Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Home Food

This morning's New York Times carried a story about pizza in Brooklyn, available for $5 a slice. And people are lining up. My favorite line, which must resonate with others because my friend Leslie also picked it up:

“Worth it,” said Mr. Mancino, 64, between bites on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s like they dug up my grandma and she made the pie.”

My brother and sister and I feel that way about the fried chicken at Two Sisters' in Jackson, Mississippi. If you've never been, and you long for food cooked the way it used to be, check it out if you find yourself in Jackson. Fried chicken, homemade rolls, all kinds of what my Yankee husband once insulted as "brown vegetables" (butter beans, field peas, etc.), and peach cobbler for dessert. At least that's what I remember from our last visit. And every time we go, my siblings and I think our childhood cook must have swooped down from Heaven and is back there frying the chicken.

So I totally get it about the $5 slice of pizza at Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn.

And while I'm on food and The New York Times. Here's an article about hamburgers by one of my favorite Southerners, writer John T. Edge, in yesterday's paper. Love his books about food. (See my review of Donuts.) All you ever wanted to know, but probably really don't need to know, about the subject. He's also covered hamburgers and fried chicken, in great depth, with humor. Surely the only way to write about something so bad for you that tastes that good, on occasion.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Typing Skills

I loved the interview with Pat Conroy in the new, August issue of Southern Living. I learned he writes in longhand because his dad made him drop out of typing classes. Conroy knew he wanted to be a writer and realized typing would help. His dad had other ideas. Fighter pilot, for example. Where he'd have sergeants to type for him.

I, on the other hand, am a fast, (mostly) competent two-handed typist because I learned in 8th grade typing class and followed up with a high school class which enabled me to charge my fellow college classmates for typing their research papers (especially boys, whose fathers probably also thought typing was an unnecessary skill).

Did you know you can type more than 3,000 words with your left hand? And only 300 with the right hand alone? That's assuming you use the correct finger position, of course. Think about words like "exaggerate" and "stewardesses." Why is this? Early typists were so fast they jammed their machines, so in the 1870s, frequently-used letters like A, T, and N were separated on the keyboard.

Now you know.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Book Reviewing

Reading books, then writing about them, seems like a perfect gig, right? Opening a new book with great expectation and anticipation, a story no one else has insisted You Must Read This and then proceeded to tell me what happens- All good. But there's a lot of responsibility in this newness. And then there's the pulling together of the review. You know a lot of really accomplished writers are going to see it, and you don't want to get it wrong. Apostrophes count. Just recently someone commented on something I'd written and cautioned me to watch for typos. Typos? Me? I'm the original line editor. What I think he meant was my propensity to leave out commas in short compound sentences. I do that occasionally and I know I do it (like that).

Is that so wrong? Well, I guess not, as long as I realize what I'm doing and do it intentionally. That's my story anyhow.

Check out Barbara O'Connor's recent blog posts (scroll past the hilarious antics of her new puppy Ruby...) to see how even the most experienced writer anguishes over her latest manuscript edits. Or at least that's what accomplished writers should do. There's nothing worse than reading a book filled with grammar and puncutation mistakes. I know. I've been sent books, albeit just galleys, so filled with errors that I wonder how they could ever fix them for the actual book.

But back to my reading and writing about books. Today's Christian Science Monitor featured my review of Rebecca Stead's book When You Reach Me. That was one hard book to review! I didn't want to give too much away because the story is complicated and hinges on events that take place early in the writing but later in the story. Aha, see that right there makes no sense when I write it. You just have to read the book. It was a terrific book, well-written and accomplished and unusual. And I loved reading it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Quote from Darcy Pattison's book, Novel Metamorphosis.
(The book was recommended last weekend at a terrific revision workshop.)

"I can't write five words but that I change seven."
Dorothy Parker

Woe is me. Whoops.

Woe is I.

Woe am I.

See what I mean? You could make yourself crazy like this. And I thought I was The Grammar Queen.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Another Favorite Place

New Orleans and Memphis were the cities of my childhood. Memphis for the Christmas parade, shopping at Goldsmith's for Easter outfits, and the occasional Cultural Event my mother thought we needed. New Orleans, on the other hand, was where we went to have fun, even as teenagers. Or younger, if truth be told.

So today I opened The House on First Street by Julia Reed. She grew up, as I did, in the Mississippi Delta, and her memories of trips to New Orleans could well have been mine. The Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel was legend in our house. Our dad had gone to Tulane and loved everything about the city, especially dancing at the Blue Room. Like Julia Reed, we always stayed at the Monteleone and ate our oysters at Felix's. And I have my own Cafe du Monde late night beignet story, never to be shared. Never. With anyone. Unless one day I write about New Orleans. For now, I'm content to read abou it.

We used to be what Reed calls "regular out-of-towners," visiting often. Sadly, our trips have all but disappeared, but reading her book makes me long for dinner at Commanders or Upperline, or even alligator gumbo at Coop's. Ah, that was the life...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Grandmother's Quilt- What's in Your Attic?

Since my workshop weekend, I've been thinking a lot about closets, attics, and family relics. When Lita Judge talked about finding the dusty box filled with foot tracings, saved all those years, relics of her grandmother's relief efforts during World War II, I started thinking about my own grandmother. She loved to show us a metal box containing "important papers." What was in the box? The pardon her grandfather received from President Andrew Johnson so that he could own land and vote, a pardon for fighting in the Civil War (AKA to Southern school children of a previous era or perhaps still - The War Between the States). Also among her precious possessions- several Confederate dollars. I'm not sure what she thought she'd do with these, but to a child, they were fascinating.

I was also fascinated with her yo-yo quilt. Small circles pieced together to make a random pattern of vibrant colors. She taught me to sew those little circles. I taught my own daughter, and we even got so far as the doll quilt size. I still have my leftover circles, and my grandmother's. Yesterday's mail brought the new LL Bean catalog and guess what you can order? A yo-yo quilt, just like my grandmother's. Only my grandmother's is much prettier. Here's the pillow from the Bean's catalog:

At our SCBWI conference, Lita Judge also talked about discovering her story Pennies for Elephants while pouring through microfilm at the library. I spent a lot of time helping people search through that antiquated format in my days as a reference librarian, and I don't remember ever seeing a story like this one. But now, if I ever see an old newspaper with a large photograph of an elephant, I'll stop and read that microfilm for sure.

Great discoveries can be made in the most unexpected places.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

SCBWI, post 3, the Agents

This year's event featured three agents, all talking about the market. In addition to the two panels who also talked about selling/ marketing their books, two editors, and Harold Underdown. I guess this speaks to what writers want from a conference like this. When one of the presenters asked for a show of hands from anyone who had an agent, about 4 people put their hands up. OK, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but still. I think there were well over 100 SCBWI members there. Probably more. So there you are.

Josh Adams, in case you've been under a rock these past few years, operates Adams Literary with his wife Tracey. They're based in North Carolina and everybody loves them. Now I see why. His presentation was terrific. "Agent Secrets" was a quick lesson in agent basics, followed by some really good advice: Don't follow trends! (exclamation point intended) First of all, as we know, it's a lagging indication of what's really happening, 1-3 years out. In their more literary subs, Adams Literary looks for a timeless quality. And you need to grab him early and follow through on that promise. What do they want? Well, of course, Award winners and bestsellers. But also a beautifully crafted story, with real voice and an emotional empact. (I took a lot of notes, condensed here. Hey, it's a blog. If you want more, let me know.)

Harold Underdown also spoke to the larger group as Sunday's keynote speaker: "The Economy and Children's Publishing." Trying to inject a note of lightness into things, he presented the glass-half-full and the glass-half-empty views. "Flat is the new up," for kids' book sales.

The last presenter was Sean McCarthy from Sheldon Fogelman Agency. He advised us about how to build a career in publishing. Well, that was his topic. He told us a lot of things. He was funny and interesting and full of info. Great presentation. A few things to ponder: Don't write for the market if it goes against your heart, but you may need to adjust expectations. If you are debating what to go with, if you have more than one idea- think about what will be marketable. You have to read everything new, not just what speaks to you or what you read in your childhood! (Shoot, no more Nancy Drew books for me...) He likes the Pigeon Books, picture books whose characters drive the story. Rhyming picture books are truly hard to do, so beware. The magic is gone if there is just one bad rhyme. He loves adventurous middle grade, especially boys in the younger part of this group, maybe 8-9 year-olds. I have many many notes from Sean's presentation, so if you're interested in details, feel free to email me. He's actively looking for clients.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


This year's keynote address was given by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Of Shiloh fame. And the Alice books. And her newest, which Coe Booth told her breakout session yesterday was one of the best examples of "voice" she's read in a while. So I must put Faith, Hope and Ivy June on my reading list. Phyllis talked to us about how her life has played out in her novels. How despite being an ordinary mid-westerner with an ordinary family of teachers, preachers and salesmen, with nobody in jail and no family photos in Life Magazine, she still manages to draw on her life for her stories. How Shiloh finally came together for her when she adopted her Mississippi relatives' dialect to tell the story. As Willa Cather says: Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.
But a problem with writing what we know so well? We assume the readers know it also. Readers need to see the history hidden in a writer's brain.

On Saturday we'd met the Longstockings. After listening to these young women, everyone at my table wanted to be in their group. Writing dates, group retreats, meeting for coffee at all hours, critiquing and supporting each other's work. Who wouldn't want to be in that group.
They talked about how to make a critique group work- techniques learned and adapted from their classes at The New School. The most important part of their technique? The writer says what she is looking for whether it's just a "keep going" for a first draft or some serious slicing to get a manuscript ready for an editor. My favorite line from the panel? When you are "in the box" (ie it's your turn to have your work critiqued by the group), you can't talk. You can't elaborate. You can't defend. After all, said one member, "You're not going to be able to go to a reader's house and explain what you mean." Their rule of feedback is give it a couple of days and think about it before changing or reacting to a critique. Great advice.

On Sunday, we heard a different panel: the Class of 2k9 talked about Group Marketing. In case you haven't heard, this Class of whatever has become a great marketing tool. Maybe it just started in 2007- But for the past few years, groups of debut YA and Mid-grade writers have banded together to speak, sell, do school visits, hire publicists. These writers live all over the country and meet via a Yahoo group, but as they talked about their books and the group, there was no doubt that this is a great tool. I was writing as fast as I could to get some of the new titles on my list. Again, everyone at my table wanted to join.

Monday, July 20, 2009

SCBWI Instant Replay

Well, maybe not completely instant. There was so much going on this weekend at McDaniel College in Westminster, MD, that it may take a few postings to get it all in. Another really well-done two days by my friend Mona Kerby and her band of hard workers.

Right off the bat, Mona told us we'd better listen up because there was a lot to take home. Three agents, two panels of writers, two editors, lots of workshops to polish our craft.

I'm going to start with the first breakout session I attended. The Longstockings are a group of bloggers who met at The New School MFA program and have now all published their first (and second, and on to great things!) books. I love their blog and was intrigued with Coe Booth's workshop: Keepin' It Real: Creating Characters that Connect with Readers. Tons of good advice, including a whole new way to start anew! Stop rewriting and editing every single page as you go along. When you finish a chapter, go back one time and correct. Then print it and put it in a binder. After that, everything you think needs changing, add stickie notes to the printed pages in your binder. After you finish the entire manuscript, go back and make the changes. After! Wow, what a novel idea. Maybe I could actually write another story if I could stop myself from endless editing.

Coe also gave us some good ways to think about characters. Look to real people. Write down how they talk, how they move. Remember the books you read as a child and why they moved you. Reread them. Put those emotions into your characters. She thinks it's the characters who move the plot along. As you discover who the character is, you determine the plot.

That morning we'd already heard from Patrick Collins, Creative Director, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Fascinating presentation about exactly what goes into putting a book together. Loved all the book jacket choices. (I'm putting Katie Loves the Kittens on my shopping list today! I'm a pushover for dogs with this much personality.)

And I always learn from what an editor and a writer have to say about working with each other. Lita Judge's books are truly labors of love. She shared stories of how she happens upon research, finds boxes in her attic, puts her background as a scientist to work. I appreciated her comments about her book 1000 Tracings, about how difficult it is to write about family. Her editor Namrata Tripathi (Atheneum Books) seems like a joy to work with. In case you're interested, she likes young, bold picture books and older fiction with a unique voice and diverse characters.

Stay tuned tomorrow. I'll post about Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's keynote speech and the Longstocking panel, among other goodies.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Last year I attended the SCBWI event at McDaniel College and loved every minute. This year I'm going back. So I've been reading a book or two by some of the presenters. How did I miss The Thing About Georgie when it first came out. Just absolutely the best depiction of a child with a special situation (OK, he's a dwarf in case you, like me, had been under a rock when the book was being reviewed and talked about) I've ever read.
The book has such kid appeal, is so funny, so readable. All good. Can't wait to hear what Lisa Graff and her band of Longstockings (that's a writing gang, in case you have't heard) have to say this weekend. Stay tuned for extensive blogging about the workshops.

Monday, July 13, 2009

SIBA Awards

Yet another list of award-winners! This one's from the Southern Independent Booksellers. Ron Rash's Serena is their top fiction pick. Lots of categories to choose from, including Children's Books, which this year was won by Kirby Larson's The Two Bobbies. And a Young Adult book by Kristin Cashore, Graceling.

The past winners-- it's the award's 10th anniversary-- are also worth a look.

Here's what the group says about their lists:

The SIBA Book awards were created, not just to recognize great Southern books, but to give southern readers an enviable list of books to enjoy, read, buy, and give as gifts. As of this time, the SIBA Book Award remains one of the most far-reaching and high-profile awards for Southern literature.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

You Didn't Mess With Flannery..

Over on the Southern writers blog I'm a part of, the question of the month is about inspiration. Now I don't know many of these writers I share that blog with, but frequently when I stop by, I find somebody new I'd like to read more of.

The July 9th post by Man Martin is filled with much food for thought. And some funny quotes and stories about famous writers and exactly what they thought about inspiration. Click on over there to read his whole post. My favorite?

Flannery O’Connor would sit on her front porch tapping away at her manual typewriter several hours every morning. If someone came during her writing time, she would just ignore him. He would be able to see her there, just behind the screen, but though he knocked and pounded and shouted, “Yoo-hoo, Flannery!” she would just keep typing.

You think if I could just ignore the world, the birds (she kept peacocks for Goodness sakes!), the distractions, I could write even one short story like O'Connor dreamed up?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Quote for the Day

"This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again." --Oscar Wilde
(I seem to do a lot of this.)

If you want to read a few more writing quotes, and some fun things about books, click on over to Danette Haworth's blog. She's compiled a list of quotes that just might cheer you up if you're putting in commas and taking them out today.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Weather

If you're writing about the South, the weather will probably be a character. I bet I could pick up any book on my shelf, especially the ones written by southerners, and open it to a weather reference. I'll try that.

James Lee Burke:
"The wind was blowing hard, and the royal palms out on the boulevard thrashed and twisted against a perfect blue sky."
"The sun looked broken and red on the horizon..."

Barbara O'Connor:
"..Randall could see the steamy heat rising up off the street in waves. The asphalt basketball court behind the school would be even hotter."

See, easy as pie. I could go on forever quoting weather descriptions.

So I've been thinking about the heat. And late afternoon thunderstorms. This morning I saw a maybe-10-year-old running calmly, a happy jog, down my street in Florida. I can barely walk down the street, even at 9 AM. So what is it that makes children so much more tolerant of the heat?

When I was growing up in Mississippi, we were required to nap on most summer days. Until we were almost teenagers. That didn't really mean sleep. Just quiet indoor time in the middle of the day. Most dads I knew came home from work for "dinner"- a huge noon meal- then promptly took a siesta before returning to work. Meanwhile, the kids kept quiet, read books, played cards under the ceiling fan. One thing I don't remember is complaining about the heat. I do that a lot now.

My writer friend Lee Hilton recently moved back to Texas. (You may be able to click that link and read some of her essays if you have access to the New York Times archives.) Today she reports in on the weather:
The average number of 100° days in Austin is 11. As of July 7th, 2009, Austin has had twenty-two 100° or hotter days.

Was it just not that hot in my childhood? Has air-conditioning spoiled us all? I can't imagine playing hopscotch outside now, but I know I spent a lot of time at the Fireman's Park in Cleveland, MS, when the slides were so hot they burned your legs. Then again, there was that shady pavilion at the Park. Maybe we just stayed under there, or rested under fig trees to ward off the heat. I know I didn't sit inside with the AC blasting. Kind of makes me want to go outside and find a shady spot to write in. Wait, it's 95 out there. Never mind.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How Soon is Too Soon?

That's what literary agent Janet Reid explores over at her blog. Click here to read and don't miss the comments. Many comments. Seems to me that this is very good advice Ms. Reid is giving. But very hard to follow?

Thanks to the Longstockings blog for leading me to "How Soon is Too Soon?"- While you're over there, check out today's Longstocking post also. Everybody's talking about Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column recommending Kids' Books. Blech. But at least he mea culpaed on his blog today. Kind of.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I'm holding on to this one. It sounds like an interesting tidbit that a character in a kids' book might just love to know:

Shortly after noon on July 8, check your clocks and calendars:

12:34:56 7/8/9.

PS And Check out this article with even more goodies about this date. Thanks, Susan!

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
H. L. Mencken

And who has more imagination than a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old playing with flowers and water?

Recipe for Fairy Soup
Take your sand pail, fresh from the July 4th beach fireworks. Fill with water. Add rosemary, lavender, scented geranium, and a few red rose pedals for color. Stir with a wooden spoon. Leave outside for the fairies to enjoy.

Garnish with a tiny coconut and a few sticks to help the fairies break the shell to drink the milk.

Wait till morning to see if the fairies came.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On Being Southern

For those of you out there in Mississippi Magazine's distribution area- (sorry, it's not online, you'll have to actually go someplace and buy one, visit your library, or subscribe)- Check out my back page essay in the On Being Southern column this month. Remember gliders? That's my topic. And if you think gliders might be a cousin to sliders, or something related to ice skating? Ours was green and sat on the front porch...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What to Read Now?

All you need is the latest issue of Newsweek. Talk about a list! 50 books. I'm not telling how many I've read but I'll keep the list handy because there are quite a few I've wanted to read.

Then there's another list! Best Books Ever, divided into categories. Hmm. A tad random. Chosen by writer/ quasi-celebrities. Sort of. Still, intriguing.

I'd almost let my subscription lapse and now I'd glad I didn't. My cover pictures a book, a real one, and the simple words What To Read Now. Oh, and those are book spines in the background, I do believe. Nice.

Speaking of covers, I loved the feature My Favorite Covers. These are really good. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Yep, I agree. Twilight- another winner of a book jacket. There are five others pictured. Especially good- a book I haven't read and don't even remember seeing, but very cool: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I think you need to buy the magazine to see them though.

Oh and I forgot! The interviews with writers, including Elizabeth Stout, Lawrence Block, Susan Orlean. And I think there's a podcast you can download. Too many riches!

Don't be misled by the picture of Michael Jackson on the cover. Two covers for this issue. One for subscribers (the book thing), the other for the newsstand (Jackson). Both go with the July 13th issue.