Friday, March 19, 2010

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

How to Become a Hepkitten in 5 Easy Steps

On Sunday, I had the honor of giving my Hepkitten* presentation as part of the Winter Reading and Arts Festival at Cedar Mill Community Library. A hepkitten what they called a girl who was crazy for dancing, back in the day--like the main character of my novel, Ruby. The Hepkitten talk is a blast to do, and what makes it even more fun is dressing the part.

Now, as anyone who knows me will attest, I am not a girly-girl. Makeup and I are barely acquainted, nail polish and I are strangers, and most days, my hair runs rampant. But after some practice, I've mostly got the process down. So here, for the first time ever, I present to you:

How to Become a Hepkitten in 5 Easy Steps

Step 1: Gather raw materials: big round brush, rat-tail comb, foam rollers, long & short bobby pins, setting lotion, hair spray, setting lotion, artificial flowers, freshly scrubbed face and a head of frizzy hair. Oh, wait. That last bit might just be me.

Step 2: Make a deep side part (de rigueur for 1940s hairstyles); then gather hank o' hair for first victory roll. Use big round brush and setting lotion to get it all nice and smooth and ready to roll. In theory. Some days, my hair behaves. I love those days. Most of the time, though, the dynamic goes like this:

Me: Okay, hair, remember how we do this? Remember how much fun it is? Whoo-hoo, here we go!

Hair: Oh, yeah. That thing you make me do sometimes. I'm not doing that.

Me: You start behaving right now, or... *threatens hair with hairspray*

Hair: Now you've made me mad. You're gonna be sorry.

*Scene deleted due to graphic violence*

Ah, victory! Big roll on the left: Done.

(Tip: If you're seriously interested in learning vintage hairstyles, search YouTube for tutorials. People have posted instructional videos for everything from finger waves to beehives.** My fave for victory rolls is here.)

Step 3: Roll the right side. This is a smaller roll, and goes much better when you use the setting lotion instead of super-hold category-5-hurricane-proof hair spray, like I accidentally did on Sunday. (Can I help it the bottles are the same color?) Too late to wash my hair and start over, so (mild cursing deleted)...

...I remind myself that this is why God made artificial flowers.

Step 4: For the back: If I have time, I'll set pin curls, let them dry and brush them out into '40s curls. If not, then a little setting lotion, foam rollers, sit 20 minutes, then swirl into one big uproll. Quick and easy.

Another tip: If all else fails, this is why God made snoods. Also 1940s authentic and perfect for almost any hair disaster.

Hmm. Rolled, flowered, made up and mascara'd. Seems like I'm forgetting something, though...

Step 5: Ah, yes...that red, red lipstick. If you ain't got a red lip, you ain't 1940s. Wartime, baby--it was all about the bold.

Add a vintage suit jacket, vintage skirt, seamed stockings and high-heel oxford shoes...

...and voila! You are now a bona-fide hepkitten.

Many thanks to the Cedar Mill Community Library for hosting me, and also to the folks who came to hear me speak on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We had a great time and the audience was fab!

Full title: A Hepkitten's Guide to the War. Oodles of vintage photos, video clips, and stories about what it was like to be a teen in the 1940s, with jitterbugging, taxi dancing, and the upheavals in homefront life brought by WWII.

**Click here to see the horror that is the making of a beehive. If I ever write a historical set in the early '60s, I am NOT doing this. Just watching makes my scalp whimper.


Monday, February 22, 2010

The Art of Critique: Baby, Give It to Me Straight

In the fall of 1997, I got a flyer in the mail. Nothing fancy; just a single yellow sheet announcing that Portland novelist Karen Karbo was starting a weekly fiction writing workshop. If interested, please contact.

It was one of those lovely moments in life that happens when you've committed to a drastic course of action, subsequently decided you're insane, and then the exact thing you need to see it through falls smack into your lap.

See, two months earlier I'd quit my full-time job so that I could finish my first novel. I felt exactly as if I'd jumped out of a plane without a parachute. Okay, not in the
I'm going to splat to my death in less than a minute kind of way, but in the gut-gnawing, have-I-just-ruined-my-life insomniac kind of way. (Same terror--just slower.) I didn't know how to write a novel. All I had were eighty manuscript pages and a vague idea of what might happen on page eighty-one.

Then the flyer arrived. On the first evening, I was one of ten writers sitting around Karen's dining room table.
Over the next few years I did complete my novel, and get it published, due in no small part to what I learned there.

Karen's wasn't the first workshop or critique group I'd been in. But it's been by far the best, which is why, twelve years after that first class, I still take my place at her table.
If you're looking to join or start a critique group yourself, here are a few things that you might want to consider:

Critique is specific.
No wishy-washy "I really liked it" or "It didn't work for me" without reasons to back it up. Pinpointing why a piece works--or doesn't--can be surprisingly hard to do. And the higher the skill level of the writer, the harder it gets. A really good writer can hide fatal flaws under dazzling wordplay...which means it often takes a lot of thought and effort to put your finger on what exactly isn't working. But the payoff isn't just for the writer; the better your critique, the more you yourself are learning about the craft.

Critique isn't just pointing out the flaws.
It's also important to acknowledge what the writer is doing well. Writers need to recognize their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Plus, we all need to hear that our pages aren't pure crap.

Critique what's on the page. Don't impose your vision on someone else's work. In one early critique group (long before Karen's) a fellow "critter" told me that the premise of my book was all wrong and that instead, my two female characters should set aside their differences and form a friendship that would be a testament to female bonding in a society that doesn't value women's relationships. (Gee, projecting much?) Which not only missed the entire point of my book, it bore no relation to anything I'd already written.

I've also been in workshops in which the instructor's critique mostly centered around getting students to write in the same style as the instructor. A good workshop leader isn't interested in creating copycats. Instead, like Karen, she recognizes each student's individual style and works to help her students develop their own unique voices.

Work with people at your ability level or slightly higher. If you're far and away the best writer in the room, it's easy to start thinking you're God's gift to literature and that you know all there is to know about writing. You'd be wrong.

I'm not the best writer in my group; in twelve years, I never have been. These people are wicked talented, which means I'm always striving to up my game. In the same vein...

...Try to find people with similar goals and work ethic. This doesn't mean everyone in the group should be gunning to get published. But if it's important to you to keep learning and getting better at your craft, you'll save yourself frustration if you're not the only one.

Likewise, members need to pull their weight. That doesn't necessarily mean bringing in new chapters every week (although of course that's great.) Members of Karen's class have gone through long periods--months, even--with not a single page. But they still show up, week after week, and give honest, thoughtful, and insightful critique. Does that count? You bet it does. Good critique is damn hard work. In fact, the least welcome member of any crit group is the one who shows up only when she has pages. Critique is a two-way street: if you want to get, you have to give.

Keep the focus on the writing. In some groups, critiquing gradually takes a back seat to snacking and discussing each other's personal lives. When a critique group turns into social hour, its demise soon follows.

And finally, if you want to have a quality, longstanding writing workshop or critique group, there is one thing you must never, ever overlook:

Give yourselves a catchy name. Us? We're the Writers of Renown.

Damn skippy, as Karen would say.

Next time: Receiving critique (aka, You've Shredded My Precious Like Soggy Kleenex And I Think I Might Hate You Forever.) In the meantime, you writers out there: what's your dream critique group like?


Monday, February 15, 2010

How You Know You're Going to Have a Good Day

Much novel writing. Longer blog posts in the works. But for now...


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Monday, January 25, 2010


I admit it--I am one of those people. Whenever a new film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel comes out (and they've been thick as fleas these past few years, haven't they?) I'm in the front row with the cheese popcorn, mesmerized. Now, why a person ever needs to watch more than one version of Mansfield Park in her life, I don't know. I offer no rational explanation. Why does my cat punch holes in every paperback cover she can sink her sharp little teeth into? No idea. It's a force of nature. We cannot explain; we can only obey.

So: last night, Emma. The only wealthy Jane Austen heroine, and the most deliciously flawed. BBC. Romola Garai. I'm so there. Sweep me away, Masterpiece Theatre!

Opening credits. Toes tingling with anticipation. And then...a voiceover.

Fight off immediate sense of dread. Because too many times, voiceover = bad movie. (Is it just me, or have other people noticed that, too?) Voiceovers explain things, and this voiceover insisted on explaining stuff that would be perfectly obvious from watching the characters. Yes, Emma's father is a hypochondriac who fears the worst at all times. For Pete's sake, you've got Michael Gambon playing him--Michael Gambon, whose portrayal of Squire Hamley in Wives and Daughters* made me cry (and I do not cry easily--witness a theater production of Les Miserables, sobs and stifled weeping all through the audience, and me? A stone. That's how hard my heart is, people.) Michael Gambon, as I say, who can express a subtlety with an eyelid, and you have to sum his character up for us before the story even starts?

I wish I could say that this new Emma destroyed my voiceover prejudice forever. It's not terrible, but swept away? I felt a few breezes, but otherwise, not so much. The overtelling continued throughout the episode, with dialogue (not Austen's--she knew better) telegraphing what was to come, rather than letting the action play out for the viewer. Austen was the master of delicious scene-building--why not let us enjoy it, and the surprises that come with it?

I'm no Austen purist (here's proof), but alas, I was underwhelmed. However: two more episodes are to come, and I'll be there, front and center. A tepid version of Jane still beats most else, after all. Besides--who am I to deny a force of nature?

*If you're a fellow Austen and/or costume drama fan, and you haven't seen Wives and Daughters yet, GO. Order the DVD from, put it in your Netflix queue. Now. I'll wait. While you're at it, get the book by Elizabeth Gaskell. Big, fat, luscious read. You won't regret it, I promise.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Optimize Me, Baby!

You may remember (or not, it was a tad bit ago), me rhapsodizing about a character-naming website called the Baby Name Wizard. Although why they call it the Baby Name Wizard and not the Character Name Wizard, I'm not sure. It might have something to do with wacky people using it to name actual living humans instead of figments of their imaginations. Sounds crazy, I know, but hey--I don't make this stuff up.

A character's name is of course enormously important. For example, if your protagonist is a half-feral, demon-killing maiden of the Sacred Sword of Arnooth, who has sworn bloody vengeance against the spawn of Beezelbub who slew her mother lo these many years past (now, that I made up) you don't name her Pickles. Actually, you don't name anyone Pickles. That's a Rule. Write it down.

I hear you whispering back there. You think the example I just gave is easy. Because obviously the perfect name for a half-feral, demon-killing urban fantasy protagonist is Shzaghatha of the Rampaging El. What novelist worth her salt needs a website for that?

Well fine, smartypants. Name me this: a boy's name that means warrior.

With no more than two syllables.

In Arabic.

Ha! Not so easy now, is it, my pretty?*

And yet--it is. Writers,** say hello to the Baby Name Optimizer. Make your choices among 17 variables--not only ethnicity and number of syllables, but style (trendy, timeless, exotic), popularity (Top 100, less popular, unusual), origin (Biblical, Buddhist Zen, Muslim, Sanskrit, Saints, Shakespearian, among a slew of others). Want a celebrity name? A name that conveys your character is athletic? Dark? Graceful? A name that is associated with animals? A place? A gemstone?

The Optimizer, it is a veritable garden of geeky delight, my friends. A garden! We're talking wild climbing roses and birds of paradise and lilies of the freaking valley here. Not to mention, it's a procrastinator's dream.

And remember: Once you've optimized your character's name, pop over to the Baby Name Wizard and find out how popular it's been in every decade since the 1880s.

Sigh. And they say we can't find heaven here on earth.

Okay, enough geeking out (although really, can one ever truly get enough?) But I gotta get to work. Just as soon as I plug in a request for a four-syllable Teutonic girl's name meaning "peacemaker" that does not end in the letter a.

Axelle. Ah well--four out of five ain't bad.

*I have got to stop watching Wizard of Oz late at night. Oh, BTW, the Arabic boy warrior's name? Shamar. Nice, huh?

**Yes, I suppose you expectant-parent types can use it, too. But don't you dare take Axelle. That name is mine.

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Monday, January 18, 2010


Forget the Golden Globes and People's Choice, YALSA* named their 2010 Literary Award winners.

And the William C. Morris Award, for the best teen book written by a debut author, goes to...

drumroll, please

...Portland's own L.K. Madigan, for Flash Burnout!

Here's the book description:

Fifteen-year-old Blake has a girlfriend and a friend who's a girl. One of them loves him; the other one needs him.

When he snapped a picture of a street person for his photography homework, Blake never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa's long-lost meth addicted mom. Blake's participation in the ensuing drama opens up a world of trouble, both for him and for Marissa. He spends the next few months trying to reconcile the conflicting roles of Boyfriend and Friend. His experiences range from the comic (surviving his dad's birth control talk) to the tragic (a harrowing after-hours visit to the morgue).

In a tangle of life and death, love and loyalty, Blake will emerge with a more sharply defined snapshot of himself.

I read Flash Burnout when it was released a few months ago, and it's one of my favorite books of 2009. Lisa (aka L.K.) just nails the teen boy voice. (How am I an expert, you might ask? Answer: I grew up with three of the creatures.) It's funny, wry, poignant, and pitch-perfect.

For a hilarious taste of Lisa's wit (and Blake's), check out this interview.

Congratulations, Lisa--you done Portland Kidlit proud!

*Young Adult Library Services Association, which is the teen literature branch of the American Library Association. The 800-lb gorilla of kidlit, in other words.