Monday, September 01, 2014

Diary of a Deadline - 35 Days

Sometimes I get asked why I don't give out a lot of writing advice like many other seasoned (and not-so-seasoned) writers. The thing is, I do, especially when asked privately or when speaking to writers' groups. I just don't make a big habit of offering it up in my blog, and most of what fledgling writers need to know about character development and plot has already been said by others.

But what does it feel like to be staring down the barrel of a book deadline? Something I do a couple times a year.

Writing on deadline is like trying to be witty and articulate at gunpoint, while trying not to pee your pants.
That's what it feels like.

So I've decided to chronicle the ups and downs of the next 35days while I complete my 10th Odelia Grey novel that has a working title of JUNK IN THE TRUNK. It will be the 20th novel I have written and doesn't take into account the short stories I have also penned. Twenty novels, almost all of them written in the past 10-12 years while holding down a full-time day job.

I hope that Diary of a Deadline will give readers a taste of what it is like if you want to be a prolific writer and don't have the people or the cash to hire others to help you with the day to day stuff of life while you're trying to be creative on demand.

I've never been good at keeping a diary or journal, but I'm going to give it my best shot.

35 Days To Go 

It's the Monday of Labor Day Weekend and I don't have to work at the law firm. I have a load of laundry in the washer. Another load is waiting to go in and I'm writing between cycles. Where did this 3-day long weekend go? I wrote most of it, even cancelling out of a party on Sunday because I was in THE ZONE, and, trust me, you don't mess with THE ZONE.

Cats are fed. Cat box cleaned. Shit, I haven't even had my coffee yet. It's only 8:21 am and I feel like I've been up for hours.

The rest of my day went pretty much the same. I would write. Do a chore. Write. Do another small chore. But it wasn't all writing and chores. I read for about an hour and watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, Season 1, while eating an early supper. I've never seen this show before and found it amazing. If I didn't have a book on deadline, I would have sat on the sofa and done a marathon.  Because I got so much writing done, later I watched American Ninja Warrior without a bit of guilt. I had enough food in the fridge to eat leftovers instead of cooking.

And how did the writing go?

I managed to get just shy of 6,000 words on the page today and I'm pleased with almost all of it. The book is just about half done at this stage.

I must confess, I am a fast writer, and I write better under pressure. I try not to over think words and sentences. I knew exactly what today's focus was going to be in the book, even though I don't outline. I saw it in my head and transcribed it to the page as it played out in my brain. This doesn't mean I don't go back and edit, I do. But I tend to do rolling edits.  That's when a writer writes several pages or chapters then goes back to edit that work before continuing.  Before I settled in to watch ANW, I went back and did a quick edit of the pages I wrote earlier today.

Tomorrow I move into a new phase of the book.

Writers today do not have this luxury.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Half-Assed Veganism - A New Label

There are lots of labels in this world. Some complimentary. Some not so much.  As many of you know, this year I drastically changed my eating habits and it seems I don't fit into any of the usual chowing down groups.

Therefore, I formally declare myself a Half-Assed Vegan, a description I used for the first time in a blog post in early June.

There, I've said it. And I stand tall (well, as tall as 5' 1/2" can stand) with my head held high under that banner.
My name is Sue Ann Jaffarian and I am a Half-Assed Vegan!
You mean you're a vegan?

No, I eat seafood.

That means you're a pescatarian.

Not exactly. I eat eggs.

But isn't that a lacto-ovo-vegetarian?

No. Lacto-ovo vegetarians don't eat seafood but do eat dairy and eggs. I don't eat dairy due to a recently discovered food allergy.

So here is my criteria for being a Half-Assed Vegan. Some of you may fall into this category. If so, please be my guest to proudly bear the moniker:

About 80-90% of my diet is vegan. I cook almost entirely vegan at home.  Once in a while when out I will eat a smidgen of meat or have a small burger or a turkey sandwich, but that's really about it and it's not very often. The one thing I do my best to avoid totally is dairy.

Changing how I eat this year has had many benefits:

1) my eczema is pretty much gone (the dairy issue);
2) my constant indigestion and acid reflux is pretty much gone;
3) I'm losing weight without counting points, calories or carbs (but I do watch portion sizes on things like rice, bread and pasta);
4) I feel better overall
5) I've rediscovered my love for cooking!

Yes, me, the Queen of Fast Food is now cooking again! I used to love to cook, but somewhere along the way got bored with it and resorted to fast food and dining out for many meals. Now I eat at home most of the time. I pack healthy lunches and snacks for work. I scour the web for fabulous new recipes, which I trade with my friend Lori, who is a vegan. I'm even coming up with my own concoctions. My fridge, which used to be pretty empty, is now stocked with fruits, veggies, whole grain breads and lovely leftovers. It's a beautiful sight to behold.

Last weekend I made a zucchini au gratin dish using homemade vegan "parmesan cheese" and a tofu parmesan (like veal or chicken parmesan, but with tofu). Both were delicious.  This week I also  whipped up a roasted red pepper sauce for pasta and a vegan corn chowder.  All of these dishes (except for the tofu dish) are from a fabulous blog called Minimalist Baker.  It's da bomb. Run by a husband and wife, they are taking vegetarianism and veganism to new fun heights.

Some other sites I have found fun and useful are:

Vegan Dad (how could you not love a guy who makes vegan twinkies!)
Oh She Glows
Vegetarian Times
Eating Well

Basically, if you have a favorite dish, you can vegan-ize or make it vegetarian by simply searching the web for it by putting "vegan" in front of the food's name. Warning: not all transitions work and I've tried some that won't be made again in my kitchen, but many are super good if you don't expect it to taste exactly the same as your beloved favorite. There are some, like the tofu parmesan, that I actually like more. And the vegan parmesan cheese on the Minimalist Baker website will make you a true believer. I like it better than real parmesan cheese!

The only downside to all this is eating out. Not so much in Los Angeles, where I live and where most restaurants offer many vegetarian and vegan options, but when I travel it can be a real challenge. I was recently on a trip to Massachusetts. Most restaurants in the area where I was staying offered vegetarian options but those dishes were usually drowning in cheese or sauces of some sort or another. For most meals out I ate seafood, which was also a challenge because much of it was cooked in butter sauces or fried. I went primarily with the fried seafood, which was hardly a punishment since I love it so much, but was happy to get home and dry out from all that grease.

One thing I've really noticed since becoming a Half-Assed Vegan is how much of our food is covered in cheese or processed cheese products. Now don't get me wrong. I adore cheese! I seriously miss cheese! But now that I don't eat it and have to hunt down foods without it, I've really opened my eyes to how much of it the American public consumes.  No wonder we have such serious health issues in this country.

I've become quite adept at saying "no cheese" or "no butter" when ordering out.  I'm not shy at all about asking ahead of time how veggies are prepared and insisting that they be steamed and served without butter or sauces or cheese.  Even most meatless salads in restaurants come laden with cheese.

Many, many years ago I was watching a medical drama on TV, which name escapes me now. I still remember this one scene which I found very funny at the time, not realizing how relevant it would one day be to me:

A doctor tells his patient he must give up a lot of his favorite foods.
Patient: "But, Doc, what's life without cheese?"
Doctor:  "Longer."

It's not so funny to me now.

Just so you don't go away thinking my new lifestyle is totally boring and not any fun, I'll leave you with this:

Oreos are vegan.

Oh, yeah, they are. And they are used in a lot of vegan dessert recipes.

Then again, it makes you wonder about that cream filling, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Wicked Pull Of Home

My reality is that I'm not that far from retirement. I'm not talking about retirement from writing but from my career as a paralegal.

When I first started writing I actually believed, like many other fledgling writers, that I'd make enough money to support myself and could leave the day job behind and write full time. [Insert wild cackling laughter here.]  Not so. While I do make money from my books, it's not even close to enough to pay my rent and other expenses, not to mention individual health care coverage.

I turn 62 in a few months. Even if I did make enough money from my writing to pay my personal expenses, I'm so close to retirement that to leave my job (which I like very much, by the way) behind now and head into early retirement would be a big financial mistake. But that doesn't keep me from planning for it.

For the past few years I've been looking at places where I might want to retire.  I don't want to stay in Los Angeles. I'm tired of the traffic, noise and crowds, and it is WAY TOO EXPENSIVE. I've known for quite some time that when I retire I will pack my stuff up and move.

But where?  That has been the big question.  I've looked at several places in Southern California and a few out of state places, but it wasn't until the past month or so that I realized where I want to be. 

I want to go home.

By home, I mean the East Coast, specifically New England, more specifically Massachusetts, where I was born.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about the winters.  But I like winter for the most part. What I never liked about it when I did live there was driving in it day in and day out to go to work.  But if I'm not working, I won't be forced out onto icy roads.  I can sit in my nice warm place in my Snuggie, point out the window at the falling snow, and say, "Pretty."

And I want to be near my family. I really miss them and my trip East a few weeks ago really underscored that in my heart. I want to see the generations grow up. I want to spend the holidays with them. Each year that passes, I want it more.

What can I say? You can take the girl out of New England but you can't take New England out of the girl.

This past week I've moved from the maybe one day stage of Retirement into the planning stage. Over the next few years I'm going to be cleaning out all the crap I don't need, and tightening the belt a bit more in preparation. I'm a sexagenarian with a new mission. I've even contacted a realtor in Massachusetts to discuss options.

Yeah, it's that real.

My Odelia Grey books are contracted for 3 more books with those contracts ending close to my retirement. I have plans for new things and might even extend the Odelia series in a new format. And the Granny books are chugging along nicely.  Even with publishing being chaotic, I'm hoping that my writing income will continue and will supplement my retirement income.  At least that's the plan.

OMG! I just realized that if I'm moving back to Massachusetts I'll have to become a Boston Red Sox fan. There's just no way around that. It's a requirement. And I don't even like baseball. If they find that out, will they deny me residence?

Aside from the baseball thing,
it's going to be WICKED AWESOME.
I just know it!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bullets and Burgers for Your Little Princess

The simpler days.
This morning, before I even had coffee in hand or had fed my cats, I learned of this tragic story on Facebook: A 9 year old girl shot and killed a shooting instructor with an Uzi.

Huh? Clearly the dust bunnies of sleep were clouding my senses.

I read the story again. Then checked it out on the Internet knowing that sometimes stuff on Facebook cannot be relied upon for accuracy.

Nope. It was true according to several dependable news sources.  Here's CNN's account so you can check it for yourself:

In a nutshell, a little girl on vacation with her parents was learning how to fire an automatic gun at a shooting range not far from Las Vegas. The shoot range is called Bullets and Burgers. (I didn't make that name up although it does sound right out of a novel.) The instructor was teaching her how to properly stand and fire and after a couple of single shots gave her the green light to set it to full automatic.  It was the last thing he ever did.

Apparently, on full auto the gun recoiled in the child's hands and bullets struck the instructor in the head, killing him.

First of all, let me say that while I am not a gun enthusiast, I do believe that stable and screened citizens should have the right to own registered firearms. And I fully believe that if you do own a gun you should be fully trained on how to use it, store it, and care for it.  I do not believe in these fools who make political statements by carrying automatic rifles into public places.

I'm even okay with parents teaching or having someone teach their child how to shoot a rifle. After all, many children grow up in areas where hunting is part of their culture and they learn the proper way to handle a gun at an early age.  According to the story, children 8 and up can shoot at this range with parental approval and supervision.

But a fucking UZI!  At nine years old! Is this child being shipped off to fight in the Israeli army? Are international drug cartels threatening her neighborhood and she's its only hope? Was Disneyland closed?

Proudly recording their little girl's summer fun, the parents got it all on video. That's some spectacular home movie footage! I guarantee no one will be yawning or shooting spit balls during that day's show 'n tell. She'll be a hit in her local elementary school, especially after all the horror of school shootings. Everyone will want to be her emergency buddy, even the teacher. She might even earn a badge if she's in Girl Scouts. She can sell cookies at gun point.

Really, parents?!  A fucking UZI!  I know we want our girls to be strong and fearless and confident, but a FUCKING UZI?!

I can't say FUCKING UZI enough this morning. Really, I can't.

There is so much tragedy here on so many levels:

1) An innocent man lost his life;
2) An innocent child took a life and will have to live with that for the rest of her life;
3) Some parents need a serious reality check, maybe even a lobotomy, and these parents should start saving now for all the therapy that child is going to need. And, yes, in this case, it is the parents' fault.

I know that stun guns come in pink. I wonder if  Uzi's also have a pretty in pink line. Maybe there's a special edition with princess stickers or the Hello Kitty logo. They could call it Hello, Killy.

I'm going to get another cup of coffee now... I need to turn my attention back to the murder mystery I'm writing, which seems like child's play after this. 

Yes, that pun was intended.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Just Say Thank You And Move Along

Last night I had an opportunity to pay it forward. This is a simple principle and one I like to exercise as often as possible since so many people have been generous to me over the years in lots of different ways.

Sometimes paying it forward involves doing someone a simple kindness or a good turn, sometimes it involves something financial. The whole idea is to continue the cycle of being kind to one another, spreading decency like a virus. 

Think of Ebola with a super hero cape instead of skull and crossbones.

So last night after work I'm at Ralphs doing some grocery shopping. As usual that time of day, the store was packed and the check out lines long. There was an elderly lady in front of me at the cashier. She was in a dither because she couldn't find her wallet. The cashier was very patient and pleasant and asked if she could put the woman's grocery items aside and help the other customers in line, which the woman agreed to while she continued her hunt. When the cashier started checking me out, I told the her to add the other woman's groceries to my bill and I paid for both.

Before you think I'm being super noble, trust me, together our groceries totaled less than $45.00.

Anyway, our groceries were bagged and when they handed the woman her bag, she was confused. The checker told her I'd paid for them. The woman made a slight stink, saying I couldn't do that. I told her it was my pleasure and that we all found ourselves without our wallets from time to time.

Good deed done and over. Right? Wrong.

By the time I loaded my two bags into the trunk of my car, got inside and buckled up, the woman had hunted me down. Wedging herself and her cart between my car and the next she continued to insist that I could not pay for her groceries. This went on for a long time, even though I insisted several times that it was no big deal and that I needed to get home, and also pointed out that the people in the car next to mine were trying to pull out and couldn't with her in the way. The woman barely moved, the vehicle slowly maneuvered out, and she continued to block the now empty and valuable parking spot, which I think in LA is a crime punishable by jail time.

Eventually we exchanged information since the woman was determined to do me a kindness in return and it was obvious she wasn't going to let me go with just a simple thank you.  Satisfied, she left. A man and woman immediately pulled their vehicle into the parking spot next to me. The man, who was driving, ranted and raved at me through the passenger side open window, saying how rude and inconsiderate I was to block a parking spot. Seriously, he was red in the face with rage and I thought he was going to have a stroke.

So here's the moral to the story...

I'm sure you're thinking I'm going to say no good deed goes unpunished, but no, I'm not going to be that negative and sarcastic.  After all, I was only embarrassed and no one died.

No, the moral to this story is ...

Continue to pay it forward, in spite of crazy people screaming about parking.

And ...

If someone does you a good deed, do not embarrass your benefactor by making a scene. Say a heartfelt thank you and move along, determined to do the same for someone else when the opportunity arises.

Just say

Monday, August 18, 2014

My Summer Working Vacation

I just returned from my summer vacation. I used to go on cruises and big trips with lots of running around, but in the past few years I've come to prefer quiet, relaxing vacations that also include book research. That makes it a working vacation, but I don't mind as long as I enjoy it. It's a two-fer I've come to love.

On August 7th I met up with Susan, one of my BFFs, at the airport in Hartford, Connecticut, grabbed a rental car, and drove about an hour to East Brookfield, Massachusetts.  I was born in Haverhill, MA, which is tucked in the northeast corner of the state, but my immediate family relocated many years ago to Brookfield, which is in the south central part near the tourist area of Sturbridge. I love that area and am seriously thinking of relocating there when I retire in about 5 years or so.  You see, I don't mind cold weather and snow as along as I don't have to drive to work in it.
Is this adorable or what?
Anyway, rather than stay with family in a crowded house, I decided to rent a cottage on nearby Lake Laskaway. OMG! I fell in love with the place. It was this small cute cottage with all the amenities of home (washer/dryer, full kitchen, TV with cable, WiFi) and some I don't get in the middle of Los Angeles (lake front, quiet, flower garden). It was priced reasonably and the owners, Pattie and Peter O'Neil, had thought of everything to make their guests comfy. I slept like the dead each and every night and woke up each morning to the peaceful flow of the lake.

Our first full day we drove to the town of Greenfield where we met up with my brother Thom and another of my friends, Stacia.  Both of them live in Vermont and were happy to meet us halfway. My sister-in-law Marlaine came and brought my two youngest great-nieces to see their grandfather. We had a great time catching up over yummy New England fried seafood. After, Susan and I visited Magic Wings, a butterfly conservatory just a few minutes away.  This place was AMAZING and if you find yourself in MA, try to fit it into your schedule. There were butterflies EVERYWHERE and they had lots of birds and even interesting reptiles and insects. The people who work are charming and knowledgeable and very eager to tell you all about the creatures who reside at Magic Wings.

Saturday found us at Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum, which we visited with my niece Lindsay and my eldest great-niece. I had never been there even though I'd been to Sturbridge many times. It was a good place for me to do some of the research for the 6th Granny Apples novel (which Berkley just bought!), as well as a great place for Susan to visit on her first trip to New England. She and I also did a lot of driving around the countryside as I soaked in the ambiance for Emma's trip to the area in the book. Later we gathered with my family for a cookout.

On Sunday a bunch of us gathered at the Spencer Country Inn for brunch to celebrate the Sue Ann Jaffarian Fan Club on Facebook being on the brink of 1,000 members.  Cyn Reilly, her husband Steve, and their son joined us. Cyn started the fan club and administers it along with Lindsay. It was another great time of good food and visiting and lots of laughter. Later Marlaine and Lindsay came back to the cottage to enjoy the lake with us.

The brunch bunch - Cyn is in the middle
Monday Susan and I hung around the cottage and later went to Marlaine's for dinner. Tuesday we hit the road again for me to do some book/area surveillance and made another short trip to Sturbridge to visit some shops. We had lunch at the historical Publick House.  My last night in town Lindsay and her boyfriend Jeff took me to dinner.

My office while on vacation
Most mornings found me armed with a cup of coffee and writing at the picnic table facing the lake. I could do that every day! I even put in some time at the picnic table on an afternoon or two. I don't force myself to write when I go on vacation, but if my muse whispers in my ear, I don't ignore her. I'm happy to say my muse made the trip with me and she and I got a lot of work done, both at the cottage and on the flight home. I was working on the 10th Odelia Grey novel, which is due to its publisher in early October.

Susan and I had PERFECT weather the entire trip and I have the tan/burn marks to prove it. It wasn't even muggy, which is the norm for New England in the summer.  The day we left a big storm blew in and we made our way back to the Hartford airport in pouring rain. Nice timing, Mother Nature, and much appreciated!

Even though I've spent most of my life in Southern California, I can't deny the pull of my New England roots and still call it "home." Like I said, I'm considering retiring near my family when the time comes. I love living in LA, but as I get older the crowds, noise and traffic are really getting on my nerves.  What can I say? I'm an old fart now and this old fart is craving the peace and quiet of country living, preferably by a lake.

Friday, July 25, 2014

It's All About The Writing

This past weekend I was the moderator on a panel of authors at the Carson Library. With me were three talented ladies:  Rochelle Staab, Maxine Nunes and Kathy Bennett. I enjoy being a moderator when I have the time to read the other authors' books and put together some thoughtful questions. The event was sparsely attended but it was lively and the audience questions were well thought-out.

One theme we kept returning to no matter what the question was that there is no substitute for good writing. No matter what happens in publishing, the bottom line is that it is always, in the end, all about the book - the characters, plot and story line - and the competence of the words on the page. 

We've all read books, both self-published and traditionally published, that have made us scratch our heads and wonder how in the world the drivel came to be printed and released. And yes, I'm even talking about bad books from some of the major publishers. I've read some really terrific books from independent authors and some real garbage from the big guns. Go figure!  But publishing opportunities and fairness aside, in the end, it's about the quality of the writing. There is no getting away from that. And don't readers deserve the best we've got?

We all have our opinions on what makes a great book. A plot line or theme that intrigues me might leave others shrugging or even retching with disgust, and vice versa. But no matter the story or the likability of the characters, or even the type of book, in the end it all boils down to the writing. Even a comic book has to be well written. A children's book consisting of no more than a handful of words must be well written.  Even a book about raising chickens on a rooftop in New York City must be well written. See where I'm going here?

If you are a lazy writer and trying to cut corners or not willing to learn and hone your craft with each new project, it will show in your work. Readers may buy your first book to give you a shot, but if the writing isn't good, it will be reflected in the lower sales for your next. Trust me on this.  Readers can tell when you've "phoned in" your performance or don't have the chops or interest or professionalism to fine tune it.

So why is this on my mind today?  Glad you asked.

I'm currently finishing up the final edits on GHOST IN THE GUACAMOLE, my 5th Ghost of Granny Apples mystery. This weekend I'll begin the final edits on HELL ON WHEELS, my 9th Odelia Grey mystery. It would be easy to just gloss over these edits and speed through them, depending on the talents of the copy editors at both publishers to clean up my work. That's their job, right? Wrong! Their job is to help me turn out the best book I can, but MY JOB is to read every word again, for the umpteenth time, and make sure it is as clean and as perfect as it can be.  Sometimes errors can and do get through, but when I turn these manuscripts in this next week, I'll know I've done everything possible to make them as good as I can.

As of today, I have completed twenty novels and seven short stories. And while I am far from a literary author, with each one I learn more about my craft. With each book, I strive to increase the quality of my writing. My writing skills are always a work in progress. It makes no difference if I write the book in twelve months, in six, or in two, if I'm not focused on producing a quality work, I'm wasting my time. More importantly, I'm wasting the readers' time. And shame on me if I do that!

In a nutshell:

There is no substitute for or
short cut to good writing.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sending You A Dozen

I wrote for about five hours today.  But even with all that time, I didn't get a single page completed on my work in progress, which is the 10th Odelia Grey mystery with a working title of JUNK IN THE TRUNK.

Did I have writer's block?  No.

Did I nap and say I was writing. No, although a short nap was taken today.

Did I spend a lot of that time on the phone with my good friend Heide? Yes.

Did I spend most of that time on my back staring up at the ceiling. Yes.

Doesn't sound like writing to me.

But it is.

Today, I mapped out in my head the plot lines for the 10th, 11th, and 12th books in the Odelia Grey series. I considered ideas, plots, red herrings, and character direction. I tossed out some. Kept others and ran most by Heide, a voracious mystery reader, for her consideration (kind of like letting someone sample food before you serve it to guests).

What time I spent at the computer was to jot down notes and very loose outlines for each book. I also wrote the opening of book 11 and the last few paragraphs of that same book. And I started the first chapter of book 12. For my WIP I jotted down notes on plot twists and small seeds to plant to set up the upcoming books.

Why all the fuss?  Because I'm contracted for twelve Odelia Grey novels and I want these last three books to be extra special and satisfying to my readers.  I don't know what's in store for Odelia after book 12, but I do know what's in store for her over the course of the next three books, each of which will take the reader closer to the climax of book 12 and thus ending the story arc I started with book 1, TOO BIG TO MISS.

BTW, the working title of book 12 is TOO BIG TO DIE.  It has a nice complete sound to it, doesn't it?

When my agent first sold the Odelia Grey series to Midnight Ink, they bought the first three. Then they bought three more. Before those were done, we pitched six more books for an even dozen books with a specific story arc.  While I haven't written the exact books I pitched, by the time TOO BIG TO DIE is released, I will have finished the original story arc. Wow, it seems like almost yesterday when I made the commitment to complete twelve books and now I staring down the barrel of the final three.

Like I said, I don't know what's in store for Odelia after book 12 is finished and released. I have some ideas for new series and other books, but nothing sold or written.  After all, I still have three more Odelia books to write before any of that happens!

Lots of good things come in dozens:

Odelia Grey books.

Whatever happens in the last three Odelia Grey books, it will be what my readers expect and deserve:
A very wild ride.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

My 6-Month Check Up

I don't know how many others out there are keeping track of their 2014 New Year's Resolutions, but this gal is!  First time ever! It's a way of keeping me focused (sort of) and honest with myself.

So, let's refresh, shall we?

 In January I made the following 2014 New Year's Resolutions:

1) Make my bed every day
2) Balance my check book every month
3) Stick to a workout and eating program
4) Read at least 30 books this year.

In April I posted a blog on my progress.  New Year's Resolution Report Card

We're half way through 2014 and it's time to review what's happening with the 4 promises I made to myself.

1) Hem, haw ... I'm looking at my unmade bed right now and it's past 1 pm on a Saturday, so I can't even use the excuse that I'm running off to work for its untidy appearance.  I am planning on changing the linens later, but that's an excuse I can only use so often. Truth is, this is the simplest of my 2014 resolutions, yet the one I can't seem to keep to save my life!

2) Yes! We are 6 months into the new year and I have balanced my checkbook to the penny each and every month!

3) This was the most difficult of the resolutions, yet I'm doing fine with it.  I could be getting a lot more excise, but I am doing much more than at the beginning of the year. Last Friday I hit over 11,000 daily steps on my Fit Bit - a personal best!  As for eating, I'm still a Half-Assed Vegan. For the most part I don't eat meat of any kind, except for the once-in-a-while turkey sandwich. I don't even eat seafood that often anymore.  At home I cook pretty much vegan and am learning how to adapt some of my favorite recipes to meatless and dairy-free dishes.  Today I'm making a vegan mac 'n cheese made with sweet potato.  My friend Lori Olson made this and said it's da bomb! I'm also cooking a lot of Indian food and loving it. My favorites so far have been vegetable masala and aloo palak. I have some Thai recipes I want to try too.  It's like I'm discovering cooking again. I even bought myself a new food processor since mine is over 30 years old and the motor is finally giving out.

As for measurable progress, I've lost somewhere between 25-30 lbs since the beginning of the year.  I don't weigh myself often because I don't want to be a slave to the scale. I've gone down one size in my clothing, which is a much better measurement than the scale. It's slow, steady and healthy progress. 

I'm continuing with my nearly dairy-free life, which has been much more difficult for me than giving up meat. As I mentioned in my half-assed vegan post, I gave up dairy hoping it would help some of my skin issues. And it has!  My long-time eczema is almost GONE. Seeing my progress, a friend who has a young daughter with bad eczema decided to try getting her daughter off dairy. Her daughter's eczema is much better after just a few weeks.

I'm telling ya, if you're having skin and eczema issues, try going diary-free. And this advice is coming from a gal who never said no to cheese, ice cream, yogurt, café lattes or sour cream. One look at my clear, itchless skin and I'm sold!  I've learned to embrace almond milk (which I like better than cow's milk) and soy ice cream and to enjoy Mexican food without cheese.  It can be done.

4) I have read 15 of my 30 book goal so far. You can keep track of the books I've read by clicking the Goodreads widget in the top right of my blog page.

So far, 2014 is shaping up to be a good year for me. I'm not going to get rich this year (or maybe never), but I'm still writing away and my body is healthier.  And I've shown myself I can stick to New Year's Resolutions - sort of.

I wonder if I could train my cats to make the bed?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Celebrating Underdog Determination

Two of my favorite summer time TV shows are American Ninja Warrior and America's Got Talent.

I love both of these shows because they celebrate the underdog, the ordinary person being extraordinary, the gifted and dedicated without the hype and taint of  high priced endorsements and celebrity scandal.

Whether the men and women contestants in these shows are scaling a warped wall or performing for the first time in front of millions, they are following their dreams with a fierce dedication that should light sparks in all of us.

This summer, for the first time ever, a woman scaled the warped wall on American Ninja Warrior. It was done by 5' tall Kacy Catanzaro. Breaking the warped wall ceiling, she was followed up the curved monster by Michelle Warnky. Before the end of this season, maybe we'll see more women hitting the buzzer at the top!

As corny as it sounds, during Catanzaro's run I was in my living room, on my feet clapping and cheering with tears in my eyes. YES!!!

I'm not against professional sports. Not at all.  But I just can't get worked up and excited about them like I can American Ninja Warrior.

Most of these men and women, like the performers on America's Got Talent, hold down day jobs and have families and commitments. They pursue their dreams in time carved out by the determination to succeed against all odds.

Sound familiar? Yep. It's exactly what most authors do each and every day. We carve out time snatched from between jobs and commitments to follow our dream to write, even though we realize the odds are against us.

I'm considered a "successful author," but I still cannot support myself with the money I make from my books. And by "support" I mean pay 100% for my rent, food, clothing, utilities, health care, etc. from the proceeds of my books. A lot of writers will say they support themselves with their writing, but truth be told very few of them do. They may write full time, but if you stripped away the help these folks get from supportive spouses and others, they would never be able to live the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. It's a harsh reality, but a reality just the same.

Yeah, that's why I love these shows. Because they celebrate what I believe and do myself.

I may never scale the warped wall of publishing, but I'm never going to stop trying.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Make Me a Better Writer

This morning I stayed in bed until I finished THE BOOK THIEF by Marcus Zusak.

Oh my! What a wonderful book! While not a fast read, it was a compelling read and I loved every single word, becoming embroiled in the lives of the doomed souls of Himmel Street in a small town outside Munich in Nazi Germany.

As a writer, books like THE BOOK THIEF humble me and bring me to my knees in a puddle of inadequacy and wonder and awe. They leave me prostrate with reverence.

Now, loyal and devoted readers, before you get your undies in a bunch and jump to my defense, let me say this: I know I am a good writer and a competent fiction author. This I know with confidence and conviction. I also know that many of you love my work and embrace it with open arms, book after book. And I don't for a second discount or take that for granted. But I am not a great writer and probably will never stand shoulder to shoulder with literary giants. That is reality.

My writing, like a growing child, is something that is constantly moving and changing and which, like a child, requires sustenance and nurturing. It's a living, breathing thing, evolving with every word I pen. And with each book I write and with each book I read, I learn more about my craft and hunger to expand it even more.

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson's famous line to Helen Hunt in the movie As Good As It Gets: "You make me want to be a better man." I say to books like THE BOOK THIEF:

You make me want to be a better writer.

And so do you my faithful readers. You deserve the best I can give of my humble talent.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Half-Assed Vegan

When I made my New Year's Resolutions for 2014 one of them was to stick to an exercise and eating program. To be honest, it hasn't gone as planned, but not in the way that I'm sure first comes to your mind, which was probably:

Oooops, there goes a resolution down the drain.


I knew she couldn't stick to it.

Well, I say, neener, neener to you!

I am exercising almost every day and thanks to my man George, I'm getting in a lot more activity. With the exercise has come renewed strength to my bad knee and more spring in my step.

What has gone off the rails is my eating habits. And by off the rails, I mean in an unexpected but positive way.

I, a dedicated meat eater who in the past never said no to a rack of ribs, a good hunk of prime rib or a Double-Double, have become an almost vegan. There's even a name for people like me: vegan friendly. 

Yes, pigs do fly!

It all started when I started reducing my meat intake to save calories. Before I knew it, I was eating so little meat that I thought: why bother?  I love seafood and was eating more of that, along with the occasional chicken breast. Now, I'm barely doing that!  It was so subtle, I barely noticed.

About two months ago I started experimenting with giving up dairy. Not because of veganism, but because I had been fighting acne for a while and was told by a couple of skin professionals that it might be hormonal and to try giving up dairy for a bit to see what happens. 

HUH? Are you out of your mind? Give up milk, ice cream, cheese, yogurt?! Hands down, dairy is my favorite food group. It would be impossible, I thought. But, hey, I'm 61 years old and fighting acne. That's just not right. So for no other reason except vanity, I gave up diary except for smidgens found in prepared foods like breads.

Guess what? My skin started clearing up. And my eczema, which I'd had for years, lessened considerably. Huh... maybe giving up dairy isn't such a bad thing. Who knew I had an intolerance for the stuff?

In May, concerned about an addiction to sugar, I decided to give up refined sugar, again except for small amounts found in condiments and prepared foods. For a month I had no desserts, pastries, candy, etc. Nor did I use artificial sweetener to get me over the hump. And I lived. For the first few weeks I found myself compensating for the sugar deficit by eating more starches and fats, but then that faded and I settled into eating very healthy and not missing the sugar at all.

Two days ago I had my first dessert in over a month: non-dairy ice cream from Scoops Westside and I savored every creamy bite. (If you live on the west side of LA and haven't tried Scoops, you must! Incredible artisan ice creams, both dairy and non-dairy. Pricey but worth it.) But even with that, I have no plans to go back to daily sugar binges. I believe I've kicked my habit, but realize, as with any drug, I'm just one use away from a very slippery slope.

Just so you know, I still eat meat, but it's usually when I'm out and in very small amounts. I'll even on occasion order a sandwich with a slip of cheese on it, but at home I'm somewhere between  vegetarian and vegan. Fortunately for me, I have always loved fruits and vegetables.

Sometimes I don't even recognize myself.  Who is this person who now searches the web for vegan recipes and bookmarks vegan blogs? Who just last weekend made her own veggie burgers from scratch when a year ago she would never even dream of eating one? Who bones up on nutrition information as if studying for an exam? Do you know her? Because I don't.

OMG - I just realized that in my fridge is a package of Tofurky kielbasa! No doubt bought in a weak moment brought on my lack of animal protein. I really have gone to the dark side. Forget about pigs flying, Hell has indeed frozen over.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dances Not Danced

Last night I watched the HBO movie THE NORMAL HEART which chronicles the very early days of the AIDS epidemic and the struggles the gay community had in getting people's attention and help. The movie was excellent and I want to say I loved it, but love seems such an inappropriate adjective in this case. I didn't love watching people suffer and die from a disease no one yet understood. I didn't love watching the government and health officials turn dying people away because of prejudice and ignorance. I was on the brink of turning thirty when all this was going down. I remember reading about it in the news, in magazines and hearing about it on TV. I knew people who died from AIDS.

But the one scene from the movie that will always stick in my mind was the one where Tommy Boatwright, played by the very talented Jim Parsons, is giving a eulogy for a friend who was a choreographer. In the eulogy he talks about the increasing number of deaths and laments the losses in other ways: the plays that will not be written, the dances that will never be danced, and many other losses in terms of contributions these men would have made if their lives had not been cut short. I've watched that eulogy three times now and each time am struck dumb by the sheer enormity of the loss and its applicability to more than just the deaths from Aids.

A few days ago a college student went on a rampage in Isla Vista, a small community just a hundred miles north of where I live that is predominantly inhabited by college students. The gunman killed six young people, seven counting himself. How many promising careers, opportunities and important contributions came to a screeching halt because of that gunman?  We'll never know.

Today is Memorial Day - a day we remember our servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Again, the loss should be measured in more than lives, but also in lost potential.

I am not naïve. I understand that not everyone will reach old age or even make it to adulthood. Death is a part of life. It happens every day.  Cars spin out of control. Planes crash. Hearts stop beating. People fall and hit their heads. One day it will even happen to me.

What horrifies and sickens me are senseless killings and deaths. Sandy Hook. Boston. 9/11. Isla Vista, Afghanistan. Iraq. Viet Nam. A disease that people ignored that could have been helped and researched sooner than later. And the list continues.

It's Memorial Day. Remember and honor those who have died before us. And let us never forget that when people die, so do dreams and hope and endless possibilities and we are all so much the poorer because of it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Where Are My Pants?

I've said it before and I'll say it again, coming off of a big writing deadline is a lot like waking up with an epic hangover after a lost weekend.

This week I'm recovering from a deadline drunk. Or maybe that's coming down from a deadline high. Either way, I'm trying to find my way back to my normal life after spending 3 days this past weekend locked in my apartment in the final push to complete GHOST IN THE GUACAMOLE, the 5th Ghost of Granny Apples novel, and my 18th novel turned into a publisher.

18 - OMG!

How in the hell did I do that? Even I don't know.

This last book proved to be somewhat of a special challenge. You see, my muse disappeared a few months before deadline. I think she went backpacking in Europe and forgot to look at our schedule before leaving. For months I struggled with my manuscript. I knew the story. I liked the story. This should not have been a problem. But day after day I'd sit at the computer and little to nothing would come out.

And it wasn't the dreaded writer's block. If I turned my mind to other stuff, it flowed like honey. Only the book under deadline sat like a bump on a rock, jeering and mocking me. It crossed my mind that maybe I was tired of writing the Granny Apples books. But that thought horrified me, because I really love writing about Emma and Granny and all their adventures.

Then, about 6 weeks before my deadline, when I only had 100 pages done and was beginning to panic, my muse showed up, fresh and excited from her vacation and with a pocket full of kitschy souvenirs, and ready to get down to business.

"Where in the hell have you been?" I screamed as I injected myself with more coffee.

"Are you going to throw a tantrum or get down to work?" she asked with the calmness of Gandhi.

For the next month my muse and I worked non-stop - mornings beginning around 4:30, lunchtimes, evenings, weekends. A good night's sleep became a stranger. But we did it. The words, the pages, the scenes flowed out of my head and fingers like water from a fire hose. And I hit my deadline.  What's even better, my beta readers, those chosen few who read my work as I write, loved the book! I wasn't throwing down crap as I feared.  In my final go-through and editing, I stepped back and read the book, forgetting the hysteria that surrounded its birth, seeing it from page 1 as a reader might.  And it was good. I sighed with relief and collapsed.

Like I said, hitting a writing deadline is like coming off a major drunk. For days after I do little except catch up on sleep, read and watch TV. I don't even try to catch up on housework or other daily chores. I just wait for the deadline induced fog to lift and my mind to clear and readjust itself. I pick up the pieces of my forgotten life and hope I didn't do anything stupid while under the influence, like get a face tattoo or assault a police officer or run naked down Wilshire Blvd.

Up next is the 10th Odelia Grey novel. OMG! 10! (Take a deep breath, Sue.) The working title is JUNK IN THE TRUNK and I already have two chapters completed. It's deadline is October 1st and I don't intend to dawdle.

I also have another project that is in negotiations right now, so I can't really talk about it yet.

But what about Granny? Right now I have no more Granny Apples books under contract, but the publisher is considering more. Am I tired of Granny? Hell, no! In fact, just after I turned in GHOST IN THE GUACAMOLE, I wrote the first paragraph of the 6th book and can't wait to get rolling on it in earnest. It's working title is GHOST WRITER.

I've also given my muse notice that she's used up her vacation time.