Thursday, September 28, 2006

Just When You Think You Know What You're Doing....

The historical mystery I’m currently writing, Why Mermaids Sing, will be my tenth published novel. I’ve also written several other novels you won’t find at your corner bookstore: the thriller proposal currently making the rounds of New York publishers, a crazy book about an undead trophy wife which, after languishing for 3 ½ years, has just attracted the interest of an editor (yes, I’m cautiously excited), and my two first romances I decided to shelve rather than devote the time required to revise them for publication. I mention this because after so long, you’d think I know what I’m doing when I sit down to write a book, right? Wrong.

I always aim to produce a book of around 100,000 words (except for the trophy wife book, which is shorter). Usually I run long, and have to seriously tighten the manuscript to keep it from sprawling to 115,000+ words and giving my publishers fits (they worry about things like paper costs). A 100,000 word manuscript runs to about 400 manuscript pages. I’ve learned to judge a book idea’s length by a simple format: figuring an average scene length of at least five pages, I plot out about 70-75 scenes, and know I’m good to go. You’re thinking, Um, shouldn’t that be 80 scenes? Yes, you’re right, it should; except that I’ve also learned from experience that my outlining process always misses 5-10 scenes that I’ll later realize I need, so 80-85 scenes x a five page average per scene =at least 400 manuscript pages or 100,000+ words.

Of course, some scenes are only a page, while other scenes run ten pages (although in this post Da Vinci Code world I try to avoid that). But five pages is a good average. So what’s wrong this time?

My book is going to end up short.

I doubt my editors will care (see paper costs, above). But I’m troubled. I thought I knew what I was doing, I thought I could very accurately estimate my manuscripts’ length before I ever sat down to write the first page. It’s not that I was for some reason wiser at this book’s plotting stage—I’ve still had to add in my standard “unforeseen” scenes. But the book’s scenes are obviously not averaging out to five pages.

As you may have gathered, I’m a bit of a control freak. People who sit down to write a book with only the vaguest idea of what it will be about and where it will go (“fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants” writers) make me want to grope for the St. John’s Wort. So what’s going on with this book? I’m actually very happy (this is unusual at this point) with it—it’s a ripping good story. So what gives? Is it something about the story idea itself? Is post-Katrina stress somehow causing me to write tighter? I don’t know. And I don’t like not knowing that sort of thing.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


I’m reading THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene. Greene is a quantum physicist at Cornell and Columbia. In this book, Greene confronts the “dirty little secret” of physics, namely that as currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right. General relativity seems to explain the behavior of the universe on a large scale, while quantum mechanics describes the behavior of subatomic particles. Since, in our specialized society, scientists typically study either the universe OR subatomic particles but not both, this incompatibility of their guiding theories doesn’t pose much of a problem on a day-to-day basis. But this doesn’t alter the fact that both can’t be right. Greene believes the two theories can be resolved by the superstring theory. Of course, the problem with the superstring theory is it can’t be proved and hasn’t all been worked out yet. In fact, I saw the other day that two books have recently come out attacking the effect of the superstring theory on modern physics.

Why am I reading this book? Because I never studied physics at university and I’ve recently started feeling a lack in my understanding of things (mainly while doing research for a book idea). I’m not sure I’d recommend Greene’s book. It’s not an easy read, and that’s not simply the fault of his subject matter. For example, he’ll give a simplified explanation of something in Chapter 2 that will leave me thinking, “But what about xyz? This doesn’t make sense.” Then in Chapter 4, he’ll say, “You may have been puzzled in Chapter 2 because you thought, ‘What about XYZ?’ That’s because the explanation was simplified.” Then he’ll go on to explain XYZ. Perhaps, given the subject matter, there is no other way to explain it to a layperson. I intend to read more books on the subject, but it’s going to take me a while to wade through this one, so don’t hold your breath.

A few weeks ago I read THE FIELD, by Lynne McTaggart. This is description of discoveries that point to a unifying concept of the universe reconciling Newtonian science with quantum physics. Her focus is on the “zero point field,” the microscopic vibrations in space and within and between physical objects on earth, i.e., basically, superstrings. McTaggart is an investigative journalist, and while her website leads one to suspect she’s rather flaky, her book at least seems solidly researched and footnoted. It includes some intriguing information that does seem to support the superstring theory, but she doesn’t provide the solid understanding of physics provided by someone like Greene.

What I’m reading for fun: BUDDHA IN YOUR BACKPACK, by Franz Metcalf. If reading a book on Buddhism doesn’t sound like your idea of light reading, let me hasten to add that the book is aimed at teenagers. Plus, remember it’s in comparison to the above!

Friday, September 22, 2006

On Walking

(If only this were my daily walk.)

I’ve started walking again.

I’ve been a walker most of my life. I tease my girls about how when I was young, I had to walk three miles to school through snow and sleet and winter gales. It’s a line that always gets an eye roll, but it’s only a slight exaggeration. I did have a long walk to school and, at one point, it was three miles (apartments farther from campus are always cheaper). And since I lived in northern Idaho at the time, those walks frequently involved various frozen forms of H2O.

When I lived in Paris, my daily walk to the Biblioteque Nationale took me from the Isle de la Cite, across Pont Neuf to the Louvre, then up the Tuileries to the Palais Royal. It was a constant pinch-me-so-I-can-be-sure-this-is-real experience. In Winchester, I’d walk down a High Street little changed in hundreds of years, then pause on a bridge arching over an old mill stream to wonder at the mill that was still there, all these years later. In Sydney, I’d save bus money by walking from my house in Glebe to the downtown to go shopping. Over the years, my daily walks have taken me along ancient hillsides in the Middle East (where, on a few memorable occasions, I encountered machine gun fire and tanks), across Athens through the Plaka to the Acropolis, and through the Adelaide hills, where laughing kookaburras and brilliantly-colored parrots flitted through the gum trees.

For the last few years, my daily walks haven’t been very interesting. I love my house, but I have to admit the neighborhood is architecturally ho-hum, and while I could theoretically walk out to the lake, it would require breathing more exhaust fumes than I care to expose myself to. But until the storm, I still tried to go for a walk most mornings. My daily walks were just one more thing washed away by Katrina. At first I was simply too busy. Lately, I’ve just been too distracted.

A cousin’s recent diagnosis of stage three ovarian cancer provided the impetus I needed to get moving again. The neighborhood’s architecture is still rather blah, but Katrina has certainly made my walks more interesting. Now I find myself detouring around FEMA trailers that jut out onto the sidewalk, watching the progress of my neighbors’ renovations, counting for sale signs. I am frankly horrified to realize how many houses have simply been gutted and abandoned—although with one exception people are still cutting their lawns, which is why I guess I never noticed them when driving through the neighborhood.

Compared to the parts of New Orleans that went under 8-12 feet, my neighborhood was only lightly damaged. It’s been almost 13 months. God help us.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Hey Mr. Taxman!

(Above: the famous 17th Street Canal break as it appears today. Looks real safe, doesn't it?"

We spent much of the weekend dragging a bunch of miscellaneous stuff from my mother’s house to our house. She was tired of it messing up her house, so even though we have no place to go with it, it’s now here, messing up our house instead, which I is only fair. We also went to Restoration Hardware to order a new chair for the living room to replace the one that drowned. It’s supposed to get here in December. Now that we’ve started on our SECOND year since Katrina, every time I do something like that it strikes me again: how long it’s been, how long it’s taking us to get our lives back in order.

One of the things we brought over from my mother’s was the box full of our income tax materials for last year. The Government has extended the area’s filing deadline to October 15, but we’ve only recently gone back to our insurance company to ask them to take a third look at our claim, so exactly how are we supposed to be able to file our taxes in less than a month? Besides, the time it’ll take to organize our taxes could be much better spent putting down the floors in the upstairs hall, or finishing the pantry, or framing out the window in my office, or….

Good news this week: WHEN GODS DIE received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Missing Missy

Missy died last night. And I never even took her picture.

When I first saw Missy, I thought she was a half-starved, three-month-old kitten. She came shooting out from under the back porch the first time we made it into Old Metairie after Katrina to check on my mother’s house. After that, we’d go over to my mother’s house every other evening before we drove back up to Baton Rouge and put out huge bowls of dried cat food. We were feeding not only Missy, but an entire neighborhood of hungry strays and abandoned pets.

As time passed and we moved into my mother’s house, we came to realize that Missy wasn’t a kitten, but a very tiny and skinny old gray tabby. She gradually learned to trust us, to let us pet her while she was eating, then to pick her up. My girls wanted to adopt her and bring her in, but it seemed impossible: we already had five indoor cats who weren’t getting along well in the confines of my mother’s small house, plus my mother’s own indoor/outdoor male cat was becoming increasingly resentful of the furry houseguests we’d brought with us.

But as the time for us to move back into our own house grew near, my mother started making noises. She was going to miss having our cats around all the time, she said. It was raining hard that night, and when Missy came to the door, crying to come in, my girls said, “Why don’t you adopt Missy?” My mother leapt at it. And so we stuck Missy in a carrier and hauled her off to the vet to be checked out.

She didn’t have any infectious diseases, although she did have an overactive thyroid, a gum and bladder infection, and a shortage of teeth. She was also virtually deaf and blind. We brought her home (along with a bag full of medications), and she made my mother’s bedroom and bathroom her own. She curled up on the bed, purred her little head off, and never showed the least interest in going out again.

My mother couldn’t medicate her, so once we moved back into our own house, we’d drive over to my mother’s every night to stick pills down Missy’s throat. The infections cleared up, she started putting on weight, and we thought everything was going to be fine. We eventually discovered she’d actually been hanging around the neighborhood for years. Now, finally, she had a home again.

But all those years on the streets had taken their toll. Last night, Missy collapsed. My mother called us and we rushed over to find Missy breathing hard, unable to move. I picked her up and held her on my lap, and petted her and told her how very much she was loved. She died in my arms. My mother is devastated.

It seems so tragic, that Missy lived all those years without a home only to die just six weeks after finally getting what she’d wanted so desperately. But at least she died happy and warm and loved. And now, she’s missed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

No More POD!

(The mailbox is leaning because it was hit by a dump truck. Replacing it is on The List.)

Beamer had his POD picked up today. Beamer is a guy who lives across the street from us (next to the doctor with the meticulously manicured lawn). We call him Beamer because he has a BMW convertible of which he is VERY proud, and we didn’t know his name until after Katrina when everyone on the street started spending a lot of time out on the street. He’s actually a great guy, but we still call him Beamer amongst ourselves.

Beamer and his wife had flown out to California for a holiday the week before Katrina hit, leaving their 9-year-old daughter home with his 21-year-old. The older girl evacuated with her little sister before the storm, but because she’s not allowed to touch daddy’s BMW, she drove off in her little silver Honda. I was out dumping a load of moldy books on the curb when Beamer and his wife came home for the first time. He walked up to his BMW, opened the door, and then just stood there while the water poured out around him. I thought he was going to sit down in the driveway and cry.

The insurance company refused to replace his BMW. They fixed it. Every couple of weeks, he takes it in so they can “fix” it some more.

Beamer has a friend who’s a contractor from Texas. After months of promises, the guy finally started on Beamer’s house the day after Mardi Gras. But unlike most construction crews, this one showed up every day. By some weird coincidence, Beamer & Family moved back into their house the same weekend we did. His bill? $259,000. I was talking to his contractor the other day, and he told me he’s working on about 50 houses in the New Orleans area, so he doesn’t get home much. “Home,” incidentally, is a 15,000 square foot house in Dallas. I felt so sorry for him. Not.

Beamer has been back in his house for six weeks now, but it takes a while to get settled, and they only had the POD picked up today. (POD, for those who don’t know, stands for Portable on Demand Storage.) Personally, if it were me, I’d have had my stuff out of that little tin thing before hurricane season started, but then, we all know I have anxiety problems.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

On Lawns, Hurricanes, and Mowers

We had our lawn mowed today. That might not sound particularly news worthy, but believe me, it is. You see, this is the first time our lawn has been mowed since Katrina.

At first, we were too busy hauling waterlogged possessions out to the curb and ripping out moldy Sheetrock to spare the lawn a thought. I remember reading several years ago that when a hurricane threatens, you should go out and mow your lawn short. At the time, I thought, how silly; with all we have to do, why worry about the lawn? After Katrina, I understood. The thinking is, you see, that if the hurricane actually hits, you won’t have time to mow your lawn. Nor, if the hurricane brings a flood, will you have a lawn mower. (But then, if the flood is really deep, it’ll kill your lawn, so then you wouldn’t have a problem, now would you?)

When we evacuated for Katrina in August, our lawn needed to be mowed. By December, our lawn REALLY needed to be mowed. But then, so did every one else’s on the street. (Except for the doctor who lives across from us. He was out there ten days after Katrina, mowing his lawn, and he has driven down from Baton Rouge every Friday since, just to mow and carefully edge his lawn, although the house is still uninhabitable. I’ve heard his kids are thinking about having him committed.) Anyway, some time before Christmas, Steve went to Home Depot and came back with a new weed eater (the previous one having gone to that great landfill in the sky). We took turns hacking at the Back Forty and the Front Forty (formerly known as the front and backyards), and after a day, had reduced them to about ankle height. We vowed to keep the grass short.

We didn’t.

We got a new lawn mover, but somehow with all the work on the house, the lawn kept getting left to the point that only a weed eater would cut it. Unfortunately, weed eaters are not designed to cut thigh-high Louisiana grass. We burned up not one, not two, but four weed eaters. We would gladly have paid someone to mow our lawn, but all the guys who used to mow lawns around here either lost their equipment in the flood or are working for FEMA earning big bucks. We have been known to chase pickup trucks with lawn mowers in the back down the street, begging them to come mow our lawn. Sometimes they even promised to come give us an estimate. They never do.

But this week, finally, finally, we had success. A young, surprisingly good-looking kid actually came and gave us an estimate, and promised to return over the weekend. We didn’t hold out much hope, but this morning, he showed up. HE CUT OUR LAWN. With a lawn mower. (We hacked at it with our latest weed eater just last week, so that was possible.)

After he left, we just stood and stared at it. Our lawn. Mowed (as opposed to Hacked). It’s amazing the simple things that can give you a thrill in our crazy, post-Katrina world.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Homeless and Hurting

A saw a picture the other day, of a line of dump trucks carrying debris from a ruined city.
Those trucks were in Lebanon, and the city they were clearing was destroyed by American-made explosives delivered by the Israeli army. It reminded me so much of the lines of dump trucks that carry debris from another ruined city—my city, New Orleans--that it touched a raw nerve.

So many people, homeless and hurting.

What I’m reading…

LIFE BEFOE LIFE: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives, by Jim Tucker, M.D. It sounds like some flaky New Age book, but it’s not. Tucker is part of a project at the University of Virginia Medical Center that for forty years has conducted research into young children’s reports of past-life memories. Never heard of it? Neither had I, although their reports have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

According to Tucker, children who report past-life memories typically begin speaking of them at about age 2 or 3. Investigating thousands of these cases, the U of V team has at times been able to track down the deceased individual these children remember. The children usually forget these past life experiences and their former families at around age 6 or 7. Of course, the interpretation is open to debate, but it makes fascinating reading.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Kirkus Gives WHEN GODS DIE a Starred Review

This week Kirkus reviewed my new book—When Gods Die—which is due to be released November 7. Kirkus is known for being snarky and tough, so even a ho-hum review is enough to make authors sigh with relief. I made up my mind a long time ago not to pay attention to good reviews, because if I believe the good ones, that means I have to believe the bad ones, which I don’t want to do. Still, good reviews are nice because they make publishers happy, and my publisher is very happy this week because Kirkus gave my new book a STARRED review (a star, as they say, is “assigned to books of unusual merit”).

Here’s an abridged version of the review:

“It’s a bad day for royalty when the Prince Regent is found in the Royal Pavilion clutching the dead body of the Marchioness of Anglessey.

“Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is willing to investigate only when Lord Jarvis, the power behind the throne, shows him an unusual necklace found around Guinevere Anglessey’s neck. Sebastian’s mother was wearing the necklace when she was lost in a boating accident years earlier.…With the help of his lover, an Irish actress and French spy who refuses to marry him; his young horse handler, a former thief; and his own contacts, Sebastian … realizes he has stumbled on a Stuart plot to overthrow the profligate, unpopular Regent. After several dangerous adventures, he solves the crime, thwarts the plot and discovers the truth about his mother’s disappearance.

“Like Georgette Heyer, Harris delves deep into the mores of Regency England, but hers is a darker, more dangerous place. St. Cyr is a charismatic hero whose future exploits are eagerly awaited.”

Pretty neat, huh?

What I’m listening to… FREAKONOMICS: A ROGUE ECONOMIST EXPLORES THE HIDDEN SIDE OF EVERYTHING, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. It’s a kick to listen to, full of all kinds of interesting little kernels of information. I’ve decided I prefer listening to nonfiction. When I listen to fiction, the pace is too slow and my mind has time to start analyzing—never a good thing when it comes to fiction. Instead of being swept up in the story, I find myself poking holes in the plot, analyzing the characters, and getting annoyed by clich├ęs and redundancies. I’ve enjoyed every nonfiction book I listened to and hated every novel (with the exception of one, which was abridged). Which is too bad, because it would be a good way to catch up on my “reading.”