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Showing posts from May, 2008

Slaying the Self-Doubt Demon

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"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." ~Sylvia Plath

Amen, Sylvia. Self-doubt's one heck of a demon, one so powerful, it can prevent us from even trying. It's the voice that whispers, "Who do you think you're kidding?," the one that hisses that your successes were all due to dumb luck, that your incompetence will be discovered any minute. It's the one that tells me, with each project I'm writing, that this book (the one I began with such enthusiam) will be the failure that will finally take me down.

Self-doubt is often full of crap, but like a lot of really accomplished abusers, it weaves in just enough strands of truth to make it impossible to ignore complete. If you can tease out the truth part, you can use it to effectively edit or make course corrections. But this only works if you can keep the b.s. part at b…

"My Life As a Bald Soprono" (the fabulous Margaret Baker on stage)

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If you're reading this in New York -- or if you have a way to get there -- you've got to see actress/opera diva/model Margaret Baker in My Life as a Bald Soprano (book and lyrics by Margaret H. Baker, music by Clint J Borzoni) at the Midtown International Theatre Festival this summer. (Click here for dates and show times.) You've seen Baker before; you just don't know it. She's appeared in everything from Sex and the City to Vanity Fair and just shot a pilot for CBS. Her unique quality goes far beyond the bald, but she's managed to turn the alopecia that devastated her as a child into an asset that gets her noticed. In a good way.

Margaret's fabulous noggin first came to my attention when book cover genius Chip Kidd used her in his design for Bald in the Land of Big Hair. When people ask me how I ended up with a Chip Kidd cover, I say, "God pulled my name out of a hat that day." When people ask if the bald woman is me, I say, "I wish!" (T…

Post a Comment, Win a Book

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Today, I'm yakking about reading as the antidote for stress at 2bRead, the blog of the Published Authors Special Interest Chapter. Since I'm kind of a slacker over there (putting nearly all my blogging time into BtO), I've decided to do a drawing for a free, autographed copy of my most recent romantic suspense, The Salt Maiden - or any title from my backlist you might prefer.

All you have to do is leave a comment, which as simple as recommending a recent book that carried you away. So please stop by and join the fun! I'd love seeing you there.

Clearing the Mental Clutter

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I have a clutter problem lately. I'm not talking about the problem of physical clutter (though I've always struggled with that one as well) but the host of worrisome thoughs that crowd in when I try to rest or write. This clutter problem affects not only my writing, but my health, so I'm making a pact with myself to deal with it proactively.

Current Denizens of the Realm of Worry:
1. Son graduating next week. Gifts to be wrapped, house to be cleaned in anticipation of the visit of the relation who notices and comments upon each dust mote.
2. Bills due. Gotta pay 'em. (Boo!) Run to bank to deposit forgotten check. (Yea!)
3. Where the heck is that economic stimulus check already?
4. Brand new deadline with scary target date and careening plot.

Notice how the writing-related challenge comes at the end of the list? That's what worry does for me. It shuffles what I love (but still have to treat as a job) to the bottom of the deck. The other stuff still has to be dealt with, …

Older really is wiser (or "I'd be at the MENSA meeting if I knew where my car keys are.")

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There was an interesting piece in the New York Times last week in which Sara Reistad-Long delves into recent studies that indicate the forgetfulness plaguing me and many other writers of a certain age is actually an indication of higher brain function.

Here's a little bit fromOlder Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain:
When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.

The studies are analyzed in a new edition of a neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research.”

Some brains do deteriorate with age. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, strikes 13 percent of Americans 65 and older. But for most aging adults, the authors say, much of what occurs is a gradually widening focus of attention tha…

Thought for Today

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“Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow.”

-- Mary Anne Radmacher

Today, I'm taking time to reflect not only on the everyday courage that keeps us creating but on the profound courage of those who have given their lives in the service of their country. May their spirits be blessed and their families find comfort.

Keri Smith on how to be a miserable artist

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My son sent me this right on guide to misery from author, illustrator, "guerilla artist" Keri Smith. Timely and true for writers.

Have a non-miserable day, everyone!

A Hobbyist Turns Pro

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As Joni and I were chattering over coffee the other day, my memory banks coughed up a nugget of advice given to me long ago by a pro writer friend, one that ended up as a turning point on my path to publication. For years, I'd been writing as a sideline/hobby (the dream job) while also professionally pursuing first a teaching career and then a masters degree in educational administration (the reality). I was starting to apply for positions as an assistant principal, yet still whining about wanting to write for a living someday. My friend (who'd heard this all before) stopped me cold and told me (with some exasperation) that I could be a published author. I had the talent, but what I lacked was the commitment.

I was pretty aggravated by that statement. What did she mean, I didn't have the commitment? In spite of the demands of marriage, child-rearing, a full-time teaching career, and grad school in my "spare" time, I was still cramming in hours of writing every day…

So What Is It, Dear, That Makes YOURS So Special?

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The world isn't out there screaming for another novel about the interior landscape of a frustrated housewife. It doesn't need just another adequate romance or another serviceable thriller or another average name-your-genre because, if truth be told, there are all too many out there crowding bookstores, Wal-Marts, and remainders bins in warehouses.

So why, I ask you -- as well editors and agents and individual readers -- does the world need yours? What is it that makes your vision unique and appealing, fresh and exciting? Why should anyone pick up your effort in preference to the known quantity of an established favorite author?

If you can succinctly put this difference into words, you've got yourself at least a few seconds of an agent or an editor's attention. If you can't get it across, you've got yourself a problem.

So today, practice quantifying why your work is special. (For an example, see my post from yesterday, Framing a Career.) If you're brave enough …

Framing a Career

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I'll admit it; I've been tempted to cheat lately. Whenever I read a great historical (such as T.J. Bennett's The Legacy), my mind gravitates toward the stories and characters I once wrote with such love and care and the Klondike Gold Rush proposal I've allowed to gather dust without submitting. After enjoying a friend's YA debut (the delightful Oh. My. Gods. by Tera Lynn Childs) I start thinking of the two (unpublished) young adult manuscripts I wrote while teaching and wondering how much fun it would be to whip them into shape and send them out again. [After reviewing these old manuscripts, I came to the conclusion: not much. I may enjoy a good YA, but my voice is all wrong for it.] And then last fall, after reading Alexis Glynn Latner's captivating Hurricane Moon, I heard the siren call of speculative fiction, where I first cut my teeth reading-and-writing-wise.

So what keeps me from flitting around from genre to subgenre? It's partly an act of self-disci…

From the Warehouse: Gene Weingarten on the Peekaboo Paradox

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Every once in a while I come across a group of words that make me a better writer. I store these poems, articles, links, and quotes in a file under the nebulous Area 51-ish name "The Warehouse".

I don't remember when I filed "The Peekaboo Paradox" by Gene Weingarten, but it originally appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, January 22, 2006.
The Great Zucchini arrived early, as he is apt to do, and began to make demands, as is his custom. He was too warm, so he wanted the thermostat adjusted. It was. He declared the basement family room adequate for his needs, but there was a problem with the room next door. Something had to be done about it.

The room next door was emblematic of the extraordinary life and times of the Great Zucchini, Washington's No. 1 preschool entertainer. The homeowners, Allison and Donald Cox Jr., are in their late thirties, with two young children -- Lauren, who is 5, and Donald III, who goes by Trey, and whose third birthday was bein…

Life and art on Lipari: a conversation with Janet Little

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Yesterday I introduced you to my dear old friend, Hecate the Bandicoot, and my dear new friend, artist/poet Janet Little. Twenty years after “Hecate the feculent” came yawling and crawling into my children’s lives, my now 19-year-old daughter Jerusha came upon the book while I was cleaning the dark reaches of my office closet. I Googled the author up and found this self-portrait and bio on her website:
Janet Little grew up in Ogdensburg, New York. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and attended their European Honors Program in Rome. The following year her “droll, lavishly illustrated morality verse,” Hecate the Bandicoot, was published by Dodd, Mead. She also illustrated the book The Impossumble Summer, published by Walker and Co. She has done theater posters, sculpture, puppetry, and written a screenplay, and a great deal of poetry. She lives on the island of Lipari, where she is writing and illustrating a book based in the Aeolian Islands called The Mermaid’s Tales…

Bandicoots, Google, and finally connecting with a dear old friend

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About twenty years ago, my sister Linda, who worked in the magical upstairs children’s area at Montana Book Company in Helena, rescued a wonderfully quirky little book from a pile of remainders and gave it to my newborn son. (Hey, it’s never too early to read to the kid.) Hecate the Bandicoot, written and illustrated by Janet Little, was a top favorite for both my kids. I read it so many times I could recite it word for word, and believe me, recite it I did – on the way to daycare, during fussy airplane rides, in the dark after bedtime when the sandman never showed, waiting for vaccinations in the pediatrician’s office, lying on our backs in the yard watching fireflies. When I was lying on the bathroom floor, nauseous from chemo, my 5-year-old daughter used to sit on the edge of the tub and recite it back to me.

Hecate the bandicoot
Slavered at the maw.
Hecate was hungry,
And she wanted something raw.

Thick and swarmy was the night,
Addled was the air.
Smelly was that bandicoot,
Matte…

So Funny It Hurts

Dennis Cass's video about the absurdity of book launch promotional efforts is hilarious... and painful. With technology quadrupling every time we blink, a lot of authors are driving themselves crazy trying to stay on the cutting edge of self-promotion, often at the cost of writing the next great book.

Do you think it's gotten out of hand? Where do you draw the line between artist and book-hawker? As you delve ever deeper into publishing, how will you maintain a balance?

Excuse me... I'm off to write a book. :)

Versions of a Vision

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Recently, I came across the rainy, blue cover for Geliebter Mörder, an upcoming translation, from Blanvalet Paperbacks, a German imprint of Random House. I'm always intrigued by overseas artwork, the various depictions used to sell a work in foreign markets. I liked this one, but I couldn't say to which of my books this cover belonged. The title, which translates to "Beloved Murderer" didn't help me a whole lot either.

Still curious days later, I tried Google and came up with the answer. This cover is for The Deadliest Denial (the red covered U.S. version). Also posted are the white Estonian version and the deep blue, babydoll and handgun (hmmm...) Polish concept. All visions from the same story, each of them surprising in its own way.

In the same way, a dozen or a hundred or a thousand authors could each tackle the same plotline (in the case of The Deadliest Denial, it's the story of a police officer's wife awakened by a knock at the door, not the news the…

Joe Cottonwood blogs the heart of a carpenter

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I've been meaning to do a post on podcasting ever since I read author Joe Cottonwood's insightful comments about it on The Well, but time and organizational skills are not on my side these days. I promise I'll get to it because it's something emerging writers should know about. Meanwhile, allow me to turn you on to the rich, earthy voice of Joe's Clear Heart Blog: The Heart of a Carpenter. This from "Changing Light Bulbs, Part One", in which he revisits St. Louis 1968 and reflects on "a pleasant job in a strange year":
First day, in the stifling St. Louis heat walking across campus to our assigned building, Franklin asked me how I'd spent my summer.

"Long story," I said.

"Go ahead," Franklin said, stopping under the shade of a tree. "We got all day."

Students were hustling around us, heading for class. Hair was longer this year, skirts shorter, attitudes ... goofier.

I gave Franklin a brief synopsis of my summer. It …

Thrillerfest '08

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Our friends at International Thrill Writers Inc have asked us to spread the word about Thrillerfest '08, which promises to be both thrilling and festive!

From the press kit:
"Not only does Thrillerfest present a unique opportunity to mingle with bestselling authors such as Sandra Brown, James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, and many more, they'll also be sharing inside stories of how they achieved their success and what inspires them. Additionally, this year more than 35 top literary agents have signed up to hear pitches as part of Agentfest, a truly unique opportunity for aspiring writers."

Check out the latest edition of The Big Thrill, the ITW webzine.

So Little Time, So Many Choices!

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In some ways, I envy my son, who is on the cusp of graduating high school. At this stage of the game, almost any choice remains a possibility, as long as he is willing to pour heart and soul and the Labors of Hercules into attaining it.

The older one gets and the more one invests in any specific goal, the dimmer grow the other possibilities. I'm not saying that we lose our ability to make different choices, only that it becomes harder and harder to change as we age. And by middle age, we hear doors close behind us as we realize that some choices, indeed, are now irrevocable. All those alternate career or lifestyle or even partner dreams we've harbored can no longer come true.

Except if you're a writer. Then you get to have it all.

Through my novels, I have explored alternate life choices. I've imagined careers as a jewelry artist, veterinarian, firefighter, physical therapist... I've lived in other regions, experienced other times and partners. I've imagined in de…

Pithy, Seedy, Pulpy, Juicy

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Deeply in need of a little refreshment, I picked up Pithy, Seedy, Pulpy, Juicy this weekend and refreshed my head with a bit of Hilary Price genius.

Hilary's "Rhymes With Orange" has been twice nominated for the best cartoon panel division of the National Cartoonist's Society and appears in more than 150 daily newspapers nationwide (including the Houston Chronicle) and is "adored by animal lovers, fans of literature, and anyone who can laugh about the quirky nature of life." (Including writers.)

Check it out.

Happy Mother's Day!

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Along with a hearty amen! to Colleen's "Writer as Mother" post below, I wanted to give a shout out to my fabulous writer/editor mom, Lois Lonnquist.

If you're as disorganized as I am (totally oblivious to the fact that today was Mother's Day until Malachi and his girlfriend presented me with a rug they'd found on the side of the road) it's not too late! Hopefully, your mom slept in or is conveniently located in a tag-along time zone, and there's still a few hours to express your true feelings with one of the irreverent Mother's Day cards found on someecards.com.

(This heartfelt Mother's Day sentiment came to me from the Gare Bear. And I know he really means it.)

The Writer as Mother

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Back in the early 20th century, Mother's Day was cooked up as an homage to the Victorian model of motherhood: you know, the self-sacrificing, family-worshipping icon who put her own needs dead last. Sure, there was a ton of "female hysteria" and a whole lot of passive-aggression going on, but the holiday honored -- and still honors -- the mythical Selfless Mother.

My own mother is wonderful, but selfless? Not so much. She goes after what it takes to make her happy and quietly-but-firmly insists that we respect this. She loves her children (and my dad, to whom she's been married since the age of 17) dearly, but none of us believe we're her entire reason for existing.

As a mom, I'd say I fit the same mold. I adore my family, but I think the best thing I can do for them is be a happy mom, a mom pursuing her own goals. A mom who teaches by example that dreams and aspirations have weight in this world, and that a woman's reason for existence has a larger scope t…

Graves and baseball (two delicious bits of word play)

I just realized last night that these two scenes have something in common (something beyond "We must speak by the card, or equivocation overcomes us!"), and while I'm not going to gas on here about what I think it is, I will say that I am going to work toward incorporating it on some level into every bit of dialogue I write from here on out.

The gravedigger scene from Hamlet (act V, scene i):



And the timeless "Who's On First?"

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Print Runs... and Story Construction

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Today on BtO, two great educational opportunities for writers, one free, one close to it, and both highly recommended.

One of the toughest things for newer authors to understand is print runs. What are they? Who determines how large mine is? And what can I do to determine and impact my place in my publishers' pecking order?

Author extraordinaire Jennifer Ashley has explained it beautifully here on her writing blog. Wish I'd read and understood this years ago, because it could have saved me a very bumpy learning curve.

And for those of you interested in taking an incredibly information online class on fiction presented by a master writer instructor and veteran novelist, check out Patricia Kay's The A-B-Cs of Story. Pat's classes get rave reviews, and for $30 you get the following:


* What is a story? The three-act structure

* Your opening: setting the stage, the inciting incident

* Creating characters we can root for

* Writing scenes: Scenes Equal Action

* Writing Sequels: Sequ…

The Ego Trap

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Call it karmic debt-load, superstition, or what have you, but most writers of my acquaintance feel an obligation to give back to newbies what those before have given them. Sometimes this comes in the form of close one-on-one mentorship, but it's way too easy to get burned that way, so many times, authors "pay back the universe" by giving free or crazily-close-to-free advice in the form of workshops/classes taught, articles written, or blogs posted.

I do as much of this as I can, within reason. But I strive to keep my focus on my commercial work because there's a real danger, in my opinion, in setting yourself up as an all-knowing Writing Guru. Such teachers often develop a following of writing disciples who hang on their every word. This sort of thing isn't good for the disciples, and it's often a career killer for the WG if she doesn't watch her step.

Why? I think this happens because the WG gets used to the role of all-knowing portal to the mysterious uni…

My once per decade visit to the windy city

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I'm in Chicago to attend an event where my current memoir guru charge is performing. Staying in a very nice hotel. I was out late last night, sitting in a great restaurant, having interesting conversations with people who work in the film biz, on Broadway, and other far-flung but richly rewarding creative endeavors, and the weirdest thing about all that is that I kinda fit in.

So now I've had my Chicago for the first decade of the new century.

My 1990s visit to Chicago was on book tour. My first novel was a B&N Discover selection, so for a brief and shining moment, it had near FOS shelf space in every B&N in the US. I was determined to make the most of that moment, killing myself to visit every store I could get to during that six weeks, and I've been rewarded with great support from B&N ever since. The book was done by a small press, so I was on my own dime, and I stretched it as thin as a paper cut. Cheap hotel, el train and bus to get around, and a budget of …

Recommended Read: The Legacy

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As a writer, I sometimes dread picking up a book by an author I know and like on a personal level. I always want to love the person's work, but I feel really let down if it turns out the book is not for me. If that's the case, I simply don't bring it up, leaving my friend to think it's languishing or lost somewhere in my gargantuan To Be Read pile (which also happens).

I have to admit, I was already kind of worried when I picked up pal T.J. Bennett's debut, THE LEGACY, the other day. Although I used to write historical romances, I've been really burned out on them for a few years. Too many skimp on the history or seem too much alike to hold my attention. And then there was the sixteenth century Germanic setting, which made me think of sausages and saeurkraut and other foods that make my stomach ache.

But I thought I'd check out a few pages, just to be polite. Almost immediately, I was hooked. To quote the review I wrote for Amazon (I try to do this whenever I…

Where is my head?

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I was emailing back and forth with my current memoir client last night and mentioned something about our scheduled meeting on Thursday in Chicago. Her response was a little baffled, and I suddenly jolted to the fact that I was supposed to be in Chicago not Thursday but Tuesday. As in today. Nine hours later I was on the airplane, and now I'm here, but somewhere over Kansas, it occurred to me that I came very close to a major screw up that would have righteously pissed off my client, wasted a chunk of her money, and ruined the honeymoon rapport I've cultivated with her and the other players involved in this project. Not cool.

When my daughter was little, she coined the term "book head" to describe the state of mind that has me staring out the car window, saying "sure, honey" when someone asks me if we can buy a horse. No matter what Gary says to start a conversation with me when I'm in book head, my response is a variation of "Did you say something?&…

Taking It Personally

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One of the hardest things to learn in this business is not to take its assorted slings and arrows personally. What makes it almost impossible is the very personal nature of a novel. You're myopically focused on that baby for months and often years before it comes to fruition, and although there's generally a critique partner or partners, an agent, and an editor involved, the finished product has your name on the cover, your characters on its pages, and your central vision competing in the crassly-commercial marketplace.

Worse yet, your literary "off-spring" is competing for the hearts and minds of readers, most of whom come armed with strong opinions. Some of whom will not mind telling you in the form of "helpful" letters or (more often) e-mails. And more and more of whom will feel inclined to share their thoughts with the world in the form of blog posts, Amazon reviews, or drive-by postings on electronic bulletin boards. Some of these readers will be paid o…

Vitamin E: in praise of good editors

Now that's what I call editing! But editing a book is another animal. In addition to tech prowess, the skill set has to include artistic instinct balanced by business savvy and steel-ball candor tempered with wet nurse gentleness.

I woke up at 4 AM on Wednesday, thinking, "I sure hope there's a hatchet sticking out of my back because if there isn't, I have another kidney infection." I've been plagued with the drat bastard things ever since chemo. Usually I can fight them down with cranberry juice, water, and naturopathic remedies, but on a breakneck toboggan track of a deadline, I'd been swilling Diet Coke and coffee instead. My doc hustled me in for a power course of antibiotics, but I had to turn down the prescription for painkillers. I knew I wouldn't be able to resist them if I had them, and on this deadline, I had to keep my head straight and keep working.

Thursday afternoon, I hit SEND and met my deadline for first chapter and detailed chapter by…

The Importance of Forward Motion

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Lately, I've spent an inordinate amount of time massaging a proposal for a new novel. Now there's nothing wrong with editing, and I truly believe the revision is to writing as gem-cutting is to rough stone, but storytellers need to maintain forward motion to keep the tale alive in their minds.

This week, I've done just that, committing to this still unsold project rather that taking the more prudent course of working on a second, fall-back proposal. I've forged ahead, recapturing the raw enthusiasm that launched this story in the first place. (I love this story! These characters! This setting!) At this point, there's no real need for each stroke to be perfect. As my books' characters slowly reveal themselves to me, I'll have plenty of opportunities to pop back and refine what I am writing. All that matters is that I keep on paddling toward the finish, sustaining my own interest as I hope to sustain readers'.

Forget that, and I risk sinking like a swimmer …

Breaking the silence (and making it all worthwhile)

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Got one of those letters this week that makes it all worth while, and at the risk of sounding like I'm back-patting, I want to share it with you...

Dear Joni,

My name is Chris Gillespie and I am writing for two reasons. One is to thank you for being able to make my sister laugh. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years ago and when she was at her lowest with the initial depression her diagnosis caused, your book was the one thing that just cracked her up. Her then husband even wrote you and I don't know if you would remember, but you actually called her and the smile that that brought was amazing. Her name was Julie Layne.

Unfortunately Julie lost her battle with ovarian cancer just over 2 years ago. I have since become involved with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) and I am on the committee to organize the Break the Silence 5K run/walk this year. This is the NOCC's signature event and it is held each September to raise funds for awareness, educat…

Night Shift to the Rescue

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Last night, at precisely 3:30 AM, I woke up with lines of prose downloading into my head. Resonant prose, too good to lose, though my bed was warm and comfortable and I knew I needed more sleep.

I repeated the key words, willing myself to remember, for those lines were the solution to a snooze-fest of a scene I'd been fighting during the last two waking days. More words downloaded into my mind: another line provided by the night shift of subconscious.

Reaching for my glow-pen (I don't recall its real name, only that I can click it twice to make the tip glow), I remembered I'd left my usual nightstand pad of paper in the family room. Beside my laptop. Thoroughly awake now, I slipped out of bed without disturbing either my husband or the small terrier curled at my feet. I found a robe and pair of slippers, made myself some decaf chai tea, and woke up my computer. For the next two hours, I let the night shift have its way with me, reworking the scene with which I'd struggle…