has it that Ernest Hemmingway used to track down his own published books in other people’s libraries and make corrections in the margins.

Giving Jinn & Tonic one more shot at the Golden Heart would also give me an excuse to bring it into sync with some of the world building I had done for Bathtub Jinn.  When I wrote Jinn & Tonic, I didn’t realize I might be starting a series, but the world of the jinn and their relatives expanded in the second book.

As I was considering my Golden Heart options (option, really), I was also dipping into Scrivener.  Why not jump in all the way, and use Jinn & Tonic as a practice piece, to see if the new software might make revising and editing easier?  So I imported the manuscript into Scrivener, set about tweaking, and in due time sent Jinn & Tonic off for one more shot at the Golden Heart.

Then I did my best to pretend it didn’t matter, even as I continued to polish the manuscript.  Why be greedy?  Why expect a manuscript that had not made the final round in (mumble mumble) attempts to grab the gold ring this time?  Who needed all that fuss, anyway?  I had a lot of work at the Scorekeeper, and for West Houston RWA.  I had manuscripts to judge for the Golden Heart in a category I don’t write.  I signed up for a Scrivener class with Gwen Hernandez.

And when announcement day came, last Tuesday, I stayed late at home, at my computer, just in case the phone rang.  I began to see emails announcing newly-notified finalists.  Early announcements.  Sisters from the Starcatchers and the Firebirds were finalists, and a friend, Lark Howard, from West Houston RWA.  By 8:30 I was thinking I should probably get out the door and off to work.

At 8:33 the phone rang.  As I picked it up I recognized the name of an RWA board member on the Caller ID.  I knew what it was, I had waited for the call, and I was just as thrilled as I was in 2011 and 2012.  Just as happy, just as dazed.  But this time, the third time, I was pretty sure it wasn’t a mistake.  After I saw the list on line, anyway.  (And HERE it is.)  A few minutes after the phone call, a friend on the RWA board sent me a one-line email: “So, how’s your day going?”

A week before the announcements I had dinner with friends before the monthly Houston Bay Area RWA meeting.  Cheryl Bolen said, perhaps a bit rashly, “If you get a call next Tuesday, I’ll go to Atlanta with you.”  Turns out she was serious.  Now we’re both registered for the RWA National Conference in Atlanta in July, and we have a hotel room reserved.  I’ve had a new picture taken.  I’m finishing my edits so I can pull Jinn & Tonic out of Scrivener (and yes, it is easier to edit with Scrivener than Word, but compiling the manuscript may be an adventure).

I have forty new sisters, my fellow 2013 Golden Heart finalists.

RWA 2013, here we come!

 

Party Season, and, of course, Books

I’ve been to three parties in the last week or so, more than I’ve been to in months; it’s the Christmas Party season.  One of the parties was actually a surprise birthday party, but part of the reason it was a surprise is that the victim–ahem, I mean guest of honor–was born on Christmas, not a good day for birthday parties.  So that lovely gathering was sort of a not-Christmas Party.

The other two were the annual Christmas parties for my two local RWA chapters.  For years we have played the White Elephant game at these parties, the game in which players steal increasingly strange presents from one another.  Frankly, it’s not a game I enjoy, and I’ve brought home enough ugly, tacky, and/or totally useless “gifts” over the years to last me a lifetime.  So when one of our group suggested we swap books instead of elephants this year, I was delighted when both chapters voted to try the change.

The plan was simple:  bring a book you’d like to share (or possibly get rid of), a novel you love, a writing book you’ve found useful, a strange book you don’t know what else to do with, etc.  The only rule was: not a book you wrote yourself.

Between the two parties (the membership of the chapters overlaps, so several of us attended both) we saw quite a range of books.  The big hit at West Houston RWA was Fifty Shades of Chicken, a rather unusual cookbook  (you can watch the hilarious book trailer here at Amazon).  Three copies turned up (the only duplicates at the party) and they were much in demand.  If we didn’t limit steals to two per book, the game might have gone on for hours.  One copy of Fifty Shades of Grey turned up at the Houston Bay Area RWA party; it wasn’t stolen at all.  The game produced a lot of fun and laughter at both parties, and I hope it will continue.

I decided to take novels I have loved, and I bought copies at Half Price Books for the parties because I would never give away my own copies.  In fact I took two to the West Houston party: one was an old favorite, one relatively new.

The older novel, written in 1949, was George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, a post-apocalyptic novel set after a mysterious disease has wiped out most of the human race.  Stewart was a scholar (I have two of his books on American place names and given names on my research shelf) and he wrote other novels, but Earth Abides is the one still being reprinted.  I haven’t read it in thirty years or so–finding a recent reprint only made me want to read it again.

The recent favorite was Farthing, the first in a trilogy by Jo Walton, published in 2006.  Farthing is one of those rare books that simply blew me away when I read it, and it’s always hard to explain that phenomenon.  Set in the 1940s in a Nazi-flavored Britain, it combines a house party murder mystery with solid alternate history.  The three books in the trilogy (I have also read Ha’Penny, but I’ve been saving Half A Crown until I have time to reread the first two) are tied together by the Scotland Yard inspector who solves cases while keeping a very dangerous secret of his own.

To the Houston Bay Area party, I took a copy of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, a collection of beautifully written short stories that any writer should enjoy, and a book I have always loved.

You may have noticed that I took three speculative fiction novels to share with my fellow romance writers, but then I’ve always read widely myself, and I think that’s a good plan for any writer.  Right now, though, it’s getting late, and I think I’ll go to bed with a good romance novel.

 

Happy Thanksgiving

I spent a pleasant afternoon with my neighbor, her daughter, and some friends at the Thanksgiving buffet at Moody Gardens down in Galveston.  It was a nice day for a drive, the food and the company were good, and there was no cooking, cleaning, or football involved.  (We might have been seated a trifle too close to the singing piano player and his repertoire of early Christmas carols, but he wasn’t bad, just a bit loud.)

I was particularly impressed with the display at the head of the buffet.  I wonder where one goes to learn the art of fruit carving?  Amazing what an artist can do with a watermelon, and I don’t even know what the birds are made of.  I think the flowers are mostly melon.

I’m working a short day tomorrow, avoiding the Black Friday sales, stopping by to see a friend who’s stuck in the hospital over the holiday.  Last year at this time I was writing furiously to finish a manuscript by the Golden Heart deadline.  That turned out to be well worth the effort, as Bathtub Jinn was a Golden Heart finalist.  This year I don’t have a new manuscript to finish, but I think I’ll enter the one I’m revising.  The deadline dates have changed, though, so I’m not tied to my computer chair for the rest of the holiday weekend.  I may even find time to read.

Today (and every day, I hope) I’m thankful for my health, my home, and my friends, so many of whom I have met through writing (my next-thing-to-a-sister, Jo Anne Banker, and my critique group, Barbara Ewing, Carl Miller, Charles Russell, and Jim Stanton)  and through Romance Writers of America (the members of my local chapters, West Houston and Houston Bay Area, and my Golden Heart sisters, the Starcatcher, the Firebirds, and the Golden Network).

Here’s wishing a happy holiday season to everyone.

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