Believe it or not

I just read through the first 100 pages of my novel pretty breezily. It flows a lot better now! It still has one or two kinks near the beginning, but I think I can fix those in the next few days.

I will be done by Monday. Whoo!

This Saturday, I am going to be a judge in the Scholastic Writing Awards at one of their sites in NY all day. I'll be reading student essays and short stories and stuff. I'm curious to see what kids are writing these days.*

*I entered the contest once, in eighth grade, with a true story based on my Lhasa Apso dog, Dexter. Didn't win. (And no I'm not bitter.)

Aha. Now I think I'll go to bed before 2 a.m. for a change.



Jodi finished her harrowing tale of her first move to california. Whoa. Things really were that bad.

I was actually in the same room as Lockhart Steele on Friday night. He is a real person.

I saw the pigeon with the broken wing yesterday. He seems to be getting stronger!

Sunny morning







Nothing much to write today, but here's a photo from a food review I did.

By the way, how come no one I know is having a Super Bowl party? Anyone?


A quote about revisions...

Awesomely awesome author Shari Goldhagen notes in this week's Publisher's Weekly:

"It was hard to realize when I was done. I kept working on the manuscript for six months after I finished. I kept thinking it needed other things. I also think for every writer one of the hardest things is to cut something you love and say, 'As much as I like this, it's just not going to work.' "
Is your mom hip?

Never mind the dog test. All dogs are smart and cute. Even Sam, the famous ugly dog who just died. Anyway, just for fun, ask your mom who "Puff Daddy" is. It's kind of funny to see what moms say. Mine said, "Sean Diddy Combs? I'm not dumb." I think she deserves 9/10 credit.

Indian Pilby?

(NOTE: "Curry Pilby" was suggested by reader Carl. That's catchy!)

A friend asked me if I'd heard of an author who got a $500,000 advance last year for a book called "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In." Here is the author describing it:

“The main character is a girl of Indian descent who’s totally academically driven, and when she senses from a Harvard admissions officer that her personal life wasn’t perhaps well-rounded, Ms. Mehta goes out and does what she thinks ‘regular’ American kids do - get drunk, kiss boys, dance on the table,” Ms. Viswanathan said.


Is your dog smart?*

Before I went to bed tonight, I decided I'd look at pictures on the internet of cute basset hounds. (Proof positive that I am not a guy.) Anyway, somehow I got led to this test to see how smart your dog is. I really don't condone harassing your poor dog this way, but I still found it kind of funny to read, so here it is. But if your dog is old, please don't put the pooch through these trials. Thank you.

This could inspire a Letterman list...

"And the number one reason you know your dog is smart...you send him to pick up the Post, and he comes back with the Daily News!"

Ba dump.

*Well, of course, but.

Did you know that one of those long, round things of hard cinnamon is called a quill?

You do now!


Reflections on a car...

A three hundred dollar dress on a....

My half-sis says she watches the movie "Newsies" because it's so bad, it's good. I told her that if she likes campy movies, she should watch "Mommie Dearest." Especially in honor of the flick's 25th anniversary.



Someone expressed to me a corollary to the Tarantino Rule in yesterday's entry, which was that if someone tells you to revise your book, you shouldn't say, "Well, a lot of poorly written books get published, so why can't mine?" You need to aim higher than that.


The Tarantino rule

If you are scribbling away at a screenplay or manuscript and someone tells you that you can't do such-and-such, it does not usually help your case to say, "But Tarantino did it that way!!"

The response from your critic is generally, "But you're not Quentin Taratino." Is that a fair response? Well, yes and no.

What it really means is that you, as an unknown screenwriter or novelist, have a panoply of obstacles to cross to get someone to even read your full script, and even if it gets read, you can't have anything in the beginning that will further lead to the powers that be rejecting you.

The other thing is, Quentin T. gets to MAKE his movie. So he can show you personally how it works, without all the red tape. You, sitting in your room in your Fruit of the Looms, cannot.

There are exceptions, of course; Kevin Smith's script for "Clerks" was 140 pages, which is 20-40 pages more than the standard for scripts these days (it's about a minute per page), largely because of all of his rapid-fire dialogue. And he was an unknown when he wrote it. But the thing is, he MADE his movie himself. Now, if ol' Silent Bob had sent it to Hollywood without making it, would some agent seen the brilliance and scooped him up for representation? It's hard to tell. But it's likely that the minute they saw something that hefty, they'd leave it near the bottom of their pile (unless they flipped through and saw all the white space).

In fact, when "Clerks" was entered in the festival, it was only one woman sitting in his sparse crowd who saw it and made it a hit. Otherwise it might still be something in his videotape collection to amuse his friends. This woman saw something in it.

All of this leads me to another rule I'm fond of sharing, which is, don't put music into your manuscripts and screenplays. Song tastes are too arbitrary, and 99.9 percent of the time, the person reading your script is not going to feel the same joy that you are via the accompanying music.

But more importantly, beginners tend to listen to certain songs while they set up their scripts and stories, and then they think their story is better when in reality they are enjoying the music. Your script or story should work even if all the music is taken away. If it's lame without the musical accompanyment, then you got a problem. (And yes, I used to do this, too, but I don't anymore.) Let's face it, many of us have dream soundtracks for our oevres, but you're unlikely to get to pick yours...unless you're Tarantino.

There are too many obstacles to overcome when you're an unknown writer. If you feel strongly about bucking the conventional wisdom, go for it! But don't intend to defend it by saying that Quentin got away with it, because his bar was lower than yours is gonna be.

And that's one to grow on. ;)

P.S. Today's entry is most enjoyable if you read it while listening to "Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with yooooou..."



Thanks for your notes of concern about the pigeon. If I see him there this morning, I will call the Health Dept to see if there's a way to take care of him. I'd feel bad if something bad happened to him. He seems to be taking pretty good care of himself, though. I brought some crackers home from work with me in case I saw him, but he wasn't there. I guess he must live right next to that doorway.

While we're on the subject of animals, yes, I know I was supposed to find out the goat's name and didn't. I haven't been in goat territory for a few months. I will try to find out next time.


Convo at a staff meeting yesterday:

Sales person: I just have to be digilant. (Pause) Did I just say digilant?
Boss: That's the junction between...
Me: It's a combonym!
(Everyone ignores me.)


I think I need a little more time to finish revisions. But not tooo much more. When the spring weather hits, editors will be too distracted to buy it. Deadline approaches. Must work on it every chance I get!


Guess whom I passed on the way to work today


Tonight my trivia co-host asked what the longest running show is currently on TV, fictional shows only (not news shows, etc.) When he read out the answer, it was "The Simpsons." But all at once, the crowd of about 60 people was yelling at us, "SOAP OPERAS! SOAP OPERAS! SOAP OPERAS!" nearly in unison. It was nearly a nerd riot!!

Thanks to the person who sent me this:

------------------------------PUMPKIN CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES------------------------------ 1 c. sugar 1 c. pumpkin 1/2 c. oil 1 eggMix together above ingredients. Sift and add to above: 2 c. flour 1/2 tsp. salt 1 tsp. cinnamon 2 tsp. baking powderDissolve and add to rest of ingredients: 1 tsp. soda 1 tsp. milk 1 tsp. vanilla 1 c. chocolate chips 1/2 c. nutsPreheat oven to 375 degrees. Drop on lightly greased cookiesheet. Bake approximately 10 to 12 minutes. NOTE: Carefulnot to overcook. Cookies will be soft and moist.



I just decided three seconds ago that next fall, I am going to bake pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.


Novel Beginnings, part III

Maybe I'll write a book about beginnings of books. Anyway, here are two new ones to compare:

1. "I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mix-up. Ancient History was my first class of the day, occurring after morning chapel and roll call, which was not actually roll call but a series of announcements that took place in an enormous room with twenty-foot-high Palladian windows, rows and rows of desks with hinged tops that you lifted to store your books inside, and mahogany panels on the..."
2. "Benjamin Braddock graduated from a small Eastern college on a day in June. Then he flew home. The following evening a party was given for him by his parents. By eight o'clock most of the guests had arrived but Benjamin had not yet come down from his room. His father..."

The first is from the best-seller, Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld; the second from The Graduate by Charles Webb.

The first represents about one third of the first paragraph of Prep, while the second is very taut, with extremely short sentences (it doesn't even say on a HOT day in June!) and rest of the book is almost written entirely in dialogue. (And yes, it preceded the movie and is not an after-the-fact book.)

Many readers would lack patience to read every word of the first paragraph of Prep, and this is another one that, if I was submitting it to publishers, they'd say there's too much description in the beginning, it's too slow, or too dense...then again, Prep was rejected by about 14 publishers, so that's not a chance I can take with my own by writing a page-long first paragraph. If I was Curtis S, would I have stuck to my guns, or hurriedly cut down the first paragraph to a few lines? Or would it have made a difference? It all depends on my/her agent and whether she thought it was perfect the way it was; she's the one who has to pitch the thing. Making the book more concise might have helped it, or hurt it, or made no difference. There's no way of knowing.

But the second one, the Graduate, has a bigger hurdle to get over; it's in third person. If a book is in first, right away you can be more patient with it, because the narrator is talking directly to you.

My editor for my second novel, Starting from Square Two, at one point asked if I would consider changing it to first person, because she found the character to be "distant." I really didn't want to do that; I didn't want to get in Gert's head, because it was more a book about things that happened to her and how they changed her, and I didn't think hearing her speak would add to it. I also want her to be kind of spoiled and clueless in the beginning, then come to the realization that she had it very easy and had an unrealistic view of life until her husband died. If she'd been in first person, she would have spent the first third of the book saying things that were clueless and ignorant, not insightful, and I didn't think that would help. Better to look at her from the outside and let the reader see that, until Gert learns it herself. But I acceded to part of my editor's wishes and put in more description of her actions, like when she's talking, to make it less distant. (I guess you can say that Carrie Pilby is also obnoxious for a lot of Carrie Pilby until she wises up, but that's different because it's more obvious that she has things to learn, and she's hopefully funny in her obnoxiousness, so even if you dislike her, at least you can laugh with/at her until she figures out she has to be a little less judgmental.)

Anyway, the point is, people like reading first person better. It grabs you a lot more easily. In the end, because Webb's writing is more spare (almost all dialogue), the graduate is a quicker read. And maybe he didn't mean for you to sit with your coffee, mulling the description of the town Benjamin lives in, or the social class issues, or anything else. It's a book about an affair, love, etc. Curtis does get into some class issues, but she's also in first person, so you can be in the character's head.

Anyway, two different approaches and styles. All of which make me think about the approaches and styles I take in my own writing.


Zap! Bam!

If you weren't up at 3:55 a.m., you missed a GREAT thunderstorm!
Has it come to this?

I hear many strange things outside my window at night. Just a half hour ago, I heard a girl shout the following thing to her friend. I do not know the context, but she really yelled this:

"I. Like. You!" (Pause.) Come. Over! (Pause.) Stick your d*ck in my v*gina!!!"



On the way to work for the last few days, I saw a pigeon huddled in a corner by the door of a brownstone. It was in the same little area for a few days. I worried that he was sick, but when I approached to throw him part of a bagel I had, I realized he just had a broken wing. He hopped away from me and under a parked car, but I left the bagel pieces in his corner for when he went back. A girl passing me said, "That pigeon's been there for a week. He must have a good hiding place." What do you do when you see a pigeon who is sick or stuck somewhere? You can't bring him to the vet or anything like that. I thought of calling the Health Dept to help him, but I didn't know if that was the right thing to do.

Then, two days ago, I saw another pigeon bringing him food! Anyway, I took some crackers with me yesterday and today on the way to work in case he was still there, but he seems gone. I think this is a good sign. Usually, when they're sick (not just waiting for their wing to heal) they end up dead in the same area they've been hiding in. This one was hopping around, so he may just have moved to a safer location.

Reader response

I don't believe your pigeon story.
It's too good to be true. I think you embellished it.
I do believe it is, in the spirit of the memoir genre, emotionally true, so I guess that's all that really matters.

Fine. I don't have to prove nothin' to youse.


Be a playa

Tired of those books that supposedly teach men how to trick women into sleeping with them? Here's a great parody on Blacktable - by a guy who seems to be sick of them, too.

Excerpt: "If you're like me ... you eschew lovely, intelligent women who desire your inner-beauty. Instead, you seek bar trash that validates your twisted vision of what it means to live a fulfilling male existence."

Also, if you want good advice, a woman's on there today giving some.

Any similarity to persons living or dead

Random House is reportedly offering a refund to people who bought James Frey's book.



Can I be sued if someone at work says "It's hot in here" and I sing, "So take off alllll your clothes"?

The return of

I might put back two small things I took out of the book. It was still good to see what it read like without 'em. ;)

Up in Smoke

The Senate passed a bill today banning smoking in NJ restaurants etc. Hasn't gone into effect yet.

First lines cont'd

"Alleghany County is perched so high up in the hills of western North Carolina that golfers intrepid enough to go up there to play golf call it mountain golf."

That's the first line of Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons." A good line, but I would have taken out the "golf" in "play golf." We don't really need the word 'golf' three times in one sentence. Other than that, not bad.

In any case, it doesn't matter. He's Tom Wolfe, and he has a battery of people who will help him get his stuff into top publishing form.



It can take five years to write a book, and a few hours for an editor to decide to reject it.

That's why I struggle so much with every line. I go back and forth for hours on just one sentence or paragraph because it's at the beginning of the book.

Then I take a break, thumb through some other books. Here are a few that are scattered near my desk at the moment. I wonder what kind of critiquing they would get from people in my writing group, or friends:

"To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will."

"What Eva would remember later, looking back, were the honey jars, how she was riding her bike down the road, legs churning, hair whipping across her face, not far from home yet..."

"My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of the year."

"I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before."

These are, respectively, Ordinary People (Judith Guest), The Honey Thief (Elizabeth Graver), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), A Separate Peace (John Knowles). I have them near my desk for different purposes (not respectively: reference, pleasure reads, style check). They've all been praised in different ways (either by top literary critics or by the book-buying public). Readers don't focus extensively on every word of those lines. The books did fine.

If I asked all of you which of the above opening lines you liked and which ones didn't please you, you'd all have different opinions. And put aside literary quality; which ones would make you want to read more? I'd probably be most intrigued by the last one. It all depends on personal preference.

But what if I'd written those lines? It's possible that members of my writing group would say: Too dry, too long, too juvenile or simplistic, too quiet...and I'm almost certain that I'd read those lines 100 times and make similar pronouncements myself. From the first one, I probably would end up taking out "if you will," and replacing it with "A bumper sticker or a pin, or maybe a tasteful tattoo." Then I might take out "tasteful tattoo" and change it to "hipster t-shirt," or...

And then there's "What Eva would remember later, looking back..." Do you need "looking back"? Or does that reinforce the timing because early readers of the manuscript were confused? It doesn't hurt to have that phrase in there, but it's not a hundred percent necessary. I'm sure I'd labor over the "looking back" endlessly if I'd written that first line. I'd probably keep it in. Best not to take chances. Readers skip words.

What about the line about "My name is Kathy H." I might change it to "My name is Kathy." It's shorter. But then it sounds a bit like an AA meeting, or a kid speaking. Sure, it tells the narrator's age in the very next line, but tones are set early. Hmmm. How about "My name is Kathy and I'm 31." Or "My name is Katherine Harris, Kathy for short."

So think about me now, laboring over these initial pages for hours, days, weeks, months in my room. Who can I ask for advice on my pages? Writing groups, yes. Friends and fellow writers, yes. If one person doesn't like something, it might not mean much. If everyone says the same things, then I'm getting good perspective.

But most of the time, I can wear out my welcome. There are eight people in my writing group, which meets monthly, and each of us get fifteen minutes. Each of us is crazily revising his or her own magnus opus (dei).

I can also ask friends, cleverly ambush them at lunch: Hey, can you read this ONE line, just one line, and tell me if it seems normal? (And they might look for ten seconds at each and every word in that line, and I might say, 'NO!!! Just read it like if you picked it up at a book store, because that's how any regular reader will read it...but um, at the same time, tell me if any of the words seem awkward or stop you, okay? But still read it like it's normal. Like you don't know me and you just picked it up, okay?') And sometimes I need to specifically ask women, or men, or people who read a lot, or people who don't...

And you can at some point ask your agent, but there are only so many times you can bug your agent (if you're lucky enough to have an agent), and you want to use those rare times for important things (like, "Um, so, have you heard anything on my submissions yet?") You cannot waste your rationed communications on "It's four a.m. and I'm stuck on page 46 and please e-mail me to validate my existence thanks."

The upshot? In the end, it comes down to the writer, writing alone. I want to give this my best shot. I appreciate the patience friends have shown when I've ambushed them with sentences and questions. Or if I've merely just said, "No, I can't come out Sunday; I'm writing" and you thought it was a lame excuse, because I can write any time, and why can't I put the book down for two hours? (Because dammit, it takes an hour of internet procrastination before I hit my groove, and if I have to stop and come out, that's going to take another hour of procrastination and then getting back in the mood, and other things...)

I realize this is a completely selfish job. It's an extremely comfortable job as well. (Or should that be "too"?) As stuck as I might get on a line, I'm not doing eight hours of data entry (like I've done before) or making your Whopper your way. This is usually relaxing work, finally geting to do a data dump of all the ADD-addled crap that came into my head all day when I should have been paying attention to the person talking to me or the assignment I was supposed to be doing. I can focus on a computer screen when I'm writing more than I can focus on almost anything else.

But it still gets a tad lonely, and not in a way that having people around would help (it wouldn't.) I just mean that as much as I care about this, I know that in the big picture, until I get it right and it affects people and adds something to the world, it's just another potentially obscure piece of one person's creativity or art out there. And that's being generous.

Miner issues

Newspaper reporter Derek Rose writes a summary of what it was like to be covering the West Virginia miner tragedy. He's been down there for almost a week now. Worth reading if you have the time.


Pilby reader responds after I write back:

"I'm impressed you answered me actually. You know, not jaded by your fame!"

I am. I just don't want the little people to realize it.

Revision tip of the day

Sometimes two characters can be combined into one. That means fewer characters to introduce in the beginning and confuse the reader.



Mean junk mail subject head of the day

Shy To Fcuk With ur Short Gun? Bigger 2" Instantly quickly

Some journalist out there should (or maybe someone has) see if this type of marketing actually works...

Nice e-mail of the day

I am a huge fan of your writing. I am sure you have already received emails from 1,357 people already saying how "they ARE Carrie Pilby"...

Can't post more 'cause I didn't get the reader's permission. I have gotten a few e-mails from people who say they 'were' her, but it's not up to 1,357 yet.


Some folks and I are going to watch the Giants playoffs Sunday at a bar in NYC. I keep realizing there were people I know whom I forgot to invite. If you want to stop by and cheer, e-mail me and I'll tell ya where. And yes, I know this interferes with my plan to hibernate, but it's a rare event.

Literary news

The on-line journal Black Table is ceasing to exist in a month. I imagine the editors, working for free, just don't have time to work for free any more. Fare thee well!

Revise, revise, revise

Got home from work yesterday, slept three hours, then revised until 4 a.m.....

I want to prune out any dead lines in the book and make it the emotionally-charged novel it should be.


Yes and no

The other day, my dad said what sounded like:

"Are you going to get serious?"

But what he really meant was:

"Are you going to get Sirius [satellite radio]?"



Even if you don't live there, you can get a report on the freeway scent in Jodi's blog today.
Random pointless '80s conversation
that something just reminded me of

ME: (Laughing as I'm walking in a strip mall with my mom) I just saw a sign in a window that said, "Save an alligator. Eat a Preppie."
MOM: I don't get it.

I don't think I've ever recommended a song on here before, because musical tastes are so different and it's often useless. But I'm very impressed by pianoman Ben Folds' melodic (and funny by nature) rendition of a rap song, the Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg ouevre "Bitches Ain't Sh*t." Ben Folds turned it into a piano song, and it's fun to listen to, plus it's actually a pleasant song. Check out a sample on iTunes. Even a certain friend of mine who says he only likes Weird Al would find it amusing.

If you listen to it and like it, e-mail me and let me know.

UPDATE: Someone e-mailed to tell me he looked up the words, and they're awful. I KNOW; that's what makes the Ben Folds rendition funny -- he took a song full of curse words and sings them seriously to this beautiful piano music, as if he's singing something romantic.

I didn't want you to think I'm profane.



I'm complaining about restaurant snobbery today on the black list:




No, I don't mean me. Some reporters for the TIMES of London took two novels that had won major literary prizes in the 1970s, submitted them to current agents and editors as if they were from an aspiring author, and were largely rejected.

Is anyone really surprised? As always, it's a matter of taste. STORY HERE.

And speaking of writing...

It's worth reading Lauren Barnholdt's summary of her year in writing today (and not 'cause she mentions me): http://www.livejournal.com/users/laurenbarnholdt/ . As she notes, she went from full-scale rejection to selling three other books in a matter of months...


Another morning that I'm awake at 4 a.m. after revising the novel for many hours and not wanting to sleep until I left it at a good place.

I just want to get it done. But it's not that simple.

It has to be the best it can, and there's no excuse for it not to be.

By the way, I didn't really drink champagne yesterday; I was just harking back to my German calendar entry for humorous purposes.


Jan. 2

"Ich habe zu viel Champagner getrunken!" ("I drank too much champagne!")



You made it through another year!!!