29 November 2010

Why I ignored NaNoWriMo

I've never really felt the need to sign up for National Novel Writing Month. It first came to my attention in grad school, and back in my weekly workshop days it wasn't like I was hurting for motivation to get writing. When I graduated, I was part of a community of writers, and it was second nature to sit down and pound away at my WIP for a couple of hours per day. That's pretty much been the case every November since: I've never felt the need to sign up for NaNoWriMo because National Novel Writing Month has looked like... any other month in my life.

This year is different. Maybe it's that I've lived in London long enough to make the motivation of my literary New York social life seem very far away; maybe it's that my volunteer work is starting to seriously pick up. Maybe it's fear of rejection--or, as my therapist theorized for years, fear of success. (One of those two things has to happen to my WIP once I finish it, after all.) Maybe it's just the year I've had, which, without getting more personal than I'm willing to be on a public blog, has involved a lot of non-writing-related bad news.

In any case, with one thing and another, this past month I could have used the motivation of announcing myself as part of a community of people all typing away.

I just have one issue, though, and unfortunately, it's a doozy. I disagree with the entire premise of NaNoWriMo. I don't agree that the best way to write a novel is to keep your fingers moving across your keyboard until you've filled up about 175 pages--50,000 words--or that a first-time novelist needs to start by racking up as great a wordcount as possible. The website makes no claims that a quality work of art will result from this exercise; this is all about getting the "shitty first draft" (thank you, Anne Lamott) down on paper, in a very limited time period.

I know writers who work this way. I know published writers of great books who work this way. For that kind of writer, NaNoWriMo is a great boon.

I cannot work this way (and I know published writers of great books who can't, either).

Oh, I can do a shitty first draft of a scene, maybe even a chapter. That was the first skill I picked up in grad school. But a whole novel? I tried it with my last MS, and all that happened was an anxiety attack and several weeks of writer's block. I couldn't move forward with the manuscript when I had fifty pages I was seriously unhappy with. As fifty pages turned into sixty, writing that novel lost all the joy of creating something new, and felt more and more like walking through a huge airport carrying increasingly heavy luggage. When I finally gave up and went back and fixed what I knew was wrong, thereby giving myself permission to keep doing that as needed, the rest of the book was a lot more fun to write.

NaNoWriMo's website makes clear that they expect the people participating to be beginners: one of the FAQ's is, "If I'm just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?" And the answer has a lot I agree with: giving yourself permission to make mistakes; giving yourself a reason to just start already, without any "once the kids are in school"/"once my workload lightens up"/"once I'm retired" procrastination. I'm all for encouraging would-be novelists to get started, and for reassuring them that the first sentences out of their keyboards will not live up to their expectations, and that's okay.

But I wonder how many beginning writers end up discouraged with their efforts and feeling like they'll never write a novel, when really, the NaNoWriMo format just isn't for them. As far as I can tell, NaNoWriMo's website doesn't offer any advice for what to do after you've written your shitty first draft. It doesn't refer its participants to any books on the craft of writing. It does have a list of published NaNoWriMo authors, but no articles from any of them about the amazing amount of work that must have come between the month of writing 50,000 words and the publication date.

I want some kind of NaNoWriMo for the slow writer. Maybe NaNoWriYe. The website would say, "Some days it's about hitting your word count. Some days it's about fixing what's wrong, or outlining the next bit you're going to write, or re-vamping the whole project to make room for the brilliant idea you had as you were falling asleep that totally fixes that huge hole in your plot." Participants would still spend a couple hours a day at their work, and would still write together, for those for whom that's helpful. We'd take time out to review what we'd written and brainstorm solutions to any issues we were having, and tell each other when it was time to stop fiddling with that one scene and write the next bit, on an as-needed basis. We'd all focus on doing whatever it took to produce good work, not just to write 175 pages of whatever. We'd work under the impression that writing is an everyday activity, not a once-a-year blast.

Oh, crap. I just figured out what seems so familiar about that scenario: it was grad school.

Anyone know of a UK-based PhD in Writing for Children?

24 September 2010

On deciding to just be this size

When I was thirteen or fourteen, Seventeen magazine ran a diet article. Half of the article was, "How to eat if you're too skinny" (you got to have milkshakes every day!); the other half, "How to eat if you're too fat" (oh, who remembers; it was the late 80s, so I'm sure it involved lots of celery). So I asked my mom, "am I too skinny or too fat?" I hoped she'd say I was too skinny, so I could have the milkshakes. But I suspected I was too fat, and doomed to celery.

Imagine my surprise--and incredulity--when she said, "I think you're just the right size." This was an option for which Seventeen had simply not prepared me. I was sure she was just being nice: it couldn't possibly be that I honestly didn't need to lose weight.

I have had maybe two years in my adult life where I was free from that feeling. In my late 20s, I did several months' worth of Weight Watchers, and reached the lowest weight I'd ever been as an adult. I could wear all kinds of clothes I'd never felt comfortable in before: miniskirts! sleeveless tops! shirts tucked in!! I got cold much more easily, and couldn't hold my whiskey nearly as well, but who cared? For the first time in my life, I was taking jeans I thought would fit into dressing rooms, and then having to ask for a smaller size! I was THIN! I had mastered life!

Of course, life went on. I got a boyfriend, and instead of living on Weight Watchers meals at home, I was going out for dinner a lot--and not always ordering a salad, and sometimes sharing a starter. I started going to grad school in addition to working full-time, which cut down on gym-going time as it upped whiskey-drinking time. I got married and started cooking more; I moved to a country with amazing, calorific treats like steak-and-ale pie and chicken tikka masala and sticky toffee pudding. I ate real ice cream again, and realized that Skinny Cow just didn't cut it.

So for the past few years, I've been back to that old feeling, that I should really lose ten pounds. Except now it's compounded with guilt that I gained them to begin with. I have failed in my responsibility--to my husband, to myself, to the legions of people who have to look at me every day as I go about my business--to be the thin person I've proven I can be.

Because that's what women are supposed to do, right? Because otherwise we're "letting ourselves go," and it's our own fault if our partner leaves or we lose out on a promotion or we get sick with something chronic.

I finally started to snap out of this a couple of months or so ago, when I pulled on a pair of old khakis that I wear around the house. I had the traditional self-flagellation moment as I buttoned them, because they fit around my waist, and not around my hips the way they did a few years ago. And then I had a laughing moment at the very mid-90s styling of this particular pair of trousers, which are designed to fit at, not below, the waist and which feature billowing pleats in the front and taper to an end just at the ankle. And then I thought, holy shit, I'm 35 and I can still wear trousers I bought when I was 21.

Maybe--just maybe--the smallest I've ever been isn't the size I'm meant to be, as an adult. Maybe I'm actually supposed to be the size I've been for most of my adult life.

It was the start of a serious think.

That think--fueled by lots of reading, to which I'll link down below, rather than try to cleverly fit it all in the body of the post--continued right into the belly-dancing class at my gym, and learning how to shimmy correctly (hint: it's not about the boobs), and a second sudden flash of insight:

The only thing my skinny body could do that my heavier body can't, is wear smaller clothes.

That body wasn't a better dancer.
It wasn't a better writer.
It wasn't a more creative teacher.
It didn't sing any more beautifully.
It couldn't walk any farther.
It wasn't a more effective leader.
It wasn't any better at picking up new skills (like belly-dancing, or golf).

Even if I were to someday put on those mid-90s khakis and find they wouldn't button, all that would mean was that I had outgrown a pair of pants. It wouldn't take anything away from who I am and what I can do.

So, now I have to learn a whole new way of thinking. I try not to step on the scale, because sometimes I do that and the number makes me feel bad, even though all my clothes still fit and I'm dripping with sweat and high on endorphins from my workout. I'm trying to start to think about my food and activity choices in terms of "what will help me stay healthy?" rather than "what will help me fit back into my smallest LBD?" And I have to make myself remember: I hadn't mastered life when I lost weight. I had just fixed one thing that had been bugging me.

Most of all, I've had to give up on what Kate Harding calls The Fantasy of Being Thin (oh, look, there's a link after all). I have to keep pounding the message into my own brain: there is nothing I want to do that requires being thin. After all (another link, coming up!), Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar and a Grammy before she lost weight.

And you know what? Losing weight was time and effort-consuming. I love my life, but I haven't exactly achieved everything I want to in it. Why would I want to distract myself from the goals that matter to me, by directing energy towards a goal that won't help me achieve them?

Further Reading:
More on the Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers Ad
Shapely Prose FAQ
The problem with modern diet advice
More problems with modern diet advice
You Don't Have to be Pretty
Already Pretty Reality Check

29 August 2010


On the last day of my recent stay with my sister and her family, Liz brought out a huge plastic bin full of my parents' correspondence with my grandparents. The letters went from the late 1960s through the mid-nineties (when everyone got AOL). I had a great time learning about my parents' lives in college and grad school, and as very young parents, from their own hands.

(Honestly, it kind of made me worry about how much family history is being lost to e-mail and facebook. But then, all this family history would have been lost to the desire for less clutter, in a family with less tolerance for clutter than mine has.)

One envelope was postmarked from Salina, KS in 1981, and addressed from "Kathryne Alfred" to "Grandma Barten." Inside were a couple of brightly-colored pictures, and a sheet of ruled looseleaf in my mother's handwriting, but a writing style very different from my mother's. (An explanatory note at the bottom says, "pictures by Kathryne; Story written by Carol as Kathryne told it.")

I'm still giggling over this. Ladies and Gentlemen, without further ado, I give you--complete with illustration--my first ever YA story!!

Once a little girl met a little boy. One night when the little girl was 18 and the little boy was 19 the little girl said, "Let's kiss!" and the little boy said, "Tomorrow ask your mother and father if we can get married." Then the next morning they got married and lived in the apartment house and lived with their mother and father. And then they lived happily ever after. The end.

Of course I'm biased, but I see potential here.

21 July 2010

More Kindled Thoughts

I started out to simply post this on facebook with a pithy comment. Then my pithy comment grew out of pithy-length and into blog-post-length, and I suddenly remembered: hey! I have a blog!

Hi, Gang. It's been a busy summer. Places to go, sisters to entertain (and be entertained by), old friends to rescue from airline cancellations. Junior League action plans to write. Novel drafts to finish. New books to read, for that matter. You understand.

Anyway, speaking of all the books I've read this summer: back to the NYTimes' panic over "E-books top hardcovers at Amazon", and why this is a non-story.

In the first place, is the NYTimes sure that this number represents people who typically read hardcover books switching over to read them on Kindle? Because I have a counter-data set of one: I have a longstanding policy--way predating the Kindle--of not buying hardcover books by authors I don't know personally. I just don't have any more room to store them.

The Kindle actually means I read a lot more new releases, because in the old days I would have waited for the paperback or for the book to show up at the library. I still do that with hardcovers that aren't available on Kindle, so there's no need to clutch your pearls over the fact that e-book sales overtook sales of "hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition."

In the second place, the data here is completely skewed, for a whole lot of reasons. Amazon is the only seller of Kindle books, but not the only seller of hardcovers. One of the huge advantages of the Kindle is instant gratification: I order, I read. Amazon can't offer that with paper books, but the Daunt where I kill time on the way to my volunteer gig can. Hardcover is not the only print book format, and I'd wager (I should be a good blogger and look this up, but I'm not going to) it's not even the most popular: the hardcover sections of most bookstores are dwarfed by paperbacks. So measuring e-book sales against hardcover sales, even if you could enlarge your vision from Amazon and look industry-wide (and why can't you, if you've got the resources of the New York Times behind you?), is a bit of a straw man argument.

Look, I love paper books as much as the next bookworm. Here's a picture of part of one wall in my flat--it goes on, there's another bookcase on the opposite wall, and the guest room/study is similarly lined. I love my paper books. I'm a great re-reader, as well, and I love the way the feel and smell of a particular book can conjure up my life at the time that I first read it. I do want to own paper copies of some books: I have a whole shelf of autographed copies of my friends' books, and that simply wouldn't work on Kindle.

But I don't get the "oh noes, electronics are coming to steal your paper!" panic. The invention of recording didn't doom live music performance. Theatre survives alongside film; I own three radios and only one television. Publishers are still turning out hardcover books, 80 years after the invention of cheaper, easier-to-carry paperbacks.

(Okay, so the internet is killing newspapers. Fair enough. But book publishers have been smart enough not to equate "digital" with "free" in readers' minds, and have dodged that bullet. And I'll admit: I miss cassette tapes, because I don't have a way to listen to my mix tapes from high school anymore.)

I would love someone better at research than I am do write an article about how e-books are changing reading habits. Are the numbers of people who tell Pew or the NEA that they've read a novel in the past year changing? Are sales of non-fiction going up or down among different formats? Are people paying for newspaper and magazine subscriptions again, to use on their e-readers? Are total sales of all reading material, in all formats, up or down?

I'm just annoyed at the idea that the New York Times will use front-page real estate on the staggering news that people are consuming books in the same format they consume everything else these days.

19 April 2010

Paris, je t'aime

I have always had a tense relationship with Paris. I grew up with my dad's amazing stories about the Summer of '69, when he was a student there and he and his group of fascinating young people from all over the world had adventures like being taken to the Moulin Rouge by people he met in secret jazz clubs in the catacombs, or rescuing the women in the group from inopportune Frenchmen. Based on those stories, I took four years of French in high school and three in college, struggling through irregular verbs and dreaming of the day when I would go to Paris speaking French so well no one would know I wasn't a native.

Reality, of course, turned out to be quite different. No matter how well I may speak French (which is, for the record, not all that well), I don't have enough practice to be all that good at understanding. (I try to think out interactions in advance, and as soon as the other person says something I don't expect, I'm lost.) My first visit, in May 2005, was more stressful than anything else: there was too much to see in too short a time, and it was the first time I really had to face how thoroughly I do not speak French.

I've been back several times since then, and have now gotten to the point where I feel a bit of withdrawal if I go more than six months without a visit. (Yeah, yeah. I live in London. Trips to Paris are easier and cheaper than trips to DC used to be. Come to that, I've had trips to outer Brooklyn that took longer than the Eurostar.) I still find the city exhausting, and I'm still reminded of the inadequacy of my French each time I go, and I never do everything on the list of things I've decided to do with each trip. But I can't stay away.

Last week, I got to spend almost five days in Paris, following Gino on a business trip--and I think I finally got the hang of enjoying Paris.

For starters, I didn't have to be a tourist the whole time! I get sensory overload from too many sights seen. On my usual trips to Paris, I feel overwhelmed by how much I try to see, and disappointed by how much I miss.

This time, I didn't even try, half the trip. Monday and Tuesday I spent hanging out, drinking coffee and writing, with my grad school friend, the lovely and talented Coe Booth.

Fun new fact: even in Paris, the city of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Balzac and Zola, the best place to sit and write for hours and hours is still Starbucks. You can sit in the cafes with a notebook, or the papers, or an espresso and a blank look, but a laptop will totally kill the atmosphere.

So, Coe and I would meet for lunch at a cafe, then wander out into the streets of the Left Bank or Beaubourg, looking for that green-and-white sign. (You can't see it in this picture, but there's one hanging between us, in the window of this Starbucks near the Centre Pompidou.)

Step 2: Know your priorities. There's so much I haven't seen in Paris, but this trip I made a very limited list of what I wanted to tackle.

The last day I devoted to Stuff from the Guidebook: the Orangerie, the Musee Rodin, the Tuileries. Gino wasn't going to be done with his meetings until late, so at seven I talked the nice lady at Le Fumoir into giving me a table for the hour before she was going to need it for a dinner reservation, and had a Tom Collins and a plate of charcuterie before heading back to La Defense for supper with my husband in the hotel bar.

Step 3: Dress the part. My favorite part of the trip? On my way to Le Fumoir from the Musee Rodin, a man pulling a suitcase stopped me to ask directions (in French!). I was so tickled to be mistaken for "someone who would know where things are" in Paris that I felt really bad I couldn't help him! It was actually part of a theme of the week: usually French people switch to English as soon as we get past "bonjour", but this trip I often had to ask people to speak English. I'm convinced it was because, before the trip, I discovered a blog post (now sadly lost to the wilds of my browser history) about scarf-tying, and made it my mission to wear scarves in Paris. I planned whole outfits around the scarves I own, and for the first time ever, did not feel under-dressed on my visit.

And, the final step to de-stressing in Paris: I have learned to admit I don't speak French. Before getting into a complicated interaction, I apologize for my broken French. When I don't understand something, instead of pretending I do, I ask the person to switch to English or speak more slowly. It stops me feeling like either an impostor or a fish out of water, and no one ever minds.

It's taken six visits, but I think I have finally learned to appreciate Paris the way she deserves.

11 March 2010

I miss co-workers.

And business trips. And offices. And commutes.

What brought this on? I saw Up in the Air last week, on a date with myself, while Gino was (you guessed it) on a business trip. On the one hand, it was the perfect movie to see by myself, as it's about loneliness and disengagement. On the other, I ended up in the cinema bar after it was over, nursing a g&t and desperate for someone to chew it over with.

It made me want my corporate job back. Never mind that, during my stint in Corporate America, I rarely liked the actual work I did on a daily basis. I really miss all the other stuff. I miss last-minute crises and deadlines and strategy meetings. I miss team-building days and happy hours and sheet cake in the conference room. I miss working with other people.

There's no other relationship quite like it. It's like family, in that you make up this insular little accumulation of random people and no one from outside will ever really know what it's like to be one of you. Yet it's not at all like family, because the arrangement is temporary.

My favorite scene took place about a third of the way into the movie, when Anna Kendrick's fresh-out-of-Cornell character gets dumped via text message and goes for a consolatory drink with George Clooney's and Vera Farmiga's older, mentoring characters. Over the course of the next few scenes, they let her in on a lot of life secrets: from how your expectations for life change as you get older, to how to sneak into someone else's company party.

This scene, and several others, illustrated perfectly how much of the coworker relationship is about informational give-and-take: Where do you come from? What are you doing here? Here's what the company policy says--here's the real story. Here's the official procedure and here's how you really get it done. Here's what you're not supposed to know yet. Here's what you're never supposed to know, but it's useful to me if you do. And the information isn't always top-down, manager to minion. Information--okay, gossip--is pretty much the number one currency of the low-level admin.

Oddly for a movie about forging bonds, it reminded me in how many movies lately Clooney's played the odd man out: Michael Clayton, Syriana, and now this. It's a logical choice. He's George Clooney. He's one of the most famously handsome men in existence, and his movie-starness is so extreme that he never really looks at home in any group of people. He always looks as though he's dropped in from some other dimension entirely. (And I say this from a country where I get to watch him in coffee commercials--hardly a rarified atmosphere.)

Which made for an interesting doubling effect in watching the movie. Because I could never quite forget that I was watching George Clooney playing Ryan Bingham, I could never forget that I was watching Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga playing their characters, either. So while I was watching a movie about co-workers, I was also watching coworkers doing their jobs. That part was almost as enjoyable as the movie itself.

It's a very, very, particular intimacy, and I miss it. I wanted to be part of that merry little band, all in it together.

20 February 2010

Spending a sunny Saturday reading the papers

Things are looking up for 2010. The house has BOTH heat and hot water! The sun is out! Wonderful friends are having Gino and me over for dinner tonight! Spring is definitely on the way.

While Gino catches up on work e-mail, I've been browsing the Saturday papers. One of my favorites, the Guardian, frequently posts advice for writers--including, in September of 2008, a booklet on writing for children introduced by my hero, Michael Rosen.

Today, they've posted a two-part article titled Ten Rules for Writing Fiction ("Inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing," which is apparently coming out in book form next month).

I sometimes hesitate to publicize lists like this, because I know how intimidating they can be for the new writer. There's a mountain of advice out there for people who want to write (to which I have contributed), and you have to have tried to follow a lot of it before you get to the point where you know that the only true, #1 Rule of Writing is "do whatever you have to do to get your work done."

The nice thing about the variety of contributors to the Guardian's article is that it gives the reader a chance to see for herself the variety of approaches, and how what works for one writer might not work for another. So while Richard Ford says, "Don't have children," Helen Dunmore says, "If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of J.G. Ballard." (I didn't know what she meant by that until I looked it up, but I often give myself the same advice using Ursula K. LeGuin, Madeleine L'Engle, or Judy Blume.)

The article also offers a good amount of satisfaction, for this particular writer, anyway. I am at the point where I know to ignore advice that doesn't work for me, but I can still take a good bit of pleasure out of seeing that a Famous Writer has some of the same habits I do: so Hilary Mantel says, "If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem," and I think "woo-hoo! I'm on the same page as Hilary Mantel! Success is right around the corner!"

Best of all: sometimes, reading articles such as this one, you get a piece of advice you hadn't thought of before. My "aha" moment this time around came from Anne Enright:
Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

Which reminds me of the other absolutely true, #1 Rule of Writing: You will never, ever get to a place where you know everything, so keep paying attention to what you can learn.

30 January 2010


The American Library Association awards--The Newbery and Printz, among others--were announced almost two weeks ago. I'm proud of myself this year: not only had I heard of the Newbery winner, I had already bought and read it!

To my shame, however, I had never heard of the novel that won the Printz award. Didn't even know Libba Bray had written a new book, to be honest. It really drove home how much I miss by not being able to browse the tables at American bookstores on a regular basis.

I've had a lot of time to read over the past week, so I'm caught up now. Writing about Going Bovine presents quite a challenge: I don't want to tell you about the book so much as I want you to read it, so I can talk about it with you. I don't want to have to be careful about spoilers--though I will, just for you--and it's hard to relate the plot or discuss the philosophy of the book without talking about the ending.

Going Bovine relates the travels of Cameron Smith, a teenager dying of Mad Cow disease. It's one of the most beautifully constructed novels I've read in a while, setting out its influences--Don Quixote and Norse sagas and Road Runner cartoons and our awful cultural priorities, which too often place physical and emotional safety above all other considerations--and then letting them all play into Cameron's quest to find the man who might be able to cure him.

According to her bio, the author is--like me--a Preacher's Kid (though I prefer "Theological Offspring"). I'm dying to know what her father thinks of the novel. The book is definitely a philosophical novel, but the book's philsophy doesn't much bother with the idea of God (though it does feature a guardian angel). Through his travels, Cameron learns that no one is in charge of the universe. He also learns that the only way to deal with the danger and uncertainty of life is to embrace it: to take huge risks that might not pay off; to try hard new things at which you might suck; to love people you might lose.

I can't tell you how much I love this approach to life. I also can't tell you how hard I find it to live by. The past two years of my life have been full of transitions. While most of them have had tremendous upsides (helloooo, London! Hello meat pies and teatime and volunteering with teens and four-hour lunches and writing whenever I want!), most of them have also involved great losses. Dealing with the losses makes it really hard to embrace the gains: it's all too easy to imagine that I might lose those someday, too. Sometimes I need a novel-length reminder that it really is better to have loved and lost, that trying and failing is better than not trying and never knowing.

P.S.You should also really read the author's blog post about "the call," which includes a paragraph detailing all of my worst fears of a writing career, and confirmation that sometimes it all works out:
Still in disbelief, I stared at a picture of The Ramones. When I first moved to New York with dreams of being a writer, I used to see Joey Ramone walking around the East Village. I had concocted a whole fantasy in which he was sort of my secret saint, a good luck charm. Anytime I saw him, I’d assume it was going to be a good day. It was one of those beliefs I made up to keep myself going while I worked in publishing for $16,000 a year and had to cover the hole in the bottom of my shoe with duct tape because I couldn’t afford new shoes (no joke) and encountered rejection after rejection for my writing. Sometimes the rejections were form rejections, the we-won’t-even-consider-you kiss-offs. Sometimes they were brutal and snide and damaging, and then I would wish for the dismissive ones. On more than one occasion, I was told that my work was “weird” and “too much.” And now, many years later, I’d just gotten a phone call about possibly the weirdest, too much-iest thing I’d ever written, a book straight from my soul with detours through my heart and head, all my armor left on the floor, and a group of people I respect so much called and said, “Hey, you know your super weird book? Well, thank you for that.” The photo of the Ramones got fuzzier and fuzzier because the tears had come. Tears of joy. Gratitude. Validation.

23 January 2010

Two Timeses

The New York Times and the Times of London share some of my obsessions!

First, from the NYTimes, an article on why (and why not) authors and publishers might give away e-books. I might not have noticed it, except the accompanying picture is of Maureen Johnson, whose book Suite Scarlett I downloaded (for free!) over Christmas and am currently reading. Quoth Maureen, '“If they go into a store, they are going to see 4,000 books with Robert Pattinson’s face on it,” she added, referring to movie-tie-in versions of Ms. Meyer’s “Twilight” series. “Then my book will be buried under them.”'

(By the way, I have another reason to love the Kindle: when the Printz Awards were announced last week and, to my shame, I had not read the winner or any of the honor books, I was able to download Going Bovine and Tales of the Madman Underground directly. Instead of ordering through amazon.co.uk and waiting 3-6 weeks for them to arrive from the US. Yay!)

Meanwhile, the Times of London would like me to know that I am not the only person shivering away in a Victorian house.

19 January 2010

Q: So, what happens if I just go ahead and stick these banana muffins in the oven...

...even though I accidentally doubled the number of eggs (and didn't change anything else)?

A: I get delicious muffins with a light texture and a smooth, teeny-tiny crumb.

And to think there was a time I would have declared the muffins ruined and thrown the batter away.

There's some kind of life lesson here about creative risk-taking, but I think I'll just leave that alone and be happy I know a way to make my banana bread recipe work better as muffins.

18 January 2010

January 2010 is still January.

I've written before about the challenges of London winters. The sun comes up late, and goes down early. Sometimes the clouds are so thick it never seems to show up at all. Many of the tasks of ordinary life--running errands, getting exercise, eating something besides ready-meals--seem twice as hard in January as in June.

Adding to this is that the two rooms in the flat in which I am theoretically the most productive--the kitchen and the study--face the space between our house and the next, and become markedly colder and darker as the year does. Check out last February's view from my desk:

For the most part, this year has been a lot easier than last, thanks to the coping strategies I learned from having been through it before. I check the sunrise/sunset times every day, and make a point to appreciate that each day is three minutes longer than the day before. (Yes, 7:55-16:25 is a short day. But three weeks ago we were at 8:05-15:50.) If the weather is sunny, I know that it is vitally important to do whatever I have to do outside the house between 11-2, when the sun is high enough to be seen above the buildings. (I also know how important it is to invent something to do outside in the sun, even if I don't have actual errands to run.) I make a conscious effort to do things after four p.m., even if it is dark outside and I feel as though the day is over.

Unfortunately, I also moved my workspace out of my study and onto the couch in the reception room. The reception room gets a lot more sun, which is good. But my study is now a paper-filled black hole that I never want to go back to, which is bad. Worst of all, because I relax and work in the same place, I'm relaxing waaay too much and not getting much work done!

So, New Year's Resolution #2: Make my home office into a place I want to be.

This is going to be among my tougher resolutions, because tidying things up scares the crap out of me. For the most part, I'm not messy because I don't put things away. I'm messy because I get new paper, and I don't know where it should go. All of the available space is filled with old paper, and to make room I'd have to go through all of the old paper. Can I throw out the old manuscripts covered with notes from my critique group? How about this info from when I first joined the Junior League? And maybe I can't actually get rid of any of it, and all of this paper is just going to stay here piled up, and I've just discovered something important that I thought I sent in months ago, and my chest is getting tight, and oh, hey! The Gilmore Girls is on! I think I'll make myself a cup of mint tea and a crumpet and go back to the living room.

And I have a terrible time sticking to organizational systems, so even looking at a work area well-tidied holds early glints of anxiety. I know I'm going to have to go through it all again, sooner than I'd like.

As with all the other elements of January survival, I can get through it, because I know why it's important. Soon the sun will reach the study windows, and I'll have a chance to clean the patio, and I'll want my desk to be usable so I can sit and write the Great American Teen Novel and enjoy the March-April view:

15 January 2010

Am I contributing to the downfall of literature as we know it?

So, way back when I got an iPod Nano for my birthday and learned the joys of watching downloaded TV on a 2 1/2-inch screen, I asked myself: did this mean I also wanted a Kindle? Or was I more committed to the book as an object than that?

My husband answered that question for me with my Christmas gift. And the answer is: both. The Kindle is amazing and I'm so lucky to own one--and I'm not giving up my extensive library of books for anything. I'll even keep adding to it: there are some books that I'm going to want to physically own, even if I can read them another way.

Now, the next question: Does that make me a pawn in Amazon's evil empire?

Farhad Manjoo is worried it might. Pointing out that electronic delivery of books involves a host of licensing and other copyright/rights management issues, Manjoo writes:
But the Kindle's restrictions are more worrying than those associated with the iPhone, the iPod, and other gizmos. For one thing, if you objected to the iTunes Store's policies, there was always another way to legally buy music for your iPod—you could buy CDs (from Amazon, perhaps) and rip the tracks to MP3. That's not an option for books; there's no easy way to turn dead trees into electrons.

What Manjoo misses here--to my shock, frankly--is that there is a way to get content out of dead trees: you just read the book on paper. His concerns are absolutely valid for media that require some sort of electronic conversion. I don't have a DVD player, so if I want to (legally) watch a movie when I want to watch it, I'm entirely limited by what's available on iTunes or my cable provider's on-demand network; I can't just buy the disc (or check it out of the library) and stare at it. I can do exactly that with a book. And I'm not sooooo in love with my Kindle that, if a book I want to read isn't available in that format, I'll give up on reading it.

There are two things that thrill me about the Kindle: 1) I can bring along a suitcase full of books when I travel, without having to lug an actual suitcase full of books; and 2) I can read new, hardcover books when they come out, even if I don't actually want to have to find space for when I'm done reading them.

Plus, it's already saved my Cool Aunt cred once. When my whole family went to central Kansas this winter for my grandma's birthday party, we piled my niece and nephew into the two cars for the 3-hour drive from Kansas City without much attention to what gear was where. As a result, my eight-year-old niece ended up in the car that did _not_ have her books--or anything else to pass the time--in it. And she was sharing the back seat with her Aunt Kathryne, who had a sore throat and was in no shape to read aloud, or even chat much.

As Bertie Wooster would say, it was but the work of a moment with me to download Frindle onto my new device and pass it over. Not only did Julia take to the book without a word of complaint, but oh my giddy aunt, the joy when she realized she was reading a real live chapter book--not an easy reader--all by herself will probably be my biggest thrill for a while.

Two things, however, really bother me about the Kindle: 1) It might break, and probably will wear out someday; and 2) I have to watch the battery. Both of those things are the opposite of what's good about books.

The experience of reading on a Kindle differs from reading a book in a couple of significant ways. For one--as my niece discovered--you can't glean the kind of information about what you're reading from the Kindle screen as you can from a physical book. (In my niece's case, this was a good thing: if I'd handed her a paperback of Frindle, she might have gotten freaked out by its chapter-book-ness and not tried to read it alone.)

For another, you can't flip to the end and read the last page to make sure everything turns out all right. This has been a long habit of mine: I like being able to concentrate on the story without actually worrying about the characters.

But I couldn't do that with The Little Stranger. I just had to stay up late and finish it. And the ending was far more creepy and satisfying that way than it would have been if I had flipped to the last page. I am so impressed with the effect that I'm using all my willpower not to flip to the end of The Help, which I'm reading in paper copy (thanks, Mom!).

I'll be interested to see what happens with e-books and e-publishing over the next few years. After all, I've been through six different formats for listening to music in my lifetime (seven if you count "being in the same room with someone playing an instrument"), but books have always been books. I hope that the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader and whatever else they come up with will live happily alongside the wall of bookcases in my living room.

13 January 2010

This would be a lot easier if it were actually the 1890s.

The plumber, in between valiant efforts to find the part that would fix the boiler and give me back my heat and hot water, has been laughing at my attempts to think of my frigid flat as a London Adventure: "You know Dickens died a long time ago, right?"

The fact is, I'd be perfectly happy to go back to the late 19th century, when my house was built to deal with lack of steam heat because radiators hadn't been invented yet. If there were still a fireplace in the bedroom... if the fireplace in the living room produced more heat than decorative light... if bed warmers were still a standard household appliance; if my everyday clothes still included yards of wool and layers upon layer of crinoline: if only I lived in the world this house was built for. Granted, I'd be breathing soot and confined, by my sex, to the home, but at least I'd be warm there!

As it is, I'm wearing three layers of clothes and spending most of my time under a thick afghan, engaged in the very ladylike Victorian pursuit of embroidery. And drinking hot tea. Lots and lots of hot tea.

Anyone have other keeping-warm ideas? My landlady suggested making a dinner that required lots of prep work and a 250-degree (centigrade) oven, but I shudder at the idea of washing the cookpots and roasting pan in cold water.

New Year's Resolutions

Last year I resolved not to make any resolutions. That turned out to be effective--I didn't break a single one!--but not much fun. The truth is, I like making resolutions. I like the planning of it, and the dreaming, and the list-making.

This year I have only a few, and this blog is one of them.

I'll post as often as I feel like it. I'll talk about what I'm reading, watching, or listening to; I'll post any new insights about the writing life (anyone interested in my old insights can find them in the archives of The Longstockings, a blog you're probably already reading anyway); I'll tell you about life in England and travels further afield.

In short, I'll write you a letter every so often. I look forward to hearing back from you!