Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Massachusetts and other beautiful things

I'm neck-deep in my pre-submission edits at the moment, but last week I escaped with my buds for a long weekend in Northwest Mass, where I went to college. I had fondly pictured patio grilling and guzzling Corona in a warm summer breeze, but Massachusetts had other ideas:


But that's okay. The purpose of the trip wasn't really Corona, it was research. I'm setting my second book in this lush, chilly mountain valley, and I needed to remind myself what it looked like and smelled like and sounded like. Which is, like this:

Rte 43 after the rain

In between rainstorms, I found what I wanted: a house with a story. I see story in that light that's on, and in the two open casements of those dormer windows:

Williamstown house

I also saw art, literally. In the rambling 19th-century industrial buildings of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.


I was an English major in college, but also a late-to-the-party art history student: after a junior year in Europe exposed me to all the wonders there, I came back and took seven art classes my senior year. I love art and architecture almost as much as I love writing, and I'm damn fortunate to have a day job in a field that makes my pulse race. Just as there will never come a time when I don't love buildings, I'll never stop loving images: creating them, analyzing them, poring over their beauty and magic.


And that, most of all, is what this weekend was about for me. Digging back into art, and images, and museums, because that that's where my heart is going with this second book.

detail, Piero della Francesca, Clark Institute, Williamstown MA

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: The Love Wars

Confession time: I love chick lit.

Why is this a confession? Well, when I dove into this mysterious, murky-bottomed pond known as The Publishing Industry and started splashing around, talking about the kind of books I most enjoy reading, I innocently thought "chick lit" was what they were called. The collective response from blogs, articles, agent bios, etc. was a solemn head-shake and the whispered words, "oh no, we don't call it that anymore, dear." Chick lit, I learned, was Dead. Stories about youngish, generally urban women with intriguing professional challenges and enticing love interests had become the Genre-That-Must-Not-Be-Named; if you were gauche enough to name it, an apparition would appear in the sky in the shape of a stiletto-heeled pump with a serpent's head popping out of the vamp.

So imagine my delight when I saw an essay by a new debut author, L. Alison Heller, in spirited defense of chick lit: its warm, relatable characters; its humor; its unapologetic attention to womens' relationships with their friends, their families, and their lovers. Alison included two of my all-time favorite novels among four of her own, so I knew I had to give her novel, The Love Wars, a whirl. And what a terrific read it is!

The main character, Molly Grant, is a matrimonial attorney for a rapacious corporate law firm. Her boss foists off an unwanted new client consultation on her, with instructions to dispatch the client, Fern, as quickly as possible: Fern's ex-husband, whom she is seeking to sue for custody of their children, is the CEO of a well-known corporation, and the last place Molly's firm wants to be is sitting across from him in a court room. However, once Molly actually meets Fern, dumping her is easier said than done--instead of an overprivileged witch like most of the wives she works for, Molly finds a burdened, desperate mother who would give anything to keep her ex-husband from continuing to turn their children against her. And after none of the other attorneys to whom Molly dutifully refers Fern are willing to return her phone calls, Molly makes the daring gamble to take on the case herself--she just has to keep her bosses from finding out.

It's a compelling plot, driven by Molly's compassion and moral outrage. And Molly herself is a deeply sympathetic heroine, struggling to live a life that makes her proud, in the face of the relentless grind to which the big-firm work culture subjects her. She's smart, and excellent at her job, which is a refreshing change from some of the ditzier heroines of chick lit lore. For that matter, the whole book is full of bright and dazzlingly accomplished women, even if some of them I didn't like very much--I didn't like them, but I respected them. And I enjoyed the fact that I respected them. But my favorite thing of all about Molly is that she's funny--as in, mischievous and witty, not ha-ha-I-tripped-over-this-Chihuahua-and-spilled-my-cocktail "funny." Humor is the thing that makes me sit up and take notice, whether in a book, or a blog, or even a new person, so I was delighted to find The Love Wars so full of it. There is a  love interest, too, which evolves organically throughout the story; ultimately, the ending of the book is satisfying because it feels earned on every level.

All in all, I loved this book, and I can't wait to read more of Alison's work!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gilbert Blythe kicks the ass of Mr. Darcy any day of the week.

One of the nicknames my coworkers have given me (yes, there are several, because when you sit in the same small room with the same two people for 45 hours a week for five years, nicknames tend to accumulate) is Anne of Green Gables. This is not because I bear any physical resemblance to everyone's favorite plucky redheaded orphan, but because I am an unmitigated nerd with a generally sunny disposition and a fondness for ten-dollar SAT words. And, of course, there's also the fact that by the time I was seventeen, I had grown my hair out down to my waist and used to wear it braided in a coronet around my head, which is the closest anyone with fine hair can get to a Gibson Girl.

L. M. Montgomery's books have always been among my absolute favorites. As a teenager, I imagined that I was more like Emily of New Moon, what with her writing, and her drama, and her penchant for brooding introspection; but really that was just because I was a teenager. As an adult, I recognize that I am firmly an Anne. And despite the aw-shucks squareness that helped earn me the nickname--maybe one day I'll tell you about the one and only time I experimented with an herbal substance currently legal in the fine state of California--I take the association as a compliment.

A friend recently mentioned that she'd been re-reading the books, and remarked on what a stellar role model Anne still is for a young girl. I'd never thought of it that way, but it's true. Anne is not only fiercely intelligent, but she's proud of it, and determined to outshine everyone else in every classroom she walks into (most especially Gilbert Blythe, of course)--her ambition is one of her defining characteristics. She's spirited and funny and kind to others, but unafraid to stand up for herself when the occasion demands it.

And speaking of Gilbert, I can't help thinking he is woefully under-credited as one of literature's most swoonable kind-hearted hotties. Everybody loves a good Mr. Darcy, and rightfully so, but I'd rather have Gilbert any day. Darcy, as heir to a massive family fortune, is a gentleman of leisure; Gilbert's a middle-class kid who works his ass off to earn his medical degree through sheer force of brain. Giving up his position teaching at the Avonlea school so that Anne can live at home with Marilla is, in my book, a far greater personal sacrifice than Darcy spending a few weeks and a barely-missed chunk of change to tidy up Elizabeth's Wickham situation. And unlike Darcy, who reluctantly concedes his infatuation with Elizabeth in the face of everything else that's unsuitable about her, Gilbert never wavers in his admiration for Anne. Or in his love, even though she gives him more than enough reasons to throw in the towel. I mean, in terms of declarations of feelings, which would you rather hear? 

"In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I love and admire you."

Or "there could never be anyone else for me but you. I've loved you ever since that day you broke your slate over my head in school."

Yeah. I think I'd take the man who had the patience to put up with years' worth of my childhood bullshit and teenage mixed signals, the kindness to put my needs before his own, the heart to support me when I needed supporting, and the good sense to laugh at me when I deserved to be laughed at. That sounds like a way better deal to me.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Silver Lining of Rejection Letters.

I hate the expression "everything happens for a reason." Always have. You can't say that to a person whose mother died in terrible pain at the age of 49, and expect them to take you seriously... at least, not this person. But some things, sometimes, do. And the agent search process is one of them.

Before I started, I'd heard all about how subjective the whole thing was, and how infuriating that could be—the near misses, the "I just didn't connect with this" letters. But the truth is, even though it feels like a bummer, those rejection letters are a good thing. Because ultimately, they're bringing you closer to the agent who instinctively *gets* your work, and absolutely can't wait to see it out there in the world. Some stranger on one of the zillions of forums, blogs, and articles that I obsessively studied before and while I was querying put it best: it's not enough for an agent to think your work is great. They can't be just readers, enjoying a well-written book and then moving on; to summon the commitment and enthusiasm that their job demands, they have to be moved, addicted, totally over the moon. And anybody who isn't? Not the right agent for you. She never was. It's like dating: it doesn't matter if you thought she was your "dream agent;" if she's not madly in love with your work, she isn't it. Somebody else is.

So put down the consolation chocolate and the Chardonnay—or, you know what—don't. Those sound delicious. But do stop stewing about the rejection. Cross that wrong agent off your list, shake off your blues, and go find the right one. She's waiting for you.