Tuesday, May 27, 2008

This Is NOT a Review

I'm in the middle of an LDS novel that I think is really, really good.

I recently finished another one that I enjoyed a lot.

My daughter recently read a YA book by an LDS writer and is dying for me to read it too. I will soon.

And my husband and I have plans to read aloud a book by yet another LDS writer, whose books we've enjoyed in the past.

All four of these books are by talented people, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if all of them ended up as Whitney finalists for 2008.

But I'm not telling you the names of the books or who wrote them. There's a reason for that.

Now, as many people know, I'm hyper-opinionated. I won't just tell you if I liked or disliked something. Instead, I'm liable to go on a rant about the virtues (or lack thereof) of a particular work. I get passionate about these things. I debate. I foam at the mouth.

That kind of thing.

But this year . . . you won't be hearing any of it from me. At all. Or, at least about fiction written by Latter-day Saints. (Movies and fiction by other writers are all fair game. I may have to get loud and ranty about those just to compensate.)

See, I was thinking about posting review about the one I'm reading as soon as I finish it, but then I remembered: I can't.

The reason is that I have the privilege of serving on the Whitney Awards committee for 2008. I get to read a ton of novels by LDS writers this year and judge in two categories as well as help select the novels that will be up for Best Novel and Best Novel by a New Author.

That's the terrific part about being on the committee. (For those wondering, I'm willing and able to be part of the committee because my next novel, Tower of Strength, won't be released until 2009.)

Keeping my opinions to myself might just be torturous for someone with as big a mouth as I have. On the other hand, I will get to voice them with the other committee members. That's some consolation. (Poor souls have no idea what they're in for.)

I encourage readers to nominate books they think are deserving of a Whitney and to tell others to do the same. Broadcast the news far and wide! The program is there to recognize quality fiction produced by LDS writers and to help the entire cannon improve and grow. The only way to do that is to get the best books nominated, and that takes the readers.

Visit the Whitney site at the link above to submit a book for consideration. Don't assume your favorite is a shoo-in. You never know.

In the meantime, I'll be tying my tongue into a knot.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

David vs. David

I don't think I've ever, ever, blogged about American Idol, even though my hubby and I have watched it religiously from the very first year. (Thank you, TiVo. That's how we do it: back when we had toddlers and babies under foot, we'd get them to bed and then have some time alone with Simon and company.)

However, I'm writing about it today because the final performance night yesterday got me riled up. That and I won't be able to watch the results live tonight, so I'm giving fair warning: if anyone spills the beans, I'll hunt them down. Don't tell me.

But I think I already know who will win. If pure talent were to take it, it would be David Cook. (Two of my girls spent a good hour last night voting for him repeatedly.) But I'm betting it'll be the other David instead, because Cook's got a couple of big things going against him:

1) He lacks the "he's so cute!" preteen girl vote,
2) he didn't play to his strengths last night, and
3) cutie-pie Archuleta did.

Sure, during the rest of the competition, shake things up, take risks. But on the FINALE? Play to your strengths, man! Cook's a rocker. He's got an awesome edge. Did he show any of that last night? No.

While I really enjoyed all three of Cook's performances (I was jammin' out to his rendition of a U2 classic), Archuleta hit the stage to win it. He saw the night for what it was: not just another week of the show, but his last and final chance to show off his strengths and get the votes.

Every one of Cook's songs would have done him well on any other week of the competition. The guy's dang talented and never once ended up in the bottom three, but on finale night, that's not enough; you have to be unbeatable. THE BEST. And he could have been the best last night. He HAS been the best before. But not last night.

Ah, well. I was hoping a rocker would win it finally. (Both Bo Bice and Chris Daughtry really deserved to go farther than they did.) Even when (Okay, okay, IF. We don't know yet) Archuleta takes the title, Cook will have a fantastic career ahead of him. I just wish he could also lay claim to the win, because over the last several months, he's proven that he's the greater talent.

He just didn't show that last night, more's the pity.

That said, Go Archuleta! He's a great kid, and I'm glad his childhood dream is coming true. I'd be far more upset if someone else from the show were in his shoes, someone whom I didn't think deserved it.

I must say that dang, time flies. The idea that little Davy grew up watching American Idol is a bit freaky.

I'm not old . . . I'm not old . . . I'm not old . . .

UPDATE: In a twist of fate, I ended up staying home and watching the finale with the entire family (except for #4, who opted to stay downstairs with The Little Mermaid and a bowl of popcorn to herself).


Even though we were watching it live, we didn't know who won the moment it was announced. See, the finale always runs overtime, and our TiVo was set to record from 7 pm to 9 pm. We knew it'd go over, so when the warning dinged that it was going to change channels to record something else at 9:00, we just told it to cancel the recording and stay on Fox.

But here's the thing: The TiVo technically stopped recording at 9:00 and then continued recording on the same channel, so right as Ryan said, "The winner of American Idol 2008 is David . . . " we got a 3-second blip of blackness and silence. The whole family screamed and jumped and gasped. We had to watch the crowd's reaction, trying to figure out who won. (The timing, people! Sheesh! NO other 3-second moment could have been worse.)

Since both Davids handled it with such grace, you couldn't even tell the winner from their faces at first.

Anyway, I was . . . AM (obviously) thrilled. Go Cook!

Monday, May 19, 2008

High Praise

This is yet another post about my literary hero, L M Montgomery. (I should start a new label for these . . . hmm. I'll label this post that way. At some point I'll go back and label the old ones!)

As I've mentioned before, I'm reading the fifth and final volume of her journals. I'm going through the book very slowly, just a couple of pages a day, usually right before bed. It's fascinating and educational all at once. And sad.

She spent her last years very depressed. Where I'm at right now, she's visiting her beloved Prince Edward Island for probably the last time and mourning the fact that all her childhood haunts were going to be soon desecrated by being turned into a national park. (I'm not sure I'd have the heart to visit those spots now . . . it would almost be a slap in her face to be one more of the hordes of tourists she dreaded.)

At this point she was also rereading a lot of her old work and commenting on some of it. Some of it felt as if she were reading someone else's work, since it had been so long since she'd written it, decades in some cases. She mentioned a couple of short stories that made her wistful--she thought they were some of the best work she'd ever done, but didn't think she could write like that anymore. She'd "lost" something. I don't think she meant in skill, but in perspective and outlook on the world and life.

One thing I thought fascinating is that she determined that she thought Rilla of Ingleside was her best novel, and thought that her weakest book was Windy Poplars. I've thought the exact same thing ever since I read them the first time. Rilla is her best. Poplars . . . meh. It's entertaining, but it's not stellar. Taking the #2 slot would have to be The Blue Castle, followed by the Emily trilogy.

At this point in her life, she was writing Jane of Lantern Hill and had yet to publish Anne of Ingleside, which were her last two books. I enjoyed both of those much more than Poplars. Eventually I might post about some of the ways certain events in her life impacted the storylines of those last two books, particularly one thread in Ingleside.

So here I am reading my icon's journals and planning to pick up another one of her books soon, which I do every year, and I receive an e-mail just last night.

It's the kind of thing I would have only dreamed of back in the eighth grade when I had my nose tucked inside an L M Montgomery book at all times and had delusions of grandeur of becoming like her.

The e-mail was from my dear friend (and hugely talented member of my critique group), Lu Ann, who teaches junior high English and has for some three decades. She was also named as Utah's Best of State K-12 educator of 2008.

Her 9th grade honors English students recently took a test in her class. One question asked them to use a book they had read for their lit. circle (I imagine that's like an in-class book group where they discuss books) and compare it to another book they'd read during the school year.

For her lit. circle book, one student chose Anne of Green Gables. (My kind of girl, obviously.)

The book she compared Anne to?

House on the Hill.

If you're looking for me, I'll be on Cloud 9.

"She did a pretty good job of it, too," according to Lu Ann. And now I'm part of her test!

To repeat: I have been compared to L M Montgomery.

I might be able to die happy now.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Googling Together

Why is the sky blue?

How can a whole tree come from a seed?

Where does rain come from?

Those are normal questions young children ask. They are also questions I can readily answer. Apparently, I don't have normal children—which, to be honest, is rather fun. I never know what my youngest will come up with.

She's asked me all kinds of odd things that I never would have thought to wonder about myself, like the etymology of various words (okay, so she didn't use "etymology," but that was the gist). I often don't know why we call something what we do, but it's great to say, "Let's find out when we get home," and then to boot up my trusty OED on CD and read about it.

She's wondered why the Earth is round when it's flat when you look at it. She's tried to figure out why water stays on the ground instead of flying off into space. (I'm not sure why she doesn't ask the same question about people. Apparently water is different?) I managed to field that one with a basic lesson on gravity.

Just the other day, she came up with her latest original query:

What do snails eat?

That one stumped me at first. What DO snails eat? Do they even have mouths? If folklore is to believed, salt will kill snails. And of course the French eat them. But I'd never given a moment's thought to what snails dine on.

I told her we'd go online soon and find out together, so yesterday she climbed on my lap by my computer, and we Googled her question.

Turns out that my guess was pretty close: they eat live and decaying plants. But they also eat other, more obscure things, like algae.

I almost closed the window, when she touched my mouse hand to stop me.

"Where do snails live?"

The site we were on answered that question, too. She insisted we read the entire web page, which told how long snails live, how big they grow, who are their predators, how they protect themselves, and all kinds of other fun things. (I didn't read her the part about how snails are hermaphrodites. That's a can of worms that would take a lot of explanation.)

At the bottom was a diagram of a snail's insides. We had to look at that, too. The mouth. The eyes (which are on the ends of their tentacles), the foot, the radula, and so on.

Then she posed her next question, asked with all the seriousness her little face could muster:

Where do snails go poop and pee?

If she were a boy, she'd have asked the question and giggled hysterically. And then maybe farted or burped for good measure. But no. She was genuinely curious. She wanted to know.

I had to study the diagram a bit closer. "Ah. There. Right there," I told her, pointing at "anus."

She tracked the process. "So here's the mouth. The food goes to the stomach, and then it comes out there. Right by the place the slime comes out." She was quite pleased with herself. A moment later she hopped off my lap, satisfied.

I love how curious she is about the world. It makes me wonder what her next question will be about. And then I start asking questions about new and exciting things that pique my curiosity. I look them up for myself. For all I know, I'll use some of my Googled questions in my writing some day.

A preschooler is a wonderful thing.

Snails? Not so much.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Chatting with Tristi

I first met Tristi Pinkston four or five years ago after I joined the LDStorymakers e-mail group. Since then, she's become a great friend and has been there to help me out more than once. But I love Tristi for another reason too, and that's because we both write historical fiction.

Her book Nothing to Regret is likely the most original perspective I've ever read about World War II, and I love the fact that she's got a new book out, Season of Sacrifice. Like her other books, it's a novel, but this time the story is based closely on her ancestors who were a big part of the Hole in the Rock expedition.

Several other bloggers have reviewed Season of Sacrifice already. I recommend you read some of those posts. This one is very much worth your time. So is this one. But this one is my favorite post I've found on it so far.

Today I get to host Tristi on her blog tour, so instead of posting another review of the book (okay, here's my review: It's great. BUY it!), I thought it would be fun to pick her brain a bit in an interview, one historical novelist to another.

Her answers are downright delightful. (My favorite: "I'm essentially one big walking quirk.") Read on to get to know Tristi and her book:

I know you did a lot of research for Season of Sacrifice by reading your ancestors' journals. What other research did you do?
My main sources were Incredible Journey by Lee Reay, At All Hazards by Brenton Yorgason, and Hole in the Rock by David E. Miller. At All Hazards is historical fiction (I'm sorry to say, Yorgason got a few things wrong), and the other two are nonfiction. Each of these books was tremendously helpful and they're listed in the back of my book as recommended reading.

Was it a challenge putting words into their mouths—and then hoping it's what they would have said?
It was a little challenging, but not as much as one might think. I already knew how they felt about things from reading their journals, so I just used their same vernacular and put their feelings into dialogue. Additionally, I truly feel their spirits were near to me as I wrote. I sensed, many times, the direction I should go.

Name at least one thing found during your research that you would have loved to include in the book but didn't for one reason or another.
Well, I don't know if I would have loved to include it, but Sarah's boyfriend from Wales actually followed her over here. He was in New York, working to earn passage to come out to Utah for her, when she wrote him and told him she no longer had feelings for him. I decided to leave that out—it seemed kind of mean. Not that she should have married him just because he came for her, but I didn't want the reader to feel that she'd led him on in any way, because she didn't. She had no idea how her life would change as she came to know the Gospel.

Without any spoilers, what is your favorite scene from the book?
All of my favorite scenes revolve around the intense faith these pioneers showed. I love the scene where Ben takes the wagon down the Hole for the first time to test it out. I also love the scenes toward the end as the tensions reach fevered pitch about polygamy. I really feel those passages contain some of my best writing ever, besides being testimonies of the incredible obedience of these faithful Saints.

Which character do you personally relate to most?
Sarah. I don't necessarily relate to her in a way where I feel we have a lot in common, but rather, I feel a connection to her. She's my great-great-grandmother, and we share the same blood.

What was the hardest scene to write?
There were two scenes that were very difficult for me to write. The first was the retelling of Stanford Smith's descent down the Hole. His wife, Arabella, tied herself to the wagon to try to keep it from going down too fast, and she incurred a serious injury, which she later recovered from. What made this story so touching was the faith of their children, who were left at the top while their parents took the wagon down. The oldest child told her parents that she had just waited there with God until they came back. My heart was wrenched out of me as I wrote that scene.

The other difficult passage was the one where Sarah decides to marry Ben. I've never been a fan of polygamy, and so for me to authentically write her change of heart was immensely difficult. I pretty much came to a standstill as I figured it out. What I finally realized was not that Sarah was converted to polygamy, but that she was converted to the Lord and wanted to be obedient at all costs. Once I made that clarification in my own mind, I was able to move forward.

Since the basic plot line was predetermined by actual events, how did you go about writing the book? (What was your basic method of attack? Did you outline the whole thing, write the new sections first or last, etc.?)
In so many ways, this book wrote itself. I read the family history documents I have, I read the books I mentioned above, and I took scads of notes. Then I sat down and just started to write. I began at the beginning and wrote through to the end, only going back to add depth and detail. This is completely out of the norm for me—usually it takes me months to come up with the finished product.

What is your typical writing schedule?
Typically, I answer my e-mails and check my favorite blogs first thing in the morning. I can't function if I don't do that; it's a weird mental hang-up I have. Throughout the day, I'll sneak to the computer as I'm able and maybe edit a little, answer e-mails, and the like. Then at night, I sit down around nine or ten and get to work. I check my mail again and then I write my blogs for Families.com (I'm a media reviewer, movie reviewer, and I also blog on topics of interest to the LDS people).

After that's done, then I pull up my work in progress. I'll stay up until two or three in the morning, writing. Sometimes if there's a scene that's just dying to be written, I'll manage to squeeze it in during the day, but my children are still young and I homeschool, so I don't have large chunks of time during the day.

Do you have any writer's "quirks" that help you get into the flow?
I'm essentially one big walking quirk. But to be more specific, I can't have music playing. It distracts me. I also have to check my mail. If I think someone may have written to me, and they're waiting for an answer, I can't work. I like to have a glass of ice water next to me (I'm an ice eater) and I also have some Vicks Vaporub sitting here (keeps my brain awake) and some lip balm (yes, my own brand) I also find that taking long showers or baths really helps get me in the creative mood—I'll often come out of the bathroom with whole scenes ready to go.

What has been the biggest surprise for you about the publishing industry?
The biggest negative surprise is that huge lines of people don't queue up to see you when you have a book signing. I used to envision doing a signing at the mall and having the whole hallway congested because there were so many people eager to meet me. Yes, I also did have the fond idea of all the guys who flirted with me, but never asked me out, coming to the mall, seeing me, and feeling so sorry that they never confessed their love to me. None of that ever happened.

The biggest positive surprise has been all the friends I've made. I truly feel so blessed for the interaction I have with other writers, with aspiring authors, and with those in the publishing industry. My life is rich because of the friends I now have—good, true friends I can turn to for anything. Of which you are one, Annette!

Aw, thanks, lady! :) Right back at ya. If you could give your younger writer self any advice, what would it be?
You know what, I would tell myself to get an ergonomic keyboard years before I did. The only problem with that is, they weren't invented back when I started typing. I would love to have saved myself all the pain I went through as a girl and young teenager. Rampant carpal tunnel, folks. I'm now using an ergo keyboard and take flax seed and vitamin B complex every day, and I feel great.

Any other advice . . . I'd tell myself to be a little less cocky. I went through a period of time where I thought I could do no wrong. Guess what—I can. And often. I know that now.

What's up next?
There's a lot still up in the air for me right now. I've got some contemporary mysteries that are just for fun—two completed and one in the "thinking about it" stage. I have a Vietnam-era novel I'm really proud of, as well as another family history-inspired novel set during the Depression. As far as what to write next, I've got about twenty books outlined and it's all a matter of time.

Me again. To purchase Season of Sacrifice, click here. Seriously. Click there. Now.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Tale of Two Wrists

About four weeks ago, #2 was climbing around some stuff in the basement (a no-no) and fell about four feet onto her arm. She came to me crying and holding her wrist. We iced it and gave her some Tylenol for bedtime.

After school the next day, she was in more pain, and the wrist was swollen. Okay, then, off to the doctor's office. We took her to an urgent care facility, where a nurse practitioner, a doctor, and a radiologist all took one look at her arm and declared that it looked and "acted" broken. To their surprise, they couldn't see a fracture on the x-ray. They made up a custom, fiberglass splint for her and said to come back in a week to get another x-ray.

Not 48 hours later, #3 was out roller-blading, took a turn too sharp, and landed, yep, on her wrist. A neighbor helped her back into the house, and she arrived, howling with pain. We decided not to wait 24 hours like we had with her sister, so off again I trotted to Urgent Care.

The exact same nurse practitioner was working. Since my girls have bright red hair, they're easily remembered. She looked at us and cocked her head. "Weren't you just here a couple of days ago?"

I grinned sheepishly. "Uh, yeah," I said and was tempted to add, "But I really am a fit parent."

Up to that point, we had never had so much as stitches with any of our four kids, and suddenly in a couple of days we had two wrist injuries?

We got #3 x-rayed, and this time the fracture was clear. Even my untrained eye could see it on the film. The good news was that it was a "green stick" fracture, which apparently is the best kind to get because they heal fast. (News to me.)

She was told to return in a few days to be casted when the swelling had gone down. We had to return anyway in a few days for #2 to be checked again, so I made an appointment for both girls on the same day. #3 would be casted, and #2 would be x-rayed again (and possibly casted).

Once again, the x-ray was inconclusive for #2. She got a removable Velcro-like splint to wear for another week or so (a radiologist was going to compare the two sets and give an opinion), and her sister came home with a bright blue cast.

Eventually we got word that #2 didn't have a fracture, although a clear diagnosis wasn't ever given beyond, "Hmm. Maybe she sprained it." The pain has finally gone away for her, though.

And today #3 gets her cast off. Then she'll have to go back to practicing piano. Poor thing.

Below is a picture of their arms. At first glance, it almost looks like it's one person with two injured arms, because #2 hurt her left arm, while #3 hurt her right.

They say things come in threes. So far, we've had two, and it appears we got through the craziness without a third shoe dropping.


Friday, May 02, 2008

My First Kill

I think I was fourteen at the time. I’d gone with my mother to the BYU bookstore, where she agreed to buy me a binder for my writing. It was a rosy pink with “Brigham Young University” in silver on the spine. The binder still sits on a shelf in my office.

Once home, I eagerly filled it with notebook paper, then plopped onto the living room couch and began scribbling.

I had no concrete story idea; I was just in the mood to write. I began with an image and went with it: a little girl walking through a meadow where her imaginary friends lived. I’m sure the idea was a direct result of the fact that at the time, I constantly poured over the work of L. M. Montgomery.

In the brief story, the girl greets the fairies and other mythical creatures and bemoans how she has no other friends. The other children mock and tease her. She feels welcome only there with her magical companions. As I wrote, I discovered that the girl also has a serious illness and rarely gets to go out to her meadow.

She lies on the ground, hidden from sight by the flowers above and around her. Then she closes her eyes and whispers, “My dears, I’ve come to join you.”

And dies.

A perfectly melodramatic story for a teen to write. But overdone as the two-page ditty was, the ending hit me with a bolt of lightning. I closed the binder and stared at it, feeling not a little shaky.

A little girl was dead, and I had killed her.

It didn’t matter that she was fictional, that she hadn’t ever really inhabited this world, experienced life, or had a family to mourn her passing (I worried about her poor mother—would she be able find her daughter under all those flowers?). In those few minutes I’d lived with her on the page, she had been real to me.

The sensation was odd—a creative rush combined with the sensation of intense guilt almost nauseating in its strength. The little dead girl seemed to haunt me for days afterward. I’m sorry, I wanted to say. I didn’t mean to kill you. I didn’t know you’d die. It took a week or two to get over the guilt.

Then I had my first dip into research. I had to figure out what she’d died from, so I cracked open one of my mother’s many reference books and read up on various fatal illnesses that could strike children. For reasons I don’t recall, I settled on aplastic anemia, a disease I knew nothing about save for a brief description written in tiny text. The fact that a child minutes away from death wouldn’t be in a position to frolic in a meadow was pretty much irrelevant to me.

Since then, I’ve killed many fictional people, but I’ve reached the point where I no longer take responsibility for their deaths. I grieve when they die; they’re my friends, in a way. But it’s not my fault. Sometimes characters, just like people, die.

About a year ago, after reading At the Journey’s End, a man in my neighborhood came to me and said, “What is your problem with death?”

Confused, I asked, “What do you mean?”

“By the end of the first chapter, three people are dead.”

At first I was taken aback. THREE? No way. I thought back. One person dies in the prologue. One in the first chapter. Oh, wait. Two. Yep. That makes three. But both deaths in chapter one were real historical figures. I didn’t kill them. They really died on that day in history; I just told about it.

As if that made it so much better.

So I thought back to my other books. Lost without You has a mother already dead before the book begins, which is pretty much what the plot revolves around. Plus a little girl’s kitten dies. Oh, and a man dies in the girl's presence. Almost forgot that one. At the Water’s Edge has two deaths. And House on the Hill? Several pretty major deaths, plus a dog.

Wow, I thought. I do have some kind of fascination with killing people off.

The best response I could come up with for my neighbor was, “Rest assured, no one dies in my next book.” I paused to double-check, thinking through Spires of Stone just to be sure—did anyone—or anything—die in it? Even a cat or dog? A mouse? Nope. No one dies. Phew.

However . . . I can’t say the same for my upcoming Tower of Strength. Sorry. It does have two deaths, plus one more in the back story that we don’t see. My obsession with the end of life is apparently quite healthy.

But I’m innocent! I swear, I didn’t kill anyone in that book. It’s not my fault, and I won’t feel guilty over it.

Okay, so I still cried writing about them.

Goodness, we writers are certainly an odd lot . . .


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