Monday, March 31, 2014

HOUSE OF GLASS awarded RT BookReviews Seal of Excellence!

Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to announce that HOUSE OF GLASS has been awarded the RT BookReviews Seal of Excellence!

From RTBookReview's blog - "Each month the RT editors select one book that is not only compelling, but pushes the boundaries of genre fiction. This book stands out from all the others reviewed that month, in the magazine issue and on the website. March 2014's RT Seal of Excellence — the editors' pick for best book of the month — is awarded to Sophie Littlefield's latest mainstream novel House of Glass."


My TOP trick for finishing that book!

A couple of weeks ago at the Tucson Festival of Books, I gave my old standby "Finish That Book" workshop - with a twist: I taught with a friend so new I had only just met her that day. Laura Fitzgerald, author of VEIL OF ROSES and DREAMING IN ENGLISH, has an ambitious new multi-volume project underway, and she shared lots of fresh thoughts and ideas about productivity and best writerly practices.

Near the end of our talk, someone in the audience asked for our "best tips and tricks." And naturally I thought of my 45/15s (super simple: set a timer, do nothing but write for 45 minutes, then take 15 minutes off to do whatever you like - and repeat). I talk about 45/15's so often I fear that you all are probably desperately bored with me, but they really are the secret to just about all of my books. I do at least four per day while first-drafting.

Still, I probably wouldn't have written about 45/15s here, if it wasn't for an email I received - by coincidence - right after the Tucson workshop. Kim had been in the audience two years ago when Julie and I gave the productivity workshop at RWA National. She'd been listening to conference CD's in the car, came home, and gave it a shot:



"I applied your little trick of 45/15.
Wow!
My word count jumped from 300-500 in a day to 1750!"

Of course there's more to this whole gig than just putting words on a page...you have to revise them and embellish them and cut them and sew them into pretty shapes and blah blah blah. BUT you can't do *any* of those things until you've got words.

Give it a shot! I'd love to know how it works for you.

Monday, March 24, 2014

IN DEFENSE OF OLD-FOGEY-ISM: AN INTROVERT’S CONFERENCE RX


I’m writing this while the wounds are still fresh.

After spending the last two weeks at the Tucson Festival of Books and Left Coast Crime, all I want to do is burrow deep under my covers and stay in my bed like a mole. Preferably for an entire month.

For extroverts, it’s impossible to understand how something so glorious as brilliant conversation with likeminded souls, set against perfect spring weather in Tucson and Monterey, could possibly take a psychic toll. Over the past weeks, I saw tons of people I genuinely like and don’t get to see near enough, and made some sterling new friendships. Every volunteer was friendly and helpful. Even the lines in the bathroom were marked by witty repartee.

And yet. I’d made plans for each evening—catching up with friends over drinks, attending parties, going out to dinner—and after the first night, I flat-out bailed. I wish I could take those invitations and spread them out over the rest of April, which is mostly travel-free. Given my solitary occupation, there are many days that I’d relish the chance to go out and socialize.

But to undertake such a schedule without breaks between is simply beyond my means. I’d liken it to trying to do pushups without a break between. There is no way I could do 55 pushups in a row, but by breaking them up into five sets with a minute rest between, they’re manageable.

A conference doesn’t allow you that “minute rest,” so you must provide it for yourself. I learned this the hard way. The remarkably hardheaded, dense way, actually. For years, I went out every night, coming back to the room during the wee hours, catching a few hours of sleep before starting the next day. (There was one conference where I think I and my early-bird roommate Sue Ann Jaffarian barely saw each other.)

The toll this behavior took on me went past sheer exhaustion: I became emotionally vulnerable, plagued by insomniac, irritable, had little appetite, and my focus went entirely out the window.

Finally, out of sheer desperation, I started begging off and retiring early. I didn’t want to risk falling ill and I couldn’t jeopardize my work schedule, given impending deadlines. I was astonished at the difference. I slept better than I do at home, no doubt because my body is smart enough to recharge from the rigors of the day. I took the time to chronicle what I learned each day and turn ideas into future action items, and to circle back to the connections I’d made so that—while I might have missed a chance to socialize over drinks or dinner—I’d laid the foundation for future collaboration and friendship. Our work is not done in sprints, but over the long haul; and I’m a firm believer that a collegial relationship nurtured over time is far superior to the mad-dash air-kiss see-ya-gotta-run sort.

I’m aware that all of this sounds like an excuse for a downward slide to old-fogey-ism. Except for this: the dawn of a new day at any conference can be far more exciting, with its bristling energy and potential, than last call the night before.

So if you see me sneaking off the elevators at future events, please don’t take it personally. Chances are I cherish our friendship, but I need to rest and rejuvenate so I can be my best the next time we meet.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

MAKING HISTORY AT THE TFOB



Unlike prior visits to the Tucson Festival of Books, which stand out in my memory as a whirlwind riot of sensory overload and carnival food, there was a theme to my experience this year: immersion in historical fiction.

I’m deeply grateful to the organizers for making this possible for me. Fellow panelists Laura Fitzgerald, Kristina Mcmorris, Christina Baker Kline, and Nancy Horan used their recent novels to shine a light on subjects ranging from internment, immigration and acculturation, the depression-era “orphan train” migration, various aspects of World War II, and the romantic lives of beloved figures in the arts.

While I’d stop short of suggesting that any of us put a social agenda ahead of the desire to write a deeply affecting story, it was clear to me that each author sees the value of fiction as a means to education. Kristina, author of THE PIECES WE KEEP, calls this her “Advil” trick – the sugar coating on the outside means you’re not even aware of the medicine on the inside.

There are those who take to the study of history like ducks to water, and are quite happy to lose themselves in non-fiction accounts and biographies. I’m not one of those people, and judging from the enthusiastic response of audience members to Kristina’s explanation, many of us absorb history best when it’s wrapped in fiction. We story-learners, as I’ve come to think of myself, need a character to serve as an axis – a character we can love or identify with or despise, but one who causes an emotional response in us – before we can begin absorbing historic details as a background task.

My first memory of reaching the end of the book without really noticing that I’d received an education probably harkens back to THE OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL. Until that book, I was extremely vague about what went on in that wretched time. And certainly, the book didn’t paint a broad picture, but focused on the experiences of a single family in a specific location. Still, certain details of that book will never leave me (the wedding ring on the charred finger, anyone remember that?) and each brings with it a host of background information.

Like the best historic nonfiction, I think we must allow the details to draw readers to their own conclusions. But novelists do that automatically, I think, because we are coached to “show don’t tell” from the start. In one panel, Nancy Horan was asked if she actually liked Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the subjects of her novel LOVING FRANK. She answered charmingly, but what struck me was that this reader (who loved the book, incidentally) had arrived at the end without really knowing how the author felt about her character. It’s this very ambiguity that tells me that Nancy did her job, because she provided all the pieces—the conversations, the details of setting, the event narrative—without ever intruding her own biases.

This isn’t a bad goal for any novelist, of course, but I think it’s especially important in historical fiction. When I think back to my novel GARDEN OF STONES, I may have aspired to this automatically, because character is so overwhelmingly more important to my imagination than any other aspect of the story. Meaning that my dearest wish as the words unfurl on the page is that my reader truly knows my characters, that their actions and reactions always ring true.

One other observation from this weekend: it occurred to me at one point that my upcoming book, THE MISSING PLACE (October 2014), which is set in the contemporary North Dakota oil boom, was deeply informed by my experience of writing historical fiction. It is impossible to consider the current boom outside of the context of those that preceded it, and—for me, at least—impossible to visit the boom towns without the sense that you are immersed in history in the making. The acts of today – whether at the individual or collective level – are reactions to and predicators of our living history. What I mean is that those who come to work in the camps are prompted by historic events, often the economic downturn; and their experiences will have a lasting effect on their lives and those of their families, on the values and practices of their communities. Likewise, the events precipitating the boom—a voracious hunger for domestic energy and the technological advances to obtain it—will undoubtedly have consequences that we can only guess at today, and which will be scrutinized and judged by future generations.


I never anticipated that I, ignorant of history to an embarrassing degree, might become its chronicler. But it feels like an exciting privilege, and I loved spending the weekend in the company of others who practice it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Out Today: HOUSE OF GLASS

It's launch day for my new book, HOUSE OF GLASS, my first venture into writing domestic thrillers. It’s loosely based on the horrific home invasion/murder case that took place in Connecticut several years back, but my goal in writing this novel was to explore and empower people just like me and a lot of my readers: busy, ordinary men and women with jobs and families, trying to make ends meet and keep their marriages intact and raise kids and take part in the community.


I’m doing a couple of local events and would love to see you there. I’ll be reading with my dear friend Rachael Herron, whose gorgeous new book is PACK UP THE MOON.

In honor of release day, I thought I would share the author interview that appears in the back of the book.




Q: House of Glass is an emotionally charged, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller about a family put to the ultimate test. What was your inspiration for this story?

A number of years ago, a home invasion took place in Connecticut. A family of four was imprisoned, abused, and all but the husband killed. Details of the case, and the subsequent trial and conviction of the killers, held the country in thrall and dominated the news for weeks.

I was unable to watch or read accounts of the case. Though I often write about violent characters and dark impulses, I have a low tolerance for real evil and suffering, and often take the coward’s path, burying my head in the sand until the story is supplanted by fresher news.

But several aspects of the case were impossible for me to forget. One in particular: the mother was taken from the home by one of the killers, and driven to a bank where she was forced to withdraw money. She believed that when she handed over the money, her family would be freed. She knew her husband had been beaten and her children were vulnerable and defenseless.

I can’t imagine a more desperate moment for a mother. I decided to retell the story with a different outcome, giving her a bit of luck, a few unexpected allies, and strength she didn’t realize she possessed, from a source she had forgotten.



Q: Like House of Glass, your previous novel, Garden of Stones, also featured a mother in a harrowing situation, forced to make difficult decision in order to save her family. Is this a recurring theme in all your novels? What is the message you’re trying to send about motherhood?

When my agent, Barbara Poelle, pointed out this recurrent theme, I was surprised. I hadn’t noticed that it was such a consistent thread. Soon, though, I came to see that it is the element that binds my work in all my disparate genres.

It’s probably no accident that all my published novels were written in 2007 or later. In that year, my children were twelve and fourteen, no longer children but not yet adults, and I had experienced some of the challenges of raising adolescents and glimpsed the long shadow of the challenges to come. A mother of an infant is fiercely protective; a mother of a teen - a person with some autonomy - must face the terrifying fact that she can’t protect against all the danger in the world. I think my stories were an effort to direct all this helpless maternal protectiveness and fear.

Now that my children are nineteen and twenty-one, they have experienced and survived any number of hurts, and I have been forced to admit that I am no longer the axis around which their lives turn. This, too, is an aching change for a mother. But there is recompense: the older they get, the more frequent the glimpses of their own strength and capability.

In House of Glass, both children are instrumental in helping the family survive. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think this reflects my own shift to seeing my children as powerful on their own.

Is there a message there? Other than “Parenthood is not for the weak,” I’m not sure. Maybe it would be more apt to see my work as a sort of therapy journal...


Q: What was your toughest challenge, your greatest pleasure, and your biggest surprise as you were writing House of Glass?

I was going through a divorce while writing this book, and as a result, my poor fictional couple was saddled with all kinds of angst that wasn’t the least bit germane to the story. There was a memorable three-way phone call in which my agent and editor gently broke it to me that I had to go back to the drawing board and, in essence, reimagine these characters while remembering that they are not me. I don’t think I will ever really learn this lesson - all my characters are me in some sense, from the most heinous criminal to the bratty kid down the street - but this experience did teach me to create a little distance in a very crowded creative realm.

My greatest pleasure was probably joking around with my sister about “her” character. Early in the first draft, Jen’s sister Tanya was a feckless sort who brought her own ignominious end - and also drank too much and had really trashy taste. I loved calling Kristen up and saying “You’ll never believe what you did today.” I figured it was only fair, since the early version of Jen - the elder sister - was uptight, snobbish, and dismissive. As the book progressed, I was able to report to Kristen that “her” character got stronger and wiser while Jen had to learn a few hard lessons. I’m very lucky that Kristen is a forgiving sort.

As for my biggest surprise - I suppose it would be the effortlessness of writing Ted, the husband. As someone who spends a fair amount of time bashing middle-aged white guys for any number of sins and irritations, I was surprised to find that I not only understood his motivation, his emotions and shame and longing, but that I had great compassion for him.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Women & Money: My Rant Starts Here

An interest of mine that I haven't talked much about: Financial Literacy.  I am becoming increasingly interested in this subject as I travel my journey from financial ignorance to empowerment.  It may be hard to make it sexy, but financial literacy is absolutely critical for anyone who is responsible for any sum of money.

I'm a beginning learner, but I've worked hard over recent years to get my money shit into shape. I read a lot, and the picture that emerges as I transition from consumer magazines to "financial page" coverage to books is a shocking one. Only the beauty industry, perhaps, profits so shamelessly by spreading lies and distortions and preying on our insecurities.

That's important enough that I'll say it again:

financial industry = lies and distortions and preying on our insecurities

Nearly everything I have to say on the subject applies to everyone, men and women alike, but hey, I'm here for the sisters so I'm not going to bother with inclusive language for now. I'm picturing us in my living room, with the coffee on, and this dialog is going to be ongoing, so I invite you to join in.

Let's introduce the subject by looking at  a recent essay in the NYT by M.P. Dunleavey titled "Mars, Venus and the Handling of Money." Dunleavey, a financial writer and founding editor of DailyWorth, gets a number of things dangerously wrong.  A gentle summation of the essay is that women have different learning styles and financial strategy styles than men, which isn't a bad thing, but one that purveyors of financial products should attend to and address.

But here's the core flaw in that view, which I plan to return to over and over until all of you take your money out of high-churn, high-fee vehicles: we (women) don't need different handling by people trying to sell us money management. We need to simply walk away, straight to simple investment and management techniques that we can do *almost by ourselves* without the dubious "assistance" of people earning a cut on every decision we make.

Take a look at some of the sources quoted in the article--and the true source of this data:

“The reality,” Nicole Sherrod, managing director of active trading at TD Ameritrade, told me, “is that women gather information about money differently and process it differently than men do, not that we’re less intelligent.” [TD Ameritrade makes money when you buy and sell--churn--your investments, often at a cost to you in fees, tax effects, and poor timing and decision making.]

Nearly 75 percent of women want to learn in a “welcoming” environment with other women, new data from Allianz Life shows. [Allianz Life is an insurance company, among other things a purveyor of one of the most enduring and egregious scams sold today, the whole life policy.]

Ameriprise says it’s retraining more than 10,000 advisers to be more responsive to female clients — and doubling its training budget this year to do so. [Really??? Ameriprise, another company that makes its money on your financial back, is not doing this out of any sense of sisterly solidarity or respect: this is a money grab, pure and simple. "Responsiveness" in this context means "more likely to talk you into investing.]

Shame on those who participate in this continuing misinformation campaign. I suppose it's a bit much to expect a news source that basically sells coverage of this industry to go rooting out the poison within, but I expect better.

Wow, I didn't realize I felt *quite* so strongly about this. More to come, friends.

P.S. In fairness to Ms. Dunleavey, much of what she says in the article is of value and merits discussion. Some of her best advice can be found here.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Back in the Swing




I didn't realize how hermit-like I was being this month until Barbara actually emailed me to demand what the hell I was up to. Here's the thing - I was recovering from this super-minor little surgery and then I got sick for weeks and weeks and I was just plain out of sorts, and I'm a really bad patient (grumpy, ungrateful, impatient) so I was just trying to stay out of everyone's way.

But this week things have turned around. I'm still sort of deaf in one ear and I can't lift things or go to the gym until Tuesday, but I can see the end in sight. Last weekend I got a breathtaking reminder of why I live in NorCal, and I counted my blessings while watching a fire blaze on a misty coastal night - I believe in embracing our primitive natures over fire whenever possible.

driving the coast last weekend
And then today I woke to one of those breathtaking blue-sky mornings where even the worst parts of town look gilded and celestial. We took advantage of all that sunshine and had breakfast down on International Boulevard, and while putting away a trucker-sized platter I considered all the good fortune  raining down lately. In the last few weeks alone my friends have been nominated for awards, courageously quit jobs to write full time, dealt with illness, wrote hundreds of thousands of words, planned book launches and taken well-deserved vacations. My children have recovered from pneumonia and knee injury in time to write for a campus paper and play lacrosse against some worthy foes. My dad and his wife Judy traveled the Cheese Trail (it's a NorCal thing) and settled into their retirement home.

As for me, I dug into a project that has me excited just like in the old days, when it was all blank pages and full speed ahead. I'm loving it so much I can't wait to get back to the computer. I'm learning Spanish and fit-bitting with friends (it's a late revelation for me that making things competitive is hugely motivating). I had to cancel my planned trip to the Edgars/Malice Domestic, but I'll be heading out for the latter part of March for book events with bookish people, and what could be nicer?

Nosotros bebemos chilaquiles verdes
To those of you for whom Spring remains a far-off dream, have faith--the rest of us will save you some daffodils and balmy mornings and that first-barbecue-of-the-season smell when you step outside on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Back in the swing, and so happy to be here.