Living It Up

I was once told that I shouldn’t read so many books or watch so many movies; I should get out there and live! Interact with real people! Go biking or hiking or horseback riding, experience the world first hand! More recently I read one of those “That’s SO true” quotes that spin around Facebook; it said, “I read because I want to live MORE than just one life.” I can appreciate both perspectives, but one certainly comes more naturally to me than the other.

This week I am on a river cruise through Eastern Europe with my hubby for our ten-year wedding anniversary. For the flight over or any precious moments of downtime, I brought the incomparable Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY. A couple months ago, I devoured THE GOLDFINCH, and I am equally enjoying her first novel.

I am an introvert. I’ve known that for a few decades; that might be one reason why I’ve always been a reader and why I now love writing. (I not only love “having written,” I love sitting in a quiet room so I can listen to my characters whine and cry and beg me to save them from their nasty neighbors and inner demons.) Seriously, though, I’m at a crossroads, and I need to pick up the fork, er, whatever … Did you know these river cruises serve wine all day?

Right, so.


We spent yesterday in Vienna: a morning walk through the city center, an afternoon excursion to Schönbrunn Palace, and an evening concert of Mozart at … another palace … Anyway, I didn’t have a minute to read even one page of The Secret History, and as I crawled into bed, I was sad about that. What’s wrong with me? Even I know that was insane. Yes, Donna Tartt is THAT good, but it was VIENNA.

We’ve had a better balance today of tours and free time, which has given me time to reflect. I am having the time of my life on this trip, and I don’t want to miss a single minute of what this world has to offer, but … There’s no place like home. Next week I’ll be back home where I don’t have to choose between the gripping pages of a novel and the sound of Salzburg. There’s a time and place for everything … And when I’m in Austria, I need to listen to Mozart and eat Wiener schnitzel!

I hope that one day all those people I should be interacting with right now will struggle between getting out in the real world or reading my latest novel. So for now, auf Wiedersehen!


Are You a Noun or an Adjective?

In my last blog post, I asked the question, Who Do You Think You Are? Since then, I’ve asked several people that question face-to-face, and the answers have yielded new insight. Some people (like myself) answered with nouns (writer, traveler, etc.), more external descriptions. Others, like one man I spoke to, answered with adjectives (thoughtful, generous, etc.), more internal descriptions. This man began his list with personality traits, not hobbies, pastimes, or occupations.

A psychologist could have a heyday with this dichotomy, I’m sure. But I’m no psychologist. I just get to ponder this, and ask you what you think this says about people. Did you make your list of five quick words to describe yourself? I’m sure you did, so … did you choose nouns or adjectives? Neither answer is wrong; in fact, no personal description would be complete without both lists. It’s curious, though, what this says about people. Could it be that people who view themselves via external criteria first tend to be insecure, thus more concerned with the way the world sees them? Or maybe they’re just private people who want a shell around them. Hmm …

When it comes to writing, adjectives are almost as villainous as adverbs. But don’t take my word for it. Stephen King once said: The road to hell is paved with adverbs. And here’s strong advice against both forms of qualifiers. Good writing happens in the nouns and the verbs. Yet as a writer, when I am creating characters, I must know ALL about them. I need to know their nouns and their adjectives. In fact, I need to know their verbs and adverbs, too. I was once told I need to know when my protagonist lost his virginity. And not just when, but where, with whom, and how the experience was for him? Facts like these don’t need to be included in a novel, but a writer needs to know her characters as deeply as she knows herself—probably better than she knows herself!

This leads me directly back to how well does anyone know him- or herself? This may sound ridiculously simple, but it’s not. This is a matter scientists study relentlessly. There’s a new book out on just this topic: Mindwise, by Nichols Epley, that explores how well we know others, and in turn, how well we know ourselves. It’s one of those, the-more-you-know, the-more-you-know-you-don’t-know topics that fascinate me to no end.

Maybe I should have been an anthropologist.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Describe yourself. Go on … five quick words. Who are YOU?

As for me? Mother, wife, writer, daughter, sister. That’s my quick answer, but what if, God forbid, all my family members died? All I would have left from that list is writer. But go back ten years, and I wasn’t a writer. I was an art dealer. So which is it? And will I still be a writer ten years from now?

How do we define ourselves? My natural instinct was to start with external facts like my family members, then my vocation, but if those elements can change then how do they truly “define” us? What does define us? Do you allow other people to define you? And here’s the big one: How does the Definition of You dictate the daily decisions you make? Do you cook dinner because you love to cook, or because your family would stage a mutiny if you didn’t put dinner on the table tonight? About twenty years ago, I had to fill out forms for my son’s soccer registration. It asked for my occupation. I put down Maid & Chauffeur because that’s how I spent most of my time. But I was kidding. Sort of.

Let’s try to figure this out together, shall we? Who are you—really?

We are all born with Family; there had to be a mother and father to create you. You may or may not have siblings or grandparents. You may or may not get married or have children. Either way, these relationships could all end in an instant. Sorry if that’s harsh or morbid, but it’s true. Let’s switch to an analogy: Say you own a Honda. You are a Honda Owner. But if someone comes along and offers you a Mercedes in a straight up trade for your Honda, you’d probably jump at that. Now you are no longer a Honda Owner so it doesn’t define who you are inside. See? We shouldn’t define ourselves by anything that can be taken away. Sure you can say, I USED to be a Honda owner. You can also say, I used to be a Daughter until my parents died. Yes, it’s part of your story, but it’s not who you are. (Notice are = present tense.) None of us asked to be born so let’s eliminate Family from our definitions. Agreed?

Sex. No, I’m not talking about whether or not you engage in sex, but the basic Male/Female question. You have to be one or the other (medical abnormalities or transgender operations not withstanding), but again you had no choice in the matter. So while some of you might have said “Man” or “Woman” in your five quick words, let’s eliminate that as a factor of determining who you are because it’s kind of a default. One or the other.

Sex. Okay, now I am talking about whether or not you engage, and with whom. If you choose a member your own sex, then that becomes part of who you are, but it doesn’t have to. I wouldn’t put Heterosexual in my Top Five words, so if being Homosexual is ho-hum to you, then you don’t need to list it either as far as I’m concerned. But if you’re Gay & Proud, then include it if you want.

Skin Color is a very interesting element. We don’t choose it, but right or wrong, it usually defines us to some degree. It’s not like sex (the M/F kind) because there’s a rainbow of options. Bi-racial, tri-racial, heck, Tiger Woods describes himself as “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, Black, American Indian, Asian), yet in his case, Asian includes Chinese, Thai … oh, and he may have a Dutch ancestor back there somewhere. I imagine a black person in Africa probably wouldn’t list Black Person in their Top Five anymore than I would pick White Person in my own.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now Careers. Careers do a better job of figuring out who we are because we can choose a career. However, some people go into their family business not because it’s their choice or calling, but because the family needs them to, or they feel obligated to, or they were pressured into it. “Occupations” are seen differently in different cultures. Americans are notorious for defining people by their profession. In the moderate amount of traveling I’ve done in my lifetime, I’ve noticed that one of the first questions my husband or I ask a new friends is, “What do you do?” Same goes for most Americans, and I’m sure many other nationalities, but not everyone. In certain countries (I could come up with a list if you wanted me to, but I’d rather get on with my thoughts), it’s considered gauche to ask a person what his or her occupation is. And, most of us could be any number of occupations. I know some people who’ve had a dozen occupations. So, count your career in your top five ONLY if believe it truly defines “who you feel you are inside” as opposed to “what you do.” If you’re a mechanic so you can pay your bills, but your heart and passion ache to get up on stage become a rock star, then don’t necessarily put Mechanic in your Top Five. 

Religion? Yes, if you have chosen your religion, then you can definitely count it. If you only go to Mass or Temple or Jamestown because your parents insist, then maybe don’t count it.

Is this starting to get tough? Good, then we’re getting somewhere. What’s next? What about your Hobbies? Running? Good. You’re a Runner. Baking cupcakes? You’re a Baker. Do you rescue injured birds, dogs, or horses? Then I’d say you’re an Animal Lover. Yes, I think Hobbies define us better than even families. It’s what we choose when we have the chance to dream. If someone gave you an all expenses paid week by yourself, what would you choose to do? Don’t just say, Lie on a beach, because we can all use a little R & R. Think of something you’d love TO DO. Don’t worry about the salary it pays. Don’t worry about your talent or your skill level. If you love to swim, but can only dog-paddle, who cares? You are a Swimmer.

What else? Blonde? Brunette? Redhead? I suppose hair color can define us to a degree, especially if you dye your hair a specific color.

I think you get where I’m going with this, so, quick. Five new words to define yourself. Go!

Me? I am a Reader, Writer, Traveler, Animal Lover, Investigator. Ha! I just discovered right now that I am an Investigator. I have an insatiable curiosity. I love to learn new stuff, so I chose the word Investigator. I like that.

What do you think about all this? I haven’t even touched on Personality Traits yet. That’s another interesting list: Confident/Insecure? Kind/Angry? Caring/Selfish? Whew! Let’s save those adjectives for another day, shall we?

So how many of your Top Five words changed? Any? All? I’d love to hear Who You Really Are!

Radio Silence, n.

Radio silence, n. A period of time when writers are required to stop communicating with the public for various reasons. syn., Blog silence, Facebook silence, Twitter silence, etc.

Radio silence—in all forms—often occurs when a writer is under deadline and/or buried by “positive rejection letters,” thereby throwing said writer into a tailspin just shy of desperation. Writer must focus intently on the meaning of life, the meaning of “positive rejection” advice, the meaning of every damn word, sentence, paragraph, and plot point of her WIP, or work-in-progress. When said writer receives communique from no fewer than one dozen literary agents offering “positive rejection advice,” she must filter through the good and the bad and the just plain ignorant to find the gems that will make her WIP brilliant and successful.

Radio silence is identified when a writer fails to update her blog/Facebook page/Twitter page for more than thirty consecutive days. This blog serves as a prime example.

Please forgive this writer’s radio silence. She’s writing, silently!

My Top Books of 2013

Tis the season of Lists! I’ve been paying close attention to the Best Books lists from as many sources as possible. The NYT’s Top 100, B & N, Goodreads, Oprah, etc., to see how many of their choices I’ve read. In other words, to see how well I did choosing the right books to read this year. I did … just fair. I have read some and plan to read others. Then there are a few I’m sure are great that I have no real interest in reading. Even more interesting (though I’m not sure what this says about me) is the handful of books that made the big lists that I didn’t like for one reason or another.

In 2013, I have read 41 books (hope to get #42 done before the Ball drops). Of those books, thirty-three are fiction, and eight are non-fiction.  A few of the books I’ve read this year were actually published this year; some even made the aforementioned big lists. But, good or bad, some of the books I read this year range from old to quite old. For my Top Books of 2013, I decided to focus on the relatively new novels I read this year.

Without further ado, here are Karolyn’s Top Books for 2013:

(Relatively) New Fiction:

1. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
4. Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda
5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
6. The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
7. Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Everybody has a list, and now so do I.

I love a good book discussion. If you agree or disagree with any of my choices here, let me hear it! Or, if you have a favorite that I missed, please tell me so I can add it to my towering TBR list. And I mean that literally. This is my stack of TBR books:

IMG_1838 A few more can’t hurt.


A Better Way To Edit

They say a writer can’t edit his own work. In the end—as in, just before the work goes to print—that’s probably true. But right up until then, the writer has to do massive amounts of editing. Writing is rewriting. Who said that? Somebody famous, I think.

Many writers, myself included, like to print out our pages and edit with a pencil. I would surely cringe if I knew how many trees I’ve unwittingly felled for my selfish preference of printing out entire novels in order to “see” my mistakes. (The minute I finish this post, I’ll look into planting a tree somewhere.)

There’s just something about seeing one’s writing in a (semi)permanent form that makes those misplaced commas and homophones jump right off the page. There instead of their, anyone? Exactly. After all the marking of all the changes, I go back to my keyboard and start at Page One with my edits. If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about. And aren’t we all writers, if you really think about it?

Ok, so I buried my lead, but here’s my Better Way To Edit: When I have pages that need to be polished, I now Export them to a PDF, then email the PDF to myself and read it on my iPad like an ebook. (I use Apple products; the process might be different for different devices.) Most importantly, though, is that the effect is the same. When your work is in a non-changeable form, the errors seem more glaring. Typically, when I do this, I take my iPad and my laptop to my favorite sofa, and read my work on my tablet. When I find a mistake, or think a sentence can be improved, I grab my laptop, make a quick change, and go back to reading from the PDF. When I’m done, I’m done.

TaDa! No more wasted trees! No more guilty conscience! A better way to edit!

All right, now about my carbon footprint …

Screw Balance

A writer must write every day. That’s a rule.

Well … Oops.

Over the past several months, my focus has been divided three ways:
1) Sending out query letters for A Reasonable Price. That’s going well—eleven agents have asked for the manuscript! But, I’m still waiting for The Call, so this is an ongoing project.
2) Writing the first draft of my next novel, which I am calling Attitude Girl for my blogging purposes. (It has a real title, but I can’t tell you that yet.) I’m about eighty pages into it, but I haven’t been writing much lately because of:
3) Being a human. Yep, for me this is mutually exclusive of 1 & 2. In my attempt to be a human (read: wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend), I have not been a dutiful writer. In fact, I’ve been a pathetic excuse for a writer.

So much for the balance of writing every day. And so much for my mental well being. Falling short of my goals made me feel bad about myself.

However, I have a new motto. Can you guess it? That’s right, Screw balance!

I used to strive to write several hours each day, then be a human in the leftover hours. However, I spent almost everyday of August working on a project that will become a memorable Christmas present for my four sons. (That’s not a bad excuse.) And I spent most of September traveling to see family. (That’s not bad either, right?) Well, there wasn’t much writing happening in those two months, so I am hereby dedicating October to writing. I have just begun a “private writing retreat” for next 16 days. My writing goal, which is normally 500 – 1,000 words per day, is to write 20,000+ words by October 16th.


Will this put me back in balance? I hope so … unless of course that nullifies my new motto. The question is, How do we define balance? Must there be a daily tally? Or can we add it up on a weekly or monthly basis. I tend to be an all or nothing person. I run hot and cold.

For the next 2 1/2 weeks, I plan to be HOT on writing.

Sorry, friends and family. I will speak to you again when I return to being human.

Attitude, Girl

As I trudge tiptoe through the query process for my bright and shiny novel, A Reasonable Price, I am also barreling my way through the first draft of a new novel. I don’t want to let the energetic cat out of the bag, so I can’t give you many details about it, but even at this early stage, I’ve run into a dilemma.

First, a bit of background: So far eight ten literary agents have asked to read the MS for A Reasonable Price. (Launch fireworks now!) Though a few have passed for various reasons, they have all said my writing was strong and polished; the story just wasn’t “right” for them at this time. I understand that. That’s essentially what I said to random artists who came to my gallery to ask for representation back in my days as an art dealer.

Yes, it’s true: Karma’s a bitch.

I will find the agent who loves it as much as I do—maybe even one of the brilliant agents who is currently reading it. It’s only a matter of time. Based on everyone of my early readers’ responses, one day the agents who passed will be crying over their cocktails at the corner bar.

My new novel, however, is written as the “memoir” of a twenty-four-year-old girl with a bit of an attitude. Let’s call it Attitude Girl, for now. Attitude Girl is angry. She’s smart and vindictive. She’s rebellious. She’s sassy. She has no time for rules or ridiculousness. She has one goal in life, and no one better get in her way or they will be sliced in two like a snake crossing a railroad track.

So far, so good. Yes?

It’s a blast to write about really messed up people (like Dr. Frankie Lowell in A Reasonable Price—she’s a true sociopath). But herein lies my problem. How do I pull off Attitude Girl’s sarcastic, unpolished voice without having readers think that I am simply a bad writer? Attitude Girl, talks like a 24yo. (Natch! How else would she talk?)  Attitude Girl is telling her story as a cautionary tale to the a$$holes out there who’d better learn to lay off little girls. AG doesn’t give a blanking blank what you think about her or her bad English. The message of her memoir is what can happen to men who are total jerks. (And don’t get her started on her miserable mother! She’s a drunk who doesn’t deserve an Advil.)  AG adores alliteration and clichés cuz her her bible (not The Bible) taught her everything she knows. Like how to write a memoir.

So how do I pull this off?

Sounds like I’m going to have to re-read The Catcher In The Rye, Lolita, and Swamplandia! I may have to add Room to my TBR list, although that stack is already about to tumble. I think the only way do write this successfully is to read the great authors who did it successfully before me.

Can you, brilliant friends of mine, think of any other books I should read that have a great “voice”? Or other comments on how to

Cloning Humans is Legal in the U.S.

Over the past two years, I have spent countless hours researching genetic engineering for my novel A Reasonable Price, and I’ve learned some pretty interesting facts.  For example, did you know:

  • The U.S. House of Representatives defeated bills to ban human cloning in 1998, 2001, 2003, and again in 2007. Did you know that? There is no federal bill of any sort that bans cloning.
  • Only fifteen states have passed laws limiting cloning and/or the use of public monies for cloning purposes. That leaves thirty-five states with no specific laws against cloning.
  • Up to 50% of Americans believe a human being has already been cloned.
  • A team of Korean scientists claims to have cloned human embryos in 2004, though none were implanted into a viable uterus. Dr. Zavos, an American citizen, claims to have cloned 14 embryos, and implanted 11 of those into viable uteruses in 2009. Several other scientists have also made claims or been vocal proponents of reproductive cloning. However, no “human clone” has ever been presented as proof of any of these claims.
  • Correspondingly, over 4000 human disorders are caused by the mutation of a single gene. Scientists have the ability to remove or alter these genes from an embryo through PGD, preimplantation genetic diagnosis. These include serious health issues such as sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s Disease, as well as odd-ball traits such as the Achoo Syndrome (tendency to sneeze at bright sunlight), the ability to roll one’s tongue, and polydactyly (the occurrence of an extra finger or toe).
  • Parents who have any of these traits can assure that their child will not have these disorders if they use IVF, in vitro fertilization, and PGD to evaluate their embryos. Therefore, theoretically, these single-cell disorders could be eliminated from the human race in a relatively short period of time.
  • There are very few steps between genetic engineering and cloning. Twenty-two species of animals have already been cloned, including sheep (famously, Dolly, the first cloned mammal), dogs, cats, mice, and even monkeys. The process is doable. It’s been done.
  • As a result of all of the above efforts, scientists have successfully “grown” human body parts and organs such as ears, trachea, kidneys, and more, without the fear or risk of rejection that is omnipresent if the transplanted organs come from another person.
  • In fact, in the words of Rebecca Taylor, “Scientists can clone human embryos as much as they want, provided they have the human eggs to do it, and in many states they could transfer those embryos to a female volunteer if they wanted.”

So my question, the concept of my novel, is this: What if there was a female fertility doctor with the ambition and courage to implant a cloned embryo in herself? Further, what if the doctor had secretly cloned one of her patient’s embryos? Who does the child really belong to? And if the cloned child falls ill, how far would the parents of the original child go to help to save his clone?

What is the price of advancing modern medicine?




Reading For Writers

If you want to write, you must also read. That’s as close to a truism as anything that deals with writing. Think about it: The great writers can even get away with not following the first rule of grammar: Every sentence must contain a noun and a verb.

I have gone as far as to make the analogy, writing is like tennis; if you want to get better, then play with people who are better than you. That’s why I read books I don’t even like by people like Ernest Hemingway. He’s a master, but his books are too stark for me. Even J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy barely held my interest. Also, I just finished reading Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. If this book had been written by anyone besides Ms. Strout (I loved Olive Kitteridge!), I wouldn’t have finished it; I might not even have picked it up. The second half was far more interesting than the first half, but I almost didn’t get there.

I love plot. Sure, characters are important, but introspective characters alone bore me to bedlam. So, here’s the rub. If a person wants to elevate her writing toward levels approaching Pulitzer Prize winning authors, does she have to give up mysteries and thrillers that specialize in plot? Must she read books that bore her? And, what about reading books that are so good (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife) they make the writer feel like an illiterate fool? Should a writer give those up lest she gets too discouraged?

I suppose there’s no steadfast writing rule for this quandary either (see Paragraph One). What might hold true for one writer, wouldn’t necessarily hold true for all. Have you ever stopped to consider that each of us is made up of all that we have consumed? You are what you read. I wish I could see David Mitchell’s list of favorite books, nay, his ENTIRE reading list. For even the books he didn’t like as well must have influenced him in some regard. Right?

Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, for example, are highly acclaimed writers, but now that I think about it, I don’t aspire to be their literary heir (forgive the self-agrandizing possibility that that might ever happen). For now, I’m going with Tom Perrotta’s philosophy. He has said (although I can’t find the exact quote) that while writing a novel, he likes to read mysteries and thrillers to reinforce the idea that all books, even literary fiction, need to be more and more exciting as they progress.

One female, literary great I can relate to is Joan Didion (especially in relation to this blog post). She once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking … ” I now know that I will continue to read the best writers—occasionally—so I know what they’re doing, but I will never give up mysteries and thrillers because I love a riveting plot.

How about you, fellow writers? What books do you like to read, in general or while writing? Are there any great books you intentionally avoid? And if so, why?

I love your comments, so chime in if you have a minute!