Friday, September 30, 2005

The Winds Of Autumn

It’s always a bad sign when you wake up and your bedroom smells like the inside of a fireplace. Not an ashtray, mind you. A fireplace.

I switch on the TV and the first thing I hear is that the neighborhood next to mine is being evacuated. Hm. Not good.

For some reason, I don’t rush to get dressed. My only explanation for this is that I’m a native Californian. Wildfires happen more often than rainstorms. Or maybe I just don’t trust the media anymore.

Anyway, I decide to do a little reconnaissance mission of my own. As the garage door rolls up, I see the odd glow in the morning sky and the grey snowflakes fluttering to the ground. (Note to self: another reason not to wear white after Labor Day.)

By the time I get a half-mile from my house, a panorama of clouds and smoke obscure the rocky peaks I should be able to see. Still, like I say, I’m a veteran so I know fires are deceptive. What looks like it’s about to burn your house down can be miles and miles away.

When I get to my local grocery store, I pull into the parking lot. It’s then I notice flames on the hillside across the intersection. Now see, I interpret flames as indisputable proof the fire is close. Satisfied, I return to my house.

My next-door-neighbor is standing at the end of our cul-de-sac and I inform her you can see flames from Lindero and Kanan. She tells me she can see flames from where she’s standing. I suffer a moment of quiet embarrassment, as though I’ve let down native Californians everywhere for misjudging the distance.

While I video the fire, she disappears to pack up and another neighbor takes her place. Then a third woman emerges. This poor lady is totally freaking. Turns out, she’s been at UCLA Med Center all night where her husband is waiting for a friggin’ LUNG TRANSPLANT, so she hasn’t had time to pay attention to the fire. He’s scheduled to begin surgery in two hours and she doesn’t know if she should evacuate or get back to the hospital. We calm her down, help her to think rationally, and offer assistance. Oddly, the three of us agree we don’t care about the one thing people always take: namely, pictures. I venture the opinion it’s because we’re vain—we don’t want remembrances of when we were young and pretty. We laugh.

I go back inside, trying to decide whether to go to work or wait to be evacuated. In the process, I mull over what to take. My computer had crashed the night before so it’s already in the car anyway. I don’t have children so there are no precious photos that only I would have. Packing jewelry seems too materialistic. I settle for tossing a change of clothes in the car. In the event I can’t get home later, I don’t wanna have to shop in a dress and heels.

So, I take off for work, and I pass about ten giant bulldozers being ferried into my neighborhood from the opposite direction. Fire trucks stalk the cul-de-sacs nearest the hillside, taking up defensive positions. Low-flying helicopters plot, plan, and map ahead of the advancing flames.

Some might find these sights alarming—but remember, I’m no rookie. If you wanna see bureaucracy work for a change, check out the way a California wildfire is fought.

At the office, I keep an eye on the constant coverage being provided by local TV news. Once in a while, based on their reports, I almost jump in my car to go home, but then I call my friend Shari who lives closer to the fire than I do, and she assures me she hasn’t been evacuated.

I talk with my parents who live fifteen miles from me on the east flank of the fire. They’ve been on voluntary evacuation alert since having received an recorded phone call at two in the morning. (How cool is that?)

At the end of the day, I trot on home and find things have quieted down in my neck of the woods. No more flames. Fewer fire trucks. A lot less smoke. Turns out the onshore winds have kicked up, sending the fire back against itself which is lucky for me, unlucky for the eastern flank. At six-thirty, I hear on the news that residents in the western half of my parents’ neighborhood have been told to GET OUT NOW. But an hour later, the order is rescinded.

The only thing predictable about wild fires is their unpredictability.

P.S. Cool picture, huh? Snapped it on the way to work.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Only in L.A….and probably NY, Chicago…

What’s a person gotta do to get a good concert seat in this town?

Last week, I learned paying beaucoup bucks on Ebay isn’t the answer. See, as a birthday present to myself, I bought a FRONT ROW ticket to see Luis Miguel at the Universal Amphitheater. Only, when I arrived, it was not the “front row seat” of my dreams. Oh, sure. It was in the front row of the PERMANENT seats. But there was a wide aisle plus eight rows of FOLDING CHAIRS in FRONT of my FRONT ROW seat.

How many ways did this suck? Let me count them for you.

1. Constant traffic passing to and fro. (Where are these people going? Why are they so busy? Didn’t they pay money to see a concert too?) Na├»ve me. I truly thought by buying a FRONT ROW seat, I’d be er, close to the friggin’ STAGE, not at the edge of the cattle pen.

2. After a rousing opener, Luis slowed things down with about twenty minutes of ballads which he chose to sing from a seated position onstage. Better to bond with the FRONT ROWS, I guess. Me? I had to watch the big screen TV in order to see anything at all. (Did I mention I spent an obscene amount of money for this seat???)

3. My seat was also an aisle seat, and because I was in the FRONT ROW, a security guard was stationed inches away to prevent the hoi polloi from rubbing elbows with the elite. He stood, squatted, stood, squatted, stood, squatted…sometimes having lengthy conversations with scantily clad tartlets trying to brazen their way closer to the stage. Can you spell d-i-s-t-r-a-c-t-I-o-n??

Grrrrr. Never again. Lesson learned.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Let's Play "Name That Wine Region"

Napa? Nope.

Tuscany? Tsk tsk.

Guadeloupe Valley? Gold stars for you!

Yep, Mexico has it’s very own wine country about 20 miles northeast of Ensenada. You reach it by turning away from the ocean onto the Ruta de Vino (also known as Highway No. 3) and traveling inland. Along the way, “vinacolas” (vineyards) are clearly marked, but be prepared to pull off onto the shoulder to let the constant big-rigs pass on this narrow, two-lane road sometimes bordered by steep cliffs. Then, once you leave the main road, it’s a long, dusty haul to your destination. This wouldn’t be so bad, but if you’re suffering the aftereffects of the previous night in Ensenada…well, you get my drift.

Because of said aftereffects, we arrived in the valley late—which means after noon (most of the public tours and tastings shut down around 1:00 p.m.) and ended up at L.A. Cetto (pronounced shetto). Turns out these Italian settlers have been brewing up the vino since 1926, and they’ve got a pretty decent international reputation. In fact, much of Mexico’s wine (85% is produced in the Guadeloupe Valley) is beginning to get a good name. A couple of barriers have worked against them: 1) an indigenous culture who, when they drink at all, are more focused on tequila (I can hardly blame them); and 2) barriers to exporting. Apparently, that’s why the new push to spruce up the valley as a tourist destination.

When we arrived at L.A. Cetto, we went (where else?) straight to the tasting room. Unfortunately, it was clogged with tourists (predominantly Mexican), and short of knocking over sweet little old ladies and small children, we couldn’t edge our way to the bar. Although most Mexicans speak English way better than I speak Spanish, I kept getting misinformation about how the place “worked.” At one point, we traipsed after a tour, only to discover it was the “tour en Espagnol”. Thank goodness we figured it out--I can’t think of anything less fascinating than hearing how wine is made in a language I don’t understand. Then, while tracking down the “tour en Inglese,” we realized the tasting room had cleared out, so we ditched the tour idea and made a beeline for the bar.

An adorable, young Italian-looking man served us. I’m ashamed to admit the writer in me didn’t get his name, but I could swear he was a descendant of the original guy from Italy. Anyway, he oozed charm and even brought out “the big guns,” prefacing the presentation with, “I’m not supposed to do this, but I thought you’d like…” (fill in the exotic grape). I’m no wine connoisseur (can’t even spell it without spellcheck) but I liked what I tried, so I bought a bottle of Nebbiolo. When I Googled the word, I learned nebbiolo is a very closely held grape from Italy, and that few countries grow it successfully because it’s sort of the diva of wine grapes. Can’t wait to see if it’s as good as I remember!

Sigh. So many vineyards, so little time. We didn’t even scratch the surface. Plus, there are a couple of highly recommended restaurants to try.

Oh, well. Maybe next trip.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Man + Boat + Foreign Country = Opportunity for Single Ladies

As a public service to Southern California’s unattached females, I offer the following advice: get thee to the Hotel Coral y Marina in Ensenada, Mexico. Here’s why:

Buying an expensive boat involves a hefty luxury tax but, as usual, Uncle Sam has left a loophole. In this case, if you take possession offshore and dock it in a foreign country for a year (the law just changed—it WAS 90 days), you get to skip the tax.

The downside is that you have to visit your newly purchased pride and joy. Sorta like a weekend custody arrangement.

The result is a bonanza for hotel guests of the female (and single) persuasion. Nothing but rich guys visiting their boats! Now, when it comes to their marital status, you’re on your own--I can’t vouch for whether they’ve slipped that ring to another finger or stashed it with the life preservers--but it’s worth investigating.

View from hotel looking south (morning)

View from hotel looking north (afternoon)

(Sorry for the poor quality pix; I’m too lazy to buy a digital camera so these are off my cell phone—can’t seem to find a setting that prevents the mushroom cloud in the background.)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Let’s get one thing straight. This is NOT a milestone birthday!

But you wouldn’t have known it, judging by the way my office looked this morning. The girl pictured at right is the guilty party. You know the type: 22-years old, tiny, gorgeous, and DECEPTIVELY sweet?

Here are a few pix of her decorating prowess.

Okay, Jovonna. Paybacks are a bitch. Your day will come. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


That’s what I have to say about the editing process.

For each blessed word sent to the crapper, I think: “If it’s expendable now, why’d it seem necessary the first time around? The second? The third?”

Trust me. As a writer, this is a humbling experience.

Here’s my Progress Report:

Manuscript page reduction: From 385 pages to 320
Word count reduction: From 96,250 to 80,000

You do the math.

Never mind, I’ll do it for you. I still need to find 40 pages to chop. Are you thinking what I am? That in its previous form, this manuscript must have sucked??

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The First Cut Is The Deepest....

So, as reported, I got a request from a publisher who shall remain nameless.

I knew when I queried them, my manuscript was longer than they allow. I also knew they don’t permit graphic sex scenes. No problem—I could use the extra word count, plus, as my dad said, “You mean I’ll be able to read it?” Yeah, bonus.

Anyway, so this weekend I started hacking. First off, I realized my book was 10,000 words longer than I’d remembered. For you nonwriters, that translates to forty manuscript pages. Bottom line, I needed to cut about 100 pages, or a fourth of the book. A lot more than I’d anticipated.

I thought yeah, right. Impossible.

Then I got a tip from a writing partner. Get rid of instances where a line on the page contains only one or two words. Likewise, when a page contains the last couple sentences of a chapter. So I’ve been going over the manuscript, paragraph by paragraph, and guess what? I’ve lopped off about a “page” or two per chapter. At this point, I’m guessing that by the time I finish this part of the process, I’ll have reduced the manuscript by fifty pages.

So where am I gonna find the other fifty?

Should I even try? Part of me says: If the story you wanted to tell took 400 pages, so be it. At 300 pages, it’s not the same story.

Maybe so. Maybe that’s a lesson I need to learn.

What scares me even more is how poorly I’d edited this manuscript to begin with. I mean, I truly thought I’d polished it to a sheen. And as I’ve gone over each paragraph with a fine tooth comb, looking to see what I could cut, I’ve found dozens of unnecessary words, repeated concepts, banal conversation…yikes.

So even if this submission disappears into that vast wasteland of publishing house limbo, my writing will have improved.

That’s the important thing to remember during this agonizing process.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Another Katrina Screw-Up

I hear that viewers of last Friday’s Price Is Right rerun got quite a shock when the showcase featured an all-expenses paid vacation to...New Orleans.

Now, really. Come on, guys. Can’t you do better than that?

Way back when, during a previous life, I managed the commercial advertising for The Richard Simmons show which we syndicated to something like two hundred stations across the country. We made our money by retaining 2-1/2 minutes of commercial time and shipping the show with the spots built-in.

Anyway, I came back to work after the Thanksgiving weekend on which Natalie Wood had died and thought, damn. We’ve got one of her Noxema commercials running for the next four weeks. Worse, in the spot, Natalie said something charming like, “I’ll never use another moisturizer again.”

You see my dilemma.

Well, in those days, we didn’t have fax machines or email, for God’s sake. So I spent a couple hours on the phone reading the physical addresses of all two hundred stations to Western frickin’ Union to send (you guessed it) TELEGRAMS (remember those?) with instructions to substitute whatever the hell the program director wanted. Just DON’T RUN NATALIE.

So, I’m thinking if I was able to spare the viewing public Natalie’s fateful words, couldn’t someone have pulled the plug on a Price Is Right rerun??

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Remembering September

I can still see this time of year through a child’s eyes. For me, growing up, the month of September was about clean slates and everything new.

New school clothes.
New classroom.
New teacher.
New schoolbooks.
New friends.
New desk uncluttered (yet) with my debris.
New doodle-free notebook with fresh lined paper just waiting for my wisdom.
New opportunities.

Yes, I loved everything about September.

I loved the thrill of anticipating the unknown.

Now the unknown just scares me. Now September is just about managing to get another year older without having found Mr. Right. To make matters worse, this particular September, I have to renew my driver’s license. Yep, I’m finally gonna have to carry around picture I.D. on which I look my age. (By the way, should I cut my hair? Leave it long?)

Anyway, I think one of the reasons I started writing was to give myself an unknown that could simulate the thrill of September all year long.

With a couple submissions floating around at various agencies and publishing houses, there’s a chance something GOOD will happen.

So, the above thoughts flitted through my mind during my drive home from the gym tonight. I pulled in the garage, then went to the mailbox. The first letter I saw bore the unmistakable look of the reply envelopes I use for submissions.

Guess what? Based on seeing three chapters and a synopsis, a publisher has requested the FULL manuscript of FIT FOR LOVE!!!!.

Ah, yes. I LOVE September.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Life As A Plotter--Progress Report

Along with forgetting what my goals are, I don’t keep track of my writing progress. If it weren’t for my blog, I wouldn’t even know when I started my latest WIP, and I don’t have a clue how fast or slow I’m progressing. Which is a shame, because it would be nice to know whether my efforts at plotting beforehand are bearing fruit. Something tells me they are.

I’m here to say I’ve witnessed one advantage right off the bat. Usually when I finish a scene (let alone a chapter), there’s this huge writing lull afterward while I flounder around figuring out what should happen next. By contrast, I closed chapter four yesterday and wrote two-and-a-half pages of chapter five today, so there’s a good sign, right?

On the other hand, I ran into a highly dramatic scene in chapter four, and since I usually write stuff that’s pretty light and fluffy, that slowed me down. Still, I’m kinda jazzed that a difficult scene comes so early in the book—maybe another good sign that I’ve got more tension going on than usual.

Some writers don’t like to plot beforehand—they say it ruins the surprises along the way, and that if they know where they’re going, they get bored by the journey. Not me. What I can’t stand is finishing page thirty-five, seeing that vast gaping hole between me and the finish line, and wondering how the hell I’m gonna fill up 350 more pages.

Which brings me to the current WIP. Remember I wrote an outline that I liked? So far, it’s working. And, rather than getting bored by knowing what happens, I’m anxious to tell the story. Another good sign, n’est-ce pas?

Plus, I’m at that point in writing manuscripts (3 down and counting) that I’m far less worried about whether what I’m working on is marketable, aligned with the rules, or anything else. I like the story, period.

Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. ‘Cuz that’s when you sell for sure, right?

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Pink Index Card

...or why it’s good to write things down.

When I see entire workshops devoted to ‘goal setting,’ I shake my head and think what’s the big deal? You set a goal, you strive to achieve it, and bingo—you either succeed or fail. Plain and simple. Why overanalyze? Why turn goal setting into some mysterious ritual full of hocus pocus psychobabble?

So, at the RWA National conference in Reno this past July, we arrived at one of our lunches to find pink index cards on the table. Enough for each of us. Turns out they’re the bright idea of multi-published author Debbie Macomber, our speaker that day. She instructed us to take the pink cards home and use them to write down five writing-related goals for the coming year. Then she called out the names of several authors in the audience who stood and waved their pink cards triumphantly. Recipients of Debbie’s advice in workshops past, they’d followed her advice and achieved their goals.

Well, I may not believe in hocus pocus, but I’m all about being superstitious. So, I toted that pink index card home (mindful that just any ol’ index card wouldn’t do—it had to be the one I got in Reno) and wrote down five goals. The first two were long-term best case scenario kinda things, and the others were stepping stones.

By the end of August, I had started to believe in the magic of the pink index card. Instead of my usual half-assed effort, I’d methodically mailed out several submissions—to agents, editors and contests. Feeling smug, I dug out my pink index card to mentally tick off what I’d accomplished.

Guess what I discovered?

I hadn’t remembered them correctly. I hadn’t even completed one of the stepping stones which, trust me, were quite do-able. This, after even writing them down!

So, it just goes to show you that 1) it’s not enough to store your goals in your head, and 2) it’s not enough to write them down.

I’m tacking that little pink card on the wall next to my computer.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


In the moments immediately following the disaster that struck Southern California on January 17, 1994, my first thoughts centered on my personal safety. That’s okay. Self-preservation is the bottom rung on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I knew instantly we’d had an earthquake because I’d been through them before. None had included the sound of glass breaking, eerie flashes of light, nor instant loss of power and phones.

So, when all the noise and the shaking stopped,and I stood in the doorframe waiting for the next big jolt, my thoughts turned to guessing where, logistically, I fit in. Was I directly over the epicenter? If so, good. I had experienced the worst of it, and I was fine.

But, what if the epicenter were ten miles away? Thirty miles away? Hundreds of miles away? If so, a lot of people were in deep, deep trouble.

Without electricity and phones, there was no way to know.

I longed to get in my car and drive to my parents, but what if the freeways had collapsed? There was no way to know.

In a relatively short time, the phones were restored in my neighborhood. My niece called from Maryland and held the phone up to the TV so I could hear what CNN was reporting. Only then was I able to gain some perspective. As awful as the news was, I knew we hadn’t suffered “The Big One.” But I also knew that what had happened didn’t just happen to my house, my block, or even my neighborhood. An entire metropolitan area had been effected.

My point is, as I watch the coverage of the horrific disaster on the Gulf Coast, and witness the overwhelming anger, disappointment and abandonment the victims feel, I have to remind myself they have no perspective. Without electrical power, phones—without modern communication—they have no concept of how vast the destruction is, nor how complex the relief effort must be. The people trapped in the convention center believe they’re at the epicenter; the thousands in the Superdome believe they are; and likewise the citizens of Gulfport and the people trapped in attics. All believe they've been forgotten. The only thing they know for sure is that they haven’t eaten, they have no water, and no one is coming to help.

I have less compassion for those who know what the score is but are focused on blame. As in, the police aren’t doing enough...the Mayor’s not doing enough...the President’s not doing enough...the government’s not doing enough.

Maybe we’ve become a culture who too readily expects to be taken care of. Maybe we’ve bred a generation of citizens accustomed to being bailed out. Maybe we’ve come to believe that government officials, like doctors, are gods who can fix anything.

They’re people, after all. People doing their best in a calamity of unprecedented proportions.

Thoughts on Katrina

Click here to read Peggy Noonan's thoughtful essay.