Four minutes and 38 seconds

As March 27th approaches, it’s hard to get earthquakes off my mind. Below is a great short film by the U.S. Geological Survey that reveals the scope of the biggest earthquake ever to hit the Northern Hemisphere, the Good Friday Quake that hit Alaska on March 27, 1964.

The ’64 quake lasted over four minutes. That’s a ridiculously long time for an earthquake. Four minutes is how long it takes Elsa to sing “Let It Go” in the movie Frozen. It’s how long hard-core, Olympic-level runners run to reach a mile. In four minutes on a typical day in the United States, 30 babies are born, 38 people die, and 4,080 Big Macs are eaten. Four minutes in a 9.2 earthquake is forever.

Watch the video. When you’re done, check your watch. The video below – four minutes and four seconds long – is shorter than the quake itself.

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Top Ten Things on Twitter for Writers

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It is difficult for non-writer types to understand this, but spending time on Twitter is a very important part of being an author. So is a dedicated LOLZ board on Pinterest, a platinum Visa card attached to your Amazon account, and a solid subscription to Netflix. But I digress.

Most often when you tell people you’re a writer, they imagine that you spend the day in your pajamas, drinking hot chocolate and dawdling on social media, getting all the words down only after midnight when lesser mortals sleep. That’s only partially true – I personally drink Diet Mountain Dew. And also, generally, unless the fever to write hits me first thing in the morning, I get dressed.

However, I do scan my twitter feed several times a day. This is a legitimate tool for me as a writer; there’s an unbelievable amount of information tweeted hourly regarding how the publishing industry works, what agents are looking for in new clients, and the dos and don’ts of being a Real Writer. You just have to know where to look.

So toward that end, I’m sharing my favorites in the Twitterverse. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, and of course it reflects my personal bias toward sarcasm and snark. Please forgive any omissions – if I’ve forgotton anyone important please let me know!

1. #tenqueries
If you do nothing every day but brush your teeth and check your Twitter feed for #tenqueries, the day is well spent. Literary agent Margaret Bail (Inklings Literary Agency) goes through the slushpile of queries in her inbox and in 140 characters or less tells us whether the query gets moved to the junk file or she requests part or all of the manuscript in question. There are far more passes than requests, however, and watching this hashtag gives awesome insight into what most querying writers do wrong. Plus, her avatar is a cupcake – pure literary genius!

2. @Janet_Reid
This is the Twitter feed of the snarky shark of agentdom, Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary Management. She reps uber-author Patrick Lee, which tells you right there she’s Awfully Darn Cool. By following her feed you’ll get witticisms and links to her blog, on which she posts and answers typical questions from would-be writers and also hosts the semi-famous 100-word contests, which are brilliant and fun. Anything you ever wanted to know about querying but were afraid to ask is answered on her blog under QueryShark, and if you’re not skeered of shark bites, you can submit your own query for evisceration. Be afraid.

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Writers are friends, not food.

3. #MSWL
This little gem of a hashtag gets you an eagle-eye view of which agents are looking for what – “ManuScript Wish List,” get it? What? You just wrote a contemporary YA novel about a female protag who deals contraceptives like heroin, and there’s dinosaur porn and tigers? Cool. Check the hastag – odds are someone is looking for that very thing. But beware: the tag is to be used by agents and editors ONLY. Use it to spam your latest kindle e-book and you will be sent to a special place in hell normally reserved for child molesters and people who use the word “irregardless.”

4. #askagent
You know, when I initially stumbled across this hashtag, I thought it meant there was finally a chance for us females to get inside the head of men. As in, ask-a-gent. Because I’d really love for someone to explain to me the huge appeal of incendiary salsa and also bewbs. Sadly, this is not that. It is, however, another oppurtuity for would-be writers to get inside the head of agents by directly asking them their most awkward burning questions in front of thousands of people. Watch the hashtag for when the agents are available, and grab the popcorn.

5. @LitRejections
What writer wouldn’t love someone named for the agony and angst all of us experience in the query and sumbission trenches? Literary Rejections not only feels for us, man, they post all kinds of upbeat suportive tweets, plus infomation on new agents hungry for fresh meat – I mean, new talent, conference info and other cool, writer-y stuff.

6. @jsinsheim
Another agent extrordinaire, Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. Not only does Ms. Sinsheimer post cool stuff about writers and books and stuff, she also loves food, and tweets these ridiculously mouth-watering recipes and photos. Especially cheese. Also, she occasionally hosts hilarious high jinks like the Bad Query Contest.

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That PBJ doesn’t look so hot now, does it?

7. #fakepitmad
Don’t get me wrong. The real #pitmad – a contest of sorts where writers pitch their query in 140 characters or less to agents perusing the hashtag – is very near the pinnacle of awesomeness. But holy cow, if the the sarcastic and witty #fake version doesn’t make you pee your pants, you need to take your sense of humor in for a tune-up.

8. @MissDahlELama
Wait, you’re not already following Dahlia Adler on Twitter? What the hell is wrong with you? We’ll wait while you go fix that (taps foot). There. Not only is Miss D a brilliant writer in her own respect, she’s also the owner of the stellar blog dailydahlia.wordpress.com, which features author spotlights and all kinds of great advice.

9. #amwriting
This is the hashtag for writers who should be writing but whose brains are ready to explode and so they’re on Twitter instead. Because all they really #amwriting at the moment is a 140-character public bubble of agony. At least it’s fun to commiserate. Subtle variants of this hashtag include #writing, #amediting, #amrevising, and #amdrinking.

10. #BePositiveHour
This beautiful bit of beautiful in a harsh, ugly world was started by literary agent Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary, who understands that writers have FEELS, dammit, and need encouragement from time to time. When you’re at that point where you can’t decide whether to pour kerosene on your laptop and light a match or drown your troubles in a five-pound bag of Sour Patch Kids, go to the hashtag first. You’ll feel better, I promise.

So that’s my Top Ten on Twitter. I’m sure I left out some good ones. Let me know what I forgot! I’ll check the comments as soon as I finish this bag of Sour Patch Kids and get dressed.

It’s all in your mind (well, actually it is)

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One of the best teachers I ever had was professor Ron Spatz at University of Alaska Anchorage, who was then the head of the Creative Writing Department and also the editor of the prestigious Alaska Quarterly Review literary journal.

Ron Spatz was one of those people with the unusual gift of bringing out the best in people. He didn’t settle for second-best from anyone, and had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was handing in something less than they were capable of. I could fill a book, I suppose, with great Ron Spatz-isms. But there is one lesson he taught us eager would-be writers that has really stayed with me, even 15+ years later. It’s a simple idea, really, but it’s influenced every piece I’ve ever written since, and even the way I deal with people in “real life.”

It’s this:

People act according to the way they see themselves, not according to who they really are.

Told you it was a simple idea. At least, it seems so on the surface. In reality, it’s profound, and remembering this can help us understand how people (characters) behave, both on the printed page and off.

For example, suicide is epidemic among young people – especially in Alaska, where I live.  Say a character loses his job, laid off with a bunch of other guys. If my character sees himself as unredeemable, a hopeless failure, that this is just further confirmation that he can’t do anything right, he might consider suicide. Whereas most people would consider being laid off just temporarily bad circumstances and never consider such a drastic response.  It’s that self perception, whether accurate or not, that makes the difference.

A woman who’s been told she’s “loose” or “immoral?” Odds are she’ll act that way, dress that way. If she’s sexually assaulted, she might even think she deserved it. A teenager who’s always been treated like a thug will probably act like one. A man who thinks he’s not very smart will probably never try for a mentally-demanding job – even if he’s actually got an IQ of 130.

Of course, our self-perception isn’t always formed by the opinions of those around us. That jobless, thirty-something loser living at home? He would never date anyone with less than supermodel good looks because inside, for whatever reason, he believes he’s worth it. On the flip side, we’ve all seen brilliant, beautiful people engage in self-destructive behavior (the supermodel in an abusive relationship, the amazingly talented singer who refuses to audition for a musical, and so on) because they don’t think they’re “good enough” in spite of the opinions of those around them.

mr rooney   “I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”

 The funny thing is, we all have our blind spots – those instances in which the way we perceive ourselves doesn’t *quite* sync with the rest of the world. This can make for great character development too. Remember Mr. Rooney in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off? He thought of himself as a man on a mission – a rather righteous one at that; his students thought he was a nutcase. Or take Mr. Darcy, for example. Until the venerable Elizabeth Bennet set him straight, he had no idea what a stuck-up, priggish jerk he really was. One of the best ways I’ve ever seen this pulled off was with the Addams Family movies – Gomez and Morticia actually think it’s everyone else that’s strange, not them.

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“Weirdos.”

So tell me what you think. Have you found this to be true? Do you know anyone with a blindspot like Mr. Rooney? Has there ever been a teacher in your life whose advice stuck with you years later? Let me know in the comments!

Underneath it all

Today’s post is a short and simple snapshot of one of my favorite characters in my novel-in-progress, THE VOLUME OF WATER.

Her name is Nadine.

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If she looks familiar, that’s because this photo is of Norma Jean Baker, aka Marilym Monroe.

Nadine is very much – to my mind – like Norma Jean. At 24, she’s had a rather rough life, and yet she still has a somewhat childlike innocence and beauty in spite of that – at least in the early part of the book, before things get really rough. Nadine is voluptuous, and so people make assumptions about her. Even as a young teenager, people assume she’s promiscuous … a “bad” girl. Ironically. inside she’s a rather hopeless romantic, insecure, and surprisingly smart.

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Marilyn Monroe had a sad childhood too. I didn’t know this until I began researching my book, but the young Norma Jean’s mother was mentally unstable, and sent her to live with foster parents until she was 7 years old. She was then placed in a home for orphans and might have been adopted by several willing families but her mother refused to sign paperwork that would allow it. Then her mother’s best friend took over as Norma Jean’s guardian, and everything seemed great. At least, until that woman’s husband repeatedly sexually assault her. When Norma Jean moved to California to live with her great-aunt, it happened again: one of Olive’s sons attacked her as well.

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There has been a lot of talk lately about “rape culture,” and part of my book deals with rape and its aftereffects. But I wonder if we shouldn’t go deeper and question the assumptions we make about people in the first place – all people. Marilyn Monroe, for example, became famous as a sex symbol (phychologists have questioned whether her hypersexuality, substance abuse and relationship troubles in later years were perhaps a reaction to those early sexual assualts). Very few people remember Marilyn as a student of literature and art appreciation at UCLA, but she was. Underneath it all, Norma Jean was sensitive, intelligent and often painfully shy (when filming “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Marilyn’s co-star Jane Russel sometimes had to escort her from her dressing room because she was overcome with stage fright!).

Like Norma jean, or Marilyn if you prefer, my character Nadine is not who she comes across as. Underneath it all, she’s quite the opposite.

Are you like that? Do you know people who are on the inside completely different from how they appear? What do you think are some good ways that we as a society can teach ourselves to take a better look at the people around us? Please let me know in the comments section!

How to Make Dandelion Jelly

Time for a confession: I am going to let you in on one of my deepest, darkest secrets:

I love dandelions.
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Don’t tell my husband – PLEASE don’t tell him. It’s a betrayal, I know. I KNOW. But I cannot help myself. They are such smiley, happy little flowers. Like little bits of sunshine sprinkled throughout the lawn. And I know they are a weed, okay? I get that they have no place amidst his carefully cultivated lawn! This is just how far I’ve fallen.

Are you ready for this?

Sometimes, I … I … make wishes and blow the whispery white little seed pods into the wind.

STOP JUDGING ME! I can feel the hate! But I … Just. Can’t Stop.

Fortunately for me, my sweet son loves to pick them for me. He’s been bringing me dandelion bouquets every day.

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And since I hate for wonderful things to go to waste, I use them up. When life gives you dandelions, make dandelion jelly.

In my book MOTHER MONA, my protagonist travels to Spruce Island near Kodiak, Alaska, where life is totally off the grid. Mona’s family basically has to can or dehydrate everything so it won’t go bad. Mona’s family would have canned blueberries or salmonberries, which grow abundantly on Kodiak and its surrounding islands. We make jelly out of the berries on our property in Alaska also – mostly golden raspberries and cranberry/rhubarb. But dandelion jelly is a light and delicate alternative that is perfect for topping toast or biscuits – if you can keep your kids from eating it straight out of the jar. (It’s also a killer addition to a glass of herbal tea).

dandelion jelly outside 1.75 oz

Here’s how to make it:

1. Send the kids out into the yard to pick a heap of dandelions. You’ll need a bucketful in order to end up with the 2 cups of petals needed for the jelly – about 5 cups of flower heads. (Note: make sure your yard or wherever they’re picking from has not been sprayed with pesticide or is not right off the road, because … yuck). Pop the heads off, and wash them well.

2. Now pull the yellow petals out (a wee bit of green and/or white is okay) and put them into a sauce pan with 2.5 cups of water. Bring the whole thing to a boil for about 10-15 minutes, or until the water turns bright yellow.

3. Turn off the heat and let it cool. Strain the petals out and measure to make sure you have 2 full cups of dandelion water left. If not, add more water.

4. Pour the dandelion water back into the saucepan and add 1/4 cup lemon juice and 4 cups sugar. (Yes four cups. If you think sugar is the devil, well you’re probably right but in the meantime go have some broccoli with chia seeds and please ignore the rest of this blog post.) Bring it to a boil again and add in 3 ounces of liquid pectin. Boil another few minutes or whatever the directions on your liquid pectin tell you, and then ladle into jars and can in a water bath or label and put whatever you don’t eat immediately into the refrigerator.

5. Now, I will tell you that I often have to add another 1/2 packet of pectin (with the corresponding amount of additional sugar). It is a difficult jelly to gel sometimes. In any case, you’ll want to make absolutely sure it has set up before going to the trouble to can the jars in a water bath. Ask me how I know (by canning 24 jars of dandelion syrup, that’s how).

Here’s the recipe in full:

  • 2 heaping cups of fresh dandelion petals (that’s about 4-5 cups whole flowers)
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 3 ounces liquid pectin

Boil petals in water until water turns yellow and equals 2 cups. Add lemon juice, sugar and pectin and bring to a boil for two minutes. Let cool, then ladle into jars.

So that’s that! Let me know how it goes!

Writing: A life of discipline and hard work

In my last post, I noted that one of the best (and least fattening) ways to survive the querying process with a wee semplance of sanity intact is to keep on writing.
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Toward that end, I’ve been working on a new project. Two new projects, actually. One is another novel that’s been stewing in my brain for a long time, a historical fiction set during the time of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Ever since we moved to Alaska (almost a quarter century ago – how is that even possible?), I’ve been sort of obsessed with it, and the tsunamis that wreaked major destruction all over the state. I’ve been doing research for months now, and I’ve even unearthed some pretty cool firsthand reports that to my knowledge have never been published. Being what writerly people refer to as a plotter (as opposed to a pantser – one who writes by the seat of their pants and goes back to fix plot elements later), I spent months planning and tweaking and plotting before I even wrote a word. But I must say it feels so good to be writing again.

The other project I am working on is a middle grade book about a boy whose stuffed moose accidentally gets dropped off at the Goodwill. I wasn’t planning to write a kid’s book, but this one basically slammed into my head – the whole thing – while I was thinking about something else. What can you do? I said to myself, “Self, stop it. You do not write children’s books.” And my brain said, “Oh yeah?” and WHAM! Up popped the idea for a sequel. Then a third book. Alright, already.

The more I thought about, the less crazy it seemed. For one thing, a million years ago, I was a kid. Who loved books. Some of my very favorite books of all time are middle grade books (more on that later). For another thing, I have five kids who love books like heroin, so I have done my fair share of reading to them.

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So now my brain is on overload with wanting to write. And what happens? Summer happnes.

If you don’t live in Alaska, you may not understand the burning desire to get outside the moment actual sunlight happens. After seven months of snow and dark, we get a little manic about it. Our last two summers were rather crummy. But this year – wow. It’s been gorgeous. Perhaps if I had a nice windowless attic to work in, I could buckle down and get these books written. But no. Look at this:

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This is the view from where I write.

I thought perhaps if I went outside to work on the balcony, I might get something done. But it just gets worse when you go outside.

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Outside, you can smell the fun-ness and feel the warmth and hear the kids playing. A dragonfly flew by and laughed at me. I think he also called me an idiot, but I’m not sure.

The bottom line is this: being a writer means making tough decisions. It means being serious about your work and disciplined about your writing schedule.

Therefore, I’ll be up late tonight. Writing. For now, I’m headed outside to do this …

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Because summers in Alaska are way too short not to.